Parshat Shemini: The Snake and the Curse of Having it All

Parshat Shemini is popularly known for its section on the laws of Kashrut, though this topic does not actually present itself until the sixth Aliyah. Nevertheless, with the esoterism of much of the rest of the Parsha, Kashrut becomes an easy stand-in for children in school and for Divrei Torah at the Shabbat table. This essay will be no exception. Exploring the section on Kashrut, however, we find that its organization is a bit hazy. Take a look and see if you see what I see:

11:1-8 – Kashrut of Land Animals
11:9-12 – Kashrut of Marine Animals
11:13-19 – Kashrut of Air Animals
11:20-23 – Kashrut of Insects, Bugs, and Locusts
11:24-41 – Laws of Purity and Impurity as Relates to All Types of Animals
11:42-45 – Kashrut of Snakes and Scorpions
11:46-47 – Summation of the Laws of Kashrut

Did you see it? The placement of the snakes and scorpions requires analysis. Why is it so late in the game, after the section on purity and impurity? Why is it not connected to the bugs and insects which, like the snakes and scorpions, are described as שְׁרָצִים, creeping things?

A further anomaly presents itself when examining the section on snakes and scorpions itself (chiefly 11:42). The Torah gives us what seems to be a category of animals:

ספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוק מב
כֹּל הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן.

Anything that walks on its stomach.

But Rashi tells us that this is not, in fact, a category, but rather a single item:

פירוש רש”י לספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוק מב
הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹןזֶה נָחָשׁ. וּלְשׁוֹן גָּחוֹן שְׁחִיָּה, שֶׁהוֹלֵךְ שָׁח וְנוֹפֵל עַל מֵעָיו.

Which walks on its belly – This is the snake. And the term גָּחוֹן implies bending down, because the snake
walks low down and fallen upon its stomach.

A few questions: First, if the snake is the only animal in the category of “הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן,” walking on its stomach, then why does the Torah list it as a category rather than simply inform us that the snake itself may not be eaten? Second, why is the snake described as “walking” (הוֹלֵךְ) when it is really not doing any walking at all? Finally, why does Rashi, after identifying the snake as the sole animal which “walks on its belly,” feel the further need to provide a brief scientific study of the snake, an animal with which most people would likely be quite familiar?

The same anomaly applies to the rest of this Pasuk (11:42), in which “כֹל הוֹלֵךְ עַל אַרְבַּע,” all those which walk on four legs, is described by Rashi as merely the scorpion (עַקְרָב); while all of those which are many-legged,כׇּל מַרְבֵּה רַגְלַיִם,” is defined by Rashi as only the centipede. Again we ask: why are these lone animals phrased as if they were part of a larger category, if there is only one of each?

The question of why the snake and scorpion are described as walking when they are doing nothing of the sort serves as a segue for us to revisit the primordial נָחָשׁ, snake, who was informed that due to his misbehavior,

ספר בראשית פרק ג פסוק יד
… אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל הַבְּהֵמָה, וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה; עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ, וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל, כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ:

… you will be more cursed than any other animal and any other creature of the field. On your stomach you will walk, and dust you will eat, all the days of your life.

Notice the symmetry between the original Nachash (serpent), who was cursed that עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ, “on your belly you will walk,” and the Nachash of Parshat Shemini, which is referred to pejoratively as one which הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן, “walks on its belly.” It seems that more than merely having been cursed, the primordial Nachash was dealt a new identity with which it would be associated for all time, one of “walking on its belly,” to such an extent that in Parshat Shemini it (and its cousins, the scorpion and centipede) are referred to not by name but only by their diminutive descriptor. Rashi thus feels the need to not merely identify the Nachash but to point out exactly why it is forbidden. The fact that, as Rashi says, הוֹלֵךְ שָׁח וְנוֹפֵל עַל מֵעָיו, it “walks bent over and fallen upon its stomach,” is not an evolutionary happenstance but a result of its own behavior, which in turn is the very reason why a thinking human should not want to consume it.

There is a well-known idea (of which I cannot at this moment find the source) that the curse of the Nachash in Parshat Bereishit is paradoxical, because in fact the Nachash was now closer to its food source than before and would never lack for sustenance for the remainder of its existence. This idea posits that in fact, the curse was one of excommunication and existential loneliness. Hashem said, in effect, “Take your food and go. I want nothing to do with you forevermore; you are on your own. Don’t call or write.” This abandonment was essentially a writing-off of its very existence; the loneliness and heartache of not being able to communicate with its Creator (as could, say, a praying mantis) was the ultimate curse. And here again, in Parshat Shemini, the Nachash is shunted to the end of the Parsha, referred to not by name but by its pejorative descriptor. Here we have a fulfillment of the curse of old, the curse of cold abandonment. Other non-Kosher animals may be forbidden because of their lack of physical signs. The Nachash, on the other hand, is forbidden simply because הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן, it “walks on its belly.” It is the exiled castaway of the animal kingdom.

We can now explain the seemingly unnecessary (and internally repetitive) addendum of a three-Pasuk coda to the one-Pasuk unit on snakes:

ספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוקים מג-מה

פסוק מג – אַל תְּשַׁקְּצוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם בְּכׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵץ וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם׃

פסוק מד – כִּי אֲנִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם בְּכׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ׃

פסוק מה – כִּי אֲנִי יְהֹוָה הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי׃

Pasuk 43: You shall not abominate your souls through anything that swarms; you shall not make yourselves impure with these and become unclean yourselves.

Pasuk 44: For I am Hashem, your God; you shall set yourselves aside and be distinctive, for I am distinctive. You shall not make yourselves impure through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth.

Pasuk 45: For I am Hashem, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall be distinctive, for I am distinctive.

Notice that this section moves from first speaking about “anything that swarms” (כׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵץ) in Pasuk 43 to discussing only “the things which swarm on the earth” (כׇל הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ) in Pasuk 44. The first category includes both the snakes and scorpions of our unit as well as the arachnids of earlier in the Parsha. These together form a collection of animals which are “abominable” (אַל תְּשַׁקְּצוּ) and which can make a person impure (וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם). Yet it is only the snakes of Pasuk 44 whose prohibition is quixotically associated with our having been taken out of Egypt (הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם). The Exodus from Egypt is the ultimate expression of G-d’s wanting a close and personal relationship with His nation, the likes of which could not take place in the confines of the bitter exile in which we found ourselves at that time. Eating a snake, which permanently lost the ability to communicate with Hashem and whose very existence is one of exile, displays a distinct lack of understanding both of the lowliness that the snake represents and the elevation (הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם, but now metaphorically) which we can have by communicating with Hashem directly. The prohibition of eating snakes and scorpions is thus not merely because they are “abominable” like the other swarming things, but because they are antithetical to the elevated nature that Hashem seeks for us to cultivate with Him. The snake was denied this relationship long ago when it was cursed to הוֹלֵךְ עַל גָּחוֹן, walk on its belly, receiving nourishment directly from the ground rather than being able to request it from Hashem. The Jewish nation is conceived to be elevated beyond this level, but we must be cognizant of this mission in order to actualize our full potential.

As humans, we are an elevated species because of our ability to speak (see Onkelos to Bereishit 2:7), and those of us born or accepted into the Covenant are elevated further still. We dare not debase ourselves by casting this specialness into doubt through consumption of a species which abandoned its relationship with Hashem long ago. Ultimately, it is the Exodus from Egypt which serves to remind us of this distinctiveness, but we would do well to consider this privilege anytime we engage in the unique service of communication with the Divine which the snake was permanently denied. May it be His will – and ours.

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A Review of Chanukah Torah 2020

I am privileged to share some Torah that I developed over the course of Chanukah 2020 with the help of my students, family members, and friends. As always, I enjoy hearing from readers in the comments if you have any constructive criticism or other feedback.

1) Chanukah on a Boat

The Gemara (Shabbat 23a) suggests that a person who merely sees a Chanukah candle which was lit by somebody else should nonetheless make a Beracha (שֶׁעָשָה נִסִים לַאַבוֹתֵנוּ, “Who has performed miracles for our ancestors”). While the Gemara rejects this as a standalone law, it does accept it as part of a pair of related laws:

אָמַר רַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָשֵׁי אָמַר רַב: הַמַּדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל חֲנוּכָּה צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ. וְרַב יִרְמְיָה אָמַר: הָרוֹאֶה נֵר שֶׁל חֲנוּכָּה צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ. אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן, הָרוֹאֶה מְבָרֵךְ שְׁתַּיִם, וּמַדְלִיק מְבָרֵךְ שָׁלֹשׁ. מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ, מַדְלִיק מְבָרֵךְ שְׁתַּיִם, וְרוֹאֶה מְבָרֵךְ אַחַת.

Rav Chiya son of Ashi said that Rav said, “Someone who lights the Chanukah candle needs to make a Beracha. And Rav Yirmiyah said, “Someone who sees the Chanukah candle needs to make a Beracha. Rav Yehuda said: On the first day, someone who sees says two Berachot, and someone who lights says three. From then on, someone who lights says two Berachot, and someone who sees says one Beracha.

Taking the Gemara at face value, it would seem that I could walk around my neighborhood and make this Beracha dozens of times, consummate with the number of times that I see someone else’s Chanukah candles. Perhaps because it feels uncomfortable to say a Beracha on merely seeing candles, this concept seems to have become watered down over the ensuing millennia. Rashi, in his commentary on the above Gemara, accelerated the decline. Atypically, he quotes two other contemporaneous authorities, who believed that this Beracha should be limited to two situations: מִי שֶׁלֹּא הִדְלִיק בְּבֵיתוֹ עֲדַיִן, someone who has not yet lit in his house; and יוֹשֵׁב בַּסְּפִינָה, someone who is sitting on a boat.

Let us examine these two scenarios in Rashi. The first one includes the word עַדַיִן, yet, bolded above. By including this word, Rashi has introduced the possibility that a person could say the Beracha of She’asa Nissim on seeing someone else’s candles – possibly even several people’s candles – even if he knows that that he will light his own candles a short while later. In contrast, the Shulchan Aruch further waters down the idea of a person making a Beracha on seeing candles by adding an additional criteria: וְאֵינוֹ עָתִיד לְהַדְלִיק בְּאוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה, and he has no plans to light that evening. So if I passed by your house and saw your candles at 5:00 pm, and I was planning to light mine at 5:15, Rashi would say that I should say a Beracha of She’asa Nissim at 5:00 anyway, while the Shulchan Aruch would disagree. Regardless, Rashi’s first case raises several intriguing questions: Would such a person repeat She’asa Nissim when he lights later, or has his recitation of that Beracha within his status as a רוׂאֶה (seer) exempted his Beracha later when he becomes a מַדְלִיק (lighter)? In other words, is the status of a רוֹאֶה qualitatively inferior to the status of a מַדְלִיק? Also, according to Rashi, would a רוׂאֶה also say She’hechiyanu on seeing someone else’s candles on the first night, knowing that he will light candles himself later? If so, would he repeat She’hechiyanu later that evening when he lights? Again, if the status of a מַדְלִיק is qualitatively different than the status of a רוׂאֶה, then it is not far-fetched to suggest that a person could say She’hechiyanu twice, first as a רוׂאֶה and then later as a מַדְלִיק.

The boat case in Rashi is likewise fascinating. This is probably meant to refer to a person who will have no access to candles, either to light them or to see them, that entire night. (A student had the intriguing suggestion that it may in fact refer to a situation in which, even if one were to light candles, they would blow out immediately anyway.) The question is why such a person, in the absence of any candles, makes a Beracha at all. The Shulchan Aruch does not allow this Beracha to be said without seeing candles in some form (either his own or someone else’s), but Rashi is suggesting that a person could say this Beracha even in the absence of any physical experience of fire or light. The words of the Beracha – שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאַבוׂתֵנוּ בַּיָמִים הָהֵם בַּזְמַן הַזֶה, Who did miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time – do not negate this suggestion. The Beracha is not about light. It is about recognizing the miraculous nature within which Hashem runs the world as it was manifested through the Chanukah miracles. Rashi suggests that one who does not and will not have access to candles or oil the entire night – someone who is neither a רוׂאֶה nor a מַדְלִיק – could say this Beracha simply out of the abundance of gratitude to Hashem that he feels on Chanukah. Could such a person likewise say She’hechiyanu, which is similarly a Beracha not on any particular phenomena but on the feelings that a person has at this auspicious time of year? Would Rashi suggest that a person who has no access to a Megillah on Purim could say the Beracha of הַרָב אֶת רִיבֵנוּ, Who fights our fights, which similarly presents as a Beracha not on the Mitzvah of Megillah per se but on the feelings engendered by Purim itself?

