Friday, January 15, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Va'era opens with a powerful, yet quizzical, declaration - "And God spoke to Moshe and said to him: I am God. And I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov with El-Shaddai, but by my name God (YHVH) I was not known to them." All the commentators are troubled, for certainly God used his name, YHVH, when he appeared to the forefathers. Rashi and Ramban both respond that while God used this name, God had not demonstrated it, God had not acted in a way that manifested this aspect of who God is. According to Rashi, this name indicates the fulfillment of the divine promise - one that would only occur later when the People of Israel took possession of the Land of Israel. Ramban understands that this name refers to God working outside of nature. It was only through the ten plagues did God manifest God's self through miracles that were outside of the natural order.

However, the focus on the meaning of the name YHVH should not distract us from the major theme of this opening section, a theme that runs throughout the ten plagues - the need to know the name of God. Consider Pharaoh's first response to Moshe and Aharon - "Who is YHVH that I should listen to his voice to send out Israel. I do not know YHVH and, even Israel I will not send out. (Ex. 5:2). What is God's response:


"And Egypt will know that I am YHVH when I stretch out My hand over Egypt" (7:5)
"So says God, with this shall you know that I am YHVH" (7:17)
"And thus will you know that I am YHVH in the midst of the land" (8:18)


This is the framing of the makkot for Pharaoh and for the Egyptians. Of course, the lesson was not only for them. As our parsha makes clear in the opening, Israel as well does not yet know God by who God is. Thus, the list of verbs of v'hotzeiti, vi'hitzalti, v'ga'aliti, v'liakachti - I will take out, I will save, I will redeem, I will take - is interrupted before its climax - vi'heiveiti, I will bring, with the verse:

"And you shall know that I am YHVH who takes you out from the burden of Egypt"(6:7)


This is necessary before entering the land, and as a prerequisite for entering the land. The culmination of the Exodus is God's revealing God's self to Israel, and Israel's knowing God directly - knowing the name of God. It is thus that next week's parsha opens with a declaration that the lesson of the makkot is for Israel as well:

"In order that you shall tell over in the ears of your children and children's children how I made a mockery of Egypt and the signs that I put in their midst, and you will know that I am YHVH" (7:2)

The message is clear. The makkot were not just (or even primarily) to punish the Egyptians - they were to demonstrate who God was, both to Mitzrayim and to Bnei Yisrael. It is thus worth noting that the Torah does not primarily refer to the plagues as makkot - smitings, but as moftim and otot - signs and wonders, phenomena that are meant to teach and to demonstrate.

What, specifically, did they demonstrate? Malbim, in his commentary, shows that the makkot fall into three groups of three, as we say in the hagaddah - dzakh, adash, bi'achav. The first group was introduced with "you will know that I am YHVH". God exists, and is powerful. Thus the Nile - to god of Egypt - is smitten with blood and frogs. The third in each group - in this case the lice - was not an ot, was not to teach a lesson, but only a makkah. Following this, the second group was introduced by "You shall know that I am God in the midst of the land" (8:18). This group demonstrated that an infinite God could be involved in the finite world, and could care about its particulars. God was "in the midst of the land" and could single out a particular nation - Israel - and give it direct providence. Thus, it was only in this group that the Torah states that God made a distinction between the cattle of Bnei Yisrael and those of the Egyptians, and Moshe and Aharon underscored this point when they framed these makkot to Pharaoh. Finally, the last group was introduced with "And you will know that there is none like Me in all the land" (9:15) - that God is all-powerful. It is thus regarding these last makkot that the Torah emphasizes that there had never been anything like them in all of recorded history.

The makkot thus served to teach lessons about God to Mitzrayim and to Bnei Yisrael. It was through understanding their significance, that we - in this formative moment in history- began to know God, to get a glimpse of who God, to understand God through God's action, to know him directly, to know God's name.

God's use of the name YHVH with the forefathers had not been sufficient, because God had not yet manifested this name through action. What we say is important, but ultimately, it is what we do that matters, and it is throught our actions that we are ultimately known. "Lo hamidrash hu ha'ikkar ela ha'ma'aseh." (Avot 1:17). "It is not the expounding that is the most important" - that will best teach our values and our commitments and demonstrate who we are, "but rather the action." Actions speak louder than words.

