Saturday, June 6, 2015

Parshat Behaalotcha: Totally Dependent on Hashem

This last Shabbat's Parsha is one of my favorites. Of course, I am a bit biased. Parshat Behaalotcha is my Bar Mitzvah Parsha. Parshat Behaalotcha features something in it for everyone. The lighting of the Menorah, the choosing of the Leviites, Pesach Sheni, the flags and formations of the camp as they prepared to march into Eretz Yisrael, the blowing of the trumpets (the obligation for Tefilla according to Ramban), Chovav Moshe's father-in-law AKA Yitro, the upside down nuns of Chumash baseball fame, the Ark of the Covenant marching into battle, the complaints of the Benay Yisrael including one for "real" meat, Moshe's questioning his leadership abilities, Eldad and Meidad's mysterious prophecy in the camp, ending with Miriam's Lashon Hara and Tzaraat. What a packed Parsha!

The Rav, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik zt"l, uses this portion as a basis for a seminal lecture on leadership. I highly recommend that you listen to the recording and read the transcript as you will never be able to learn this Parsha and really the entire Sefer Bamidbar the same way again.

When I was learning through the Parsha today, I found two incidents to be particularly fascinating. The first half of the Parsha spends an inordinate amount of space focusing on the travels and encampments of Benay Yisrael in the desert led by the heavenly cloud, the Anan. Towards the end of the Parsha, there is a long story devoted to the Kivrot Hataavah, the graves of lust; the people who lusted for meat complaining that the Manna from heaven was inadequate and ultimately died in their own gluttonous orgy with the meat of the birds that Hashem sent still stuck between their teeth.

I believe that these two stories are actually two sides of the same coin. The story of the travels in the desert is presented in great detail. The Torah emphasizes that traveled according to the bidding of Hashem and encamped according to G'd's bidding. Sometimes the cloud would linger for days, months or a year so they stayed encamped. Other times the cloud lifted after a single day so they traveled. They never knew from one day to the next whether they would be staying or leaving being totally dependent on the will of G-d. The Seforno comments that this is presented to praise Benay Yisrael for their total obedience to G-d, quoting the famous verse from Yirmiyahu, לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה, they followed after G-d into the desert, a land without vegetation.

The story of the graves of lust is the polar opposite. Benay Yisrael complained about the Manna, lusting after meat instead. The Ramban explains that this was a thinly veiled critique not of the Manna per se but of the method of food procurement in the desert. Benay Yisrael wanted the security of having פת בסלו, food in their pantry available to be eaten later. The Manna fell every day and could not be stored from one day to the next except over Friday night for Shabbat. Dependence on the Manna was a constant act of total faith and dependence on Hashem. What guarantee did they have that they would have food from one day to the next? If the Manna didn't fall the next day, they starved. Only their constant G-d awareness is what gave them hope that they would have food in the future.

The people rebelled against this. They preferred the meat, the fish, the cucumbers, onions, watermelons, and garlic that they had in Egypt, free of charge. They no longer wanted this total dependence on Hashem for their daily sustenance. These people no longer wanted to follow after G-d into the desert, a land without anything to eat. They wanted a dependable source of food which they could trust in. For this they were punished.

I believe that this desert experience where Benay Yisrael were totally dependent on Hashem for their basic needs is a microcosm for our daily lives. The desert experience was not an otherworldly existence, actually it was the REAL world. Really, we are all always totally dependent on Hashem EVERY day of our lives. Just in the desert, this was much more obvious. There was no way anyone could say otherwise. It was clear that everything came from G-d. Recognizing this is what Benay Yisrael is praised for early in the Parsha and a lack of this recognition leads to tragic results later in the portion. In our world, this is less clear. We need to put in effort and it appears that it is this effort that determines if we get more or less, if we make millions or live barely over the poverty line. However, in reality, we are just as dependent on Hashem as our ancestors in the desert. It is our challenge to recognize this and act accordingly.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Show your support for innovative ideas in Jewish education. Please vote for the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge. #atidchallenge

Now I know why I never became a politician. I HATE asking for your vote. BUT, please click on this link to watch the presentation of our 10th grade Nach Pottery project designed by myself and my other very talented and devoted colleagues at The Frisch School. This was an interdisciplinary project which every 10th grade Nach class participated in before Yom Kippur in which our students experienced Jeremiah's vision from chapter 18 at the Potter's House first hand by creating their own pottery. They then compared this vision with the classic piyut from the Yom Kippur liturgy, כחומר ביד היוצר. I could explain in detail what made this process such a substantial and deep learning experience but I have already blogged about this on this TanachRav blog here, here, and here.

One thing that I am particularly proud of is that this was not an individual project for just my Nach class but a group project for the entire 10th grade. In my role in educational technology, I always like to work behind the scenes. I tell my fellow colleagues that my job is to make them look good. I am almost embarrassed to promote something that was just done in my classroom. However, in this case, thanks to strong leadership from our Nach Department Chair, Mrs. Rachel Besser, and the head of our Art department, Ms. Ahuva Mantell, every 10th grade Nach student was able to participate in this unique experience. That is why we chose to enter it in the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge, we could publicize this model for others to use with their classes as well.

