Friday, November 20, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha

Yitzchak's story is one of the major themes of this week's parsha. Until now, the stories involving Yitzchak have really been stories of other people - Avraham offering up Yitzchak at the akeida, and Avraham's servant finding a wife for Yitzchak. Now, finally, it is Yitzchak's turn to write his own story, to have his own narrative. However, the first pasuk of the parsha already tells us what Yitzchak's story will be - v'ela toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzchak, "These are the generations [or "stories"] of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham sired Yitzchak." The story of Yitzchak is that he is Avraham's son, that Avraham sired him and that he is a continuation of Avraham. Indeed, we already heard in last week's parsha that he took Rivkah into his mother Sarah's tent - she became Sarah and he became Avraham. He prays for a son, just as Avraham beseeched God for a son; as a result of a famine, he goes into a foreign land, just like Avraham- wanting to go to Egypt, like Avraham, but staying in the land of Canaan, in the land of the Plishtim, on God's behest. He gets in trouble on account of his wife as Avraham did, having told the same story as Avraham that she was his sister. He gets into quarrels with the Plishtim over ownership of the wells, just like Avraham; he makes a covenant with Avimelekh, just like Avraham; and he spends a lot of time redigging the wells that Avraham dug. And then that is it. His story is over, and we move on to the story of Yaakov and Esav.

There is nothing new and innovative in Yitzchak's life. He continued in the way of Avraham. It is easy to dismiss such a life as mundane and meaningless, but in fact, without Yitzchak we would not have survived. Yitzchak took all of Avraham's creativity and innovations, all of Avraham's vision - and he ensured it's continuity. Avraham was the creator, the founder, the leader with charisma. Yitzchak was the one who took that charisma and creativity and institutionalize it. Avraham was chesed - bursting out of bounds, overflowing with ideas and energy. Yitzchak was din - the one with bounds, with limits, the one with rules, and laws, and a fixed way of doing things that must be adhered to. Yitzchak could not go out of Canaan - he could not explore new vistas. He had to stay in Canaan and invest all of his energies in building, in establishing, in redigging the wells. If another Avraham had followed Avraham, nothing would have progressed. All those amazing ideas, visions and goals of Avraham would have been forgotten in the excitement and passion of the new Avraham. The wells would have gotten clogged and the water would have stopped flowing. Redigging the wells, doing the hard work that is necessary to sustain the vision and bring it into the next generation, that day-to-day commitment can often be unexciting and thankless work - that was Yitzchak's task. And yet, had it not been for Yitzchak, all of Avraham's contributions would have been lost.

As a people, we have had a few Avrahams - Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Ba'al Shem Tov, the Ari, Rav Soloveitchik, and Rav Kook to name a few. But had they not had Yitzchaks to follow them - to take their ideas and programs and turn them into reality, to commit to the day-to-day effort needed to bring their ideas into the next generation - then their legacy would have been lost to us. While it is exciting to be an Avraham, we have only survived as a people because of our Yitzchaks. Our Yitzchaks have not only preserved the innovations of our Avrahams, but they have preserved for us our mesorah, our tradition, and our way of life.

Yitzchaks are the backbone of our people. They our those countless mothers and fathers who have sacrificed everything so their children would have a Jewish education and a Jewish home. They are the ones who learned Torah every day - not because they would become great scholars, but because it was the lifeblood of the Jewish people. They are the ones who toiled to provide for their family, who endured hardship to keep the mitzvot, who refused to give up or compromise their Jewish identity no matter what the cost. They are the women who used a deep, dark well as a mikveh when no other mikveh was available. They are the men who scrounged to make a living to support their families rather than take a job that entailed violation of the Shabbat. They are the ones who day to day - with or without hardship - have lived and continue to live a committed life of Torah and mitzvot, keeping it alive for themselves and passing it on to the next generation. They are the ones who keep redigging the wells and keep the water flowing.