However, because action is such a powerful communicator, we cannot let it stand on its own. In our own lives, we often do not bother to give a framing to the actions that we do, and their import is often lost. Especially when it comes time to punish - to give figurative makkot. A major challenge of parenting is how to punish so that children do not just remember the punishment, the figurative makkot, but that they learn the lessons that we are trying to impart. Even when the action is framed, the framing is often lost - just as many people only know of the makkot and overlook the explicit framing in the Torah. We must rise to this challenge. We must take the time and effort to clearly frame our actions at all times, but in particular when power, force, and authority are involved. It is quite easy for the wrong lessons to be learned. We must make it clear what the lessons are, why we are acting as we are. If we do this in our parenting, then our children will truly internalize the values that we want them to learn, and will know our name, will understand more deeply and intimately who we are, and will truly know us.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

In Lifecycles this week, we began the topic of siddur Kiddushin, wedding officiating, which we will be covering over the next 4-5 weeks. The first shiur was on the topic of birkhat eirusin, the blessing made prior to the giving of the ring, which directly tied in to how we define the religious significance of the institution of marriage.

Regarding the brakha itself, the Talmud (Ketuvot 7b) records the text of the brakha and a debate as to whether we close it with a final brakha (which is our practice). The Rishonim admit confusion as to the text of the brakha - which references forbidden sexual unions and the future chuppah. Why, they ask, do we refer to these things in the brakha? Why not make a simple brakha on the mitzvah of kiddushin?

For a number of Rishonim (Rambam and Ra'avad, as well as many Geonim), this is a birkhat ha'mitzvah, a mitzvah blessing, plain and simple. The complicated text may have been necessary to clarify that the marriage was not fully consummated at this point - that prohibitions still applied (asar lanu et ha'aarusot, "You have forbidden betrothed [and not-yet-married] women"), and that it would only be consummated at a later date - when the chuppah would take place (al yidei chuppah vi'kiddushin). It is still not clear according to this why the prohibition of arayot, forbidden sexual unions, are mentioned, nor why there would be a closing brakha (unless it was merely due to its length).

Other Rishonim (Ramban, Rosh, Ritva and Ran) state that this is not a birkhat ha'mitzvah, but a birkhat ha'shevech, a blessing of praise, one that gives praise to God for the institution of kiddushin. It is for this reason that the prohibitions are mentioned, because the institution of kiddushin sanctifies the relationship, and - in the Jewish context - sanctity is brought about by the constellation of issur vi'heter, distinctions between what is forbidden and what is permitted. We do not live in a neutral world, and by marking certain things as forbidden, it frames and sanctifies those things that are permitted. In the words of Ramban: "she'kidshem bi'assur la'hem u'bi'mutar lehem," "that You sanctified the Jewish people through what is forbidden to them and what is permitted to them." [Consider, also, that the parasha of Kedoshim can be seen as the culmination of the parsha of arayot, a point made by our student, Mishael Zion, and that Rambam's Kedusha section of his Mishne Torah is dedicated to forbidden food and forbidden sex].

Ramban goes on further to compare this sanctity to the kedusha of Shabbat, which is achieved by the prohibition of melakhot. Thus, in our birkhat eirusin, we make a closing brakha - "mekadesh Yisrael al yidei chuppah vi'kiddushin," "Who sanctifies Israel through chuppah and kiddushin" - emphasizing the kedushat Yisrael, the sanctity of Israel, and parallel to the closing brakha of kiddush (the comparison to kiddush is already made - without elaboration - in the Gemara). In this way, it can be seen that this is not just a birkhat ha'shevach, but also a brakha, like kiddush, that is a sanctifying brakha. Shabbat and kiddushin impart sanctity with or without our brakhot. But our brakha, whether in kiddush or for the kiddushin, adds a human dimension to the sanctity, a dimension that comes through our declaration and through our conscious awareness of the intrinsic sanctity. The brakha, by its proclamation, heightens our awareness and thus deepens the sanctity that is already present.

[It is also worth noting that the Geonim and a number of Rishonim reject the text "mekadesh Yisrael al yidei chuppah vi'kiddushin" and state that the original and correct text is just "mikadesh Yisrael". As the Geonim explain "ayn kedushatan shel Yisrael taluy bikach" - the institution of marriage is not the vehicle for the sanctity of Israel. It is one of a number of institutions that give us, as a people, sanctity, but it is not unique in that regard. They thus state that the proper brakha is just "mekadesh Yisrael," that God sanctifies Israel, and - by implication - that the institution of kiddushin is a part of the sanctity of Israel.]

