Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Parshas Vayera 5778

Why Were the People of Sodom Destroyed?

The Torah (Genesis 19:24-25) writes:
And the L-rd had rained down upon Sodom and Amorah brimstone and fire, from the L-rd, from the heavens. And He overturned these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the growth of the ground.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) tells us that G-d only punishes people only after warning them:
Rabbi Yosei says: With regard to every type of sorcery that is stated in the passage about sorcery, it is prohibited for a descendant of Noah to engage in it. This is derived from the verses: “When you come into the land that the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to do like the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a diviner, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a warlock, or a charmer, or one who consults a necromancer and a sorcerer, or directs inquiries to the dead. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations, the Lord your God is driving them out from before you” (Deuteronomy 18:9–12). Evidently, the Canaanites were punished for these practices; and since God would not have punished them for an action unless He first prohibited it, these practices are clearly prohibited to them.
The Torah also writes (Genesis 13:13):
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.
The Radak (ibid) explains:
The inhabitants of Sodom were evil and wicked. The word רעים describes their attitude to G’d, whereas the word חטאים describes their attitude to fellow human beings (non-residents.) They ignored all the seven Noachide laws, including idolatry, the other 6 laws dealing with inter-personal relations. The Torah, underlining the severity of these people’s wickedness, adds: מאד, “very much so.” They did not bother to conceal their evil deeds but carried them out in the open, brazenly.
However, why did they get punished for something that not everyone of them did? We find the answer in Sefer Ha-Ikarim (3:14):
Also a Noahite seeing another committing a robbery without preventing him is guilty of a capital crime. This is why all the inhabitants of Shechem deserved the penalty of death, because they saw Shechem committing a robbery and did not prosecute him, as Maimonides says in “Sefer Shofetim.”
We find similarly in the Rambam (Melachim 9:14):
.... It was for this reason all residents of the City of Shechem deserved to be executed. For Shechem kidnapped, and they saw and knew and failed to judge him. ....

How Many Commandments Were Given to Noachides?

The Rambam (Melachim 9:1) lists seven:
Regarding six things Adam, the First Man, was commanded: regarding foreign worship, and cursing God, and murder, and forbidden sexual relations, and theft, and [a justice system]. ... He added for Noah [the prohibition on eating] the limb of a live animal...
The Rambam (ibid 10:6) also adds two more:
According to the tradition Benei Noach are forbidden to breed cattle and to graft trees ...
The Rambam (ibid 10:7-8) also adds that circumcision was an extra commandment for the children of Abraham:
The circumcision – was only commanded to Avraham and his descendants as it states "You and your descendants after you, for generations" (Genesis 17, 9). This excludes the descendants of Yishmael, as it states "Because with Yitshak will be called your descendants." (Genesis 21, 12) – This excludes Esav for behold Yitzhak said to Yaakov "And the blessing of Avraham will be given to you, you and your descendants." (Genesis 28, 4) – It comes to teach us that he (Yaakov) only is the descendant of Avraham that upholds his righteous way and they (the descendants of Jacob) are obligated for circumcision. Our sages of blessed memory said that the children of Keturah who are the descendants of Avraham that came after Yishmael and Yitzhak – are obligated on circumcision. And because the children of Keturah are mixed together with the children of Yishmael, they are all obligated of [completing] circumcision by the eighth day. ...

The Location of Sodom

Interesting article in Archeology Today about the possibly location of Sodom as being in the delta of the Jordan rive, north of the Dead Sea

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Parshas Noach 5778

What was special about Nimrod?

The Torah writes (Genesis 10:8-10):
Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the LORD; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the LORD.” The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.
Rashi (ibid) explains that he convinced others to build the Tower of Babel:

Mighty in causing the whole world to rebel against the Holy One, blessed be He, by the plan he devised for the generation that witnessed the separation of the races (דור הפלגה) to build the Tower of Babel.
Targum Jerusalem explains that he convinced people not to listen to Shem:
He was mighty in hunting and in sin before the Lord; for he was a hunter of the sons of men in their languages. And he said to them, Leave the judgments of Shem, and adhere to the judgments of Nimrod.

