Priorities in Mikvah Building

I was privileged to give an adult ed class over Shavuot on the topic of the relative prioritization of building a mikvah as compared with building a shul or school. The shiur also dealt with the relative importance of a men’s mikvah, both objectively and as compared with a women’s mikvah. Click here for the sources. In the write-up below, the numbers and letters correspond to the sources in the shiur at the link above.

For some context, the shiur was given as my community continues its ongoing fundraising and planning for a new mikvah after the last one was condemned due to poor construction, and as we deal with our desperate need to build a shul building so we can finally escape the multipurpose room my 200-family shul currently occupies in an affiliated school that is itself desperately short on space. Hence the not-so-theoretical nature of the questions raised in the shiur. But as I said during the shiur, I am not a posek and the shiur was meant as a source for general reflection or enlightenment rather than as a means of deciding on practical local community matters.

A. Mikvah vs. Shul

In a 1960 Teshuva addressed to a scholar who, from my research, did not preside over a shul or community of any kind, Rav Moshe deals with the question of whether to first build a mikvah or a shul, employing two related Halachot in Shulchan Aruch (Sources 3 and 5). One Halacha (Source 5), related to the Gemara in Megillah (Source 2), states that one may sell his personal Sefer Torah to finance his own wedding. Another Halacha (Source 3), related to a Teshuva of the Rash, further states that one may sell an entire shul building (or a Sefer Torah) in order to finance the wedding of an orphan. Using these earlier Halachot, Rav Moshe extrapolates (Source 6C) that if the matrimonial possibility of even one person (oneself or an orphan) could supersede the possession of a Torah or shul, then certainly the marital harmony of an entire town would supersede owning such holy objects. Thus, Rav Moshe concludes, the building of a mikvah should supersede the building of a shul. This despite the fact that the earlier Halachot concerned selling a shul, while our question concerns whether to build a shul at all; and that the earlier Halachot concerned creating a marriage which otherwise would not exist, while Rav Moshe’s concerns the temporary betterment of existing marriages.

Rav Moshe proceeds (Source 6D) to further extend this ruling to a situation in which a mikvah exists, but is an unspecified distance away from the populace of the town. Even here, Rav Moshe asserts that the construction of the mikvah would supersede the building of the shul because many women will not be willing to travel a great distance to the mikvah, and even those who would normally be willing to travel will be unable to do so on Shabbat and Yom Tov, thus leading to the prevention of their being able to have children or be properly married (the mitzvah of שֶׁבֶת, derived from Source 1). Here, Rav Moshe is beginning to assert his own opinion more forcefully, because the original Halachot upon which his ruling is based concern situations in which the orphan or yourself will have no other means to finance the wedding besides this sale – see the final words of Source 5, אם אין לו דבר אחר למכור, if he has nothing else he can sell. Extending that to our case, in which some women may choose not to drive a distance, or the inconvenienced couple can access the far-away mikvah a night or two later after Yom Tov, is not an altogether obvious application of the earlier Halachot. Rav Moshe continues (Source 6F-G) by explaining that while it is possible to extend the Halacha of selling a Torah to that of selling a shul in order to finance the construction of a mikvah, it is preferable to avoid doing so unless it is absolutely necessary, but he does leave open the possibility that one could sell an existing shul to finance the building of a mikvah.

Turning to a different topic, Rav Moshe concludes the Teshuva by discussing whether it is permissible to build a mikvah in a shul building. While he does not advocate (Source 6H) doing so a priori, he does permit doing so as an extension of the Torah’s allowing the erasing of Hashem’s name in the Sotah waters and the Gemara’s allowing for the embarrassment of Torah scholars in order to bring peace between husband and wife. (See אגרות משה אורח חיים חלק א סימן נא for two more reasons to permit building a mikvah inside an עזרת נשים. It is interesting that the original Teshuva, written while Rav Moshe was still in Luban, Russia in 1939, discusses building a mikvah in an עזרת נשים; the later Teshuva, written in New York in 1960, refers to the earlier Teshuva as having concerned a mikvah in a “חדר בית הכנסת שנעשה להתפלל שם.”)

B. Mikvah vs. School

In a 1969 Teshuva (Source 7) addressed to the leadership of the new Jewish community of (East) Brunswick, Rav Moshe discusses which to build first – a school or a mikvah – emphatically coming out on the side of the school, in large part due to the existing mikvah in the town of Elizabeth, which the map in the sources shows is at least a half-hour drive from East Brunswick. In contrast to the earlier Teshuva, in which Rav Moshe worried (Source 6D) about the women who would be unable to travel to the mikvah on Shabbat or Yom Tov, Rav Moshe dismisses this concern out of hand (Source 7D) in this later Teshuva. As to the women who would be unwilling altogether to travel, these are not even mentioned in the later Teshuva. Rav Moshe does provide (Source 7E) that due to the small outside possibility (“לפעמים רחוקים”) that delaying a trip to the mikvah could impact on the couple’s ability to have children, priority should be given to the building of a mikvah over merely alleviating the financial burden on an existing school’s donors.

As the Teshuva proceeds (Source 6F-G), Rav Moshe allows that the mikvah could supersede the school if there is deemed to be greater suspicion that the lack of a mikvah will curtail women from traveling to a mikvah than that, without a school, the children will fail to be Jewishly educated in some other institution. However, if the suspicions are of equal viability, or if the educational suspicion is greater, the school should be built first, “שהוא במדינה זו הצלה מכפירה ומכל איסורין שבתורה.” Ultimately, Rav Moshe concludes (Source 6G), it is the job of the community’s leadership to determine and weigh such suspicions and plan accordingly. Hidden in the final lines of this Teshuva is a striking confirmation of the role of the town Rabbi and his jurisdiction in matters of town planning, albeit using the guidelines outlined by Rav Moshe in this Teshuva.

