Friday, April 1, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha


In parashat Shmini, after the Mishkan was dedicated, the Kohanim were given the charge to "distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the ritually impure and the pure" (Vayikra 10:11).   That is, they must protect the Mishkan from those who are ritually impure and thus they must know all the laws the pertain to ritual purity and impurity.   For this reason, the Torah, having briefly dwelt on the impure animals at the end of last week's parasha, now devotes itself at length to these laws of impurity, and focuses in this week's parasha on the laws of tzara'at, a form of skin disease (clearly not leprosy), which can also adhere to clothing or homes, and which renders the person or the object impure.
When a person believes that he or she has tzara'at, or his or her house has tzara'at,  the impurity is not automatic.  A Kohen must come, assess the condition, and render it pure or impure:  "And the Kohen shall see it and declare it to be impure." (Vayikra 13:4).  In some cases, if the Kohen is uncertain as to the nature of the spot, he puts the person in seclusion for a week, and then checks the spot again and either gives it another week or declares it pure or impure: "... and the spot did not spread on the skin, the Kohen shall make it pure" (13:6), "... and behold the lesion has spread on the skin, the Kohen shall make it impure, it is tzara'at" (13:8).   The model here is very much that of a doctor that looks for certain indicators, and will decide whether there is or is not a problem, or whether more time is needed to determine, i.e., "Call me back if the problem persists".   The difference is, that the Kohen is not just an uncoverer of fact, but one who creates the reality.   Through the declaration of the Kohen the spot becomes halakhic tzara'at.  It is completely pure until the Kohen declares it to be otherwise.
In stark contrast to the active and critical role of the Kohen is the way the Torah describes the person with the tzara'at.  A close reading of the verses shows that this person has been reduced to an object.   He is no longer an agent or actor in his own right; he is rather an object of scrutiny by the Kohen.  Consider: "A person, when there is on his skin a spot.. shall be brought to Aharon the Kohen or one of his sons the Kohanim." (Vayikra 13:2).  The spot is not occurring to the person qua person; it is rather something that appeared on his skin.  The person is not choosing to go to the Kohen, and not even going to the Kohen, he is rather being brought (by others?) to the Kohen.   He - or rather, his skin, or the spot - is a thing to be brought to the Kohen for the Kohen's scrutiny.  And notice the next verse: "And the Kohen will see the spot" - the spot! not the person! - "... and the Kohen will see it, v'ra'ahu  and impurify him, vi'timei oto." (verse 3).  The object of the two verbs here - seeing and impurifying -are referred to in the third person masculine.  They can be referring either both to the spot or both to the person, or - as the above translation would have it, the spot is seen and the person is declared impure.  (All of the above possibilities exist in various English translations).  The message is that at this stage the person and his spot are more or less interchangeable -he is his condition, and that is how he is being seen by the Kohen.
This implicit framing runs throughout the parasha.  The person is never coming on his own, but is always being brought to the Kohen (see verse 13:9, 18), and the Kohen is always looking at the spot, not at the person.  The only time the person appears active - ever so briefly - is in verse 13:16, "If the healthy flesh once again turns to white, the he shall come to the Kohen... and the Kohen will purify the spot, he is pure."   When there is a chance of recovery -of no longer being a patient, as it were - the person becomes an actor and approaches the Kohen on his own.  On the other hand, when the person is declared as a to have tzara'at, and must engage in a series of practices appropriate for a metzorah, the Torah does not primarily describe the metzorah as engaging in these practices, but rather emphasizes that these acts as something happening to him: "And the one with tzara'at who has the spot, his clothes shall be torn and his head-hair shall be wild, and on his lip shall he veil himself, and "impure, impure" he shall call out." (Vayikra 13:45).   He is active primarily to call out or bemoan his state.  The actions that he undergoes are seen mostly as not something he is doing but something happening to him.
What is the message here?  On the one hand, we could approach this through the lens of Hazal that tzara'at comes as a punishment for lashon ha'ra, for evil speech.  Seen this way, it is the tit-for-tat punishment of a person who has libeled another person, perhaps to the point of dehumanizing him, who has made this other person an object of ridicule rather than respecting his tzelem E-lohim, has treated him like a thing, rather than as a person and a member of society.   As a just punishment, this slanderer is cast out of society, and is treated as an object for someone else's inspection, and is subject to the judgment of others just as he made others subject to his judgment.  
This explanation is a good one, but I do not think that it does full justice to what is being described here.  First of all, the Torah never states that this condition is a punishment for lashon ha'ra.  Secondly, the Torah - or the Kohen - is already treating this person as an object of inspection even before he is impure, even if he is determined to be pure!    There is something more going on here than a punishment for sin.
What the Torah is describing here is not a punishment, but a sad, yet perhaps necessary, consequence of the doctor-patient relationship.  For a doctor to be fully objective and to carefully weigh the evidence in front of her, she has to bracket the humanity of the person sitting in front of her.   She has to objectify the patient, focus on the symptoms as they present themselves, in order to render the best medical judgment.   This need for objectification is explained nicely in the following article:

