Sunday, September 4, 2016

3 Reasons You Should Use Sefaria For the New School Year

The following posting is cross-posted from TechRav.

I have always admired Sefaria, the online platform for Jewish text. I wholeheartedly subscribe to their vision of creating freely available, high-quality online Jewish text both in Hebrew and translation. I love their start-up feel with a team of dedicated coders incrementally improving Sefaria on a regular basis, supplemented by thousands of contributors who through crowdsourced translations and public worksheets have augmented the product. Their commitment to the open and free use of their digital text and source code has allowed an ecosystem of Jewish apps to be built using Sefaria including BetaMidrash and JiTap.

The explosive growth of Hebrew sources featured on Sefaria has caused some growing pains though. The original, elegant interface included text with translation when available and when one clicked on the text, a verse from the Torah for example, all of the commentaries related to the text in a scrolling sidebar. This was wonderful in theory but when a verse had a dozen or more connections from commentaries like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Sforno, Haamek Davar, Midrash, and Talmud, it became a challenge to access all of these sources. The worksheet tool also while adding awesome features like embedded pictures and YouTube videos directly in the digital sheet, was not easy to manipulate especially when working in a classroom setting or when trying to create a printed copy of the sheet.

This is why I am so ecstatic about Sefaria's improvements in the past 3 months which have not been of the incremental kind but have been ground-breaking. They have created a whole new Sefaria which has made the platform a must-have addition to any Judaic classroom for the new school year.

1) Sefaria's Completed Redesigned Interface

Sefaria replaced the scrolling sidebar of textual connections with a Connections tab containing an organized listing of various commentaries and other connected sources. This addition alone has transformed the usability of Sefaria in the classroom with all of the gems included in Sefaria now easily available at one's fingertips.

But this is not the only noteworthy addition in the new interface. Sefaria has also added a series of Tools for each text. These include sharing text on social media or email, adding notes to any text while logged into Sefaria either privately or publicly to share with others, and even comparing two different texts from Sefaria side-by-side. 

These last two features could be indispensable in the classroom as a teacher could require students using Sefaria as their primary text to share their notes either with the teacher or with the class. In analyzing texts, teachers or students can now easily compare and contrast units using Sefaria. I plan to use this during the first weeks of school when teaching the Book of Ezra to compare and contrast the Hebrew version of the Cyrus Proclamation in Ezra Chapter 1 with the Aramaic version found by Darius some years later in Chapter 6.

2) Sefaria's Google Drive Export

I have always loved utilizing Sefaria to post digital versions of worksheets for my students. I found that when embedding a sheet from Sefaria onto my TanachRav blog or into my Learning Management System, one could not only view the sources on that sheet but one could see them in context simply by clicking on any individual source quoted to open it in its original format. Also, since Sefaria sheets allow for embedded YouTube videos, a digital version of the sheet could "come to life" with a Flipped classroom video or some other video hook placed directly into the worksheet. 

However, there were times that my students did not have a device or I did not want them to use one, either when learning on Shabbat or Yom Tov or just out of a desire to place a greater focus on the text without any technological distractions. At these times, I would print out the worksheet. This could be a frustrating experience since Sefaria is not designed for a print view so texts often bleed over into multiple pages in a format less than optimal for students. This is why Sefaria's new Export to Google Drive function is truly a game-changer. One can create a full worksheet in Sefaria and then, if intended for printing in class, one could first export the sheet to Google Drive which allows for more sophisticated word processing tools to design it to perfectly format to the printed page.

3) Sefaria's Assignments Tool

Even though the ability to print out well-formatted worksheets using Sefaria and Google Drive is a wonderful tool, one can only really unlock Sefaria's full transformative potential when utilizing it to create a paperless classroom. I already listed some of the added benefits to this above. For example, the ability for a student to click on any source to see it in its original context and to use Sefaria sheets to create a Flipped Classroom by embedding YouTube videos directly into the sheet. 

However, the biggest impediment to the paperless classroom for most teachers has been something far more prosaic, the workflow. How does the teacher give a sheet out to students, how do they fill in the sheet, and how do they hand it back to the teacher? 

Enter Sefaria's new Assignments features. 

Assignments allows the teacher to create an unlimited number of copies of any sheet for the student to digitally fill in with their account and hand in to the teacher. This is similar to Google classroom but built into the Sefaria platform so its much easier for most teachers, especially those who do not use a Learning Management System or who use one different than Google Classroom. All the teacher needs to do is create a worksheet in Sefaria with some comment blocks for teacher questions, then click on Assignments, and Assign this Sheet. 