How do the opinions of Rashi and the Shulchan Aruch impact a situation in which a person forgets to make Berachot on lighting but realizes his mistake either while they are still lit or after they have burned out? It would seem that according to Rashi, even after the candles have burned out, a person could at least make the Beracha of She’asa Nissim, and perhaps She’hechiyanu, simply on the gratitude he feels on Chanukah, just as the person on the boat would do essentially the same thing. The Mishna Berura (676:2 and :4) feels that a person whose candles have burned out should no longer make any Berachot. However, in Sha’ar Hatziun (3), citing the Meiri, he is more deferential to a lenient argument based on exactly the assessment we made earlier, namely that She’asa Nissim and She’hechiyanu can be seen as general Berachot about the holiday which are not necessarily connected to the lighting of the Menorah. Although the Mishna Berura in the Sha’ar Hatziun quotes the Meiri, it would seem that Rashi would concur. A student of mine creatively suggested that in a situation where someone forgot to make the Berachot entirely until his candles had burned out, she could simply leave her home, walk around the neighborhood, and make the Beracha of She’asa Nissim (and She’hechiyanu) upon seeing the candles burning in someone else’s window. It is anyone’s guess how the Shulchan Aruch would handle such a suggestion, since this רוׂאֶה is no longer exempted by his future הַדְלָקָה, and his past הַדְלָקָה did not include Berachot. (I am positing this and other suggestions in this Halachic discourse merely as food for thought, not for practical purposes. In an actual situation, one should consult his or her own reliable Halachic authority. וַאַנִי אֶת נַפְשִׁי הִצַלְתִּי.)

2) Who is the “Shepherd” in Ma’oz Tzur?

A friend of mine asked what the last line of Ma’oz Tzur is referring to when it asks Hashem to “establish for us the seventh shepherd,” or in some versions “the seven shepherds.” Another friend in the same online conversation pointed us to this excellent article on the many covert references to Christianity in this Crusades-era song. The article suggests, for example, that the repeated word יְשׁוּעָה, salvation, may refer to Jesus (יֵשׁוּ), and that the word צַלְמוֹן may refer to Jesus as a צֶלֶם, false image or idol. However, the article does not cover the last line of the song thoroughly. I made a suggestion that the word הָקֵם, establish, may in fact hark back to the phrase נְקֹם נִקְמַת earlier in the verse, and mean take revenge on. The רוֹעֶה could then be Jesus, who is purported to have been a shepherd. The שִׁבְעָה, seven, would then be his seven apostles. (Christians differ on the number of apostles, with twelve being the most famous, but seven is another number given.) The line would then not read “establish for us the seven shepherds,” but rather “avenge for us the shepherd (Jesus) of the seven (apostles).”

This understanding of the line would also help to unravel an age-old mystery. As the first article above notes, the oldest manuscripts that we have of Ma’oz Tzur say רוׂעֶה שִׁבְעָה, the shepherd of seven. Perhaps because the identify of a single shepherd would be difficult to pin down, or else as an act of self-censorship, later printings changed the line to רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה, the seven shepherds. This change is often cited as supported by Micha 5:4, which refers to seven (unnamed) shepherds in the context of the future redemption. (The Gemara [Sukkah 52b] identifies them as Dovid, Adam, Shet, Metushelach, Avraham, Ya’akov, and Moshe.) However, that connection does not make it what the original author of Ma’oz Tzur intended. A single רוׂעֶה could be Jesus, the שִׁבְעָה could be his formerly-Jewish apostles, and we can decipher the original text, “the shepherd of seven,” without rewriting it as “the seven shepherds.”

3) Were Haman’s Belongings Hung on a Tree?

Staying on the topic of Ma’oz Tzur, my father asked why Haman’s belongings are said to have been hung on the tree with him: רׂב בָּנָיו וְקִנְיָנָיו עַל הָעֵץ תָּלִיתָ, his many sons and possessions You hung on a tree. Besides the absurdity of picturing Haman’s bed and pots and pans being hung with him on the tree, my father pointed out that we are told in the Megillah that בַבִּזָה לֹא שָלְחוּ אֶת יָדָם, they (the Jews) did not lay their hands on the booty. So what is this line talking about?

It turns out that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wondered the same thing, and he suggests in his commentary on the Siddur that the comma is in the wrong place. Rather than the usual interpretation …

.וְאוׂיֵב, שְׁמוׂ מָחִיתָ
רׂב בָּנָיו וְקִנְיָנָיו עַל הָעֵץ תָּלִיתָ

And the enemy – his name You erased.
His many sons and possessions You hung on the tree.

… Rav Hirsch suggests this alternate reading:

.וְאוׂיֵב, שְׁמוׂ מָחִיתָ, רׂב בָּנָיו וְקִנְיָנָיו
.עַל הָעֵץ תָּלִיתָ

And the enemy – his name You erased, [and] his many sons and possessions.
On a tree You hung him [Haman].

While this may not be the most immediately intuitive reading, it is intriguing because it emphasizes the idea of מְחִייָה, erasing, and deemphasizes the idea of Haman’s having been hung a tree. I would posit that the word מָחִיתָ in the song is not an accident. The Mitzvah of destroying Amalek in the Torah is phrased as that of מְחִייָה, erasure:

ספר שמות פרק יז פסוק יד

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר וְשִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃

Then Hashem said to Moshe, “Write this as a memorial in a scroll, and put it into the ears of Yehoshua: I will surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the Heaven.”

ספר דברים פרק כה פסוק יט

תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃

You should surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens – do not forget!

Haman is referred to in the Megillah as הַאַגָגִי, a descendant of Agag, who in turn was a descendent of Amalek. The fact that we mention in Ma’oz Tzur that he was erased by Hashem – מָחִיתָ – is perfectly in line with what Hashem guarantees He will do in the first Pasuk cited above: מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה, I will surely erase. That is the operative point being made in the song, that Hashem fulfilled His promise to erase the memory of Amalek during the days of Purim. The fact that Haman was hung is not an incidental point because it represents the nature of how that erasure took place – and so again it is phrased as if Hashem has personally done the deed (תָּלִיתָ), as He guaranteed He would do in the Chumash. The larger point being made, though, is that the Purim story is a fulfillment of Hashem’s promise that He would eventually erase the memory of Amalek.

Rav Hirsch’s arrangement of the verse calls to mind the pivotal incident in the Book of Shmuel in which Shaul lost his very kingship because he spared King Agag and his possessions during a war against Amalek. (See Shmuel Aleph 15:3-11.) From the Torah’s guarantee/prescription and the incident in the Book of Shmuel, it emerges that it was not enough to simply have Amalek or his literal descendent (Haman) be “hung on a tree,” as it were. Rather, as the poet describes, קִנְיָנָיו, his possessions, must likewise be מָחָה, erased, in order to bring about the fulfillment of Hashem’s command.

4) The Oil Miracle in Al Hanissim

Reading the Tefillah of Al Hanissim which is inserted into the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon throughout Chanukah, there is a jarring omission of the miracle of the oil. The fact that one flask of oil lasted for eight days is typically suggested as a major reason for observing the holiday (see, for example, Gemara Shabbat 21b), yet it is nowhere to be found in this seminal holiday prayer. I asked my students about this glaring omission. One student made the bright suggestion that while anyone would look at the miracle of the oil and realize that it is a cause for offering thanks to G-d, it is easier to forget that a military victory is truly His handiwork. To drive home this point, the military victory is emphasized instead of the miracle of the oil. This answer helps to explain why the Tefillah is inserted into the part of the Amidah in which we offer glowing thanks, הוֹדָאָה, to G-d. We should understand that our thanks is due not only for the miracles which are obviously the work of G-d, but also, or perhaps especially, for those for which we lack a burning desire to show thanks because they are so easily overlooked. (Did you catch all five puns in that paragraph?)

This is a very good answer, but it does not explain why we mention the seemingly superfluous fact that after cleaning out the Beit Hamikdash, הִדְלִיקוּ נֵרוֹת בְּחַצְרוֹת קָדְשֶׁךָ, they lit candles in Your Holy courtyards. Certainly the Jews did many things in the Beit Hamikdash after they had prepared it for use; surely they brought many Korbanot (offerings) and incense. Why mention that they lit candles? Also, why is the word בְּחַצְרוֹת phrased in the plural form? The Beit Hamikdash only had one courtyard, and it was not where the main Menorah was lit; that would be in the הֵיכָל, Sanctuary building, which was the subject of the previous line, וּפִנוּ אֶת הֵיכָלֶךָ, and they cleaned out your Sanctuary building.

If we still lit our Chanukah candles outside, we would typically light them in our חַצֵרוֹת, courtyards. The Gemara often speaks about the Chanukah lighting taking place in חַצֵרוֹת. The mention of חַצֵרוֹת in Al Hanissim may refer not to the Beit Hamikdash at all, but to the lighting of candles in people’s individual חַצֵרוֹת, outside their homes. Similar to the way in which the military victory represents a recognition of the oft-overlooked aspects of G-d’s many victories in our lives, perhaps the same can be said of the oil. For most of us, it would take a miracle on the level of a small amount of oil lasting for eight days to give us cause to thank G-d. Yet this Tefillah is offering us a unique perspective, that it is the “simple” miracle of our ability to create fire, which preceded that eight-day-long miracle, which is too often overlooked as we fail to see G-d’s hand in everyday life. In this sense, then, the “miracle of the oil” is in fact included in the Al Hanissim prayer, but it is the miracle of הִדְלִיקוּ נֵרוֹת בְּחַצְרוֹת קָדְשֶׁךָ, they lit candles in Your Holy courtyards. Like the military victory which we might overlook, oil burning is itself a shining example of a miracle we can each experience in our own חָצֵר קָדוֹשׁ, holy courtyard, and this is the greatest miracle of all. It didn’t take the Jews of that generation eight days or even two days to be wowed by the “miracle of the oil,” for they recognized that the simple creation of fire in their own home, despite being a daily occurrence, was nonetheless a cause for celebration.

Posted in Chanukah, Classroom Experiences, Halacha, Holidays, Talmud / Daf Yomi, Tefillah | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Death By a Thousand Cuts: Retracing the Final Steps of Korach (and Special Announcement!)

I am very excited to announce that I have completed my first book, which I plan to self-publish on Amazon in the next few weeks. The book, “Not a Short Vort: Torah Explorations for the Inquisitive Mind,” contains 21 essays on Chumash, some of which have appeared previously on this blog but have now been greatly expanded and revised for publication. Others are new and appear for the first time in the book. One of the latter is on this week’s Parsha, Ekev. To read it as it will appear in the book, click here. Or you can read it the old-fashioned way, below. Either way, I hope you enjoy, and I will keep you informed as the book makes its way to final publication.

In the pantheon of difficult questions on the Torah, “How did Korach die?” would not seem to rank very high. Most schoolchildren would probably be able to report that he was swallowed up by the earth (see Bamidbar 16:31-33). Yet a more careful examination, stemming in part from a recounting of the incident by Moshe later in Parshat Ekev, reveals some ambiguity on this score.

The trouble begins when Moshe adds in a detail about the story amidst a seemingly irrelevant backdrop:

ספר דברים פרק יא פסוקים ב-י
פסוק ב – וִידַעְתֶּם הַיּוֹם כִּי לֹא אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא רָאוּ אֶת מוּסַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶת גָּדְלוֹ אֶת יָדוֹ הַחֲזָקָה וּזְרֹעוֹ הַנְּטוּיָה.
פסוק ג – וְאֶת אֹתֹתָיו וְאֶת מַעֲשָׂיו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם לְפַרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וּלְכָל אַרְצוֹ …
פסוק ה – וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד בֹּאֲכֶם עַד הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.
פסוק ן – וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב בֶּן רְאוּבֵן אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת פִּיהָ.
פסוק ז – וַתִּבְלָעֵם וְאֶת בָּתֵּיהֶם וְאֶת אָהֳלֵיהֶם וְאֵת כָּל הַיְקוּם אֲשֶׁר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶם בְּקֶרֶב כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
פסוק ח – כִּי עֵינֵיכֶם הָרֹאֹת אֶת כָּל מַעֲשֵׂה יְהוָה הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.
פסוק ט – וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לְמַעַן תֶּחֶזְקוּ וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
פסוק י – וּלְמַעַן תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל הָאֲדָמָה …

(Devarim 11:2) You should know today that it was not your children, who did not know, and who did not see, the chastisement of Hashem, your God, and His greatness, and His strong hand and outstretched arm,
(11:3) And His signs and His actions that He did in the midst of Egypt, to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and to his whole land …
(11:5) And what He did in the Wilderness before you came to this place—
(11:6) And what He did to Datan and to Aviram, sons of Eliav, son of Reuven, that the ground opened up its mouth,
(11:7) And swallowed them and their families and their tents and everything alive that they had, in front of the entire Jewish nation—
(11:8) But it was with your own eyes that you saw all of the great things that Hashem did.
(11:9) You should guard all of the commands that I command you today in order that you will be strong and come to and inherit the land that you have passed into there to inherit it.
(11:10) And in order that you will have lengthened days on the land …

Two questions to consider: First, why is the ringleader Korach absent from the account of the ground swallowing up the perpetrators (Pesukim 6-7)? Second, what does the account of Datan and Aviram have to do with the surrounding passage about Egypt and the Land of Israel?

Ramban answers the first question by informing us that Korach’s death is not recorded here because he was not in fact swallowed up by the earth at all—he was killed in the fire that consumed his 250 followers (Bamidbar 16:35):

פירוש רמב“ן לספר דברים פרק יא פסוק ו
וְהִזְכִּיר ”וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם,“ וְלֹא הִזְכִּיר קֹרַח וַעֲדָתוֹ, שֶׁ“יָּצְאָה אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם,“ בַּעֲבוּר כִּי אִישׁ זָר הַקָּרֵב לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת, הוּא מִלָאוֵי הַתּוֹרָה (בַּמִּדְבָּר פרק יז פסוק ה), וּלְעוֹלָם הוּא נֶעֱנַשׁ לְדוֹרוֹת, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרָה גַּם לְעֻזִיָּהוּ (דברי הימים ב פרק כו פסוק יט), עַל כֵּן לֹא מִנָּאוֹ בְּאוֹתוֹת הַמִּדְבָּר.