C. The Men’s Mikvah

As an aside, it is worth noting why some men use the mikvah daily. This is not, as it might seem, a custom rooted in Kabbalah or “Chassidut.” In fact, although normally Torah study and Tefillah are unaffected by tumah (impurity), the Gemara records (Source 8A) that Ezra ruled that men who had had an emission in the night should go to a mikvah in the morning, as a way of discouraging men from being with their wives every night (Source 8B). However, even in the time of the Gemara, this rule appears to have been honored in the breach. Rabbi Yannai (Source 8B) reports that some people were careful about observing this decree while others were not; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (Source 8B) was unsure why any men used the mikvah at all; and Zeiri (Source 8C) reported that Ezra’s decree – or perhaps the decree to wash one’s hands before Tefillah – was officially rescinded. The Rash and Rif (Source 9) report that the prevailing custom in their time (roughly the year 1200) was indeed for men to visit the mikvah in the morning. The Ein Yitzchak (Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, 19th century) notes (Source 10A) that the Shiltei Giborim says that the Rabbis did not protest men failing to use the mikvah in the morning, implying that it would have been better were men to continue the ancient practice. Rabbeinu Yonah (Source 10B), as well, felt that it was universally accepted that men should preferably continue the custom. In that context, it is not surprising that Rav Moshe has respect for those who continue to observe this daily ritual and considers the building of a men’s mikvah to be a town necessity which can be compelled even upon those who do not observe this custom (Source 11G).

However, the bulk of this 1970 Teshuva, addressed to the community of Detroit, leans strongly against men who use the mikvah on a daily basis. In discussing the propriety of a plan to build a new mikvah on the basis of excluding men at all times except Erev Rosh Hashana and Erev Yom Kippur, a plan which was naturally opposed by some men in the town (Source 11B), Rav Moshe rules (Source 11C-F) against the men, citing the Shoel U’Meishiv (Source 11C-D) that if the women’s protests were based on the perception that the men’s presence leaves the mikvah dirty and disgusting, the women can force the men to not come to the mikvah on a daily basis. He further cites the Ein Yitzchak (Source 11D) that a community has an obligation to build a separate men’s mikvah so that the women will have a clean mikvah of their own! He does posit that perhaps the Ein Yitzchak would not allow the women to kick out the men before the men’s mikvah is built, but he rejects that understanding and instead explains that the Ein Yitzchak’s point is only that despite Ezra’s decree having been rescinded, it remains in full force for those who choose to observe it, thus necessitating a separate men’s mikvah.

In any event, Rav Moshe is clear that women may force the community to build a separate men’s mikvah – despite the additional cost of building, staffing, and heating a separate men’s mikvah (Source 11E) – and that the women may block men’s entry to the mikvah even before a separate men’s mikvah is built. However, if the women have not made it clear that they have such a compunction against men using the mikvah, a community should not assume that they are of this mind and meanwhile should not prevent men from using the mikvah (Source 11C).

These are some of the salient points raised in relation to Rav Moshe’s positions on priorities in mikvah building. ואידך, זיל גמור!

Posted in Communal Matters, Halacha | Leave a comment

Still Rock and Roll to Me: Reflections on New Wave Tanach

A few weeks ago, to my surprise, I was invited to share a 15-minute D’var Torah in the coveted Thursday night pre-Maariv slot at my local right-of-center community Beis Medrash. In the days leading up to my D’var Torah, I was joking with another local YU-affiliated educator about how my D’var Torah would likely be received by the Lakewood-centric crowd. As readers of this blog may have noticed, I tend to follow the new school of Tanach methodology which prefers original inferences based on such techniques as repetition of words, changes of names, continuity in theme, and various forms of subtle wordplay, rather than “saying over” the idea of a latter-day Torah scholar or even a medieval one. If Rashi or another commentary is to be quoted, it is with a similarly critical eye and mainly serves to prove or disprove an independent philosophical inquiry, but not necessarily with objective reverence for the authority being quoted. These are elements of the New Tanach School which began with Dr. Nechama Leibowitz and has continued with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Rabbi David Forman and which, while liberating, are far removed from the sort of Divrei Torah usually heard at this Beis Medrash. The standard fare is heavy on quoting earlier or later authorities and telling related (or totally unrelated) stories which mainly serve to confirm, and almost never call into question, the accepted philosophical doctrine. Occasionally a truly sharp question opens the D’var Torah, but it is soon diluted by unrelated stories and does not end up being answered, presumably because the presenter could not find an answer in any book on his shelf, and he did not deem himself worthy of developing his own answer without a guru holding his hand.

The D’var Torah that I shared that night in the Beis Medrash explored the beginning of Parshat Vayigash, when Yehuda remembers that Yosef told him that if Yosef could not “put his eyes” (ואשימה עיני) on Binyamin, the brothers would not see Yosef’s face anymore (לא תוסיפון לראות פני). I asked why such overtly visual images were used, and pointed out similarly visual instances throughout Yosef’s life, noting that whenever Yosef’s eyes or appearance are mentioned, he soon gets into trouble. So why mention “putting his eyes” on Binyamin? I conjectured that as the only other son of Rachel, both Yosef and Binyamin struggled with the question of how to translate their mother’s attribute of beauty (she is noted as יפת תואר ויפת מראה) into a form which did not get them into trouble – a struggle innately connected with their eyes. By asking to connect their eyes, Yosef was asking to see how Binyamin had learned to cope with the same problem that Yosef had struggled with his whole life. Yosef’s three words of advice to Binyamin in Parshat Miketz – “ה’ יחנכך בני” – form a pithy but highly meaningful understanding of this challenge: Beauty is good when it is an expression of Divine will, but not when it is as an artificial superimposition. (See link.) Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, yes, but true beauty is a reflection of the Divine eye above. I wrapped it all around Chanukah – the 8th day (often called Zot Chanukah) is the day which recalls the leadership of Menashe, who was more connected to Egyptian society, underscoring the importance of outwardly expressing the beauty of Judaism to the world around us rather than keeping it bottled up as did Ephraim (Day #7). While seemingly at odds with the Chanukah message, I offered that this is exactly the point of Chanukah – not to reject beauty, but to understand its power and how to express it properly, a message which Rachel’s sons likewise needed to learn.

