Parashat Matot – Human Initiative and the Divine Will

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת

 

Parashat Matot contains the story of Bnei Yisrael’s war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8), which finishes the story of Pinhas and the sin of Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25). Chapters 26-30 are an interjection, interrupting the story of Bnei Yisrael’s encounter with Midyan. While some of the sections in these chapters might be chronologically in order (see 26:1, for example), other law sections could have gone anywhere, and thus their placement in the midst of the Midyan narratives strange. However, a close analysis of the parshiyot of chapters 26-30 demonstrates that the whole unit, starting from Bamidbar 25 and stretching through chapter 30, explicates and demonstrates different aspects of the tension between the Divine Will and Human Initiative.[1]

This unit breaks down into (A) Pinhas, (B) the Census and the Daughters of Tselophehad, (C) Moshe being told to go up on the Mountain and Yehoshua’s Appointment, and (D) The Laws of the Festival Sacrifices and the Laws of Personal Vows. While Pinhas’ Narrative stands alone, the rest of the sections are pairs, half of each emphasizing the Divine Will and half emphasizing Human Initiative. Together, they create what seems to a very full picture of the different aspects of the tension between Divine Will and Human Initiative, one which is built upon in the following narratives of the Spoils of War (Bamidbar 31:9-54) and the Request of Reuven and Gad (Bamidbar 32).

In the story of Pinhas, Bnei Yisrael had sinned, and were suffering from a plague in consequence (25:1-3). Then ‘א said to Moshe, “Take the leaders of the people and execute them before ‘א, that ‘א’s wrath may be turned back from upon the nation” (25:4). Moshe then instructs the judges of Israel to take the sinners that are under their jurisdiction and to kill them. This is a valid reading of ‘א’s command, based on interpreting “them” to mean the sinners, and that “take the leaders” means that Moshe should act with them. It is not the intuitive reading, which would mean simply to kill the leaders themselves, but it is certainly valid, and we do not see that Moshe is punished or corrected for his interpretation. However, there is an implied critique on Moshe in the extensive praise and reward lavished on Pinhas, who did indeed fulfill the more intuitive reading of ‘א’s command, and turned ‘א’s wrath back from upon the people. Interestingly, we do not see that Pinhas heard the command to Moshe, or was a prophet in his own right, or anything of the like. Rather he seems to have decided on his own that this was the correct thing to do, and thus he was acting both in accordance with the Divine Will and his own, human, initiative.

The census of chapters 26 and 27 serves to detail all the families of all the tribes for the purpose of dividing the Land of Israel up evenly between them. In this census, only males inherit land and thus only male heirs of the tribes are delineated, with the exception of Serah Bat Asher (26:46) and the daughters of Tselophehad (26:33). The daughters of Tzelophehad are uniquely mentioned here in order to pave the way for their taking  of the stage at the beginning of Chapter 27, where they approach Moshe and ask to inherit the land of their father, in order that his name not disappear from his tribe[2], and after Moshe speaks to ‘א, they are granted this right. Thus the original Divine law, that only sons inherit, was changed by Human Initiative.[3]

The narrative of the Daughters of Tselophehad is followed by a brief command to Moshe that he go up on Mount Avarim to see the Land of Israel before he dies[4] (27:12-14), which is followed by his request from ‘א that He appoint a leader to take Moshe’s place. The careful reader will notice that ‘א makes no mention here of a replacement for Moshe, rather Moshe asks for it on his own[5] (27:15-17). This is a case where the Divine will accepting a completely Human Initiative and acting upon it, as opposed to the previous case where the Human Initiative simply led to a slight Modification in the divine plan.

The final section before the War with Midyan is not a narrative but two sets of Laws, intimately related. The first section of laws (Bamidbar 28 & 29) is the laws of public sacrifices, both the daily sacrifices and the additional sacrifices for festivals. This is followed by the laws for personal vows (Bamidbar 30). While at first glance these appear to be separate, they are connected by the institution of the vow-offerings. If a person vows to bring an offering, it would be brought at one of the festivals. Thus the laws of chapter 30 are really part and parcel of the laws of chapters 28 & 29[6]. Thus one might consider the whole section part of the Divine Will category. However, the laws of chapter 30 are all about voluntary vows a person might take upon themselves. Therefore this is in fact a case of where the Divine Will includes space for Human Initiative.

The War with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8) completes the Pinhas story (Bamidbar 25) disrupts the thematic tensions of Divine Will and Human Initiative with an absolute Divine command. It leads into a series of events involving the spoils of the war that build upon and contrast with the themes of Bamidbar 25-30.

Immediately after the war with Midyan, before the soldiers can even return to the camp, Moshe and the other leaders of Israel confront the returning army. They had failed to wipe out the women of Midyan who had caused Bnei Yisrael to sin in the first place (25:1-3), instead keeping them for themselves. The soldiers are reprimanded, and told to rectify their mistake. Here, while lacking an explicit and obvious Divine command, it is clear that the Human Initiative still went astray.

This story is followed by the divvying up of the spoils of the war to each member of the nation. Percentages were taken from all of the spoils for the Levi’im and for ‘א. This portion for ’א was taken and given to Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Then at the end of the section, the officers of the army come before Moshe and Elazar and say that because none of their soldiers died in the war, they want to give a tribute to ‘א from their finest spoils. They do so, and it is clear that this is considered somehow greater than the first percentage given to ‘א from the spoils, as that was simply given to Elazar, where this is “brought into the Tent of Meeting for a memorial for Bnei Yisrael before ‘א.” Thus in this case the Human Initiative does not stray, but rather builds on and succeeds the Divine Will.

The final case is that of the Request of Reuven and Gad to dwell on the far side of the Yarden River. This on first appearance seems to be incredibly problematic, as Moshe points out by comparing them to the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14). They are rejecting the Land of Israel, which ‘א has given them an inheritance, in favor of land that’s better pasture for their livestock. Not only that, but they outdo the spies by trying to separate from the rest of the nation by dwelling apart, thus damaging national unity. However, upon further questioning they reveal that their intent was not to reject the Land of Israel nor to harm national unity. Not only are they not trying to separate from the rest of the people, but they are willing to lead the charge into the Land of Israel, putting themselves in harm’s way for no gain of their own. They are not rejecting ‘א’s Land, they are asking to expand it, defining the Land of Israel as the Land in which Israel dwells[7]. Their Human Initiative is not rejecting the Divine will, but embracing it and surpassing it.

