Friday, November 5, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Last year we explored the theme of Yitzchak's life as a continuation and institutionalization of Avraham's vision:

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.

It was thus necessary for Yitzchak to follow Avraham, and - as a Jewish People - while we have had our share of Avrahams, we have only survived because of the countless generations of Yitzchaks who have ensured that our vision, ideals, and commitments would be part of our everyday life and passed on from generation to generation.

However, there is a danger in being too much of a Yitzchak.  One who is only a Yitzchak repeats and entrenches the practices of the past, and thus may also carry on the mistakes of his predecessors.  Or perhaps not mistakes per se, but adaptive strategies which made sense in the past but are counterproductive in the present.   Yitzchak, himself, does not only redig Avraham's wells and keep the water flowing, he also is prepared to follow Avraham's footsteps and leave the land of Canaan when famine arrives.   Like Avraham, who apparently did not tell Sarah that God had promised him a son from her - note her surprise at the report of the angels - Yitzchak does not communicate well with his wife, Rivkah, and is seemingly ignorant of God's declaration that the "elder will serve the younger."

Yitzchak's propensity to repeat not only the successes, but also the errors, of the past is most pronounced in his interaction with Avimelekh in the land of the Plishtim.  Like Avraham, he says that his wife, Rivkah, is his sister, and once again, disaster is narrowly averted.  What stands out in this story is that there is one person who has learned from the past, and it is not Yitzchak.  It is Avimelekh.  Although Yitzchak says that Rivkah is his sister, Avimelekh (or his father) has heard this one before, and knows better than to act on it.  Divine intervention is not needed here, because Avimelekh was able to learn from the mistakes of the past, implement them in his practice, and change his behavior and the outcome as a result. 

Yitzchak has not only failed to learn that the Plishtim - as opposed to those in Mitzrayim - would not take a woman who was his wife, but he also seems to be acting almost as a reflex, without conscious thought.  In contrast to Avraham, who seems to have thought about it beforehand and declared when they entered Gerar that Sarah was his wife, Yitzchak has not considered the problem, and when confronted by it - "And the people of the place ask regarding his wife" - he gives the answer that he has been accustomed to hearing in his father's house, "and he said, 'She is my sister.'"   The fact that he has not really grappled with the situation can be seen from his later indiscretion.  He continues to have intimate relations with Rivkah, not even bothering to close the window shutters.   If he truly was concerned, as he said, "lest the people of the place kill me over Rivkah," not only would he have been more careful regarding his intimate life with her, but he might have chosen an entirely different solution than Avraham had, one that would have taken into account what could be learned from the past - the nature of the Plishtim and of Avimelekh, and the problems that can result from deceit. 

Not only is Yitzchak not learning from the past, he is also violating an explicit commitment that Avraham made.   For Avimelekh had approached Avraham to make an oath "that you should not deal falsely with me or with me children or grandchildren." (Breishit 21:23), and Avraham had entered into this covenant with Avimelekh.  But to live up to the covenant required a change of behavior not only on Avimelekh's part - returning the well that Avraham had dug - but also on Avraham and Yitzchak's part, to not repeat the deceits of the past.  It is possible that this violation of the covenant gave an excuse for the Plishtim to violate their side of the deal, and to fill Yitzchak's wells, just as the Plishtim in Avraham's time had stolen his well.  Truly,  as George Santayana said, "Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it."

We, today, are all Yitzchaks, coming as we do after thousands of years of those who have laid the foundation of Judaism and who have built upon that foundation.  We must do all that we can to ensure that that structure remains strong and last until the next generation and for all future generations.  We must do all that we can to ensure that the commitments and the ideals of our forbearers are upheld by us, and by our children, each and every day, and in all that we do.  But we must also ask ourselves if there have been mistakes in the past, mistakes that we can learn from, and that we can correct in the present.  Have there been adaptive strategies that may have made sense at the time, but would be counterproductive now?  Are we truly grappling with the challenges of the present and truly assessing the matter as it is, not just how we have been habituated to think about it and habituated to deal with it?  Only when we combine the best of Avraham and the best of Yitzchak will we truly be living up to our mission to hold fast to our tradition of the past, and to bring it thoughtfully and with integrity to deal with the challenges of the present.
Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