Sure enough, to the amusement of both myself and my YU-type friend who was standing nearby, the Menahel (administrator) of the beis medrash found me immediately after the D’var Torah and asked, “Where did you get that from?” I danced around his question – the best I could offer was that the piece about Chanukah was inspired by an idea of my wife’s cousin, the Ner L’Meah, in one of his less well-known books, but I had to admit that I had actually completely changed his idea because I didn’t agree with it (as explained at the link above). He seemed surprised by the extent of the originality of my D’var Torah and offered only that he hoped it would not take another eight years for him to ask me to speak again. I heartily agreed, if not for the same reasons.

This experience was still in the back of my mind when I saw that this morning’s Lookjed (a Bar Ilan University listserv for Jewish educators) contained the continuation of a fascinating thread about whether we should stop sending our teens to Israeli Yeshivot because of the possible influence of extremists with ideologies that promote violence or hatred of other Jews or of non-Jews. Rabbi Dr. Shalom Berger translated part of a related article by Yair Sheleg (full article at this link) which posits that the Dati Le’umi community is unduly influenced by an approach to Tanach study which ignores milennia of tradition in favor of a more open and unfiltered approach (what Sheleg calls “חשוף,” exposed). Here is part of Berger’s translation of part of Sheleg’s article:

The return to the study of an ‘exposed’ Tanakh without the filter of thousands of years of traditional interpretation has become one of the proud successes of National-Religious education over the past few decades. It is considered to be one of the central differences between National-Religious and Chareidi education. While the Chareidi student does not interact with Tanakh “as is” and knows it only through the lens of the Talmud, Rashi and other commentaries, the National Religious student comes to engage with the Tanakh itself, connecting with the places where the Biblical stories occurred in an attempt to understand the full historical circle encompassing biblical events and their own contemporary experience. This approach had a heart-stirring romanticism to it, but now its dangers have become clear. The exposed Tanakh writes about revenge; the exposed Tanakh commands to have no mercy; the exposed Tanakh calls for the total destruction of Amalek and the nations of Canaan …

Sheleg’s article begs the question: Did I go too far in implanting my own ideology into Yosef’s head? Did Nechama Leibowitz go too far in extracting meaning from the different names of Yishmael by his various relatives? Did Dr. Beni Gesundheit go too far (link) in creating an original paradigm for Tefillah based on phrases from Yaakov’s dream at Beit El? Is the New Tanach School at odds with millenia of tradition? Are we drifting too far from mesorah and allowing Dati Le’umi children to explore Tanach unshackled and without the guidance of traditional sources which would curtail misunderstandings like the ones of those recent murderous young men? Or, like Reform or Chassidism before us, was the new approach to Tanach conceived on solid ground because its founders were steeped in learning, but its next-gen followers have adopted the ideological skeleton while lacking the substance behind it that makes it function in a meaningful way?

I am only beginning to think about this issue now and am open to being convinced otherwise, but I had previously only thought of Torah Shebe’al Peh as critical to understanding the Halachic areas of Tanach, not the stories of Bereishit or Shemot or the Megillot, for example. For one thing, we have little to go on in understanding such stories through the lens of the Talmud. Midrash is often self-contradictory and is not presented as a definitive or overtly methodological approach in the same vein as Talmud, Rambam, and Tur are in our approach to Halacha. (Nor does Midrash cover most of Nevi’im anyway.) Moreover, the New Tanach School’s approach is not conceived to subvert the valuable Midrashic lessons when they are presented, but rather takes a different tack entirely by re-imagining how Tanach is interpreted, not what its interpretation should be.

Reading Sheleg’s Hebrew article, however, it sounds as if he believes that the stories of Tanach had been understood differently for thousands of years based on a consistent Talmudic or Midrashic methodology. I would argue that those stories had not been understood based on any mesorah at all for all that time.

היסוד האחד הוא הרומנטיזציה של התנ”ך: החזרה אל ספר-הספרים – ודווקא התנ”ך החשוף, ללא תיווך הפרשנות בת אלפי השנים – נתפסה בעשורים האחרונים לאחת הגאוות הגדולות של החינוך הדתי. היא גם נחשבה לאחד ההבדלים המשמעותיים בין החינוך החרדי לדתי-לאומי. אם ילד חרדי אינו מכיר כלל את התנ”ך “כמות שהוא” אלא רק בתיווך התלמוד, רש”י, ושאר פרשני הדורות, יבוא הילד הדתי-לאומי ויתוודע לתנ”ך דווקא כמות שהוא, יתחבר למקומות שבהם אירעו סיפוריו ויחוש את סגירת המעגל ההיסטורי בינו ובינם.

הייתה בגישה הזו רומנטיקה כובשת לב, אבל עכשיו מתבררות גם הסכנות שלה: בתנ”ך החשוף אכן כתוב “ואנקמה”, בתנ”ך החשוף אכן כתוב “לא תחונם”, בתנ”ך החשוף אכן מופיע ציווי להשמדה כוללת של עמלק ושבעת עמי כנען – ציווי שהחוקר היהודי-בריטי ג’ורג סטיינר אפילו טען שהוא, למרבה הבושה, רצח העם הראשון בתולדות האנושות.