(see also this article connecting Nimrod with Hammurabi like this: Amraphel is Hammurabi, and Chazal connect Amraphel with Nimrod, and this Targum) 

Midrash Tanchuma (Lech Lecha 16) explains that Nimrod caused people to do idolatry: 
This refers to Nimrod the Wicked, who used to make images and lead astray the children of Adam; for idolatry resembles falsehood
Chizkuni (Genesis 10:12) explains that people worshiped Nimrod as a G-d:
... Ashur was being disgusted with his own children acclaiming Nimrod as deity, so much so that he decided to move far north east ...

Ibn Ezra and Radak explain that this referred to his hunting prowess:
MIGHTY - to show the strength of men over the animals for he was a great hunter. BEFORE THE LORD —for he built altars and sacrificed animals on them to G-d
Chizkuni (ibid) explains that this was a preparation for Abraham:
... as predicted in the name of the Lord.” ... The Torah tells us that G-d decreed that a person of the type of Nimrod had to arise in order for Avraham to demonstrate that one could prevail even against such mighty warriors who defied the Lord ... According to tradition no ferocious beast ever escaped alive in an encounter with Nimrod. He was aided by G-d in attaining such a reputation so that G-d could demonstrate in due course that such apparently invincible warriors could not prevail against Him.
Tur Ha-Aroch (Genesis 10:7) explains that this was singling him out because he did not create a nation:
On the other hand, Nimrod did not develop into being founder of a nation. We know this because the Torah describes his exploits in a different manner in verse 9. We would have expected the Torah to write: ובני כוש נמרד, following the pattern established since the beginning of the chapter.
HaEmek Davar (ibid) explains that this was about rulership:
FIRST MAN OF MIGHT - From him originated the concept of kingship and rule over men. Truly, this was the will of G-d in order to upkeep the world for without a government, a fellow would eat his friend alive, and Nimrod was the one who began this. MIGHTY HUNTER BEFORE THE LORD - for through this he completed the will of G-d ... and therefore they say this over a man who was wicked but his deeds are desirable before G-d, and it is a wonder  so they say "like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord".
Tur HaAruch (Genesis 10:13) explains in a similar way but referring to war:
The correct interpretation of our verse (author’s words) is that he was the first individual to assert his power over his fellow human beings, making them subject to his will. He introduced organized warfare, commencing with his capture of Babylon. He followed this up by subjecting Assyria to his rule.
Radak explains in a similar fashion but learns that Nimrod lived after the separation of the people:
Nimrod displayed his power and bravery either vis a vis one nation, or even vis a vis numerous nations by conquering them and being appointed or appointing himself as their ruler, their king. Until the time of Nimrod no one had possessed the effrontery to lord it wholesale over his fellow man. Nimrod invented the concept of “dictator.” These developments were a by-product of mankind having dispersed over different areas of the globe after the collapse of their attempt to “conquer” heaven.
Malbim (Esther 1:1) explains the type of monarchy Nimrod had:
There were two types of monarchies:
  • The first was a monarchy in which the king was elected by the people.
  • The second type of monarchy was rule by force, in which the king conquered the country and became its ruler against the wishes of the people.
This is what is told about Nimrod, and from these two appear two different types of governing:
  • A. The powers of the king in the first type of monarchy were limited. The limitations to his actions are known. The limits of his powers were legislated already at the time of his election. Upon taking office, the king swore to follow the laws and practices of the country.
  • B. In the second type of monarchy, however, the powers of the king were unlimited. He does what he desires. Though he might seek the advice of ministers, he did what he wanted, changing the laws of the country and its practices as he saw fit. He is the king and the law maker, all in one.

When Did Nimrod Attack Abraham?

Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis Rabbah 38:13) explains that this was when Abraham rebelled against his father:
Terah took Abraham and passed him off to [King] Nimrod. ... Nimrod replied: You're just speaking words - I only worship fire. I will throw you into it, and the God you worship can save you from it.
Rabbeinu Bachya (Genesis 15:8) writes that Nimrod also tried to kill Abraham at birth:
According to a comment in the Sefer Hayashar at the time Avram was born a certain star in the eastern sky “swallowed “ four other stars in four directions of the sky. At that time Nimrod’s advisors said to him: “at this moment a son has been born to Terach whose descendants will produce a nation which will inherit the whole earth as well as the hereafter. If you agree, let us give his father a house full of gold and silver and get his permission to kill the baby.”