Man takes a position of great power and importance in the Torah. He is created in the Image of ‘א, the Creator of the World. Tehillim 8 sees man as “מעט מא׳לוהים”, “a little less than Divine.” And yet his first great act is to disobey the Divine Will, to push against ‘א. Man is powerful, but also fickle. This portrayed strongly as Bnei Yisrael make ready to enter the Land of Israel and live under their own control at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps the strongest indication of this is the ambiguity of Reuven and Gad’s request. Based on their request, Moshe predicts Bnei Yisrael having to wait another 40 years in the desert. But this is a false perception, as the tribes intend not evil but great good. Man’s will can go either way, it can be lowly or it can be great. It can even intuit the Divine. It’s up to us what we do with it.

 

[1] Many of the Ideas in this composition come from this piece by Rav Yonatan Grossman of Michlelet Herzog and Bar-Ilan University: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.64/42matot-masei.htm.

[2] For a discussion of why this story is not a feminist one, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.60/41pinhas.htm.

 

[3] The tension here is aptly displayed by the midrash brought by Rashi on Baidbar 27:7. “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly: As the Targum [Onkelos] יָאוּת, rightly. [As if God said,] This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high (Sifrei Pinchas 18). It teaches us that their eye perceived what Moses’ eye did not. – [see Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8]”. (translation from chabad.org).

[4] The exact nature of this command is complex, for an excellent and fascination discussion of the differing views and possibilities by Rav Elchanan Samet of Michlelet Herzog, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/41pinchas.htm.

[5] It’s entirely possible that without Moshe’s request there would not have been a replacement leader, part of a much larger discussion about the ideal form of leadership and government of Bnei Yisrael, which goes far beyond the scope of this composition.

[6] See the Rashbam’s comment on Bamidbar 30:2-3. There are also linguistic parallels between this section and it’s neighbors.

[7] This sets the stage for any further conquest Israel might perform from Yehoshua until the Exile.

Parashat Pinhas – Zealotry and Leadership

וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן יַעֲמֹד

 

In Chapter 27 of Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe asks ‘א to choose the person who will replace him as leader of the people, as part of the preparations for entering the land of Israel that are depicted at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. The person chosen by the “God of the spirits of all life” (Bamidbar 27:16) is Yehoshua son of Nun  (27:18). In retrospect, the choice is obvious. He was one of the two faithful spies in Bamidbar 14. He served Moshe from his youth (11:28) and never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11). However, before Yehoshua is picked, he is not the obvious choice. This selection comes hot on the heels of the actions and rewarding of Pinhas son of Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Why he should have been passed over is not at first clear, especially considering the lavish praise and reward heaped upon him by ‘א. However, examine the commands given to Yehoshua in terms of how he should lead will demonstrate that the zealotry that Pinhas is famous for is exactly what kept him from being named leader of the Nation of Israel.

When Moshe asks ‘א to appoint a leader for the Nation of Israel, he is given very specific instructions regarding the appointment of Yehoshua.

And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put of your honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. (Bamidbar 27:18-21)

Moshe is told to take Yehoshua and to stand him before Elazar the Kohen Gadol, and that Yehoshua should ask Elazar for “the Judgment of the Urim,” the word of ‘א as received via the Urim V’Tumim, before he leads the people in any new journey. While Yehoshua leads the people, he does not lead them according to his will, but according to the Will of ‘א, as he receives it from the Kohen Gadol. Only once he has gone to Elazar and asked Elazar to ask ‘א what they should do, and Elazar has given Yehosha the response from ‘א, only then can he direct the people.

In direct contrast to this, Pinhas is a zealot. He acts quickly and rashly. He sees Zimri sinning with Cozbi and he acts, grabbing his spear and plunging it through them. He does not wait for instructions, he does not check with Moshe or Elazar to see if what he is doing is right, he simply does it. And he is praised for it, quite extensively. ‘א says of him:

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’ (Bamidbar 25:11-13)

Pinhas’ zealotry results in some of the most effusive praise and reward in Tanakh. However, that does not mean that such actions are proper for a leader.

The 17th chapter of Sefer Devarim contains the commandment for Bnei Yisrael to appoint a king, and the commandments incumbent upon that king.

When you come unto the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell therein; and shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’;  you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you; you mayest not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses; forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you: ‘You shall henceforth return no more that way.’ Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them;  that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel. (Devarim 17:14-20)

The laws of a king are essentially two: 1. the tripartite command to avoid possessing an abundance of wives, horses, and money, and 2. the instruction for the king to always have on his person the sefer torah that he writes in order he “fear the Lord his God,” keep all of the mitzvoth, and not feel as if he is greater than the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Carrying a sefer torah with him at all times ensures that the king will not act out of impulse. It’s much harder to be overcome by emotion and burst out with a sudden bout of monarchical power if you are holding the Law of ‘א in your hands.

The Nation of Israel has had many leaders, from Moshe to David, from Menashe to Ezra, from the Men of the Great Assembly to our own modern day leaders. The one unifying factor has been the necessity of leading the people in line with ‘א’s Law. Leadership is not about self-aggrandizement. The leader is there for the betterment of the people, not vice-versa. While there may be a place for spontaneous zealotry, it’s not on the throne, or in the Knesset. Leadership is about trying to create a life for the people in accordance with their values, in accordance with the Torah. Pinhas may have turned back ‘א’s wrath from upon the people (Bamidbar 25:11), but only Yehoshua, who never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11), had the consistency and dedication to lead Bnei Yisrael.

 

Parashat Balak 5774 – The Unmoved Mover vs. The Dynamic Relationship

לֹא אִישׁ אֵ’ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן-אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם

Parashat Balak describes Bnei Yisrael’s unknowing encounter with Balak, Midian’s new king (Bamidbar 22:4), and his countryman (22:5) Bilaam, a sorcerer of some repute. Balak asks Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, and, although he is initially forbidden by ‘א to do so (22:12), Bilaam goes. Three times they set up 7 altars and offer 7 rams and 7 cows, one on each, and then Bilaam receives a message from ‘א to present to Balak. While the first two times he desires to curse Bnei Yisrael, and instead blesses them, the third time he realizes that he has no option but to bless them, and does so intentionally. Despite this initial intention, Bilaam consistently states throughout the story that he will only be able to say and do that which ‘א tells him (22:18, 38; 23:3, 12, 26; 24:14). He is very clear that he himself cannot curse the people, but can only pronounce ‘א’s cursing them. Seeing as ‘א had already said that Bilaam “shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (22:12), it seems odd that he would try and curse them anyway. It is only after ‘א clearly states that He will not be changing His mind[1] (23:19) that Bilaam embraces his destiny to bless Bnei Yisrael (24:1).
It is not entirely surprising that Bilaam would have initially thought that ‘א’s mind could be changed. After all, in Bamidbar 22:12 ‘א tells him explicitly that he may not go and curse Bnei Yisrael, and then in 22:20 ‘א rather ambiguously states that Bilaam may go. Moreover, Tanakh depicts ‘א changing his mind pretty severely before the flood: “And the Lord regretted (וַיִּנָּחֶם) that He had made man on the earth, and He grieved in His heart,” (Bereishit 6:6). ‘א saw that mankind had become incredibly evil, and regretted their creation. This would seem to imply that ‘א might change His mind. However, in Bilaam’s second divinely-inspired speech to Balak, he explicitly contradicts this idea: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of[2] man, that He should regret (וְיִתְנֶחָם),” (Bamidbar 23:19). These two verses, using the exact same word, directly contradict each other.
The resolution might be found in looking at what exactly Bilaam did that he thought would change ‘א’s mind. When preparing each of the three times to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam had Balak erect 7 altars and bring a cow and a ram on each. When Bilaam comes before ‘א the first time, he says, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar,” (23:4). The seven altars are not random. For whatever reason, perhaps due the importance of the number 7 in both Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern thought, Bilaam thinks that these 7 sets of altars and offerings will influence ‘א’s intent. The second thing Bilaam does to change ‘א’s mind is change location. The first attempt is from Bamot-Baal (22:41), the second is from the Field of Tsophim, at the top of Pisgah (23:)14, and the third attempt is from the top of Peor (23:28). These methods are based on the pagan conception of the Divine, wherein the gods are subject to magical energy derived from the meta-divine realm, where the gods themselves get their power[3]. This is what ‘א is specifically rejecting in His statement that He “is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of man, that He should regret.”[4]
By contrast, ‘א elsewhere seems not only to suggest but to declare outright that His intent can be influenced by mankind’s actions.

At one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to break down, and to destroy it; But if that nation turns from their evil, because of which I have spoken against it, I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the evil that I thought to do to it. And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; but if it does evil in My sight, that it does not listen to My voice, then I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the good, with which I said I would benefit it. (Yirmiyahu 18:7-10)

‘א explicitly states that His decrees can be changed by man’s actions. However, it’s not a matter of incantations or offerings that creates this change. Instead it’s a matter of doing good versus doing evil.
‘א is not the “unmoved mover” of the philosophers. The Tanakh makes it very clear that ‘א is in a living and dynamic relationship with all of mankind in general, and with Bnei Yisrael in particular[5]. This means that the actions of mankind matter to Him, as these actions do not exist in a vacuum. However, He cares specifically about certain kinds of actions, those of ethics and morality, Torah and Mitzvot. This message comes across loud and clear throughout the words of Moshe and the prophets[6]. Man is not insignificant. Man is perhaps of the greatest significance. Man’s position at the end of the process of creation is meant to indicate the greatness of which man is capable. However, man is created on the same day as the animals to demonstrate that man can also sink to the level of the animals with great ease. With this great power comes ultimate responsibility. ‘א’s concern with us and our action obligates us to understand the great weight of our actions. Our actions are so important and powerful that they have the ability to influence even ‘א. But not through reciting meaningless incantations or performing magic rituals. It is the ethical life of man, lived in the framework of Torah and Mitzvot, with which ‘א fully concerns Himself.

[1] It’s difficult to reconcile the more philosophical, unchanging, way we think about ‘א with His depiction in Tanakh, but it is possible. However, that is beyond the scope of this essay, and for the purpose of the essay we will assume that, at the very least, the Tanakh does depict ‘א as changing.

[2] The “X, => Son of X” formula is a common form of emphasis in Tanakh. See Meir Weiss, The Bible from Within, “Neither a Prophet not the Son of a Prophet Am I”.

[3] Yehezkal Kaufmann, “The Religion of Israel”.

[4] This statement, verse 23:19, falls in the middle of Bilaam’s second speech to Balak. While he does still change location before the third speech, verse 23:28, he then realizes that he can’t change ‘א’s mind and that he might as well bless the people intentionally, verse 24:1.

[5] Bnei Yisrael have a specific, “covenantal” relationship with ‘א, a phrase with very important connotations, but beyond the scope of this essay.

[6] See Isaiah Chapter 1, for example.

Parashat BeHa’alotkha 5774 – Moshe’s Leadership

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְ-הוָה נְבִיאִים

Parashat BeHa’alotkha bridges the end of Bnei Yisrael’s stay at Har Sinai to the beginning of their journey to the Plains of Moab and the land of Israel. Trouble begins immediately, as Moshe faces challenges to his leadership on all levels, from “each person at the entrance to their tent” (Bamidbar 11:10), to his own family (Bamidbar 12). These challenges are part of a larger string of narratives in Sefer Bamidbar dealing with issues of Equality and Leadership. The stories found at the end of Parashat BeHa’alotkha, in Bamidbar 11 & 12, discuss these issues in context of Moshe’s Leadership specifically, and in doing so, highlight the very foundation of biblical social structure, and the very nature of prophecy.

Bamidbar 11 opens with the complaints of the people, and Moshe’s reaction to the people. Moshe goes to the people and professes his inability to bear their weight (11:10-15). ‘א responds by validating Moshe’s concerns. Moshe says that he cannot lead alone (11:14), and ‘א responds by appointing 70 elders to lead alongside him (11:16). These 70 elders are gathered with Moshe to the Mishkan and ‘א overflows Moshe’s Spirit on to them, and they prophesy (11:17).[1] The problem that this raises is that if they are sharing in the prophetic spirit of Moshe, then Moshe’s hitherto unquestioned status as Leader of the Nation, not to mention Greatest of the Prophets, suddenly becomes shaky. The obvious solution for this dilemma, that Moshe is the one in charge of the bestowal of Prophecy on the Elders, and therefore he remains in charge, is made problematic by the existence of Eldad and Medad. Eldad and Medad decide not to come to the Mishkan, and yet despite this, they prophesy anyway, in the camp (11:26). These two prophets are outside the framework established by Moshe, and thus represent a direct challenge to his leadership.

This problem is addressed by Yehoshua, who calls upon Moshe to silence Medad and Eldad (11:28). Moshe’s response is somewhat astounding. “And Moses said to him: ‘Are thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”[2] (11:29). With this simple response, Moshe tells Yehoshua that he should not be concerned for Moshe’s sake. In Moshe’s eyes, the ideal would be that all of Bnei Yisrael would be prophets, if not for the fact that ‘א had clearly chosen only him to be the prophetic leader of the nation. Moshe doesn’t see himself as inherently special. Rather, anyone could receive this level of prophecy and leadership, if only ‘א would bestow it upon them.