Now a little word about the Atid Innovation Challenge in general. One of the areas of Jewish education which we can always do more of is in sharing good ideas, creating a community of practice of professional Judaic educators. Obviously, there are many venues for this especially with the cognitive surplus that the online world brings to our fingertips through Lookjed, JEDCamp, JEDLab, and blogs like this space and others like Aaron Ross' Thinking About Chinuch. However, there is always the need for more innovative ideas in Jewish education so I applaud The Jewish Education Project, UJA Federation of NY, and PresentTense for setting up this exciting new space for showcasing Jewish innovation.

Once you are at the Atid Innovation Challenge take a look around at some of the other presentations. You can vote for more than one if you like. Two that I LOVE are the project by my good friend Moshe Rosenberg on bringing augmented reality into the Judaic Studies classroom and the project from Yeshivat Noam, where one of my daughters attends, about utilizing iPads to bring music education into the lower school classroom.

So PLEASE vote both for our project at Frisch, if you so desire, and for others that interest you as well. Then please share this posting with your friends and family so that others can recognize some of the innovative and creative lessons going on in Jewish education today.

Crossposted from TechRav

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Do ALL Positive Prophecies have to come true? The Perspectives of Jeremiah Chapter 18 and Chapter 28

The Book of Jeremiah appears to present two distinct perspectives on positive prophecies.

In the vision of the Clay in the Hands of the Potter from Chapter 18 which I have discussed at length here and here, Jeremiah appears to say that ALL prophecies are conditional.

7One instant I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to demolish and to destroy.ז. רֶגַע אֲדַבֵּר עַל גּוֹי וְעַל מַמְלָכָה לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ וּלְהַאֲבִיד:
8And when that nation repents of its evil for which I spoke concerning it, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to it.ח. וְשָׁב הַגּוֹי הַהוּא מֵרָעָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי עָלָיו וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר חָשַׁבְתִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ:
9And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant,ט. וְרֶגַע אֲדַבֵּר עַל גּוֹי וְעַל מַמְלָכָה לִבְנוֹת וְלִנְטוֹעַ:
10And it will do what is evil in My eyes, not to hearken to My voice, I will repent of the good I said to benefit it.י. וְעָשָׂה הָרַע בְּעֵינַי לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹלִי וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי לְהֵיטִיב אוֹתוֹ:

G-d states that he will repent, or more literally "change" so to speak, from both an evil prediction and an good prediction based on the people's actions. This is the approach of both Malbim and Shadal.

Shadal states that G-d can decree something good on the nation and if the nation goes back, transforming her ways from the [the good] way it was before [to evil ways], then G-d will transform his positive decree, completely changing the situation of the nation [for the bad].

Malbim is a bit more hopeful, emphasizing the fact that any act of destruction on G-d's part is really a positive act to ultimately improve the person.

גם השבירה הוא כדי לתקן ולהיטיב וזה רמז במה שאמר להיטיב אותו שהיה לו לומר להיטיב לו, שרצה לומר בכונת הנמשל שמתנחם על הטובה ותכלית ההתנחמות הוא כדי להיטיב את האיש ולהחזירו למוטב.

However, fundamentally the Malbim still agrees that G-d will "change his mind" about doing the good that was originally planned for the people since the people have changed for the bad.

The Radak interprets the verses quite differently in a way that I believe is not the simple pshat.

לבנות ולנטוע -פירש וכן עשיתי שבניתים ונטעתים ואחר כך עשה הרע ונחמתי והוצרכנו לפירוש הזה, לפי שצריך להפריש בין שתי המדות האלה, כי הרעה לא תחול אם יעשו תשובה, אבל הטובה תחול על כל פנים, כיון שיעדה האל אבל לא תעמוד אם יעשו הרעה, כמו שאמר ירמיהו לחנניה בן עזור ויש רמז בענין הזה, כי ברעה אמר:

According to the Radak, G-d must perform the positive prophecy even if the people have changed for the bad. The good prophecy might be short-lived in such a case but it will occur nevertheless. The reason for this, the Radak states is the existence of a second perspective on prophecy later in the Book of Jeremiah, the showdown between Jeremiah the Prophet and Hananiah the son of Azzur the prophet in Chapter 28.