A link is generated which the teacher can now share with all of her students. When each student opens the link, it creates a new version of the sheet using the student's account. The teacher merely needs to find her original sheet in Sefaria and she will see her students' Saved Assignments together with her original version. When the assignment is done, she clicks Stop Collecting Assignments and the students are no longer able to submit responses. This assignments feature has made the dream of the paperless classroom with an easy student workflow within reach of any teacher.

These three upgrades to Sefaria's already powerful platform, the redesigned, user-friendly interface, the export to Google Drive, and the Assignments feature are why I am so excited to use Sefaria for the coming school year. 

If you are already a Sefaria user but have not checked it over the summer, give it another look. Besides the features listed above, Sefaria has added so many enhancements, I am sure it will not disappoint. And if you are new to Sefaria, give it a try. It might just transform your students ability to engage with high-level Torah texts, make connections throughout the corpus of Tanakh and Torah She Baal Peh and begin to develop and share their own Chiddushei Torah, original interpretations.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The True Meaning of Yiras Hashem

Yesterday's Torah reading, Parshat Eikev, contains within it the Parshat Hayira, an essential treatise that many recite daily as it appears at the end of the morning prayers in the Ashkenazic service. The portion presents what appears to be a simple credo of Jewish belief.

דברים י׳:י״ב
(יב) וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקֶ֜יךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.
Rashi explains that this is the basis for the famous Talmudic dictum that everything is in the hands of heaven except for the Fear of Heaven. This illustrates the paradox that while God is in total control of everything in our lives, our health, our wealth, our wisdom, our family. God is all powerful and all knowing. However, at the same time, we still have the choice to do right or wrong, free will, represented by our ability to show Fear of Heaven.

This Fear of God expressed in this verse still requires further definition. What does it mean to fear God? This can be presented in two different ways as illustrated by the supplication that Rav used to add to his silent Amida.
ברכות ט״ז ב 
רב בתר צלותיה אמר הכי יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלקינו שתתן לנו חיים ארוכים חיים של שלום חיים של טובה חיים של ברכה חיים של פרנסה חיים של חלוץ עצמות חיים שיש בהם יראת חטא חיים שאין בהם בושה וכלימה חיים של עושר וכבוד חיים שתהא בנו אהבת תורה ויראת שמים חיים שתמלא לנו את כל משאלות לבנו לטובה.

Rab used to add at the conclusion of his prayer : May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of bodily vigour, a life marked by the fear of sin, a life free from shame and reproach, a life of prosperity and honour, a life in which the love of Torah and the fear of Heaven shall cleave to us, a life wherein Thou fulfillest all the desires of our heart for good.
This prayer asks God to grant us two different types of fear, fear of sin and fear of Heaven. I elaborated on this in my Dafchat blog:

This beautiful Tefilla seems to beseech God for a life full of fear of God twice, once when we ask for "fear of sin" and a second time when we ask G-d for the "fear of heaven". The Eitz Yosef commentary on the Ein Yaakov explains that this teaches us a profound distinction between 2 different types of fear of God, what in English we might call the fear of God vs. the awe of G-d.  
He explains that the first type of fear described here as a fear of sin is a low level fear which involves יראת העונש, a fear of punishment. I am afraid to sin because if I do, I am afraid that God will punish me. While obviously this type of fear is better than no fear at all, a religious experience predicated on this type of relationship with God, who is the "big cop in the sky" who will catch me if I am sinning is not something that is exemplary. It cannot possibly be that great people in Tanach like Avraham, Ovadiah, and Iyyov who are described as fearing God merely had this level of fear of sin.  
 He then explains that the second type of fear, described in this prayer as " fear of heaven" is actually awe of God, described in Hebrew as יראת הרוממות, awe of God's loftiness. This is a very lofty level of fear where in one's religious experience one becomes so enameled with the greatness of the Master of the Universe that he lives in constant awe of his greatness. This is the awe experienced by our great people throughout history. It is an experience that although hard to reach should be an aspiration for us all.
This begs the question, which type of Fear of God is being expressed in our verse in Parshat Eikev, fear of sin or awe of God's loftiness? The Malbim quotes the Abravanel who poses this question and states a paradox. On the one hand, the verse cannot possibly be referring to fear of sin since fear of sin is a relatively low level of belief which even simpletons could have in reference to the Almighty. This could not be the essence of what God demands of us as expressed in the Torah. On the other hand, awe of God, is a very high level of belief that the Malbim states only one person in a generation perhaps can reach. How then could God demand this level of divine reverence from every single Jew?

The Malbim answers with a subtle redefinition of what it means to be in awe of God. He says that this fear or reverence actually comes from the trait of בושה, shame. One attains this through a realization that God is always there watching over one's shoulder. Someone who recognizes that God is watching would be embarrassed to sin not due to fear of punishment but because of the reverence one has when in the presence of the divine.

