Sunday, June 08, 2014

Why the descriptions of Malachim differ so greatly.

The common concept in our current society of an "angel" is that of a person with "feathery" wings. That of a "devil" is that of a person with bat wings with horns. We have the description of the merkava and other descriptions of people with six wings. We also have the description like a person with the legs fused into one pillar. In fact, it is actually a problem to use the term "angel" as too many of us automatically "see" the images from movies, television, or "religious" art in the museums. As a result, we should use the term Mal'achim, and avoid any attempt to translate it into English. I have spoken with teachers who have told me that they have had difficulties explaining some concepts when using the term "angel" that did not show up when using the term "mal'ach". THis is a practical matter rather than a matter of halacha.

Given the references to mal'achim (angels) many "appearances" are metaphorical only. The meforshim of the mal'achim that visited Avraham (and went to S'dom) explain how three mal'achim came to Avraham and two went to S'dom. Each malach is "created" for its specific task and only "exists" for the duration of that task. This is also the explanation of the reaction when Yaakov (and later Manoach father of Shimshon) asks the name of the mal'ach. The "name" of the mal'ach only exists in relation to its task. Once that task is complete, the name is gone.
Similarly, there were three tasks required in the visit to Avrohom. The mal'ach sent to predict the birth of Yitzchak finished his task and "left". The mal'ach sent to heal Avraham either had the rescue of Lot as part of that task or became "available" for a similar task afterward, or was just replaced by the mal'ach sent to rescue Lot. The third mal'ach, to destroy S'dom, was needed as part of the three, according to many meforshim, because the fate of S'dom was not completely decided until Avrohom showed the real chesed of his acceptance of the three "men".
A mal'ach can be a person, a natural event, or a supernatural being created and sent for a purpose. There are many examples.
A TSA official who delays someone so that he misses a flight he is not supposed to be on.
A woman and child taking the seat of a person, so that he can show chesed by letting them sit together.
A traffic jam to force a person to take a particular route.
A sudden rain or a wind to blow the clouds away.
And of course the mal'achim as we see in the case of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as well as all the other times mentioned in Tanach.
Thus there is no specific "image". Additionally, one is not supposed to create images of the "residents" of heaven, but that is another question from the Ten Commandments.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Parsha Tazria - Why is Milah in the middle of Tum'ah

The beginning of Tazria speaks of how a woman is tamei for seven days with a boy. This is then followed by the repeat of the commandment for bris milah on the eighth day. The meforshim state that this allows the woman to attend the bris and that this now causes the child to be part of klal Yisroel. The Milah is then followed by the remainder of her tum'ah until she brings a sacrifice and the halacha for having given birth to a girl. After that, we have the halachos of Tzora'as (usually tranlated inaccurately as 'leprosy', see Rav Hirsch for example for this discussion).  Many meforshim ask why are the 'extra' halachos of bris milah (see sifra and maseches Shabbos 132a) given here rather than continuing the flow of tuma'a from the woman being tamei to the laws of Tzora'as. Why does Bris Mila get inserted.

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch has stated that the numbers 6, 7, and 8 connect with Maasei Bereishis [creation] to show the way a person exists. The number 6 is the creation of the natural world. It is the set up of the laws and instincts that allow the physical world to continue and the living beings in it to exist. Shabbos, as the number 7, symbolizes the completion of the natural world and the continuation of nature without new 'explicit' creations. The number 8 therefore, symbolizes "L'ma'alah min hatevah" [above or outside of nature]. That is the beginning of a new cycle, showing a raising of human status so that Man, unlike the rest of nature can change. Man can become 'greater than the mala'chim or less than the animals'. This is hinted at in the first Rashi of Parshas Tazria which states that Rav Simlai explained that this is connected to the order of creation in which Man was created after all the animals. Just as Man was created after all the animals, the parsha of giving birth comes after the explanation of taharah for the animals. Bris Milah is the next step (L'maaleh min Hateva') of Bnai Yisroel and is required before tzora'as can occur.

We see that we are told to learn various traits from different animals, 'faithfulness from a dove', 'modesty from the cat', 'industry from the ant', ...  These traits are hard wired into the animals and are not something that they "choose" to do. However, we can see the traits and learn from them.

We can also see a reason for putting Milah in the Torah before Tzora'as because tzora'as is a completely miraculous occurrence which has not connection with the natural world. We see this because it only occurs among Bnai Yisroel. Non-Jews do not (normally - except for Naaman with Elisha) get this 'disease' and it is not treated according to the normal laws of epidemiology. It only existed during the time that spiritual matters had obvious physical effects. As a result, it is completely l'ma'aleh min hateva. A person is not quarantined for health related purposes, as was done with measles or tuberculosis. A person can only be quarantined upon declaration of the kohen and the kohen is forbidden to declare a person tamei during the chagim or during the seven days after his wedding (when health reasons would make it more necessary).