How Did Nimrod Die?

Daas Zeikenim (Genesis 25:30) explains:
for I am tired, worn out;” according to tradition, on that day Esau had killed Nimrod the foremost hunter in the world up to that time, and its ruler. Nimrod had challenged him to a duel as he had not asked him for permission to use his hunting grounds. He had consulted with his brother what to do about this. Yaakov had told him that as long as Nimrod was wearing the garments which had once belonged to Adam he was invincible. As soon as he would take off those garments he could easily be overcome. Esau engineered to find him without those garments and killed him. On that day he was exhausted from that effort.

Who Was Related to Nimrod?

According to Targum Jonathan (Genesis 14:14) Eliezer was Nimrod's son:

And when Abram heard that his brother was made captive, he armed his young men who were trained for war, grown up in his house; but they willed not to go with him. And he chose from them Eliezer the son of Nimrod, who was equal in strength to all the three hundred and eighteen; and he pursued unto Dan.

(Chizkuni on Genesis 15:2 learns it was his grandson, not son)

Targum Jonathan (Genesis 16:5) says that Hagar was his granddaughter:
And Sara said to Abram, All my affliction is from thee. Being secure that thou wouldst do me justice, I left the land and house of my father, and came up with thee to a foreign land; and forasmuch as I was not able to become a mother, I set free my handmaid, and gave her to lie in thy bosom; and she seeth that she had conceived, and mine honour is despised before her. But now is my affliction manifest before the Lord, who will spread peace between me and thee, and the land shall be replenished from us, nor shall we need the help of the progeny of Hagar the daughter of Pharoh bar Nimrod, who threw thee into the furnace of fire.
The Talmud (Chagigah 13a) learns that Nebuchadnezzar was a descendant of Nimrod (see Rashi ibid):
Rabbi Yochanan the son of Zakai said, "What is the answer that the heavenly voice answered to the same evildoer when he said, "I shall ascend on the heights of dense ground to the One Above (Isaiah 14:14)"? A heavenly voice went out and said to him, 'Evildoer the son of an evildoer the grandson of Nimrod the evildoer, who made the whole earth rebel against His rule.'"

What Gift Did Nimrod Give to Abraham?

Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (16) says that he gave him Eliezer (who was Og):
"The elder of the house of Abraham" was Eliezer, his servant. How did he become his servant? When he (i.e. Abraham) was leaving Ur Kasdim, all the great people of the generation gave him gifts. Nimrod signed over his servant Eliezer to Abraham. When he did kindness with Isaac, his son, Abraham freed him and G-d have him rewards in this world and he became king - he was Og, the king of Bashan.
(see above that Eliezer was Nimrod son or grandson)

Targum Jonathan (Genesis 48:22) says this refers to the garments of Adam:
And I, behold, I have given thee one portion. Above thy brethren, the robe of the first Adam. Abraham the father of my father took it from the hands of Nimrod the Wicked, and gave it to Izhak my father; and Izhak my father gave it to Esau, and I took it from the hands of Esau my brother, not with my sword nor with my bow, but through my righteousness and my good works.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Parshas Bereishis 5778

It is often thought that Parshas Bereishis which describes the account of creation of the world is in conflict with modern science. However, if we explore the entire spectrum of commentators, midrashim, meforshim, etc. there is plenty of room to reconcile the modern scientific view of how the Universe begin with one described in the Torah.

Who Created the World?
The Torah teaches us that the Universe was created by G-d, and that it has both a beginning and an end. However, according to science prior to the development of modern physics it was thought that the Universe existed forever and thus did not have a Creator. This view originated with the ancient Greek philosophers. However, in the last 100 years, a new scientific consensus developed which described the Universe as having a beginning (Big Bang theory) and possibly an end as well (Big Freeze or Big Crunch). This aligns closer to what the Torah is described than the older, "eternal universe" model. Modern physics does not however claim to have found what the original cause of the Universe coming into being was (although research into quantum fluctuations and such continues). Therefore, it seems that both science and the Torah agree that the Universe had a beginning and while the Torah claims that the beginning was caused by the Creator, science currently doesn't have an answer to that.

