Friday, December 17, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Character, Fate, and Free Will

These last few weeks we have been exploring the character of the different protagonists in Breishit - Yaakov, Reuven, Yosef, and Yehuda.  In this week's parsha, VaYechi, which brings a close to the Yosef story and to the book of Breishit, we have an opportunity to explore the interplay between character, fate, and free will.   How much does the character that one is born with determine whether he or she will be good or evil?  Is it ever possible to change who we are, our essential character, and - if not - can we at least find a way to rise above our natural shortcomings?

We have already seen in the person of Yaakov that there are times when a person can - through challenging life experiences and through strength of will - truly change their character.  How they can go from being a Yaakov to becoming a Yisrael.  Even in such cases, one wonders if it is possible to fully leave one's old self behind.  Thus, we find that for the rest of Breishit Yaakov is referred to both as Yisrael and as Yaakov, perhaps a function of which aspect of his personality comes most to the fore in a given situation. 

What is clear is that such complete transformations are extremely rare.  It is close to impossible to fully - or even partially - change our character.  As Rav Yisrael Salanter said: "It is easier to go through all of Shas than to change just one character trait."

Most of the time drastic changes are beyond our reach.  We know that there are certain parts of our character and personality that we would like to change but feel that we cannot.  Some of these may be character traits that we were born with, some may be due to our environment and early life experiences, but right now they are a part of us, and we are stuck with them.  In such cases, the key is not to try to disown a part of ourselves, but to consider how we can best channel and direct such traits to a good purpose:

R. Hanina b. Papa expounded: He [the angel who is in charge of conception] takes up the drop of semen and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, 'Sovereign of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?' Whereas 'wicked man' or 'righteous one' he does not say, as R. Hanina states. For R. Hanina stated: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of God.
(Niddah 16b)

Our genes and our environment may determine our physical strength, our intellectual abilities, even our character traits, but they do not determine what type of a person we will become.  That is in our hands:

"He who is born under Mars will be a shedder of blood." R. Ashi observed: Either a surgeon, a highway bandit, a ritual slaughterer, or a mohel. Rabbah said: I was born under Mars (and am none of these)! Abaye retorted: You too inflict [judicial] punishment and have people executed.
(Shabbat 157a)

The Rabbis referred to the stars, we refer to our genes, but the point is the same - some part of who we are has been determined before we are born, but it is we who choose who we will become.

Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in the lives of Shimon and Levi and their descendants.  Shimon and Levi were violent men, and, fueled by their righteous indignation over the rape of their sister, they had wiped out the city of Shechem.  At the time, Yaakov was appalled at their actions, but only criticized their actions insofar as they endangered  the family: "And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, You have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house." (Breishit 34:31).   It was only on his deathbed that Yaakov found the strength to criticize them for the immorality of the violence itself:

Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords.  O my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their wanton will they lamed an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
(Breishit 49:5)

This curse - as were the blessings to the other brothers - sees their character as fixed, and possibly determinative for their descendants.  Hence the punishment that will be visited on their descendants is also predetermined - " I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel" - and the portion of the tribe of Shimon, in the land of Israel, was scattered throughout the territory of Yehudah, and the tribe of Levi received no portion per se, only the cities of refuge, and were destined, as Rashi puts it, to "go roundabout to the threshing floors collecting their trumot and ma'asrot."

While it may be that their violent nature was a fixed part of their character - consider the Rabbis' statement that it was Shimon and Levi were the ones who hatched the plot against Yosef, and that Shimon was put in jail by Yosef to prevent him and Levi from destroying Mitzrayim - nevertheless, it was not their destiny.  They could still choose, in the words of R. Ashi, whether to be a surgeon or a bandit, whether a mohel or a murderer.   While Shimon chose the path of destruction, it was Levi who directed the trait of violence in the service of God.   When Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, defied God's and Moshe's authority, flagrantly fornicating with a Midianite woman in front of the Mishkan and shattering any boundaries of decency, it was Pinchas, a kohen of the tribe of Levi, who rose up and - in his religious zeal - executed Zimri and brought an end to the plague.  It was Pinchas who was able to use the trait of violence in the service of God.