Sheleg seems not to have spent much time inside the Chareidi school system, or for that matter inside a Tanach. The contemporary Chareidi approach to Tanach is not to learn it through a different lens, but rather to not learn it much at all. The idea that Chareidi schoolchildren are busy learning Tanach with lots of commentaries and Talmudic insight while the Dati Le’umi children learn it without those things is off the mark. In truth, the Chareidi children are not learning Tanach at all, while the Dati Le’umi children are learning Tanach with plenty of commentaries and what little Talmud there is on those stories, but those פרשנות בת אלפי השנים provide precious little תיווך because they dare not negate the sometimes difficult messages in the text. In particular on the earlier parts of Nevi’im, the פרשנות בת אלפי השנים would never argue explicitly with the messages of אנקמה or לא תחונם.

Having spent years learning Nevi’im Rishonim with various grade levels in American schools, I feel comfortable saying that no accepted פרשן ever negates the simple meaning of the difficult and bloody stories of Nevi’im, and they wade only tangentially into such topics as why Shimon and Levi thought it was a good idea to slaughter Shechem and his nation, or why Shaul felt it necessary to hunt down Dovid, or why Amnon felt it was acceptable to assault Tamar, or why Avshalom thought it was appropriate to hunt down and kill Amnon for assaulting Tamar. These are indeed extremely difficult stories, but no פרשן that I have ever seen – much less a Talmudic Sugya – has provided much in the way of a strong counterargument for these actions. The overriding goal of the commentaries is to explain, not to rationalize or apologize; the Talmud will occasionally call a character to task but rarely provides moralistic rejoinders for future generations to consider.

While I am still thinking about these issues and will likely return to them at a later date, I am not currently convinced that the “exposed” approach to Tanach – or likewise the New School of Leibtag and Forman, and I agree that the two schools are not precisely the same – are to be blamed for the radicalization of Dati Le’umi youth. I believe that even if those youth learned and memorized all of the Tanach commentaries and the entire Talmud, their approach to the stories under question would be largely unchanged. What perhaps may be askew – and this also may be worth exploring at a later date – is that the recent shift to a nationalistic viewpoint after 2,000 years in which nationalism was not on the radar screen has led to the Talmud’s appearing to have yellowed more quickly over the past half-century than it had in the many centuries before that time. The daily concerns of the average Dati Le’umi Jew do not call out to him from the pages of the Talmud in the same way that they may for a non-nationalistic Chareidi Jew or an American Jewish adult or child. But like a young child visiting a nursing home, the disconnect between the Talmud and certain parts of Israeli society is not due to their neglect of the Talmud as much as it is to the culture gap between the Talmud and the modern Israeli Jew.

Left without a primary historical text that does speak to those nationalistic, militaristic, and Messianic concerns in a way that contemporary Jews can understand, the age-old words of Tanach have appeared more resonant, even if (or perhaps precisely because) the primary goal of the Talmud and the Tanach commentaries over all that time was to implicitly ignore those stories as a by-gone relic that would never need to be dealt with in a hands-on way. But then what is a contemporary Israeli Jew to do if the concerns he faces on a daily basis are so hard to find in the Talmud? Has the Dati Le’umi community truly neglected the Talmud, or is it the Talmud which has neglected them?

Posted in Communal Matters, Jewish Education (meta), Nach, Parshat Hashavua, Talmud / Daf Yomi | 3 Comments

The Fall and Rise of Levi, Once and Future Priest

We discussed in a recent post (link) the motif throughout Bereishit of bechira over bechora – that in almost every instance, the firstborn is passed over in deference to a favored younger sibling. As Leah’s oldest two children, Reuven and Shimon should rightfully have received the priesthood and monarchy, but they were passed over due to mistakes they made (see 49:4-7), leaving Levi and Yehuda to share the national leadership. Levi, too, was castigated for his role in the Shechem and Yosef affairs (49:5-7), leaving Yehuda with the monarchy and Ephraim, the younger but preferred son of Yosef, with the priesthood, which then fell to the bechorim after makat bechorot.

What makes Yaakov’s castigation of Levi unclear is that it appears to be overridden by Hashem later, when He tells Moshe that the Levi’im will in fact replace the bechorim in the priesthood after all:

ספר במדבר פרק ג פסוק יב
וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם

Was Yaakov wrong in assessing the relative merit of Levi? How did Levi’s descendants earn back the privilege which was taken from their ancestor at the end of Yaakov’s life? And why were Reuven and Shimon unable to earn back their lost glory, while Levi had no such trouble?

To answer this question, let’s look more carefully at Yaakov’s indictment of Shimon and Levi in Parshat Vayechi:

ספר בראשית פרק מט פסוקים ה-ז
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם
בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי, כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר
אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז, וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל

Yaakov’s two specific indictments of Reuven and Levi, bolded and underlined above, are that “in their anger they killed a man, and by their will they cut off an ox.” The man referenced here is Shechem, whom they deceived into making a peace treaty before killing when he was weak and defenseless after undergoing a circumcision (see Chapter 34, especially 34:25-31). The ox is Yosef, whom Shimon and Levi were involved in selling down the river (see especially 37:21 and 37:26, in which only Reuven and Yehuda come out looking relatively clean). Let’s take these two incidents separately.

After the killing of Shechem, Yaakov castigated Shimon and Levi for failing to take into account the threat that their action would constitute to Yaakov and his family in the future:

ספר בראשית פרק לד פסוק ל
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי, עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּישֵׁב הָאָרֶץ, בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי, וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר ,וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי, וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי

As Yaakov further reminds them at the end of his life, they acted באפם, in their anger, in haste and impetuosity rather than with thoughtful resolve. How interesting, then, that Levi’s descendant Moshe acts so differently when faced with a similar challenge:

ספר שמות פרק ב פסוקים יא-יב
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל משֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו
וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל

Notice the three-time repetition of וירא, and he saw, in the Pesukim above. As opposed to Levi, who killed in haste, Levi’s descendant Moshe acted more thoughtfully, as Rashi explains:

ויפן כה וכה – ראה מה עשה לו בבית, ומה עשה לו בשדה
וירא כי אין איש – 
עתיד לצאת ממנו שיתגייר

Moshe took the time to consider all aspects of what the Egyptian had done previously and the possible ramifications of this killing for the future. Only after this period of reflection, when Moshe had concluded that this killing would be fully appropriate, did he kill the Egyptian. Rather than act in anger like his great-grandfather Levi before him, Moshe acted with premeditation and forethought.

