Friday, January 29, 2016

Yithro's perspective versus Moshe's

Bureaucracy is almost synonymous with inefficiency in today's world. But back in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu, it was seen as a way to expedite matters. That's the rationale Moshe's father-in-law, Yithro, offered for finding qualified people to serve as judges in layers of courts, so that not everyone would be waiting on Moshe himself.  He would only have to attend to the really big issues.

In the words of the verse (18:22) Any great matter would be brought to you [Moshe] and every small thing, they will judge themselves. My grandfather points out that the formulation Moshe presented was somewhat different In verse 26, instead of referring to a great matter to be brought to Moshe, it refers to a matter that is difficult for them.  Later on, in Parshas Devarim (1:17), the reference again is to difficult matters. Moshe says, "vehadavar asher yakshe michem takrivun elay."

Furthermore, Moshe deliberately equates great and small matters in saying "kegadol, kekatan tishmeu."  As Rashi writes. based on Sanhedrin 8a, "yeheh chaviv alecha din shel pruta kedin shel meah maneh." [a judgement over a small coin should be as important to you as a judgement over a hundred coins of greater valu].

That was Moshe's view: a case doesn't become more important because it involves a larger amount of money. Accordingly, the escalation of the courts wouldn't depend on the sums invovled. It would only depend on how difficult the legal questions invovled were.

Related posts:

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Celebrating Trees With Snow on the Ground

So we got our #Blizzard2016, which makes us feel like winter truly is here. But tomorrow is Tu B'Shavat, a holiday designated for trees. To get a feel for the holiday, I like to take a tropical trip over to the Greenhouses at Planting Fields. I've posted pictures in the past of my visits there, and here's the latest crop from last week.

And for the Torah portion, here's a piece adapted from what  Rabbi Chaim Brown wrote for Kallah Magazine's site serveral years ago that I posted on this blog last year here:

Friday, January 22, 2016

One cause, different effects

This is Shabbos Shira, as we read the parsha in which the Israelites sand a song of praise after they made it across the Yam Suf, and the Egyptians pursuing them did not.  Among the phrases  in the song is Yemincha Hashem ne'edri bakoach, yemincha Hashem tiratz oyev. The right arm [so to speak] of G-d is said to both save and destroy. Rashi explains that the its like Hashem has two right arms, one to save Yisrael and another to destroy the enemies. In his view, he said, its one right arm that does both, something that is impossible for a human -- doing two different actions with one arm.

My grandfather explains that for a person, a task will differ according to what's needed. Accordingly, he would do good with one hand and inflict punishment with another.  In contrast, for G-d it is possible to do a single action that serves as both reward and punishment. The differentiation is solely in the recipient.

That is the concept , he say, that Chazal bring up (Nedarim 8b) "In the future Hakadosh Baruch Hu will bring out the sun unfiltered, and the righteous will be healed from it while the wicked will be sentenced by it." It's through the same sun that some will be healted and others punished. Even though the sun's role is to do good for humanity, when a person is sick, its rays can harm him. Likewise, the good of Hakadosh Baruch Hu causes pain to the wicked, and that's their punishment.

The footnote on this piece cites, "Mipi Elyon lo tetzeh haraot vehatov" There is no bad and good from Above. The flow of good doesn't change in its source but its effect will depend on the recipient. Consequently, the same force will prove beneficial for the righteous and devastating for the wicked.

Related post:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Life of Rabbi Copperman

We don't all plan what we want engraved on our tombstones. But Rabbi  Dr.Copperman (that's the way the family spelled the name) did. His daughter, Dr. Devorah Rosenwasser, told an audience that gathered at Sharay Tefilla in Lawrence last night what her father stipulated that he wanted the words from Prashas Vayigash 46: 28: "ve'es Yehudah shalach lefanav el Yosef lohoros lefanav" Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to Yosef in Egypt in order to set up a houe of study.

That's how Rav Copperman, also named Yehudah, saw himself. His role was enabling others to learn Torah. That's what his life was all about, and it was to that end that he founded Michlalah Jerusalem College back in 1964. There's a nice feature article on his life and accomplishments in Jewish Action. It reveals what prompted him to open a teacher's college for women, though Dr. Rosenwasser offered a daughter's insight.

She said that her father said he needed to set up a school for her education. She also gave a few details abou their family that the I never knew. Rabbi Copperman was one of six children, and his father died when he was only eleven years-old. Despite the hardship that would have posed to his mother in Ireland, she still succeeded in raising up her frum family, including a son who saw his mission as the Yehudah who clears the way for Torah learning.