Now, violence in the service of God is a very dangerous concept, especially in today's reality of fundamentalist violence and terrorism.  It is important to note that, in the case of Pinchas, it is doubtful whether the Pinchas acted, as the Rabbis would have it, based on his own zeal, or whether he was following the command of Moshe to the judges to execute - as a matter of law - those who had transgressed (Numbers 25:5).  Even according to the Rabbis, such violent zealousness was to be discouraged and severely limited.   Similarly, the revolt of the Maccabees, led by Matityahu, began with an act of religious zeal and violence against a Jew who offered a sacrifice to the Greek gods, in which Matityahu is explicitly compared to Pinchas (cf. Maccabees II, 2:26).  While this act was the spark which started the revolt and ended in the miracle of Chanukah, it is interestingly absent from the Rabbinic literature.  Violence in fighting against the occupying Seleucid Greeks was praised, whereas violence against those who transgressed was bracketed.  Violence is a dangerous trait, especially when fueled by religious zeal, but sometimes it does prove necessary.

This trait, then, is a dangerous one, but for the most part the Levites learned how to use it correctly, and how to use it in the service of God.  They followed Moshe's call to defend God's honor at Har Sinai after Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf, this time acting on direct order and in a judicial context, and - in the Temple - they became involved in the daily spilling of blood in the service of God- in the tamed and sublimated form of animal sacrifices.  Thus we find that in the blessing of Moshe, the blessing of the tribes at the end of Devarim, Levi is blessed, while Shimon is passed over in silence.  The tribe of Levi had redirected its character, and its curse was transformed into a blessing:

And of Levi he said, Let your Tummim and your Urim be with your pious one, whom you did test at Massah, and with whom you fought at the waters of Meribah; Who said to his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; nor did he acknowledge his brothers, nor knew his own children; for they have observed your word, and kept your covenant. They shall teach Jacob your judgments, and Israel your Torah; they shall put incense before you, and whole burnt sacrifice upon your altar.
(Devarim 33:8-10)

Thus, even the curse of Yaakov, to be scattered in Israel, turned into a blessing, " And the Lord spoke to Aaron, You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any part among them; I am your part and your inheritance among the people of Israel.  And, behold, I have given the sons of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, the service of the Tent of Meeting." (Bamidbar 18:20-21).  They have no inheritance in the land because they have God as their inheritance. 

Our future, its specifics, its meaning and its significance, is not fated, is not predetermined.   It is what we make it to be.  It can be a curse, or it can be a blessing.

And our traits are not who we are in our core essence.  They are not our soul, they are not our identity.   "'Cursed is their wrath' - Even when he criticized them, he only cursed their wrath [and not they themselves]." (Rashi, Breishit 49:7).  People may have bad traits, but it is the traits, and how they are directed, that needs to be labeled as "bad."  As Jews, as parents, and as people working on our own self-improvement we need to believe that people - ourselves, our children, those we care about, all people - can always choose to be good.  Their traits may be bad, their actions may be bad, but as long as we retain our belief in the potential goodness of every person, as long as we criticize the traits and not the person, we can hope for and work towards change.  And if we cannot change our traits per se, at least we can find ways to direct them to the service of God, and to live up to the model of Levi, the tribe chosen by God to serve God in God's Temple.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

This week we wrapped up our learning of how taste transfers according to halakha.  When a forbidden food gets mixed up directly with a permissible one - they are blended together, or cooked together so they all become one mass, there is no question that the forbidden food is present, and that the mixture will be forbidden unless the forbidden food is less than 1/60th of the whole.  But what about when it is not clear if the forbidden food transferred its taste into the mixture?  Say a treif piece of meat falls into my chicken soup and then I remove it - under what circumstances would I say that the taste of this treif meat transferred into my chicken soup?

Rishonim focus primarily on two criteria that may be required to transfer taste - the heat and the vessel.  Both of these principles are derived from Talmudic discussions regarding cooking on Shabbat.  The Talmud (Shabbat 40b) states that cooking of liquids only occurs when the liquid reaches the temperature of yad soledet bo, when the hand would draw back from touching it.  There is debate as to how hot this is, with Rav Moshe setting the range between 110-160 degrees Fahrenheit, and Shmirat Shabbat KiHilkhata quoting Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach who states that it is not less than 113 degrees Fahrenheit.  Now, while the Gemara only states that this is how to define that a liquid has been cooked, we assume that it is also the temperature necessary for a liquid to cook something else.  Thus, if I put a raw vegetable or instant oatmeal or the like in liquid less than 110 or 113 degrees, there would be no problem of cooking on Shabbat.