This recognition of God's constant presence in our lives, שִׁוִּיתִי ה' לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד, is described by the Rema in his very first gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, our basic code of Jewish law. Rema explains that when one awakens each morning, he should rise eagerly for the service of God who is with him at all times when he lies to sleep and when he awakens from bed. The last word on one's lips before slumbering are the words of Keriat Shem Al Hamita and Hamapil which express a recognition of God and the first words upon awakening are Modeh Ani which thank and acknowledge the Almighty King of Kings. One who can recognize God's constant presence will have the level of awe of God expressed in Parshat Eikev.

This interpretation while satisfying intellectually is still emotionally difficult to achieve. How can one achieve a state of always realizing God's presence in our lives? I believe this to be a very personal question which each individual should seek to answer.

The poignant story of Yosef from the Chumash has served as my guide for addressing this. Yosef was sold into slavery in the foreign land of Egypt while still a teenager full of youthful charm and just a bit of vanity. He was seduced by his master Potiphar's wife on a daily basis. One day when everyone else apparently was gone, he entered the house to see Potiphar's wife. The Midrash quoted by Rashi states that this was a moment of weakness when Yosef was finally ready to succumb to temptation with the seductress. But then he saw the vision of his father's face in the window. And instead of sinning, he ran away from the Egyptian woman. What is it that Yosef saw? I believe he saw his own reflection in the window but at that moment saw in his reflection his father and all that his father represented. His father was the steadfast man of truth, the patriarch of the family, who had an uncompromising belief in God. This image is what prevented Yosef from sinning.

This I believe can be a guide for us when contemplating God's presence in our lives. The Torah exhorts us later in Parshat Eikev to cleave to the Almighty. Rashi famously asks how this is possible since one cannot attach oneself to God who is incorporeal. Rather he suggests that one should cling to Torah scholars and it will be considered as if he is attached to God.

When trying to imagine God watching over us, one can make an image in one's eye of a beloved teacher or an elderly relative, someone who represents total devotion to God. For Yosef, this was the image of his father. For each of us this will be different. This image can help us reach an awe of the Almighty who is watching over us at all times.

One can find my source sheet for this post on Sefaria. It is also embedded below. As always, I welcome your comments and constructive critique.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What did Aaron do wrong at the Mei Merivah?

Moses Strikes the Rock, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Much ink is spilled concerning the sin of Moshe at the Mei Merivah which resulted in his losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. But what was the sin of Aaron? 

As enigmatic as Moshe's sin seems to be, Aaron appears to do much less. He actually does nothing. So why does God group him together with Moshe for the same punishment?

במדבר כ 
(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יקוק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃ 
But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

I am not the first to ask this question. In Parshat V'Zot HaBerachah, Rashi brings down a grievance by the Tribe of Levi who question why Miriam and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

רש״י על דברים לג:ח 
(ח) תריבהו וגו' ... תריבהו על מי מריבה, נסתקפת לו לבוא בעלילה, אם משה אמר (במדבר כ:י) שמעו נא המורים, אהרן ומרים מה עשו:
(8) תריבהו וגו׳ THOU DIDST STRIVE WITH HIM [AT THE WATERS OF MERIBAH]... Thou didst seek an occasion against him to come with a pretext, for if Moses said, “Hear now, ye rebels”, what sin did Aaron and Miriam commit? (why were they not allowed to enter the land?).
The sin of Miriam is beyond the scope of this piece since she dies before the incident of Merivah. But what of the sin of Aaron? Unfortunately, Rashi brings down Shevet Levi's question without citing any answer so we are still left to wonder.

Perhaps, one can discover an approach to what Aaron did wrong at Merivah by revisiting the sin of Moshe.

To summarize the story:

The people arrive in the desert of Zin after the death of Miriam and have no water. They complain to Moshe and Aaron. Moshe and Aaron go the the Tent of Meeting and fall on their faces until God appears to them. God tells Moshe and Aaron to take the staff, gather the people, speak to the rock, and bring forth water from the rock. Moshe takes the staff from before God. Aaron's staff which was kept in the Mishkan after Korach's rebellion. Moshe and Aaron gather the people, Moshe tells them that they are rebellious and he will bring forth water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock twice bringing forth water. God then tells Moshe and Aaron that since they did not properly sanctify him, neither of them will lead the people into the Promised Land.

Despite the myriad of approaches to Moshe's sin, Abravanel lists eleven possibilities, nothing seems to stick. God tells Moshe to take the staff. Moshe takes the staff. God tells Moshe and Aaron to gather the people. Moshe and Aaron gather the people. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock. Moshe speaks in front of the rock. God tells Moshe to bring water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock (twice) and water comes out. One could quibble with details which many commentaries do but fundamentally, Moshe appears to follow God's command exactly.

