Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Emor - The Sanctity of Yom Hazikaron

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Emor - The Sanctity of Yom Hazikaron

With the rawness of Yom Hazikaron, when we honor and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the State of Israel, in our minds, we search for the source of strength within the brave soldiers willing to risk and give their lives for the Jewish people. We read of the great courage of Gadi Ezra, who fell in "Chomat Magen" in 2002, and the beautiful letter he wrote to his beloved before his death. His strength must spur us to bring holiness to the world.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Kedoshim - Peah and our Perspective on Poverty

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Kedoshim - Peah and our Perspective on Poverty

While the basics of Peah seem, at first glance, straightforward, a more careful analysis not only of the text, but of the mitzvah itself and many of the Mishnayot in Peah, reveals a fascinating worldview on how we relate to the poor, to poverty itself, and to giving to others. While we might think that leaving Peah is similar to Tzedakah, it's different in many important ways.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Calendar Confusion: Why Will it Take So Long for Chutz L'aretz to "Catch Up" with Israel This Year?

I received a fascinating question from good friend and former congregant Jeffrey Schlussel that stumped me. So, I shared it with a Hebrew rabbinic email list that I follow and received a great answer in the form of an article by Israeli scholar Rabbi Dr. Chaim Simons in the Hebrew-language journal Sinai. I would like to share the question and then present as clearly as I can Dr. Simons' answer.

Jeff's Question:
I’m writing because I have a question that bothered me last year and will bother me again this year. Maybe you can help provide an explanation (although it has little bearing on you).
Because of the second Yom Sheni this year in chutz la’aretz, Israel’s torah reading will be Acharei on the same day as the 8th day torah reading for the diaspora. What bothers me is that it would seem logical given the fluidity of Jews these days travelling to and from Israel, we would want to make sure the entire Jewish world reads the same weekly parsha as quickly as possible. It would then make sense that the following Shabbat the diaspora reads Acharei-Kedoshim so we are back in unison within a week. But that is not the case. In fact, it is only until Matot-Masei, which is nearly two months later, that we are back in-line with Israel. Why? I can’t seem to find any justification. The delay ultimately deprives those coming to Israel of a parsha and forces those coming from Israel to repeat a parsha.
Do you have any thoughts? I would love to hear them.
Just to highlight Jeff's question, it helps to frame it in terms of last year, when the same thing (Eighth day of Pesach fell on a Shabbat) happened. Here's last year's calendar from Israel (all charts are screenshots from the incredibly useful calendar tool. Highly recommended.)
You can see from this calendar that last year in Israel when Pesach ended on Friday (and we immediately read Parashat Shemini, we also split Behar and Bechukotai. Notice that by the Shabbat before Shavuot, we read Parashat Bamidbar - this is important, and we'll come back to it later. Meanwhile, in the Diaspora, they couldn't read Shimini until the next week, on April 18th...

But last year in the Diaspora, communities combined Behar and Bechukotai thus allowing galut Jewry to "catch up" by Bamidbar which was read in communities around the world on May 23rd.

Fast forward to this year:
Again this year, the last day of Pesach (in Israel) falls out on a Friday, and we immediately read Parashat Achrei Mot. Since we're a Parashah "ahead", there's no reason for us to "combine" a parshah. That's up to the Diaspora, who at some point need to combine Parshiot in order to "catch up." Remember that last year you did it in Behar-Bechukotai...

But when we look at the calendar this year, you immediately notice that this "catching up" doesn't take place until two months later in Matot-Masei! Why the long wait?

That's basically Jeff's question in a nutshell. And it's a great question. 

Before the Answer: A Few Basic Principles
The answer lies in understanding a few basic rules that guided the division of the parshiot according to the calendar. Again, all of this comes from a short article by Rabbi Dr. Chaim Simons which appeared in the Israeli journal Sinai (volume 36 pp. 33-40). You can find a link to the article here.

First of all, Dr. Simons suggests that evidence indicates that until the 13th century, in Israel the reading of the Torah remained on the three-year cycle. He seems to make this suggestion based on the fact that the halachic literature doesn't discuss the issue of dealing with the calendar until the 1300's. In any case, it is clear that during these centuries, the calendar was far from set, and historical evidence indicates that different communities (and later the entire city of Safed) had various customs as to which parshiot to split (on a non-leap year) in order to account for the "extra" week (just like we "split" Behar and Bechukotai. It even happened that within the city itself different congregations read different parshiot on the same week! (Truth be told, when you think about it, this is not all that surprising.)

