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Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha B'av--A Kinot Thought

When I was living in Boston in the late 70s to the early 80s, I had the privilege of studying with and consulting Rav Mordechai Savitsky, z'l. At the time, Rav Savitsky was recognized as one of the great Talmud scholars and halachic authorities of his time. He studied in the Chofetz Chayim's yeshiva in Radun when he was young and while still in his teens published the first of his books,  Bicurei Mordechai which explicated difficult passages in the Yerushalmi. Also, while still in his teens, he carried on a lengthy correspondence with Rav Yosef Rosen (aka the Rogotchover) no mean feat for even scholars much older and more experienced than he was at the time. He would also come to publish that exchange in a book,Ner Avraham.Later in life he would strike up a close friendship with another great scholar of the Yerushalmi, Rav Shaul Lieberman. During his long career he suceeded in publishing ten books of Talmudic learning.

I used to attend minyan most weekday mornings at the shul in his basement. On Tisha B'Av morning we went through the entire book of Kinot, the lamentations traditionally recited on this day of mourning. 

One Tisha B'Av, I stayed after, as was my custom, to help straighten up and to ask Rav Savitsky a question or two. That year saw the publication of a rather grand edition of the Kinot by one of the US publishers. In addition to having a new translation with notes, it was printed on fine paper with a good hardback binding and a lovely dust cover. 
Rav Savitsky, after all the others had left, pointed to this volume and remarked that he could not understand how anyone would make such a nice edition of the Kinot

He continued, "Back in Europe, we had the custom every year of taking our Kinot and, after using them, putting them into genizah for burial (Books that are no longer to be used publicly are supposed to be put into genizah so that they are not used again). We all had faith that we would not need these lamentations for the next year, that by then the Mashiach would surely have come and the final G'ula (Redemption) with him. As such, our Kinot were printed simply, without adornment, as a kind of pamphlet.

"Bear in mind that most people were very poor and giving up the book of Kinot was a real sacrifice. But such was their faith that each time they used a Kinot, it would be the last time. 

"I simply cannot understand," he concluded, "why anyone would want to produce such a beautiful version of the Kinot that would last for years and years."

May we all merit to see the G'ula speedily in our time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pinchas, Eliyahu and Kinah For the KBH

The end of last week's parsha saw the rather dramatic story of Pinchas who seems to take the law into his own hands by publicly executing Cazbi and Zimri. You can check out that part of the story by looking in Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 25.

Now you might have heard somewhere along the way that Pinchas is identified with Eliyahu. Whether or not we should take that literally is not of interest to me right now. What is of interest is why one would think that they are one and the same person.

What is great for me is that I have been devoting the last few months to understanding Eliyahu better and I hope to bring some of what I learned to bear on the discussion. And it will be a bit lengthy so bear with me.

For the moment, though, I will point out what I believe to be the most salient point of commonality between them: Kinah קנאה. This word is usually translated as jealousy but we will discuss other possible meanings.

God declares in the second verse of this weeks parsha that Pinchas has assuaged His anger by "actively being jealous for me"  (בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם).

With Eliyahu we see the word kinah used, as well. We will fill out more of the picture in a later post, but for the moment I will just say that Eliyahu has a kind of confrontation with God on Har Chorev (aka Sinai) after a dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal in which he, Eliyahu, emerged victorious.

He declares to God:

מלכים א פרק יט(י) וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת כִּי עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ:

Kings I Chapter 19 (10) And he (Eliyahu) said, "I have surely been jealous for God, the Lord of Hosts, for the Children of Israel left your covenant, they destroyed your altars and they killed your prophets and I alone remained and they wanted to take my soul."

So we have the jealous thing in both places. 

What does Kinah really mean? 

I will just leave you with this thought: Both Pinchas and Eliyahu take matters into their own hands. Pinchas' story is very plain and this is easy to see. Pinchas approaches Moshe and Moshe seems to hesitate about what to do but Pinchas goes ahead and acts. 

Where do we see Eliyahu taking such an initiative? From the moment that Eliyahu appears in the  narrative of Tanach he takes charge. Check out Chapter 17 in Kings I and we'll talk more about it on Sunday.

I promise.

B'li neder ;)

Shabbat shalom!

Bilam's Mouth and What It Had to Say

Last week's parsha, Balak, introduced us to the amazing character Bilam. Amazing because he is seen as a prophet, the only recognized prophet who was not of the Children of Israel. Bilam was hired by Balak, the king of Moav, to curse those Children of Israel but instead Bilam ends up blessing them, dammit!

Some quick points about all that (mainly for those who read that parsha):

Bilam emphasizes to Balak that he can say only what God puts into his mouth. From that we would assume that the wording Bilam uses for the various blessings he gives are all from God. However, that is not necessarily the case. In general, we understand that each prophet is given a vision by God and then he or she translates that vision into their own words. The only exception to that being Moshe Rabbeinu for at least most of the Torah (one can argue about D'varim—and maybe we will once we get there!).

Maimonides spells out this notion in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Y'sodei Hatorah Chapter 7:

רמב"ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ז הלכה ג הדברים שמודיעים לנביא במראה הנבואה דרך משל מודיעין לו ומיד יחקק בלבו פתרון המשל במראה הנבואה וידע מה הוא...

Maimonides Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, Chapter 7 Halacha 3
Those things which are made known to the prophet by way of prophetic vision are shown to him as an allegory (mashal) and immediately the understanding (of that allegory) is ingrained onto his heart through the prophetic vision and he knows what it is.

Now you may insist that Bilam's case was different, that he himself says explicitly that he can only say what God tells him to say—maybe so. But I will point out that another prophet, Michayahu ben Yimlah, makes essentially the same declaration and yet one could understand from his words that he was also given a vision and then chose to describe it in his own way.

The context there is when King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel and King Yehoshafat of the southern kingdom of Yehuda make a pact to fight together to take Ramot Gilad. Yehoshafat is unimpressed with the prophets recruited by Ahab to advise them about their chances in the pending battle. He wants to hear from a real prophet of God and asks if there's one available. Ahab reluctantly admits that there is one, Michayahu, but he doesn't like him as he always predicts bad stuff. Yehoshafat insists so a messenger is sent to find him.

When the messenger finds Michayahu, he tells him that all other prophets said that Ahab and Yehoshafat will do well in battle and that he should follow suit.  Michayahu replies:

מלכים א פרק כב (יד) וַיֹּאמֶר מִיכָיְהוּ חַי יְקֹוָק כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר יְקֹוָק אֵלַי אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר:

Kings I Chapter 22 (14) And Michayahu said, “As God lives, that which God says to me is what I will speak.”

He goes on to describe a vision of God asking his angels who would go and seduce Ahab so that he can be killed on the battlefield. One angel replies that he can do the job by becoming a false spirit in the mouths of the prophets who will convince Ahab that he will win.

Take a few minutes and read the whole story there—it makes for great entertainment in my book!

In any event, though, one would come away with the idea that Michayahu's vision is described in his own words despite his statement that he would speak that which God told him. So, too, we could understand that Bilam's words were actually his own. I think you can see other hints to that in the text, as well. Just something to consider.