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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Siftei Chachamim’

Fear Or Distress?

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Jacob and Esau are about to meet again after a separation of 22 years. It is a fraught encounter. Once, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob as revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Will he do so now, or has time healed the wound? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. They return, saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with a force of 400 men. We then read: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Genesis 32:8).

The question is obvious. Jacob is in the grip of strong emotions. But why the duplication of verbs? What is the difference between fear and distress? To this a midrash gives a profound answer:

Rabbi Judah bar Ilai asked whether fear and distress are identical. The meaning, however, is that he was “afraid” that he might be killed and that he was “distressed” that he might kill. For Jacob thought that if he prevails against me, will he not kill me? If I prevail against him, will I not kill him? That is the meaning of “he was greatly afraid” – lest he should be killed – “and distressed” – lest he should kill.

The difference between being afraid and distressed, according to the midrash, is that the first is a physical anxiety while the second is a moral one. It is one thing to fear one’s own death, quite another to contemplate being the cause of someone else’s. However, a further question now arises. Surely self-defense is permitted in Jewish law. If Esau were to try to kill Jacob, Jacob would be justified in fighting back, if necessary at the cost of Esau’s life. Why then should this possibility raise moral qualms? This is the issue addressed by Rabbi Shabbetai Bass, author of the commentary on Rashi, Siftei Chachamim:

“One might argue that Jacob should surely not be distressed about the possibility of killing Esau, for there is an explicit rule: ‘If someone comes to kill you, forestall it by killing him.’ Nonetheless Jacob had qualms, fearing that in the course of the fight he might kill some of Esau’s men, who were not themselves intent on killing Jacob but merely on fighting Jacob’s men. And even though Esau’s men were pursuing Jacob’s men, and every person has the right to save the life of the pursued at the cost of the life of the pursuer, nevertheless there is a condition: ‘If the pursued could have been saved by maiming a limb of the pursuer, but instead the rescuer killed the pursuer, the rescuer is liable to capital punishment on that account.’ Hence Jacob feared that, in the confusion of battle, he might kill some of Esau’s men when he might have restrained them by merely inflicting injury on them.”

The principle at stake, according to the Siftei Chachamim, is the minimum use of force. Jacob was distressed at the possibility that in the heat of conflict he might kill some of the combatants when injury alone might have been all that was necessary to defend the lives of those – including his own – who were under attack.

There is, however, a second possibility, namely that the midrash means what it says, no more, no less: that Jacob was distressed at the possibility of being forced to kill, even if that were entirely justified.

At stake is the concept of a moral dilemma. A dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. One example: may we perform an abortion to save the life of the mother? This question has an answer. There is a right course of action and a wrong one. Two duties conflict and we have meta-halachic principles to tell us which takes priority. There are some systems in which all moral conflicts are of this kind. There is always a decision procedure and thus a determinate answer to the question, “What shall I do?”

A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer. I ought not to do A (allow myself to be killed); I ought not to do B (kill someone else); but I must do one or the other. To put it more precisely, there may be situations in which doing the right thing is not the end of the matter. The conflict may be inherently tragic. The fact that one principle (self-defense) overrides another (the prohibition against killing) does not mean that, faced with such a choice, I am without qualms. Sometimes being moral means that I experience distress at having to make such a choice. Doing the right thing may mean that I do not feel remorse or guilt, but I still feel regret or grief that I had to do it.

A Masterwork Completed – 84 Years Later

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

How long does it take to write and publish a book? One recently released work took some eighty-four years to see the light of day in Jerusalem. But with its publication the Torah world has been blessed with a new, vowelized edition of the Torah Temimah, complete with the supra-commentary Meshivat Nefesh – a work begun in the 1920s by a prolific rabbi among whose works was a weekly column several decades later in The Jewish Press.

Our story begins in 1921 in London, then moves to Los Angeles, Pinsk, Brooklyn, and, finally, Yerushalayim. A 25-year-old yeshiva bachur from London named Yaakov Moshe Feldman encounters a copy of the Torah Temimah and is immediately enthralled. Torah Temimah is an encyclopedic edition of the Chumash with relevant Talmudic and Midrashic passages cited on each verse and a brilliant commentary explaining and interpreting each passage.

It was authored by Rav Baruch HaLevy Epstein of Pinsk; his father, the author of the famed Aruch HaShulchan, wrote about Torah Temimah: “Anyone who delves into it will marvel and wonder how this great work could ever have come about, if not for special grace shown from Above.”

The work quickly became popular and to this day is frequently consulted in homes, synagogues and yeshivot throughout the world.

The young bachur, soon to become Rabbi Moses J. Feldman, learned in London’s Eitz Chaim Yeshiva, where his chavruta was Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, who later would serve as chief rabbi of Israel.

The bachur was in close contact with various leading rabbis even at his young age. He spent much time in the London home of HaRav A. I. Kook, another future chief rabbi of the Holy Land, who was stranded for five years in Great Britain when World War I prevented his return to Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Feldman (RYM) went on to become a leading rabbi in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was then the largest Jewish community west of Chicago.

In late 1928, RYM wrote to Rav Epstein of the great importance he ascribed to Torah Temimah and proposed to compile an index for the work. Rav Epstein “in his great humility, responded immediately” in two postcards, RYM related. In one, Rav Epstein stated he would be “grateful” for such a work, and asked to see a sample. In the second, written two months later, he praised what he saw and concluded with a blessing for success in whatever manner RYM would choose to carry out the work.

In reviewing the Torah Temimah, RYM noted that it was replete with technical and other errors, mainly bibliographical, due to the author’s having worked mainly from his memory (encyclopedic as it was widely acknowledged to be). RYM realized a complete critical review of the work was required, in addition to expanding many of the scholarly points raised by Rav Epstein.

In 1933, RYM sent several samples of what was to become the Meshivat Nefesh to a renowned Torah scholar, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hilman. Author of the Ohr HaYashar on the Yerushalmi, Rav Hilman founded the Ohel Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem, whose students included Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

Rav Hilman praised the Meshivat Nefesh samples he saw – but there it stopped; the work barely progressed for the next five decades. This was largely because RYM was busy with various responsibilities, including his monumental four-volume work Areshet Sefatenu (with two additional volumes still in manuscript). The title page describes it as a “Concordance, Interpretive Anthology, Dictionary of Biblical Quotations and Idioms, Source Book of Hebrew Prayer and Proverb.”

Finally, toward the end of his life, RYM got to work once again on Meshivat Nefesh, completing its last pages while on his deathbed. Two of his sons – Rabbi Dr. David M. Feldman, longtime beloved rabbi in Brooklyn and Teaneck and prolific author specializing in medical ethics, and the late attorney Eliot B. Feldman – lost no time in publishing Meshivat Nefesh in 1982.

As they wrote in the preface, RYM “completed the sacred task just prior to his death, on the 8th day of Pesach 1981…. [and was] delighted to have fulfilled his promise to the author of the Torah Temimah. He has, as well, fulfilled admirably his unspoken pledge, to the scholar and student, to render this monumental work whole in substance and accessible in form. Torat Hashem Temimah Meshivat Nafesh.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/a-masterwork-completed-84-years-later/2012/11/28/

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