It mentions “what was done to Datan and Aviram,” and it doesn’t mention Korach and his group, about whom “a fire went out from before Hashem and consumed them,” because a non-Kohen who comes close to bring incense is the subject of a negative commandment (Bamidbar 17:5), and this would be a longstanding source for punishment, as happened also to Uzi’ahu (Divrei Hayamim II 26:19). Therefore, it is not counted among the wonders in the wilderness.

By presuming that Korach was burned in the same conflagration as his cohort and was not swallowed by the earth with Datan and Aviram, Ramban is taking a stand on an issue debated in the Talmud, namely in which of the two concurrent punishments—sinkhole or fire—Korach was included.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף קי עמוד א
וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, קֹרַח לֹא מִן הַבְּלוּעִים וְלֹא מִן הַשֵּׂרוּפִין. לֹא מִן הַבְּלוּעִין, דִּכְתִיב (בַּמִּדְבָּר פרק טז פסוק לב), ”וְאֵת כָּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר לְקֹרַח“ – וְלֹא קֹרַח. וְלֹא מִן הַשְּׂרוּפִים, דִּכְתִיב (בַּמִּדְבָּר פרק כו פסוק י), ”בַּאֲכֹל הָאֵשׁ אֵת חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ“ – וְלֹא קֹרַח.

Rabbi Yochanan said, “Korach was not among those who were swallowed (by the earth) or those who were burned in fire. He is not among those swallowed, as it says (Bamidbar 16:32), “All the men who were with Korach” – but not Korach himself. And he was not among those burned, as it says (26:10), “When the fire consumed the 250 men” – but not Korach.

How could Korach, the ringleader of the rebellion, cheat death entirely? Rashi on the Gemara suggests that Korach met his end in the plague later in the Parsha (17:9-15) in which 14,700 people died.

The Gemara continues:

בְּמַתְנִיתָא תַּנָּא, קֹרַח – מִן הַשְֹרוּפִין, וּמִן הַבְּלוּעִין. מִן הַבְּלוּעִים – דִּכְתִיב, (בַּמִּדְבָּר פרק כו, פסוק י), ”וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת קֹרַח.“ מִן הַשֵּׂרוּפִין, דִּכְתִיב (בַּמִּדְבָּר פרק טז פסוק לֹה), ”וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵאֵת ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אֵת חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ,“ וְקֹרַח בַּהֲדַיְהוּ.

In a Beraita it is taught, “Korach was among both those who were burned and those who were swallowed. Those who were swallowed, as it says (Bamidbar 26:10), “And it swallowed them and Korach.” Those who were burned, as it says (16:35), “And a fire went out from before Hashem and consumed the 250 men;” and Korach was among them.

This second half of the Gemara presents what seems to be a solid proof (Bamidbar 26:10, from Parshat Pinchas) that Korach was swallowed. Rashi explains that the earlier opinion would respond by parsing the Pasuk differently, as follows:

ספר במדבר פרק כו פסוק י
וַתִּפְתַּ֨ח הָאָ֜רֶץ אֶת פִּ֗יהָ וַתִּבְלַ֥ע אֹתָ֛ם וְאֶת קֹ֖רַח בְּמ֣וֹת הָעֵדָ֑ה בַּאֲכֹ֣ל הָאֵ֗שׁ אֵ֣ת חֲמִשִּׁ֤ים וּמָאתַ֙יִם֙ אִ֔ישׁ וַיִּהְי֖וּ לְנֵֽס.

(Bamidbar 26:10) AS EXPLAINED BY GEMARA OPINION 1: The ground opened up its mouth and swallowed them—and Korach was among those who died in the group, when the fire consumed the 250 men, and they became a memorial.

AS EXPLAINED BY GEMARA OPINION 2: The ground opened up its mouth and swallowed them and Korach as the cohort died, when the fire consumed the 250 men, and they became a memorial. (This translation matches the trop [cantillation notes].)

How can the Gemara say that Korach was among the 250 who were burned, if he gathered 250 other men at the beginning of the Parsha (16:2)? Commenting on the Gemara, Rashi explains that Bamidbar 16:17—אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם מַחְתֹּת וְאַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן, each man with his firepan, 250 firepans, and you (Korach) and Aharon—seems to imply that Korach also brought incense and thus would have been included in the punishment of burning.

This idea that Korach was both burned and swallowed up is picked up on by other commentaries, among them Rabbeinu Bachye:

פירוש רבנו בחיי לספר במדבר פרק כו פסוק י
וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת קֹרַח בְּמוֹת הָעֵדָה בַּאֲכֹל הָאֵש – הִכְנִיס הַכָּתוּב קֹרַח בְּאֶמְצַע, בֵּין ”וַתִּבְלַע“ וּבֵין ”בַּאֲכֹל הָאֵשׁ,“ וּמִכָּאן שֶׁהָיָה קֹרַח נִבְלָע וְנִשְׂרַף.

And swallowed them and Korach as the cohort died when they were consumed by fire – The Pasuk puts Korach in the middle, between “they were swallowed” and “when the fire consumed,” and from here we see that Korach was both swallowed and burned.

If you are wondering how it is possible to be both swallowed by the earth and burned, there are two approaches to that question. The first is in Rashi on the Gemara cited earlier (Sanhedrin 110a):

שֶׁנִּשְׂרְפָה נִשְׁמָתוֹ וְגוּף קַיָּם, וְאַחַר כָּךְ נִתְגַּלְגֵּל עַד מָקוֹם הַבְּלוּעִין, וְנִבְלָע.

His soul was burned but his body remained intact, and then he rolled to the place where the earth was opened, and he was swallowed up.

And there is the approach of the Midrash:

מדרש במדבר רבה פרשה יח סעיף יט

קֹרַח לָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכֻּלָּם, שֶׁנִּשְׂרַף וְנִבְלָע. לִהֲטוּ הָאֵשׁ תְּחִלָּה לְעֵין כָּל הַשְּׂרוּפִים, וּקְפַלְתּוֹ הָאֵשׁ כַּכַּדּוּר, וּמְגַלְגֶּלֶת בּוֹ עַד שֶׁהֲבָאָתוֹ לְפִי הָאָרֶץ עִם הַבְּלוּעִים.

Korach was punished more than anyone else, because he was burned and swallowed. He was burned on fire first in front of all the burned people, and the fire enveloped him like a ball and rolled him until it had brought him to the opening of the earth with the other swallowed up people.

*     *     *

In order to understand the Gemara’s all-or-nothing approach to Korach’s demise, we need to understand why there are so many different punishments in Parshat Korach, and what each one was for. Let’s take a more granular look at the interwoven storyline of the Parsha.


16:1-4 Korach, Datan, Aviram, Ohn, and 250 others complain that Moshe and Aharon have too much power
16:5-7 Moshe proposes firepan/incense test for next day
16:8-11 Moshe tries to persuade Korach he is being pretentious


16:12-15 Moshe tries to speak with Datan and Aviram, who respond intransigently; Moshe responds in kind


16:16-17 Moshe repeats the firepan/incense test for next day for the 250, Korach, and Aharon
16:18-19 Firepan test begins with Korach, 250, Moshe and Aharon


16:20-22 Hashem proposes instant death for all; Moshe and Aharon intercede, implying only Korach should die
16:23-27 Hashem warns 250 to separate from Korach, Datan, and Aviram; Moshe tells the 250 to separate from Datan and Aviram; they separate from Korach, Datan, and Aviram; Datan and Aviram leave their tents
16:28-30 Moshe proposes sinkhole challenge
16:31-34 Earth opens up and swallows “them” (Datan and Aviram and their families and wealth)



16:35 Fire burns the 250 doing the firepan/incense test


At the time that the earth opened up (16:34) in front of Datan and Aviram’s tent (16:27), Korach was in the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) (see 16:19). Why would Hashem tell Moshe to warn the group of 250 men to separate from the tents of Korach, Datan, and Aviram (16:23) if Korach was not in his tent at that point? And why, given that command, does Moshe only go to Datan and Aviram (16:25)? Korach’s tent reappears in 16:27, where it seems that he shares a domicile with Datan and Aviram. This is strange because the latter two brothers were from the tribe of Reuven, not Levi. Why did Korach live with Datan and Aviram?

A careful look at the wording of 16:23-27 reveals that whenever the three perpetrators—Korach, Datan, and Aviram—are couched together, they are referred to as being in a מִשְׁכָּן, literally a Tabernacle. Whenever Datan and Aviram are referred to as a unit, they live in an אוֹהֶל, a simple tent. This is the first step in understanding the difference between the argument of Korach and that of the two brothers. Korach was waging a religious fight, creating a new religious order, a cult, based around himself on the fabrication that the existing leadership was in it for themselves. Datan and Aviram, on the other hand, were invested in promoting themselves simply for gratuitous gain. Korach’s Mishkan is not a place that anyone lives but a new site of religious worship.

We don’t know a lot about Datan and Aviram, but their being from the tribe of Reuven is telling. Did these two involve themselves in his conflict in the first place because, being from the tribe of Ya’akov’s eldest son, they were convinced of their rightful place as leaders of the Jewish people and so served an object lesson by Korach as to the unfairness and randomness of the aristocracy? Perhaps this explains their diatribe (16:13-14) about the failure of leadership which had purportedly resulted in the Jews’ leaving the pristine land of Egypt en route to the moribund land of Israel, as if to say that leadership by their tribe of Reuven would have had better results.

This read computes with several Midrashic accounts of the brothers’ earlier activities. One Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:20) pegs them as the ones who met Moshe and Aharon at the end of Parshat Shemot (5:20) to complain that their leadership had failed the Jewish people and, according to that Midrash, went on to rail against them to Pharaoh. A famous Rashi (to Shemot 2:13) identifies these two as the ones who reported Moshe to the authorities after he killed the Egyptian. A chilling Midrash (Shocher Tov Tehillim 106:5) reports that during the spies story when the Jews declared (Bamidbar 14:4) נִתְנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה, we will appoint a head and return to Egypt, they voted Datan in place of Moshe and Aviram in place of Aharon.

Korach’s status as the ringleader may be a smokescreen. It is Datan and Aviram who had been angling to bring down Moshe and Aharon for much longer than Korach had been on the scene, and they had much to gain if their tribe of Reuven had earned back its rightful place after it had been taken from them by Ya’akov (see Bereishit 49:3-4). Levi, too, had been chastised by Ya’akov, yet here were Moshe and Aharon assuming roles of leadership right in Datan and Aviram’s faces. (For a possible reason why the tribe of Levi earned back its tribal privileges, see our essay on Parshat Vayechi earlier in this volume.) Unlike Korach, who even according to Rashi only ever wanted to be the leader of Kehat, Datan and Aviram wanted it all.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Let’s look at the two Pesukim which seem to say that Korach, Datan, and Aviram live together:

ספר במדבר פרק טז פסוקים כד. כז
פסוק כד – דַּבֵּר אֶל הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם.
פסוק כז – וַיֵּעָלוּ מֵעַל מִשְׁכַּן קֹרֶח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם מִסָּבִיב וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם יָצְאוּ …

(Bamidbar 27:24) USUAL TRANSLATION: Speak to the whole group, saying, “Go up from around the dwelling place of Korach, Datan, Aviram.”
ALTERNATE TRANSLATION: Speak to the whole group, saying, “Datan and Aviram should go up from around the Tabernacle of Korach.”
(Bamidbar 27:27) USUAL TRANSLATION: So they went up from upon the dwelling place of Korach, Datan, and Aviram, all around, and Datan and Aviram went out …
ALTERNATE TRANSLATION: So they went up from being at the Tabernacle of Korach—Datan and Aviram did—from around it, and Datan and Aviram went out …

These alternate translations (which are supported by the cantillation notes) solve many problems—that Korach was not actually at his Mishkan (Tabernacle) but at the Jews’ Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) at the time; that the three, not all being related and being from two different tribes, would be unlikely to share a dwelling place; and that the brothers’ dwelling place is properly called an ohel (tent) in 16:26 and :27, while Korach’s is consistently called a Mishkan. As we have seen, Korach’s theological issues with Moshe and Aharon have driven him to create his own new quasi-religion, complete with its own Mishkan. Datan and Aviram have hitched their wagon to Korach’s star, as we see them emerge to public shame from Korach’s Mishkan. The public pronouncement that Datan and Aviram are to emerge from Korach’s Mishkan is the equivalent of federal agents using bullhorns to order those in David Koresh’s Waco cult to emerge from their homes. It is the moment of a religious movement crashing down in spectacular and public fashion.