Modern, scientific medicine has historically objectified people as patients. Indeed, the "modern" and "scientific" elements of it rely on objectification. Modern medicine is founded upon objectification: People become case studies. Their complicated life stories are aggregated into statistics. They're assigned to control or experimental groups, and their individuality melts away.

Medical research as we understand it would be unthinkable without objectification. The techniques I just mentioned are necessary to doing science right, following professional standards. The alternative - drifting in a sea of anecdata - would yield few useful results.

That's the positive side.  However, objectification is no fun at the receiving end.  How many people as soon as they go to a hospital, are made to suffer small indignities, and can have small pieces of their identity stripped away.  How many people all of a sudden stop being "Mr. So-and-So," or "Mrs. So-and-So," or "Dr. So-and-So," and become Jon, Ellen, Fred while all the nurses and doctors retain their professional identities and titles?    The same article points out these negatives as well, and how there has been improvement in this realm in recent years:

Singling out medical research would distort the picture, because patients also came to be treated as objects in ordinary practice. This was especially true in teaching hospitals... in early-twentieth-century Germany were forced to undergo repeated exams by clumsy medical students, and how they were paraded naked in front of a whole auditorium full of observers while in labor. American obstetrics was no better: Women were strapped down while in labor and knocked out, whether they wanted it or not.

Over the past 40 years, under pressure from consumer advocates, feminists, and medical ethicists, medical researchers and practicing doctors have become a lot more sensitive to problems of objectifying patients. Patients with cancer are no longer kept ignorant of their diagnosis and prognosis. These days, expectant mothers are often encouraged to write birth plans...  One index of objectification is condescension... [a]nd personally, I've seen a major decline in patronizing attitudes among medical practitioners.

So this is what we find by the person who must "be brought" to the Kohen.  He loses his personhood, becomes objectified, is subject to procedures and requirements that are placed on him, and only regains his humanity when he starts to become pure.  Actually, this is brought out strikingly when one contrasts the end of the parasha to the beginning of next week's parasha.  Tazria ends on this note: "This is the law of the spot of tzara'at..." (13:59) - it is the laws of spots.  Metzorah opens thusly: "This is the law of the metzorah on the day that he becomes pure..."  (14:2).  No longer are we dealing with the spot, the disease, but rather with the metzorah, the person.  Now, it is true, that he is still at the beginning of becoming better, so "... and he shall be brought to the Kohen." (ibid.).  But once the Kohen determines that he has healed, this person becomes a full actor, "And the Kohen shall command to take for the one purifying himself..." (verse 5), and finally, "And the one purifying himself shall launder his clothes, and shall shave his hair, and shall bathe in water, and shall be pure, and then he shall come into the camp..." (verse 8).  He is reentering society and is no longer "sick," and has no become once again a person and an actor.

So, while the Torah is describing the somewhat inevitable objectification that occurs in a patient-doctor relationship, we may ask whether we find a similar change to that which has occurred recently in contemporary society, as was noted above.  Is there indication that the person with the spot was seen more as a person, and less as an object?   The answer is, that exactly this reframing is found in Hazal.  Hazal state, for example, that because of the mitzvah "Guard yourself regarding the spot of tzara'at" (Devarim 24:8) that a person is not allowed to cut off a spot that might be tzara'at and is required to show it to a Kohen (Makkot 22a).  This transforms the person into an agent!  The person is no longer being brought to the Kohen, he is bringing himself to the Kohen!  And, the Rabbis famously interpret the verse, "On the day it will be shown to the Kohen" (Vayikra 13:14) as follows:  "There are days that he may see and days he may not see.  From here they said: A groom who has a spot is given the seven days of the wedding feast [before he has to show it to the Kohen]... And similarly, during a Festival, he is given the seven days of the festival" (Moed Katan 7b).  This person is no longer look at like an object.  He is a person, with an entire life that exists outside of the clinical context, and the Kohen has to be sensitive to these realities, to the person in front of him, before he can decide how or whether to proceed.  Just like, one may add, when doctors see the full person in front of them, and not just the condition, they listen better, inquire more, contextualize more and are more able to render the correct diagnoses.