1And it came to pass in that year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year in the fifth month, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet who was from Gibeon, said to me in the house of the Lord before the eyes of the priests and all the people, saying:א. וַיְהִי | בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא בְּרֵאשִׁית מַמְלֶכֶת צִדְקִיָּה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה בַּשָּׁנָה הָרְבִעִית בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי אָמַר אֵלַי חֲנַנְיָה בֶן עַזּוּר הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר מִגִּבְעוֹן בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה לְעֵינֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וְכָל הָעָם לֵאמֹר:
2So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, saying: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.ב. כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר שָׁבַרְתִּי אֶת עֹל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל:
3In another two years, I will restore to this place all the vessels of the house of the Lord, that Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has taken from this place and brought to Babylon.ג. בְּעוֹד | שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים אֲנִי מֵשִׁיב אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל כְּלֵי בֵּית יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר לָקַח נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיְבִיאֵם בָּבֶל:
4And Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim the king of Judah and all the exile of Judah coming to Babylon, I will restore to this place, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.ד. וְאֶת יְכָנְיָה בֶן יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וְאֶת כָּל גָּלוּת יְהוּדָה הַבָּאִים בָּבֶלָה אֲנִי מֵשִׁיב אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה נְאֻם יְהֹוָה כִּי אֶשְׁבֹּר אֶת עֹל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל:
5And Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet before the eyes of the priests and before the eyes of all the people standing in the house of the Lord.ה. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אֶל חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא לְעֵינֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וּלְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם הָעֹמְדִים בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה:
6And Jeremiah the prophet said, "Amen! So may the Lord do. May the Lord fulfill your words that you have prophesied, to return the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exile from Babylon to this place.ו. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אָמֵן כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה יְהֹוָה יָקֵם יְהֹוָה אֶת דְּבָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נִבֵּאתָ לְהָשִׁיב כְּלֵי בֵית יְהֹוָה וְכָל הַגּוֹלָה מִבָּבֶל אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:
7But, hearken now to this thing that I speak in your ears and in the ears of all the people.ז. אַךְ שְׁמַע נָא הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֶיךָ וּבְאָזְנֵי כָּל הָעָם:
8The prophets who were before me and before you of old, and prophesied concerning many lands and great kingdoms for war and for evil and for pestilenceח. הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ לְפָנַי וּלְפָנֶיךָ מִן הָעוֹלָם וַיִּנָּבְאוּ אֶל אֲרָצוֹת רַבּוֹת וְעַל מַמְלָכוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת לְמִלְחָמָה וּלְרָעָה וּלְדָבֶר:
9The prophet who would prophesy for peace, when the word of the prophet would come, the prophet whom the Lord had truly sent would be known.ט. הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יִנָּבֵא לְשָׁלוֹם בְּבֹא דְּבַר הַנָּבִיא יִוָּדַע הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ יְהֹוָה בֶּאֱמֶת

In this story, Hananiah, who is described throughout as "the prophet" just like Jeremiah, challenges Jeremiah's predictions of doom and gloom. The setting is the time of King Zedekiah after King Jehoiakim has been killed and his son and heir to the throne, Jeconiah, has been deposed from the throne by Nebuchadnezzar and exiled to Babylon together with the Cheresh U'Masger, the upper echelon of Jewish thinkers and leaders. Nebuchadnezzar has installed Zedekiah, Jehoiakim's older brother as the puppet ruler, and Judah is itching for a rebellion to throw off the yoke of Babylon, return the exiles, and restore the glory of the Temple and monarchy. 

Jeremiah for years has been beseeching the people to submit to the yoke of Babylon, actually wearing a yoke around his neck. The prophet Hananiah brings a more positive message. The yoke of Babylon has been broken and in two short years the temple treasures will be returned and the rightful king, Jeconiah, will be restored. How does one distinguish between these two competing prophecies?

Jeremiah gives a clear, unequivocal response. He wishes Hananiah's prophecy would be proven true. And if it would, this would in no way, contradict Jeremiah's predictions of bad since a bad prophecy can in fact be overturned and change if the people change. But Hananiah's prophecy since it was a prophecy of peace, MUST come true. If it does not, then it is clear proof that Hananiah is an impostor, a false prophet.

The chapter ends with a definitive conclusion to the showdown.

15And Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet: The Lord did not send you, and you assured this people with a lie.טו. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אֶל חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא שְׁמַע נָא חֲנַנְיָה לֹא שְׁלָחֲךָ יְהֹוָה וְאַתָּה הִבְטַחְתָּ אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה עַל שָׁקֶר:
16Therefore, so said the Lord: Behold I send you off the face of the earth; this year you shall die, for you have spoken perversion against the Lord.טז. לָכֵן כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה הִנְנִי מְשַׁלֵּחֲךָ מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה הַשָּׁנָה אַתָּה מֵת כִּי סָרָה דִבַּרְתָּ אֶל יְהֹוָה:
17And Hananiah the prophet died in that year, in the seventh month.יז. וַיָּמָת חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי:

Hananiah is proven to be a false prophet and less than a year after his prediction of a glorious return in two years time, Hananiah is dead.

It is for this reason, that the Radak felt it necessary to interpret chapter 18 in a way that is less than the simple understanding of the verses. Based on Chapter 28, it is clear that when referring to real prophets, good prophecies MUST come true. Bad prophecies are conditional on the behavior of the people who can always do Teshuva to transform their fate.

What of Shadal and Malbim who have already interpreted in Chapter 18 that even predictions for the good can be changed to evil based on the actions of the people?

Both Malbim and Shadal emphasize that the reason that the good prediction of Hananiah must come to true is in order to prove that he is a true prophet. It is not that ALL positive prophecies must come true. It is that a positive prophecy coming true precisely as predicted is the method utilized to PROVE the veracity of a true prophet.

The Malbim explains.

אך שמע נא וכו' הנביאים וכו' -הנה רוב הנביאים נבאו נבואת פורעניות, כי תכלית שליחת הנביא הוא להודיע את העם הרעה שעתידה לבא עליהם כדי שישובו בתשובה, ולבעבור זה היה ה' שולח נביא, אבל לא לבשר טובות העתידות לבא בזמן קרוב, שלמה יודיעם זאת על ידי נביא, ולא יצוייר שישלח את הנביא להודיע יעוד של טובה רק אם נצרך לזה כדי להחזיק את הנביא, שהנביא יוחזק לנביא אמת אם יתקיימו יעודיו אשר יעד, כמו שאמר: וכי תאמר בלבבך איכה נדע את הדבר אשר לא דברו ה', הדבר אשר ידבר הנביא בשם ה' ולא יהיה הדבר וכו' הוא הדבר אשר לא דברו ה', וזה דווקא אם נבא יעוד טוב, משאם כך ביעודים הרעים כשלא יבואו לא יכזב הנביא, כי יוכל להיות שישתנה הגזרה אם ישובו בתשובה...