In addition, the Gemara in Megillah (31b) writes that Ezra HaSofer decreed that communities should finish reading the Parshiot which contained the Tochecha before the conclusion of the New Year. 

This is so that "The year and her curses should end" before the entrance of the New Year. This applies both to concluding Ki Tavo (with the long Tochecha) before Rosh Hashanah, and also to finishing Bechukotai (with the short Tochecha) before Shavuot. The Baalei HaTosfot note that in their communities, they never read Bechukotai before Shavuot nor Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashanah. Rather, they always read those parshiot at least a week beforehand. 

The Baalei Tosfot explain that by design, we read a parshah after the "Rebukes" in order to specifically distance ourselves from the "curses" of the Tochecha. Yet, we don't want too much distance - one week is just enough to make the point that we're connecting the Tochecha to the "New Year" of Shavout, but keeping our distance. This means that ideally, we should read Parshat Bamidbar on the week before Shavout.

With these guiding principles in mind, we can now understand the difference between last year and this year, and why the Diaspora will wait so long in order to "catch up."

Leap Year vs. Non-Leap Year
Essentially, the major difference between last year and this year is that last year was a "regular" - non-leap year, and this year was a "leap" year, in which we added an extra month of Adar II in order to stretch the calendar into the springtime. During a "normal" year, a number of parshiot in Vayikra are combined together. Look back at the 5775 calendars above. In Israel, with the addition of the Shabbat of Shemini after Pesach, had the calendar kept all of the normal readings combined (and not separated Behar and Bechukotai), we would have ended up reading Parshat Naso before Shavuot, and been too far ahead of Shavuot. So, the calendar combined Behar and Bechukotai in order to have Bamidbar fall on the Shabbat before Shavout. While to the layperson it might look like it's designed in order to allow the Diaspora to "catch up", that's only a convenient coincidence. Rabbi Yissachar ben Mordechai Ibn Sussan, a 15th century Sefardic posek, wrote in his "Tikkun Yissachar" that it would be inappropriate for communities in Israel to combine Parshiot for the sake of Diaspora Jewry. The community in Israel is the "ikkar" and follows the essential law of keeping only one day of Yom Tov. So he had no interest in changing the reading in Israel to "help" our brothers in the Diaspora. In other words Israel, we do what we do. If you want to "catch up" to us, do whatever you have to do...but don't expect us to help you. So last year, basically the Diaspora got lucky, and things worked out nicely leaving a "split" for a relatively short period of time.

What About 5776?
This year was a leap year, so the Vayikra parshiot are essentially separated to account for the extra month. In order to catch up, the Diaspora, which has an extra week, needs at some point to combine two parshiot. When should they do it? Looking back at the 5776 Diaspora calendar above, notice that without combining any parshiot in the weeks after Pesach, on the Shabbat before Shavuot you read Parshat Bamidbar. Perfect! Just as the Ba'alei HaTosfot advocated. So no parshiot were combined before Shavuot. 

What about after Shavuot? Why do you wait until Matot-Masei, and not pick an earlier date to combine? It turns out that the parshiot are combined not in the interest of global unity, but again for a different reason entirely: we want to read Parshat Devarim (with it's mournful Eichah lament of Moshe) on the week before Tisha B'av, and Va'etchanan immediately afterward. In order to do this in Israel, we must divide Matot and Masei into two weeks. In the Diaspora they leave Matot and Masei together in order to achieve the same result, thus "rejoining" with Israel. Interestingly, Dr. Simons adds that while the Tikkun Yissachar accepted this approach, he does note that R' Saadia Dayyan Tzova (from the Syrian city of Aleppo) wrote that in their community, they combined Korach and Chukkat together, and kept Matot-Masei split, apparently in order to "rejoin" with Israel which was only 250 miles away!

According to this understanding, having the different communities in Israel and the Diaspora was never really a halachic concern at all. Intuitively this makes sense. Travel between countries was dangerous and relatively rare, and communication was slow. What difference did it make whether the communities read the same Sedra on the same week?

