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Friday, July 11, 2014

The New Switcheroo? -- Four Sons Walked into Paradise part 5

I am posting this on a day when Israel is being bombarded by rocket fire. Millions of people, Jews, Arabs, Druze and others, are living in striking distance. Today we heard a siren here in Jerusalem and soon heard several loud booms. Thank God for our army and for Iron Dome which intercepted the missiles that could have struck people and buildings.

In my small way, I present you with this learning in an effort to bring more light and more peace into our troubled world.


To see the previous posts look here, here, here and then here and even here. Whew! I have to figure out a better way of doing that.


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And now, back to our story, already in progress....

The New Switcheroo?

Maybe, just maybe, the M'chilta has the Wise Son asking the same question as the Torah, just in a different way to make it fit more easily at the seder table. 
How so?

Chazal understood that learning halacha in detail is perhaps the single most important avenue open to us to connect to the Divine.

Here is a telling quote from the Talmud:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ח עמוד א אמר רבי חייא בר אמי משמיה דעולא: מיום שחרב בית המקדש אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא בעולמו אלא ארבע אמות של הלכה בלבד.

Babylonian Talmud B'rachot 8a: R. Chiyya bar Ami said in the name of Ula: From the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One Blessed Be He has only four cubits of halacha in His world.

The statement is a bit cryptic so let me tell you what I think it means.

While the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, the sh'china, the Divine Presence, was concentrated there. I can't tell you precisely what that means because, unfortunately, I wasn't there (or at least I can't remember...). But I understand that, in some important way, the experience and sense of the Divine was most strongly felt in the Temple. This is what God indicated when giving the command to build the original Tabernacle, the forerunner to the Temple, when he said:

שמות פרק כה (ח) וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:

Exodus 25 (8): And make for me a Temple and I will dwell among them.

The Temple served as a point in the world where the sh'china could be most easily and obviously accessed. Once it was destroyed, that connection point was suddenly gone.

Through the wisdom and foresight of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai in particular, the head of the Sanhedrin at the time of the destruction of the second Temple, certain deliberate changes in Jewish practice were established. The Temple could no longer be the singular avenue for accessing the Divine in some direct way. Prayer, learning and doing good deeds were pushed to the fore.

Learning the Torah which God gave us serves as the basis for everything else. All practice derives from the mitzvot of the Torah. Practical observance is expressed in halacha.

Halacha per se refers to Jewish law. As I discussed earlier, halacha and aggadah are inseparable. The study of halacha is, perforce, the study of all the Torah.

Another technical point: The 'four cubits' mentioned above is shorthand for a halachic notion defining a private domain. An area that is four cubits by four cubits defines halachic 'personal space.' This notion has several applications in halacha, for Shabbat, for Sukkah and others. I won't get into those details now. For the purpose of our discussion, understand that the term is used here metaphorically.

It is a way of saying that the sh'china now dwells not in the geographical space of the Temple; God's 'personal space' is now anywhere that halacha is learned.

Another example of this thinking is found in Chazal:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף כח עמוד ב אמר רב: קיים אברהם אבינו כל התורה כולה, שנאמר עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וגו'...[רבא] ואיתימא רב אשי: קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין, שנאמר תורתי - אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה.

Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b: Rav said: Our father Abraham fulfilled the entire Torah as it says: that Abraham listened to My voice and kept My charge: My commandments, My statutes and my teachings (literally: My Torahs) (Genesis 26:5). Rava, or if you will say, Rav Ashi (said): Abraham fulfilled even (the rabbinic mitzvah of) eruvei tavshilin, as it says: My Torahs-- both the written Torah and the oral Torah.

The Talmud here sees in this verse from Genesis a hint to the notion that Abraham kept the entire Torah, including rabbinic enactments. Very impressive considering that God doesn't give the Torah to the Israelites until many generations later when they stand at Sinai!

How did Abraham know all of the Torah in order to fulfill it?

