• February 28, 2024
  • 19 5784, Adar I
  • פרשת כי תשא

The WebYeshiva Blog

Moshe, Father of the Prophets

By Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman Parashat VeZot HaBracha is the conclusion of the Torah. The parshah ends with God burying Moshe Rabbeinu and eulogizing him with these words:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom God singled out, face to face…

The unique status of Moshe Rabbeinu is the seventh of the Thirteen Principles which the Rambam says form the basis of Jewish belief. Here is the beginning of the Rambam’s writing on Moshe Rabbeinu:

The seventh principle is The prophecy of Moshe, our teacher - peace be upon him - and that is that we believe that he was the father of all the prophets that were before him and that arose after him, [meaning] that all are below him in [loftiness] and that he is the chosen one from the entire human species. [This is so] since he grasped more of His knowledge than any man who lived and more than any man who will live, and he arrived at an elevation above man - until he reached the level of angels and was included in the domain of the angels…..

Moshe vs Bilam

With all of the lofty praise of Moshe Rabbeinu it is shocking to read this passage from the Sifra which is the Halachic work of Midrash on our parsha:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses-In Israel never did there arise but in the Nations of the World there did arise. And who is that? Bilam the son of Be’or….

This Midrash is beyond mystifying and close to unfathomable. The basic construct of the Midrash is not uncommon. The verse could have said, ”Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses…” The two additional words “in Israel” are taken by the Midrash as limiting the scope of the verse to “Israel.” The careful (and typical) parsing of the verse by the Midrash teaches that there was a prophet among the gentiles who was equal to Moshe Rabbeinu. But why Bilam? Why did the Midrash present the prophet who tried to curse us as the equal of Moshe Rabbeinu?

Moshe, The Batman

The explanation for this Midrash that I will share with you is given by the Torah Temimah. Torah Temimah is an anthology of all the Rabbinic texts on the verses of the Torah. The compiler of the anthology was Rav Baruch Epstein zt”l. Rav Baruch was the son of Rav Yechiel Epstein zt”l who was the author of the Aruch Hashulchan. Rav Baruch did not wish to accept any official rabbinic posts and worked as a clerk in a bank. Rav Baruch was killed by the Nazis in 1942. In his commentary to this Midrash Rav Baruch quotes an explanation that he heard while a student in the Volozhin yeshiva in the name of its founder, Rav Chaim of Volozhin:

Rav Chaim of Volozhin said that we can understand the Midrash as an allegory. The allegory can be seen as comparing an eagle to a bat. Both the eagle and the bat are aware of sunlight but  they react to sunlight differently. The eagle lives in sunlight while the bat hides from it. The bat lives in the dark.

Both Moshe Rabbeinu and Bilam had a relationship with God. Bilam spoke the truth when he said about himself (Bamidbar 24:3):

Word of one who hears God’s speech,

Who beholds visions from the Almighty,

Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:

Bilam was the equal of Moshe Rabbeinu when it came to knowing the will of God at a given moment. But Bilam, the bat, would only use his gift in times of darkness when God wished to punish. Moshe Rabbeinu, the eagle, would act when God wished to display benevolence. Bilam was the prophet of darkness, Moshe Rabbeinu was the prophet of light.
Dvar Torah

Studying History

By Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman Parshat Ha’azinu is God’s review of our nation’s history. It describes our past, our present and future. The Ramban himself praises the parsha with these words:

Now, if this Song had been written by one of the astrologers it would have earned belief therein because all its words have been fulfilled by now. Certainly we shall continue to believe and look forward with all our heart for the word of G-d by the mouth of His prophet…

This most historical parsha opens with a command for us to study our history (Devarim 32:7).

Remember the days of old,

Consider the years of ages past;

Ask your parent, who will inform you,

Your elders, who will tell you How

Why Study History?

This verse in our parsha directs us to find out about our past from our parents and elders. But Rashi already says that not all the parents and not all the elders are reliable: On “Ask your parents” Rashi says: “these are the prophets who are termed fathers, as it is stated in the history of Elijah that Elisha exclaimed when Elijah departed, (2 Kings 2:12): “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel!” (cf. Sifrei Devarim 310:3). On “Your elders” Rashi says: “These are the sages.” God is not telling us to study the past in order to pass a Divine history exam. We are not expected to memorize facts. Our parents and elders can be relied upon to provide us with accurate dates. But we are expected to study history in order to see Divine presence in human affairs. That sort of comprehension is only to be found among the exceptional.

