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.