Monday, April 14, 2014

Pesach - The Holiday of Hope

As erev Pesach approaches, many are reminded of the prohibition against consuming matzah on erev Pesach. In fact, the Mishna Berurah (471:12) rules that many have a custom not to eat matzah from the beginning of Nissan. Both halachos highlight a unique component of the mitzvah of matzah: the requirement of anticipation. Few, if any, other mitzvos have built-in rules limiting behavior prior to the time of obligation; yet matzah represents an obvious exception. Perhaps another exception is the mitzvah of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim. Though our haggadah (quoting the Mechilta) only says "yachol me'rosh chodesh," one may have thought the obligation to discuss Yetzias Mitzrayim begins on rosh chodesh, the Vilna Gaon (OC 430:1) understands this as prohibitory, disallowing earlier discussions of the Exodus. Of all the holidays and all the mitzvos, why are those relating to Pesach unique in their requirement to create anticipation?

Another question, addressed in one way previously (here), is why the Torah stresses the need for Pesach to be celebrated in the spring. Not only does the Torah mention the connection between Pesach and the spring season ("shamor es chodesh ha'aviv"), but the gemara derives the need to implement leap years to preserve Pesach's warm season.

Aside from the preparations and weather, another area of focus, if not obsession, on Pesach is the children. So much of our seder ritual is devoted to either creating curiosity among the children or transmitting the story and message of the Exodus to the children. Though the general value of education is understood, why on Pesach are we especially focused on the children? 

Finally, when the first of the four sons is introduced, the ben ha'rasha, his question, "mah ha'avodah ha'zos lachem," is interpreted by our sages as a hostile attack on religious tradition. Yet, when Moshe prophesized the exchange, the Jewish people reacted by bowing. Why the positive emotional reaction to seemingly negative news?

Beginning with this final question, we can begin to attempt to gain clarity. Rashi comments that the nation bowed from excitement upon hearing they would be redeemed and have children. In other words, the promise of a future was the greatest news they could receive, regardless of the details regarding the exact quality of that future. As Viktor Frankl often points out in "Man's Search for Meaning," a slave is stuck in a hopeless state. He does not know if and when his slavery will end, and eventually gives up on any future, instead living day to day. Like Jews in the Holocaust, Jews in Egypt were stuck in a world of past and present that lacked any semplance of a future. For this reason, just as the announcement of the ben ha'rasha excited the Jews with news of a future, so too the focus of the entire evening is the children who represent Jewish hope.  

Of all the seasons, spring represents hope. The flowers begin to bud, the trees to blossom, and the weather to warm. Though the season is itself pleasant, it represents hopes for an even brighter future, the epitome of what Pesach is all about. Similarly, only Pesach regulates preparations, requiring anticipation. How fitting to have an obligation to anticipate the holiday which restored hope into the Jewish psyche.

This may also explain why so much of the Exodus, and so much of our seder text, focuses on the future, both then and now. When taking the Jews out, Hashem "proved" to Moshe that He was sincere through a sign: "ta'avdun es ha'Elokim al ha'har ha'zeh," tell the Jewish people that their slavery is not merely ending, but their lives are being given purpose; to arrive at that mountain (Har Sinai) and serve Me. The promise of a destiny and meaningful future inspired a depleted people. Similarly, at the seder, although it would otherwise seem to have no place, the Beis Ha'Mikdash is a constant part of our dialogue. We say (or sing) dayeinu, enumerating many praises to G-d for taking us from Egypt, but the text concludes with His bringing us to Har Sinai and ultimately Har Ha'Bayis. Perhaps on Pesach, we are obligated to look forward to a brighter future, just as our ancestors did on the original PesachEven the pesukim we recite as the core of maggid, chosen from the Parshas Bikkurim in Ki Savo, according to Rav Meyer Twersky are selected because of their ending, "va'yivieinu el ha'makom ha'zeh," You took us into the land of Israel. Finally, unlike all other holidays (except Yom Kippur), we openly long for our future when we exclaim "l'shana ha'ba'ah bi'Yerushalayim."

Tonight, as we spend hours recounting the past, let us not forget the importance of looking forward to our collective future. May we merit to tell the story of the original korban pesach while bringing the korban pesach in Yerushlayim.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What's Mine is Yours? - Halachos of Guests (Part I)

The gemara (Nedarim 34b) asks about a man who takes a vow, telling his friend "You may not benefit from my bread." Is the speaker implying that he may give the bread to his friend thereby causing a change in ownership (so it's not "my bread") or does the speaker intend to forbid the bread permanently? The gemara sides with the latter suggestion and seeks to understand what the speaker was actually trying to accomplish with the added word "my" (or letter yud in Hebrew). One possibility the gemara suggests is to exclude a case where it was stolen, which the gemara rejects; the other possibility (and apparent conclusion) is a case in which "he invites him," implying that in such a case the vow would not be problematic. The nature of this second case with an invitation is ambiguous. 

The simplest understanding is that of Rashi (known in Nedarim as the Mefaresh due to the ambiguity surrounding authorship), who says that by inviting the man against whom he has vowed, he has enabled his guest to eat the food since "kana chelko," the guest has legally acquired the food. In other words, having company implicitly includes giving food to eat and acquire in the process.

