Friday, December 3, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

In the story of Yosef and his brothers, starting in last week's parsha, VaYeshev, and continuing through this week's parsha, Miketz, and beyond, we are presented with two very distinct leadership personalities: Reuven and Yehudah.   Yehudah is the lion, the courageous one, the leader and the progenitor of the Davidic kingly line;  and Reuven is the one passed over, the firstborn, the one who should have been the leader, but who failed.     

Why Reuven was passed over is not hard to understand.  As Yaakov himself says in his deathbed blessing:  "Impetuous as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then defiled you it; he went up to my couch."  (Breishit 49:4).  Reuven's character flaw was that he was impetuous, always rushing into things, not thinking them through, not considering their consequences.  This was true in regards to lustful urges, but it was also true in regards to noble urges.  "And Reuben heard it, and he saved him from their hands; and said, Let us not kill him." (Breishit 37:21).  He saw a need to save Yosef, and he rushed in, and did in fact save him from death.  But he had no plan after that - he had not yet worked out a plan to "return him to his father" (Breishit 37:22).    Since it was only a quick-fix, the possibility of the brothers killing him was still very present, and Yehudah had to come in with another plan: " And Yehudah said to his brothers, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?  Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh.  And his brothers listened."  This was a plan which at least got Yosef out of his brothers' reach and protected him long-term.  And where was Reuven?  Nowhere to be found: "And Reuven returned to the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he tore his clothes."  Reuven had a quick fix, and then could not think long term, could not even stay on the scene to try to control the situation.  He jumped in, did what immediately came to mind, and then walked away - perhaps contemplating how to fix it, but never able to reenter the crisis situation with a workable plan.

Reuven's role in this episode is further clarified in this week's parsha.  We find out, in a passing exchange when they are appearing before Yosef to purchase grain, that Reuven he had first tried to directly appeal to the brothers to save Yosef's life: "And Reuven answered them, saying, Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and you would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required." (Gen. 42:22).  Of course they did not hear!  What were the chances that a direct appeal would work against brothers who were dead-set on killing this "dreamer of dreams."   Reuven, of course, had not thought this through, and only when rebuffed, was he able to come back with an alternative they could accept - don't kill him directly, throw him in the pit and  let him die there.

This flaw of Reuven's reasserts itself when the brothers attempt to convince Yaakov to send Binyamin with them. "And Reuven spoke to his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to you; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to you again." (Gen. 42:37).  As Rashi succinctly puts it:  "Yaakov did not accept Reuven's words.  He say, my eldest son is an idiot (shoteh). He tells me to slay his two sons.  Are they perhaps his sons and not also mine?" (Rashi on Gen. 42:38).  But such is Reuven's way - he makes rash suggestions, without considering their absurdity, or how they would be received.  

Yehudah, on the other hand, represents a more thoughtful, considered, and deliberate leadership.  He is not the first to speak up, but when he speaks, people listen.   He convinces the brothers to sell Yosef, and Yosef is truly saved from their hands.  And when he speaks to his father, he waits until his words will be able to be heard: "And it came to pass, when they had eaten up the grain which they had brought out of Egypt, their father said to them, Go again, buy us a little food." (Gen. 43:2) - "Yehudah said to them - wait for the our elderly father, until there is no more bread in the house." (Rashi, ibid.)  A wise, thoughtful leadership knows when it is time to be silent, and when it is time to speak.  And when Yehudah does speak, he makes no rash promises, but rather lets it be known that his word is his bond: "And Yehudah said to Yisrael his father, Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go; that we may live, and not die, both we, and you, and also our little ones.  I will be surety for him; from my hand shall you require him; if I bring him not to you, and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever."  (Breishit 43:8-9).  Such a promise from Reuven would have not been meaningful.  It is only from Yehudah, who knows what it truly means to accept responsibility.  As opposed to just jumping in and reacting, accepting responsibility means seriously thinking things through, considering the consequences long- and short-term of one's actions, considering how one can best be heard and listened to, and - most relevant for the case of Binyamin - having patience, taking serious caution, and prepared to do whatever it takes to see through on one's commitment.   And, as we will find out next week, the trust that Yaakov puts in Yehudah is more than validated, when Yehudah  steps forward and makes a passionate plea, one that puts his own life on the line to live up to his pledge, and one that can, and will hopefully, be heard.  

This sense of responsibility was perhaps fully learned and internalized from his past, and only recorded, failure of leadership.  In the case of Tamar, we find that Yehudah had first shirked his responsibility to give her his son Sheila as a husband, and compounded this wrong by another failure to assume responsibility - rather than being straight with her, he chose to put her off with a false promise.  All of this comes to a head when she is brought before him because she has become "pregnant through fornication."   Without any hesitation, almost before the words are out of the people's mouths, he imperiously declares: "Take her out and burn her."   When his own daughter-in-law, a person to whom he had a  special connection, a person that he had wronged, is being accused of a crime, one that - even according to his understanding - he is partly to blame for, since he did not marry her off to his son, he does not bother considering the case, looking into the details, or taking his time, but he - Reuven-like, jumps up and spits out his sentence.  Of course, the greatness of Yehudah is that this was a slip, not his true character, and that when confronted by Tamar, he admits his error, he accepts responsibility, and he learns what true leadership is about.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