As far as the vessel itself is concerned, halakha defines the vessel that was on the fire - the pot, the frying pan, etc. - as a keli rishon - the first vessel.  After that, every next vessel the food is poured into is defined as the next ordinal number - the pot that cooked the soup is the first vessel, the soup bowl is the second vessel (keli sheini),  and so on.   Now, for Shabbat, the general rule is that cooking only occurs in a keli rishon (see Shabbat 42b).  Ramban, on the basis of the Yerushalmi, goes further and states that the Biblical melakha of cooking only occurs in a keli rishon while it is still on the fire (it would still be Rabbinically forbidden to cook in such a vessel once it is removed from the fire).   We rule against Ramban, and rule that it is a melakha to cook in a keli rishon even if it is off the fire.

Thus, if I put a raw vegetable in the pot that my chicken soup was cooking in, I would have done the melakha of cooking only if the soup was yad soledet bo and the pot was the same one that the soup was cooked in, even if now it is removed from the fire.  It would not be cooking if I put the vegetable in my soup bowl, even if the soup was still very hot and yad soledet bo.

The reason heat is necessary is obvious - things don't cook without heat.  But why does it matter if something is put in a kli rishon or a kli sheni?   Tosafot (Shabbat 40b, s.v. u'Shma) asks this question and states that a kli rishon, because it had been directly on the fire, retains the heat of what is inside it better than a kli sheni does.  This is obviously correct - my soup stays hotter in the soup pot, even off the fire, than it does in my soup bowl.   Most things, even if put on the fire or in a hot liquid, need time to go from being raw to being cooked.  Thus, states Tosafot, for halakhic cooking to occur, one must use a vessel that normally can create the environment to cook something over a period of time, and thus a kli rishon is needed. 

To al large degree, Tosafot's approach is based on an assessment of the real-world issue of whether something will cook in a keli sheni.  An alternative, more formalistic, approach would be to borrow from Ramban's position that true cooking is over a fire.  Thus, even when we rule that cooking can occur off a fire, we would still insist that it take place in the context of, or with a connection to, a fire.  Thus, if one puts oatmeal in a kli rishon, like a pot that has boiling water in it, even though it is off the fire it is considered cooking, because it is as if it was cooked on the fire.   Halakha can consider this to be a formally defined act of cooking because it occurred in a vessel heated on a fire, so it exists in the same ambit of the act of classic cooking, which occurs directly on the fire.  If, however, if one puts oatmeal in a kli sheni, for example, in a bowl that one poured hot water from the kettle into, then although it may be cook in real-world terms, she would not have done a halakhic, formally-defined act of cooking, because fire was not involved.

The two ways of understanding the need for keli rishon explains a number of debates.  First, there is the question whether anything can cook in a keli sheni.  The Gemara (Shabbat 42b) raises this issue without coming to a clear conclusion.  The Yeraim is very concerned with this possibility, and rules that we must be consider any food to possibly be something that can cook easily - kalei ha'bishul - and therefore if the water is yad soledet bo, we should not cook on Shabbat in that vessel no matter what type of vessel it is.  If it is a concern of whether the object will really become cooked or not, there is no difference between a keli sheni and a keli shlishi or ri'vi'ee.  The only issue is the heat of the water.

We do not follow the Yeraim li'halakha.  We rule (Orah Hayim 318:9) that it is not considered cooking on Shabbat unless one uses a kli rishon.  Nevertheless, the Rema (ad. loc.) and the Mechaber (318:5) mention that it is appropriate to be careful about 2 things that might cook more easily than others - salt (not an issue today when our salt is processed and already cooked) and bread, and that li'chatchila one should not place these in a keli sheni if the water is yad soledet bo.  Allowing for these exceptional cases, although initially only as chumrot, opened the door for Yeraim-like concerns.  Thus the Magen Avraham, and following him the Mishne Brurah, are concerned, like the Yeraim, that almost everything may be kali ha'bishul and able to cook in a keli sheni.   Unlike Yeraim, they are not generally concerned with a keli shlishi.  If, however, we see that something does cook in a keli shlishi, that may also be considered cooking.  This question -whether a keli shlishi could ever cook - is central to the debate around using tea bags on Shabbat, and Arukh HaShulkhan, for one, forbids using them on the basis that they always cook when the water is hot, regardless of the keli.