On History and Historiography

One of the great Torah Scholars of the previous generation was Rav Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz zt”l, who is better known by the title of his books, Chazon Ish. Besides writing this series of books on Halacha, he wrote a short essay titled Emunah u’Bitachon. In it he discusses the study of history saying the following (chapter 1, paragraph 8):

Chronicles and histories of the world do much to instruct the wise man on his path, and on the events of the past he establishes his wisdom. However, given that people love to innovate and to speak before the public many lies have accumulated in the history books, because people do not naturally loathe falsehoods , and many love falsehoods, are entertained by them and are friendly with them. Therefore, the wise man must sift through the tales of the writers. In this discipline there is ample room for the imagination because it is the nature of the imagination to reach conclusions rapidly before the intellect has had the time to weigh all of the factors. Meanwhile the imagination has reached its verdict; what is true and what is false.

In this brief passage the Chazon Ish explains the challenge involved in studying history. First, there are the data points. There are names and dates which are facts but historians take the data and construct a story. And when we wish to learn history we are interested not only in what happened but why it happened and we need to be very cautious in choosing which authorities we turn to to answer the latter.

History and Historiography: Another Approach

Rav Moshe Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion gave a talk on the subject of history and chose the Holocaust as the focus of his discussion. The Holocaust was a horror unlike any other and Rav Lichtenstein said that his inclination was to see it as the fulfillment of another  verse in our parsha:

I might have reduced them to naught,

Made their memory cease among humankind

But Rav Lichtenstein went on to say that the founder of the yeshiva, Rav Amital zt”l, who survived the Holocaust, said that it is horribly presumptuous for anyone to say that they understand or know the cause of the Holocaust. On the other hand, Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l, one of the great scholars of the 20th century saw the Holocaust as part of the continuum of Jewish history. Rav Lichtenstein brought these two opinions to demonstrate the difficulty in trying to find lessons in history. He concluded the talk by saying that despite the difficulty in understanding history the verse in our parsha remains as it is, a commandment to seek the lessons that can be found in history.
Dvar Torah

A Future of Crises

By Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman This week’s parsha contains God’s warning about the future of the Jewish people: God said to Moses:

You are soon to lie with your ancestors.This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.

This warning is very worrisome. God says that we will acknowledge that “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us” but nevertheless God will not yet forgive us. Isn’t the recognition that we have lost God’s protection the beginning of our return to Him? Shouldn’t He return to us as we return to Him? One interpretation is by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin zt”l, known as the Netziv. He was head of the renowned yeshiva in Volozhin and unusual for an East European Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv gave a daily class on the parsha and these classes formed his commentary to the Chumash titled העמק דבר. The Netziv understands this pasuk in a totally different way:

“Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us” -Because the Holy One Blessed is He has hidden Himself from us and has shown that He no longer desires us, against our will we are compelled to worship other gods.

The Netziv says that in the face of terrible disaster we will not repent. On the contrary, we will say to God that should You abandon us we will have no choice but to abandon You.

Is God With Us?

This interpretation of the Netziv is remarkably prescient. It recalls the passage in Sanhedrin 105a about the exchange between the exiles and the Prophet Ezekiel. I think that it anticipates Chaim Grade’s essay, My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner. It is a fact that throughout our history there were people who abandoned Judaism with the complaint that the Netziv sees in this pasuk. The Sfat Emet gives a very different but equally powerful interpretation to this pasuk. His commentary is based on a teaching of Rabbi Bunam of Peshischa. The sfat Emet says:

I have heard in the name of the holy Rabbi of Peshischa that this (saying God is not with us) is considered a sin because we need to believe that He is with us in times of crisis….

Crises Are Tests

The proper response to a crisis is to examine ourselves in order to determine where we have failed and to repent. The Torah is our guide in this process. The statement, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us” only seems to be true. Things may be bad. But this does not mean that God has lost interest in us. Rabbi Bunam says that we need to look at the next pasuk:

Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.

The light of the Torah will lead us back to God.
Dvar Torah

Not in Heaven? Then Where?

By Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman In this week’s parsha (Devarim 30:11-12) we learn one of the fundamental and remarkable concepts of Judaism.
כי המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוך היום לא־נפלאת הוא ממך ולא רחקה הוא׃
Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.
 לא בשמים הוא לאמר מי יעלה־לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו וישמענו אתה ונעשנה׃
It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

“It is not in the heavens…”

In its context this phrase teaches that the Torah is not impossible to comprehend and observe. The Torah has been given to us and for us to observe. It is “our'' Torah now. But the sages of the Talmud understood this phrase as teaching a second idea. One of the most famous stories in the Talmud is the story concerning a dispute about an oven and the laws of purity (Bava Metziah 59b). Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was one of the greatest of the teachers in the Mishna and he ruled that this oven was pure. His colleagues all disagreed and said it was impure. The subject was debated and Rabbi Eliezer defended his position but to no avail. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer called upon Heaven and sought Divine support for his position. He proclaimed, “If the law is like my opinion, let these miracles prove my point.” And truly there were miraculous events. A tree was uprooted and flew through the air, the walls of the study hall suddenly curved inward and a stream of water reversed its flow. But Rabbi Eliezer’s opponents said that miracles do not prove anything.