In Yoreh Deah we continued to learn about ta'am ki'ikar, the prohibition to eat a mixture of food that has in it the taste of a forbidden food, as we addressed the major exception to this principle: ta'am lifgam, when the forbidden food imparts a bad taste to the mixture.  The gemara (Avodah Zara 67a-b) teaches that such a mixture is permitted (according to all but Rebbe Meir).  This is the reason that one can eat from food that was cooked in a non-kosher pot, or milkhig food that was cooked in a fleishig pot, if it was more than 24 hours since the pot was last used with the problematic food.  In such a case, we assume that any taste that still remains in the pot would only make the current food being cooked in the pot taste worse.   The principle would also apply, in theory, to mixtures of real treif food with kosher food when we were certain that the treif food gave a bad taste to the mixture, and we apply this in practice in the case of bugs.  So, if a bug falls into someone's frying pan when they are making scrambled eggs, since we assume that the bug has a disgusting taste, the person can throw out the bug and eat the eggs.  Since most people will throw out the eggs as well, the idea of ta'am lifgam still means that one does not have to kasher the frying pan, since any absorbed taste of the bug is bad taste.

What is the basis for allowing such mixtures?  The Gemara states that this principle is learned from the idea of neveilah she'eino re'uyah li'ger, a neveilah, a carcass of an animal not properly slaughtered, that is not fit for human consumption.  The same way such meat is not prohibited so, says the Gemara, bad taste in a mixture is not prohibited.   The Rishonim struggle to understand this analogy.  In the case of the meat, the meat is inedible.  Hence, it is permitted because it is no longer considered food, or perhaps not even considered meat at all, but mere "dirt."  In the case of the mixture, in contrast, the food is still edible, in only tastes a little worse.  How, then, can it be permitted?

To answer this, Ra'avad, in his commentary on Avoda Zara, attempts to argue that the only cases that ta'am lifgam work are ones where the food is actually inedible.  This is roundly rejected by the Rishonim, based on many cases in the Gemara.  Ra'ah, in his commentary Bedek HaBayit on Rashba's Torat HaBayit (4:1, page 19a-b) takes a similar approach but with an ingenious twist.  Let's say, says Ra'ah, that one adds a non-kosher food, say pork, to a kosher one, say cranberry relish, and the result is an off-taste.  In such a case, Ra'ah argues, we can assume that the pork per se is inedible, and that the cranberry relish is only edible, although bad tasting, because the inedible pork makes up a small portion of the mixture.  The bad taste in the relish is evidence that the small amount of pork itself is completely inedible.  This approach, while ingenious, is hard to accept, as there is no good reason to assume that a bad taste in a mixture is proof that the ingredient is inedible and, indeed, Ra'ah bases his approach on his general position that the problem of taste, in most cases, is only a rabbinic one, and thus we can be more lenient.

What these two approaches have in common is a desire to make the case of taste identical to the case of the neveilah, for the taste to be completely inedible.  Once one rejects this approach, and accepts that the taste is edible, only bad, how can one explain why the mixture is permitted?   The answer to this comes from Ramban (Avodah Zara 67a) and is expanded upon by Rashba (Torat HaBayit 4:1).  Ramban says that the Gemara is making an analogy - the same way forbidden food is defined by, a limited to cases of, it being edible,  so forbidden taste is defined by, and limited to cases of, it giving a positive taste to the mixture.   To understand this, it helps to realize that when we say that food is "inedible" we really mean not that it is physically inedible, but that no normal person would ever want to eat it.  In a similar way one can say that a taste is "untasteable" meaning, that no normal person would want to taste it.   It is only taste that one wants to have (or - to include a case of neutral taste - at least a taste that one does not want to not have) that the Torah considers to be ta'am and thus prohibited.

Rashba expands on this idea, and explains that when the Torah prohibited taste of pork in a mixture, it did not consider the taste to be the pork itself.   Rather, the pork itself was already nullified, because the majority of the mixture was kosher, and only the taste was left behind.  This taste is a new prohibition, called ta'am, and the prohibition to eat the taste of forbidden foods, when not eating the food itself, is defined by its own set of parameters.  The first of those parameters is that something only constitutes taste when it contributes a good taste.   However, says Rashba, when the mixture is 50% or more of the forbidden food, then the food is not batel, and the actual pork is present.  In such a case, the mixture is only permissible if it is inedible.   In such a case we are dealing with the prohibition of pork, not the prohibition of ta'am.  Ran (in his chidushim on Avoda Zara, 67a, s.v. kol she'eino) states that even accepting Rashba's model, he would argue that as soon as the proportion of the forbidden food to the permitted is equal  to kizayit bi'khdei achilat pras, either 1:8 or 1:9, it would be considered pork itself, and not just the taste of pork, since the Gemara (Avodah Zara 67a) refers to such a proportion as ta'amo u'mamasho - the taste and the essence.  In these circumstances, one would need to judge by the rules of pork, and not the rules of ta'am, and the mixture would only be permitted if it was actually inedible. 