His dedication extended even until the end. Dr. Rosenwasser reports that for the last 6 months of his life, he was too weak to teach. Yet, he still so looked forward to teaching that even the night before his petira, on the 23rd of Teves, he said he was preparing in case the next day he will be able to teach a class.  Of course, he was also learning, too.

 Dr. Rosenwasser said that he made a list a couple of years back of all the things he wanted to get through, including particular parts of TaNaCh with chavruthas. Even what he didn't complete was to be completed by his study partners who have planned a siyum to mark that accomlishment. Speaking of chavruthas, Dr. Rosenwasser said that he kept up a regular learning session for 6 years with a janitor at Miclalah. The boost to the man's self-esteem was immeasurable.

Rabbi Copperman's  respect and consideration for others was among his most salient traits, in his daughter's account. She said that he would read and active engage with any book given to him by the faculty at Michlalah, even on secular subjects. She said that one who authored a physics book remarked that he got the most helpful feedback on his book from Rabbi Copperman.

Beyond the intellectual achievements, he reached out to people to such an extent that everyone came in to be menachem avel started by referring to her (or his) special bond with Rabbi Copperman. Dr. Rosenwasser said that so many people said it, it almost became comical. But they all sincerely felt it, and that is the most amazing part of it.

She doesn't know where he found the time to keep up so many relationships. A number of people told her that he called them every single Friday and that he always was available to those who wanted to talk. Others referred to his helping them out - even financially -- as in the case of covering the dental bill for a woman's child or helping out an aguna. She said she never knew about his role in all that until these people told her.

What was his greaterst accomplishment? In his own words it would seem to be batim. Dr. Rosenwasser recounted that one time a secular man who visited the campus asked if Rabbi Copperman takes pride in the buildings of Miclalah's campus. He responded that he doesn't take account of the binyanim [building] but of the batim [households]  of Torah-centered families that the graduates go on to build.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Significance of the locust

Three years ago, locusts swarmed into Egypt. According to the National Geographic article on the phenomenon, it's more than a mere nusciance:
An adult desert locust, it has been estimated, can consume its weight in vegetation daily. A typical swarm can eat as much as 2,500 people can in a single day. And a large swarm—one that stretches for tens of miles and includes millions (or even billions) of hungry locusts—can strip a farmer's field in minutes and leave entire villages with nothing to eat.
Certainly, that was the threat posed by this particular makka for the Egyptians who refused to let the Israelites go. But if this is, indeed, a natural phenomenon, how did it contribute to the revelation of G-d? That's the question my grandfather tackles in his commentary on Parshas Bo. 

He observes that this makka was unique among the ten. All the others were more overtly miraculous. In contrast, swarms of locust do naturally occur in that part of the world. So the only thing that distinguished this event as one coming from G-d was the the warning that Moshe delivered about it.

This is actually a fundamental point. Some people have put in considerable effort to explaining all the miracles of the makkos and kriyas Yam Suf as natural events. They fail to understand that it's not just a matter of something that could happen within the laws of nature but of the indication that it is planned and executed according to Divine will.

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Friday, January 08, 2016

Vaera: why didn't the Jews listen to Moshe?

I'm quoting from Dvar Yehudah, the sefer of my grandfather's insights here. But I would also like to make a dedicatory mention of R' Copperman (that is the way the Rabbanit, his wife said they spelled thier last name) who passed away this week because it touches on the questions of text, pshat,Midrash, and pshuto shel mikra that he strived to convey to his students.  I really was torn between the first and second piece in the sefer on this week's parsha and opted for the second one for that reason.

The Torah's  (Vaera 6:9) answer to the title question is: velo shamu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umeavoda kasha [they didn't listen to Moshe because of shortness of breath and hard work]"

The Rashmbam explains the stress is on now. Even though they believed at first when they thought that they were facing a reprieve from the hard work, now that it got even harder, they lost faith.

The Ramban's interpretation is that it doesn't mean that they didn't believe in Hashem and in his prophets, only that they didn't pay attention to His words because of their shortness of breath like a man whose who is so sick of suffering from his toil that he wouldn't want to live another minute in it for the sake of something better afterwards.

My grandfather's take is that this is the view of Rashi who in his pure language explains that velo shamu el Moshe means that they didn't accept any tanchumin [comfort].