But perhaps this is the exact problem. Maybe Moshe should not have even been seeking God's command. With the Children of Israel in dire need of help, with no water source in a desert, perhaps Moshe should have been acting first and consulting with God later.

This approach is brought down by Rav Yosef Albo in Rabbi Meir Simcha's Meshech Chochmah1. He explains that Moshe's sin wasn't an act of commission but of omission. It is not what Moshe did that was the problem but what Moshe did not do. Moshe should have acted on his own to solve the problem and only then turned to God.

The Meshech Chochmah elaborates that this perceived fault of Moshe becomes even more glaring to the people when compared with the story immediately preceding this in the Chumash, the rebellion of Korach. During Korach's rebellion, for the very first time, Moshe acted first before receiving a command from God. When Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and his brother Aaron, Moshe does not fall on his face waiting for the glory of God to appear. Rather Moshe issues a challenge to Korach and his men saying that God should make a new creation, causing the ground to open up and swallow the rebels. He "challenged" God to make a miracle, one God did not command. And God accepts Moshe's challenge, the ground opens up swallow up Korach and his crew and fire comes forth before God to consume the 250 men who were bringing an unauthorized incense offering.

According to the Meshech Chochmah, this opens up Moshe to a serious critique from the people. If Moshe was willing to act on his own to protect HIS honor, then why is Moshe not acting on his own at Merivah to provide life-giving water for his people. He should have taken the stick of Aaron which was placed in the Mishkan as a symbol for all future rebellions and acted on his own to bring forth water for his people. God would have surely responded to this challenge. The fact that Moshe did not and rather waited for God to appear to him and tell him what to do is a small lapse in leadership which results in Moshe's losing the privilege to lead the people into the Land of Israel.

I believe that perhaps one can answer similarly regarding Aaron. Aaron did nothing wrong in the incident of Merivah. But this was the problem. He did nothing wrong but nothing right either. 

When Moshe hesitated, responding with inaction when action was called for, Aaron should have acted in his stead. The fact that Aaron did nothing to help quench the people's thirst and instead fell on his face before God with his brother Moshe puts Aaron in the same category as Moshe.

This can be an important lesson for us. There are times when prayer is called for. But there are other times when one must first take action and then pray to God that he will follow. 

As God tells Moshe at the Yam Suf as the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites.

שמות פרק יד
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקוָק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

It is this perception of a lack of taking action on behalf of the people, when earlier Moshe and Aaron had acted so decisively to protect their own standing as the leaders during the Korach rebellion, that leads God to choose a new generation of leadership who will finish their mission and lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

1. I am beholden to Rabbi Shalom Carmy who quotes this Meshech Chochmah in his monograph in the Spring 2016 issue of Tradition. "The Sons of Korah, Who Did Not Die." Tradition 49.1 (2016): 5. Print.

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How did they know that? Chazal's approach to Midrash

One of the things that I love about teaching high school students is their refreshing honesty. When one of my students thinks a Midrash is far fetched, he/she is not afraid to tell me. The answer that I often received when I was a kid to the question, how did the rabbis know that, was that the rabbis had a tradition from Moshe or some sort of divine inspiration. This was hardly satisfying to me so I try never to foist that one on my own students. My answer to a question about the source of a Midrash is usually that they knew based on a close reading of the text, not only the verse in question but the entirety of Tanach. Sometimes we can deduce their source other times we just don't know yet.

As the saying goes: דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר, the words of Torah are "poor" in one place but "rich" in another.

Let me provide an example from this past week's Parsha. Many of us know the Midrash that was made famous in Rabbi Soloveitchik's talk, The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority.  The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Korach took 250 men clothed in a Tallit entirely made of the blue Tekhelet thread and asked if it required the blue Tzitzit string. Moshe replied that it does. Korach then filled a room with Sifrei Torah and asked if it required a Mezuzah on its door and Moshe replied that it does. Korach then mocked the seemingly nonsensical responses of Moshe. If a single blue string of Tzitzit will remind us of G-d and his mitzvot then why wouldn't an entire blue garment be an even greater reminder. If a single paragraph of holy writ attached to the doorpost will serve as a reminder of G-d in our home then would not a room full of Torah scrolls be an even greater reminder?

The imagery in this Midrash begs the question, how did the rabbis know this story? There is no mention of Korach or his men wearing in the Tekhelet garments in the Torah. To approach this question, one must analyze the purpose and method of Midrash. Firstly, one rule which is true almost always is that virtually every Midrash is addressing some type of textual anomaly. There is a question on the text which sparks the rabbinic discussion. The answer given by the Midrash might seem far fetched and not the simple pshat but the Midrash grapples with the text just like every later commentator. The question in Parshat Korach is obvious and dealt with by every commentator. The Parsha begins, וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח, "And Korach took", but does not indicate what he took. In this case the Midrash addresses this issue using proximity by analyzing the verses immediately preceding this one which present the Mitzvah of Tzitzit and then presuming that Korach in fact took these Tzitzit. The question then becomes why and in its approach the Midrash creatively utilizes these Tzitzit as a prop in Korach's rebellion.