How was the Universe Created?
It is common to assume that every day of the first six days of Creation, G-d created something new. However, according to Rashi and other commentators all matter was created on the first day and then shaped/formed on the other days. The Ramban goes even further and explains that all of the matter in the Universe was initially created from nothing as a compressed dot and from that single dot / point, all of the Universe was shaped. This approach dovetails nicely with the prevalent scientific theory of the Big Bang where everything in the Universe came into being in some sort of a singularity from which everything else came from. However, it is important to note that the fact of who created the Universe is more important than the how.

When was the Universe Created?
According to the Torah, it seems that the Universe was created in six days, and less than 6,000 years ago. According to science, the Universe begun almost 14 billion years ago and the process did not take six days. First of all, it is interesting to note that the three measures of time that humans use are all derived from the movement of planetary bodies and those are: a day (from sun rise to sun rise), a month (from new moon to new moon) and a year (from sun position in the sky). If according to the Torah, the various celestial bodies were put in to place on the fourth day of Creation, how can the first three days be measured? Many of the commentators end up resolving this issue by relying on the primordial Light and Darkness to measure days and nights, instead of the sun, moon and the earth. So seemingly, the clock and measurements during the first six days of Creation, were not the necessarily the same as what we use today. Second, our calendar does not count from the first day of Creation but rather the sixth - the Creation of Man. One can argue, that perhaps the calendar may have even started towards the end of the sixth day when man was created, and all of the time prior to that may be using a different clock - which can be longer. As noted earlier, it is still more important to know who rather than when the Universe was created.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Parshas Zos haBracha 5778

In this week's parsha we find various blessings given by Moses to the various tribes. While most of us grew up with a view of these verses as interpreted by Rashi, there are many other opinions in the commentators. Here are some selected ones (see Sefer Shaarei Aharon for a complete list).

Reuben - the blessing that Moses gave this tribe was that "may Reuben live and not die". The obvious issue with this verse is that Reuben already died. While Rashi interprets this as referring to the world to come, Targum Onkelos interprets this as referring to the future day of Judgment and the death of the wicked following that day, thus asking G-d not to judge Reuben as wicked. Rabbeinu Bachya interprets this verse as a reference to reincarnation, asking G-d not to reincarnate Reuben again and let him die again, but rather keep him alive in the World of Souls. 

Simeon - is skipped, either because he never repented from the story of Schechem or because of the story of Baal Peor.

Judah - Tzror HaMor interprets the blessing as a reference to the four ways kings often win wars. As follows (33:7): "Hear, O LORD the voice of Judah" - through prayer;  "And restore him to his people" - through a larger army; "Though his own hands strive for him" - through their own strength; "Help him against his foes." - through outside help from G-d but not other human beings

Levi - while Rashi interprets the verse of the Tribe of Levi not knowing their families as a reference to the Golden Calf, Targum Jonathan interprets that verse as a reference to their work in the Temple / Tabernacle. Because the Tribe of Levi is performing their work elsewhere, they often do not see their families.

Benjamin - while Rashi interprets the blessing as referring to the land of Benjamin; the Talmud (Baba Bathra 17a) teaches us that this blessing means that Benjamin's body did not decay. The Talmud (Shabbos 55b) also tells us that Benjamin was one of the four people who never sinned.

Joseph - Rabbeinu Bachya cites from a Midrash that Joseph got a blessing for his land because he withstood the temptation of Potiphar's wife while Adam (the first man) got the land cursed because he listened to his wife. Also, Rashi interprets part of the blessing as referring to water coming from below the land, seemingly as a reference to mountain aquifer in Israel.

Zebulun and Issachar - the blessing to these tribes is interpreted by Rashi as a reference to Zebulun's commerce and Issachar's learning. Bechor Shor and Hizkuni interpret this as a reference to the commerce of Zebulun because he lived on the sea shore, and the tents that Issachar spread to watch over his fields because they were bountiful and he did not need to go out for commerce like his brother. HaEmek Davar learns that Zebulun and Issachar went to war together, and while Zebulun fought his brother had tents near the battle where he learned and prayed for his brother.