The final story of Parashat BeHa’alotkha is one of the more difficult stories to deal with in the Torah. Miriam and Aharon, Moshe’s siblings, challenge both his spousal choice (12:1), and his right to lead (12:2).  “And they said: ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Has He not also spoken with us?” If ‘א spoke equally to all of them, then by what right could Moshe claim to lead? It would certainly be possible to answer that Moshe was simply better, naturally more fit to lead, but instead ‘א answers that their premise was wrong. While they saw their prophecy was being equal to Moshe’s, in fact it was not.

“And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and he beholds the depiction of the Lord; Therefore why are you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?” (12:6-8)

Moshe’s leadership is not a function of a greater innate stature than others, but rather of superior prophecy. Moreover, it’s not what moshe can do that makes him the leader, but the manner in which ‘א comes to him that does so.

Sefer Bamidbar has to confront the issues inherent in the growth of a nation. After receiving the majority of their laws at the foot of Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael begin to travel toward the land of Israel. In Israel, they will face all of the challenges involved in the running of a society, and the roots of those issues are here in Sefer Bamidbar. The primary issue of the first few books of Nevi’im is that of Leadership: who is fit to lead, how do they relate to those being led, etc. In Sefer Bamidbar, the leader in question is Moshe. How does he relate to the rest of Bnei Yisrael? Is he a part of them, or separate? Both? These questions get raised forcefully and directly, and the answer comes in kind. Moshe isn’t inherently better or different than the people, he has simply been chosen by ‘א for a specific purpose. Anyone could be chosen. In fact, Moshe seems to like the idea of everyone being chosen, as he is. That, however, is not his choice to make. What makes Israelite prophecy unique is the fact that the prophets of Tanakh are messengers sent by ‘א for a specific purpose.[3] Our purpose is not for us to decide, it comes from ‘א. It was ‘א who chose Moshe to be a prophet and the leader of the nation. It is ‘א who chooses the purpose of each person. It’s our job to remember that. We should not take an apparently superior purpose as a sign that we are inherently better than anyone else, but rather we should take time to recall, as Moshe did, that all peoples are great, and each person is imbued with divine purpose.

[1] Prophesy as an indicator of appointment to Civil Office is not unheard of in Tanakh. See Shemuel Alef 10:9-13.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org

[3] Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel.

Parashat Kedoshim 5774 – On Kedushah and the Separation of Nations

וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי

Chapters 18-20 of Sefer Vayikra form one unit dealing with two very distinct subjects in three separate parts . Chapter 18 discusses the laws of forbidden sexual relationships, chapter 19 discusses a variety of laws related to Kedushah, and chapter 20 discusses both themes together. Through this unity, Rashi reasons that the definition of Kedushah[1] is separation from inappropriate sexual relations, a definition which fits clearly with the following juxtaposition:

You shall be holy: Separate (Root: פרש) yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness, [for example:], “[They (the kohanim) shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned…I, the Lord, Who sanctifies you [am holy]” (Lev. 21:7-8); and, “he shall not profane his offspring…I am the Lord, Who sanctifies him” (Lev. 21:15); and, “They shall be holy…[They shall not take in marriage] a woman who is a prostitute or one who was profaned” (Lev. 21:6-7).[2]

However, a close study of the text involved demonstrates that this is just the beginning of a much larger picture.

There are many ways of determining the topic and unity of a passage in Tanakh. One of the key methods is through the use of keywords, words that are repeated several times. In chapters 18-21 we find four keywords, namely “laws” (root: חק), “rules” (root: שפט), “keep” (root: שמר), and “holy” (root: קדש). “Laws,” “Rules,” and “Holy” all show up ten times while “Keep” appears seven times[3], both numbers of biblical import, which highlights the thematic role of each of these ideas.

Another method of determining thematic importance is through parallels at the beginning and end of a unit, such a the parallel between 18:3-5 and 20:22-23:

3 You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. 4 My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God. 5 You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.[4]

22 You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out. 23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them.

This parallel denotes the beginning and end of the section while also reinforcing the topic ideas of Laws and Rules. What is not seen to be a topic, however, is separation from sexual impropriety. Yet it is undeniably a large part of the passage. So what then can be said of the definition of Kedushah from this context?

While Separation (פרישות) is not found in this section at all, and certainly not attached to Kedushah, there is a very similar word that is used here in context of Kedushah. Vayikra 20:24-26 discusses the idea that Israel is “set apart” (root: בדל).

24 and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. 25 So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. 26 You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Thus Kedushah is not simply about Separation, but about being distinguished and set apart.

A perfect demonstration of this is found in the law of shaatnez, found in Vayikra 19:19[5]:

“You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.”

This law is generally interpreted as a symbolic law meant to teach man about the importance of separating between distinct realms. It is often taken as being directed against disorder[6] or intermarriage[7]. However, the assumption that shaatnez is inherently problematic, if only on a symbolic level, is hard to maintain once one takes a look at the broader context of the Torah. Due to the fact that shaatnez is only ever mentioned by name in regards to the prohibition of wearing it, many people miss its earlier appearances in the torah. It appears in Sefer Shemot, in 26:1, “As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them,” 26:31, “You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it,” 28:6, “They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.,” 28:15, “You shall make a breastpiece of decision/ worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen,” and 39:29, “and sashes of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery- as the Lord had commanded Moses,” among others. These verses all refer to the materials of the Mishkan and the garments of the Kohanim. All are composed of linen and colored wool[8]. Thus while shaatnez is forbidden to the average member of Bnei Yisrael, it is in fact mandatory for the Kohanim, and therefore it cannot be inherently bad. Furthermore, even for a normal citizen of Israel it is not entirely forbidden. Bamidbar 15:39, part of the original commandment regarding tzitzit, says that shaatnez is part of tzitzit. “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.” As with the colored wool of the Mishkan and the priestly garments, the colored string of the tzitzit is made of wool[9]. The inclusion of shaatnez, along with the otherwise priestly blue[10], is part of how tzitzit remind the wearer of their priestly purpose[11].