This does not merely fill in the gap concerning what Korach took but as explained by Rabbenu Bachya amplifies the primary theme of Korach's argument to Moshe. Korach's argument fundamentally is one for pure democracy. He asks, "If the entire community of Israel is holy and G-d dwells amongst everyone" then why should Moshe and Aharon raise themselves above the people. This is fundamentally the same argument as the Tzitzit strings. If the purpose of the Tekhelet string is to remind one of G-d then a garment made entirely of the blue string should not need any reminder. If the purpose of the mezuzah is to bring G-d into one's home then a house full of Torah scrolls should need no such symbol. Similarly, if the purpose of Moshe and Aharon is to help serve as the conduit for the people to connect with G-d then a people who are entirely holy and dwelling with G-d should not need a Moshe and an Aharon to lead them.

When looked at in this light, one sees the beauty of the Midrash. It not only answers an obvious textual difficulty by connecting the account to verses elsewhere which shed light on the text but enhances the underlying theme that is the crux of the story.

This type of analysis can be undertaken for many other Midrashim. The key is to try to find the verses which often are not in close proximity but are located in other books of Tanach upon which Chazal based their seemingly fanciful Midrashic accounts. I will present two such examples.

We know that Moshe Rabbenu had some type of speech impediment. This is stated directly by Moshe during his argument with G-d at the burning bush as a reason that he should not be chosen for the mission of redeeming the Children of Israel. Many of us learned a famous Midrash which provides the background story for Moshe's difficulty speaking. As the story goes, Moshe as a baby on his adopted grandfather Pharaoh's lap grabbed the king's crown. The royal magicians were worried this was an omen that this young boy would seek to topple the Egyptian dynasty in the future. So they developed a test where they would place gold and hot coals before the young boy and see what ensued. If he went for the gold, it would confirm his rebellious aspirations but if he went for the coals, it would prove he was just a regular precocious baby boy. Baby Moshe of course went for the gold but the angel Gabriel moved his hands to the coals and put it towards Moshe's mouth so he was burned resulting in his later speaking difficulties.

Where did the rabbis get the idea for this creative story? To answer one must look at the inauguration of three other prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In each of these stories the prophet is initially reluctant to start his mission similar to Moshe's reluctance at the burning bush. But there is a key difference in G-d's response to each of them. In the case of Isaiah Chapter 6, verses 5-7, after the prophet says he is of impure lips, G-d responds by utilizing one of the Seraph angels to purify his lips.

וַיָּ֣עָף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן־הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל־פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל־שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֺנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר׃He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, Your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away.”

Similarly, G-d touches Jeremiah's lips to make him worthy of prophecy and in the case of Ezekiel actually has the prophet eat his words in a scroll in order to transform him into a vehicle for the divine message.

Our rabbis knew this so they had a vexing problem when looking at Moshe's opening exchange with G-d. Why didn't G-d respond to Moshe by touching and purifying his lips? They looked at Moshe's claim that he had a stammer and came up with a creative response. The reason G-d never touched Moshe's lips at the burning bush to make him a mouthpiece for the divine is because he ALREADY HAD touched Moshe's lips previously. The angel Gabriel touched Moshe's lips with hot coals when he was just a baby. Ironically, the reason Moshe gave that he could not function as a prophet, his speech impediment due to this childhood incident, is then the very reason Moshe COULD function as a prophet. G-d purified Moshe's lips for prophecy when he was still a baby. 

This is a fascinating example where the words of Midrash about Moshe as a baby only makes sense when looked at in the greater context of many other books of Tanach.

My final example is from another famous Midrash we all know from preschool, that when G-d split the Yam Suf, the Children of Israel did not cross in one path but the sea split into 12 paths, one for each tribe. The source of this Midrash is also often questioned. It is cited by Rashi on Psalms 136:13 which states G-d split apart the Yam Suf but this hardly indicates that it was split into 12 paths. However, once again, what is cryptic in the Torah and Psalms becomes readily apparent when analyzing a similar story in a different book of Tanach.