This week the daf yomi began tractate Horiyot, which is the last tractate in Seder Nezikin and the smallest tractate in Shas.  It presumably is part of Seder Nezikin as a type of an appendix to tractate Sanhedrin and Makkot, which deal with the power and authority of the Beit Din - to represent the people, the fix the calendar, to judge court cases and to inflict punishment - from monetary fines, to lashes, to the death penalty.  Horiyot deals not with the power and authority of Beit Din, but with its responsibility and potential culpability if it is negligent in its role, and rules incorrectly regarding Biblical prohibitions.  Basing themselves on the verses in Vayikra 4:13-21, the Rabbis understand that if the High Court ruled in error regarding a sin for which one would bring a korban chatat (when done unintentionally), then it must bring a special sin offering if most of the people have sinned as a result of this erroneous ruling.  This sin offering is called par he'elem davar shel tzibbur, the cow brought for a matter that is hidden from the community. 

This tractate, then, dealing as it does with the issues of erroneous ruling, individual sin, and the sin of the court, offers an opportunity to explore the relative responsibilities of the Court and the individual, as well as to reflect on what makes rabbinic interpretation into binding law.

Interestingly, the first topic that the mesekhet takes up is not that of the Court's responsibility, but rather that of the individual's right - under most cases - to rely upon the Court's ruling.  The first mishna states that when an individual relies on the Court's ruling, even if it turns out that the Court was in error and that he sinned, he is exempt from bringing a sin-offering.  This, of course, stands to reason, inasmuch as a lay person is obligated to follow the ruling of the court, based on the verse "And you shall do according to the Law which they shall tell you… You shall not deviate from the matter that they tell you to the right nor to the left." (Deut. 17:10-11).  Interestingly, however, the Gemara states that the mishna is only a minority opinion, and that the Sages say that even in such a case the individual must bring a sin-offering, and this is how Rabbenu Channel and Rambam rule.  This position seems to make no sense, as in such a case the individual has no blame or fault for the sin.  Why, then, must he bring a sin  offering?

To understand this position, it is helpful to consider another, similar ruling in the Talmud.  The Gemara Shabbat (68b) discusses the case of a tinok shenishba, a person who was taken captive by non-Jews when he was an infant, and was raised by them, and thus believes himself to be a non-Jew.  This person will, of course, regularly violate Shabbat, but due to absolutely no fault of his own.   Rebbe Yochanan and Reish Lakish state - as we would expect - that such a person is guiltless, and does not have to bring any sin-offering.  However, Rav and Shmuel both say that he must - when he becomes aware that he is Jewish - bring one sin-offering for all his Shabbat violations, and, again, this is how Rambam rules.  What is the logic here?  Where is his sin?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding that a sin-offering is not (or at least not only) to atone for the sin of the individual, but (also) to cleanse the world of the sin that was committed.  According to the Torah's theology, the commission of sin brings impurity to the world, and - most significantly - to the Temple and the Land of Israel.  This sin, this metaphysical mess, is cleansed through the bringing of the chatat, which is translated (as I have done, above) as "sin-offering," but is actually more accurately translated as "cleansing sacrifice."  Hence, the service of Yom Kippur was not primarily the goat sent to the wilderness to atone for the sins of the People, but rather the sacrifices that were brought into the inner sanctum for the purpose of cleansing the Temple from the impurity of the sins, so that God could continue to dwell among the People.  [For more on this, see Jacob Milgrom, Anchor Bible, Leviticus, pp. 253ff).

Thus, in our two cases, although the individual is faultless, he still did the act - he still made the mess - and therefore, he must clean it up, he must bring the chatat.  If someone knocked over a glass of orange juice by accident, they may be faultless, but it is still their responsibility to clean it up, and it is no different in these cases.   This approach explains why Rambam sometimes refers to a tinok shenishba as a shogeg, an inadvertent but liable sinner, and sometimes as an ones, a guiltless sinner.  Regarding guilt and blame the person is an ones, free from all guilt.  But regarding responsibility for a korban, the person is a shogeg, one who has done the act of the sin willfully and without duress, and thus responsible to bring the chatat.