Gad - Shach learns that Gad wanted his land even though it was impure due to idol worship because Moses was going to be buried there. Malbim learns that they picked that land because it was given by Moses himself and not selected by lottery.

Dan - Gra learns that Dan is compared to a lion just like Judah, because they took land on opposite ends of Israel. Mincha Belula learns that Messiah will come from these two tribes with his mother from Dan, and his father from Judah.

Naphtali - HaEmek Davar learns that there are two types of riches - actual riches and being happy with what one has, and Naphtali had both.

Asher - Chizkuni learns that Asher was the one who told the other brothers about the story of Reuben and the couch. The brothers scolded him for it, and Moses here reverts that. The Talmud (Succah 56) teaches us that the brothers excommunicated Asher when they say that his daughter Serach knew that Joseph was sold (through prophecy). Moses here reverts the curse. Gra learns that the children of Asher were beautiful because of the oil and they married Kohanim who were rich (because of the incense).

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Parshas Eikev 5777

One of the things issues you find in both fiction and non fiction literature is the issue of continuity. Continuity is about the narrative making sense to the reader from a timing and location perspectives. That means that various characters in the story cannot simply appear and disappear in ways that are not realistic or do not resemble those in the real world. Often, a fiction author may resort to a possible but unlikely solution to these issues which often leave the readers somewhat confused.

We find a similar example of continuity in regards to the false witnesses (עדים זוממים) in Tractate Makkos. The usual way someone commits the sin of being a false witness is to bear witness along with another person against somebody, only to be proven by a second pair of witnesses to have been impossible such as him being elsewhere and not able to reach the original person/place in a reasonable time. The Talmud has a discussion about some plausible but unlikely scenarios such as very fast camels in order to solve some of these continuity questions.

In this week's parsha we find four instances of continuity being unclear:
  1. In regards to the Tablets that Moses took down from Mt. Sinai - the Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 10:1-3) that G-d commanded Moses to make an Ark for storage of the broken Tablets. However, we know that the Ark wasn't built until the Tabernacle was built, which took place either later that year or next year.
  2. In regards to the Golden Calf, we know that only one calf was made (Deuteronomy 9:16), however the language of the verses earlier (Exodus) imply there were multiple calves ("these are your gods, Israel", "lets make gods", etc).
  3. In regards to the Tent of Meeting, we find that Moses initially made the Tent outside the camp. However, when the Tabernacle was built, it was now called the tent of meeting and that's where G-d spoke to Moses. The term seems to refer to both.
  4. We also find that Joshua got the honor of being the next leader instead of the sons of Moses because "he didn't leave the Tent" (Exodus 33:11). Joshua wasn't a Levite and if the Tent of Meeting referred to the Tabernacle, how was he able to go there?
Many commentators discuss these questions, and here are some answers that may explain the issue of continuity:
  1.  As stated by Rashi here, there were two arks made. The first ark was made by Moses to store the broken Tablets, and the second Ark was made by Betzelel when the Tabernacle was made. There is a disagreement as to what happened with the first Ark:
    1. Some say it was put away and not used, and the Tablets were transferred to the second one.
    2. Other say it was used for war only and stored the broken Tablets.
    3. Another opinion says that the remains of the Tablets were transferred but they still used the first Ark for war.
  2. In regards to the Golden Calf, most opinions interpret the language as referring to one calf but because the word "gods" in Hebrew is plural (אלקים), it is written that way. However, there is an opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud that each tribe made their own calf, and another one was made for all of them, thus totally in 13 calves.
  3. Regarding the tents, there were in fact two tents. However, most opinions learn that the original tent was put away once the Tabernacle was built. There are opinions that learn that there were always two tents - one for serving and one for speaking to G-d.
  4. Regarding Joshua, it seems in the context of those verses that it was the first tent where Joshua didn't leave. It must have been that after the Tabernacle was built, there was still a separate tent for a house of learning.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Parshas Vayeschanan 5777

Bitcoins and Cows

Earlier this week a virtual currency called Bitcoin had a disagreement on how it is governed. The minority in this dispute ended up splitting off and creating a copy of the existing currency which resulted in every holder of the Bitcoin currency with equivalent holdings in the new "Bitcoin Cash" currency. However, the largest Bitcoin exchange in the world which holds these currencies on behalf of their owners, decided not to support the new currency. A well known lawyer commenting on this said that this maybe cause for legal action due to common law precedent.