מדרש ילמדנו (מאן) ילקוט תלמוד תורה - בראשית אות פט (לבר' י"ח, י"ט). כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה, מהיכן למד אברהם את התורה, רשב"י אומר נעשו כליותיו כשני כדין של מים והיו נובעים תורה, שנ' אף לילות יסרוני כליותי (תה' ט"ז, ז'). ר' לוי אמר מעצמו למד את התורה, שנ' מדרכיו ישבע סוג לב וגו' (מש' י"ד, י"ד). הה"ד כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה.

Midrash Y'lamdenu – Genesis 89 (on Genesis 18:19) – “For I know of him in order that he will command...”From where did Abraham learn the Torah? R. Shimon bar Yochai says: His kidneys became as two pitchers of water and they flowed with Torah, as it says...... R. Levi says: He learned Torah by himself, as it says....(I deliberately left out the prooftexts in this translation in order not to digress)

According to R. Shimon bar Yochai, God gave Abraham the Torah directly. This approach tells us that God saw in Abraham one who was worthy to receive His teachings and so he implanted them within Abraham.

According to R. Levi, Abraham figured out the Torah himself. This fits into other midrashic narratives that Abraham determined by himself that there must be one God and no other. To comprehend God on that level at a time when no one else did was the equivalent, in the eyes of Chazal, of determining the entire Torah on one's own. Just as logic and spirit dictate that there is One God, logic and spirit would dictate His Torah, His Way, His Halacha.

This last point may seem a stretch and particularly the notion that Abraham must have determined even rabbinic laws by himself!

I believe that Chazal were not interested in proving that Abraham literally knew and kept the entire Torah as we know it. Rather, for Chazal, learning and fulfilling Torah, especially in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and cessation of the rites of the Temple, was, and is, the best way to connect with the Divine.

Abraham, according to Chazal, sought out God. Learning halacha in all its permutations serves here as a metaphor for seeking to intimately know the Divine. Halacha was the currency of Chazal in their relationship to the Divine.

Our Wise Son is showing himself to be like Abraham. He is seeking to know and comprehend the Divine as manifested in His Torah. That is the Wise Son's question in the Torah.

It is also the Wise Son's question in the M'chilta.

When he asks at the seder about all of the mitzvot that are being carried out in his presence, he is trying to understand not just the mechanical way to fulfill these halachot; he wants to understand their nature and their connection to the Divine.

When we answer him with the halachot of Passover, we are giving him, in a post Temple era, the key to how he may relate to the Divine via His Torah. On this night in particular, we will focus on the laws of Passover. But the laws of Passover serve as the key to the relationship between God and Israel. That is what we learned from the answer given in the Torah.

The Tosefta brings us an illustration:

תוספתא מסכת פסחים (ליברמן) פרק י הלכה יא חייב אדם לעסוק בהלכות הפסח כל הלילה אפלו בינו לבין בנו אפלו בינו לבין עצמו אפלו בינו לבין תלמידו הלכה יב מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים שהיו מסובין בבית ביתוס בן זונין בלוד והיו עסוקין בהלכות הפסח כל הלילה עד קרות הגבר

Tosefta Tractate P'sachim 10 (11) A person must engage himself in the halachot of the Passover the entire night (of the seder), even between himself and his son and even by himself and even between himself and his students. (12) It happened, in fact, that Rabban Gamliel and the Sages were dining at the house of Baitus ben Zunin in Lod and they engaged themselves in learning the halachot of the Passover the entire night until cock's crow.

The story here is parallel to the story brought in the Haggadah telling us of how the sages stayed up all night speaking about the exodus from Egypt. As we understand from the Torah's reply to the Wise Son, the exodus is the basis for why we learn and observe the entire Torah.

Rabban Gamliel and his fellow scholars fulfilled the same goal by discussing the halachot of Passover.

Learning the halachot of Passover is considered a fulfillment of speaking about the going out of Egypt. Halacha is the best connection for us to the Divine.

Thus, the M'chilta's answer to the Wise Son is not so very different than the Torah's, after all. We are not simply listing the halachot of Passover to him; by teaching him these halachot, we are giving him the best way to understand the totality of the mitzvot which have their core with the exodus from Egypt.