Returning to the Parsha outline several pages ago, we see that the story of Datan and Aviram, from their disrespect to their demise, is set off from the rest of the story in the Parsha. (This story-within-a-story technique is called an Embedded Narrative.) There is no ambiguity as to the gruesome death of Datan and Aviram, and why only they—and not Korach—are listed in Devarim 11:6 (Parshat Ekev) and Tehillim 106:16-17 as having been swallowed up by the earth. They are the true rebels, the ones who have long coveted the most honorable positions, who bided their time before riding on Korach’s coattails to grab the highest positions for themselves. (As the diagram on the previous page shows, Datan and Aviram’s pure personal ambition can be seen from the fact that, while they were indeed from Reuven, they did not remotely have the right to claim a chosen status within the tribe.) In Bamidbar 26:9, so soon after the full report in Parshat Korach, the account of their deaths is repeated during a genealogical survey—because their genealogy is intrinsically connected to their complaint and rebellion. Likewise, when their deaths are described in Devarim 11:6, they are referred to as בְּנֵי אֶלִיאָב, בְּנֵי ראּוּבֵן, sons of Eliav, sons of Reuven, because that pedigree was central to what caused them to rebel in the first place. And in Tehillim 106:15, their deaths are specifically tied to the jealousy that they had for Moshe and Aharon—וַיְקַנְאוּ לְמֹשֶׁה בַּמַחַנֶה, לְאַהַרֹן קְדוֹשׁ ה‘, they were jealous of Moshe in the camp, of Aharon, the holy one of Hashem—because unlike Korach, who sought only to become the head of Kehat, the brothers sought to usurp the crown of the tribe of Levi for the tribe of Levi’s eldest brother, Reuven, and thus claim the greatest positions for themselves.

While Korach’s complaint had at least an imprimatur of religious conviction (see end of Rashi to 16:1 ודתן ואבירם) and resulted in his creating a new Mishkan around his fanatical religious ideas, Datan and Aviram were nakedly ambitious in their attempt to take down Moshe and Aharon and assume their positions. Rashi (see Bamidbar 16:1 ויקח קרח #2) has his own reason for the Torah not telling us what it was that Korach “took” at the beginning of Parshat Korach, but it is worth noting that, even according to a simple read of the text, Korach didn’t “take” Datan and Aviram. He didn’t need to. Once they saw Korach beginning to argue, they were out of their seats like a jackrabbit in pursuit of their long-cherished goal of assuming the thrones of Moshe and Aharon. The source of Korach’s demise is not made clear in Parshiot Korach or Pinchas, and it is left entirely out of Parshat Ekev and Tehillim, because Datan and Aviram are a more fitting avatar for the kind of overtly gratuitous, opportunistic power-grab of which the Jews must be reminded that they need to avoid. Korach, while flawed, at least outwardly sought to promote the holiness of the average Jew (see 16:3), as manifested in his pluralistic Mishkan. Datan and Aviram were in it entirely for themselves.

The story of Datan and Aviram, from their disrespect to their demise, represents not the religious frustration of Korach but the brothers’ personal zeal, and it was ended with their being swallowed by the earth—כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב, for you are dust, and to dust you will return (Bereishit 3:19). The larger religious rebellion of the Parsha was met with a fitting religious end, at the Tent of Meeting with firepans of incense in their hands. At issue in the Gemara that we saw earlier is whether Korach’s own rebellion and punishment represented a mixture of both or something else entirely, and what it was that made his rebellion the source of evil that it became. Yet it is the shallow-minded and greedy followers Datan and Aviram, not Korach, who remain wedded to the ultimate punishment for all time.


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To Stop this Plague, Avoid Social Distancing

I recently had the fortune of finishing two areas of learning right around the same time with my 8th graders – Parshat Korach and the book of Shmuel Bet. Much to our surprise, we discovered that the two sections, separated though they are by many miles in the Tanach, have surprisingly similar endings. Let’s explore these two endings and what their symbiosis portends for us as thinking religious individuals.

By the end of the main story of Parshat Korach, the ringleader Korach, his buddies Datan and Aviram, and their families are underground. Korach’s band of 250 rebels has been burned in a fire while they were bringing incense. The Jews are scared, accusing Moshe and Aharon of killing the nation of Hashem. Moshe and Aharon come to the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting), which they find covered by the Cloud of Glory; trouble is in the air. Hashem threatens to destroy the Jewish people in an instant. Then,

ספר במדבר פרק יז פסוקים ט-יא
פסוק ט – וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
:פסוק י – הֵרֹ֗מּוּ מִתּוֹךְ֙ הָעֵדָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וַאֲכַלֶּ֥ה אֹתָ֖ם כְּרָ֑גַע וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶֽם
פסוק יא – וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קַ֣ח אֶת־הַ֠מַּחְתָּה וְתֶן־עָלֶ֨יהָ אֵ֜שׁ מֵעַ֤ל הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ וְשִׂ֣ים קְטֹ֔רֶת וְהוֹלֵ֧ךְ מְהֵרָ֛ה אֶל־הָעֵדָ֖ה וְכַפֵּ֣ר עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם כִּֽי־יָצָ֥א הַקֶּ֛צֶף מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה הֵחֵ֥ל הַנָּֽגֶף׃

(17:9) Hashem said to Moshe as follows,
(17:10) “Remove yourself from this group, and I will destroy them in an instant!” They fell on their faces.
(17:11) Moshe said to Aharon, “Take the stick, and put fire on it from on the Mizbeach (altar), and put incense in it. Then go quickly to the group and atone for them, because the fury has gone forth from before Hashem – the plague has begun!”

This is a very unusual and specific set of instructions for Moshe to come up with, apparently on his own. How did he know that this exact formula would check the plague? We will return to that, but first let’s finish the story:

ספר במדבר פרק יז פסוקים יב-טו
פסוק יב וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַהֲרֹ֜ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיָּ֙רָץ֙ אֶל־תּ֣וֹך הַקָּהָ֔ל וְהִנֵּ֛ה הֵחֵ֥ל הַנֶּ֖גֶף בָּעָ֑ם וַיִּתֵּן֙ אֶֽת־הַקְּטֹ֔רֶת וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־הָעָֽם׃
פסוק יגוַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד בֵּֽין־הַמֵּתִ֖ים וּבֵ֣ין הַֽחַיִּ֑ים וַתֵּעָצַ֖ר הַמַּגֵּפָֽה׃
פסוק יד וַיִּהְי֗וּ הַמֵּתִים֙ בַּמַּגֵּפָ֔ה אַרְבָּעָ֥ה עָשָׂ֛ר אֶ֖לֶף וּשְׁבַ֣ע מֵא֑וֹת מִלְּבַ֥ד הַמֵּתִ֖ים עַל־דְּבַר־קֹֽרַח׃
פסוק טו וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְהַמַּגֵּפָ֖ה נֶעֱצָֽרָה׃

(17:12) Aharon took, as Moshe had spoken, and he ran into the midst of the congregation, and indeed – the plague had begun. He took the incense, and he atoned for the nation.
(17:13) He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague had stopped.
(17:14) It happened that the dead in the plague totaled 14,700, besides the dead in the saga of Korach.
(17:15) Aharon returned to Moshe, to the opening of the Tent of Meeting, and the plague had stopped.

Clearly, Moshe’s idea worked. But why did it work? What elements of this formula marked it for success – the stick, the fire (at least in the command if not in the execution), the incense, the running into the group, the atoning?

Keep these elements in mind as we see part of the last chapter (24) of Shmuel Bet. In this final chapter, Hashem is very angry at the Jews, but it is not clear why. The commentators suggest that it was retribution for people’s support of the rebellion of Sheva ben Bichri (see Perek 20) (Abarbanel), or for their not appearing interested in building the Beit Hamikdash as it stays in its temporary mobile lodging throughout this time period (Midrash brought by Ramban in Bamidbar 16:21). In any event, Hashem leads Dovid into a trap, giving him the idea to take an unauthorized census of the Jews, which moves forward despite Yoav’s objection. Immediately after the census is done and recorded, Dovid realizes his mistake. The prophet Gad reports to Dovid that Hashem has given him three choices of punishment: seven years of famine (according to Divrei Hayamim, three years), three months of enemy attack, or three days of pestilence. Dovid chooses the final option.

And then …

ספר שמואל ב פרק כד
פסוק טו – וַיִּתֵּ֨ן יְהוָ֥ה דֶּ֙בֶר֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵהַבֹּ֖קֶר וְעַד־עֵ֣ת מוֹעֵ֑ד וַיָּ֣מָת מִן־הָעָ֗ם מִדָּן֙ וְעַד־בְּאֵ֣ר שֶׁ֔בַע שִׁבְעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִֽישׁ׃

פסוק טז – וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יָד֨וֹ הַמַּלְאָ֥ךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלִַם֮ לְשַׁחֲתָהּ֒ וַיִּנָּ֤חֶם יְהוָה֙ אֶל־הָ֣רָעָ֔ה וַ֠יֹּאמֶר לַמַּלְאָ֞ךְ הַמַּשְׁחִ֤ית בָּעָם֙ רַ֔ב עַתָּ֖ה הֶ֣רֶף יָדֶ֑ךָ וּמַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ הָיָ֔ה עִם־גֹּ֖רֶן הָאֲרַ֥וְנָה הַיְבֻסִֽי׃ (ס)
פסוק יז – וַיֹּאמֶר֩ דָּוִ֨ד אֶל־יְהוָ֜ה בִּרְאֹת֣וֹ אֶֽת־הַמַּלְאָ֣ךְ הַמַּכֶּ֣ה בָעָ֗ם וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֤י חָטָ֙אתִי֙ וְאָנֹכִ֣י הֶעֱוֵ֔יתִי וְאֵ֥לֶּה הַצֹּ֖אן מֶ֣ה עָשׂ֑וּ תְּהִ֨י נָ֥א יָדְךָ֛ בִּ֖י וּבְבֵ֥ית אָבִֽי׃ (פ)
פסוק יח – וַיָּבֹא־גָ֥ד אֶל־דָּוִ֖ד בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ עֲלֵה֙ הָקֵ֤ם לַֽיהוָה֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ בְּגֹ֖רֶן אֲרַ֥וְנָה הַיְבֻסִֽי׃
פסוק יט – וַיַּ֤עַל דָּוִד֙ כִּדְבַר־גָּ֔ד כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
פסוק כ – וַיַּשְׁקֵ֣ף אֲרַ֗וְנָה וַיַּ֤רְא אֶת־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וְאֶת־עֲבָדָ֔יו עֹבְרִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֲרַ֔וְנָה וַיִּשְׁתַּ֧חוּ לַמֶּ֛לֶךְ אַפָּ֖יו אָֽרְצָה׃
פסוק כא – וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲרַ֔וְנָה מַדּ֛וּעַ בָּ֥א אֲדֹנִֽי־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֶל־עַבְדּ֑וֹ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר דָּוִ֜ד לִקְנ֧וֹת מֵעִמְּךָ֣ אֶת־הַגֹּ֗רֶן לִבְנ֤וֹת מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וְתֵעָצַ֥ר הַמַּגֵּפָ֖ה מֵעַ֥ל הָעָֽם׃
פסוק כב – וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲרַ֙וְנָה֙ אֶל־דָּוִ֔ד יִקַּ֥ח וְיַ֛עַל אֲדֹנִ֥י הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ הַטּ֣וֹב בְּעֵינָ֑יו רְאֵה֙ הַבָּקָ֣ר לָעֹלָ֔ה וְהַמֹּרִגִּ֛ים וּכְלֵ֥י הַבָּקָ֖ר לָעֵצִֽים׃

פסוק כד – וַיֹּ֨אמֶר הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֶל־אֲרַ֗וְנָה לֹ֚א כִּֽי־קָנ֨וֹ אֶקְנֶ֤ה מֵאֽוֹתְךָ֙ בִּמְחִ֔יר וְלֹ֧א אַעֲלֶ֛ה לַיהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהַ֖י עֹל֣וֹת חִנָּ֑ם וַיִּ֨קֶן דָּוִ֤ד אֶת־הַגֹּ֙רֶן֙ וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֔ר בְּכֶ֖סֶף שְׁקָלִ֥ים חֲמִשִּֽׁים׃
פסוק כה – וַיִּבֶן֩ שָׁ֨ם דָּוִ֤ד מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיַּ֥עַל עֹל֖וֹת וּשְׁלָמִ֑ים וַיֵּעָתֵ֤ר יְהוָה֙ לָאָ֔רֶץ וַתֵּעָצַ֥ר הַמַּגֵּפָ֖ה מֵעַ֥ל יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

(24:15) Hashem put a pestilence on the Jewish people from morning until evening, and out of the whole nation, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, 77,000 died.
(24:16) The angel lifted his hand toward Yerushalayim to destroy it. Hashem reconsidered the evil, and he said to the angel, “You have destroyed many among the nation. Now, stay your hand.” The angel of Hashem at that time was at the threshing floor of Aravnah the Yevusi.
(24:17) Dovid said to Hashem when he saw the angel striking the nation, “I see that I have sinned and caused mischief. But these sheep – what did they do? Your hand should be against me and my father’s house.”
(24:18) Gad came to Dovid on that day, and said to him, “Go up! Raise up for Hashem a Mizbeach at the threshing floor of Aravnah the Yevusi.”
(24:19) Dovid went up as Gad had spoken, as Hashem had commanded.
(24:20) Aravnah looked out and saw the king and his servants passing near him, and Aravnah went out and bowed to the king, with his face to the ground.
(24:21) Aravnah said, “Why did my master, the king, come to his servant?” Dovid said, “To purchase from you the threshing floor to build a Mizbeach for Hashem, so the pestilence will cease from the people.”
(24:22) Aravnah said to Dovid, “Take it, and bring up whatever is good in the king’s eyes. See – here is cattle for an offering, and threshing implements and tools for the wood” …
(24:24) The king said to Aravnah, “No, I will buy it from you for a price, and I will not offer up to Hashem offerings for free.” Dovid paid for the threshing floor and the cattle, with money, 50 Shekels.
(24:25) Dovid built a Mizbeach for Hashem, and he offered up elevation-offerings and peace-offerings. Hashem responded to the land, and the plague ended from the Jews.