The commandment of shaatnez is not itself about two things that need to be kept separate, but about differentiating between two groups with different purposes, the Kohanim and the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Only in tzitzit, the mitzvah intended to remind Bnei Yisrael of their purpose as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” do they wear shaatnez. This is the integral message of the entire section, of Vayikra 18-21. The two ideas of this pericope, that of keeping the Laws/Rules of ‘א as opposed to the Laws of the Nations and that of Kedushah, are actually one. What makes Israel holy is that it is differentiated, and differentiates itself, from the other nations by its practices. However, much like shaatnez, it is not that either set of practices is necessarily good or bad. While the Torah clearly takes a negative stance towards those practices of the nations mentioned in Vayikra 18-21, what is important about them is not their moral quality, but that they are not the practices which ‘א has laid down for Israel to follow. Kedushah is about the fulfilment of purpose, on both the national and individual levels. It’s not just avoiding negative or foreign practices, but also the active fulfillment of the purpose and laws that ‘א laid down for Israel that makes Bnei Yisrael a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

[1] Found in his comment on Vayikra 19:2.

[2] Translation of Rashi from Chabad.org.

[3] The root שמר also appears in the word “משמרתי” in 18:30, but this is grammatically different from the other 7 uses.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The ideas in this paragraph are owed to Jacob Milgrom in his article, “Law, Narrative, and the Exegesis of Leviticus 19”.

[6] B. Sanh. 60a; Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Bekhor Shor.

[7] Mikra KiPeshuto, A.B. Ehrlich.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 4b, Yoma 71b.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Shemot 28:31 and 39:22, in contrast to Bamidbar 15:39.

[11] Shemot 19:6.

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

 

There is often a great deal of opposition to the more peshat-oriented approach to understanding the text of the Torah taken by many modern readers of Tanakh. However, there are many mainstream, Orthodox, sources, especially from the Rishonim, that support such an approach. Many such critiques tend to come along with astonishment that such a reader might disagree with Rashi, and so a comment of Ramban on Bereishit 8:4 deserves particular attention. In a few short lines he critiques many fundamental issues with much of the opposition to the peshat approach, as a brief dissection and analysis will show.

 

The Text:

 

כתב רש”י מכאן אתה למד שהיתה משוקעת במים י”א אמה כפי החשבון הכתוב בפירושיו והוא כן בבראשית רבה (לג ז) אבל כיון שרש”י מדקדק במקומות אחרי מדרשי ההגדות וטורח לבאר פשטי המקרא הרשה אותנו לעשות כן כי שבעים פנים לתורה ומדרשים רבים חלוקים בדברי החכמים

 

Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah. However, since Rashi is in some places critical [in his reading] of narrative midrashim, and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text, he permitted us to do so, for there are seventy facets to the Torah, and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.[1]

 

The Breakdown:

 

Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah (33:7).

 

That is the beginning of a long comment discussing the dating and chronicling of the flood, wherein Ramban takes a strong stance against the view of Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah (33:7). Before he does so, however, he gives four reasons why it is permitted for him to argue with Rashi and the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah. It is notable that while many of Ramban’s comments on the Torah take the form of arguments with Rashi, there are also many that argue with Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra spends much of his commentary arguing with midrashim, and thus Ramban’s sense of needing permission to argue with Rashi/midrashim is not a matter of lacking precedent in doing so. He must have faced active opposition to doing so even in his own day, and it would be to this opposition that the following comments were directed.

 

However, since Rashi is in some places critical of narrative midrashim,

 

This addresses a mistake of incredible importance in the popular understanding of Rashi. People tend to assume that “Rashi” and “Midrash” are synonymous terms. This is incorrect. While Rashi often used midrashim in his attempt to find peshat, he certainly did not always do so. A perfect example of this is his comment to Bereishit 12:5:

 

אשר עשו בחרן: שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום. ופשוטו של מקרא עבדים ושפחות שקנו להם, כמו (שם לא א) עשה את כל הכבוד הזה, (במדבר כד יח) וישראל עושה חיל, לשון קונה וכונס

 

that they had acquired in Haran:whom he had brought under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them as if they had made them (Gen. Rabbah 39:14). The simple meaning of the verse is: the slaves and maidservants that they had acquired for themselves, as in [the verse] (below 31:1): “He acquired (עָשָׂה) all this wealth” [an expression of acquisition]; (Num. 24:18): “and Israel acquires,” an expression of acquiring and gathering.

 

The pasuk, speaking about Avraham and Sarah’s journey from Haran, mentions the “nefesh asher asu”. Everyone knows the midrash that Rashi quotes, that this refers to the people they converted. However, Rashi follows the midrash by saying that the plain reading of the text is that it means slaves. One could debate what Rashi thinks about the historical reality of the departure from Haran, whether it is like peshat or like the midrash. What is clear is that Rashi felt this midrash was not the proper understanding of the text, and that he had no problem saying so.

 

and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text,

 

This brings up an interesting point. Rashi himself describes the goal of his commentary as a “peshat” understanding of the text, famously in his comments to Bereishit 3:8, “יש מדרשי אגדה רבים… ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא,” “There are many Aggadic midrashim… but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture,” and 3:24, “ומדרש אגדה יש, ואני איני בא אלא לפשוטו,” “There are Aggadic midrashim, but I have come only to interpret its simple meaning”. Based on this many have stated that when Rashi brings a midrash it is in fact peshat, and anyone who really looked into it would see this. The problem with that statement is that the quote from Bereishit 3:8 is truncated. The statement continues with a really important clause, “ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו,” “and such Aggadah that settles [the issues in] the words of the verses, each word in its proper way”. The problem with this phrase is that it could be an expansion of the previous clause, or a new statement.  If it is an expansion, then Rashi is saying that he brings midrashim that fit well with the text as part of his search for a peshat understanding, meaning he thinks the midrash is peshat. If it’s a new statement, then Rashi is saying that in addition to his goal of finding a peshat understanding of the text, he also has a goal of bringing midrashim that fit with the text, for whatever purpose. The exact nature and purpose of Rashi’s commentary therefore remains unclear.

What is clear is that Rashi is interested, to whatever degree, in finding the peshat reading of the Torah, and that when Rashi brings a midrash, it is a midrash that Rashi believes will resolve problems in the text itself. Therefore midrashim are not self-justifying. A midrash must adequately address the textual issues in order to be of relevance to understanding the text, like Ramban obviously thought it did by Bereishit 8:4, or Rashi by Bereishit 12:5. In such cases a more text-based approach is needed.

 

he permitted us to do so,

 

This is an important point. Ramban is stating that because Rashi did it, we can do it too. Neither Rashi nor Ramban thought of themselves as being part of an elite class of people qualified to analyze the biblical text. They likely saw themselves as part of a long chain of readers of the Torah, all of whom have read the biblical text with a critical eye, and then tried to solve the issues they found with various techniques, text-based and otherwise.

