Thursday, June 29, 2006
And Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, took and Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav and On, son of Pelet, sons of Reuven. And they arose before Moshe and two hundered and fifty men from Beney Yisrael, princes of the community, called to the assembly, men of fame. They congregated over Moshe and Aharon and said to them - it is too much for you, for all of the community are holy and God is amidst them - so why do you lord it over the community of God? (BeMidbar 16:1-3)
The genealogy of Korach is unnecessary – we already know all this information from previous verses. The Talmud, recognising that the names are not needed for the narrative, assumes that rather than telling us from whom Korach was descended, they tell us about his character. However, why supply a four stage genealogy? Why not trace Korach’s ancestry still further, perhaps to Yaakov, or even beyond:
So let it also consider, ‘son of Yaakov’…. Said Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak - Yaakov requested mercy for himself, as the verse says, ‘Let my soul not come into their secret and with their gathering, let my honour not be unified.’ ‘Let my soul not come into their secret’ - these are the spies. ‘And with their gathering, let my honour not be unified’ - this is the gathering of Korach. (Sanhedrin 109b)
The reference is to the vision that Yaakov had on his deathbed, as recorded at the end of BeReishit. When speaking of the tribe of Levi, he saw that a descendant of his (Korach) would start a rebellion. He prayed that his name not be associated with the rebel; hence the genealogy of Korach stops at Levi, just short of Yaakov.
But how did this help Yaakov? Every child knows that Levi’s father was Yaakov; his absence from Korach ancestry hardly excludes his association from the rebellion. We already know that Korach’s great-great grandfather was Yaakov. The Maharal considers this question:
If you will ask - is it not a disgrace that such wicked descendants should emerge from the righteous one - for even though it is not written explicitly, do we not know that Korach was descended from Yaakov? We see that a righteous man may certainly spawn a wicked one - for there is some impurity in the righteous which manifests itself in the wicked one. There is no righteous man without some impurity, from which emerges the wicked one. But Yaakov prayed that he should have no portion in the wicked one, meaning that…. the impurity of that wicked one should not be rooted in Yaakov, rather in Levi. Therefore, it does not write, ‘ben Yaakov’, for Yaakov had no part in their dispute.... (Gur Aryeh BeMidbar 16:1)
The Maharal understands Yaakov’s prayer in a new way. Yaakov was concerned when he visualised Korach that he (Yaakov) might be responsible in some way for the rebel’s behaviour. Yaakov thought that Korach’s rebellion might be a manifestation of some flaw in himself, magnified through the generations into a full-scale attack on Moshe’s leadership. When God (as it were) consented to record Korach’s ancestry just to Levi, Yaakov was assured that the defect did not find its root in him, but could only be traced as far as Levi.
There is, however, a niggling difficulty. Assuming that Levi was the ‘root’ of the Korach problem, since Levi was Yaakov’s son he was therefore somewhat responsible for him. As such, the purpose of only tracing Korach’s family to Levi is unclear. The Shem MiShmuel suggests that while indeed the trait exhibited by Korach was traceable to Yaakov, its negative manifestation came from Levi. The pure trait of steadfastness in the face of adversity came from Yaakov, but was first misused by Levi (in the episode with Dina); this misuse reached its nadir with Korach, who stood brazenly in defiance of Moshe and his people. While in principle, steadfastness is a neutral trait, it may be used for good of bad. Yaakov was assured that while the essential trait came from him, any misuse started further down the line.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
And the men, whom Moshe sent to spy out the land, and who, when they returned, made all the congregation to murmur against him, by bringing up an evil report against the land, even those men that did bring up an evil report of the land, died by the plague before the Lord. But Yehoshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Yephuneh, remained alive of those men that went to spy out the land. (BeMidbar 14)
The nature of the plague is not specified by the text, although the Talmud has a tradition as to its nature:
The spies had no share in the world to come, as it says: the men who spoke evil of the land died in a plague. They died - in this world, in a plague - in the world to come. (Sanhedrin 109b)
The men died who spoke evil of the land in a plague - said Rebbi Shimon ben Lakish: they died an odd death. Said Rebbi Chanina bar Popa: Rebi Shilo from the town of Tamrata expounded: to teach that their tongues extended and fell on their navels and worms emerged from their tongues and entered their navels and from their navels they entered their tongues. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhok said: they died from croup. (Sotah 35a)
In the plague - from the fact that it doesn’t says: in a plague, it implies that it was special, and they deserved it measure for measure. (Rashi)
Following Rashi’s lead, many of the commentators attempt to link their wrongdoing with their grisly deaths:
The prophet Ezekiel describes the Land of Israel as the ‘navel of the earth’ (38), since it is the focal point of the physical world. The fact that the spies spoke (with their tongues) against the Land (the navel) is clearly related to their punishment:
This absolutely measure for measure, as they spoke evil with their tongues about Eretz Yisrael, which is in the navel of the world, as it says in Yechezkel - upon the navel of the earth. The Radak explains there that Eretz Yisrael is called the navel of the world because it is in the centre of the world, like the navel is in the centre of the body. Therefore they were punished in this manner. Also the reason of Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak who explained that they died of croup, for this illness begins in the mouth and finishes in the intestines, which is the navel at the top of the intestines. (Iyun Ya’akov to Sotah 35)
Rashi, in his Talmud commentary, makes a similar observation. The Kli Yakar offers a slightly different explanation:
It writes: The wicked are estranged from the womb; the speakers of lies go astray as soon as they are born. When the child is inside its mother, then the navel takes the place of the mouth, for its mouth is closed and its navel is open. Since even in the womb the speakers of lies go astray, it is as though even in the womb their mouths are open to speak lies and falsehood, where the navel is in the place of the mouth. Therefore their tongues extended to their navels for with each mouth they consumed and destroyed the land with their falsehood, so the punishment was in both these places, which is the place of the sin. (Kli Yakar loc. cit.)