What an evocative and chilling ending to the book of Shmuel Bet. Aravnah was the king of the Yevusi nation. His threshing floor becomes the site of the Beit Hamikdash. The compassion and magnanimity of this non-Jewish king is inspiring, but Dovid refuses his request and instead insists on paying for the threshing floor himself, evoking Avraham’s purchase of Ma’arat Hamachpeilah from Efron Hachiti. Yet there are even more parallels to the story of Aharon stopping the plague in Parshat Korach. In both stories, Hashem threatens to cause mass death by a plague because the people have been inattentive to their houses of worship or insensitive to its leaders. In both stories, Hashem holds back from bringing the plague to its full effect when a prophet tells another leader to intervene using the tools of worship—incense or offerings—at which point the plague is immediately checked.

How did Gad and Moshe know how to bring a premature end to the plague? A close read shows that in both cases, the plague is stopped only after the leader has taken personal responsibility for the mistakes of the people. The action of bringing incense or an offering (Bamidbar 9:11-12 and Shmuel Bet 24:25) is only meaningful insofar as the leader has come to a point of accepting upon himself the mistakes of the nation he is serving. In Aharon’s case, this realization came in two forms: “וַיְכַפֵּר עַל הָעָם,” “he atoned for the people” (9:12); and “וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד בֵּֽין הַמֵּתִים וּבֵין הַֽחַיִּים,” “he stood between the dead and the living.” In Dovid’s case, he expressed contrition: ”הִנֵּה אָנֹכִ֤י חָטָאתִי וְאָנֹכִ֣י הֶעֱוֵיתִי וְאֵ֥לֶּה הַצֹּאן מֶה עָשׂ֑וּ תְּהִי נָא יָדְךָ בִּ֖י וּבְבֵ֥ית אָבִֽי,” “I see that I have sinned and caused mischief. But these sheep—what did they do? Your hand should be against me and my father’s house.” Each in his respective story, Moshe or Dovid must take his share of the blame for the downfall of the nation which they lead.

We find a similar phenomenon after the Golden Calf and spies incidents, when Hashem tells Moshe of his plans to destroy the nation, but acquiesces when Moshe stands in on their behalf. Why the charade? If Hashem wants to destroy them, how do the pleas of Moshe have such a strong, overriding effect? Perhaps it is a test of Moshe’s faith in the nation. If the nation and its preservation are important to Moshe, then the nation has a leader and a reason to be saved. If not, there is no point in keeping them around. At the same time, the fact that Moshe needs to plead for the nation and reassert his willingness to lead them is a testament to the failure of leadership which got them into this mess. That is why Aharon and Dovid each need to recognize their own moral failings and accept the nation’s problems on their own shoulders before they can save the nation; without that acceptance, the nation has no advocate, no leader, and no reason to be saved. These are the moments that leaders are made.

The second parallel between the two stories is that the tide begins to turn only when the leader physically moves to the site of the problem (Shmuel Bet 24:18), literally putting their own lives at risk to show their solidarity with the people. In Aharon’s case, he is told toהוֹלֵךְ מְהֵרָה אֶל הָעֵדָה, go quickly to the group (Bamidbar 17:11)and so indeed וַיָּרָץ אֶל תּוֹך הַקָּהָל, he ran to the midst of the congregation (17:12). Logically, that is the last place he would want to go. He is already at the Ohel Moed; can’t he offer the incense right where he already is? Similarly, when Aharon “stands between the dead and the living” (וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד בֵּֽין הַמֵּתִ֖ים וּבֵ֣ין הַֽחַיִּ֑ים””) (17:13), Rashbam understands this to mean that Aharon is forming a human shield to stop the plague from spreading to those still alive, as if to say, “If you are going to kill them, you are going to have to kill me first.” Sforno understands this alacrity by Aharon to provide a deliberate counterweight to the way in which Aharon and Moshe have been told to separate themselves from the group, including just recently in Pasuk 10 (“הֵרֹמּוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת,” “separate yourselves from this large group”). In Dovid’s case, Gad tells him to “עֲלֵה הָקֵ֤ם לַֽיהוָה מִזְבֵּח,” “go up and build a Mizbeach for Hashem” (Shmuel Bet 24:18) at the exact location where the angel is standing with his hand outstretched over Yerushalayim, again the most dangerous place he could be at that time. And yet, for a true leader, it is the only place he would want to be.

A leader’s ability to recognize himself as a part of the people rather than apart from the people is critical to the reconsideration moment by Hashem in each story. At first glance, this second aspect of leadership, this show of solidarity and populism, is an opposite impulse from the first aspect, the recognition of one’s role as a leader uniquely worthy of taking blame on oneself. Yet both aspects are critical, because the nation will only accept the leader’s contrition and self-effacement as sincere if he is willing to literally walk into the fire to save the very nation for which he is pleading. Talk is cheap. Anyone can mouth empty words about the importance of the nation from the sidelines. Moshe and Dovid need to be reminded that only by rolling up your sleeves and jumping into the fire, only by walking straight up to the angel of death himself, can they become the empathic leader that they need to become and that the people deserve for them to be.


Posted in Classroom Experiences, Nach, Parshat Hashavua | Leave a comment

A Fool for Love: The Meeting of Chesed and Emet

I just finished my first year of teaching in a new location, and I finally have the time to write up the conclusions of a learning experience I had with my 7th Grade Advanced Chumash class a few months ago. I thought we broke some exciting new ground and have been wanting to share it publicly.

The topic of our learning was the 13 Middot of Hashem’s Mercy, as we were coming to the end of Parshat Ki Tisa. It struck me that Middot #7 and #8, Rav Chesed and Emet, could be seen as polar opposites. If Hashem is a “Rav Chesed,” meaning that He extends Himself to show benevolence beyond the point at which it is warranted, how can we say that He acts with “Emet,” truth, according to the strict letter of the law? The two descriptions of Hashem seem incongruous.

As we had many times during the year, we turned to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch for guidance, and he did not disappoint.

חֶסֶד קָרוֹב לְ”אֵשֶׁד,” לַעֲלוֹת עַל גְּדוֹתָיו [עַיֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר כא, טו], וְלָכֵן מַשְׁמָעוּתוֹ “לְהִתְמַסֵּר לַחֲלוּטִין” (“חֶסֶד” פֵּרוּשׁוֹ: לִמְסֹר אָדָם, לִנְטֹשׁ אוֹתוֹ לְחֶרְפָּה [עִיֵּן פֵּרוּשׁ וְיִקְרָא כ, יז]). אוֹפְיָינֵי הַדָּבָר אֵיךְ הוֹסָפַת “וֶאֱמֶת” מְשַׁמֶּרֶת אֶת הַמֻּשָּׂג הָאֲמִתִּי שֶׁל “חֶסֶד,” כָּךְ – “כָּל־אָרְחוֹת ה’ חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת” (תְּהִלִּים כה, י). אָדָם יוֹצֵר לְעִתִּים קְרוֹבוֹת רָעוֹת מִתּוֹךְ אַהֲבָה. “חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת” הִיא אָהֲבָה שֶׁאֵינֶנָּה מְסִיטָה עֵינֶיהָ מִן הָעִקָּר מִתּוֹךְ עָצְמַת הַהִתְמַסְּרוּת.

The Hebrew word חסד (chesed) is etymologically close to the word אשד, cascade, to overflow beyond one’s borders. Therefore, its meaning is “to give oneself over completely.” The method by which the addition of “truth” preserves the true meaning of “kindness” is as follows: “All the ways of Hashem are kindness and truth” (Tehillim 25:10). Man sometimes creates bonds of closeness out of love. “Kindness and truth” is love that doesn’t lose sight of itself despite the strength with which it is given.

Because Chesed, kindness, has a tendency to go too far, Emet is there to anchor it and ensure that it remain rooted and proportionate. Hirsch proceeds to give two examples from stories in the Book of Bereishit which illustrate the intersection of kindness and truth, the first rooted in the story of Avraham’s quest to have his servant find a wife for Yitzchak:

לְאַבְרָהָם הָיְתָה תְּשׁוּקָה עַזָּה בְּיוֹתֵר לִרְאוֹת אֶת בְּנוֹ מֵקִים בַּיִת. אַךְ אִם הָיָה כֹּה לָהוּט אַחַר תְּשׁוּקָה זוֹ, עַד שֶׁאִם לֹא יִמְצָא אִשָּׁה רְאוּיָה רוּחָנִית וּמוּסָרִית לְזֶרַע אַבְרָהָם, יִבְחַר בְּאִשָּׁה שֶׁאֵינָהּ רְאוּיָה, לֹא יִהְיֶה זֶה “חֶסֶד שֶׁל אֱמֶת”. “אֱמֶת” הִיא תָּמִיד תְּנַאי שֶׁמַּגְבִּיל אֶת הַ”חֶסֶד” (עִיֵּן לְעֵיל כַּד, מט).

Avraham had the strongest possible desire to see his son (Yitzchak) establish his own household. But if he had been singularly focused on this desire, to the extent that if he had not found a match spiritually and ethically suitable for Avraham’s progeny he would have allowed him to marry someone who was not suitable, this would not have been “kindness of truth.” “Truth” is always the condition which creates a boundary for the “kindness.”

Again, the goal of Emet is to keep Chesed from running amok. Finding the most beautiful wife would have been an act of Chesed indeed, but it would not have been enough to overcome the Emet missing from Avraham’s request, namely that Yitzchak’s wife should be from his own family. This is all that Hirsch says on the story of Avraham’s search for Yitzchak’s wife, but I had a suspicion that a closer look at that story in context would uncover additional gems. Before coming to that, however, we must see Hirsch’s second example of “Chesed” and “Emet” working in tandem. When Ya’akov made Yosef swear that Ya’akov’s burial would be in the Land of Israel rather than in Egypt, Ya’akov referred to this as “Chesed V’emet,” “a kindness and a truth:”

ספר בראשית פרק מז פסוק כט
וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִֽׂים נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֔ת אַל נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם׃

The time came close to when Yisrael would die, and he called to his son Yosef and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, place your hand under my thigh and do for me kindness and truth. Please do not bury me in Egypt.”

Hirsch explains the odd phraseology of the commitment, as a “Chesed V’Emet,” in the same way that he explained the phrase in our Parsha:

יַעֲקֹב יוֹדֵעַ הֵיטֵב שֶׁיּוֹסֵף יִקְבֹּר אֶת אָבִיו בְּרֹב פְּאֵר וְהָדָר. אַךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר לוֹ: “עִם כָּל הַ’חֶסֶד’ שֶׁלְּךָ, אַל תַּעֲלִים עֵינֶיךָ מִן הַ’אֱמֶת.’ נוֹחַ לִי יוֹתֵר שֶׁלֹּא לְהִקָּבֵר כְּלָל מֵאֲשֶׁר לְהִקָּבֵר בְּמִצְרַיִם.” הַדָּגֵשׁ הוּא עַל בַּקָּשָׁתוֹ שֶׁלֹּא לְהִקָּבֵר בְּמִצְרַיִם. הָיָה מִתְקַבֵּל עַל הַדַּעַת שֶׁקִּיּוּם בַּקָּשָׁה מֵעֵין זוֹ אֵינוֹ כֹּה קָשֶׁה, עַד שֶׁתִּהְיֶה נִדְרֶשֶׁת שְׁבוּעָה גְּדוֹלָה שֶׁכָּזוֹ. אַךְ נִרְאֶה מִכָּל הַסִּפּוּר שֶׁפַּרְעֹה וְהַמִּצְרִיִּים לֹא הָיוּ רוֹאִים בְּעַיִן יָפֶה, אִלּוּ יַעֲקֹב וּמִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ הָיוּ יוֹצְאִים וְעוֹזְבִים אֶת מִצְרַיִם לָגוּר בְּאֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת. גַּם הַעֲבָרַת גּוּפוֹ שֶׁל יַעֲקֹב לִכְנַעַן לֹא תַּעֲשֶׂה רֹשֶׁם טוֹב; הִיא תִּרְאֶה בְּאֹפֶן בָּרוּר שֶׁבְּנֵי מִשְׁפַּחַת יוֹסֵף טֶרֶם רוֹאִים עַצְמָם כְּאֶזְרְחֵי הָאָרֶץ, וְשֶׁלִּבָּם עֲדַיִן קָשׁוּר לְאַרְצָם הַקּוֹדֶמֶת.

Ya’akov knew well that Yosef would bury his father with all due pomp and circumstance. But he said to him, “With all of your kindness, do not avert your eyes from the ‘truth.’ I would rather not be buried at all than be buried in Egypt.” The emphasis is on his request that he not be buried in Egypt. It would appear at first glance that this request would not be a difficult one to fulfill, or at least not to such an extent that it would necessitate a swear such as this one. But it appears from the whole story that Pharaoh and the Egyptians would not have taken kindly to Ya’akov and his family leaving and abandoning Egypt to live in another land.* Even transporting the body of Ya’akov to Cana’an would not have made a good impression; it would have showed that the family of Yosef still sees themselves not as residents of the land, and that their heart is still in their original land.