Yaakov’s other indictment of Shimon and Levi is that ברצונם עקרו שור – by their own will, they maimed an ox, i.e., Yosef. How interesting, then, that Levi’s grandson Amram acts so differently. Rashi points out the length to which Amram went to preserve life, even in the face of great adversity:

פירוש רש”י – ספר שמות פרק ב פסוק א
ויקח את בת לוי: פרוש
 היה ממנה מפני גזירת פרעה, וחזר ולקחה. וזהו “וילך,” שהלך בעצת בתו שאמרה לו גזרתך קשה משל פרעה, אם פרעה גזר על הזכרים, ואתה גם כן על הנקבות. והחזירה ועשה בה לקוחין שניים

After Pharaoh issued his decree that all boys be thrown in the river, Amram and Yocheved divorced, for fear that they would have to disown their own child. Their daughter Miriam persuaded them to come back together, arguing that their actions were worse than Pharaoh’s, for their decree would destroy both the girls and the boys! The subsequent reunification of Levi’s grandson Amram with Yocheved resulted in Moshe, who was sent up the river in a basket of pitch and clay – so much the opposite of Yosef’s being sold down the river in a caravan of sweet-smelling spices. Once again, Levi’s descendant found a way to recompense the action of Levi, adding a soul to the world in place of the one Levi sought to snuff out. Amram and Yocheved used רצונם to create life at a time of great risk, rather than follow the path of least resistance in lieu of Pharaoh’s decree. (There is even a hidden Yosef reference when Amram and Yocheved are no longer able to hide Moshe: ולא יכלו עוד הצפינו. Yosef’s Egyptian name was צפנת פענח.)

Levi’s descendants found ways to close the gaps that their ancestor had left behind. Yaakov’s curse was not incorrect, but it provided a valuable progress report by which Levi’s grandchildren would know what needed to be repaired in order to receive the position Levi had always rightfully earned as the other non-oldest son of Leah alongside Yehuda. Once Amram, Yocheved, and Moshe showed they had learned those lessons, the priesthood could be taken back from the bechorim and given to Levi. Unlike the descendants of Reuven and Shimon, those of Levi identified the weaknesses in their lineage and worked to correct them through positive action.

Beracha is an expression of potential; nevuah is an opportunity to be used or squandered. Levi and his descendants faced the punishment of losing the priesthood, but they also realized that they were armed with the tools to change the future predicted for them. Levi’s descendants heard the call in the dire nevuot made to their ancestor, made amends, and earned back their lost glory. The Jews in Yirmiyahu’s generation heard his nevuot about the coming destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, but they failed to change the future predicted in those ominous warnings. May we only have the ability to hear Hashem’s messages in our own lives – and the courage to act accordingly.

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The Modern Jewish Personalities Series

Over the past year I have given adult ed classes on the lives and literary hallmarks of four important Jewish personalities. Here are the handouts, for anyone out there who may find them to be useful. Perhaps at a later date I will add to this post with some guiding notes and highlights.

Ramchal – “Literary Kabbalistic Scholar”

Malbim – “Me’at Vera’im Hayu Yimei Shnei Chayei”

Nechama Leibowitz – “B’chal Yom K’Chadashim B’einecha”

Brisker Derech – History and Methodology (presented in memory of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein) – “Ki MiBrisk Teitzei Torah”

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Caste and Privilege: Bechora and Bechira in Sefer Bereishit

Watching the drama unfold when Yaakov blesses Yosef’s sons in Parshat Vayechi (see Bereishit 48:13-22), two questions emerge: Why does Yaakov elect to bless Yosef’s sons (or Yosef himself, if you prefer) before blessing his older sons? And why does Yaakov switch his hands in such a way that his right hand is on Ephraim, the younger son, rather than on Menashe, the older one?

In order to answer these questions, we need to take a more global view of the Book of Bereishit, paying attention to two aspects or avenues of chosenness: bechora, lineage; and bechira, preference.  Avraham has two sons – the bechor, Yishmael, is passed over in favor of the bechir, Yitzchak. Yitzchak’s bechor, Eisav, is passed over in favor of his bechir, Yaakov. (My father points out that the dramatic scenes surrounding Eisav’s sale of the birthright to Yaakov and the subsequent betrayal of Yitzchak are beside the point, because birkat Avraham was given to Yaakov anyway at a later point – see 28:3-4.)

The theme of bechira over bechora continues with the next generations. Yaakov chooses Rachel, the bechira, over Leah, the bechora. Thus, Rachel’s own bechor, Yosef, is his obvious favorite (see 37:3-4) and his choice for bechir over Reuven, Leah’s bechor. When it comes time to bless his own children, Yosef, by way of his children, is therefore blessed before Yaakov’s other children. (Notice in 48:15 that the Beracha is actually given to Yosef, not to his sons.) Within this blessing, Yaakov chooses to once again show deference to the bechir, Epharim, rather than the bechor, Menashe. Yaakov’s subsequent explanation for this choice (48:19) contains echos of the Yaakov/Eisav story, with the older Menashe cast as the new Eisav and the younger Ephraim as the new Yaakov. See the comparisons below, matching up the same-colored statements in the Yaakov/Eisav story (the first two sources) and the Ephraim/Menashe story (the third source):

(During Rachel’s pregnancy) בראשית פרק כה פסוק כג
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה לָהּ שְׁנֵי גוֹיִם בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