Let us always strive to give the best judgment that we can of others and of others' work when that is what is asked of us.  But at the same time, let us never forget the humanity of the person, that we are dealing with an actor and an agent and that we must engage that person as such, even when in our most professional and objective mode.   And certainly if a person is ill must we be sensitive to this.  For not only does the path to recovery allow a person to regain his or her humanity, but it is the regaining and retaining of that humanity that allows for recovery to begin.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash


This week in the daf, we encountered one of the key Tosafots in Shas (Menachot 20b, s.v., ini) which discusses the position of Rabbeinu Tam that there are two sunsets - the visible one, and then one occurring almost an hour later, when the sun - according to Rabbinic cosmology - exists the tunnel of the opaque dome of the rakiya, sky or firmament, and begins to travel above the rakiya from West to East so it can rise again the next morning.  This informs his position that the end of the day, tzeit hakokhavim, halakhically does not occur until 72 minutes after visible sunset.  I wrote about the significance of this position li'halakha in two posts this week on The Daily Daf, here and here.  I present below a more conceptual discussion of his approach and the significance of the first sunset.  This also appears as a post on my blog, here.

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We see that Rabbeinu Tam believes in two shkiyas, sunsets, and that bein hashemashot begins at the second one.  The question remains whether the visible, "first," shkiya has any halakhic significance for Rabbeinu Tam.  Here is where the Tosafot from the daf comes up.  Tosafot on 20b, s.v. nifsal, drawing on Rabbeinu Tam's Sefer HaYashar, states that it does.   Tosafot is bothered why a special verse (biyom hakrivo et zivcho) is needed to invalidate blood of a korban that is not placed on the altar on the same day that the animal is slaughtered since we already know that all the avodot, sacrificial rites, must be done during the day.  Tosafot's answer is that this extra verse tells us that the blood of a sacrifice becomes invalid even after the first shkiya.

The way to know, says Rabbeinu Tam, is based on the phrasing that is used.  Tosafot points out that when the Gemara states that blood becomes invalid at sunset, it uses the phrase bi'shkiyat ha'chama, at the setting of the sun.  This phrase, says Rabbeinu Tam, means the beginning of the setting, i.e., the first shkiya.  It is only when the Gemara uses the phrase mi'she'tishka ha'chama, when the sun has set, that it is referring to the second setting.  Making this distinction between the two phrases allows Rabbeinu Tam to state that the Gemara in Shabbat (35a) that placed tzeit at 3/4 of a mil (the time it takes to walk a kilometer, approximated at 18 minutes) after shkiya was talking about the second shkiya, because it used the phrase mi'she'tishka.  In contrast, the Gemara in Pesachim (93a) that gave the period of 4 mil was talking from the first shkiya because it used the phrase mi'shkiyat ha'chama.

It is interesting to consider the significance of this first shkiya within the approach of Rabbeinu Tam.   It seems, for Rabbeinu Tam, that the end of the day has 3 stages.  First there is physical sunset.  This is an ongoing process, which starts with shkiyat hachama, the setting of the sun, and ends with mi'she'tishka ha'chama, once it has finally set.  This is a period which is technically day, but seen as leading into night.  This roughly corresponds to the period that we call twilight (which comes after sunset), where there is still some direct sunlight lighting the sky.   Then comes the period which is the onset of night, but not fully night proper - this period is bein hashemashot, beginning at the "second shekiya" and roughly corresponds to what we call dusk.   And finally there is night proper, tzeit hakokhavim.
Dusk, bein hashemashot, which is the beginning of night, but not night proper, has the status of "doubtful day, doubtful night."  As Rav Soloveitchik explained, in his article Yom VaLaila, "Day and Night," in Shiurim liZekher Aba MariYahrtzeit Lectures in Memory of My Father, vol. 1

The explanation of this "doubtful status" does not indicate that there Chazal had an uncertainty as to the facts, that they could not come to a conclusion whether this period was included in "day" or in "night."  For behold, it is an explicit verse, "From the morning star until the emerging of the stars," and certainly this is the definition of day.  Rather, at this time [of bein hashemashot] there is a dual status - of day and of night.  A duality is being stated here - this period is both day and night, and it all depends on the perspective with which you look at it... These two statuses, which contradict one another, create a new reality that this time period is a "doubt," which is a way of expressing this tension between day and night.
(pages 103-104)

Rav Soloveitchik explains the competing definitions to be a definition based on light and darkness, as opposed to a definition based on sunrise and sunset.   For our purposes, we can look at it as different degrees of the light-darkness mix.  The period after the first shkiya, still has direct sunlight (although no visible sun), and is day.  The period after the "second shkiya," is genuinely getting dark, but not fully dark, so it has this ambiguous status, which is defined halakhically as safek, a doubt.