The Midrash Rabbah explain that they didn't listen to Moshe because it was diffidult in their eyes to remove themselves from the practice of idolatry.

Taking all these together, my grandfather insists that there is no real contradiction among the interepretations of the Midrash, Rashi, and Ramban, for, certainly, ayn mikrah yotzeh miyedey pshuto [a text is never divorced from its plain meaning].  Accordingly, the plain meaning of the text  velo shamu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umeavoda kasha [they didn't listen to Moshe because of shortness of breath and hard work] stands.

However, applying the Midrash clarifies that were it not for the hard work, they would have found it feasible to remove themselves from idolatry.  They did have faith in Hashem and His prophets. What the Midrash comes to teach us is what was the inner cause, the primary source of their refusal to listen. The same kind of revelation comes across with respect to the text's report on Yitzchak's love for Esav (see

The footnote here refers to the Mechilta on  Parshas Bo It starts with the question: How could the Israelites not pay attention? Wouldn't anyone told good news about his future be happy to hear it? Here they were told that they would be going free, so how could they not rejoice? The answer is that it was difficult in their eyes to leave idolatry. The lack of happiness and attentiveness here was not due to a lack of faith but in a reluctance to leave idolatry.

As for the Rashbam? My grandfather takes it as pointing to different levels of faith. They had a higher level at the point when it say, vayamen ha'am [the nation believed] that they fell from at this poitn.

Related post:

Sunday, January 03, 2016

What do you know?

As I reviewed the parsha this past Shabbos, I was struck by the number of times the verb for knowing appears in Shmos.  Yedia is a keynote in the story, one that carries on even beyond the first parsha of Shmos, as we see in Vaera that G-d reveals his name as Hashem to Moshe, a level of relationship that had even been withheld from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov who saw the attribute of Kel Shakay, but "shmi Hash lo nitdati lahem."

Right at the beginning, we're told of the turn of events for the Israelites in Egypt begins with the rise of a new king"asher lo yada eth Yosef" (1:8).  How could he not know of such a major figure in Egyptian history?  Rashi explains that he made himself not know (rather like people who ignore history that doesn't fit their preferred narrative). Still you would think that there would be some reminders, but that may well  not have been the case. On one of my visits to the Brooklyn Museum, the guide to the Egyptian section explained that the Egyptian monarchs were in the habit of erasing all prior history and even establishing new religions to strengthen their own positions without any ties to other lines. So here we have a deliberate block on knowing.

When Moshe comes to realize the spiritual root of his brothers' oppression, he declares, "Achen noda hadavar 2:14) See 

When G-d  hears the Israelites' cries for salvation and recalls the merit of their forfathers, the account is written as "Vayar Elokim eth b'nay Yisrael , vayeda Elokim [G-d saw the children of Israel, and G-d knew]"  (3:25) He refers to that in telling Moshe "Raoh raithi eth oni ami asher beMitzrayim ve'eth tzaakatham shamati mipney nogshav, ki ydati eth machovav [I have surely seen the suffering of my natin in Egypt, and I have heard their cries from their oppressors, for I know their hurt.] (3:7)

After directing Moshe to make the request for a three day reprieve from work for the Israelites, G-d tells Moshe that he knows it will not be granted: "veani yadati kil lo yiten ethchem melech Mitzrayim lahaloch" (3: 19)

Indeed, when Moshe addresses Pharaoh, he is rebuffed by the king with the declaration, "Mi Hashem asher eshma bekolo leshalach eth Yisrael? Lo yadati eth Hashem, vegam eth Yisreal lo eshlacha! [Who is G-d that I should listen to Him to send Yisrael out? I do not know G-d, and also I will not sent out Yisrael!]" (5:2). Just as Pharaoh denied Yosef and his own country's history, he arrogantly declares himself not subject to the G-d of the universe by saying he does not know him.

Pharaoh and the erasure of the past or anything one wishes to ignore serves as the ultimate negative example. Our history is central to Jewish identity.  Every single day we recount our Exodus from Egypt, as that was the fundamental formation of us as a people. The Kuzari expresses the Jewish faith as predicated on history with over 600,000 eyewitnesses to the transformative event of receiving the Torah at Sinai. That history is kept alive in transference from parent to child over all the generations.

We also have the yearly commemoration of the Exodus at Pesach. Among the songs sung at the seder is the account of numbers that begins with "Echad mi yodea? [Who knows One?]"