Isaiah Chapter 11 when describing the messianic era explicitly states that the ingathering of the exiles from faraway Egypt and Assyria will be modeled after the miracles of the Exodus. This account even mimics the splitting of the Yam Suf with a portrait of the Egyptian sea drying up and the Israelite crossing of the Euphrates River. This is where the account becomes very relevant to our question as stated in Isaiah 11:15:

וְהֶחֱרִ֣ים יְהוָ֗ה אֵ֚ת לְשׁ֣וֹן יָם־מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהֵנִ֥יף יָד֛וֹ עַל־הַנָּהָ֖ר בַּעְיָ֣ם רוּח֑וֹ וְהִכָּ֙הוּ֙ לְשִׁבְעָ֣ה נְחָלִ֔ים וְהִדְרִ֖יךְ בַּנְּעָלִֽים׃The LORD will dry up the tongue of the Egyptian sea.—He will raise His hand over the Euphrates with the might of His wind and break it into seven wadis, so that it can be trodden dry-shod.

Note that the crossing of the Euphrates River will not be in one path. Rather the verse states that it will be split into 7 streams. The Israelites as the commentaries elaborate will cross between these 7 streams similar to how they crossed the Yam Suf. If one is walking between 7 streams then one has six paths. And if the Children of Israel are crossing on each side of the stream within these 7, one gets 12 paths in total, the 14 sides minus the two outer ones which the Israelites obviously did not use. So one gets an account of the Children of Israel crossing the Euphrates on their way back to Israel for the final redemption in 12 paths. The next verse then says:

וְהָיְתָ֣ה מְסִלָּ֔ה לִשְׁאָ֣ר עַמּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִשָּׁאֵ֖ר מֵֽאַשּׁ֑וּר כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר הָֽיְתָה֙ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּי֥וֹם עֲלֹת֖וֹ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃Thus there shall be a highway for the other part of His people out of Assyria, such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt.

The Midrash deduced that if the highway out of Assyria crossed the river in 12 paths, then the original Exodus upon which this account is based also must have involved the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf, not in one path, but in 12 paths as well, one for each tribe.

Sarajevo Haggadah from

Once again, a fanciful Midrash which does not seem to have a basis in pshat attains a new meaning when looked at in the context of the entire Tanach.

 דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.


Monday, May 30, 2016

What Will The World Be Like? The Ramban on Moshiach

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Bechukotai contains within it the Torah's first account of the Berachot and Kelalot, the blessings that will take place if the children of Israel do good and the curses that will overtake Israel if they do bad. Within the Berachot is a fascinating account of a land at complete peace.

 ויקרא כ״ו:ו׳וְנָתַתִּ֤י שָׁלוֹם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ וּשְׁכַבְתֶּ֖ם וְאֵ֣ין מַחֲרִ֑יד וְהִשְׁבַּתִּ֞י חַיָּ֤ה רָעָה֙ מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְחֶ֖רֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹ֥ר בְּאַרְצְכֶֽם׃And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. - Source: Sefaria
This verse describes the Land of Israel in complete peace, not only from foreign enemies but even from wild beasts.

The Ramban brings down two approaches to explain this phenomenon. In the first approach which he describes as the more simple pshat, he says that since the land will be completely populated with well built up cities and inhabitants, there will be no wild animals since wild animals tend to live at the edges of civilization rarely going to well populated places.

The Ramban rejects this approach for a more mystical interpretation which dovetails into his overall outlook on the messianic age. The Ramban describes that the Land of Israel in this time of complete fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvot will revert back the idealized lifestyle of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, G-d commanded not only humans but all animals to live a vegetarian lifestyle.

See the following:
בראשית א: כט-לוַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָֽה׃And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food;
וּֽלְכָל־חַיַּ֣ת הָ֠אָרֶץ וּלְכָל־ע֨וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וּלְכֹ֣ל ׀ רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה אֶת־כָּל־יֶ֥רֶק עֵ֖שֶׂב לְאָכְלָ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so. Source: Sefaria
According to Ramban, it was only after the flood that humans and carnivorous animals became meat-eaters.  Once the messianic era begins, Israel will once again return to the state of humanity in the Garden of Eden so therefore not only will humanity no longer eat animals but "evil beasts" i.e. carnivorous animals will no longer be in the land.

The Ramban proves this based on the messianic visions in Isaiah Chapter 11.