For Rabbeinu Tam there is a nice parallel here to the period between amud hashachar, the morning star, and sunrise.  The mishna in Megilah (20a) states that all day mitzvot are valid from sunrise on, but if they were performed starting at amud hashachar one fulfills his obligation.  The standard explanation of this, and this is how Rashi explains it, is that day starts fully at amud hashachar but because it is not so obvious when that is, the Rabbis wanted people to wait until sunrise, lest they err.  Rav Soloveitchik explains this otherwise.  He states that this period corresponds to bein hashemashot, as it has elements of both light and darkness.  However, as opposed to bein hashemashot where this tension expresses itself halakhically in the form of safek, here it expresses itself halakhically in the form of lichatchila and b'dieved.  As a base position, lichatchila, this time between the morning start and sunrise is not yet day, because the sun has not risen and it is not fully light.  However, b'dieved, if one did a day mitzvah during this period, it will count as day, because it does have day elements to it.

Now, according to Rav Soloveitchik, it is strange that the counterpart to this 72 minute period in the beginning of the day is a mere 13.5 minute period at the end of the day.  It is also strange that in one case we treat the tension of day-night as a doubt, and in the other case as a lichatchila/b'dieved. However, according to Rabbeinu Tam this works out quite well.  Just as 72 minutes before sunrise counts as day (maybe - contra Rav Soloveichik - even li'chatchila on a d'oraitta level), so the first 58.5 minutes after sunset counts as day.  It is only the last 13.5 that has no parallel in the morning and is treated as a doubt.   The reason these "mixed times" - 72 minutes after the morning star, and 58.5 minutes after sunset - are treated as day rather than night, is because at the human level we respond to the presence of light and focus on it.  Once some light enters the sky in the morning, we feel that daytime has come.  And as long as there is still some sunlight in the sky, we cling on to the day, and feel that it has not yet gone.  "My soul is to God like the watchers for the dawn, the watchers for the dawn."  Only when all the sunlight has escaped, but it is not completely dark, are we willing to acknowledge the partial onset of night.

So, to return to the period after the first sunset - we now see that it already has a mix of light and dark, that it has elements of the night, but they are not yet dominant.  Thus, it is still technically day, but it is beginning to feel "night-ish".  This is why, according to Rabbeinu Tam, the extra verse by sacrifices can teach that the blood of sacrifices is invalidated at the first sunset.  For this case, we will focus on the night element, and we will see this time as already night.  [This is somewhat parallel to Rav Soloveitchik's lichatchila of treating the post-amud hashachar period as still night].  Perhaps we can even be more precise than that.  The verse that Tosafot was referring to does not teach that the blood becomes invalid at night, but rather "on the day that you slaughter you must apply the blood."  That is, it must be the same day as the slaughtering.  Since this period now has night elements, even if it is not night proper, we cannot say that it is truly the same period - the same day - in which the animal was slaughtered.

This point brought out even clearer in the position of Ramban in Torat Ha'Adam (source 1, in the source pack on the Daily Daf: Primary Sources - 2), which Shulkhan Arukh (source 2) follows.  Ramban asks - when Chazal tell us that there is a mitzvah of tosefet Shabbat or tosefet Yom HaKippurim, to add to Shabbat or Yom Kippur from the day before, starting when can one begin this period of addition?  He proceeds to present and analyze, and agree with, Rabbeinu Tam's position on tzeit, bein hashemashot, and two shkiyas, and after much analysis concludes that the period of addition can begin at the first shkiya.  He then points out that this time is roughly equivalent to the period of plag hamincha which is 1 1/4 hours before the end of the day, which he assumes means before tzeit.  Thus, 1 1/4 hours = 75 minutes before tzeit, which is only 3 minutes earlier than sunset for Rabbeinu Tam.  As we know, plag hamincha is the time when one can daven aravit, and can even make havdalah on Shabbat (without a candle, of course, and this does not allow melakha, it just means you fulfill your obligation of havdalah!).  So, says Ramban, this is a time that can already be associated with the next day, so this is the time during which one can make a tosefet Shabbat.  Earlier than plag/sunset would be meaningless, but any time after this would be a meaningful addition to the following day.