Today, with instant global communication and regular, safe travel between Israel and the Diaspora, it would of course make sense for the Diaspora community to make a greater effort to "catch up" to Israel. (In Israel, there's really nothing we can do, and Israel would never change for the sake of the Diaspora anyway.) Since the layout of the parshiot is completely based on custom, and apparently quite fungible, it would be fascinating to revisit the suggestion of the Tikkun Yissachar, and suggest combining Korach and Chukkat instead of Matot and Masei, to minimize the split between the communities.

Yet, that only begs the question. Who would you ask? Who could make a decision to change the custom which would be universally acceptable to all of Diaspora Jewry? What would ensure, I imagine, would instead be a scenario in which communities within the Diaspora would then accept different customs - the more "Zionist" communities combining earlier, to better unite with the Jewish State, which the more conservative communities would insist on maintaining minhag hamakom, preferring to merge later on in the summer. Thus, we'd be back to the situation in 14th century Safed, where the parshah being read depended on the shul you attended, bringing us back full-circle - to the way things have always been. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

An Exhibit of Haggadot in Jerusalem: Our National Past and Future

If you suddenly found yourself stuck on in a foreign country and a business trip with Pesach approaching, what would you do? You'd probably seek out the local Chabad, and that would be that. But what if you lived hundreds of years ago, before Chabad? Aside from the basic needs of matzah, wine and maror, where would you find a Haggadah to celebrate the night of the Seder?

This isn't a new problem at all. In fact, Jews throughout history found themselves in need of a copy of the Hagadah text for family use. While most communities could rely on the communal Siddur for prayer in shul, we conduct the Seder home, necessitating a copy of the text available to every household. This resulted in an unusual plethora of texts of the Haggadah, offering a fascinating view of Jewish history though these amazing book.

The Gallery on the Library Website
A Facebook post from my friend Dr. Yoel Finkelman (whose ridiculously cool job involves buying historical Jewish artifacts for the Library) shared information about a new exhibit at the National Library of Israel (neatly tucked into the Hebrew University Campus in Jerusalem) displaying a series of handwritten Haggadot that span some eight-hundred years of history. Rena and I decided last Friday to visit, and we were quite glad that we went.

When we first got there, the room was locked (I guess no one had asked to get in. But, to our pleasant surprise, the librarian on duty was great; she found the person who had the authority to tell the security guard to open the exhibit space, and we were in. She also gave us a nifty full color guide of the exhibit, bookmarks, a brochure about the library and its 1960s exhibit upstairs (which we went to see), and even emailed me a virtual tour of the Hebrew U. campus!

The space of the exhibit is actually a small room which you can peruse slowly in half an hour. And, in truth, you can see pictures of the Haggadot on the exhibition website, which is well done. Nonetheless, in person you can better see the little hand-written drawings that were drawn usually by artists, but sometimes by an amateur, which add much color and character to each Haggadah. Even more importantly, there is something incredibly powerful about being in a room with Haggadot that were hand-written literally around the world over the course of centuries, from the Cairo Geniza all the way to a 1942 hand-written personal Haggadah written in Mozambique by a family fleeing from Belgium during the Holocaust. While we couldn't actually touch them, their physical presence conveyed a tangible sense of living history.

The Really Nifty Exhibit Brochure - for Absolutely Free!
If the Hagaddah is the story of Jewish redemption, the story of these books is the tale of our national travails around the world, as the People of Israel fled from way station to way station, searching for peace and stability, while yearning truly to reach the final destination of our exile in the Land of Israel.  At every stop we celebrated our past and future redemption. And if we lacked a text, we either hired a professional or wrote one ourselves by hand.

Looking at this small collection of books, I couldn't help but think of them as clues in a centuries-long search for Home. Standing over the display cases in that tiny room in Jerusalem, I found myself feeling a sense of closure: these books, that had for so long guided our people on a path towards Redemption, had finally made their way to the rebuilt State of Israel. As they rest in the National Library of the Jewish State, they remind us not only of the many places and eras that came before us. They also remind us of the many centuries of yearning and prayer - of reciting the blessing at the conclusion of Maggid of which begins with the words, אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותנו - "that God has redeemed us and our forefathers"...but then adds, "כֵּן ה' אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ יַגִּיעֵנוּ לְמועֲדִים וְלִרְגָלִים אֲחֵרִים הַבָּאִים לִקְרָאתֵנוּ לְשָׁלום, שְׂמֵחִים בְּבִנְיַן עִירֶךָ וְשָׂשִׂים בַּעֲבודָתֶךָ" - "So too Lord our God and the God of our fathers shall bring us to additional holidays and festivals that will come upon us in peace, joyous about the building of Your city and rejoicing in Your worship..."