We all need to be more thankful for the Yitzchaks in our lives. First, to recognize the profound value of our own work as Yitzchaks - what we do in our daily lives as Jews to keep the Torah alive for ourselves, our family, and our community. And we must recognize all those who are the unsung Yitzchaks - the teachers in our schools, the mashgichim of restaurants, the mikveh attendant, those who work in the office of our synagogue - the ones who give of themselves day-to-day for the Jewish community in quiet ways, off of center stage - and be profoundly grateful for their constant redigging of our wells. It is not always easy being a Yitzchak. It is a lot more exciting being an Avraham. But it is only because of Yitzchak that we survive, and that the waters of Avraham continue to flow.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

In our study of niddah, we began the topic of tvilah, immersion. Interestingly, the Torah never states explicitly that a niddah, zavah, or a woman who has given birth has to immerse in order to become tahor, ritually pure, although it is assumed throughout the Talmud that this requirement exists and that it is Biblical. The Rishonim attempt to locate the source, and while Rambam (issurei Biah 4:3) states that it can be inferred from the fact that all ritually impure people in the Torah must go to the mikveh to become tahor, but Tosafot (Beitzah 11a, s.v. Lo Nitzrecha) rejects this approach and states that one cannot learn from general principles of ritual impurity, because it is possible that the requirements would be different when it comes to the woman's status vis-à-vis her husband.

This debate points to an ongoing theme regarding the status of a niddah - a person who both has standard ritual impurity (like all of us today who are t'mei met - ritually impure due to contact or being in the same building with a dead body), and also a person who is forbidden to have sex. Is the latter status a dimension of the former, or something independent? Rambam certainly assumes these two statuses are combined, whereas Tosafot states they may be independent of one another. Thus, for Tosafot, it would have been theoretically possible to argue that a woman could not go to the mikveh, be a niddah for touching trumah, sanctified food, and the like, and still be permitted to her husband. In the end, obviously, a niddah must go to the mikveh to be permitted to her husband, but it is still an open question whether her two statuses are linked and whether this is the same tvillah of ritual purity and impurity. Earlier this year we saw a similar position of Ra'avad - supported by Ramban - who states that there are some circumstances (poletet shikhvat zera) that a woman's shiva nikkiyim, seven clean days, would be interrupted only for ritual impurity, but not for her husband. Thus, according to Ra'avad, such a woman could go to the mikveh on day seven - ignoring this interruption - and be permitted to her husband, yet still be a full niddah regarding laws of ritual impurity!

Because the tvilah of a niddah and zavah is not mentioned in the Torah, there is uncertainty as to the requirements for the tvilah of a zavah. A zav, a man with an abnormal penile discharge, requires tvilah in mayyim chayyim - a natural well or spring. Is the same true about a zavah? Ramban in his commentary to Vayikra (15:19) states that according to the simple sense of the verses this is the case. And, in fact, there is a mishna (Mikvaot 5:5) that seems to imply this. However, the Tosefta (Megillah 1:14, Zavim 3:1) states explicitly that a zavah does not require mayyim chayyim. Now, this issue is never discussed explicitly in the Bavli or Yerushalmi, and hence there is some debate about how we rule. A number of Geonim were of the opinion that a zavah requires mayyim chayyim, and they went further to state that because of Chumrah d' Rebbe Zeira, our current practice which does not distinguish between the status of niddah and zavah, all women must use a well or wellspring. This was a possible position to hold because many mikvaot in those times were exactly that - wells. However, all the Rishonim reject this position on the basis of the Tosefta, and certainly it would have made mikveh use impossible in communities which needed to use rainwater mikvaot. Of course, we rule this way, and almost all of our mikvaot are rainwater mikvaot. (So, also, were the mikvaot at Masada - but that was before Chumrah d' Rebbe Zeira and hence only needed to be used for niddah purposes, not zavah).

When one realizes what women had to endure to go to the mikveh - climbing many feet down a deep dark well, and immersing in unheated water - we can only be inspired by their example of dedication and self- sacrifice. Of course, for us, the important message is not to feel a need to duplicate this, but to realize our responsibility to make mikvaot as welcoming, hygienic, and pleasant as possible - something that is feasible in our rainwater mikvaot, and happens when sufficient attention and care is given.

