Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rambam Yisodei Hatorah Perek 6 Halacha 1: Erasing G-D's Name

כל המאבד שם מן השמות הקדושים הטהורים שנקרא בהם הקב"ה לוקה מן התורה. שהרי הוא אומר בעבודת כוכבים ואבדתם את שמם מן המקום ההוא לא תעשון כן לה' אלהיכם 

Anyone that erases one of the holy and pure names that G-D is called by is given lashes as a biblical [punishment]. For, it says by idols (Devarim 12:3-4) "[And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods;] and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God."  

The Rambam is simply restating a law that is brought down in Tractate Makkos (22a) as well as in a few other places. However, the location of this law is striking. In what way does the law of erasing G-D's name constitute a "Yesod" (Basis or foundation) of the Torah? The past five chapters have dealt with subjects that seem to be imperative to the Jewish person: G-D's existence, His relationship with man, the creation of the world, angels, glorifying G-D, the soul of a man and so on. These are all basic ideas that establish the foundation of the Jewish religion that lead us to also accept regular laws. What does erasing G-D's name, a seemingly regular law that has nothing to do with the foundation of our faith, have to do with establishing beliefs that allow us and help us observe Judaism properly?

It seems to me that, like in so many other cases, the law itself is not what is important, but the attitude of the person violating the law. The Torah tells us that we must "break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods." What is the point of this commandment? Is it not in order to engrave in us a feeling that these idols are false and without merit? Therefore, if our attitude is derived from these actions it stands to reason that the next verse that tells us "Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God" is telling us the same exact thing. If we treat G-D's name in the same disrespectful manner, then we will come to disbelieve in Him as well. Actions influence our inner thoughts.

Now, we can understand why this law is included in the laws of Yesodei (Foundation) HaTorah (of the Torah) because this is an essential attitude to have towards G-D. Someone may believe in G-D, but if he or she acts towards G-D with disdain, that person will eventually come to disbelieve in G-D because of his or her actions. Having a proper attitude towards G-D is essential not just with our minds, but also with our actions.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why The Gemara Must Explain Eye for an Eye in a Non-Literal Fashion

In this week's Parsha, Mishpatim, there is a very famous verse. It says (Shemos 21:24):

כד  עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן, יָד תַּחַת יָד, רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל.
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

Is the Torah actually telling us that if a man pokes another man's eye out then his eye should be poked out? Is it so wrong if that would be what the Torah is saying? Perhaps the Torah is referring to money and this is NOT TO BE TAKEN LITERAL like other aspects of the Torah? Let's see what our options are.

In the Gemara in Babba Kamma (83b-84a) it discusses whether this verse is meant literally or not. There are several different Tannaim and Amoraim that bring down their reasonings as to why they believe the verse is not meant literally, but rather it is a parable for money. (For the Gemara in English see here and in Hebrew see here)

The first views brought down in the Gemara are a mixture of Tannaim and Amoraim saying why they feel the ORIGINAL intent of the Torah is monetary compensation and not a literal flesh for flesh type of deal. They bring down different words that they elaborate on to teach these different meanings. However, there are two views in the Gemara that seem to be saying that the intent of the Torah is actually that of flesh for flesh, but they are "proven" wrong. The first view is that of Abaye quoting the Study Hall of Hezekiah. (Granted, this idea is questioned without an answer, but I do not think that should rule it out as an opinion because one could easily come up with an answer.) The second view is that of Rebbe Eliezar. He says that an Eye for an Eye is meant literally. (Granted, the Gemara goes on to explain him as meaning something else, but it seems unjustified, as will be explained later.)