So much for the position of the Sages.  The position of the mishna, however, is that only someone who actually is at fault is obligated in a chatat and this is not the case regarding a lay person who follows beit din.    However, the mishna does identify one person who should have know better than to follow Beit Din, and who would be considered at fault for his sin, and who thus would have to bring a chatat.  This person is a member of the Court, or a student who is fit to be on the Court, and who has good basis to believe that they are in error.   The Talmud extends this category to include even someone who is not fit for the court, but who has a good basis to believe the Court is in error - he is knowledgeable about the Oral Law or he has good analytic ability to assess their arguments.  Rosh, and implicitly Rambam, further extend this to include anyone who believes the court to be in error.

Such a person, says the Gemara (2b), should have known better than listen to the Court and to do this sin.  Why then did he do so?  Because, says the Gemara, he was a toeh bi'mitzvah lishmoa li'Beit din, he believed incorrectly that his obligation to listen to the Court extended even to cases when they have made a mistake.

Now, this statement is quite fascinating.  We are often told exactly this - that one must follow the High Court even if what they say appears to be incorrect.  As Rashi states, on the verse, "Do not swerve to the right or to the left," "Even if they say to you that your right is your left, and your left is your right."   From the Gemara, however, we see that if one is in a position to truly know better, then this is not the case.  In fact, the Sifre from which Rashi derives his statement, is a little more nuanced.  The Sifre says: "Even if it appears in your eyes that they are telling you that your right is your left and your left is your right."  According to the Sifre, then, one could distinguish between cases where there is no question that they are definitely wrong, and one should not follow them, and cases where it appears that they are wrong, but one recognizes that they could be right, and in such cases one is obligated to follow them.  

So much for Rashi and the Sifre.  As to our Gemara, it is also worth noting that the Bavli never quotes this Sifre or any variation of it.  It is thus possible that the Bavli disagrees with it, and understands that one should not follow Beit Din if it appears that they are in error.  Finally, the Yerushalmi on this mishna quotes a braitta that directly contradicts this Sifre. 

"As we taught in a braitta: Perhaps if they told you that your right was your left and your left was your right you should listen to them?  The verse teaches: "To go to the right or to the left" - only when they tell you that your right is your right and your left is your left." 

Thus, implicitly according to the Bavli and explicitly according to the Yerushalmi one - at least one who is fit to be a member of the court - is not to follow Beit Din when he knows that they are in error.

This, however, is a hard conclusion to accept, since such a person  - one who believes the High Court to be in error and follows his own conscience - seems to perfectly describe the zaken mamre who - because he opposes Beit Din's authority, is put to death.  What makes this person different from the zaken mamre, the elder who defies the authority of the court?  Interestingly, the Gemara does not ask this question.  It is first asked, to my knowledge, by the Reshash (R. Shlomo Shterson of Vilna, 1794-1872).  Reshash answers by saying that one only should submit to Beit Din after he has brought his objections to their attention.  The zaken mamre is a member of the court who voiced his objections and was overruled.  In such a case he must listen to them, regardless.  The one, in our mishna, who sins by following them when he knows them to be in error, is one who acts without bringing his objections to the court.  This answer sides heavily with Rashi's approach to "not swerving to the right or to the left."  Once a person is overruled, complete submission is demanded.

Another answer is possible.  The Tosefta (1:4) states: "An individual who rules (against the Court) and does (according to his ruling) is liable (as a zaken mamre) as it says, "And the one who does with an upraised hand…".  This emphasizes a key difference between the zaken mamre and the individual who just follows his conscience.  The zaken mamre sets himself up as an opposing authority, and he does this by giving a ruling in opposition to the Court.  The mishna in Sanhedrin is very clear about this:

"If he returned to his town and taught again as heretofore, he is not liable. But if he gave a practical decision (hora'ah), he is guilty, for it is written, "And the man that will do presumptuously," -he is liable only for a practical ruling."(Mishna Sanhedrin 10:2)

This, then, is exactly the difference.  When one follows his conscience through his actions and inactions (not doing what the Court said was allowed), then he is acting appropriately.  When one sets himself up as a competing authority, when he gives an opposite ruling as the Court, then he is acting brazenly and presumptuously, by aggregating to himself the function of the court, and this threat to the Court's position cannot be tolerated.  Or, as the Gemara puts it in the general context of Horiyot: "The action relates to the people, the ruling (hora'ah) relates to the court."