We can compare this to the halachos of tum'ah as given for people and animals. Only someone who is able to become kadosh  is able to become tamei. Tum'as neveilah [ritual impurity caused by an improperly killed animal] applies only to kosher animals (that can be slaughtered and eaten). Nonkosher species do not have this kind of tum'ah apply to them. Vegetables cannot become tamei until after they have been washed and 'made ready' (machshir le'tum'ah). Similarly, a person who can become 'greater than the angels' is also capable of becoming 'lower than the animals'. Thus, in order to be subject to the tum'ah of tzora'as, a person must become elevated to the next level of kedusha (through bris milah for a boy). This can explain why we must have the halachos of milah at this point of the Torah.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tetzaveh - Clothes make the man

Parshas Tetzaveh gives the command to make the clothes for the KohenGadol. The word for clothing,בגד [Beged], is the same root as the word for traitor. Clothing is designed to hide flaws and to present the image that one wants others to have. A uniform is designed to impress the publice with the importance of the office that the wearer holds as well as to impress the holder of the office with the seriousness with which he must treat his position. Ronald Reagan would always wear his suit in the Oval Office and insisted on conducting his business while wearing his jacket and tie. It was not to impress others with the loftiness of the position, but to show that he took the position with the seriousness that it required.

Often the uniform becomes so integrated with the position that it is immediately recognized at once. When this happens, a person who wears this uniform is invested with the status imparted to that position by all those who have worn it in the past. Examples of this are the Vatican Swiss Guards, the British Buckingham Palace Guards, the United States Green Berets. Noone who has not earned the right would dare wear those uniforms.  On the other hand, a uniform which attempts to impart a status which has not been earned will cause a counterproductive reaction. An example of this is the attempt by Richard Nixon to create "impressive" uniforms for the White House Guards. These uniforms were ridiculed as "comic opera" uniforms and caused the same response as the rows of medals that dictators awarded themselves as they stood in uniform to review the troops.

The Bigdei Kehuna [ clothing of the High Priest] were desingned to show the onlookers the importance of that position as well as reminding himof what hewas supposed to represent.

The Torah tells us

2You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory.ב. וְעָשִׂיתָ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת:
3And you shall speak to all the wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make Aaron's garments to sanctify him, [so] that he serve Me [as a kohen].ג. וְאַתָּה תְּדַבֵּר אֶל כָּל חַכְמֵי לֵב אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּאתִיו רוּחַ חָכְמָה וְעָשׂוּ אֶת בִּגְדֵי אַהֲרֹן לְקַדְּשׁוֹ לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי:
The purpose of the clothing was to reflect the "honor and glory" of the position of High Priest. In fact, a priest became elevated to the position by donning the "uniform". The talmud tells us that if a priest was appointed to serve on Yom Kippur because the Kohen Gadol was not able to perform the service that day, he could never go back to serving as a "regular" priest. In the send Bais Hamikdash, since the anointing oil was no longer available, a priest was inaugurated by putting on the "eight garments".

The Talmud in Maseches Shabbos 104a discusses the words for Truth (אמת - Emes) and Falsehood (שקר - Sheker). It points out that truth is made up of the first, middle and last letters of the alphabet. Each letter has a broad base and stands on its own. The letters are far apart because truth must be searched for but hold the entire world together. Maharal  notes that removal of the first letter of "emes", aleph, which as the first letter of the alphabet has a numerical value of one, the smallest numerical value, would leave the word "mes", meaning dead. If one deviates from the truth even one iota they have removed themselves from the everlasting reality and even though the majority is still true, the totality is false.

Falsehood on the other hand are the three letters before the end of the alphabet. They block off the last letter of truth from the rest of the letters. Each letter is on a point so that it cannot stand on its own. They huddle together so as to force their impression upon the onlooker. Other discussions of the meanings of two of the three letters reinforce these points (such as רק - rak meaning "but")

The three letters of "clothing" (בגד) have similar points applied to them. The second, third, and fourth letters of the alphabet are there to shield the intrinsic meaning of the person (the "aleph") from the rest of the world  The bais has a broad base standing firm and representing the "house" (bayis)  in which a person's soul lives. The Gimmel has two legs on which to stand ready to stand firm or to move in whichever way it must to protect the person. In some ways of thought, it represents the material world. The third letter the Dalet, has only one point, like the letters of sheker. It too cannot stand alone but symbolizes the "door" (delet) through which a person can interact with the world or through which the world can perceive the personality of the wearer.

The first clothing that we see in the Torah is that which Hashem made for Adam and Chava. It was only after the sin that they required external clothing. Before then, the light of their souls was so bright that the body was regarded as we regard clothes today.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Moshe and Yaakov, Yisro and Lavan - In-Laws and Out-Laws

The Torah has two sets of son-in-law father-in-law relationships that show the opposing spectrum of possibilities. We have Yaakov Avinu and Lavan the rasha as opposed to Moshe Rabbeinu and Yisro who turns out to be a tzaddik. Yaakov must ask for wages and separate himself from Lavan in order to maintain and build a family. It takes everything that Yaakov is to be able to do this. In the end he must gather all that he has accomplished and accumulated and flee for not only his life but the future existence of his family. Lavan, from the very beginning, begrudges everything that he must pay Yaakov and does his best to cheat him. This means that he is willing to destroy not only Yaakov, but his own daughters (all four of them) as well as his grandchildren.