The view that Abaye brings down says:

"Abbaye said: [The principle of pecuniary compensation] could be derived from the teaching of the
School of Hezekiah. For the School of Hesekiah taught: Eye for eye, life for life, but not ‘life and
eye for eye’. Now if you assume that actual retaliation is meant, it could sometimes happen that eye
and life would be taken for eye, as while the offender is being blinded, his soul might depart from

So, according to this explanation of Abaye it seems like the reason we only collect money in this situation is because it is impossible to make sure the punishment will not kill the guilty party. However, if we somehow had a way to inflict the damage while being positive that the person would not die, then an Eye for an eye could be literal. (Abaye is trying to come up with a reason to make the Torah not literal, however, his reasoning leads to the possibility for the Torah to be taken literally. If we somehow came up with a method to take an eye out while being sure to not kill the person, then, according to Abaye's reasoning, we would take the eye and not the money. I would venture to say that nowadays, according to Abaye's reasoning, the Torah would be taken literally.)

The opinion of Rebbe Eliezar requires a deeper analysis. It is clear that Abaye's statement is meant to work on the inability for man to assure the people that taking out an eye would not kill the guilty party. However, Rebbe Eliezaar says:

"It was taught: R. Eliezer said: Eye for eye literally refers to the eye [of the offender]."

However, the Gemara makes a very puzzling statement about Rebbe Eliezar's words:

"Literally, you say? Could R. Eliezer be against all those Tannaim [enumerated above]?"

What is the Gemara trying to tell us here? Rebbe Eliezar was a Tanna, Tannaim argue all the time. Why would the Gemara assume that Rebbe Eliezar is UNABLE to argue on the other Tannaim listed here? There are many times when Tannaim argue against the opinions of several other Tannaim and the Gemara does not completely reinterpret their words. It is strange that here, in the instance of Eye for an Eye, the Gemara feels that Rebbe Eliezar is unable to argue with other Tannaim. After all, this is the same Rebbe Eliezar that defied all of the Tannaim and was excommunicated by Rabban Gamliel.

(For those who are unfamiliar with the story,  here it is from here (Babba Metzia 59a-b):
We learned elsewhere: “If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: Rabbi Eliezer declared it clean, and the sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of ‘Aknai.”  Why [the ovenof] ‘Aknai?—Said Rav Judah in Samuel’s name: “[It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean.”
It has been taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: “If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!”
Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place. Others affirm, four hundred cubits.
“No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,” they retorted.
Again he said to them: “If the halakhah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!”—whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards.
“No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they rejoined.
Again he urged: “If the halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,” whereupon the walls inclined to fall.
But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying: “When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what have you to interfere?”
Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume their upright position, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.
Again he said to them: “If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halakhah agrees with him!” But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven.” 
What did he mean by this? Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘‘After the majority must one incline.” 
Rabbi Nathan met Elijah (the prophet) and asked him: “What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?—He laughed [with joy],” he replied, “saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’’’
It was said: On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.  Said they, “Who shall go and inform him?”
“I will go,” answered Rabbi Akiva, “lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.” 
What did Rabbi Akiva do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him.
“Akkiva,” said Rabbi Eliezer to him, “what has particularly happened today?”
“Master,” he replied, “it appears to me that your companions hold aloof from you.” Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up. 
A tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. Rabban Gamaliel too was traveling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him.
“It appears to me,” he reflected, “that this is on account of none other but Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.”
Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, “Sovereign of the Universe! You know full well that I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house, but for Yours, so that strife may not multiply in Israel!”
At that the raging sea subsided.)

This story clearly shows that Rebbe Eliezar was quiet capable and willing to argue on multiple Tannaim, even many at once. Therefore, I am confused as to why the Gemara feels that it must reinterpret his statements to mean something else. 

It seems to me that there is something else going on here in this Gemara. The Torah gave the scholars the ability to set laws as they see fit. The Torah says, without any ambiguity, that we should follow our leaders. What does it seem like is going on here? The Torah scholars in the time of the Gemara did not want anyone to think that taking a limb for a limb was acceptable. That is why they spent two full pages bringing numerous different ideas as to why this verse MUST NOT be literal. The Gemara could not bring down just one or two opinions in this situation like it does in so many others, it needed to show how there was unanimous support for this idea of eye for an eye not being literal. That is why any hint of literal explanation like Abaye or Rebbe Eliezar, along with a couple others, are rejected in the strongest terms. Why MUST have Rebbe Eliezar meant something else when he seemingly says that the punishment was meant to be literal? Because that idea was (and is) antithetical to the ideas found in the Torah. Therefore, it MUST be unanimous that Eye for an Eye was not literal. 