One would think that the precedent cited in such dispute would be a banking or a stock trading case. However, the precedent is actually related to ... cows. US common law has a principle where a cow that gives birth to a calf while being cared of by someone else on behalf of its owner, results in the original owner having rights to the calf as well. What is surely a cutting edge story of 21st century technology and finance is now directly tied to common law which stretches back centuries.

Those who encounter Judaism are often struck on how much attention is focused on what is seemingly mundane civil law. Most of the material learned in many of the yeshivos is not around the philosophy of Judaism or its core principles, but rather around sundry details of civil law like property rights, laws of damages and similar topics. Similarly in this week's parsha we find that the 10 commandments consist of two parts: the first 5 focus on the relationship between a person and G-d, while the last 5 focus on the relationships between people including civil law. One would expect that the very foundation of Judaism - the 10 commandments - be solely focused on people and G-d, but that is not the case.

The answer is that while details of civil law such as goring livestock and newborn calves may seem mundane, the principles that underlie those laws are in fact not mundane at all. What we find as we examine these is that the minute details of these laws actually reveal important lessons in morality that the Torah teaches to us and can be applied in other areas of our lives as well.

The Kuzari Principle in the Torah

Sefer Kuzari written by Rabbi Yehuda haLevi is an important work of Jewish philosophy which describes how the King of the Khazars decided to convert to a monotheistic religion and invites the representatives of the major monotheistic faiths to convince him. One of the well know things from this book is something often called as the "Kuzari principle" - the fact that mass revelation at Mt. Sinai to millions of people is something that is unique and cannot be faked.

It seems that the original source for this is from this week's Parsha where this event is described along with the Exodus itself as being unique in history (Deuteronomy 4:32-35):

You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you, ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other: has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known? Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived? Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and awesome power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside Him.

The Torah Speaks in the Language of Mankind

In this week's Parsha we find a repetition of giving of the Torah that took place at Mt. Sinai. There are two issues that people often ask about in regards to this event:
  1. If G-d knows the future, why did He write in the Torah about all the things that we have today like electricity, space travel, computers, organ transplants, etc?
  2. The things that do appear in the Torah are hard to apply to today's world - especially many of the laws that seemingly are out of place with today's society. These include examples such as slavery, stoning, etc.
Practically speaking how would the Torah write down these things? At the time of the Revelation the vocabulary and understanding of these concepts did not exist, and would not exists for thousands of years? Instead the Torah addressed the people and society of that time. There is a well known principle in the Talmud that applies to the Torah - דברו תורה בלשון בני אדם - which can be translated as that the Torah speaks in the language that regular people use. One of the ways this is interpreted is in regards to the imagery used when referring to G-d - the Torah often describes G-d as having a hand or a nose. However, another way to interpret that principle is that the Torah was given during the time that it was, and used the language and setting of that time. However, at the same time the Torah encoded its eternal truths and principles within those laws.

Practically what that means is that since the society of that time had slavery, the Torah legislated laws of slavery. Since society had the principle of lex talionis or "eye of an eye", the Torah legislated that as well,  However, within those laws we find crucial differences - for example slaves could go free if their masters beat or abuse them. People who choose to have indentured servants had to support their entire family and set the servant free after six years. And "eye for an eye" is always satisfied through a financial payment. The principles that underlie these laws which are focused on rights of even the lowest classes of society is what stands eternal and separate from the laws themselves.

At the same time, the Torah also assigned unique power to the Sages. They had the power to enact decrees as the circumstances changed and apply the underlying principles as the circumstances and history changed. As an example, the Written Law requires that loans are forgiven every seven years but because this would lead to people not willing to lend, the Sages enacted the instrument of pruzbul which allowed the loans to remain past the seven year period. In more recent times various great leaders applied the laws of Sabbath of new technologies like electricity and mass transit.