הנביא אשר ינבא לשלום -
רצה לומר אם תראה שנביא ינבא לפעמים נבואה טובה, זה הוא רק על התכלית כדי שבבא דבר הנביא יודע הנביא, הוא לצורך הנביא עצמו להחזיק אותו לנביא אמת שיודע כי שלחו ה' באמת, רצה לומר ואם כן אתה שבאת לבשר בשורה טובה, אם שלחך ה' לזאת. על כן הוא כדי שבבוא הבשורה תודע לנביא אמת ואם כן צריך אתה להמתין עד שיהיה כדבריך כי אז יודע שאתה נביא, ועתה עדיין אין נבואתך מוחזקת.

The purpose of prophecy according to Malbim is not to predict the future but to shape the future. Therefore, true prophets rarely predict positive events. This is especially true of positive predictions that are for the near future. Prophets might bring positive messages for a distant messianic era. But they will rarely make a positive prediction with a short event horizon. This is because their job is to mostly focus on what the people are doing wrong that needs improving. It is like the rabbi giving a sermon in a shul. He will rarely say, "Guys, you are doing great!" This has little positive purpose. Rather, he will focus on areas of improvement.

Therefore a true prophet will really only make a positive prediction about a near term event to prove his veracity as a prophet. In addition, because of the possibility for Teshuva, a prophet can only be proven based on his positive prophecies. A negative prophecy that does not come true can always be attributed to the people's transformation and would not cast a doubt on the mission of the prophet.

It is for this reason that in the showdown with Hananiah, Jeremiah's response was to wait it out. Hananiah at that moment could neither be proven or disproven. But if his prophecy did not come true in the two year window he gave, then certainly he would be proven to be a false prophet.

Similarly, Shadal says based on Abravanel that the only reason that Hananiah's positive prophecy in this case MUST come true is because it he is contradicting negative predictions by many other verified prophets. When trying to determine who is the true prophet, a positive prophecy must come true.

Both Malbim and Shadal believe that the fundamental perspective on prophecy is that of Chapter 18. G-d is the potter molding the fate of his people. The job of the prophet is to assist in molding the people by giving long term prophecies, usually negative but sometimes positive in nature, that can help mold the people. Chapter 28 is talking either about the stage when the prophet is still being verified as a true prophet or when the prophet is challenging the prophecies of other established prophets who preceded him. To prove the prophet, his positive predictions MUST come true. But once he is established as a prophet this is no longer the case, since predicting the future is really not the prophet's primary job description. His job is to change the people.

Radak, on the other hand, believes that Chapter 28 is the fundamental source. All positive prophecies MUST come true. No exceptions. The actions of the people could minimize the duration or affect of the positive vision but the vision must occur nevertheless. This could be based on the idea which is stated in the Talmud Berachot 7a, that when G-d makes a prediction for good, it can never return empty handed. It is like a parent who promises his child a reward for good behavior. Even if the child then do something bad, he must follow through on his promised reward. He can then punish the child in a different way later, but to take back the promised reward could cause the child to lose faith in the truthfulness of the parent.

In my next post, I will focus on the opinions of Rambam and Ramban about the nature of positive prophecies. I welcome your constructive feedback in the comments to this posting.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

That Magic Classroom Moment: Follow-up on the Clay in the Hands of the Potter Project

As a teacher, I cannot really plan for them. I can design learning activities and facilitate classroom discussions. However, it is up to the students to think deeply, make new discoveries, and create connections which they did not even realize existed. When they do,  it can be pure magic. Yesterday was one such moment.

We had two days of rich classroom discussions following up on our כחומר ביד היוצר, Clay in the Hands of the Potter project on Jeremiah Chapter 18 and the Yom Kippur Night Piyut which I described in detail here. After discussing who exactly was the Potter in Jeremiah's prophecy, obviously G-d, although some students pointed out that it could in fact be G-d AND the House of Israel since our Teshuva can actually change how G-d molds the clay.

Then we discussed the identity of the clay which in the case of Jeremiah Chapter 18 is clearly the prophecy. The students realized the connection between the prophecy and their experience molding their own clay. They first had to beat down their clay before forming it to get out the air bubbles. Without this, when placed into the kiln later in the process the clay would explode. Similarly G-d tells Jeremiah in chapter 18 that one moment a prophecy can be made לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ, וּלְהַאֲבִיד, to pluck up, to break down, to destroy. If the nation then does Teshuva, this prophecy can be transformed for the good.

