Friday, November 25, 2016

Eliezer's account and Leah's Thanksgiving

For a post on Chaye Sarah, see
For a post on Leah's Thanksgiving, see

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Greeting guests and more in Vayera

For this week's parsha, I posted a blog on Times of Israel  that looks at what we learn from Avraham's actions in preparing for guests.  It contains a link to Rabbi Frand's Lesson #1 In Hospitality: Don’t Let Your Guests Feel Inferior.

For what my grandfather wrote about Sarah's laughter in the parsha,  and a brief insight into Lot's wife turning into salt see

For how Rivka is introduced see this explanation.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

We can't identify with perfection

Today I went to Michal Horowitz's parsha shiur. She spoke about Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch's take on the Avos and other Jewish leaders. He makes the point on Bereishis 12:10 on the question of Avraham's directing his wife to say she is his sister. The Ramban identifies this as a lack of faith on the patriach's part, but R' Hirsch offers a rationale. 

In ancient Egypt, it would have been safer to appear as  single woman escorted by her brother than as a married woman with her husband. That's becuase anyone who wanted to take the married woman would kill her husband, and the woman would be left defenseless and dishonored. That's what Avraham explains, "and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive" (12:12). That expression, “keep alive” is the same one used in Shmos in which the Egyptians plot to kill the Israelite baby boys but keep the girls alive for their own carnal purposes. By acting as her brother, Avraham would be able to negotiate and keep escalating the bride price to buy time in  the hope that the famine in Canaan would end and allow them to reuturn before any deal would be consummated. 

 However, R' Hirsch is emphatic that this does not mean that we are to perceive the Patriarchs or our leaders as perfect:
 The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great men. Just by that it gives a stamp of veracity to what it relates . . .  Take for instance Moses’ modesty (Bamidbar 12:3). Did we not know that he could also fly into a passion, his meekness and modesty would seem to us to be his inborn natural disposition, and lost as an example. Just his Hear now you rebels” (Bamidbar 20:10) gives his modesty its true greatness, shows it to us as the result of a great work of self control and self ennoblement which we all should copy because we all could copy.
Rabbi Hirsch’s position is that  it is the revelation of our Biblical heros' faults that makes them achieve credibility and their lives serve as relatable models for our own. 
Mrs. Horowitz drew a connection to the fact that there are four people who never sinned identified in Shabbos 55b as Binyamin -- Yaakov's son, Amram -- Moshe's father, Yishay --David's father, and Calev -- David's son. She observed that great though they are, they did not achieve the same leadership as people in their families because great leaders are not perfect people. 
That made me think of what Chazal expalin in Yoma 22b why the kingship was transferred from Shaul to David:
אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל
מפני מה לא נמשכה מלכות בית שאול מפני שלא היה בו שום דופי
דאמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יהוצדק
אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן קופה של שרצים תלויה לו מאחוריו שאם תזוח דעתו עליו אומרין לו
חזור לאחוריך
Rav Yehudah quoted Shmuel in saying "Why did the kingship of the house of Shaul not endure? Because he had no flaw. [this is a problem for a ruler] as Rebbe Yochanan said in the name of Rebe Shimon ben Yehotzadak: We do not appoint a leader on the community who does not have a box of creepy crawlies hanging behind him [or we say in English, "a skeleton in the closet"]. That way, if he gets haughty, we can say, "Look behind you." [to arouse humility].
Due to a superhero's education, we all know that "with great power comes great responsibility." Yet, to get to that level, one has to rise above, not just float up effortlessly. That's the idea of finding the perfect leader is one who is imperfect.
I was mulling over this and considering whether or not I'd write it up when I heard this on 1010 WINS in the car.  A Jets player named Brandon Marshall was asked about his take on Trump's win. His take was so close to this idea that I felt I had to include it. Obviously, I'm not equating Trump with great Jewish leaders, and I'm not saying that people necessarily have to agree with all his views. That's not the point. What is the point is that even an athlete today (and I'm so not a sports fan) seems to have an appreciation of this concept that Chazal taught so many centuries ago. 
To be sure I got the quote right, I looked for an online source and found one here.  This is what Marshall said: 
The good thing about it is we have a flawed man in office leading our country who's had some really public, nasty things go on,....I think that's a good thing because we put certain people and certain positions on a pedestal and we expect perfection. And that's not the case. And I think if we all look in the mirror, we will all see someone who also has their own issues.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The right word

 The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. -  Mark Twain ( in 1888 )

Which word will bring which effect? The answer, of course, depends on the context.

As I reviewd Parashas Noach, I recalled a lecture that Rabbi Copperman delivered about the effect of language and why particular expressions are employed in particular contexts in the Torah.  When Noach is directed to gather the animals into the ark, he is told to take a pair of each (Bereishis 7:2):
 וּמִן הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא שְׁנַיִם אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ
 and of the animals that are not clean, two, a male and its mate.

That  formulation is repeated agin in the eight verse:

מִן הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה וּמִן הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנָּה טְהֹרָה Of the clean animals and of the animals that are not clean

It's particularly striking because the Torah doesn't add in excess words, and it is possible to write this in shorter form if the single word tameh were substituted for the two words lo tehorah or the three asher ayenena tehorah. The Talmud in  Pesachim (3a) refers to the second formulation in quoting  R' Yehoshua ben Levi's declaration that a person should never utter an offensive word, as we learn from the roundabout way the Torah referred to the unclean animal in this context, adding on 8 additional letters to the text.

אמר ר' יהושע בן לוי לעולם אל יוציא אדם דבר מגונה מפיו שהרי עקם הכתוב שמונה אותיות ולא הוציא דבר מגונה מפיו שנאמר מן הבהמה הטהורה ומן הבהמה אשר איננה טהורה

This is a very nice lesson for being careful about speech, but you should have a question. In numerous other places, the Torah does use the term tameh to describe animals that are not kosher. So if it is not as nice to use that direct expression, why does it do so at all?

Here's the difference between the lightning and lightning bug in context. When the animals are described for the sake of saving them, the Torah uses the longer, nicer expression. But when it comes to warning us which animals are forbidden for us to consume, then we need the direct, "call a spade a spade" approach to clarify that they have to appreciate their tameh status in that context.

As I recall, Rabbi Copperman connected this to an expression we see several parshios later. In Parshas Miketz (42:1) Yaakov tells his sons:
הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי כִּי יֶשׁ שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם רְדוּ שָׁמָּה וְשִׁבְרוּ לָנוּ מִשָּׁם וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת
"Behold, I have heard that there is grain being sold in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us there, so that we will live and not die."
Rashi comments on the words רדו שמה:
 ולא אמר לכו, רמז למאתים ועשר שנים שנשתעבדו למצרים, כמנין רד"ו:
He did not tell them, "go," but "go down," hinting to them with the gematria of those three letters that they would remain enslaved in Egypt for 210 years. 

Your question should be: why would he say merely "go," when we know that any exit from the land of Israel is considered a descent, which makes the verb for going down the right one? That's why we have to remember the lesson from Parshas Noach. There is a negative connotation in the command רדו  that normally would have prevented Yaakov from using it in addressing his sons. The fact that he did indicates that there is particular significance to the word in this context, and that is the numerical value.