This blessing was recited over the Haggadot in the exhibit and many thousands like them around a table of Jews - sometimes small, sometimes large - who actually can ever know - but those families throughout the ages always expressed a yearning and a hope for a future of Redemption, rebuilding and renewal. While the individuals around those tables may not be here, their Haggadot remind us that their dreams and prayers and yearning propelled our people to rebuild, reconnect and renew.

We have yet to arrive at the realization of the final stage of the blessing: וְנאכַל שָׁם מִן הַזְּבָחִים וּמִן הַפְּסָחִים אֲשֶׁר יַגִּיעַ דָּמָם עַל קִיר מִזְבַּחֲךָ לְרָצון - "and we will eat there from the offerings and the Paschal lambs whose blood reached the walls of your altar according to your desire..." Not yet at least. Still, hidden in those Haggadot is the reassurance and the knowledge that the Jewish Nation will fully realize the truth of the Haggadah, if not this year, then Next Year in Jerusalem.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pesach Series: The Makkot in the Text - 3 Shiurim

Audio Shiur:
Pesach Series: The Makkot in the Text - 3 Shiurim

Careful study of the Makkot reveals a clear pattern that emerges, showing a distinct purpose for "set" of three plagues imposed upon the Egyptians. In addition to the "horizontal" connection between the plagues in each set, we find a clear "vertical" connection between similarly "numbered" plagues as well. If you really want to follow along at home, it would help to fill in this chart along with us as we go along. That will clearly make the shiur more meaningful for you.

Shiur 1: Blood to Boils
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Shiur 2: Hail to Darkness
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Shiur 3: Tying it All Together - Makkat Bechorot
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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Audio Shiur: Megillat Esther Chapter 4 - The Tides of History

Audio Shiur:
Megillat Esther Chapter 4 - The Tides of History

How did Mordechai "know" what was going to happen? Why did he force Esther to push the issue with Achashveirosh, instead of letting things play out? The Malbim outlines some important rules for playing with history.
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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Donald Trump and Achashveirosh: Thoughts Pre-Purim 5776

With the hysteria surrounding the sudden, seemingly inexplicable rise of Donald Trump, many left-leaning-liberals have sought to compare Trump to Hitler, the rise of the Nazis, or both Hitler and the Nazis (or Mussolini). In religious terms, there's a hysterical fear that Trump is Haman.
I don't see it. I find it hard to imagine that a man with an Orthodox Jewish daughter who he calls his "right hand man" is suddenly worse than Hitler. I also don't think that the knee-jerk hysteria really helps anyone, but that's another matter entirely.
If I were to compare Donald Trump to any figure in Megillat Esther, I'd have to say that Trump is King Achashveirosh. Consider the following:

  • When confronted with a new, challenging situation which might possibly complicate matters politically (i.e. his wife refuses to attend his party, representing a slight to the king), Achashveirosh calls together his advisers, listens to their points of view, and makes a decision to go with the most logical position. Donald Trump to this point has been amazingly vague about what he'd do in different challenging situations, but he's basically said, "Look, I'll have a bunch of smart guys, and they'll give me the options, and I'll make a decision." Sound familiar?
  • When Achashveirosh didn't like his wife's behavior, he got rid of her and found himself a new, younger wife. Sound familiar?
  • Gold Plated Accouterments on the Trump Jet
  • Achashveirosh makes a big show of his supposed wealth, inviting guests to lavish parties with incredible gold goblets and tapestries of fine fabrics. While Donald Trump doesn't invite us regular folk to any of his parties, he has no problem giving the world a tour of the gold-plated seat belts on his personal jet with the world via YouTube.
This only begs the question: If Trump is Achashveirosh, what sort of character was the Persian king: Good for the Jews, bad for the Jews, or somewhere in between? As with all political analysis, it's impossible to know. Yet, I would like to suggest an interpretation based on a comment of the Vilna Gaon in the third chapter of Esther.