So in order to transmit its core message, the Torah spoke to the people and society of that time, using the terminology and laws that they were familiar with. The Torah encoded its message within those laws and gave the Sages power to apply and adjust them to fit the circumstances that will come in the future.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Parshas Pinchas 5777

About Stories

When we are children, the stories that we are told are often simplified and are reduced to black and white. This is especially true in regards to good and evil, especially in regards to people and actions. However, it is only when we grow up that we realize that the world around us, ourselves included, does not operate in black and white terms but rather gray. People, events and actions are almost always gray, not wholly good or bad. We also find a similar phenomenon in adulthood in regards to things like politics and war, where great sections of the populace end up being convinced to believe in things in the same child-like terms of black and white, good and evil.

What actually happens in these cases is that as children, we are unable to yet grasp the complexity of the world. When we become adults, it is sometimes easier to revert to this child-like behavior as well. In both instances, we end up outsourcing our critical thinking to others and end up relying on their determination of what is good and evil, rather than doing that analysis ourselves. Unfortunately, reality is usually more nuanced, and is almost never black and white, good and evil.

The Story of Pinchas and Zimri

It is common for us to remain on the same "cheder" understanding of many stories in the Torah, which we are initially told when we are children. The same is true for the story of Pinchas and Zimri in this week's parsha. The simplistic understanding of the story goes as follows:

The evil Moabites and Midianites hated the newly redeemed Israelites. They did not have the military power to attack them directly, so they hired Bilaam to curse them. When Bilaam was unable to curse them, he recommended that they should try to entrap the Israelites in sin instead, so G-d gets angry at them and punishes them. The Midianites and Moabites proceeded to do just that by sending out their women to entice the Israelites men into multiple sins including immorality and idol worship. Among those enticed into sin was an evil man named Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. When Moshe and the other leaders started to judge those who sinned, Zimri who wanted to continue living in sin, grabbed his paramour - a princess named Cozbi, and brought her to Moshe. He challenged Moshe by asking: "Is she permitted or forbidden, and if she is forbidden how is that different from your wife, who is also a foreigner?". With Moshe unable to answer, he proceed to lead Cozbi with him to his tent. At that time, a righteous man named Pinchas - who was a grandson of Aharon haCohen and great-nephew of Moshe, but not a Cohen himself, approached. He was often mocked by others for also being a grandson of Yisro (through his mother). He took matters in his own hands and with a spear, killed both Zimri and Cozbi. The shocking action stopped both the populace that was sinning and the plague that G-d brought on them. As a reward, Pinchas was made a Cohen in his own right, even though he wasn't originally one.

In the classic simplistic retelling of the story, the lines are colored in black and white - the Moabites and Midianites are evil, and so is Zimri and Cozbi. On the other side we have the righteous Pinchas who was the underdog of the story. He leaps into action, does the right thing and gets rewarded. Bad guys lost, good guys win, and the curtain sets, right? However, if you look closer at the story we will find that things aren't quite black and white, good and evil, but quite more nuanced and gray, just like the real world is.

Moabites and Midianites

In the end of the previous week's parsha we find that the Israelite men sinned with Moabite women. However, it is the Midianites that end up being attacked later in Parshas Mattos and not the Moabites. The commentators explain that this was either because the Moabites motivation was fear which was legitimate, or it was because the idea to seduce the people came from Midian as the result of them hiring Bilaam. So while the simplistic reading of the story may imply that they did it because of hate, the more nuanced reading suggests that it may only have been the Midianites but not Moab.

Additionally, we also find that later on the Torah excludes Moabite men from joining the congregation but not Moabite women, because they did not bring out food and water. However, Moabite women like Ruth were not excluded because they were essentially powerless in a male-dominated society. This would seem to extend to the case here as well, where it seems that the women were forced into this episode and did not go into it of their own free will. Thus, while they may have gone on to try and seduce the Israelites, they may have been forced into it.

Zimri and Cozbi

The simplistic reading implies that Cozbi seduced Zimri, and then in the heat of passion he went and challenged the leadership of Moshe. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) tells us two facts that challenge this interpretation. First of all, Cozbi's name wasn't really Cozbi but she was called that because she wasn't true (Cozbi means "false") to what her father (Balak) told her to do. He commanded her to target the very top leadership like Moshe and Aharon, but instead when she ran into Zimri it was Zimri who convinced her to ago along with him.

