Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Power of Torah?

The Talmud in Yevamot 62B:


ר"ע אומר: למד תורה בילדותו ילמוד תורה בזקנותו; היו לו תלמידים בילדותו יהיו לו תלמידים בזקנותו. שנא' " בַּבֹּ֨קֶר֙ זְרַ֣ע אֶת־זַרְעֶ֔ךָ [ וְלָעֶ֖רֶב אַל־תַּנַּ֣ח יָדֶ֑ךָ כִּי֩ אֵֽינְךָ֨ יוֹדֵ֜עַ אֵ֣י זֶ֤ה יִכְשָׁר֙ הֲזֶ֣ה אוֹ־זֶ֔ה וְאִם־שְׁנֵיהֶ֥ם כְּאֶחָ֖ד טוֹבִֽים׃ ] "


אמרו: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר"ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם: ר"מ ור' יהודה ור' יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע - והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה.


תנא: כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת.

אמר רב חמא בר אבא, ואיתימא ר' חייא בר אבין: כולם מתו מיתה רעה.

מאי היא? א"ר נחמן: אסכרה.


I have two questions on this piece. The Talmud's reason for the death of R' Akiva's 12,000 pairs of students is very difficult to understand: why the extreme punishment for not giving each other כבוד, respect/honor? Additionally, what is the significance of the fact that they all died in one period of time, between Pesach and Shavuos?


The first thing that must be understood is why people honor (or do not honor) others? Giving one's fellow honor is a way of recognizing his authority, power or mastery - if not over you then at least over some one or thing. By not giving someone honor you are implying the opposite - i.e., that person has no authority or power. Certainly, all of R' Akiva's students were worthy of honor - they had the authority that comes along with knowledge. So why would his students not be respectful to each other? Possibly, they viewed their Torah knowledge solely as a means to power and prestige - to give honor to each other would have detracted from each individual's pursuit of power.


One of the ultimate lessons of Yetziat Mitzrayim was that man is utterly lacking in power before G' and completely dependent on Him. G' revealed Himself to us in Mitzrayim as the sole possessor of power, only He could take us out. This is what G' told Moshe to tell the people (Sh'mot 6):


ו לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהֽוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֨חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹֽדָתָ֑ם וְגָֽאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ ז וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃ ח וְהֵֽבֵאתִ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֨אתִי֙ אֶת־יָדִ֔י לָתֵ֣ת אֹתָ֔הּ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב וְנָֽתַתִּ֨י אֹתָ֥הּ לָכֶ֛ם מֽוֹרָשָׁ֖ה אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃


(In fact, B'nei Yisrael played no active role in their redemption - they were redeemed on the merit of demonstrating their subservience to G' and their rejection of the idols of Mitzrayim through the korban Pesach.) This breakthrough, in B'nei Yisrael's relationship to G', was developed and expanded over the next seven weeks (through their experience at the yam suf, at mara, the mahn, the battle with Amalek, Shloshet y'mei hagbala etc., ואכמ"ל). On the fiftieth day, they were ready to receive G's Torah, His Guidance, at Har Sinai. At Sinai, B'nei Yisrael expressed their absolute subservience to G' through accepting and following His Laws. By that point they had no illusions about who possessed real power. For them the Torah was a pure expression of Malchut Shamayim - they could not, at that point, distort the Torah and turn it into a vehicle for human glorification.


Every link in the chain of the Mesora must make the Pesach breakthrough or risk distorting the Torah. The Torah can not be received - and certainly not transmitted - by one who views it as a tool for personal glorification, as did R' Akiva's students. Torah must be a pure expression of G's Malchut - not malchut Adam. This idea is most clearly expressed in Pirkei Avot (4:7):


רבי צדוק אומר, לא תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ולא קורדום לחפור בהם: כך היה הלל אומר, ודישתמש בתגא חלף; הא, כל הנהנה מדברי תורה, נטל חייו מן העולם.


Rabbi Tzadok said: Do not make the Torah a crown with which to make yourself great, nor use it as a shovel with which to dig. As Hillel used to say: He who makes worldly use of the crown of the Torah shall perish. Therefore, any one who benefits from the words of the Torah takes his life from the world.


This lesson is of the utmost importance to reflect on between Pesach and Shavuos - the time when our ancestors prepared themselves for kabbalat haTorah.. This is the significance of R' Akiva's students dying during this time period - as if to say that on account of their failure to incorporate the lessons of Pesach they died. They did not respect each other because their Torah was self serving not a means to serve G'. It is hoped that by mourning them we inspire ourselves to not make their mistake and instead learn Torah as an expression of our acceptance of G's malchut.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Are You Suited for Exodus?

