Posts Tagged ‘Devarim’
We are all familiar with the famous midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30, 12) that compares the four species we take on the holiday of Sukkos to the four different types of Jews: the esrog, which has both smell and taste, corresponds to those who learn Torah and perform good deeds; the lulav, which has taste but no smell, corresponds to those who learn Torah but do not perform good deeds; the hadasim, which have a pleasant smell but no taste, correspond to those who perform good deeds but do not learn Torah; and finally, the aravos, which have neither smell nor taste, correspond to those who have neither Torah nor good deeds.
The midrash notes that Hashem declared that all the species should be tied together into one bundle (“agudah achas”) so that each should effect atonement for the other (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 651:1). The message is clear: in order for our prayers to be fully accepted, we must unite with all Jews, and not exclude anyone, even those lacking in Torah and mitzvos.
The same message resonates with the Yom Kippur service. We cannot even begin the service until such time as we have been granted permission – in the convocation of the beis din above and the beis din below – to pray together with the “avaryanim” – with those who are clearly labeled as transgressors. Only when the entirety of the people is included in our service, can be we confident that our prayers will yield a favorable response from Above. It is for this reason we pray on Yom Kippur, “ve’yausu khulam agudah achas” – that we be combined into one “eged” (bunch) like the four minim of the lulav, “la’asos retzoncha be’levav shalem” – to do your will with a “complete heart.” The reference to a “complete heart” can be understood as a hearkening to when we all stood as one united people at Har Sinai “keish echad be’lev echad” – “as one organic being, with a united heart” (Rashi, Shmos 19:2).
In this vein, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (Lev Eliyahu 4:339) provides a similar perspective to explain an apparent paradox. On the one hand, the month of Elul is a time of supreme trepidation, as indicated by the verse in Amos (3:6) – “if a shofar is blown in the city, how can the inhabitants not tremble?” And yet, the Tur points out (Orach Chaim, 581) that unlike most prisoners who are brought into court for their day of judgment in a state of disheveled despair, we are to wash, adorn and regally dress ourselves in preparation for Rosh Hashanah because we are so cheerfully confident of a positive verdict. Rabbi Lopian explains that both perspectives are indeed correct. From the standpoint of the individual, Rosh Hashanah is a terrifying day of judgment, as indicated in the words recited in the tear-inducing prayer “Unesaneh Tokef” – “a trembling and fright will seize them [the angels].” However, our confidence in approaching Rosh Hashanah is premised upon our knowledge that in our capacity as members of the entirety of the Jewish people, we will not be turned away.
But how do we truly internalize this powerful message? Outside of mouthing the words on Yom Kippur and combining the four minim of the lulav together on Sukkos, are we in fact uniting with all Jews, including them in our thoughts, prayers and deeds? Do we view ourselves as part of a larger Klal Yisroel that transcends our immediate communities, schools and synagogues?
In recent decades, we have witnessed a resurgence of the Orthodox Jewish community. The growth of families and communities is a wonderful sign of communal success. We should all express our tremendous gratitude for the gifts that have been bestowed upon us, rebuilding from the ashes of the Holocaust, and creating new life for the multitudes of Jewish families that suffered devastation and destruction. I remember feeling the powerful sensation at the recent Siyum HaShas of capturing just a small glimpse – an “echad b’shishim” (one-sixtieth measure), as one of the speakers essentially put it – of the grandeur and splendor of what we lost. The presence of Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, as a keynote speaker at the event, only underscored this overwhelming emotion.
It would be reasonable to assume that a language that contains the verb “to command” must also contain the verb “to obey.” The one implies the other, just as the concept of a question implies the possibility of an answer. We would, however, be wrong. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, but there is no word in biblical Hebrew that means “to obey.” When Hebrew was revived as a language of everyday speech in the nineteenth century, a word, letsayet, had to be borrowed from Aramaic. Until then there was no Hebrew word for “to obey.”
This is an astonishing fact and not everyone was aware of it. It led some Christians (and secularists) to misunderstand the nature of Judaism: very few Christian thinkers fully appreciated the concept of mitzvah and the idea that God might choose to reveal Himself in the form of laws. It also led some Jews to think about mitzvot in a way more appropriate to Islam (the word “Islam” means “submitting” to God’s law) than to Judaism. What word does the Torah use as the appropriate response to a mitzvah? Shema.