 

for there are seventy facets to the Torah,

 

This old Rabbinic idiom is meant to convey that a text can have meaning on many levels or to many people, without any single one being the “correct” meaning. Thus Ramban can have his understanding of the text and Rashi can have his,and each would say that the other is wrong, but that doesn’t make anybody a heretic or necessarily more correct.

 

and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.

 

Many argue that midrashim cannot be challenged on the grounds that the Sages were recording the words of traditions that had been passed down to them from Har Sinai, or that they had received through Ruach HaKodesh. The problem with either of these approaches is that it ignores the facts as they are. Any quick look at midrashim will reveal that they are not of one voice or opinion in most matters. This creates an issue with the supposedly divine origin of midrashim, as then either the tradition would have to be mistaken, significantly reducing its value anyway, or multiple views were all received through Ruach HaKodesh, in which case they are probably not meant to convey the literal understanding of the Torah.

A secondary issue this introduces is that midrashim cannot simply be transposed to the biblical text.[2] Midrashim were never meant to be a fleshed-out commentary on the text of the Torah. Thus there’s no uniform density of midrashic comments on the Torah. There are many pesukim with no midrashim on them at all, and many with a huge number of related midrashim. Anyone attempting to create an understanding of the Torah text based on midrashim would not only find large gaps in their commentary, but they would also be forced to pick between differing midrashim or midrashic opinions when commenting on a pasuk. A perfect example of this is Rashi’s comment on Shemot 13:19, on the phrase, “וחמשים”:

וחמשים: אין חמושים אלא מזויינים. לפי שהסיבן במדבר גרם להם שעלו חמושים, שאלו הסיבן דרך יישוב לא היו מחומשים להם כל מה שצריכין, אלא כאדם שעובר ממקום למקום ובדעתו לקנות שם מה שיצטרך, אבל כשהוא פורש למדבר צריך לזמן לו כל הצורך, ומקרא זה לא נכתב כי אם לשבר את האוזן, שלא תתמה במלחמת עמלק ובמלחמות סיחון ועוג ומדין, מהיכן היו להם כלי זיין שהכום ישראל בחרב. וכן הוא אומר (יהושע א יד) ואתם תעברו חמושים. וכן תרגם אונקלוס מזרזין, כמו (בראשית יד יד) וירק את חניכיו וזריז. דבר אחר חמושים אחד מחמשה יצאו, וארבעה חלקים מתו בשלשת ימי אפילה:

 

armed: חִמֻשִׁים [in this context] can only mean “armed.” Since He led them around in the desert [circuitously], He caused them to go up armed, for if He had led them around through civilization, they would not have [had to] provide for themselves with everything that they needed, but only [part,] like a person who travels from place to place and intends to purchase there whatever he will need. But if he travels a long distance into a desert, he must prepare all his necessities for himself. This verse was written only to clarify the matter, so you should not wonder where they got weapons in the war with Amalek and in the wars with Sihon and Og and Midian, for the Israelites smote them with the point of the sword. And similarly [Scripture] says: “and you shall cross over armed (חִמֻשִׁים)” (Josh. 1:14). And so too Onkelos rendered מְזָרְזִין just as he rendered: “and he armed (וְזָרֵיז) his trained men” (Gen. 14:14). Another interpretation: חִמֻשִׁים means “divided by five,” [meaning] that one out of five (חִמִֹשָה) [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [lit., parts of the people] died during the three days of darkness.

 

The first things that’s worth noting is that Rashi actually brings the peshat explanation, along with multiple justifications of it, before he brings the midrashic approach. More important, however, is the way in which he quotes the midrash. The midrash (Tanhuma Beshalah 1), working off the similarity between the Hebrew words for “five” and “armed”, suggests that Shemot 13:18 is really saying that only one out of every five members of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. Or rather, that is the midrash as portrayed in Rashi’s comment. The problem with this is that an examination of the midrash in question reveals that this is not all it says.

 

וחמושים עלו בני ישראל אחד מחמישה. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמישים. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמש מאות. רבי נהוראי אומר: העבודה, לא אחד מחמשת אלפים. ואימתי מתו בימי האפלה, שהיו קוברין ישראל מתיהן, ומצרים יושבין בחשך, ישראל הודו ושבחו על שלא ראו שונאיהם ושמחו בפורענותן:

 

And Bnei Yisrael went up “חמושים”, [this means only] one out of five [left Egypt]. Some say one out of fifty. And some say one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: By the [Temple] Service! Not [even] one in five thousand [went out]. And when did they [who did not go out] die? In the days of darkness, so that Yisrael buried their dead while the Egyptians sat in darkness, and Yisrael praised and gave thanks that their persecutors did not see and rejoice in their suffering.

 

Rashi quotes the first, and least extreme, of the four opinions in the midrash. He had to select the one that made the most sense to him. Any time anyone quotes a midrash they are not giving “the opinion of the midrash”, but their own opinion, selected from the plethora of midrashic opinions available. Thus when Rashi quotes a midrash it is no more or less his opinion than when he simply gives his own non-midrashic opinion.

It’s worth noting that in this comment, the Ramban in no way attempts to say that midrashim are illegitimate in their understandings of the Torah. Instead, he takes midrashim, and Rashi’s commentary as it is popularly thought of, and puts them on the same level as the text-based approach. The Ramban does quote midrashim in his commentary, when he finds them compelling, much as he doesn’t always argue with the midrashim that Rashi quotes, when he finds them compelling. Many midrashim are actually based on very close readings of the text. All that separates such midrashim from”peshat” is what methods of interpretation are used once the text has been read. Thus for everyone from Rashi to Ramban to modern Bible critics, midrashic opinions are totally valid, but only as long a they’re compelling, and not necessarily more than more text-based opinions.

 

[1] Translation of Ramban is from the author, as is the translation of the midrash. Translations of Rashi are from http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/The-Bible-with-Rashi.htm, with occasional modifications from the author for accuracy or clarity.

[2] The ideas of this paragraph are heavily based on severeal essays on “Omnisignificance” by R’ Yaakov Elman.

“Not For Your Sake But For The Sake of My Holy Name” – On Redemption, Ideal and Otherwise – Pesach 5774

לֹא לְמַעַנְכֶם אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי אִם לְשֵׁם קָדְשִׁי

Chapter 36 of Sefer Yehezkel is part of the third and final section of the book, the section dedicated to the Redemption of Bnei Yisrael from the Babylonian Exile. The chapter describes ‘א bringing the people back to the Land of Israel and settling them there. The first half of the chapter speaks about the people returning to the land, first for the sake of the Land, and then for the sake of ‘א. In the second half of the chapter, the prophet refers to Bnei Yisrael being given a new heart, a reference the earlier prophecies of Yehezkel 11 and 18 Therefore chapter 36 must be understood in the context of those prophecies. Additionally, the basic idea of the new heart image is that of undeserved redemption, meaning that Bnei Yisrael are redeemed despite not being deserving of redemption. As such, the image is based on and must be understood against the background of, the narratives of Chet Ha’Egel (Shemot 32), Chet Ha’Meraglim (Bamidbar 14), and Yericho (Yehoshua 7). Only then can the true meaning and value of Yehezkel 36 be understood.