What is at the root of the debate around the keli sheni and keli shlishi is the question of why a keli rishon is important.  If, as Tosafot says, it is because of the reality of whether the heat will be retained long enough to effect cooking, then it is possible that there are some foods that do not need a long time to cook - kalei ha'bishul - and thus could cook in a keli sheni.  That is, if one is real-world oriented, the halakhic definition will change based on different circumstances.  On the other hand, if the need for a keli rishon is to consider the process of cooking as if it took place on the fire, or was connected to the fire, then this formal definition - e.g., "cooking is the act of placing food on a fire, or in a vessel that was heated on a fire, to transform or prepare the food or to make it edible." - does not change even if the food does get cooked in real-world terms.  The hardest position to understand is the compromise one that we adopt, that states that cooking may occur in a keli sheni but does not occur in a keli shlishi.   This may be a claim about the real-world ability for a keli shlishi to effect a change in the food (hence the exception that some make to this rule when it comes to tea bags), or it may be that this approach also adopts a formalist definition, although a broader one, "cooking is the act of placing food on a fire, or in a vessel that was heated on a fire, or in a vessel that is one degree removed from the original one, to transform etc."   However, it is hard to understand why, were we to adopt a formal definition, we would adopt this one.

This issue - whether the definition of cooking is a formal one or a real-world one - may also be at the center of the debate around the status of iruy, pouring from a keli rishon.  Rabbenu Tam is of the opinion that iruy is like a keli rishon, and it effects cooking on the food that the water is being poured on.  Rashbam, on the other hand, is of the opinion that it is like a keli sheni and does not effect cooking on the poured-on food.  (See Tosafot, Zevachim 95b, s.v. Eera).  If one adopts a formal definition, then the case of pouring from a keli rishon should qualify as cooking, since that process still connects to the vessel that was on the fire.  This is further evidenced in the qualification, introduced by Tosafot, that this applies only if it is lo nifsak ha'kiluach, if the stream hitting the food is connected to the vessel at the other end.  Once the stream is disconnected from the vessel, the process no longer relates to the vessel and no longer relates to the fire.  This would be the position of Rabbenu Tam.  On the other hand, if it is a real-world concern about the retention of heat, once one is pouring the liquid out of the vessel, and in such a short-duration process - the ability of the vessel's walls to retain heat should be irrelevant.  This would be the position of Rashbam.  [It should be noted that it is possible to take Tosafot's concern of retention of heat and use it in a formalist definition as well.]

Now, all of the above are discussions around the melakha of cooking on Shabbat.  How does this apply to the world of ta'arovet, mixture of kosher and non-kosher foods.  In this world, our concern is not a cooking process (unless we are talking about the Biblical prohibition of cooking meat and milk together).  Our concern is whether - in the real-world - taste transfers from one food to another - from the pork into the chicken soup.  Here, a formalistic definition of the process of cooking would be irrelevant.  Similarly, the concern for retention of heat should be less, because transfer of taste does not take the same amount of time as it does to actually cook something (consider how long it takes to cook a roast in contrast to when the slices of potato with the roast have a meaty taste).  So, what we should find here is that taste transfers regardless of the vessel, and perhaps even in temperatures lower than yad soledet bo.   Such is actually the position of Ramban (Avoda Zara 74b, s.v. vi'Od) and Rashba (Torat HaBayit 4:1. 1b-2a), and it is important to note that nowhere in all of the Talmudic discussions regarding transfer of taste is there any mention of terms keli rishon or yad soledet bo.  The only term mentioned for the minimum degree of heat required is roteyach, seething, (Hullin 8b) which may be more or less than yad soledet bo (the Rashba assumes its less, and it seems to be based on the specific case to which it is applied), but it is not the same criterion.

Tosafot, however rules - this is implicit in the debate of Rabbenu Tam and Rashbam, above - that even for transfer of taste one needs a keli rishon and for the water to be yad soledet bo.    Interestingly, in terms of psak, not only does Rema rule like Tosafot, but Shulkhan Arukh does as well (Yoreh Deah 105 and 91), both stating that no taste is transferred unless one of the foods is yad soledet bo and unless they are in a keli rishon.  This position is somewhat limited by later rulings regarding davar gush, solids, which are considered to retain their heat better than liquids and act like a keli rishon, and regarding the ladle used to extract the soup or stew to also be a keli rishon.  Regardless, the baseline psak is that taste does not transfer outside of a keli rishon.