The root “sh-m-a” is a keyword in the book of Deuteronomy, where it occurs 92 times, usually in the sense of what God wants from us in response to the commandments. But the verb “sh-m-a” means many things. Here are some of the meanings it has in Genesis:
1) “To hear,” as in “Abram heard that his relative [Lot] had been taken captive” (14:14).
2) “To listen, pay attention, heed,” as in “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree” (3:17) and “Then Rachel said: ‘God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son’ ” (30:7).
3) “To understand,” as in “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (11:7). This is how tradition understood the later phrase, “na’aseh v’nishma” (Exodus 24:7) to mean, “First we will do, then understand.”
4) “To be willing to obey,” as in the angel’s words to Abraham after the binding of Isaac: “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you were willing to obey me” (22:18). Abraham was about to obey God’s command but at the last moment an angel said, “Stop.”
5) “To respond in deed, to do what someone else wants” as in “Do whatever Sarah tells you” (shema bekolah, 21:12). It is in this last sense that it comes closest in meaning to “obey.”
The fact that sh-m-a means all these things suggests that in the Torah there is no concept of blind obedience. In general, a commander orders and a soldier obeys. A slave-owner orders and the slave obeys. There is no active thought process involved. The connection between the word of the commander and the deed of the commanded is one of action-and-reaction, stimulus-and-response. For practical purposes, the soldier or slave has no mind of his own. As Tennyson described the attitude of the soldiers before the Charge of the Light Brigade: “Ours not to reason why; ours but to do or die.”
That is not how the Torah conceives the relationship between God and us. God, who created us in His image, giving us freedom and the power to think, wants us to understand His commands. Ralbag (Gersonides, 1288-1344) argues that it is precisely this that makes the Torah different:
Behold our Torah is unique among all the other doctrines and religions that other nations have had, in that our Torah contains nothing that does not originate in equity and reason. Therefore this Divine Law attracts people in virtue of its essence, so that they behave in accordance with it. The laws and religions of other nations are not like this. They do not conform to equity and wisdom, but are foreign to the nature of man, and people obey them because of compulsion, out of fear of the threat of punishment but not because of their essence.”
Along similar lines the modern scholar David Weiss Halivni speaks of “the Jewish predilection for justified law,” and contrasts this with other cultures in the ancient world:
Ancient law in general is apodictic, without justification and without persuasion. Its style is categorical, demanding, and commanding … Ancient Near Eastern law in particular is devoid of any trace of desire to convince or to win hearts. It enjoins, prescribes, and orders, expecting to be heeded solely on the strength of being an official decree. It solicits no consent (through justification) from those to whom it is directed.
The Torah uses at least three devices to show that Jewish law is not arbitrary, a mere decree. First, especially evident throughout the book of Devarim, is the giving of reasons for the commands. Often, though not always, the reason has to do with the experience of the Israelites in Egypt. They know what it feels like to be oppressed, to be a stranger, an outsider. I want you to create a different kind of society, says God through Moses, where slavery is more limited, where everyone is free one day a week, where the poor do not go hungry, and the powerless are not denied justice.
The pasuk from which most of the halachos of gittin (divorce) are derived is in this week’s parshah. The pasuk says: “Ki yikach ish isha… vechasav lah sefer kerisus v’nasan b’yadah veshilchah mi’beiso – If a man marries a woman … and he wrote her a bill of divorce and placed it in her hand and sent her from his house” (Devarim 24:1).
Generally, the divorce process is when a husband writes a document of divorce and gives it to his wife. One halacha that results from this pasuk is that the husband or his agent must put the get in the hand (or possession) of his wife in order for the get to be valid. But this is problematic, for the rabbanan decreed that everything that a married woman acquires belongs to her husband. How then could the husband put the get into her possession if wherever he places it will acquire for him what he already owns? Even directly placing the get in her hands will be considered as if he gave it to himself, as she essentially has no property that belongs to her. Even property that she owned prior to their marriage is considered as belonging to her husband.