First, a quick look at the second half of Yehezkel 36. Verse 16, “The word of the Lord came to me,[1]” starts a new prophecy, separate from the first half of the chapter. Verses 17-21 describe how Israel’s exile, a necessary response to it’s sins, had the unfortunate effect of “causing ‘א’s holy name to be profaned among the nations.” (36:21). Verses 22-28 describe how, in response, ‘א is going to bring Israel back to His land and cleanse them of their sinful nature. Finally, verses 29-38 describe how ‘א will cause the land to become rejuvenated and the cities of Israel to be built up.

A critical theme of the prophecy is the concept of ‘א replacing Israel’s heart (this idea has roots in Jeremiah 31 and 32, themselves based on themes from Sefer Devarim, but those passages are not necessary for the understanding of this prophecy). This idea itself, in this chapter, has two distinct parts, both found in verse 26: “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” These ideas, the “heart of flesh” replacing the “heart of stone” and the “new heart and new spirit”, are based on two different prophecies from Yehezkel 11 and 18.

Both Yehezkel 11 and 18 are part of the first third of Sefer Yehezkel, discussing how the wickedness of the people is going to cause the destruction of the Temple. Part of this is a series of prophecies enumerating the sins of the people in Jerusalem, as opposed to the people already in Exile. Yehezkel 11 is the end of a prophecy that starts in chapter 8, which states that the sinful nature of the residents of Jerusalem has caused their rejection, and how those already in Babylonia are now the favored people of ‘א. At the very end of this prophecy we find the motif of the “Heart of Flesh”, as well as something reminiscent of the “New Heart and New Spirit”.

17 Yet say: Thus said the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the Land of Israel. 18 And they shall return there, and do away with all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 I will give them one heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may follow My laws and faithfully observe My rules. Then they shall be My people and I will be their God. 21 But as for them whose heart is set upon their detestable things and their abominations, I will repay them for their conduct-declares the Lord God.

In place of the wicked residents of Jerusalem, ‘א will return the exiles to their land where they will follow His laws and once again be His faithful nation. However, the exiles do not seem to be given a choice in this move towards faithfulness. They are going to be faithful servants of ‘א, not because they want to, but because He is going to make them so.[2]

Yehezkel 18 presents a viewpoint radically different from that of chapter 11.[3] Like chapter 11, chapter 18 is essentially an argument for the idea that the wicked will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded.[4] Chapter 18 even takes the form of an actual dialogue between ‘א and the people. However, chapter 18 differs greatly from chapter 11 in its use of the “New Heart” theme.

29 Yet the House of Israel say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Are My ways unfair, O House of Israel? It is your ways that are unfair! 30 Be assured, O House of Israel, I will judge each one of you according to his ways-declares the Lord God. Repent and turn back from your transgressions; let them not be a stumbling block of guilt for you. 3l Cast away all the transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die, O House of Israel. 32 For it is not My desire that anyone shall die-declares the Lord God. Repent, therefore, and live!

As opposed to Chapter 11’s conception that, regardless of their evil ways, ‘א will redeem Israel and will simply cause them to be better in order to justify it, Chapter 18 insists that ‘א will punish the wicked and therefore Israel should be better, in which case they will be redeemed and rewarded. This change is clear from the difference in language between 11:19, “I will give them (וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם) one heart and put a new spirit,” and 18:31, “make for yourselves (וַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם) a new heart and a new spirit.” Whereas in chapter 11 the change is effected by ‘א, in chapter 18 Bnei Yisrael are called upon to change themselves. This prophecy casts Bnei Yisrael in an active role as opposed to the more passive role from chapter 18, and it makes their redemption anything but assured.

Chapters 11 and 18 depict two very different kinds of Redemption, one deserved and the other undeserved. The deciding vote between them is cast in chapter 36, and the winner is the undeserved redemption of chapter 11. This is clear first and foremost from the return of the Heart of Stone/Heart of Flesh motif in 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” This is the image from chapter 11, where the redemption of Bnei Yisrael is passive and undeserved. More importantly, undeserved redemption is a dominant theme in the prophecy of Yehezkel 36. Six verses explicitly reference the idea that ‘א will redeem Israel for His sake and not for theirs. Another five discuss how Bnei Yisrael will have to be cleansed by ‘א after their redemption. Having been given the option of being forcibly redeemed in chapter 11 and the option of earning their redemption in chapter 18, the option chosen in the end is that of chapter 11. The reason for this is presumably the one great event that occurs between chapters 18 and 36: the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash. Once the Destruction occurred, it was clear that the people were not going to earn their redemption. At that point, if redemption is going to occur it will have to be undeserved.

To properly understand the meaning of this undeserved redemption one must look at previous such occurrences of undeserved redemption, namely Chet Ha’Egel and Chet Ha’Meraglim. Chet Ha’Egel is a classic example of a transgression that is followed by repentance, where it is clear that the people were forgiven for what they had done. However, they almost didn’t survive long enough to be able to repent. In Shemot 32, ‘א nearly destroyed the people before Moshe could even tell them that they were doing something wrong.

9 The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.”11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. 12 Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. 13 Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” 14 And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.

In verse 10, Bnei Yisrael deserve destruction to such a degree that  ‘א seems almost excited to destroy them. Moshe needs to present Him with two arguments in order to save them. He first suggests (32:12) that if ‘א does not successfully bring Bnei Yisrael into the land then the other nations will assume ‘א  is weak. Second, Moshe invokes the covenant between ‘א and the Fathers of the Israelite nation. Somehow, between these two arguments ‘א appears to have been swayed by Moshe, and decides not to destroy the people. While only the first of these two reasons matches ‘א’s reasons for redeeming Bnei Yisrael in Yehezkel 36, both of them tell us that this salvation from the wrath of ‘א is completely undeserved by the people.

Chet Ha’Meraglim is one of the archetypal sins of Bnei Yisrael. More than even Chet Ha’Egel, it changes the path of the nation’s future by keeping them in the desert for an extra 38 years. In Bamidbar 14, Bnei Yisrael sinned by not only appointing spies to spy out the land of Israel but, more importantly, by being swayed by the negative report of the spies regarding the land.