The juxtaposition of “Chesed” and “Emet” in the Ya’akov/Yosef story is designed to highlight the fact that a burial of pure Chesed, an elegant and tasteful state funeral, would not have been enough to meet Ya’akov’s needs. It was important to Ya’akov that, in all the fastidiousness of the funeral preparations, the Emet of where he be buried – as unsightly and distasteful as it would be in the eyes of the Egyptians – nevertheless not be neglected. Once again, as Hirsch delineated before, the goal of Emet is to keep Chesed in check.

When I went back to explore the Avraham/Yitzchak story in context, I expected to see the same phrasing we have come to expect, “Chesed V’Emet,” “kindness and truth,” in Avraham’s request to his servant that he find a suitable match for Yitzchak. I was surprised to find that the phrase was not there, or at least not initially:

ספר בראשית פרק כד פסוקים ב-ד
פסוק ב
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֗ם אֶל עַבְדּוֹ֙ זְקַ֣ן בֵּית֔וֹ הַמֹּשֵׁ֖ל בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר ל֑וֹ שִֽׂים נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֥חַת יְרֵכִֽי׃
פסוק ג – וְאַשְׁבִּ֣יעֲךָ֔ בַּֽיהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃
פסוק ד כִּ֧י אֶל אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק׃

(2) And Avraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who was in charge of all that he owned, “Put your hand under my thigh.
(3) And I will make you swear by Hashem, the God of Heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live.
(4) But to my land and to my birthplace you will go, and you will take a wife for my son, for Yitzchak.”

Although Avraham does ask his servant to swear to him, as Ya’akov would ask Yosef to swear in that later story (note the same language in 24:2 and 47:29), Avraham does not refer to his servant’s search as a “Chesed,” as an “Emet,” or as a combination of the two. This surprised me until I kept reading:

ספר בראשית פרק כד פסוקים יב-כז
פסוק יב – וַיֹּאמַ֓ר יְהוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם הַקְרֵה־נָ֥א לְפָנַ֖י הַיּ֑וֹם וַעֲשֵׂה חֶ֕סֶד עִ֖ם אֲדֹנִ֥י אַבְרָהָֽם׃
פסוק יג – הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י נִצָּ֖ב עַל־עֵ֣ין הַמָּ֑יִם וּבְנוֹת֙ אַנְשֵׁ֣י הָעִ֔יר יֹצְאֹ֖ת לִשְׁאֹ֥ב מָֽיִם׃
פסוק יד – וְהָיָ֣ה הַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֹמַ֤ר אֵלֶ֙יהָ֙ הַטִּי־נָ֤א כַדֵּךְ֙ וְאֶשְׁתֶּ֔ה וְאָמְרָ֣ה שְׁתֵ֔ה וְגַם־גְּמַלֶּ֖יךָ אַשְׁקֶ֑ה אֹתָ֤הּ הֹכַ֙חְתָּ֙ לְעַבְדְּךָ֣ לְיִצְחָ֔ק וּבָ֣הּ אֵדַ֔ע כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד עִם־אֲדֹנִֽי׃
פסוק טו – וַֽיְהִי־ה֗וּא טֶרֶם֮ כִּלָּ֣ה לְדַבֵּר֒ וְהִנֵּ֧ה רִבְקָ֣ה יֹצֵ֗את אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֻלְּדָה֙ לִבְתוּאֵ֣ל בֶּן־מִלְכָּ֔ה אֵ֥שֶׁת נָח֖וֹר אֲחִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם וְכַדָּ֖הּ עַל־שִׁכְמָֽהּ׃
פסוק טז – וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ טֹבַ֤ת מַרְאֶה֙ מְאֹ֔ד בְּתוּלָ֕ה וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א יְדָעָ֑הּ וַתֵּ֣רֶד הָעַ֔יְנָה וַתְּמַלֵּ֥א כַדָּ֖הּ וַתָּֽעַל׃
פסוק יז – וַיָּ֥רָץ הָעֶ֖בֶד לִקְרָאתָ֑הּ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הַגְמִיאִ֥ינִי נָ֛א מְעַט־מַ֖יִם מִכַּדֵּֽךְ׃
פסוק יח – וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שְׁתֵ֣ה אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתְּמַהֵ֗ר וַתֹּ֧רֶד כַּדָּ֛הּ עַל־יָדָ֖הּ וַתַּשְׁקֵֽהוּ׃
פסוק יט – וַתְּכַ֖ל לְהַשְׁקֹת֑וֹ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר גַּ֤ם לִגְמַלֶּ֙יךָ֙ אֶשְׁאָ֔ב עַ֥ד אִם־כִּלּ֖וּ לִשְׁתֹּֽת׃
פסוק כ – וַתְּמַהֵ֗ר וַתְּעַ֤ר כַּדָּהּ֙ אֶל־הַשֹּׁ֔קֶת וַתָּ֥רָץ ע֛וֹד אֶֽל־הַבְּאֵ֖ר לִשְׁאֹ֑ב וַתִּשְׁאַ֖ב לְכָל־גְּמַלָּֽיו׃
פסוק כא – וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מִשְׁתָּאֵ֖ה לָ֑הּ מַחֲרִ֕ישׁ לָדַ֗עַת הַֽהִצְלִ֧יחַ יְהוָ֛ה דַּרְכּ֖וֹ אִם־לֹֽא׃
פסוק כב – וַיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר כִּלּ֤וּ הַגְּמַלִּים֙ לִשְׁתּ֔וֹת וַיִּקַּ֤ח הָאִישׁ֙ נֶ֣זֶם זָהָ֔ב בֶּ֖קַע מִשְׁקָל֑וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֤י צְמִידִים֙ עַל־יָדֶ֔יהָ עֲשָׂרָ֥ה זָהָ֖ב מִשְׁקָלָֽם׃
פסוק כג – וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ בַּת־מִ֣י אַ֔תְּ הַגִּ֥ידִי נָ֖א לִ֑י הֲיֵ֧שׁ בֵּית־אָבִ֛יךְ מָק֥וֹם לָ֖נוּ לָלִֽין׃
פסוק כד – וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו בַּת־בְּתוּאֵ֖ל אָנֹ֑כִי בֶּן־מִלְכָּ֕ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלְדָ֖ה לְנָחֽוֹר׃
פסוק כה – וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו גַּם־תֶּ֥בֶן גַּם־מִסְפּ֖וֹא רַ֣ב עִמָּ֑נוּ גַּם־מָק֖וֹם לָלֽוּן׃
פסוק כו – וַיִּקֹּ֣ד הָאִ֔ישׁ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לַֽיהוָֽה׃
פסוק כז – וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בָּר֤וּךְ יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹֽא עָזַ֥ב חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ מֵעִ֣ם אֲדֹנִ֑י אָנֹכִ֗י בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ נָחַ֣נִי יְהוָ֔ה בֵּ֖ית אֲחֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי׃

Avraham’s servant – let’s call him Eliezer – stops in the middle of his journey to request from Hashem that He help him by providing a “Chesed,” a kindness, in helping him fulfill his mission. In fact, he asks for Hashem’s Chesed twice, in Pasuk 12 and Pasuk 14. However, in making this request, Eliezer does not ask Hashem to help him find precisely the young lady that Avraham had sworn him to find. Instead, he concocts a new test to determine whether the wife will be the right choice: whether she has the kindness to feed someone else’s camels. This was nowhere in Avraham’s instructions, perhaps because Avraham had full faith in Eliezer’s being able to fulfill his mission without this additional litmus test.

Eliezer, however, had his doubts. He did not see how it was possible to find the genealogically correct woman in a country so large and with no house address or directions! Although it would have been an acquiescence to Emet were Eliezer to find such a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer was ready to abandon Emet for the sake of Chesed; he was prepared to settle on a young lady with the most sterling of Middot, despite this not having been Avraham’s request. In Eliezer’s worldview, in order to preserve the spirit of Avraham’s request, he was willing to abandon the Emet, the letter of the law. He could not see that he would be abandoning Chesed as well by neglecting the Emet that had been designed to keep the Chesed in check. Like Ya’akov’s request that the Chesed of his funeral’s beauty not be sacrificed by neglect of the Emet that he be buried in the Land of Israel, Avraham’s request that Eliezer find a wife from his own family was meant to qualify the Chesed of finding a nice wife for Yitzchak. By neglecting this requirement, Eliezer risked losing everything.

It is thus not surprising, given Eliezer’s misshapen priorities from the outset of his mission, that he does not ask Rivka for her pedigree (Pasuk 23) until he has already seen that she met his criteria for being a wife whose selection signified a Chesed from Hashem (Pasuk 22), for Avraham’s requirement was beyond the limit of his imagination. We can imagine the amazement in Eliezer’s voice in Pasuk 27 when he realizes that it was not the Sophie’s choice he had imagined it to be. Hashem has provided him not a pure Chesed, which would have necessitated his abandoning Avraham’s guideline in order to find a wonderful match, but a Chesed V’Emet, because the very young lady who met Eliezer’s requirement that she be nice also met Avraham’s requirement that she be from his family! Any less, Eliezer now understood, would have meant effectively admitting to the failure of the whole operation. What Avraham did not tell his servant from the outset – what he wanted him to learn on his own – was that Chesed devoid of Emet ceases to be Chesed any longer. Eliezer emerged from the experience blessing Hashem that He had allowed him to fulfill the Chesed inherent in finding a nice wife for Yitzchak without compromising the Emet of her pedigree, for to have abandoned Emet would have meant abandoning Chesed at the same time.

We live in a world of compromise in which we can apply this lesson in so many ways. Emet stands to keep an eye on our Chesed, to ensure that it remain the Chesed that we wish it to be. A parent who gives their child everything they could possibly want and more may feel that they are acting with an abundance of Chesed, but time will show that their inability or unwillingness to instill a sense of discipline, Emet, has caused their Chesed to be lost as their children grow up spoiled and lacking in mores and values. The Rambam makes clear in his hierarchy of Tzedakah that the highest value is not to give a person the shirt off of one’s own back, but to help him become self-sufficient, even if that means pulling back on the Chesed and exercising some Emet along the way. To do otherwise is to neglect to give any Chesed at all, because ultimately the poor person will be left with nothing.

We end where we began. How can Hashem be both a Rav Chesed and act with Emet? Because without Emet, Hashem’s Chesed would be dust in the wind. The discipline of Mitzvot and the Halachic system that sometimes seem to hold us back from living a maximally enjoyable life are in fact that which allow us to make our life most enjoyable because they keep that enjoyment in its proper proportion. When Shuls closed due to the Coronavirus, some felt that the Chesed of Davening in the nicest way – with a Minyan – should supersede our admitting and coming to grips with the fact that that was not what Hashem wanted of us at that moment; it would not have been Emet, and thus would not have been Chesed either. Like a parent who periodically needs to step in and remind their child who makes the rules, we at times need Hashem to step in and remind us that it is He who decides when and how His rules should be followed. And like a child may only come to appreciate his parents later on in life as he appreciates the value of his having been raised with a sense of discipline, we look to Hashem all the more lovingly as our more mature understanding reveals to us that His Emet has provided us true Chesed all along.

* I have explored this theme in the past: Link

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Aruch Hashulchan Yomi (Reprise)

Some time ago (link) I proposed a new system for the daily learning of Aruch Hashulchan which would be based on a set number of paragraphs, which are mostly uniform in size, to replace the existing system based on a set number of chapters. Now the AishDas Society has unveiled a new initiative along these lines which began over Shavuot, with around eight “Halachot” (paragraphs), around 1,100 words, per day. I began this learning myself over Shavuot, and I wholeheartedly endorse it for others. Click here for the calendar, or visit the AishDas website (link) for more information or a version of the calendar with a built-in review system. Pro tip: I’ve bookmarked the calendar on my Chrome browser so I see the icon regularly and can access the calendar easily.

As I have said before, there is nothing quite like Aruch Hashulchan for learning Halacha and so much more. Like the true pedagogue that he was, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein guides the reader through each topic from its earliest sources until his day (early 20th Century), developing the topic holistically so that it is more understandable and better able to be retained. The chapters follow the order of the Shulchan Aruch (and hence the order of the Mishna Berurah), but by following his own leisurely pace though each chapter the author has virtually guaranteed the reader to come out with a well-rounded understanding. This is not a running commentary on Shulchan Aruch, but a free-standing companion with background, reasoning, and updates beyond the days of the Shulchan Aruch (c. 1500).

Unfortunately there is no translation yet of the Aruch Hashulchan; this would be a wonderful project for any of the publishing companies to undertake. The Hebrew is not too difficult though. If you join the new AHS Yomi Facebook Group, I’m sure one of us would be happy to fill in the gaps and help you along!

As we say every Shabbat morning, כל השונה הלכות בכל יום, מובטח לו שהוא בן עולם הבא – Anyone who learns Halachot every day is guaranteed [to be on a path to achieving] life in the World to Come. Having a system and the virtual company of others around the world is a great way to do it, and the Aruch Hashulchan is the perfect source text.

As I tell my students every day … Enjoy your Learning!

Posted in Communal Matters, Halacha | Leave a comment

What I Learned in My First 2000 Days of Teaching

In honor of my 1000th day of teaching, shortly before the end of my 6th year of teaching, I made the daily announcements for my school over the intercom (a lifelong dream) and brought in treats for my students. I never envisioned that my 2000th day, which is sometime around now, would be spent at home teaching over Zoom. I am somewhat more limited in my options for celebrating the occasion with my students, but I have decided to use the opportunity to reflect on the most important things I have learned over my twelve years in the classroom, and to share those reflections with others. In that vein, I invite you to enjoy the hard-earned fruits of my labor.