The Gemara in Gittin 77b answers that there is a concept called “gitta veyada ba’im k’echad – her get and her hand come together.” This means that since, if the get would be valid, she would have a hand of her own to receive the get, we thus credit her with already having her hand in this transaction – and the get is as valid as if he put it in her hand. The Gemara says that this rule also applies in a scenario whereby the husband places the get in her property. This is so since if the transaction would materialize, the property would belong to her, and we grant the property to her in order to facilitate the transaction.
The Ketzos Hachoshen (200:5) speculates as to whether we can apply this concept to monetary transactions as well. For example, if Reuven wants to give property to Shimon as a gift, one of the ways that property is acquired is by writing a shtar (document) and giving it to the buyer or to his property – similar to a get. Could Reuven place the gift document in the property and tell Shimon that he has given him the property? Would we say or not say that his property and his gift are combined? Since in order to acquire the property, Shimon needs to own the property that contains the document. And if he would own the property (the document would be in his possession) and therefore have the property acquired for him, perhaps it is a valid transaction – just as it is by a get.
The Ketzos Hachoshen then rules that this concept does not apply to monetary transactions. He explains that it can only be applicable to the scenario of a get. This is because there is a fundamental difference between the situations when a husband must “give” his wife a get and when a monetary document must change hands in order to activate a transaction. Regarding a real estate transaction, it is not sufficient to merely give the document to the buyer; rather, the buyer must acquire the document. Regarding a get, the woman need not acquire the get document; rather, the husband must merely place it in her hand or on her property. Since she does not need to acquire the get, the Gemara says that we can apply the concept of gitta veyada ba’im k’echad. The idea is that since she does not have to acquire the document and it only has to be considered on her property, we say that it is already considered to be her property – since we grant the fact that it will become her property. However, in a scenario whereby one must acquire the document in order for the transaction to take place, we cannot advance the property together with the transaction.
From the halacha that one may write a get on something from which it is forbidden to gain benefit, the Ketzos Hachoshen proves that a woman does not have to acquire her get in order for the divorce to be valid. The Rashba’s view is that anything that is forbidden to derive benefit from is not acquirable. If a woman is indeed required to acquire her get, how can it be valid when it is written on something that is not acquirable? Additionally, a man may force his wife to receive a get min haTorah. There is no acquisition that can take place against one’s will. The Ketzos draws from here that in fact a woman does not need to acquire her get; therefore the concept of gitta veyada ba’im k’echad only applies to a get and not to monetary transactions.
The Gaon, Rav Yisrael Hopstein, known as the Maggid of Koznice, was the prototype of Aharon HaKohen. He loved peace. When the dispute arose between the Chassidim and the Misnagdim he refused to participate in it. When asked to help the cause of the Chassidim, he replied: “Not through quarrels or excommunications can Chassidim hope to win, but only through showing their strength in the study of Torah, prayers, observing mitzvos and doing the work of Hashem.”
He would also say, “It is better to have an insincere peace than a sincere quarrel.” “If all Israel made peace with each other,” he said, “and if they gave a hand to each other and helped each other in true, sincere love, their strength would be so powerful that it would reach to the very throne of Hashem.”
No Separate Minyan
In one of the congregations near Koznice, a dispute arose between the Chassidim and the other members of the shul. Out of anger, the Chassidim, who were in the minority, decided to resign from the congregation and establish their own shul. When Rav Yisrael heard of this he became very aggravated and he summoned them to his home. He urged them to reconsider and return to their former congregation.
“There are terrible sins which the Torah warns against, such as idolatry, murder, and adultery,” said Rav Yisrael. “The Torah itemizes the various punishments that will accrue to one who commits these sins. But nowhere does the Torah specifically state that we should separate ourselves from these sins. Except in one place where it describes the dispute of Korach who quarreled with Moshe. There the Torah says (Devarim 16:21): ‘Separate yourselves from among this congregation that I may consume them…’ Thus we learn that quarreling is more dangerous than any other sin and we should avoid any person who quarrels.”
Thus did the Gaon try with all his power to keep the peace in his community.
The Forgotten People
Once a poor woman came to Rav Yisrael and cried, “Holy rav, please help me. My husband hates me and he doesn’t want to live with me anymore. He thinks I am ugly and a boor and now in my old age where can I go? Who will support me?”