This is an addendum to this post. I had asked:

Why was it necessary for B'nei Yisrael to eat the korban pesach fully dressed for their journey and with, חִפָּזוֹן, great speed?


And I answered:

It was in order to demonstrate their absolute conviction that Hashem would immediately redeem them (see Seforno). Additionally, this conviction in the immediacy of the geula was a further blow to the illusion of the power of Mitzrayim (i.e. they could leave immediately because no bureaucratic process would be necessary to slow them down).

However, it seems that even though B'nei Yisrael were commanded to eat the korban pesach fully dressed for their journey and with, חִפָּזוֹן, great speed they did not actually think that they would be leaving that morning. The Mitzrim forced them out (Sh'mot 12:33):


לג וַתֶּֽחֱזַ֤ק מִצְרַ֨יִם֙ עַל־הָעָ֔ם לְמַהֵ֖ר לְשַׁלְּחָ֣ם מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּ֥י אָֽמְר֖וּ כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים׃


The Torah leaves little doubt in our minds about the reason for their harried exit, only six verses later it is written (12:39):


לט וַיֹּאפ֨וּ אֶת־הַבָּצֵ֜ק אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצִ֧יאוּ מִמִּצְרַ֛יִם עֻגֹ֥ת מַצּ֖וֹת כִּ֣י לֹ֣א חָמֵ֑ץ כִּֽי־גֹרְשׁ֣וּ מִמִּצְרַ֗יִם וְלֹ֤א יָֽכְלוּ֙ לְהִתְמַהְמֵ֔הַּ וְגַם־צֵדָ֖ה לֹֽא־עָשׂ֥וּ לָהֶֽם׃


The very reason they made matza was because the Mitzrim forced them out. So for what reason did B'nei Yisrael think they were eating all dressed up for a journey? Even if they knew that they would be leaving in the morning - why would they get dressed for the journey in the middle of the night?


DL suggested the following: the way people dress reflects their frame of mind. They had to demonstrate while eating the Pesach their complete rejection of Mitzri society. By wearing their travel clothes they were showing that "in their minds they were already gone". In fact it would have been inappropriate for them to wear their house/lounging clothing which reflects a mindset of being settled in one's place. I give the following as an example: imagine quitting your job while still sitting comfortably at your desk. Would your boss take you seriously? I believe your boss's reaction would be quite different if you were to pack up all your stuff, put on your jacket, go to your bosses office and then tell him you quit. In the same way, B'nei Yisrael were demonstrating their quitting of Mitzrayim.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Avraham's Uncertainty

The fifteenth chapter of B'reishit is the famous Berit Bein HaBetarim. After G' tells Avraham - for the third time - that his descendants will inherit the land Avraham asks G' how he can be sure of this.

ח וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה בַּמָּ֥ה אֵדַ֖ע כִּ֥י אִֽירָשֶֽׁנָּה׃


Before discussing G's response I would like to take up the following question: what was the source of Avraham's uncertainty? Many - perhaps most - commentaries (for instance: Rashi, Ramban, S'forno) explain that he was concerned that his descendants would not necessarily be worthy of such an inheritance (i.e. they might sin) - I do not wish to depart from their model only to add an additional element (which could be viewed as an explanation of what sin (or unworthiness) Avraham felt his descendants might/would be guilty of).


Avraham was a revolutionary. He lived in a society which only knew idolatry. Idolatry was the bedrock of civilization. How so? The idolater believes in multiple deities - each one with its own special powers. By currying favor with his personal deity (or deities) the idolater hopes that his own desires will be fulfilled. There is no grand scheme of creation that he must submit himself to - anything and everything is possible if the deity so desires. The idolater's gods are a tool of his own will. In other words, man is supreme and the gods are useful. The foundation of idolatry is the belief in the supremacy of man. Man's will is immutable - everything else must fall in line, even his gods. That it is the right of man to have power and assert it is the unwritten principle that all states are founded upon. Can there be a state without Malchut Adam, the rule/kingship of man?


Avraham's revolution was not just a simple rejection of idols it was a rejection of the idea of man's supremacy, his claim to power. Malchut Adam is nothing, an illusion - only G' has true Malchut, rule/kingship. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome of Avraham's revolution (if expanded to a large popular movement as opposed to a small tight-knit family unit) is anarchy - after all, he suggested nothing less than the complete rejection of human power. How many individuals would be able to fill this vacuum through submission to G's laws? If the core tenets of idolatry are the foundation of the state how could Avraham's descendants be expected to found a state built on the credo of Malchut Hashem, G's rule/kingship. Nothing less than this belief could make Avraham's descendants worthy of being his inheritors.


I believe this might have been the source of Avraham's uncertainty about his descendants. He could not fathom how an entire state could naturally emerge that could maintain his unique philosophy. It is clear from G's response that indeed that state would not come about naturally.