I dedicate this post to the leadership team that guided me in my first years of teaching – my first Head of School, Lower and High School principals, the school Administrator, the Secretary, and my mentor; and to my initial group of students who were unnaturally patient as I learned the ropes. Truly, לֶכְתֵּך אַחַרַי בַּמִדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.

Here, then, are the top five lessons I have learned in my first 2,000 days of teaching.

1) Don’t project the end of the story. “Begin with the end in mind” is a common mantra in education today, but it applies curricularly, not personally. When it comes to the children themselves, we don’t know the end of the story. Children at every age, including the middle school set with which I have spent most of my career, are in a constant state of flux, trying out new personalities regularly. It can be the strength of a deliberate teacher to help them discover who they want to be and encourage them at every stage of this growth. Likewise, it is a liability of the lazy teacher to inhibit their students’ growth by viewing them only through the lens of their family upbringing or what interested (or disinterested) them yesterday. I have learned to resist the urge to categorize students religiously, academically, or psychologically into neat subsets. I remember a parent-teacher conference in which a student’s parents expressed their frustration that their child was not interested in his religious studies or in his Judaism more generally. I told them that I was surprised to hear this because he often followed me out of the room after class, asking follow-up questions about what we had learned or about Judaism in general. They were pleasantly surprised to hear that, because they had only seen him in one context. He did not feel comfortable with his Judaism in the context of his home or in his Shul, but that didn’t change the fact that within a certain boundary he felt comfortable with it. We are all that way to some extent or another – I have seen mourners who would never miss Minyan, unless it means stepping foot in a Shul which does not look exactly like their own – but we view our own students or children more rigidly, as finished products. I was once speaking to my Head of School about the idiosyncrasies of some of the students, and I had to laugh and point out that the conversation sounded as if they are finished products and can never change. They can change, and they do change, often more rapidly than we do (which may be why we fail to remember it when thinking about them).

2) Teaching is planting, not only building. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, in his slim but pivotal tract “זריעה ובנין בחינוך,” lays out a foundation for education based on the two ways in which Hashem made the world: planting and building. Rav Wolbe takes as a paradigm for this the opening words of Mesillat Yesharim: “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה,” “The foundation of piety and the root of service.” Piety (חסידות) requires a foundation (יסוד) – something concrete (literally and figuratively) that is added by others so that the building can be built over time. Service of Hashem (עבודה) requires establishing roots (שורש), a process whereby the planted seed can continue to grow on its own even without outside interference. Both of these are necessary in education, but we tend to emphasize the first and neglect the second. This was a lesson I could only learn over time. I have now seen many former students who are quite religiously committed, notwithstanding that by all outward appearances they had not seemed to be inculcating the messages which I was endeavoring to impart when they were in my classroom. I once remarked to one of them, by then in high school, that I was inspired by his beautiful Davening. He remarked that he had been inspired by a series of daily speeches I had given about Davening when he was in middle school. I laughed to myself: On any day that he hadn’t slept through those speeches, sitting in the back of the room, he had been snickering with his friends! I had made the mistake of viewing him at that early stage through the lens of בנין, building, believing that it was my job to construct the building, and that I was failing in that regard. Yet as is so often the case with any act of זריעה, planting, the roots were there, making their impact, growing organically even before the evidence was there to prove it, and they would be there to bear fruit as he grew older. It is often said that post-high school American Yeshivot and seminaries save their students who were failed by their high schools. This is incorrect. If not for the ideas that were planted in the earlier stages of their education, the progress made in that year abroad could never come about. In reality, it is then that the seeds planted earlier take root and begin to grow. Many teachers feel discouraged – some even leave the profession – because the lack of immediately tangible results leads them to believe they have made little progress with their students. I spoke to one such teacher several months ago, who left after one year because he “could not make the students want to learn.” How sad! By the time each of these teachers leaves the field, they have already made a far bigger impact than they believed through the seeds which they had planted, and that impact could have grown over time if they had stuck around and planted even more seeds.

3) Embrace your role as a facilitator. At the end of my first year of teaching, I received a handwritten card from a 6th grade student. I always treasure these notes, and I still have this one, even though (or perhaps because) it was not the message I would have most wanted to hear. It said, “Dear Rabbi Zalesch, Thank you so much for teaching me this year. I know a lot more than I did a year ago, and I know it because you taught it to me.” Although the student of course meant no harm, the card gave me pause for how perfect an encapsulation it was of what I try not to do in the classroom. The role of a teacher is to be a facilitator, guiding them to find answers on their own. I have always viewed it as a form of stealing to jump in any amount too early and take away the opportunity that a student would otherwise have to figure something out on their own. I take it as a welcome and ongoing challenge to determine how to provide just the right amount of scaffolding to allow him or her to reach the finish line on their own – not so much help that they have been inhibited from achieving a certain degree of independent thought, and not so little that they still cannot get there despite my assistance. This requires not only a great deal of patience but also all types of knowledge working in tandem during every interaction – what each learner is capable of, the degree of difficulty of the assignment, how much resilience the learner seems to have that day, just to name a few. Of course you will often get push-back on this from the students, but as I tell them when they seem to want too much help or information, “It’s your education, not mine. I already passed this class.” I once overheard two of my colleagues talking, one of them frustrated that his students had done poorly on a test. “I don’t understand why they did poorly,” he said. “I literally spoon-fed them all of the answers the day before the test!” I resisted the urge to inject myself into their conversation, but I would have said that he had answered his own question. Spoon-feeding is not only poor pedagogic form, as it is largely ineffective in imprinting the information on the brain, but it stifles the student’s longer-term chance to view himself as an independently capable learner. It is not our job to be a repository of wisdom or information, but to be a craftsman, slowly chiseling a unique product that can already, to a greater degree than the day before, carry on learning independently. That should be the goal of every learning-based interaction that we have with our students. I once arrived at a back-to-school picnic, and the volunteer at the welcoming table asked what I wanted my sticker to say. I asked for “Facilitator of inquiry and discovery by independent learners.” We settled on “teacher.” (I don’t know why she had asked.) We may not be able to convince the world, but each teacher should endeavor to view herself or himself as a facilitator of learning that is primarily at the control of the learners under our charge.

4) Leave room in the lesson plan for the learner. A friend of mine once visited my community to audition for a Rabbinic position. While he was in town, he also gave a class to my middle school students. I asked him later that evening how he thought it had gone. He expressed to me that he found classroom teaching difficult. “How do you handle it,” he asked me, “when a student derails you from your expected path through the material by giving his own, original take? How do you end up staying on course and supplying your perspective when the students want to offer their own?” The question took me by surprise because, to my mind, if a student is engaged and able-minded enough to develop their own original perspective, so much the better; indeed that is the ultimate goal. A lesson should not be planned so rigidly that the learner’s own way of thinking about the material cannot factor into the final result. It is said that Rav Soloveitchik would change the conclusion of his Shiur on a dime if a student had successfully challenged his way of thinking about the topic; there is a story that he once appeared in the cafeteria during lunch to track down a student and tell him that he had been correct in his conclusion which was originally rejected by Rav Soloveitchik during class. We should have no less humility than this giant of Torah learning. Moreover, this is as true on an intellectual level as it is on a pedagogic one. I had a colleague who struggled in the classroom and left teaching after only one year. I tried pointing out to him that the classes he was designing and giving to middle school students were really adult education classes. We talked about Shoresh lists, allowing them time to translate independently, and working collaboratively, but he could not conceive of his students being engaged by a different style of presentation than he or his adult friends would want to attend on a Shabbat afternoon. He was espousing the intellectual equivalent of, if I can’t conceive of eating dog food, why would I feed it to my dog? Certainly our job is to raise the level of thinking of even our youngest students, and we may at times reach the level of adult learners even in younger grades, but this is a destination, not a vehicle. The means of presentation should best reflect the developing brain of our students at its current stage, rightly resulting in a very different set of expectations and methods than that in which we would appreciate being involved ourselves. I was surprised in my early years to find that my students were not bored by translating Pesukim independently. Far from it. They looked at their swelling notebooks with pride and reveled in the accomplishment of the rapidly increasing speed of their work. I have learned to incorporate games and projects which are only too welcomed by the students. There is a deception that because middle school students can (and must!) engage in higher-order thinking and in some cases can engage in a conversation with adults on the level of a peer, all of their interests and intellectual capacity have fully matured and they want little to do with rudimentary exercises or basic skills. This is not so. As I tried to explain to that colleague, give them the class that they need to attend, not the one you would want to attend. I have attended several conferences featuring Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, a well-regarded leader in the educational field, and she always leaves an empty chair next to her on the stage. She explains that this chair represents the average learner whom we must bear in mind as we go about our work discussing educational theory. I have taken to having such a chair next to me as well when I plan lessons in my house at night. We should make educational decisions bearing in mind who our learners are and what they need, as opposed to what makes us stimulated to plan.

5) Never stop learning. We began this post discussing the malleability of the early adolescent brain; we will end it by considering that of the teacher’s. I was once speaking to a colleague, a fabulous and well-respected young 3rd grade General Studies teacher who was leaving the field at the end of the year. I remarked to her that I was surprised she was leaving, and she responded that she had grown tired of the job. She marveled at how I stay fresh every year and still seem to be excited by my job when it is essentially the same every year. “True,” she continued, “the kids come and go, but the material never changes.” As I have thought about that conversation since then, what has occurred to me is that whether the job is the same every year is truly a matter of perspective. I was privileged to start my teaching career under the leadership of a principal who by then was far from a spring chicken but who nevertheless always approached her job – and encouraged us to approach ours – with a constant sense of newness. She would burst into in-service meetings every August breathlessly excited to tell us about the revolutionary new methodology that is going to change education forever and which we are going to adapt immediately in our school. One year it was Rubrics, the next year Understanding by Design, then it was Thinking Maps, then Standards-Based Reporting, then Blended Learning. We would all spend the next week learning about this new method and commit to adapting it in our classrooms, and we would return to it at Professional Development sessions throughout the year. We smiled cynically at her indefatigable exuberance – wasn’t last year’s innovation the one that was going to change everything forever? – but as my own years in the field pile up, I am ever more impressed by her ability to constantly stay fresh by trying new things rather than resting on her laurels, or letting us rest on ours. Long after she had reached the point in her career when she could have accepted a set of beliefs and gone on cruise control for the remainder of her career, she still spent her summers reading, attending conferences, and inculcating the latest best practices, and the rest of her year passing them along to us. As veteran teachers, we have the choice to retain our own youthful energy by keeping an eye on the latest literature and incorporating any number of new ideas and methods into our work. This year I took a training course on using Sefaria in the classroom; last year I learned how to record and utilize videos in lessons (and as preparation for lessons by the students). As it happens, these two skills have been critical to the work I have done since we left the school building due to the Coronavirus, but they were not purely utilitarian when I learned them. They were enhancements which kept me engaged in my work, which in turns feeds to the students who are happier as a result. A teacher is a CEO of a very small company, with freedom to design and execute the overall game-plan designed by the office staff in whatever way he or she would like. Teachers who harness that creativity, admit and account for their vulnerabilities, and tap into their inner hunger to learn and experiment with new ideas are infinitely enriched for their labors and are less likely to become disenfranchised with their work. To steal from a different context, חדש ימינו כקדם; may our days of teaching always be renewed to allow them to mirror the original ones. May my work and that of all of my colleagues in this blessed and noble field continue in health and contentedness, and may we be privileged to carry on our work with such a spirit of vigor and freshness well into the future.

Posted in Classroom Experiences, Jewish Education (meta) | Leave a comment

Coronavirus and Maintaining Belief in Challenging Times

Many in my large Jewish community have lamented the closure of our Shuls and schools in the face of the devastating Coronavirus cutting a deadly path across our nation. I am among them. Yet I tend to react to difficult situations with what I am sometimes told is ill-advised humor. I first said, in jest, that COVID-19 was a hint that we as a people are showing a lack of respect – “covid” in a certain imprecise Hebrew dialect – for Yom Tov, holidays, as hinted at in the number 19 (יט = יום טוב). A colleague of mine suggested in response that 19 is a hint to the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, and that we are showing a lack of respect in our prayers. (I think she was kidding. I hope so anyway.)

In any event, as I have written here before, I am a habitual Shul-goer, and I try to go every day of the week, twice or three times a day as needed. So the news that I would be Davening from home for a while hit me hard, as it did so many others. The first morning alone in my living room, thinking of all of the Tefillot that we cannot say at home, I said to myself, “Well, at least we can say Keil Melech Ne’eman before Shema.” It started as another of those misplaced jokes – how could a single three-word phrase stand in for Kaddish, Kedusha, and Borchu? Until I realized, the more I thought about it, that it wasn’t a joke at all, and that perhaps it can.

The interpolation of the phrase Keil Melech Ne’eman before Shema when praying without a Minyan is not one to sneeze at, and it may be more critical an addition at this time than any of the Tefillot that we are omitting by Davening at home. Consider the stark language of the Anaf Yosef, a commentary on the Siddur, explaining this phrase in this context before Shema:

אל מלך נאמן – אל – פירוש, תקיף, בעל היכולת והחסדים. מלך – פירוש, משגיח בעמו כמלך בצבאיו. נאמן – פירוש, ליפרע, ונאמן לשלם שכר טוב למתהלכים לפניו. אם כן, נכללו כאן ג’ עיקרים: מציאות השם ויכלתו – אל. והשגחה – מלך. ושכר ועונש – נאמן.