(After Yaakov receives first blessing) בראשית פרק לו פסוק לג, לז
וַיֶּחֱרַד יִצְחָק חֲרָדָה גְּדֹלָה עַד מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵפוֹא הוּא הַצָּד צַיִד וַיָּבֵא לִי וָאֹכַל מִכֹּל בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא וָאֲבָרֲכֵהוּ גַּם בָּרוּךְ יִהְיֶה
וַיַּעַן יִצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר לְעֵשָׂו הֵן גְּבִיר שַׂמְתִּיו לָךְ וְאֶת כָּל אֶחָיו נָתַתִּי לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים וְדָגָן וְתִירשׁ סְמַכְתִּיו וּלְכָה אֵפוֹא מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה בְּנִי

(After Ephraim and Menashe are blessed) בראשית פרק מח פסוק יט
וַיְמָאֵן אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר, יָדַעְתִּי בְנִי יָדַעְתִּי, גַּם הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעָם, וְגַם הוּא יִגְדָּל, וְאוּלָם, אָחִיו הַקָּטֹן יִגְדַּל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְזַרְעוֹ יִהְיֶה מְלֹא הַגּוֹיִם

In Yaakov’s implicit comparison of Menashe to Eisav and Ephraim to himself, coupled with his blessing them (ala Yosef) before the other brothers, there is a vision of the Jewish future which appears unrecognizable to us. It even appears that Yaakov envisioned another religious schism – גַּם הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעָם – which is understandable given that the firstborns Yishmael and Eisav each defected to create their own nation while each of their younger brothers became the head of the Jewish nation. The older Menashe and younger Ephraim would follow that same pattern, or so Yaakov assumed. Yet in actual fact, neither one of these two would come to define Jewish destiny for milennia to come, and neither would seem to emerge as the neuvo Yaakov or Eisav, the leader of the Jewish nation or of any other competing nation. What happened to Yaakov’s vision of the Jewish future, one in which the Jewish nation is presided over by Ephraim or his descendants while Menashe’s children form a nation that goes in a separate direction?

It turns out that Yaakov was right and wrong. His selection of bechira over bechora again was warranted, but it was not fulfilled in the way he envisioned. Instead, the chosen bechir and rejected bechor would both come from the same mother: Leah. Her first two sons, Reuven and Shimon, were written off the page of Jewish leadership. Her other two sons, Levi and Yehuda, earned the priesthood and monarchy respectively. Bechir triumphed over bechor once again, but both would come from the same mother, while Rachel’s own children are largely omitted from the remainder Jewish history. When Yaakov accepts Ephraim and Menashe as his bechir – אפרים ומנשה, כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי – he would be incorrect inasmuch as the actual new bechirim are none other than the other sons of Leah. It seems that Yaakov’s acceptance of Rachel over Leah is misguided: It is not bechira Rachel’s bechor who is chosen as the new bechir, but bechora Leah’s own latter two children in tandem.

In a remarkable twist of fate, the Haftarah for Vayigash allows us to come full circle:

ספר יחזקאל פרק לז פסוקים טז-יט
וְאַתָּה בֶן אָדָם קַח לְךָ עֵץ אֶחָד וּכְתֹב עָלָיו לִיהוּדָה וְלִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲבֵרָיו וּלְקַח עֵץ אֶחָד וּכְתוֹב עָלָיו לְיוֹסֵף עֵץ אֶפְרַיִם וְכָל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲבֵרָיו
וְקָרַב אֹתָם אֶחָד אֶל אֶחָד לְךָ לְעֵץ אֶחָד וְהָיוּ לַאֲחָדִים בְּיָדֶךָ
וְכַאֲשֶׁר יֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְּנֵי עַמְּךָ לֵאמֹר הֲלוֹא תַגִּיד לָנוּ מָה אֵלֶּה לָּךְ
דַּבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יֱהֹוִה הִנֵּה אֲנִי לֹקֵחַ אֶת עֵץ יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר בְּיַד אֶפְרַיִם וְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲבֵרָיו וְנָתַתִּי אוֹתָם עָלָיו אֶת עֵץ יְהוּדָה וַעֲשִׂיתִם לְעֵץ אֶחָד וְהָיוּ אֶחָד בְּיָדִי

Here Yechezkel is instructed to take two wooden tablets, writing on one of them Ephraim, representing Yosef, and on the other Yehuda. This is not a reunification of the sort that Yaakov envisioned, of a split between Menashe and Ephraim, but rather of a split between Yosef and Yehuda – the bechir of Yaakov’s children in toto and the bechir of Leah’s children in particular. These two competing visions of bechir would come to define a powerful schism in Jewish history: Yaakov’s choice for bechir as compared with the will of the nation.

In truth, Yaakov’s choice for bechir is less than clear. He seems to elect Ephraim to the position, but his blessing to Yehuda – ישתחוו לך בני אמך … לא יסור שבט מיהודה – also makes it clear that Leah’s youngest will achieve the monarchy, even while Levi appears to lose everything when he is harshly upbraided by Yaakov. Perhaps Yaakov envisioned that Rachel and Leah would each earn a bechir – Ephraim, as the last-born of the bechira Rachel, would earn the priesthood, while Yehuda, as the last-born and bechir from the bechora Leah, would earn the monarchy. Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef’s children is, after all, of a more spiritual nature than Yehuda’s (האלקים הרועה אתי מעודי עד היום הזה). Either way, history would judge Levi – and Ephraim – differently than Yaakov does. Hashem would accept Levi as the rightful heirs to the priesthood, as He explicitly states in Bamidbar 3:12, when the Levi’im replace the firstborn – the bechorim – as the priestly caste. Once again, bechir (Levi) supplants bechor. This time, however, one bechir – Levi – also replaces another bechir – Ephraim, who had been chosen for the priesthood before the bechorim took over temporarily at Makat Bechorot.

