Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Was Amram (Moshe's Father) Thinking?

In this week's Parsha, Shemos, we learn that Pharoh made a terrible decree against the Jews as it says (Shemos 1:16):

טז  וַיֹּאמֶר, בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת-הָעִבְרִיּוֹת, וּרְאִיתֶן, עַל-הָאָבְנָיִם:  אִם-בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ, וְאִם-בַּת הִוא וָחָיָה. 
 16 and he said: 'When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, ye shall look upon the birthstool: if it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.' 

When Pharoh saw that was not working he then made this decree on everyone, even the Egyptians (Ibid 1:22):

כב  וַיְצַו פַּרְעֹה, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ לֵאמֹר:  כָּל-הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד, הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ, וְכָל-הַבַּת, תְּחַיּוּן.
22 And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: 'Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.'

However, what is curious is the beginning of the next chapter (Shemos 2:1):

א  וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ, מִבֵּית לֵוִי; וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-בַּת-לֵוִי. 

1 And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.  

Why does there need to be a verse that tells us that a Levite went out and took a daughter of Levi to be his wife? Why not just start the next chapter with the second verse which says:

ב  וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא, וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה יְרָחִים. 
2 And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. 

Starting the chapter with this second verse would make a lot more sense since it actually gives us details about how Moshe was kept alive. What is the significance that Moshe's parents got married even after Pharoh's decree that ALL boys, even Egyptians boys, were to be killed?

The Gemara in Sotah (12b) tells us why this first verse is significant:

And there went a man of the house of Levi (Ex. II, 1). Where did he go? R. Judah b. Zebina said that he went in the counsel of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed 'Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river', he said: In vain do we labour. He arose and divorced his wife (Since all the male children to be born would be killed, and the primary object of marriage was the procreation of sons.). All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him, 'Father, thy decree is more severe than Pharaoh's; because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas thou hast decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world whereas thou hast decreed concerning this world and the World to Come (The drowned babes would live again in the Hereafter; but unborn children are denied that bliss). In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in thy case, though, thou art righteous, it is certain that thy decree will be fulfilled, as it is said: Thou shalt also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto thee (Job XXII, 28)!  He arose and took his wife back; and they all arose and took their wives back.(Translation and comments found

However, this explanation seems odd. Why did Amram decide that there was no reason to be married anymore? What was he thinking? If he was the leader of the generation and a righteous person how could he just give up like that? Why did it take his daughter to point out his mistake? This Gemara makes Amram seem very foolish.

The Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer) gives a terrific explanation. However, he apparently had a different Girsa (version) of the Gemora in Tractate Sotah. His version reads only one word differently, but it is essential for his explanation. Instead of saying that once Amram divorced his wife then EVERYONE divorced their wives, his version reads that once Amram divorced his wife then ALL THE RIGHTEOUS people divorced their wives. Personally, I think the Chasam Sofer's version is more correct because, as we learn later, many Jews living at this time were not very good Jews and that is why only a fifth of Jews actually left Egypt. Therefore, it stands to reason that only the RIGHTEOUS Jews followed Amram's example and not ALL the Jews.

In order to explain what Amram was thinking the Chasam Sofer brings down a puzzling Gemara in Tractate Babba Basra (60b). It says:

It has been taught: R. Ishmael ben Elisha said: Since the day of the destruction of the Temple we should by rights bind ourselves not to eat meat nor drink wine, only we do not lay a hardship on the community unless the majority can endure it. And from the day that a Government (Rome) has come into power which issues cruel decrees against us and forbids to us the observance of the Torah and the precepts (referring to Hadrian's harsh decrees after the Bar Kochba revolt) and does not allow us to enter into the ‘week of the son’ (circumcision), we ought by rights to bind ourselves not to marry and beget children, and the seed of Abraham our father would come to an end of itself. However, let Israel go their way: it is better that they should err in ignorance than presumptuously. 

Rebbe Yishmael (Ishmael) is basically saying that we should make the same decree that Amram made. In a situation where the Jews are living where they will not be allowed to perform the Torah and Mitzvos, nor can they circumcise their sons, then the Rabbis should make a decree that no one should get married and have children. However, because the majority of the Jews will not be able to follow this decree, it is not made.

The Chasam Sofer tries to explain this idea because it sounds strange. He says:

G-D made a covenant with Avraham, our father, that his children would survive forever, therefore, if someone would even hint at wiping them out, G-D would be forced to save us and nullify their (Rome's) decrees. This saying [of Rabbi Yishmael, that the Rabbis should have made a decree that no one could get married,] would wipe out the children of Avraham, our father, and since this is impossible (for G-D to let the children of Avraham to be wiped out) G-D would have been forced to nullify the decrees (of Rome). However, no such decree (that no one can get married) was made because the majority of the congregation (of Jews) would not have been able to handle such a decree and they would have had children through forbidden acts. Therefore, the children of Avraham would not have been wiped out (because there would be people procreating through forbidden acts) and the decree (that no one should get married) would not help (to force G-D to nullify the decrees of Rome).  

Now, with this idea in mind, we can answer up what Amram was thinking. The Chasam Sofer continues:

This is what Amram's intention was as well. He thought that if he and all of Israel divorced their wives then there would be no children and G-D would be forced to save them and nullify Pharoh's evil decree (that all males should be killed). However, when he divorced his wife only the RIGHTEOUS (This is why that one word is important) Jews divorced their wives, but other Jews kept their wives [and kept procreating.] Therefore, the evil [that Amram was bringing on the congregation] was double because he caused the RIGHTEOUS people's children to be wiped out, but Avraham's children were still being perpetuated [through the none righteous Jews and,] therefore, it would not force G-D to nullify the decrees [of Pharoh.] This is why Miriam told him that his decree was worse than Pharoh's. 

I think this explanation of the Chasam Sofer is excellent. Without it we are left with an Amram that makes no sense. He acts selfishly and msiguided and it takes his daughter to turn him around. However, with the Chasam Sofer's explanation Amram has great intentions with a righteous plan. Miriam merely points out that his plan is not working.

There are two other aspects that the Chasam Sofer shows us here as well. The first is interesting and the second is obvious. The first is that the Rabbis CAN NOT make decrees that they know the congregation will not be able to follow. This is why it is so important to find Rabbis that are not just great Torah scholars, but they also must understand the Jewish people. If they are distant and removed, no matter how great a Torah scholar they are, they can not lead the congregation.

The second point is something that people have always told me one is not allowed to do, but here the Chasam Sofer does it with ease. The Gemara gives the explanation (in Sotah 12b) for Miriam's statement of why Amram's decree is harsher than Pharoh's, because it ceases the procreation of girls and boys. However, The Chasam Sofer says the reason it is harsher is because it caused the righteous not to procreate, but allowed the unrighteous to procreate. If a person sees a possible explanation of the Torah that teaches a valuable lesson, that lesson should be taught even if it is not the explanation in the Gemara (This is done by almost every Rishon and Achron as well as many modern commentators). The Chasam Sofer is teaching us that people should not be unjustly punished. A righteous person does not deserve to be punished while a wicked person is rewarded. If the Rabbis want to make a decree, they need to make sure that decree does not punish the righteous and reward the wicked.

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