Fed up with Mordechai's refusal to subjugate himself and fueled by insane, anti-Semitic hatred and rage, Haman decides that the best course of action is to commit genocide, and wipe out the Jews. So he approaches the king and asks for permission to carry out his plan. Yet, when we look carefully at the language of the text, we find that he says one thing to the king, and writes something quite different in the edict he publishes to the world.
וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן, לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם-אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ; וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל-עָם, וְאֶת-דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים, וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין-שֹׁוֶה, לְהַנִּיחָם
אִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם; וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים כִּכַּר-כֶּסֶף, אֶשְׁקוֹל עַל-יְדֵי עֹשֵׂי הַמְּלָאכָה, לְהָבִיא, אֶל-גִּנְזֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ
And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profits not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king's business, to bring it into the king's treasuries.' (Esther 3:-9)
When Haman approaches Achashveirosh with his request to destroy the Jewish people, he describes the dispersed, unpatriotic nature of the people, he says that, אם על המלך טוב ייכתב לאבדם - which we translate to mean "If it please the king, let is be written that they be destroyed." While we know the full meaning of the word לאבדם - as he immediately sends out letters להשמיד להרג ולאבד את כל היהודים מנער ועד זקן - "tto destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women on one day...", it is quite possible that Achashveirosh himself didn't understand his request in that manner. While לאבד means to "make lost" a nation, perhaps he understood the request in terms of their assimilation into the larger culture. After all, what king would want the nightmare of mass casualties and battles in the streets? Recent history has shown us that when you unleash unrest, you don't really know where things will lead.

This question takes on greater import especially in light of Achashveirosh's vitriolic protests at the second party, when Esther begs for her life and the life of her people. The king seemingly has no idea what she's talking about, wondering: מי הוא זה ואיזה הוא - "who and where is the person that would do such a thing?!" (Esther 7:5) I always assumed that the king is simply bluffing, pretending not to know what she's talking about. But is it at all possible that he really didn't know precisely what Haman was planning, and the scope of his wickedness?

This is especially interesting to me in light of the commentary of the Gr"a on this section, and especially the strange pesukim at the end of the section (3:14-15). The Vilna Gaon writes that Haman didn't publicize his full plans for fear that the Jews would exert political pressure to avert the decree. Is it possible that Achashveirosh - like many political leaders - said to Haman: "Do what you want. I don't want to know the details." And that he really didn't know - putting him in a very different light than we normally see him.

According to this interpretation, Achashveirosh isn't bumbling. Nor is he wicked, although "making lost" an entire people doesn't sound so great. (But at least it's not genocide.) He's a shrewd political operator, manipulating people to achieve his personal goals, accrue power, and solidify his control over his kingdom.

Maybe that's what make people so nervous. It isn't that Trump himself is wicked, per se. Rather, it's all about the "Art of the Deal." Everything is negotiable. There's no way of knowing what deal he'd strike. That, in a world leader, is a frightening prospect indeed.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Audio Shiur: Megillat Esther Chapter 3 - Mark the Date

Audio Shiur:
Megillat Esther Chapter 3 - Mark the Date

Every year history seems to repeat itself. This year it seems to be repeating itself more than usual. The incredible universality of the Purim story leads me to make a bold prediction.
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Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Blinding Power of Money

The Babylonian Talmud relates a tale about the sage Rabbi Yishmael, who often sat in judgment on the local population.
"He had a sharecropper who would regularly bring him a basket of fruits as part of their financial agreement  each Friday. One week the sharecropper brought the basket on Thursday. "What is this?" the rabbi wondered. "I have a court appearance and I thought that once I was traveling, I would bring you the produce today." Rabbi Yishmael refused to accept the parcel, recused himself from sitting in judgment on the case and appointed two other judges in his place. During the give and take of the proceedings Rabbi Yishmael thought to himself, "If only [the sharecropper] would make this claim! If only he'd make that claim!" He then said, "Damn those who take bribes! If I – who refused to take the produce, and even if I had, it would have been my own money – am so influenced in judgment, how much more biased must be those who actually take bribes!"
Throughout the course of his campaign, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has attacked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for accepting lucrative speaking engagements as well as significant financial donations from a litany of sources, including major Wall Street financial institutions. Sanders has implied that the donations affected Mrs. Clinton's judgment and her ability to accurately assess and reign in the danger of the most powerful financial institutions in the world. Recently, Clinton lashed out at the attacks, insisting that the money had not affected her judgment in any way. “Anybody who knows me, who thinks they can influence me, name anything they’ve influenced me on. Just name one thing,” Clinton said at a televised CNN forum in New Hampshire.  At the Democratic debate last week, Clinton directly challenged the notion that she could be bought and bristled at the suggestion: "Time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to -- you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly."