We then turned back to Jeremiah Chapter 1 to wrap up the unit before the Sukkot break. We had ended prior to turning to Chapter 18 with G-d calling Jeremiah to be a prophet, Jeremiah's response that he was just a boy, and G-d touching Jeremiah's lips. We now turned to the actual content of G-d's opening message to Jeremiah. G-d told Jeremiah:

10Behold, I have appointed you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to uproot and to crush, and to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.י. רְאֵה הִפְקַדְתִּיךָ | הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה עַל הַגּוֹיִם וְעַל הַמַּמְלָכוֹת לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ וּלְהַאֲבִיד וְלַהֲרוֹס לִבְנוֹת וְלִנְטוֹעַ:

My students' eyes lit up as one exclaimed:

G-d is telling Jeremiah that he is the Potter! 

At that moment, the entire class realized, including me, that Jeremiah Chapter 18 summarizes the ENTIRE book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah's primary role throughout his life is to help shape the destiny of the Children of Israel. He is the Potter and the destiny of his people is the clay. Even though the majority of Jeremiah focuses on destruction. It is never in fact a destructive act. He is actually creating a new and greater future for Israel and without the beating down of the clay, the knocking out of the air bubbles so to speak, this destiny would never be possible. This puts a new perspective on ALL of our learning this year. What a magical moment!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Like Clay in the Hands of the Potter: a Yirmiyahu, Pre-Yom Kippur Nach Project

To start the new year, the Frisch Nach Department decided to do something creative for our 10th grade classes, to conduct class in the Art Room.

In 10th grade, we study the Book of Jeremiah. One of the many fascinating prophecies from the book is in chapter 18 when G-d tells Jeremiah to go down to the house of a potter and watch him do his work on the potter's wheel. Jeremiah notes how the potter constantly reworks the clay, he makes a vessel and then pushes it down again. He can rework the clay as many times as he wishes until he designs the vessel to his liking. G-d then says that this is how he relates to the house of Israel. One moment he communicates a prophecy of destruction and then if the nation does Teshuva, he can relent, so to speak, and transform this prophecy for good. Likewise it works the other way as well. G-d can give a positive prophecy and if the people change for the worse, he can transform this prophecy as well. You can learn through this chapter here and watch a beautiful video rendition of this prophecy here.

Jeremiah's vision can lead to many discussions on the true role of the prophet not as a seer who predicts the future but as one who shapes the future. It also opens the fundamental question about whether a prophecy for good can in fact be changed. For more on this, see the Radak on Jeremiah 18 and the Malbim on Isaiah Chapter 10-11.

This prophecy has been imported into our Yom Kippur liturgy in the classic piyut which highlights the Yom Kippur evening service for Ashkenazic Jewry, כחומר ביד היוצר, Like Clay in the Hands of the Potter. This piyut creates an analogy between clay in the hands of the potter which can be expanded and contracted at will and our complete dependence on G-d. The piyut then continues with many similar analogies between us and God and a stone in the hands of a mason, iron in the hands of a blacksmith, an anchor in the hands of a seaman, glass in the hands of a glass-blower, a tapestry in the hands of a weaver, and silver in the hands of a silversmith. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zatzal as quoted in the Artscroll Mesoras HaRav Yom Kippur Machzor says that this piyut represents the climax of the Yom Kippur evening service which focuses on the lowliness of Man and our complete dependence on G-d. You can read this piyut in Hebrew here and in English here. You can listen to a stirring rendition of this piyut here.

Both Jeremiah's prophecy and the piyut create obvious opportunities for active learning. G-d didn't tell Jeremiah about what it was like to be a potter. He showed him by having Jeremiah visit a potter and experience the process with his own eyes. Wouldn't it be wonderful if our students could do the same? What makes this possible at Frisch is that we are blessed to have a very creative and talented artist and potter, Mrs. Ahuva Mantell, who heads our art department.

In past years, many Nach teachers have used her skills to demonstrate the art of pottery making when teaching Jeremiah Chapter 18. You can watch a video of her pottery demonstration from my 10th grade Nach class last year below.

One reflection from my students about this demonstration last year was that it was wonderful to watch Mrs. Mantell on the potter's wheel and even have a hand on the wheel oneself but it would have been even more meaningful if every student had the chance to form their own pottery. One other reflection on this past year was that since we did this project when we got up to the prophecy in Jeremiah in December, we were able to reference the Yom Kippur piyut but it was not that relevant since students were already looking forward to Chanukah as Yom Kippur had passed months before.

This year the entire Nach department led by Mrs. Rachel Besser, our department chair, and my fellow Nach teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Schachter, our Rosh Beit Midrash, and Mrs. Racheli Weiss, decided to remedy this by conducting a complete art project in which Mrs. Mantell not only demonstrated the Potter's Wheel but then gave students the chance to create their own pottery as well. This involved a little bit of moving around the curriculum, skipping to chapter 18 after introducing Jeremiah in chapter 1. However, we all felt that this year was an especially fortuitous opportunity to do this since we had an entire month of school prior to Yom Kippur to introduce Jeremiah and then conduct the art project.

Many teachers also noticed connections between chapter 1 and Jeremiah's vision in chapter 18. For example, Mrs. Racheli Weiss realized with her students that in the first chapter, Jeremiah is told that he must destroy and uproot the people and then build and plant. This same language, לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ, וּלְהַאֲבִיד...--לִבְנוֹת, וְלִנְטוֹעַ is used in chapter 18 as well. This reflects a fundamental idea which students experienced themselves when forming their clay. The first step in the process of working with clay is the beat it down again and again. One must do this to remove any air bubbles from the clay which would cause the clay the crack later in the process when burned in the kiln. Similarly, even Jeremiah's prophecies of destruction were all constructive in nature, לסתור על מנת לבנות.