The Torah is on Earth

Rabbi Eliezer then proclaimed, “Heaven will prove me right!” And a heavenly voice announced, “Why are you opposing Rabbi Eliezer when the Halacha is always in accord with his opinion?” At that moment Rabbi Yehoshuah stood up and proclaimed the words from our parsha (Devarim 30:12) :“It is not in heaven.” Why? Because the Torah itself says to follow the majority (Shemot 23:2). The status of the oven was put to a vote by the very human rabbis, here on Earth,  and it was decided by the majority that the oven was impure. The tale concludes with one more story. The Prophet Elijah was asked, what was God’s response to the vote by the humans? Elijah replied that God smiled and said, “My sons defeated me, my sons defeated me.” Why did God smile? Didn’t the Heavenly voice say that Rabbi Eliezer was correct? Didn’t the sages reach the wrong conclusion? How could they disagree with God?

Even the Divine can be Examined Critically

There are two explanations for this story that I wish to share. One explanation is according to the Ramban. Simply put, and as shocking as it may seem, the Ramban denies the existence of an objective incontrovertible truth in the study of Torah. The Talmud itself intimates as much when it says concerning the disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai that “These and these are the words of the Living God.” The Ramban in his introduction to his commentary “Milchemet Hashem” writes the following words: Every student of our Talmud knows….that in this discipline there are no absolute proofs as there are in mathematics and geometry. Rather we put all of our effort and all of our lives into distancing one of the opinions by means of persuasive reasoning…. Yes, a Divine voice was heard in the House of Study. But even that Divine voice could and should be examined critically.

Finding Holiness on Earth

A possible related explanation can be found in the Sfat Emet (parashat Mishpatim 5632/1872). The Sfat Emet quotes the Rebbe of Kotzk’s comment on the words, "And a holy people you shall be...” (Shemot 22:30). The Rebbe of Kotzk said that God has no shortage of perfect, holy angels up in heaven. He could have kept the Torah in heaven for the angels but chose to entrust His Torah to us on Earth. God’s wish is for us to sanctify ourselves on Earth through his Torah. As our parsha says, “It is not in heaven.”
Dvar Torah

Is Everyone Happy?

By Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman Anyone who has ever read even a most superficial work on Jewish history is familiar with the history of the Hassidic movement. Historians emphasize the aspect of joy which they say is unique to Hassidism and among Hassidic teachers the one who is most associated with joy is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. His most famous teaching is the following (Likutei Moharan, vol. 2 , teaching #24):

It is a great mitzvah to always be happy…

The American Dream

This is something which even the American Declaration of Independence declares: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Rebbe Nachman says that there is a “great mitzvah to always be happy” but if it is a “great mitzvah” then happiness must be elusive and difficult to find. The Declaration of Independence says something similar. Happiness is not present; it needs to be pursued.

The Jewish Ideal

Another great teacher of Hassidism was Rebbe Zusha of Hanipol. Of the many stories told about him, one of the most famous deals with happiness: A man once visited the holy Maggid of Mezeritch and said he had great difficulties applying the Talmudic saying that "A person is supposed to bless God for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good.” The Maggid told him to find the Maggid's disciple Reb Zusha of Hanipol and ask him. The man went and found Rebbe Zusha, who received him kindly and invited him to his home. When the guest came in, he saw how poor the family was, there was almost nothing to eat and they were beset with afflictions and illnesses. Nevertheless, Rebbe Zusha was always happy and cheerful. The guest was astonished at this picture. He said: "I went to the Holy Maggid to ask him how it is possible to bless God for the bad He sends us the same way as we bless Him for the good, and The Maggid told me only you can help me in this matter." Rebbe Zusha said: "This is indeed a very interesting question. But why did our holy Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.

What was Rebbe Zusha’s secret?

I think that Rebbe Zusha totally felt that his life was lived in the service of Hashem. Every moment of the day was spent in Hashem’s presence and with this perception of life, he exemplified what the Rambam (Rambam, Hilchot Lulav, chap. 8:15) teaches us about happiness which is a lesson based on this week’s parsha: The joy which a person derives from doing good deeds and from loving God, who has commanded us to practice them, is a supreme form of divine worship. Anyone who refrains from experiencing this joy deserves punishment, as it is written: "Because you have not served the Lord your God with joy and with a glad heart" (Devarim 28:47)…..True greatness and honor are attained only by rejoicing before the Lord, as it is written: "King David was leaping and dancing before the Lord" (Shmuel Bet  6:16). If Rebbe Zusha would have ever read the Declaration of Independence I think he would have smiled and said, “Happiness does not have to be pursued -it is right here.”    
Dvar Torah
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