All of this is to say that the measure of chosenness in Jewish life and leadership is not a product of birth but of effort, not of chance but of toil. Not a single bechor in the Book of Bereishit is successful in earning Divine favor, and the tradition continues with the selection of Levi – the only legitimate bechir to be rejected by Yaakov – over the bechorim to serve as Kohanim to the nation.

This theme of bechora vs. bechira is a source of constant tension in the Book of Bereishit, and particularly in Yaakov’s own life. Yaakov fights with his father, his uncle, his sons, and ultimately even with Yosef about whether the relative merits of an individual should determine his superiority over the rightful lineage of another. When Yaakov tells Pharaoh that מעט ורעים היו ימי שני חיי, he is looking back at a lifetime of struggle largely over this very issue. He is vindicated by history when the final bechir, Levi, ultimately replaces the bechorim as Kohanim, and the remainder of Tanach clearly indicates a preference for bechir over bechor. (Three quick examples: Aharon’s younger sons supersede his older ones; Korach, whose father is next in line after Amram, is nonetheless supplanted by the cousin of his younger uncle to be the leader of Kehat – see Rashi to Bamidbar 16:1, ודתן ואבירם; and the youngest son of Yishai, Dovid, is chosen to be the first king.)

When Shmuel tells the Jews (Shmuel I 9) that having a king will cause them endless problems, the Jews respond strangely, לא, כי מלך יהיה עלינו. Malbim sums up the response – and the role of a Jewish leader – beautifully:

פירוש המלבים לספר שמואל א פרק ט פסוק יט
גדר המלך הוא הנבחר מן העם … לא אנחנו נהיה משועבדים אליו לעבדים, רק יהיה משועבד אלינו להנהיג אותנו לפי חק ומשפט

Ultimately, bechora is a provisional title, affording one the burden to prove himself justified in keeping it. For a bechor to maintain his title, however, he must also prove himself a bechir – a task that is far more difficult.

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Blame Rav Aharon Lichtenstein: A Response to Marom Zour

I came across an eye-opening item in a friend’s Facebook trough late last week. She was re-posting something which had come across her inbox from an irate secular Israeli with whom she is not personally acquainted. (The first words below are “To all those who have shown.”)

Naale

I found this rant illuminating because it points up in one hyper-dramatic paragraph the problem faced by secular Yishuvim all over Israel. By cutting religion out of their children’s connections to Israel, secular Israelis of the previous generation gave their children little reason to continue living there. Absent a Divine mandate, living in Israel becomes an act of asceticism at best and near-suicide at worst. What rational, secular-minded individual, raised without an ideology that only with God’s help can we win our battles, would choose to live in a country which any military tactician would label a ticking time-bomb? There are far more convenient places on earth to live – in fact probably almost any other country would be.

So naturally, this person’s children grew up, moved to a different country and, broadly speaking, all of her friend’s children did the same. Now her neighborhood has lots of open real estate and no one to move in – except for the kind of people who believe that a country with so few rational qualities may be worth living in anyway on account of its many esoteric ones. And then Ms. Zour goes on Facebook to rail against the religious for buying up homes in her settlement. But it is a too-little-too-late case of misplaced frustration. Ms. Zour blaming the religious folk for moving in is about as reasonable as castigating poor people for moving in to a suburban American neighborhood after the exodus of enough industry has caused real estate prices to plummet. (Incidentally, it has not gotten past me that the petitioner’s name means “traffic light.” Alias? Ideologically bankrupt parents? Matchmaking mishap? Hard to say.)

I was thinking about Ms. Zour over Shabbat as I heard so many beautiful stories about Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l. To be true to Brisker style, I would divide the recollections I have read and heard about this giant over the past week into two categories: those relating to the cheftza, the Torah he produced and his towering abilities in learning; and those related to the gavra, the magnanimity of his chessed and the strength of his personality. Yet an aspect of his greatness about which I have seen less discussion is the way in which he reshaped the conversation, both in America and in Israel, about the religious character of the State and of religious people’s contribution to it.

To be sure, Rav Aharon was not the first Orthodox American oleh, but the 1971 defection of Rav Soloveitchik’s 38-year-old son-in-law and heir apparent caused reverberations still felt when I arrived there decades later. Yeshivat Gush Etzion, of which Rav Aharon became co-Rosh Yeshiva, was not the first Hesder yeshiva; but it grew the acceptance in which Hesder would come to be felt by American young men. And as those boys began to learn and serve their Homeland, many stayed to live. American communities would be created, neighborhoods would be “mitchareid,” yishuvim could be reborn with mikvaot and religious schools, and Ms. Zour could one day hurl invective at her religious victors as they marched off the field smiling at her sudden defensiveness and loss of composure.

In line with the way he lived his life, Rav Aharon’s legacy as a patriarch of the new religious center-right ideology was not born of fiery oration or the creation of a political party. His was an understated, patient influence, one made evident by the conviction of his ideals, the sophistication of his intellectual passion, and by the glow of his personal example. As for Ms. Zour, her world was lost in 1971. While she was steadfastly and committedly giving her children little incentive to stay in Israel, Rav Aharon was, with equal gusto and by the force of his fertile mind and tactile personality, giving young men by the dozen every reason to stay, build communities, and remake the nation in a religious image. That Ms. Zour’s rant was published on or close to Rav Aharon’s passing drives home the irony that it is he who is to blame for Ms. Zour’s real estate problems. And who knows if, had he not been such a magnanimously genteel person, Rav Aharon himself might have chuckled at that very irony.

Yihi Zichro Baruch.