The debate regarding whether it is a birkhat ha'mitzvah or a birkhat ha'shevech has practical implications. If it is a birkhat ha'mitzvah it would have to be made before the mitzvah, and only by the one doing the mitzvah - the groom. If it is a birkhat ha'shevach it would have to be made after, and could - at least conceivable - be done by someone other than the chatan or kallah. However, the matter does not divide so simply. Ra'avad and the Geonim state that it is a birkhat ha'mitzvah, but since the man is not entirely in control - the bride can refuse - he cannot make it beforehand, and thus would have to make it afterwards. On the other side, Ramban states that it is a birkhat ha'shevach, as we have seen, but that it stands in for a birkhat ha'mitzvah (which cannot be made for technical reasons - that the mitzvah is only completed at the nissuim). Thus, we can reconcile our practice to make it before the kiddushin with Ramban's position - because it stands in for birkhat ha'mitzvah, it can come before the mitzvah is performed. In addition, if it functions like kiddush, and is sanctifying the kiddushin, it can - and perhaps should - come before the kiddushin itself, just as one can make kiddush just before or just after Shabbat begins. The question of timing actually came up at a recent wedding that I attended, where the chatan gave the ring before the mesader made the birkhat eirusin. I consulted with the mesader immediately, and advised him to have the chatan make the blessing right then, given the large number of Geonim and Rishonim who say that the blessing can be made (or even should be made) after the kiddushin.

Regarding the second issue of who makes the blessing, it would seem that our practice of the mesader making the brakha indicates that it is not a birkhat hamitzvah, for - as Ritva explains - we never find one person making a birkhat ha'mitzvah for another person's mitzvah (unless the one making the brakha is also doing the mitzvah, like in the case of shofar, which is not the case here). And, in fact, Rambam and Ra'avad who say that it is a birkhat ha'mitzvah, state that the groom makes the blessing. Nevertheless, the Nodah biYehudah (Tinyana, EH 1) states that it is a birkhat ha'mitzvah and that the mesader is discharging that obligation of the chatan. Thus, he states, if the chatan is deaf - he states - and cannot fulfill his obligation through hearing, the mesader should not make the blessing. He does consider that it might also be the bride's mitzvah and her blessing as well, and thus states that he might allow the blessing if she can hear and fulfill her obligation. This question - whose blessing it is, and whether the rabbi is discharging the obligation of the groom (and bride) - impacts whether the rabbi has to have in mind to discharge their obligation and whether he has to tell them that they need to have in mind to fulfill their obligation. There is nothing wrong with doing this, but - in my opinion - our practice of having another person make the brakha is strong evidence that it is not a classic birkhat ha'mitzvah, and does not have to be made by the groom, and thus such intent regarding it is not necessary.

The nature of the brakha issue may, in the end, be a debate between the Shulkhan Arukh and the Rema. The Shulkhan Arukh only mentions the groom making the blessing, and states that it cannot be made after the kiddushin. The Rema, on the other hand, states that the practice is for a third party to make the blessing and that it can be made after the kiddushin, up until the moment of nissuim. The Rema's position is one that I believe accounts more for the complexity of the brakha, and one that underscore the shevach aspect of the brakha and our recognition of the kedusha of the institution of kiddushin.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


On Wednesday we welcomed a group of lay leaders from Sha'ar Hashomayim in Montreal to our beit midrash, led by our musmach and their rabbi, Rabbi Adam Scheier. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with these leaders, and the president of the shul addressed the entire student body about the importance of their future work as rabbis.

On Thursday, a group of prospective students came to our yeshiva for a "Prospective Student Shabbaton." The students were welcomed with a nice breakfast, and then participated in seder, shiurim, and special classes. This Shabbat they will be staying at the homes of YCT students, davening at the HIR, and having meals with students and with Rabbi Weiss. They greatly enjoyed the learning yesterday and we know that they will enjoy their Shabbat in Riverdale.

We want to wish a mazel tov to our musmach, Rabbi Max Davis, and his wife, Dalia, on the birth of a baby girl this Wednesday afternoon. She'tizku li'gadlah li'Torah li'chupppah u'li'ma'asim tovim.

Finally, we ask that everyone keep in mind those who have died and those who are injured and suffering in Haiti. We have been saying tehillim for them at the yeshiva, and are working on arranging a meaningful relief effort - donations of cash and clothing in a way that will really help. Please pray for all those who have died and are suffering, and think seriously about what you and your community can do on their behalf.