Finally, it should be noted that the cases where we expect a person to follow his own conscience - the cases when he believes the court to be in error - are cases where the Court has ruled that a certain questionable action is permissible.  In such a case, there is no harm done by following one's own conscience.  The Court, in this case, has allowed an action to be done, but not required it.  By not doing this action, by passively doing nothing,  a person does not obviously challenge the Court's authority.  Moreover, the person is following his conscience and being strict - that is, he is playing it safe.  To follow one's conscience and to be more lenient, or to act in a way that is a clear violation of the Court's ruling, would be another matter altogether.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Students continue to learn Shabbat and Kashrut.  First- and second-year students are deep in the klalim of Shabbat and the principle of melekhet machshevet, and third- and fourth-year students this week studied the topics of mevatlin issur lichatchila, intentionally nullifying prohibited food, and how this can play a role in industrial kashrut.  One interesting question that arose was whether a factory, in order to receive a hashgacha, can change the proportions of certain ingredients to allow for bitul, or, since they are doing this for the mashgiach, whether this would e prohibited, because it would be like the mashgiach effected the bitul.   We have now turned our attention to the topic of biryah, a whole entity, such as a bug, and will be looking at the issue of bugs in vegetables and whether, and under what circumstances, they can be considered to be batel.

We were thrilled this week to welcome Rabbi Marc Angel, who began teaching a six-part series on Rabbinic Thinking and Communication to third- and fourth-year students as part of our Sermons curriculum.  Rabbi Angel will be teaching students how to best shape their message as rabbis, and it is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn from him and to connect to this Modern Orthodox luminary.

We also had the great pleasure of welcoming Judy Klitsner, Jewish Bible scholar and master Jewish Bible teacher, and author of "Subversive Sequels in the Bible" - and mother of our first-year student Yisrael Klitsner! - to give the parsha shiur this Thursday.    She gave a wonderful shiur, and students were thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with her and to learn from her.

This week also saw a change in our physical space, as students learned on the second-floor Beit Midrash while the lower-level Beit Midrash was undergoing some repairs due to water damage.  The space worked out extremely well, and it had the benefit of being immediately adjacent to the offices and the YCT classrooms.  While we have not yet finalized the details, it looks like we will be staying on the second floor and making its Beit Midrash our permanent Beit Midrash.

A number of Mazel Tovs are in order.  First, a huge Mazel Tov to our own Rav Nati Helfgot, who this last Sunday was installed as Rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck , NJ.  Rabbi Helfgot has been serving as the rabbi of Netivot Shalom since the Yamim Noraim, and he joked that the congregation decided to have the installation exactly 60 days after he started - since the time period for their money-back warranty was up, they were now stuck with him!  It was a wonderful event, with Rabbi Dr. JJ Schacter speaking  and Rabbi Avi Weiss formally installing him.  An additional Mazel Tov to Rabbi Helfgot for being named one of the Forward 50 for being the driving force behind the Statement of Principles relating to homosexual Jews.  Kol HaKavod Rav Nati, she'telekh mi'chayil el chayil!

A Mazel Tov also to second-year student Aaron Lerner and his wife, Rachel Lerner, on the birth of a baby girl this last Tuesday night.  We look forward to celebrating at her simchat bat.  She'tizku li'gadlah li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim.

And finally, a special Mazel Tov to Rabbi Nissan Antine (YCT class of 2006) for being named the next senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Potomac.   Mazel Tov, Nissan!  We all know that you will continue the tremendous work you have been doing with the community, leading it with Torah depth, passion, thoughtfulness, and responsibility.  Kol HaKavod!