11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? 12 I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!”13 But Moses said to the Lord, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, 14 they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land. Now they have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; that You, O Lord, appear in plain sight when Your cloud rests over them and when You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, 16 ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness. ’17 Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying 18 ‘The Lord! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.’ 19 Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” 20 And the Lord said, “I pardon, as you have asked. 21 Nevertheless, as I live and as the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world, 22 none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, 23 shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it.

Once again, Moshe proposes two reasons for ‘א not to wipe out Bnei Yisrael. Firstly, if ‘א doesn’t bring the people into the land, then He will appear to be weak. He then recited what has come to be known as ‘א’s “13 Attributes of Mercy,” essentially asking ‘א to spare the people because he is merciful, rather than because they really deserve to be spared.

Chet Ha’Egel and Chet Ha’Meraglim are the two classic examples of Bnei Yisrael being saved without being worthy of it, and what they really demonstrate is that undeserved salvation is just another term for a lack of destruction. It is not that Bnei Yisrael are saved so much as ‘א does not obliterate them. This can hardly be described as an ideal. This point excellently made by a final event in Tanakh where a leader argues for the salvation of Bnei Yisrael for the sake of ‘א’s name. The seventh chapter of Sefer Yehoshua begins with the sin of Achan at Yericho, followed by the destruction of Bnei Yisrael at Ai as a consequence. Yehoshua’s subsequent prayer and ‘א’s response are of particular relevance to the present discussion.[5]

6 Joshua thereupon rent his clothes. He and the elders of Israel lay until evening with their faces to the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord; and they strewed earth on their heads. 7 “Ah, Lord God!” cried Joshua. “Why did You lead this people across the Jordan only to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites, to be destroyed by them? If only we had been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan! 8 O Lord, what can I say after Israel has turned tail before its enemies? 9 When the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land hear of this, they will turn upon us and wipe out our very name from the earth. And what will You do about Your great name?” 10 But the Lord answered Joshua: “Arise! Why do you lie prostrate? 11 Israel has sinned! They have broken the covenant by which I bound them. They have taken of the proscribed and put it in their vessels; they have stolen; they have broken faith! 12 Therefore, the Israelites will not be able to hold their ground against their enemies; they will have to turn tail before their enemies, for they have become proscribed. I will not be with you any more unless you root out from among you what is proscribed. 13 Go and purify the people. Order them: Purify yourselves for tomorrow. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.

Certain that the people have earned destruction, Yehoshua pleads with ‘א to save them, saying that if Bnei Yisrael are destroyed by the nations of Canaan then ‘א’s name will be a mockery. As opposed to the previous examples, where ‘א then relents and agrees to save the people, ‘א responds to Yehoshua quite harshly, “Arise! Why do you lie prostrate? Israel has sinned!” ‘א tells Yehoshua that the people are suffering because of their transgression, and thus the answer is not to cry out to ‘א but rather to rectify the transgression. “Go and purify the people. Order them: Purify yourselves for tomorrow. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.” Given the choice between saving the people because they deserve it or saving the people for the sake of ‘א’s name, ‘א very clearly tells Yehoshua that the former is preferable.

The tension between Yehezkel 11 and 18, and the resolution of this tension in Yehezkel 36, must be understood against the background of these earlier narratives. The sanctity of ‘א’s name is obviously important enough to necessitate the undeserved redemption of Bnei Yisrael, whether from destruction of from exile. However, Bnei Yisrael earning their salvation is itself a value of great importance. Thus Yehezkel 11 does not present an ideal, but rather a yielding to necessity, a second-class salvation of Bnei Yisrael. Chapter 18 then presents the ideal. Bnei Yisrael are redeemed, thus ensuring the sanctity of ‘א’s name, and Bnei Yisrael also earn their redemption. Chapters 11 and 18 present two different possibilities, and when the possibility of chapter 11 is finally selected in chapter 36, this redemption comes with an asterisk. It’s not perfect. It’s salvation, but it comes at a cost. Between chapters 18 and 36, ‘א has to give up on the repentance of Bnei Yisrael. He has to destroy Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash, and when He redeems the exiles, it will not be because they deserve it, but rather only because to leave them floundering in exile would be a desecration of His holy name.

Yehezkel’s job as a prophet was to speak to a people in exile about why they were in exile, and about what they should be doing there. When it comes to redemption, he put before them two visions, one of worthiness and one unworthiness. This split is essentially the basis for Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s famous distinction between Fate and Destiny.[6] With these words Rav Soloveitchik delineated two very different approaches to the events of history and of everyday life. A person with a “Fate”-mentality wants to know why something happens to them. They are are very passive, and focused on the past. A person with a “Destiny”-mentality takes a very different approach. Instead of asking why this event happened, they ask what they are supposed to learn from this event, how it is supposed to affect their life. Their interest in the cause and reason of the event is not about the event itself, but only for the purpose of know what actions they should be taking in response. They are active and their thoughts are centered on the future. The two redemptions of Yehezkel 11 and 18 correspond to the Fate and Destiny mindsets, respectively. Undeserved redemption is a passive experience. It is what happens when Bnei Yisrael sit in exile and wonder why they have been exiled. The deserved redemption of chapter 18 is an active experience, one Bnei Yisrael have to bring about themselves. Yehezkel tells the exiles that they were sent to Babylonia for a reason, to stop being who they were in the land of Israel and to become better. If they become better, then they will be redeemed. Exile is not meant to be a passive experience. It’s something that happens because Bnei Yisrael create a stagnant and festering society. Then Bnei Yisrael are exiled in order to stop being the nation they were in the land and to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” as they are meant to be. The Jewish People in exile will be redeemed, for the sake of ‘א’s name or for the purpose of His historical agenda, but the ideal is for Bnei Yisrael to deserve it.

 

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible, except where emendations were necessary for clarity.

[2] There is a possible vagueness in the phrase “them whose heart is set upon their detestable things” in that it could refer to either the residents of Jerusalem or perhaps members of the Exile that resist the ‘א’s transformation of their state of mind. Based on the rest of the vision it likely refers to the former, but the possibility of the latter can’t be ignored.

[3] This is is true if it is understood as an expansion of 11:21, based on the second reading, or as a stand-alone prophecy.

[4] This is one of the main goals of Yehezkel as a prophet, in contrast to the author of Sefer Melakhim, as per countless shiurim from Rabbis Menachem Leibtag and Hayyim Angel, available on www.YUtorah.org.

[5] The inclusion of this narrative is thanks to Yonatan Mandelbaum, a friend and scholar.

[6] Kol Dodi Dofek