Personally, I participated in the project with my students. As I am neither an artist or a potter, I found that I kept making mistakes with my clay. I formed something, was not satisfied with the finished product, and then broke it down again to start anew. I even came back later in the day to work with my clay again. It had already dried a bit so a creative art student showed me how to apply just enough moisture to be able to form it again. I became very invested in this clay. I could only imagine how G-d must feel in his multi-millennium investment in the Jewish people in trying to form them into an exemplary nation.

My Yom Kippur evening was so much more meaningful because of this chance to "imitate G-d" in the art room. Many students throughout different Nach classes also expressed how this project enhanced their Yom Kippur experience. Students said how they really understood Yirmiyahu 18 in a deeper and richer way, and many commented how excited they were to say the piyyut in shul. One of Mrs. Besser's students even said that it changed his understanding of the entire Yom Kippur when he realized that all the davening is really about our relationship with Hashem.

In my class today, the prophecy and project led to a rich discussion comparing and contrasting Jeremiah's vision with the Yom Kippur Piyut. In both sources, the יוצר, the Potter, is G-d. However, the question that was discussed is who is the חומר, the clay.

In the Piyut, the answer is obvious. The clay is each individual member of the Jewish people. We are the clay. We are totally dependent on G-d who molds and shapes our lives and sometimes even our very actions. For this reason, we plead with G-d on Yom Kippur night to look to his ברית, the everlasting covenant first made with Avraham at the ברית בין הבתרים, the covenant between the parts, and later reaffirmed at Har Sinai to all of the Children of Israel and not to look to our יצר, our evil inclination which has caused us to sin and stumble.

However, in Jeremiah's prophecy the identity of the clay is not as clear. At first glance, it seems to describe the Jewish people. But after a more careful analysis, one student said that it was really the destiny of the Jewish people, the prophetic vision of the future that is the clay. G-d can form this vision and transform this vision from bad to good based on our actions. In this case, the prophecy does not speak to the Lowliness of Man like the Piyut but to the Majesty of Man, a theme that was the focus of our Teshuva program this year. Humanity is so great that based on our good choices, we can actually cause G-d the Potter to, so to speak, change his mind and reform the clay to make a better tomorrow than originally predicted. In Jeremiah, this works both ways. Not only can G-d reform the evil prophecy to good based on our Teshuva but he can also transform a good prophecy to bad based on our bad decisions. It is all up to us.

In a few months, after the clay has been given its final form in the kiln and the students have painted their creations, I hope that we can have some type of presentation to show our works. However, I fear what will befall my personal creation considering what is yet to occur in chapter 19 of Jeremiah. Stay tuned.

(Cross-posted on Frisch Nach)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why were Pharaoh and the Egyptians punished for what they did to the Israelites?

One of the major themes of the Haggadah is that of divine justice; the Egyptians oppressed us in numerous ways and they received payback through the ten plagues and the miracles by the Yam Suf for their wicked deeds. This theme is not just limited to the Egyptian oppression but to every nation throughout history who has attempted to destroy the Jewish people; reaching its climax when after the meal we open the door for Eliyahu the prophet to herald the final redemption and beseech Hashem to pour out his wrath against the nations that know him not, שפוך חמתך.

There is one obvious question when studying this theme especially in reference to the Egyptians and other nations in Tanach whose oppression of the Israelites was divinely foretold and in some cases even applauded by the prophets. Why should the Egyptians (or Babylonians or Assyrians) be punished for what they did against the Jewish people if they were merely carrying out God's will? If Hashem told Avram at the Covenant Between the Parts that his descendants will be oppressed and enslaved in a strange land than shouldn't the Egyptian oppressors be rewarded for carrying this out? This question becomes even more pronounced in later prophecies. Jeremiah singles out Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire by name as the people who will lay waste to Judea and Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and exile the Jewish people. Why then is Nebuchadnezzar and his people worthy of punishment for fulfilling this prophecy?

This question is not my own. It was famously asked by both the Rambam and Ramban. In the shiur below, I present this question and go through some of the answers given by these classical commentaries and their significance for us. I am not sure if every one of their answers is satisfactory to me but I believe this is a very cogent question, unfortunately as relevant today as in more ancient times. Please watch the shiur and go through the sources below and feel free to continue this discussion at your seder and summarize any interesting insights you gain in the comments to this posting.

I am indebted to Mrs. Racheli Weiss who shared with me the Ramban that became the basis for this shiur and to my students in 10T1 Nach in The Frisch School who persisted in their questions as we studied Jeremiah Chapter 25 which introduced Nebuchadnezzar as the tool of divine wrath. It was their vigorous questioning which compelled me to research this issue further.

 היינו דאמר ר' חנינא הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן 
תלמוד בבלי תענית דף ז עמוד א-

That is what Rabbi Hanina says: I have learned much from my teachers, and even more from my friends, but I have learned the most from my students.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why do we invite Eliyahu Hanavi to our Passover Seder?