An completely alternate model is offered by Ran.  Ran states that the Torah is not saying that the inedible neveilah is not considered food or meat, it is rather saying that one does not transgress eating forbidden food if she derives not benefit from the experience.   Now, says Ran, when the food is completely inedible this is the case, but this is also the case if one adds an ingredient which gives a bad taste.  In such a case, one would prefer that the ingredient not have been added, and one is deriving no benefit from its presence.  Thus, in such a mixture, when one does not benefit from the presence of the pork, one is not transgressing the prohibition to eat pork.   Ran takes this one step further and states that this allowance of ta'am lifgam, should, in theory, not apply to cases where although the food tastes worse, one does benefit from its presence in a mixture.  Such a case would be when the added ingredient increases significantly the quantity of food, although it makes it taste somewhat worse.  This happened to me recently when I was making guacamole, and I cut open an avocado that had some brown spots.  Should I use the avocado and have more guacamole, which might taste slightly worse, or should I toss it, and go for the better taste?   Now, if I had chosen the first option, and that avocado was also forbidden (say it was arlah, grown during the first three years of the tree) then, says Ran, the mixture is forbidden, because I am benefitting from the avocado's presence, although it is ta'am lifgam.

In general, poskim ignore Ran's explanation, and are guided by Rashba's explanation, that there is a new prohibition of ta'am that is defined by its own parameters.  This explains a number of other laws, such as why we allow cases of the taste of basar bi'chalav in a mixture when the taste is ta'am lifgam (say, coming from a day-old pot), or cases such as mentioned earlier of the bug in the scrambled eggs.  In these cases, the prohibited food itself -the basar bi'chalav or the bug, would be prohibited although they taste disgusting (in the case of basar bi'chalav it is because the Torah prohibits it without defining the prohibition as one of "not eating,"  and in the case of the bug, because it naturally tastes bad and the Torah still prohibits it).  Nevertheless, their taste, when disgusting, is permitted, because this new prohibition of ta'am is defined by its own parameters, and the taste of any prohibited food - even basar bi'chalav and even bugs - only constitutes taste if it contributes a good taste to the mixture.  The point of basar bi'chalav is made by Reb Chaim (Chidushim al ha-Rambam, Forbidden Foods, 15:1), and the point of the bugs is made by Rashba himself (Torat HaBayit 4:1, 19b-20a).

The upshot is that we learn from this that when only dealing with ta'am and not the food itself, while possibly prohibited Biblically, the prohibition is completely distinct from that of the food itself.  Appreciating the possibility of such distinct prohibitions is also a factor in understanding the status of non-kosher vessels.  Are such vessels prohibited because of the taste inside them, or are we dealing with an independent prohibition?   We will explore this question further in a later post.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week I had the opportunity to be in Los Angeles, as one of the featured presenters in a gathering of lay and rabbinic leaders at the Skirball Center on ""Conversation on Jewish Belief, Meaning and Purpose in the 21st Century" held by National Center for Jewish Policy Studies.  During my time there, I had a chance to connect with some of our musmachim who are in LA, including Rabbi Yehuda Hausman, Rabbi Drew Kaplan, Rabbi Jason Weiner, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Rabbi Devin Villarreal.    It was wonderful to connect and spend good chevre time with them, to hear about how they are acclimating to the rabbinate, and to hear about all the good work that they are doing.   I also had a chance to visit the American Jewish University, and gave a "lunch and learn" shiur to many of the students and faculty of the Ziegler school on "Kiddushin: Ownership or Partnership?".

Here at the Yeshiva, students continue to learn Shabbat and Kashrut, including the topics of  ta'am lifgam, bad taste, and transfer of taste.   In the afternoon machshava class, we just concluded a series on "History of Orthodox Feminism," given by Rivka Haut and Adena Berkowitz, and will be starting this coming week a 4-part series by Rabbi Blanchard on  the megilot entitled The Many Faces of Desire: Five Megilot. 

During the week of Chanukah we are having a series of special shiurim at the end of morning seder.  On Wednesday, Rabbi Blanchard spoke on the debate of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as two models of the spiritual meaning of Chanukah.  On Thursday, Dr. Robert Barris spoke on Chanukah as a chag of "spiritual audacity" and on our obligation to not be complacent, but to push ourselves to become spiritually better, even great.  In particular, he spoke about work on character traits and the use of the sefer Tikkun Ha'Middot as a way to develop practices for spiritual betterment.    And, during morning seder, Rabbi Katz's students are learning the sugyot in mesekhet Shabbat on lighting Chanukah candles.

Finally, on Wednesday, the students, led by Mishael Zion, held a special tfillat mincha for the dire lack of rain that Israel is now experiencing and that is resulting in particularly low water levels in the Kinneret.   It stands to reason that the lack of rain is also a contributing factor in the wild fires now spreading in the Carmel, and we all should be joining our tfillot with those of our brothers and sisters in Israel, for and end to the fires and for a downpouring of the much needed rain.