What do I mean that Eye for an eye being literal is antithetical to the Torah? The Torah is divine wisdom and the moral compass for the Jewish people. How could the Torah then claim that the punishment for maiming someone is to be maimed? Lashes and the death penalty are fundamentally different than maiming someone. The reason is hinted to in the Gemara as another answer, but I will just say it out here. Lashes heal and are not permanent. Death is equal, you took someones life and now your life is being taken because every man is equal under G-D. However, maiming someone is unjust in and of itself. How can you know how much my arm is worth to me and those around me. How much was the arm that was taken worth? Maiming someone is not an equal punishment. Two eyes do not see equally well, are not the same size and, by definition, do not have the same worth. The only just way to deal with this is monetarily. 

The Gemara gives this idea a unique amount of attention and the Gemara brings down a unique amount of opinions to show how it must be that this verse was meant to mean monetary value. I think that the reason for this is because of our belief as Jews that the Torah is from G-D and is divine. Meaning, the Torah is the source of all Justice and it teaches us how to live our lives.  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Moshe Going Out to Meet Yisro

How would you feel if G-D gave you a task that forced you to separate from your family for years without being able to see them? This is exactly what happened to Moshe. G-D commanded Moshe to take leave of his father-in-law and travel to Egypt to save the Jews. Moshe, with his wife and children, went down to Egypt in order to fulfill G-D's command. During the trip, Moshe's wife circumcised their son, revealing to us the young age at which Moshe was forced to leave his son, since once Moshe arrived in Egypt, Aharon told Moshe to send his family back to Midyan because there was enough suffering of the Jewish people in Egypt under Pharoh and why should Moshe bring more people to suffer. This left Moshe and his wife in a difficult situation, let his children grow up without a father and fulfill G-D's words or ignore his responsibilities to the Jewish people and go back to Midyan with his family.(See Shemos 4:19-28 for the full details) Obviously, Moshe chose the latter and finally, after years of separation, Moshe is finally able to see his family again when Yisro, his father-in-law, brings them to see him as described in this week's Parsha:

ב. וַיִּקַּח יִתְרוֹ חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֶת צִפֹּרָה אֵשֶׁת מֹשֶׁה אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ:
2. So Moses' father in law, Jethro, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after she had been sent away,

ג. וְאֵת שְׁנֵי בָנֶיהָ  
3. and her two sons......

One would think that Moshe would be overjoyed to see his family and would want to go out and greet them. Therefore, it is curious that when Yisro sends word of their coming he states:

ו. וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֲנִי חֹתֶנְךָ יִתְרוֹ בָּא אֵלֶיךָ וְאִשְׁתְּךָ וּשְׁנֵי בָנֶיהָ עִמָּהּ:
6. And he said to Moses, "I, Jethro, your father in law, am coming to you, and [so is] your wife and her two sons with her. "

Rashi here explains that Yisro was saying, through a messanger:

אני חתנך יתרו וגו': אם אין אתה יוצא בגיני צא בגין אשתך, ואם אין אתה יוצא בגין אשתך צא בגין שני בניה:
If you will not come out [to greet us] for me, do it for your wife, and if not for her, greet us for your children. 

Why did Yisro have to ASK Moshe to come out and greet them? Wouldn't Moshe be jumping for joy and be RUNNING to meet his long absent family?

One of the first related ideas, other than Rashi, that I saw on this subject bothered me. One of the opinions found in the Daas Sofrim seems to say based on how they understand the phrase "Your wife and HER two sons" that Tzipora and her children were not that great of people.  They say that the reason the verse calls Moshe's two sons HER sons is because the root of their souls never reached to the level of the root of Moshe's soul. This opinion in the Daas Sofrim seems to be saying that Tzipora did not do a good job raising Moshe's sons and therefore the Torah calls them HER two sons. Perhaps this can also explain why Moshe was not so excited to see them according to the Daas Sofrim.