ישעיהו פרק יא פסוקים ו-טוְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.
וּפָרָ֤ה וָדֹב֙ תִּרְעֶ֔ינָה יַחְדָּ֖ו יִרְבְּצ֣וּ יַלְדֵיהֶ֑ן וְאַרְיֵ֖ה כַּבָּקָ֥ר יֹֽאכַל־תֶּֽבֶן׃And the cow and the bear feed; Their young ones shall lie down together; And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק עַל־חֻ֣ר פָּ֑תֶן וְעַל֙ מְאוּרַ֣ת צִפְעוֹנִ֔י גָּמ֖וּל יָד֥וֹ הָדָֽה׃And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, And the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk’s den.
לֹֽא־יָרֵ֥עוּ וְלֹֽא־יַשְׁחִ֖יתוּ בְּכָל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֑י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ דֵּעָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה כַּמַּ֖יִם לַיָּ֥ם מְכַסִּֽים׃ (פ)They shall not hurt nor destroy In all My holy mountain; For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea. Source: Sefaria

The famous vision which begins with "the wolf shall lie with the lamb" is figuratively interpreted by many commentaries to mean that the carnivorous nations, the "wolves", will no longer victimize the weaker countries, the "lambs". For example, see Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed Part 3 11:1. It's interesting to note that many artists utilized this figurative interpretation of Isaiah's messianic prophecy for their depictions. For example, the painting below by the early American folk artist, Edward Hicks, juxtaposes the visions from Isaiah of carnivorous and herbivorous animals dwelling together side by side with a depiction of the early American settlers dwelling in peace with the Native Americans.

Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom
Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the Ramban unlike the Rambam interprets this vision literally. The Ramban interprets that the wolf shall lie with the lamb because all animals and people will return to their original vegetarian state which they had in the days of Adam of Eve in the Garden of Eden. This idea is further elaborated on by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. He writes that in the future ideal state of the messianic era, people and animals will once again return to the vegetarian ideal practiced at the time of the Garden of Eden. For further details see the following link:

The Ramban ends with a fascinating analysis of King Hezekiah, the king at the time of Isaiah, which touches upon another big idea, this one about the role of prophecy.

First, some background.

Isaiah Chapters 6-10 describes Isaiah's career as a prophet during the kings of Judah from Uzziah to Jotham to wicked King Ahaz and climaxing with King Hezekiah. During this time, the Assyrian empire is on the rise representing an existential threat to the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel eventually falls to the Assyrians. The Israelites are scattered throughout the diaspora and ultimately become known as the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. Judah almost falls as well but after much of its cities are decimated and Jerusalem is besieged, the Assyrian army led by Sennacherib miraculously dies overnight and Sennacherib is forced to flee back to Assyria. This account is mentioned in both Jewish sources in the Books of Kings and Isaiah and in Assyrian sources as well. For example, see Sennacherib's Annals.

The end of Isaiah Chapter 10 poetically describes the armies of Sennacherib threatening Jerusalem and then being cut down by G-d.

ישעיהו פרק י פסוקים לב-לדע֥וֹד הַיּ֖וֹם בְּנֹ֣ב לַֽעֲמֹ֑ד יְנֹפֵ֤ף יָדוֹ֙ הַ֣ר בית־[בַּת־] צִיּ֔וֹן גִּבְעַ֖ת יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ס)This very day shall he halt at Nob, Shaking his hand at the mount of the daughter of Zion, The hill of Jerusalem.
הִנֵּ֤ה הָאָדוֹן֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת מְסָעֵ֥ף פֻּארָ֖ה בְּמַעֲרָצָ֑ה וְרָמֵ֤י הַקּוֹמָה֙ גְּדוּעִ֔ים וְהַגְּבֹהִ֖ים יִשְׁפָּֽלוּ׃Behold, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, Shall lop the boughs with terror; And the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, And the lofty shall be laid low.
וְנִקַּ֛ף סִֽבְכֵ֥י הַיַּ֖עַר בַּבַּרְזֶ֑ל וְהַלְּבָנ֖וֹן בְּאַדִּ֥יר יִפּֽוֹל׃ (ס)And He shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, And Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one. Source: Sefaria
This is a poetic account of the miraculous victory of King Hezekiah over Sennacherib.

The very next verse in the beginning of Chapter 11 shifts gears to an account of the messianic era.

ישעיהו פרק יא פסוק אוְיָצָ֥א חֹ֖טֶר מִגֵּ֣זַע יִשָׁ֑י וְנֵ֖צֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁ֥יו יִפְרֶֽה׃And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, And a twig shall grow forth out of his roots. Source: Sefaria
This account contains many famous visions including the one mentioned previously of the wolf lying with the lamb ushering in world peace and a perfected era. The question one must ask on this account is who is Isaiah describing as the Messiah. The only logical answer is King Hezekiah. He led the people in both a spiritual and military defense against Sennacherib's hordes which ultimately resulted in miraculous victory. However, this account in Chapter 11 cannot possibly be describing Hezekiah since he did none of the things Isaiah predicts. The wolf did not lie with the lamb during the time of King Hezekiah neither figuratively, there was no world peace, nor literally. So why didn't Hezekiah become the Messiah?

The Ramban references the Talmud in Sanhedrin 94a which addresses this question.