Monday, June 19, 2006
Thursday, June 15, 2006
And God spoke to Moshe saying. Speak to Aharon and say to him: when you cause the lamps to rise, the seven lamps shall illuminate the face of the Menorah. (BeMidbar 8:1-2)
While the concept seems simple, - God gives the Mitzvah of lighting the Menorah to Aharon and his family - there is a textual oddity which requires our attention. We would have expected the text to say when you light the lamps - why then is Aharon to cause the lamps to rise? Rashi comments as follows:
The lighting is described in terms of rising, because the flame ascends - for one needs to light until the flame rises on its own. The Rabbis further explain that we can learn from here that there was a step in front of the Menorah, upon which the Kohen stood when he lit and prepared the lights. (Rashi, loc. cit.)
So Rashi understands the odd word beha'alotecha - the name of our reading - to mean either that the Kohen himself must ascend a step to light the Menorah from above, rather than stretching up to it, or that he must ensure that the flame rises on its own before removing the match from the wick. This is the usual manner of lighting a lamp – if one withdraws the taper before the new flame rises, it probably hasn’t caught and will need relighting. It is inconceivable that Rashi would write two such different explanations without him seeing them as two facets of the same idea. Let us try to link them together.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Halachic authorities of the 20th century, sees these two explanations as a guide to educational methodology. It is common to perceive the Menorah as representative of the wisdom of the Torah, which is intended to illuminate the world and permeate it with meaning. As such, the way in which we light the Menorah indicates the manner in which we inspire ourselves and others with whom we come in contact.
Rabbi Feinstein suggests that when we educate others, our goal should be to make them self-sufficient in the area of knowledge imparted. We should not aim to create dependency, but to develop mature students, independent of us - thinking on their own and, when the time is right, able to impart this information to others. This is the meaning of the first part of Rashi - when we are lighting the Menorah - i.e. inspiring others, be they students, friends, children - we must stay with them long enough so that they rise by themselves. When we walk away, they will still be burning brightly without our help. And as with a flame, there is no loss of quality - for this flame can go on and light many others.
This leads us directly to the other explanation offered by Rashi. The only way in which we will be able to achieve this noble educational goal is by having a very broad and thorough understanding of the material at hand. When we are comfortable with the material which we are imparting, only then can we succeed in imparting our inspiration in this way. We have all been taught by tutors who are not enthusiastic about their subject or just one page ahead of the students in the text book! Such poor methods never succeed in igniting the interest and enthusiasm of their charges. That is why the Kohen must stand on a step to light the Menorah from above. Before he can light, he must have the broad view which the height of the step affords him; he must light the lamps from above, peering down upon them. Translated into our situation, this means that when we are top of our material, we can impart it successfully.
Thus the two explanations of Rashi work in harmony with each others, together defining an appropriate educational methodology. This should have a significant impact on the way we act as teachers, parents and indeed, communicators of any sort. It is a remarkable lesson, for it shows us that the Torah can provide us with an entire educational methodology merely by using one word. Let us use it wisely and inspire ourselves and our children.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Deriving the idea from the Torah itself, the Talmud in Brachot understands that there is special significance in one person calling others to join him in praising God; it seems that when recited in response to the invitation, the grace is viewed as a collective, and therefore, more powerful form of thanksgiving.
In its Mishnaic form, zimun is simply the word nevarech – let’s bentsch! However, this has expanded over time. The leader starts with rabbotay nevarech – my gentlemen let’s bentsch, to which the others respond by praising God’s name. (In Yiddish-speaking circles, this is often said in the vernacular – rabbosay mir villen bentschen.) The leader then invites the others to ‘praise the One from whose food we have eaten.’ Before starting the grace proper, the others respond with a similar formula. When a Minyan is present, God’s name is mentioned (praise our God, etc.); when mentioning it, one rises slightly from one’s seat in deference.
The Mishnah offers increasingly superlative versions of the zimun, dependent on the number of diners present. At a feast attended by at least 10000 people, one should apparently say, ‘Let us bless our God our Lord, Lord of Israel, Lord of hosts who dwells among the cherubs, for the food we have eaten.’ Sadly, this text is never used, not even at the most lavish Simchah. There are, however, longer forms of zimun recited following a wedding or brit milah banquet, containing poetic additions apposite for the occasion.
It is considered an honour to lead the zimun; there is a system of priority as to how to select the leader. It is usual to ask a guest to lead; when there is no guest present, the wisest diner is prioritised; it is also appropriate to offer the honour to a Kohen, although the host is entitled to lead whenever he wishes. As such, when inviting the others to respond to his call to bentsch, the leader asks permission of anyone present whom he believes to take halachic precedence. This is achieved by saying birshut – with the permission of – then mentioning the host, Kohanim, etc., before proceeding.
Although the formula is written in the masculine, a group of three women who eat together have the option of forming their own zimun, with an appropriately adapted introduction, such as gevirotay or chavrotay – my women or friends. Some authorities rule that this zimun is actually obligatory; others note that women eating with men may choose to form their own separate zimun, rather than respond to the men’s one. And while not widely practiced, this possibility seems particularly worthy of consideration when three or more women dine with one or two men, when otherwise there would be no zimun at all. Whether men and women may answer to each other’s zimun remains a matter of halachic debate.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.