Eliyahu Hanavi is one of the most fascinating people in Tanach and Rabbinic literature. Eliyahu appears in our Rabbinic literature as an old Zaidy or loving uncle who is a beloved guest at our every holiday and life cycle event. Eliyahu is the מלאך הברית for whom we set up a special chair, the כסא של אליהו, so he can attend every Brit Milah. He visits every Passover Seder, coming through the open door when we state שפוך חמתיך על הגוים, Pour out thy wrath against the nations, and "sips" from the כוסו של אליהו, the fifth cup of wine that we pour for him. We sing for his return every Motzi Shabbat immediately following Havdalah.

However, this is far removed from the persona of Eliyahu in much of Tanach. In Eliyahu's first appearance in Tanach, he stops the rain due to the wicked deeds of Achab and his generation, causing a 3 year famine. Later, Eliyahu only brings back the rain after his showdown with the prophets of Baal at Har Carmel who after being proven false, Eliyahu summarily slaughters.

Later, Eliyahu is forced to flee to the desert and sees a vision of God on Har Horeb (Har Sinai). Hashem first asks Eliyahu what he is doing there. Eliyahu's response illustrates his worldview. He says:

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַיהוָ֣ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי־עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ׃

I have been zealous for Hashem, God of hosts, because the Children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. I am the lone prophet left and they want to take my life as well. (Kings I, 19: 10; Translation is my own.)

Eliyahu indicts the Israelites for their wicked deeds. Hashem then proceeds to show him a vision of Wind, Thunder, and Fire in which God is in none of these, followed by a soft still voice in which Hashem appears. As the Malbim explains, Hashem is trying to communicate to Eliyahu through this vision that the proper approach of a prophet towards his people should not be one of harsh rebuke and stinging indictment but rather to pull them with cords of love and soft words. (For a more extensive elaboration on this approach see the book Yonah ben Amitai ve-Eliyahu: le-hora'at sefer Yonah al pi ha-mekorot by Rav Yehoshua Bachrach.)

However, Eliyahu refuses to accept this message. Even after this vision when Hashem asks him once again what he is doing here, Eliyahu's response is identical to the one he gave previously,

קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַיהוָ֣ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי־עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ.

Eliyahu is a zealot and will not change this about himself. Later on, Eliyahu kills legions of soldiers of Achab's son Achaziah with fire and eventually ascends to heaven on a chariot of fire. Eliyahu seems to hardly be the Zaidy or loving uncle that he is depicted in rabbinic literature. Based on this portrayal, I doubt that we would want to invite him to our Brit Milah or seder.

However, this is not the last time Eliyahu is mentioned in Tanach. Eliyahu makes one last appearance in Tanach in the last chapter of the Prophets.

ספר מלאכי פרק ג begins with a mention of the מלאך הברית:

הִנְנִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָכִי, וּפִנָּה דֶרֶךְ לְפָּנָּי; וּפִתְאֹׁם יָּבוֹׁא אֶל הֵיכָּלוֹׁ הָּאָדוֹׁן אֲשֶר אַתֶם מְבַקְשִים, וּמַלְאַךְ הַבְרִית אֲשֶר- - - - אַתֶם חֲפֵצִים הִנֵה בָּא - -אָמַר, יְהוָּה צְבָּאוֹׁת.

Behold I will send my messenger and he will clear a path before me and suddenly come to his sanctuary the lord that you seek, and the Malach HaBrit (messenger of the covenant) that you wish for behold comes, so says Hashem of Hosts. (Translation is my own.)

The identity of this "מַלְאַךְ הַבְרִית" is unclear in this verse but becomes abundantly clear when reading to the end of the chapter.

כג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא--לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם יְהוָה, הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא. כד וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם--פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.

Behold I will send for you Eliyahu the prophet before comes the Day of the Lord, the Great and Awesome Day. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons and the hearts of the sons to the fathers lest I come and destroy the land totally.(Translation is my own.)

The Eliyahu of Malachi, the Malach HaBrit who will turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons and the hearts of the sons to the fathers, seems to match well the depiction of Eliyahu in rabbinic literature. However, this does not answer the question but amplifies it. What changed between Eliyahu's ascension to the heavens in a chariot of fire in the Book of Kings and Eliyahu's return to herald the Moshiach in the end of Malachi? How could the same zealot who unwaveringly followed Midat HaDin, divine justice, when dealing with Achab and his generation transform into this symbol of God's mercy and compassion? Why do we invite Eliyahu to have an honored seat at every Brit and a special cup at our Pesach Seder?

I saw a lengthy well-researched article discussing this last issue about the cup for Eliyahu on the Seforim blog. You can read it here. He quotes many different reasons for the cup of Eliyahu first brought down in the late Rishonim/early Acharonim. One notable early source is Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (1671-1750) published in the early 16th century in both his Birchat Eliyahu and Shut Shtei Lechem which connects the כוסו של אליהו at the Seder with the כסא של אליהו at the Brit and, I believe, addresses our fundamental question about the character of Eliyahu as well. I have posted this source together with many of the other sources on this topic here. I will excerpt relevant portions of the Shut Shtei Lechem below.

ועל הכנת הכוס לאליהו זכרו לטוב יש לו שורש למטה וענף עץ עבות למעלה דהנה ודאי /שמעת/ שמעתי עד כה טעם הכנת הכסא לאליהו בשעת המילה וכינוי השם. שהוא אלי' מלאך הברית... והפה שאסור לדבר על ישראל שהפרו את הברית הוא הפה שמאשר ומעיד על ישראל ונעשה עצמו סניגור בהיותו עד הרואה שישראל מקיימין את הברית...