The next thing regarding this idea can be seen in the Ibn Ezra and this really threw me off. He says:
ויצא לקראת חתנו -
בעבור כבוד יתרו וחכמתו. ולא לאשתו ובניו, כי אין מנהג לאדם נכבד לצאת לקראת אשתו או בניו.

[He went out towards his father-in-law] because of the honor of Yisro and his wisdom, but not towards his wife or sons because it is not the custom of an honorable man to go out towards his wife or sons.

These two ideas of the Ibn Ezra and the opinion in the Daas Sofrim is fundamentally different than the approach of Rashi. Rashi seems to be saying that Yisro is asking Moshe to come greet him, Yisro, in order that Yisro should be honored. However, if Moshe is unwilling to honor Yisro, Yisro then begs that Moshe honor his daughter. If Moshe is unwilling to do that, at least Moshe will honor his sons. This shows that Rashi understands that Moshe would PREFER to go out to greet his family for Tziporah's sake and his own children's sake more than for the sake of Yisro. The Ibn Ezra focuses on who is more grandiose, but Rashi sees Moshe as a man separated from his family and his love for his family being the most important thing above all else.

Rashi's approach reveals the humbleness of Moshe, but I am unsure what Ibn Ezra's approach shows other than haughtiness. If we follow Rashi's approach, then Moshe is a man who is going out of his way to show honor to his father-in-law even though he doesn't have to. The only thing that could compel Moshe to honor his father-in-law is Moshe's own humbleness and willingness to make others feel good about themselves. This is a trait we should all strive to acquire. However, the Ibn Ezra's approach would seemingly only show Moshe as an arrogant man that did not miss his family, or, at the very least, a man who is unwilling to be emotional with his family. According to the Ibn Ezra, Moshe was careful about his own honor and would not go out to meet his family, only Yisro. I don't know how else to understand the Ibn Ezra. Any suggestions are welcome.

Nonetheless, there is a good lesson to be learned from Moshe according to Rashi. Showing honor to others that deserve it should always be done. Yisro deserved to be honored, therefore, Moshe showed him honor. Even though Moshe did not have to show him honor since Moshe was, at this point, the king of the Jews, he still showed Yisro respect. This is a very important trait to learn, humbleness and a desire to always do the right thing.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Supernatural Vs Natural Miracles Why the Difference?

In this week's Parsha, Bishalach, G-D splits the Red Sea in order to save the Jewish people and punish the Egyptians. This Miracle was clearly outside the realm of nature, as will be discussed. However, the very next miracles that occur are clearly miracles performed THROUGH nature. Why does G-D do this and what can we take away from this?

It says in Shemos (14:21-25):

כא. וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ עַל הַיָּם וַיּוֹלֶךְ יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶת הַיָּם בְּרוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה כָּל הַלַּיְלָה וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת הַיָּם לֶחָרָבָה וַיִּבָּקְעוּ הַמָּיִם:
21. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord led the sea with the strong east wind all night, and He made the sea into dry land and the waters split.

כב. וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם:
22. Then the children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left.

כג. וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם וַיָּבֹאוּ אַחֲרֵיהֶם כֹּל סוּס פַּרְעֹה רִכְבּוֹ וּפָרָשָׁיו אֶל תּוֹךְ הַיָּם:
23. The Egyptians pursued and came after them all Pharaoh s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen, into the midst of the sea.

כד. וַיְהִי בְּאַשְׁמֹרֶת הַבֹּקֶר וַיַּשְׁקֵף יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ וְעָנָן וַיָּהָם אֵת מַחֲנֵה מִצְרָיִם:
24. It came about in the morning watch that the Lord looked down over the Egyptian camp through a pillar of fire and cloud, and He threw the Egyptian camp into confusion.