“When he married me many years ago, he raved about my beauty and he whispered beautiful things in my ear. All through the years I worked very hard for him, I cooked, washed his clothes and raised his children and now as my reward he want to divorce me because he thinks I am old and ugly.”
Rav Yisrael summoned the husband to his study and asked him, “Is it true what your wife tells me?”
“It is true,” he answered, “what can I do if she disgusts me?”
Rav Yisrael said, “The din is with your wife. You cannot divorce her and you are required to support her all of her days.
Then turning to the heavens he cried out, “Lord of the Universe! Our lot is similar to this woman. We also come before You with an argument, for a din Torah.
“When You took us out of Mitzrayim and we stood at Har Sinai, we became Your chosen people. When You wed us at Har Sinai and we became Your beloved, You promised us everything – this world and the next world. We followed You for over two thousand years in fire and water. We gave up our lives for Your Holy Name – al Kiddush Hashem. The names of our ancestors are inscribed in blood in every generation.
“And now that we have grown old as a nation and as a people, You have forgotten us and want to throw us out. You turn us over to a terrible people to kill and murder us. You have no pity on us. Is that right?
“Therefore, O G-d, Lord of the Universe, just as I have awarded this case to this woman, please award us with Your kindness and return us again to Your good grace and show us Your loving kindness as or yore.”
The husband was so overawed with these powerful words uttered by the Rav Yisrael that he turned to his wife and embraced her and asked for her forgiveness.
Something implicit in the Torah from the very beginning becomes explicit in the book of Devarim. God is the God of love. More than we love Him, He loves us. Here, for instance, is the beginning of this week’s parshah:
“If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love [et ha-brit ve-et ha-chessed] with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13).
Again in the parshah we read: “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today” (ibid., 10:14-15).
And here is a verse from last week’s parshah: “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength” (ibid., 4:37).
The book of Deuteronomy is saturated with the language of love. The root a-h-v appears in Shemot twice, in Vayikra twice (both in Leviticus 19), in Badmibar not at all, but in Sefer Devarim 23 times. Devarim is a book about societal beatitude and the transformative power of love.
Nothing could be more misleading and invidious than the Christian contrast between Christianity as a religion of love and forgiveness and Judaism as a religion of law and retribution. As I pointed out in my column on Parshat Vayigash, forgiveness is born (as David Konstan notes in Before Forgiveness) in Judaism. Interpersonal forgiveness begins when Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Divine forgiveness starts with the institution of Yom Kippur as the supreme day of Divine pardon following the sin of the Golden Calf.
Similarly with love: when the New Testament speaks of love it does so by direct quotation from Leviticus (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) and Deuteronomy (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might”). As philosopher Simon May puts it in his splendid book, Love: A History: “The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye,’ while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history. For the Hebrew Bible is the source not just of the two love commandments but of a larger moral vision inspired by wonder for love’s power.” His judgment is unequivocal: “If love in the Western world has a founding text, that text is Hebrew.”
More than this: in Ethical Life: The Past and Present of Ethical Cultures, philosopher Harry Redner distinguishes four basic visions of the ethical life in the history of civilizations. One he calls civic ethics, the ethics of ancient Greece and Rome. Second is the ethic of duty, which he identifies with Confucianism, Krishnaism and late Stoicism. Third is the ethic of honor, a distinctive combination of courtly and military decorum to be found among Persians, Arabs and Turks as well as in medieval Christianity (the “chivalrous knight”) and Islam.
The fourth, which he calls simply morality, he traces to Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He defines it simply as “the ethic of love,” and represents what made the West morally unique: “The biblical ‘love of one’s neighbor’ is a very special form of love, a unique development of the Judaic religion and unlike any to be encountered outside it. It is a supremely altruistic love, for to love one’s neighbor as oneself means always to put oneself in his place and to act on his behalf as one would naturally and selfishly act on one’s own.” To be sure, Buddhism also makes space for the idea of love, though it is differently inflected, more impersonal and unrelated to a relationship with God.
What is radical about this idea is that, first, the Torah insists, against virtually the whole of the ancient world, that the elements that constitute reality are neither hostile nor indifferent to humankind. We are here because Someone wanted us to be, One who cares about us, watches over us and seeks our wellbeing.