G-d, trustworthy King – Keil (G-d) – Meaning [that He is the] Ruler, the One who has the most ability and the most kindness. Melech (King) – Meaning [that] he watches over His nation like a king watches over his soldiers. Ne’eman (Trustworthy) – Meaning [that He can be trusted] to pay back, and that He can be trusted to pay good reward for those who follow in His ways. If so, this phrase includes three major principles: The existence of G-d and His abilities – Keil (G-d). And that He watches over us – Melech (King). And reward and punishment – Ne’eman (Trustworthy).

Taken this way, it is hard to think of a more evocative three-word phrase, or one more apt for us to say and internalize at this critical juncture. Perhaps at this time, Hashem didn’t view it as a challenge that we say Kedusha, Kaddish, or Borchu with a Minyan. Those are relatively easy. But what a challenge it is for any person of faith to look at the situation unfolding around him and to be able to say these words properly. Can such a person truly say that Hashem is the most kind, when so many families will be without their loved ones as a result of this virus? Can we look around as an invisible enemy perpetrated by Hashem Himself haunts millions and say that He is truly watching over us as a king protects his legions of soldiers? Can we still believe that Hashem pays back those who love Him at the very moment that He has seemingly cut off Tefillah B’tzibbur, public prayer, the most trusted avenue for our communication with Him? What message are we to glean from all of this, if not that He is unkind, uninterested, and unaffectionate? And yet we are presented at this very moment with this unique challenge: set aside your Kedusha, your Kaddish and your Borchu to sit in your home and say – and believe, if you can – that Hashem is kind, interested, and affectionate. That is the challenge of our time.

The origin of adding Keil Melech Ne’eman before the Shema without a minyan is unclear; the Bach in his commentary on the Tur cites the Rokeach and implies that it is an ancient custom equating to an “Amen” response (אל מלך נקמן) to the Beracha before it, thus only necessary when one is without a Chazzan to whom one can answer Amen properly. The Beit Yosef opines that the phrase was originally added universally (with or without a minyan) to bump up the number of words in Shema from 245 to the magical 248, the number of positive Mitzvot and limbs in the body, but was eventually replaced by the Chazzan (except when there isn’t one) repeating “Hashem Elokeichem Emet” at the end of Shema. Rav Soloveitchik is reported to have been opposed to the addition of this phrase (see the Rosh Hashana Machzor with Rav Soloveitchik’s commentary, Hanhagos HaRav, #24, p. xlix). This was surely the result of a Halachic mind concerned with avoiding a hefsek, interruption, between the Beracha before Shema and Shema itself. It is also, perhaps, the product of a 20th-century American mindset in which one would almost never legitimately be cut off from public prayer anyway, besides the occasional plane trip on Lufthansa. Yet what likely made the Anaf Yosef so forceful and evocative in his stirring comment on this phrase is that, as he knew all too well living in 19th-century Poland, the majority of situations in which the faithful Jew would be called upon to pray alone would be ones which would call upon him to dig deep into the reservoir of his faith and challenge him to set aside nagging doubts, instead calling out from his hideaway, attic, or bunker that Hashem is kind, involved, and loving despite all available evidence to the contrary. If there are no avowed atheists in foxholes, there are many silent ones in hidden annexes, as the history of Russian Jewry can well attest.

In our blessed lives, we are rarely called upon to find this same measure of faith within us. We are taught not to judge Holocaust survivors who lost their faith, with the implication being that any one of us may have emerged from that hell the same as they. We pray comfortably in our safe Shuls, rarely needing to truly take the temperature of our faith as so many before us needed to gauge theirs. This moment is an opportunity to do just that. Let us say this phrase with particular concentration – not in spite of its philosophical difficulty, but because of it. And as the world struggles to overcome a bacterial virus, let us struggle to overcome our own spiritual adversaries from the confines of our home, from where we will soon emerge en masse and return to our Shuls, stronger than ever.

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Jewish Unity and Parshat Shemot

As the young nation unified by its harmony at the end of Sefer Bereishit turns to one enslaved in Sefer Shemot, we are informed that it is in the same spirit of unity that the Jews descend to Egypt:

וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ׃

These are the names of B’nei Yisrael, as they are coming to Egypt, of Ya’akov, each man came with his household.

Yet a curious thing happens in the ensuing few Pesukim. The names of the sons (eleven out of twelve, sans Yosef) are divided into three separate verses, comprising four, three, and four names respectively. Of further note is the fact that the names are not given in chronological order, as we might have expected.

רְאוּבֵן שִׁמְעוֹן לֵוִי וִיהוּדָה׃

יִשָּׂשכָר זְבוּלֻן וּבְנְיָמִן׃

דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי גָּד וְאָשֵׁר׃

The first verse, ending with a vav to indicate that it comprises a complete group, is the original sons of Leah. The second, likewise ending with a vav, is the later sons of Leah and the one son of Rachel besides Yosef. Finally, taking up the rear, we have the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, each containing a conjunctive vav to show that each of those two groups is distinct from the other as much as it is isolated from the earlier groups.

Why are these names divided into three Pesukim instead of one, and ordered not by chronology but by their mothers, as if this is still an important distinction when their mothers are so long out of the picture?

Remember that the Parsha began by referring to the Jews as B’nei Yisrael, a unifying name which is undercut by the presentation in the Pesukim which follow, where we meet the Jews not as equal sons of Ya’akov but as children of four different mothers – first Leah, then Rachel, then the maidservants. In fact, in between we are told that the Jews came as “אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ,” implying again that the way in which the Jews entered their seminal slavery experience was not one of unity but one in which each family was essentially isolated from the others and viewed itself as a nation unto itself. But in Pasuk 7, we are again told that it was “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל” who flourished in Egypt and who Pharaoh came to see as a threat to his nation’s existence.

From the perspective of God in Pasuk 1, we are “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.” From the perspective of Pharaoh in Pasuk 7, we are likewise “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.” Yet internally, we choose to follow a perilous path by viewing ourselves not as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, but as members of smaller factions, each of which is powerless to overcome the negative spiritual influences of Egypt or the creeping reality of slavery. The Jews making their way down to Egypt saw themselves not as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, but as members of a household and as members of tribes ranked higher or lower due to an accident of birth. Lacking the unity required of us and imagined of us by others, we are powerless to overcome the pitfalls placed in our way by the other nations who seek to torment us. The theme is clear, and it has been clear throughout history: Even when we subdivide ourselves into factions – by birth mother in the past, by denomination today – to God above, and to the world around us, we are one nation.

It has been said that there were no Orthodox Jews in the concentration camps, no Conservative Jews, no Reform Jews – only Jews. It has often taken distress and persecution to remind us of this message: If we cannot remember our unity, we will be reminded of it by the rest of the world. The Jews making their way down to Egypt, looking self-consciously over their shoulders to ensure that they were not too close to “those people,” were not in a position to overcome what was about to befall them. We would do well to learn this lesson ourselves as these two destabilizing and parallel forces, factionalism from within and anti-Semitism from without, rear their ugly heads yet again in our society. May we find the strength within us to overcome both before it is too late.

Posted in Parshat Hashavua | Leave a comment

Some Suggestions for Daf Yomi Cycle #14

With the end of Daf Yomi cycle #13 upon us this January and cycle #14 beginning immediately thereafter, we will soon find ourselves awash with celebratory tributes and articles extolling the extraordinary growth of the program and Talmud Torah itself by proxy. We will surely hear again how an idea floated in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro has transformed the Jewish world, as the Daf Yomi itself has mushroomed over the past few cycles alone from a fledgling start-up to one in which hundreds of thousands participate every day. The purpose of this article is not to cast aspersions on any of these claims or to bolster them either. I would like to call attention not to whether people should participate in Daf Yomi but to how they should do so. And in this, I must admit that I am a victim of my training and my craft; you can take the middle school teacher out of the classroom, but you cannot take the classroom out of the middle school teacher.

I have observed and participated in several Daf Yomi shiurim over the years, in many different locations, but I use the word “participated” loosely. If I taught my middle school classes the way that most Daf Yomi shiurim are taught, I would be fired, and for good reason. Daf Yomi shiurim, by and large, are models of the poorest of pedagogy. They generally consist of one person reading the Daf to everyone else in attendance and accepting their questions if they have any. No one else reads. The teacher does not check for understanding, summarize the Daf orally or with a handout, or emphasize the most salient or important points along the way or at the end. There is no means of accountability on the part of the students, who mostly could not pass a quiz on the day’s Daf – to say nothing of yesterday’s – if they were given one. People can attend a Daf Yomi shiur for many years and, for all we know, not be able to translate the most basic Gemara terminology on their own. Is such a person a successful product of the Daf Yomi movement? I will leave it to others to determine if watching someone else learn counts as Talmud Torah, but it is far from clear what the majority of Daf Yomi attendees are accomplishing, despite their obviously good intentions and those of their teachers.

The good news is that we can do better. Just as ArtScroll is credited with enhancing Daf Yomi when they published their set serially two cycles ago, we can make cycle #14 one in which we begin to rethink what is going on pedagogically in Daf Yomi shiurim and begin to improve the learning experience for those in attendance. As we say in my field, it is time to “turn students into learners.” Here are some specific suggestions:

(1) Give ten minutes at the beginning for chevruta time on the beginning of what will be learned that day, or ten minutes at the end for chevruta time to review some of what was learned, or ten minutes at the beginning to review the end of yesterday’s Daf. Hearing oneself read enhances engagement and forces the learner to grapple honestly with whether he can credibly translate key terms and phrases that will invariably come up even in the first several lines of the Gemara. If he is slightly confused by what he reads, that frustration becomes the grist for what he is looking to sharpen as the public part of the shiur proceeds. The teacher (or perhaps we can begin to use the more in-vogue term “facilitator”) can supply a short glossary of key terms to keep the learners on track during this short chevruta exercise.

(2) Strategically, particularly after a short or easy sugya, have a member of the group re-read what was just learned to the group. Alternatively, if the next few lines are not as challenging, have an attendee (perhaps one with a bit more learning experience) read them for the group instead of the teacher reading them, or break up into chevrutot again for a few minutes before coming back together and reading the sugya to the group, or have a member of the group read after the chavruta time is finished. Pedagogically, these are suggestions which shift the balance of power from the teacher to the learners, and which change the mission of the shiur from supplying free information to crafting better and more independent learners. They are also examples of what we call “mixed modalities.” Mixing modalities – ten minutes of chevruta, fifteen minutes of frontal presentation, a one-minute discussion with someone near you about the Gemara’s question, back to frontal, back to chevruta, and so on – keeps the learner on his toes and stimulated, much like a basketball team keeps its opponents alert by running different plays. Finally, hearing different voices besides the teacher’s own helps maintain engagement.

(3) In the classroom, I do not wait for learners to ask me questions. I give what we in the biz call formative assessments in the form of occasional questions to check for understanding as I proceed. This prevents learners from losing their focus, as they may be called on at any time to answer a question. It also gives the teacher clarity on whether it is safe to continue because he knows if the learners are on track. If questions are generated entirely by the attendees, there is little to ensure that that learner understands at any other time than when he is asking the question, and the majority of the learners who do not ask questions have given us no reason to believe they understand the material. The classic call-and-response of “Got it?” “Mmm-hmm” is another example of extremely poor pedagogy. No one is going to admit at that moment that they do not understand what was just taught. Replace “Got it?” with specific questions that can only be answered if the learner truly understands what was just learned. Even if you do not feel comfortable putting adult learners on the spot by addressing questions to them personally, you can at least throw such questions into the air and see who, if anyone, can answer them. If the answer is no one, you must reteach.

(4) Optional daily, weekly, or by-Perek quizzes would help learners to maintain their focus in class so that they perform well on the next quiz, giving them something to shoot for and some accountability. Even if you cannot require such summative assessments, you can offer them and encourage learners to take them as a means for them to check for their own understanding. A short three or five question quiz on the way out the door, what we in the biz call an “exit card,” can similarly give the learner and you feedback on whether they understood what was taught that day, and may perhaps serve to guide a learner through an independent review of the Daf later that day.

(5) Handouts can add a dimension to your Daf Yomi shiur. If a handout is to be learner-focused, it would include some of the key terms that you would like to draw attention to in that day’s Daf (think תא שמע, הכא במאי עסקינן), an outline to bring the often disparate organization into sharper relief, and perhaps a chart if one is necessary at some point in the Daf. A good handout can keep the learners focused while providing the means for them to grow as independent learners both during and after the shiur. If a particular Daf contains, say, four or five sugyot, the handout can correspond to that, allowing learners who may drift off occasionally to regroup when a new sugya begins while bringing the Daf’s organizational structure into focus. If the Daf contains something which can be the basis for further enrichment, such as a practical Halacha, the handout can contain the actual source reference or a guide to how the enterprising learner can find it themselves later in the day. Keep in mind that a very large segment of the Daf Yomi world are retired people who may not mind a little homework to keep them occupied during the rest of the day. For them, the Daf Yomi shiur can serve in part as an introduction to further learning, rather than as the entire learning experience in toto.

And now, an exit card for my readers: Have you seen any of these or other methods implemented in a Daf Yomi shiur somewhere? Did you find it helpful, or was it gratuitous and unnecessary? Tell us about it in the comments, and together we can upgrade the learning experience and help Daf Yomi facilitators shift the balance of power by turning their students into learners.

Posted in Classroom Experiences, Communal Matters, Jewish Education (meta), Talmud / Daf Yomi | Leave a comment