So what is the wisdom we associate with the Wise Son? It is not simply intellectual prowess.

Wisdom is understanding one's connection to the community, to its rites and customs and how those rites and customs (halachot) connect us to the Divine, a connection which is based for us on the notion that God took us out of Egypt. Halacha defines this connection, gives it structure and boundaries and ultimately gives each of us our center.

These qualities of wisdom will help us to understand the story of the Four Who Walked into Paradise later.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Switcheroo - Four Sons Walk into Paradise part 4

This post is dedicated in honor of my third grandchild, a girl who just yesterday received her name, Oriah Lowinger, to my daughter Nitza and her husband Yishai. Her name means Divine Light and may she indeed bring more Divine Light into our world.

I also dedicate this post to the memory of Gilad, Naftali and Eyal. May their memory be a blessing to us all.

At this juncture of personal happiness, community mourning and general uncertainty, I do what Jews have always done: When the going gets tough, the Jews pray and learn. It is uncannily appropriate in nearly all situations. We also do other things to protect ourselves, but they are not immediately pertinent to this blog.

If you're joining me for the first time or just happened into the middle of this series, see the earlier posts here, here, here and even here. Reading my playful introduction to dealing with midrashic text may help you get into the swing of things.

The Old Switcheroo

So what happens to our Wise Son when we sit him down at the seder table? We change the answer from the answer given in the Torah!

But why? After all, we showed in the previous post that the answer from the Torah contains the very essence of the haggadah, of talking about the going out of Egypt, in perhaps its widest sense. Why not stick with the original even at the seder?

Let's look more closely at the exchange as given in the M'chilta and in the Haggadah:

חכם מה הוא אומר מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו אף אתה פתח לו בהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן.

The Wise, what does he say? ”What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?” So you should open to him with the laws of the Passover: We don't finish off after the Passover (sacrifice) with dessert.

In the previous post, we saw how Chazal sees the the answer to the Wise Son as the lead in to bring him to the seder table; that is, Chazal place him and all the sons at the scene of Passover night, regardless of how their questions show up in the Torah.

Once he is at the seder table, his question is transformed. It would seem he is no longer asking about the entire Torah but rather about what he sees in front of him at the table and what he observed in preparation for this grand meal.

He saw the house being cleaned of chametz (leavened products) and even searching the house with a candle the night before for any stray pieces of bread or cake that might have been missed. He saw the slaughtering of a lamb or a goat earlier in the day and then roasting it in addition to other sacrifices that are brought at holiday times at the Temple. Now he sees that the normal order of the holiday meal has been changed. Kiddush, the special blessing over the wine for the holiday, has been recited and the wine drunk, but they are still not eating the meal! He sees no bread at the table, only matzah, along with bitter herbs and roasted meat only. He sees everyone reclining at the meal like the elite do.

In short, he sees a lot of funny stuff. He's probably also hungry.

Now when he asks 'What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments, etc.' his question is appropriate to the strange rituals unfolding before him. He perceives that the various rituals being performed are actually different types of mitzvot. 
In other words, he is asking specifically to know what these mitzvot are. Whereas the Torah answer is a discussion of the nature of the mitzvot he inquires of, here the M'chilta seems to understand the question to be what precisely are the mitzvot being done right now on Passover. We answer him by listing all of the halachot (laws) about the holiday up to the last halacha of the night, namely that we don't eat anything else after we have finished partaking of the paschal sacrifice. 
I will write about the alternative explanations of this particular halacha in a different post so as not to digress right now.

So the M'chilta changed the answer to fit at the seder table. It would seem the question is substantially different than that of the Torah. Whereas the Torah had the Wise Son asking about the nature of all the mitzvot, the M'chilta has him asking for a list of specific halachot
But can the M'chilta get away with that--changing the original intent of the Torah itself? 

Maybe, just maybe, the M'chilta didn't really change the question in the way you thought. We'll pick up on that very soon!