Thus, for Ramban, sunset and plag effectively coincide.  And because the sun has already set, and the day is starting to darken, it is a time that can be - like in the case of the blood of korbanot - connected to the nighttime, or the next day, and thus can be used for davening ma'ariv or for making it into tosefet Shabbat.

Ramban takes this idea one step further, however.  How, he asks, can one make a tosefet for Tisha b'Av, if the Torah never indicated that such a tosefet could be made.  We could restate the question as follows: If the idea of tosefet is that one is bringing in kedusha of Shabbat into Friday afternoon, then how can this be applied to a day like Tisha b'Av which has no kedusha?  To this Ramban answers as follows:

For the accepting [of this period as the beginning of Tisha b'Av] makes it forbidden to him during this time, which is from sunset, which is plag hamincha, and  later, since he can make it an addition for the Torah days, he can also make it an addition for a Rabbinic day, because since he wants to add onto the day and make it like the day itself, [he is able to do so].

That is, according to Ramban, since this period begins at sunset, what a person is doing with creating a tosefet is not introducing kedushat Shabbat into Friday, but rather designating this time as actually nighttime, as Saturday itself!  Just like the verse considered it already night for the blood of sacrifices, a person can subjectively consider it night because of its night elements.  Thus, it can be done even without any kedusha.  It can be done on Tisha b'Av, just as a person can daven ma'ariv on a Wednesday after plag hamincha.  

Ramban leaves this possibility saying "vi'zo shita t'luya" - this is a speculative possibility.  And, indeed, although this is a very logical and attractive position within Rabbeinu Tam's universe, it requires one to adopt a very specific understanding of tosefet yom, one that we normally do not adopt in other halakhic areas.  Thus, even if one has already accepted upon herself tosefet Shabbat, we would still consider it to be Friday day for other halakhot (hefsek taharah, a baby being born, etc.).  However, it is quite possible that this is because we rule that bein hashemashot begins at sunset, and that the period of tosefet starts earlier.  So while for Ramban and Rabbeinu Tam this tosefet period, occurring after sunset, could be one of designating the time as night, for us, where it occurs before sunset, it can at most be one of introducing the sanctity of the next day into the current one.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


This week learning continued at a good, steady pace, with Yoreh Deah students moving from nat bar nat - what happens if I cook my spaghetti in a clean  fleishig pot, can I eat it with milk - to the topic of davar charif - whether sharp tasting foods, such as radishes and onions, will transfer taste even from a cold knife that has not been used within the last 24 hours.  The Shabbat students are wrapping up Bishul and will soon be moving on to Boneh and its related toldot.  They are also devoting the entire day Monday, including the first half of the afternoon, to covering additional melakhot in the Mishne Brurah, with key Arukh HaShulkhans, Rav Shlomo Zalmans, Rav Moshes, and Rav Ovadya Yosefs.
We had two esteemed visitors this last week.  Last Friday, Rav Yuval Cherlow, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, and a close friend of the yeshiva, visited our Beit Midrash and spoke to the students about the failure of the Israelis rabbis to even begin to shape a vision about what a religious Zionist state should really look like.  Instead, he said, their concerns are narrow, immediate, and serve just the interests of the dati community.  He spoke powerfully about the need to begin to develop such a vision, not only for the future, but to inform the present, and to begin to think more creatively about what a halakha, and a halakhic process, would look like that is meant to serve a nation, and not just individuals.

And, at the end of this week, on Thursday, we welcomed Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber to our Beit Midrash.  Rabbi Sperber was in NY for a Yeshiva University conference, and he spoke in our Beit Midrash on the topic of Minhag - its scope and its weight.   There then followed a lovely question and answer period with the students.  We were truly blessed to have such distinguished guests this week.

Finally, we all share in the deep sorrow of the Perla family.  Our beloved student, and past president of the HIR, Dan Perla, lost his father, Robert Perla, alav ha'shalom, after a protracted illness this last Monday night.  The funeral was held on Wednesday morning in Long Island, and almost the entire yeshiva - students, rebbeim, and staff - attended.  Dan and his family are sitting shiva at 69 Birch Hill, Searington, NY 11507.  We wish Dan and his family a true nechama for their loss.  HaMakom yenachem etchem bi'tokh sha'arei Tziyon vi'Yerushalayim.