The second thing that we find in the Talmud is that Zimri was not motivated by lust or passion. Rather, he acted after various members of his tribe of Shimon cam running to him asking for help once they saw that Moshe setup a court of law to judge and prosecute the sinners. It was only then that Zimri went ahead and decided to challenge the leadership of Moshe in order to save his people, not due to passion. It was a well intentioned but a misguided gesture.

We also find a curious coincidence. Our Sages tell us that Cozbi's father was Balak, and Balak himself was a grandson of Yisro. Pinchas's grandfather was also Yisro, and Moshe's father-in-law was Yisro as well. When Zimri brings Cozbi to Moshe and challenges him, this coincidence may take on a special meaning - Zimri was challenging Moshe's marriage with a daughter of Yisro by bringing in front of him a great-grand daughter of the same person - Yisro - and asking how can one be permitted and one be forbidden. It may be possible that this was part of Zimri's plan all along. 

The Act of Pinchas 

On a simplistic level, the story is read in a way that implies that the actual action that Pinchas did was a good thing. However, if we dig deeper there is an issue with it: Moshe setup a court of law and proceed to try and execute the sinners in accordance to Torah law. As the Sages discuss, the action of Pinchas was extra-judicial and lay outside of boundaries of regular Torah law. As mentioned by the Rambam, it was something that is not even normally taught for the fear of it being misused, if someone comes and asks whether it should be done we would tell him no, and if he gets killed in the process of trying to do it the other party cannot be prosecuted. It was vigilante justice  - an action taken only in extreme circumstances, and only by someone who can do it with 100% correct intentions. So while it accomplished the goal of stopping Zimri, shocking the other sinners and stopping the plague, the action itself lies outside the scope of normal Halacha as administrated by the courts of law.


In regards of Pinchas himself, we also find two additional incidents in his life where he was punished for what seems to be zealousness that should not have been pursued. The first incident happens when the Judge Yiftach makes a vow that ends up with his daughter about to be killed or banished. Our Sages tell us that both Yiftach and Pinchas were punished because they should have traveled to each other in order to have this vow annulled by Pinchas, but each thought that the other one should be the one traveling because of the proper honor of their respective positions (Judge and Cohen Gadol). As the result, Pinchas lost the gift of prophecy - for what seems to have been zealousness about the proper honor of his position, but not his personal honor.

We find a second incident later on, during the incident of the Concubine at Giveh, the entire nation ended up initiating a civil war which resulted in the tribe of Benjamin almost being wiped out. Tanna deBei Eliyahu writes that Pinchas was punished during this episode and was stripped of being the Cohen Gadol. Why - because he should have protested against the war plans. As commentators explain, he could not bring himself to protect the people who did a similar immoral action like Zimri.

Pinchas's Reward

While many commentators learn that Pinchas's reward was the grant of priesthood, there are others that disagree. The core of the disagreement revolves around a disagreement in the Talmud of when the priesthood was granted to Aharon if it included grandchildren already born or not. According to those that learn he was already a priest himself, the reward that he received was different (either that he would have a peaceful life or that many High Priests would descend from him).

Additional Notes

The commentators point out Pinchas was a descendant of Levi, and Zimri was a descendant of Shimon. The two brothers were the ones who acted in zealousness to protect their sister's honor during the episode of Dinah's kidnapping in Schechem, but now when Shimon's descendant sinned a similar way it was up to the remaining brother to act.

Another interesting thing that we find is that the Talmud tells us that Zimri was the same person as Shaul, son of Shimon, which many explain as being either the son of Simon and Dinah, or perhaps even the son of Schechem from Dinah who was adopted by Shimon as his step son.

We also find in the verses, that both Cozbi's father and Zimri may not have been the heads of their tribes (Midian and Shimon) but only the heads of one of the houses (there were 5 in Midian and 5 in Shimon).

There are discussions in Hassidic sefarim about that Pinchas was wrong and that Zimri was right in their actions based on Kabballah sources (see Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitz, in Sefer Mei Shiloach).