The Ran, however, understands the same gemara in the opposite way. By inviting him over, the host allows his guest to eat other breads in the house since we can assume that "my bread" refers to the bread on the table. However, that bread on the table remains forbidden, "d'hahi shata nami kikaro hu," the bread belongs to the host even as they eat together.

These two opinions of the Mefaresh and the Ran (echoed in two approaches mentioned in the Rashba), appear to reflect dissenting views on the status of served food in the presence of guests. According to the Mefaresh, inviting guests means offering them food, both literally and halachically. The Ran maintains that while offering and even encouraging guests to eat, the food remains in the ownership of the host. We will continue to explore this machlokes including possible times when the guest acquires the food and some important ramifications of their debate.

Friday, March 21, 2014

To Each His Own? - Following the Ways of Hashem

When introducing the ceremonies to inaugurate the mishkan, Moshe tells the Jewish people "zeh ha'davar asher tziva Hashem ta'asu," this is what Hashem commanded you to bring G-d's Presence upon you. In the context of the story, Moshe may have simply been promising the nation that after all their hard work, Hashem's Presence was near, signifying that they achieved atonement for cheit ha'egel (sin of the golden calf). However, the phrase "zeh ha'davar" seems to imply that Moshe was also warning the people about one matter, "this," that brings Hashem close, to the exclusion of all others. The Medrash makes this point explicitly, stating that Moshe was cautioning the people to remove their evil inclination and join together.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Arrogance + Doubt = An Evil Equation

Of the many gematriyahs (numerical value of letters) meaningfully equal to the name Amalek, a few seem interesting, especially considering their possible relationship. Among the many such words or phrases quoted in contemporary seforim are safek (doubt) and ram (raised). Both words are used to represent forms of heresy, as doubt can lead to a person questioning G-d. As an example, Haman, a descendant of Amalek, is alluded to in the Torah in the phrase "ha'min ha'etz," when G-d "asks" Adam if he ate from the tree. Rav Akiva Tatz explains that Adam's sin caused a minimization of Hashem's presence in the world, opening the possibility for Hashem to question, as if His knowledge is incomplete. This minimization epitomizes the existence of Haman and Amalek. Ram as well is used Biblically as a prophecy to days in which "v'ram levavecha v'schachta," you will become arrogant (literally "elevated heart") and forget about G-d. This too relates to Amalek and their quest to eradicate the name of G-d. Though each of these words and accompanying ideas are interesting, I think they have an interesting interplay as well.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Self-Sacrifice - The Essence of Korbanos

There is a well-known debate between the Rambam and Ramban about the reason behind korbanos. The Rambam, in his Moreh Nevuchim, states that Hashem commanded sacrificing, specifically of the often worshiped sheep and cattle, to uproot idolatrous ideologies from among the Jewish people. The Ramban is outraged by the suggestion that korbanos were no more than an attempt to avoid negative attitudes and served little positive purpose; rather, the Ramban suggests, korbanos, as their name implies, signify a method of achieving closeness (kirva) to Hashem. He proves this from the various instances in which korbanos were brought outside the context of existing idolatrous beliefs, such as Noach's korban after the flood. Even the often-used Torah phrase, "re'ach nicho'ach," indicates some sort of inherent pleasure that G-d "gains" from our sacrifices.

Many early and late commentaries attempt to bridge the gap between the Rambam and Ramban, usually trying to modify the Rambam's view or our understanding of it. The Ritva cites other quotes from the Rambam to prove that the Rambam's true opinion is not as extreme as presented in Moreh Nevuchim, a unique sefer with a specific purpose and audience. The Meshech Chochmah differentiates between sacrifices in the Temple (like the Ramban, for closeness to G-d) and sacrifices brought on the temporary bamos (like the Rambam, a reminder in which G-d we believe).

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Beracha is Worth A Thousand Words - Moshe's Blessing to the Jews

As the long process of the construction of the mishkan was completed (it took a full month to read about), Moshe concluded the work and issued a brief beracha (Shemos 40:43). Rashi quotes the text of this blessing from the Medrash: "yehi ratzon she'tishreh schechinah b'ma'aseh yedeichem," may it be His will that His Divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands. Although berachos are always appreciated, the timing and wording of this beracha seem to have specific meaning and purpose.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rest in Peace - The Goal of Shabbos

After first being introduced at Marah in Parshas Beshalach and then elaborated upon at Har Sinai in Parshas Yisro, the Torah speaks often about Shabbos in the final five parshios of Shemos, presumably because of the unique relationship between Shabbos (sanctity of time) and mikdash/mishkan (sanctity of space). Ki Sisa is no exception, and included in the lengthy and dramatic parsha is another paragraph about Shabbos, including the well-known "vi'shamru" recited by many as the introduction to the Shabbos daytime kiddush. The paragraph begins with Hashem's warning "Ach es Shabsosai tishmoru ki os hi...", "but" preserve my Shabbasos (plural) for she (singular) serves as a sign (of our relationship with Hashem). Aside from the sudden transition from the plural tone into the singular one, many have been perplexed by the original reference to Shabbos in the plural, wondering how many Shabbasos there are to keep.