In that vein, it is worth noting a final point that we made in shiur. The Rishonim and poskim discuss going to the mikveh on Shabbat. They are bothered why this is allowed, since the general (Ashkenazic) practice is to not fully immerse oneself (in a pool, a bath, etc.) on Shabbat because of a range of Shabbat concerns (including, but not limited to, carrying the water on one's body and squeezing the water out of one's hair). They justify going to the mikveh on Shabbat either by recognizing that these concerns are not based on the Gemara, and hence in this case one can revert to the core halakha that such immersion is permissible, or by stating that the mitzvah of going to the mikveh at the right time overrides these concerns.

While this general Shabbat issue is largely resolved by the time of the Shulkhan Arukh, later poskim deal with another problem - going to a heated mikveh on Shabbat. Fully immersing oneself in preheated water on Shabbat is explicitly forbidden by the Talmud, and yet we do it in this case. How is that? A number of poskim reject the practice, but most attempt to find ways to justify it - sometimes by ingenious formal definitions (for example, the water isn't hot enough to really be called hot). Rav Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 6:20), after listing such formal distinctions, in the end states that it is possible that the value of not forcing a woman to delay going to the mikveh would override this rabbinic restriction. This is a powerful statement about how far we must go to make the mikveh as welcoming as possible, so that its physical state should never be the cause of anyone not going to the mikveh, or even delaying or hesitating using it.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week, in our morning learning, we wrapped up the topic of checks, bedikot, and began the topic of tvilah, immersion, starting with the question of the source of tvilah for a niddah and a zavah (a woman with irregular bleeding), and whether we rule tvilah bizmanah mitzvah, that it is a mitzvah to immerse on exactly the first day, that it is the right time and that it is possible to do so. In the afternoon we continued addressing the teenage years and sexuality, and addressed the topics of zera li'vatalah, masturbation and "wasting of seed" and negiah, sexual touch between non-married individuals.

Following Rabbi Riskin's visit of last week, we had another guest from Eretz Yisrael and Yeshivat Hamivtar this week. Rabbi Chanokh Waxman, a teacher of Gemara at Yeshivat HaMivtar, visited on Thursday and gave the parsha shiur. Rabbi Waxman looked at the episode of Yaakov's deception of Yitzchak in order to receive the blessing, and presented two competing reads of the story - one, that Yaakov acted correctly, as he was following the Divine prophecy, "The older shall serve the younger," and the other that he acted incorrectly, incorrectly assuming that the ends justified the means. Rather, deceit is never the right course, and he should have allowed God to ensure that the prophecy would be fulfilled. A close reading of the later episodes with Yaakov, especially those in the house of Lavan, support the latter reading as they seem to show how Yaakov suffered and was punished midah ki'neged midah, measure for measure, for his deceit.

Dr. David Berger has written a very insightful article on this topic ("On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis," in Understanding Scripture, 1987. It can be viewed on Google Books). There he shows how in the past, when the Divinity and morality of the Torah were assumed by all, Jews and Christians alike, traditional commentators felt a need to defend the morality of Yaakov (and, by implication, the Jewish people). However, in more recent times, when the Divinity and morality of the Torah have been under attack, traditional commentators have felt a greater need to defend the morality of the Torah, and in so doing, have been more prepared to state that Yaakov did not act properly, and that the Torah (and God) did not condone his actions, and hence to read the stories that follow as a punishment of Yaakov for his actions and deceit.

Also this week, on the professional side, we had an intensive two-day training session run by Makom to train our students to be Israeli-engaged rabbis in the Golah. This will be followed by a project and field work in the context of students' internships, as well as another two-day intensive training session in the Spring. We are thrilled to be partnering with Makom on this important part of our curriculum.

And finally, on the simcha side, Rob Golder was engaged to Sarah Steinberg of Highland Park, NJ. We had the pleasure of having Sarah and her parents at the yeshiva on Monday, and we danced and sang with them after Mincha. Mazel Tov!