Concerning the Cup of Eliyahu it has a strong basis because the reason for preparing the Chair of Eliyahu at the time of the Milah and giving Eliyahu the nickname the Malach HaBrit is because... the mouth who indicted Israel stating that they forsook the Brit is the very mouth who will give testimony in support of Israel and become their defense attorney when he sees that they are keeping the Brit. (Loose translation is my own.)

Rabbi Moshe Chagiz is referencing a famous Midrash which states that since Eliyahu was the prosector against the Children of Israel accusing them of forsaking the Brit, his Tikkun for all eternity is that he will attend every Brit Milah and be able to testify forever that in fact the Jewish people have not forsaken the Brit. He will testify that through all generations even in times of great persecution and personal sacrifice, the Jews have kept the Brit.

א"כ הכא זכינו לקיים מנהגן של ישראל בליל פסח להכין לו כסא דמהמנותא ומטה ושולחן ערוך שבו ישראל מקיימים את הפסח שאחד מחוקותיהן ומשפטיו הישרים הוא ית' אשר צוה עליו וכל ערל לא יאכל בו... ובלילה הראשונה שנתקיימה מצוה זו מאכילת הפסח הוצרכו לקיים מצות מילה תחיל' כמ"ש ואעבור עליך מתבוססת בדמיך שדרז"ל זה דם מילה ודם פסח

Based on this, we have reason to establish the custom of Israel on the night of Pesach to prepare a cup of wine and a place at the table where we fulfill the Pesach [for Eliyahu]. Because one of the laws [of the Karban Pesach] is that an uncircumcised male cannot eat it. And on the first night that they fulfilled this mitzvah of eating the Pesach sacrifice, they first needed to fulfill the mitzvah of Brit Milah as it says in Yechezkel (16: 6) and I saw them steeped in blood [and I said, through your blood shall you live, through your blood shall you live]. Our rabbis teach us [that this double reference to blood] refers to the blood of the Milah and the Pesach. [The first two mitzvot the Children of Israel fulfilled prior to the Exodus from Egypt.] (Loose translation is my own.)

We see here the clear connection between the Chair of Eliyahu and the Cup of Eliyahu since the mitzvah of Milah and the mitzvah of Pesach are interconnected. A male cannot perform a Karban Pesach unless he has a Brit Milah. The Maharal and others explain this that the Man is considered to be born imperfect represented by the ערלה, the foreskin. In order to fully join Knesset Yisrael, one must perform the Brit Milah to remove the ערלה and make the Jew the proper receptacle for Kedushah. However, this is only a prerequisite. Then a Jew must do an action of service to Hashem which is represented by the Karban Pesach. This is also the reason why at the time of the Temple every male convert had to not only undergo Milah and Tevilah but had to bring a special Karban as well. (This begs the question of why women don't have a mitzvah comparable to the Brit Milah to "perfect" them but this is beyond the scope of the current discussion.)

אם ודאי להגיד שבחן של ישראל ולהזכיר לפני הקב"ה שהם קיימו מה שקבלו במצות פסח התלויה במילה אין כאן ספק כי בא יבא ברכת אליהו ז"ל בכל בתי ישראל לראות קיום המצוה אחת שהוא שתים פסח ומילה שהם מקיימים ויעלה לנו השמימה להליץ בעד כלל ופרט ישראל למהר ולהחיש גאולתם ופדיון נפשם בגאול' אחרונה דהאי דרגא בתראה דגואל אתקרי שיהיה בב"י =במהרה בימינו= אמן וזה פשוט וק"ל.

This is surely to tell the praises of Israel and to bring a remembrance before Hashem that they have fulfilled the mitzvah of Pesach which is dependent on Milah. There is no doubt that the blessing of Eliyahu will come to every Jewish house to see that they have fulfilled both the Pesach and Milah. This will go up to heaven as a positive testimony to hasten the final redemption speedily in our days. (Loose translation is my own.)

This beautiful idea can answer our seemingly contradictory portraits of Eliyahu. Eliyahu was and always will be a zealot for Hashem. However, once he comes to every Brit Milah and every Pesach Seder for all generations his attitude towards the Jewish people will change. Not because he has changed but because the מציאות, the reality of the situation, has changed. Once he sees that we never forsook the twin covenants of Milah and Pesach, he will become our greatest advocate.

I saw Rabbi Joseph Telushkin bring down this idea, I believe in his work Jewish Literacy. He added that it is up to us to educate Eliyahu. He will only be able to return as the perfect zealot for God in a perfected world. It is incumbent on us, the Jewish people, through our steadfast adherence to Milah and Pesach to prove to Eliyahu that the world is in fact worthy of him to return. Once Eliyahu has been given enough "proof", once he has attended enough of our Brit Milah ceremonies and Pesach Seders celebrating with us our devotion to our civenant with Hashem, he will return to herald the coming of the Moshiach as we say in Birchat Hamazon:

הרחמן הוא ישלח לנו את אליהו הנביא זכור לטוב ויבשר לנו בשורות טובות ישועות ונחמות

May the merciful one send us Eliyahu Hanavi of good memory to announce for us good news, salvations, and consolations.

From the Seforim Blog.