Is she right? Are Sanders' accusations an attack on her integrity? Do campaign donations bias a candidate?

The prohibition of accepting gifts appears twice in the Old Testament. "And you shall take no gift; for a gift blinds those that have sight, and perverts the words of the righteous." (Exodus 23:8). "You shall not pervert judgment…neither shall you take a gift; for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous." According to the Bible gifts – money given to those in positions of power – does three things: It "blinds those that have sight", it "blinds the wise" and it "perverts the words of the righteous". We don't unduly influence the wicked; there's no need – they already have a warped sense of right and wrong. Rather, gifts affect people with "sight" - those who we would consider righteous and upstanding people, and prevent them from seeing what anyone else can plainly see. Accepting money specifically affects the righteous – decent, honest people with a proper sense of right and wrong – and prevents them from being truly objective.

Is Hillary correct? Are Bernie Sanders' accusations an attack on her character? Far from it. In fact, Sanders refused to attack her integrity, and has insisted that he respects her greatly. Rather, the Wall Street money she has taken has blinded her, and prevented a righteous woman from objectively seeing the true danger and power that Wall Street wields, even after the most recent round of legislation.

Did Mrs. Clinton fight hard to pass laws to reign in the banking system? Of course she did. But it's also impossible to know whether far stronger legislation would have been passed had Wall Street not paid tens of millions of dollars to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

We'll never know what would have been without those gifts, because we – all of us – have been blinded by them.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Do Chumrot Go Hand-in-Hand with a Lack of Derech Eretz? A Thought from the Daf (Gittin 54a)

The Gemara presents a rather complicated discussion about whether it's appropriate to legislate a fine or punishment when someone accidentally violates a specific halachah in order to prevent them from later violating the same law intentionally - גזרינן שוגג אטו מזיד. The Gemara presents an apparent contradiction between two positions of Rabbi Yehudah. Whereas normally Rabbi Yehudah felt that in cases of דאורייתא we do legislate שוגג אטו מזיד, it seems that in the case of Shemittah, where a person planted during the Shemittah year accidentally, Rabbi Yehudah did not feel that the plant had to be uprooted. He was not גוזר שוגג אטו מזיד. Why not? The Gemara explains:
דרבי יהודה אדרבי יהודה לא קשיא באתריה דרבי יהודה חמירא להו שביעית
The apparent contradiction between the positions of Rabbi Yehudah are not difficult, for in the locale of Rabbi Yehudah [violation of the laws of] Shemittah was considered very severe.
In other words, Rabbi Yehudah felt no need to legislate in a case of accidental planting (where one thought it was a non-Shemittah year) because in his community, violation of Shemittah was considered such a terrible act, that no one would do it on purpose. Hence, there's no reason or need to legislate שוגג אטו מזיד.

Then, the Gemara tells a troubling story to illustrate just how serious people took the violation of Shemittah:
דההוא דאמר ליה לחבירו דייר בר דיירתא אמר ליה אנא לא אכלי פירי דשביעית כוותך
For there was a certain man who said to his friend [in an attempt to insult him], "You are a convert the son of a female convert. The man retorted: At least I don't eat the fruits of Shemittah like you!
Apparently, it was considered worse in Rabbi Yehuda's community to eat the fruits of Shemittah than to be a convert the son of a female convert! Moreover, someone in the Daf shiur last night pointed out that in Rabbi Yehuda's time, Shemittah was no longer a דאורייתא - a Torah law. It was by then exactly like it is today - a דרבנן - a rabbinic law. Yet, the people in that community still treated the rabbinic law as if it was still a D'oraita!

Reading the story, I found the whole exchange both terribly troubling but familiar. Why were the same people who were so meticulous about adhering to the nuances of the ritual law of Shemittah so callous about insulting someone else in such a demeaning and inappropriate manner? Why do the two somehow seem so often to be connected to each-other? Is there some link between over-meticulous observance of ritual law and laxity with regard to mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro? 

Reading the two short vignettes connected in the Gemara, it seems that they are indeed linked.