There is real irony regarding the practical halakha that emerges from all of this.  In the case of Shabbat, almost everyone (Yeraim excluded) rules that one needs a keli rishon for a process to be considered cooking, and the need for a keli rishon can be explained both on a real-world basis (cooking takes time and retention of heat is needed) and on a formalistic basis (the classic act of cooking is done on a fire, so the process requires a connection to the fire), and Shulkhan Arukh rules that a keli rishon is needed.  Disregarding all of the above, we, in practice, do not put uncooked foods in a keli sheni if the water  is yad soledet bo.   On the other hand, when it comes to ta'arovet, where there is no Gemara that talks about keli rishon, and Ramban and Rashba explicitly state that it is not a factor, and there is no basis - either in real-world terms or in formalistic terms - to require it, we nevertheless rule and practice that transfer of taste does not occur outside of a keli rishon.

What is too explain this ironic, almost illogical, conclusion?  It seems that the halakhic weight of the issues may play a factor.  Although we rule that ta'am ki'ikar, that taste of forbidden foods is forbidden, it is probably not the same prohibition as the food itself, and according to some may, under certain circumstances, not be Biblical.  Certainly, in terms of the religious psyche, it is not as weighty as eating pork itself, and it is certainly not as weighty as violating Shabbat.  To cook on Shabbat is a profound violation, both objectively and psychologically, and thus it is not surprising that we find a more stringent approach in terms of practical halakha.  Another factor, one suggested by my student Mishael Zion, is that our practice on Shabbat relates to how we act lichatchila - we don't put uncooked food into a keli sheni.  Our position regarding ta'arovet - that a mixture in a keli sheni is not a problem - relates to the b'dieved situation: the mixture already occurred.  And, in fact, when it comes to the lichatchila question the answer is the same - one should not, li'chatchila, put treif food in a keli sheni with hot kosher food.   So the practices can be seen as consistent.

Nevertheless, it is still bizarre that we care about keli rishon in the field of ta'arovet when the only concern should be a real-world one.  In practice, I have no problem with the keli rishon criterion when it comes to transfer of taste in and out of vessels.  As we discussed in a previous post, one can understand that the issue with non-kosher vessels is also a formalism - defining the vessels as treif and prohibiting their use - and thus we can say that unless they are used in a cooking-like act, their status, and the status of the food in them, does not change.  However, when it comes to the actual mixture of two foods -pork falling into the chicken soup - I have a hard time with the keli rishon criterion, and I would look more closely at all the real-world specifics of the case (how long did it stay in? how hot was the soup - boiling or just very hot?, etc.), and take these into account before paskening whether the taste transferred.

What is clear is that even in the world of taste of foods and their transfer, formal halakhic definitions do matter.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

The week began with a wonderful simcha- the marriage of Rabbi Steven Exler (YCT  '09) to Shira Billet.  The wedding brought together not only Steven and Shira, but also the many worlds that they are a part of - YCT, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, YU and the Young Israel of Woodmere.  There were over 1500 people at the wedding, and the chuppah was a true achdus event, with the joyous participation of a wide range of family, friends, and rabbonim, people and the inclusion of different minhagim from all these worlds.   The dancing was leibadich, and there were so many YCT students and musmachim present, that it felt like our annual reunion!  Steven and Shira make such a beautiful couple, and we wish the two of them much joy and love, and that they should be zokehboneh bayit ne'eman bi'Yisrael ad meah vi'esrim shana! to be

Continuing in the simcha department, there were two YCT births this week.  Avi and Rachel Rosenfeld had a baby girl this Tuesday here in Riverdale.  Avi is a fourth year student, and Rachel and his new daughter are doing well, and we expect the baby naming on Monday, with a simchat bat to follow sometime soon.   And then this Thursday, Rabbi Chai (YCT '10) and Rachel Posner had a baby boy.  Mommy and baby are doing well, and we look forward to this bris at Beth Tfillah in Baltimore this coming Thursday.  Both babies were born the old fashioned way - natural childbirth with a midwife and a doula.  We could not be happier for them.

In the yeshiva itself, we had a guest speaker for our Parsha shiur this week- Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the executive director of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.  Rabbi Cowan talked about the parsha and then opened up a larger conversation on how we can connect to God and how we can develop our own inner spiritual selves to help us be better spiritual leaders for our communities.

As the Fall zman wraps up, most morning shiurim have ended and students are in the midst of serious chazara for their bechinot.  For Yoreh Deah, we are beginning the final with a research and presentation section, and  students are researching "new" topics (copepods, gelatin, etc.) and also analyzing real-world cases, and will be presenting their findings and psakim this coming week.   It promises to be an intense week of learning, chazara, and exercising of their paskening skills.