When Lavan first runs out to greet Yaakov, we are informed that he expected that he would be coming with wealth and gifts just as Eliezer had done Note that this implies that Lavan was quite old at the time that Yaakov ran away. We can calculate that Yaakov was 91 when Yosef was born based on the fact that he was 130 when he met Par'o (and Yosef was 39). Since Lavan was old enough to get involved with his sister's marriage, 20 years before Yaakov and Esav were born, this would imply that he was on the order of 40 years older than Yaakov. This puts Lavan at around 130 years (or more) at the time that Yoseph was born.

At the very beginning, Rav S. R. Hirsch points out that Lavan is forced to offer Yaakov wages because he realizes that he is such a good worker that he cannot afford to let him go by keeping him working for nothing while pretending that he is a guest. Lavan must feel relieved that "all" Yaakov wants is his daughter Rachel and yet he cannot stop himself form attempting to cheat him. Here is an example of how Hashem uses the impulses of the rasha to accomplish the goal that He has planned. At the end, when Yaakov is forced to flee, Lavan chases after him in order to confiscate his hard earned wealth and destroy the nascent family.

This is similar to the reaction of Mitzraim when they chased the Bnei Yisrael to the Yam Suf. It did not bother Par'o that they had taken the wealth as much as that they were no longer slaves to be worked to death. Based on the Midrashim that we have that describe the toil and suffering of the Bnei Yisrael in Mitzraim, we see that the Egyptians were very careful not to work them in order to actually accomplish something, but to break them body and spirit. This is why we have the medrash that the store cities were carefully built on swampy land so that they would constantly collapse and have to be rebuilt. This is why the actual tasks imposed were designed to be degrading rather than useful.

Contrast this with the relationship between Yisro and Moshe. From the very beginning, Yisro welcomes Moshe into his household. He sends his daughters to invite him to come in even when all he knows is that an Egyptian exile has helped them. He makes him a member of his household and offers him his daughter Tzipporah without any indication that he demanded anything from Moshe. It is purely a matter of his recognition that Moshe Rabbeinu would be a worthy husband of his daughter. Ont hte other hand, Moshe Rabbeinu takes up his position in the family without anything further needing to be said. The torah tells us that Moshe was with Yisro for some unspecified period of time that was "long". As it says in the Pasuk

ויהי בימים הרבימ ההמ
 During those many days

Yet it then says that
ומשה רעה צאן יתרו חותנו כהן מדין
Moshe was herding the sheep of his father-in-law Yisro, the priest of Midian
 We see that in spite of the long period of time involved, neither one of them saw any need to change to original unofficial "arrangement" between them. Moshe was in charge of the flocks and Yisro was concentrating on his position as the head of the state religion. We see the implication that Moshe was not just a plain shepherd, but was in charge of the flock form a number of places. First, the flock was sufficiently large so that the seven daughters had to have taken care of them even at the time that Moshe arrived. We have the medrash that one time a lamb ran away from the flock and Moshe chased it. How could he have abandoned the flock to wander by itself to chase a single lamb? When he saw the burning bush, he went aside to see what was going on. Again, how could he abandon the flock? When Hashem told him to go to Mitzraim, there is nothing in the Torah or in the medrashim about finding someone to take over his job.

We see from references in the Torah that both Lavan and Yisro had sons after Yaakov and Moshe arrived. In the case of Yaakov and lavan, these sons inflamed the jealous feelings of there father and attempted to make the situation worse. In the case of Yisro, we see from what happens later, that the sons continued to regard Moshe as an integral member of the family. Indeed, we see from the Haftarah of Beshalach that they came and settled among the Bnei Yisrael.

Yaakov had to run away from Lavan in secrecy and the "best" that could happen was to extract a promise never to cross the boundary between them and we say each year if the Haggadah than Lavan wanted to destroy us all. Moshe after receiving the call from Hashem, goes to Yisro to get his permission to leave. Yisro respond "Lech Leshalom". He sends him with good will and, when Moshe wants to send his wife and children to safety, he takes them back with no difficulty. When Bnei Yisrael are camped at Har Sinai, he comes to meet them and is greeted with honor and joy. He actively takes part is setting up the community and gives his best advice for the future of the people.His advice becomes the bsis for the entire judicial system of Bnei Yisrael and Moshe begs him to stay with them. As I said before, we see that the entire family comes and joins Bnai Yisrael. Besides the reference in Shoftim, we have a reference in the Talmud that descendents of Yisro were members of the Sanhedrin.

This shows the difference between a tzaddik and a rasha and the effect that they can have for the rest of time.

Update: Since Yisro was the priest of Midian, he was probably a Midianite. Midian was the son of Avraham and Keturah (Hagar). We can perhaps say that he fixed the flaws in Yishmael by coming back into the family of Avraham.