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The Millennia-Old Problem of Yom Ha’atzmaut in America

I asked a friend tonight if he could identify the most recent time in Jewish history that every single Jew was in the Land of Israel at the same time. He noticed that it wasn’t the time of Yehoshua, because 2 1/2 tribes (see Yehoshua 22:1-9) were on the other side of the Jordan (or at least their wives and children when the men were fighting in Israel; see Bamidbar 32:26-27). The answer, I offered, is even earlier than that in history: it is the moment just before Yosef’s Yishmaeli caravan crossed the border from Canaan into Egypt (see Bereishit 37:28). Yosef would never return, at least not alive (see Bereishit 50:25, Shemot 13:19, and Yehoshua 24:32). Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe would decline to enter the Land for what sound like highly materialistic reasons – the better for their cattle to graze (see Bamidbar 32:1-2). Seventy years after the Jews were exiled to Bavel following the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, the majority chose not to return to the Land of Israel (see Ezra 2:64). It was the resulting Babylonian community which produced the Talmud Bavli – that essential bedrock of Jewish civilization – and whose tentacles spread outward to Spain (link), France, and Germany (link). Meanwhile, the Israeli community lay dormant, persecuted by Pablo Christiani after his conversion in 312 made life in Israel too difficult to be deemed worthwhile and the vast majority of the Israeli scholars moved to Bavel. The near-irrelevance of the Talmud Yerushalmi at any point in history makes clear that it was outside Israel that the Torah flourished in Talmudic times. It was in galut that we produced the Rambam, Tur, and Shulchan Aruch and all of their commentaries. For millennia, the question of whether we were geographically dislocated or how we could rectify that situation took a backseat to the question of how we could fulfill our God-given purpose in the world wherever we happened to find ourselves at the moment.

With the rise of European nationalism in the 19th century, a wave of Zionistic fervor took hold, eventually finding a religious foothold in the writings of Kook, Teichtal, and Tukochintsky. In the unclouded mind of the simple American Jew unencumbered by the antagonism of Satmar or the antipathy of Agudas Yisroel, a sense of Messianic progress is felt today after 1948, 1967, and even 1973 showed what seemed like at least B+ miracles, if not A-. Listening to a Lakewood-influenced Rav tonight express flippant sarcasm about Yom Ha’atzmaut, I couldn’t help wonder how he would have reacted if he had been present to see Keriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Reed Sea. “I mean, it was nice and everything – but shira? I don’t know. I need a little more than that. So a sea split – can we be sure that that is supposed to mean something?” How ironic that it is the frummest elements of our community today who would have been among the 4/5ths of the Jews who felt insufficiently impressed by the makkot to believe that they were supposed to mean that the redemption was imminent. A tiny Israeli army defeats the entire Arab world in six days? Who knows – I’m certainly not one to say it has Messianic significance. Missiles flying from Gaza reroute themselves to land in the sea, resulting in inexplicably few injuries and not a single death? Our job is to wait in Galut for a significant sign from Hashem that the end is near.

So we wait indeed, together, from the frummest cynics to the most apathetic Reformers, an incongruous mix crowded together at a rapidly decaying bus stop watching bus after bus pass by, bound together by our inability to recognize that all that time spent waiting for the bus was never intended to be the point of it all. Among us there are those who are teachers, leaders, outreach workers; we turn up our noses at our brethren on the bus who have disregarded the bus stop community and all of its heavy needs. But the students and laymen whom we teach, lead, and guide, they who have slowly turned the decrepit bus stop into a luxury hotel, largely have no response, and we begin to resent them too as the ruse grows older with each passing year. By and large, the leaders and teachers would be the first ones to finally board the bus if their services were no longer needed at the bus stop. For the entire crowd, but most particularly for the leaders, Yom Ha’atzmaut is less a day of revelry than one of reflection and consternation: What is going on here? Why are we watching buses pass by when we could be sitting on them? But an escape hatch, an exit strategy, appears noticeably and inexplicably lacking as all our pleading to the crowds falls on deaf ears. An American Jewish outreach worker said to me a few years ago, “I like Israel, but I love Jews.” To we who have prioritized the crowds at the bus stop over the destination promised by the passing buses, we have been offered a nauseating choice by our proteges: abandon the historical principle for which we have striven since Yosef’s caravan left Canaan, or abandon the responsibility we have been handed in our own time. At least for me, no day represents that awful choice more than Yom Ha’atzmaut.

I will dance with my students tomorrow in the dwindling hope that at least a few will board the bus when they have the chance in a few years, and indeed it is possible that some of them finally will, even after their parents’ apathy gives us little reason to expect that the next generation, too, will not spend a lifetime watching buses pass by. Yet I will also continue to teach my 6th graders shalshelet ha’mesorah tomorrow, the history of Halacha, one colored by individuals who by and large thought far less than we do about the possibility of moving to Israel and yet who managed to accomplish an awful lot stuck out in the rain. Can we be certain that, even if Mashiach came tomorrow and the third Beit Hamikdash was built, there would not continue to be a Diaspora community, as there was during the time of the second Beit Hamikdash? Aside from the millions of Israeli citizens who, absent a State, would make the Diaspora community far more vibrant than it is today, is there any reason to believe that we cannot be equally or more productive than Yosef, Mordechai, Shmuel Hanagid, or Abarbanel – each of whom maintained dual relationships with the King above and the king below? Perhaps we can do so much more at the bus stop than watch buses pass by, as so many did before us; or perhaps that is an outmoded hope which has not been relevant since the United Nations told us even more boldly than Koresh in his time that the time has come to punch a one-way return ticket home.

My friend remarked that it is interesting that Yosef’s caravan of Yishmaelim marked the end of the time of complete Jewish population in Israel, because it is Mashiach ben Yosef who will bring us back together once again. Quite right. Although Galut Mitzrayim was preordained, it also had to be brought about by our own hands, by an unconscionable act of baseless brotherly hatred. So began what has in reality been a single exile, albeit one with different stages. Today we stand on the cusp of redemption, but perhaps our only ticket out is to act on an urge of brotherly love unequaled in its intensity since the reverse emotion brought about that very exile. Short of that impulse, as Tevya said, “I guess we’ll just have to wait someplace else.”

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