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין דף צד עמוד א(ישעיהו ט, ו) למרבה המשרה ולשלום אין קץ וגו' א"ר תנחום דרש בר קפרא בציפורי“To him who increases the authority, and for peace without end…” (Isaiah 9:6) R’ Tanchum said: Bar Kappar expounded in Tzippori
מפני מה כל מ"ם שבאמצע תיבה פתוח וזה סתום‘why is every letter mem which is located in the middle of a word open at the bottom, and the one in this verse is closed?
ביקש הקב"ה לעשות חזקיהו משיח וסנחריב גוג ומגוגThe Holy One wanted to make Hezekiah the Messiah and Sancheriv Gog and Magog.
אמרה מדת הדין לפני הקב"הBut the aspect of judgment said before the Holy One:
רבש"עMaster of the World!
ומה דוד מלך ישראל שאמר כמה שירות ותשבחות לפניך לא עשיתו משיח חזקיה שעשית לו כל הנסים הללו ולא אמר שירה לפניך תעשהו משיחYou did not make David, who said before You many songs and praises, the Messiah. Will you then make Hezekiah, for whom You did all these miracles and who did not sing before, into the Messiah?!
לכך נסתתםTherefore it was sealed. Source: Sefaria
The Ramban explains that the intent of Isaiah was that the messianic predictions in Chapter 11 including the prediction of peace and tranquility, the wolf shall lie with the lamb, should apply to King Hezekiah. He was supposed to be the Messiah and his time was supposed to the the perfected time of redemption. However, since Hezekiah did not sing Shira, he did not compose songs of G-d's praises giving proper recognition for the great miracle that he and the nation had just experienced, the prophecy's original intent was changed. It would no longer describe King Hezekiah but a far off future messianic age.

If one properly examines this idea of the Ramban, one realizes something revolutionary about the role of the prophet. The role of the prophet is not to predict what will happen but to paint a picture of what could happen if we deserve it. Prophecies, even positive ones, are in fact conditional. According to the Ramban and others, they will ultimately come true, but can be shifted to an earlier or later time based on our actions. This concept is further explicated by the Malbim on Isaiah Chapter 11 and elsewhere. See Hayyim Angel's article, Prophecy as Potential for a complete treatment of this.

This Ramban then has much to say both about the times of Moshiach and our role in bringing this messianic age to being. According to Ramban, the messianic age will feature a fundamental shift in the nature of all living things. We will be perfected and live perfected lives. Even our diets and those of the animal kingdom will be transformed by this great moral clarity. But these prophecies although predicted will only come true through human actions. Prophets do not guarantee what will happen but rather open up a window into what could happen. It is up to us through our actions to make it so.

Below is a sourcesheet containing the primary sources discussed in this post.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

Image courtesy of

The classic documentary film The Long Way Home which chronicles the Jewish experience in Europe from the liberation in 1945 until the founding of the State of Israel three years later begins by quoting the first verses in Parshat Beshalach:

(יז) וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃ (יח) וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹהִ֧ים ׀ אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

(17) And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, because that was near; for God said: 'Lest the people regret when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’ (18) But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

The Jews after the liberation did not have an easy road to Palestine and the State of Israel. Rather they continued to suffer for years as refugees. Lasting redemption usually does not take an expected linear path. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a circuitous route.

This is not because God wants to make our lives difficult, rather it is because God loves us.

The Daat Zkenim on Exodus 13:17:1 elaborates on this in answering a difficulty in the text. Why does the verse add כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא because it was close? Is it not obvious that the way of the land of the Philistines is the shortest route? Rather the Daat Zkenim states, it is not the road that is close, it is the nation that is close.

כי קרוב. כלומר העם קרוב של הקב"ה שנאמר לבני ישראל עם קרובו. ולכך לא הנהיגם כמנהגו של עולם. 
כי קרוב, “because the people were close to the Lord,” as stated in Psalms148.14: לבני ישראל, עם קרובו הללוי-ה, “for Israel, the people close to Him.” This is the reason why He did not lead them as is the custom of the world...

God did not lead us the way of the land of the Philistines because we are God’s beloved nation. Because he loves us, he knew that we needed to travel a circuitous path through the desert so we could experience 40 years of growth and closeness to God. This would transform us from slaves into a strong and God fearing nation.

Often the shortest distance to life's goals is not a straight line, it is a meandering path. These points of departures are not detours towards reaching greater goals but necessary life experiences to achieve these goals.

This is something we should consider when educating our students. Often as parents and educators we make general statements for all of our children. Every child must learn in a certain Yeshiva, spend a year of more in Israel, or go to a certain college or else they will not turn out as a committed Jew. Each of our children is עם קרובו, a member of G-d's beloved close people, and each need to discover their own path to religious growth. For some this route is a straight path. For other's the shortest distance towards reaching a relationship with God is a circular route.