כה. וַיָּסַר אֵת אֹפַן מַרְכְּבֹתָיו וַיְנַהֲגֵהוּ בִּכְבֵדֻת וַיֹּאמֶר מִצְרַיִם אָנוּסָה מִפְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי יְ־הֹוָ־ה נִלְחָם לָהֶם בְּמִצְרָיִם:
25. And He removed the wheels of their chariots, and He led them with heaviness, and the Egyptians said, Let me run away from the Israelites because the Lord is fighting for them against the Egyptians

 It seems clear that this act of G-D, splitting the sea and destroying the Egyptian army, was supernatural. Moses lifted up his hand and that is what caused the eastern wind to come and split the sea. Not only was the sea split, but there was a wall of water on both sides of the Jews, stagnant water! Not only was there stagnant water, but somehow the eastern wind kept blowing, it kept the sea split, but yet the Jews were able to walk through the water without being blown away. So either there was a non-natural miracle that allowed the Jews to walk through this powerful wind that could split the sea without problems or there was some completely unnatural miracle that was keeping the sea split in order that the Jews could walk through without the wind. 

After this event and the singing and dancing to praise G-D the Jews started to complain about not having water for three days. As it says (ibid 15:22-23):

כב. וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם סוּף וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל מִדְבַּר שׁוּר וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְלֹא מָצְאוּ מָיִם:
 22. Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water.

כג. וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ מָרָה:
23. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. 

 כד. וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר מַה נִּשְׁתֶּה:
24. The people complained against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?

 However, this problem was not solved with a supernatural miracle. Rather, G-D told Moses what to do in a natural way (ibid 15:25):

כה. וַיִּצְעַק אֶל יְ־הֹוָ־ה וַיּוֹרֵהוּ יְ־הֹוָ־ה עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל הַמַּיִם וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ:
25. So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet. There He gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.

 G-D told Moshe what type of plant would make the water drinkable. This was not a supernatural miracle, rather it was through nature that the water became drinkable. All G-D did was tell Moshe which plants would NATURALLY fix the bitter water. Don't take my word for it, just ask the Chizkuni (Top Right of the page). He says, "Even though G-D has the ability to sweeten the water without the plant it is His way to perform miracles according to nature (the ways of the world)."

This naturalistic miracle  was also performed in the end of this chapter as well. It says (ibid 27):

כז. וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵילִמָה וְשָׁם שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה עֵינֹת מַיִם וְשִׁבְעִים תְּמָרִים וַיַּחֲנוּ שָׁם עַל הַמָּיִם:
27. They came to Elim, and there were twelve water fountains and seventy palms, and they encamped there by the water.

There just happened to be a fountain of water for each tribe and 70 date palms, the number of Elders? Even if this was a coincidence, why would the Torah decide to tell us about this specific area while it ignores so many others? The Ramban tells us why, because this was a naturalistic miracle! The Ramban quotes for us the following Mechilta :

ר' אלעזר המודעי אמר: מיום שברא הקב"ה את עולמו ברא שם שתים עשרה מבועין כנגד י"ב שבטי ישראל, ושבעים דקלים כנגד שבעים זקנים. וספר הכתוב זה כי חנו עליהם כל שבט על מבועו, והזקנים ישבו בצלם לשבח האל עליהם שהכין להם כן בארץ ציה. 

Rabbi Elazar Hamodai says, "From the day G-D created His world, He created there (Elim) 12 fountains of water which correlate to the 12 tribes of Israel and seventy date palms which correlate to the 70 elders. The [Torah] told us this verse that each tribe camped by their fountain of water and each elder sat in the shade of his own date palm to praise G-D for them because He prepared this for them."

G-D had prepared this area for them in a miraculous way. He had created this very spot for the Jews to come and camp at the time of creation! This is just like the Mishna in Pirkei Avos that tells us 10 things were prepared by G-D during the twilight of the sixth day: The mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach's rebellion, the worm that carved the stones for the Temple and so on.

However, the question still remains, "Why does G-D need to tell us about these naturalistic miracles? There are so many things on the journey that were not talked about, as the Ramban told us earlier in his commentary on this verse (27), why are these naturalistic miracles special?"

As in so many other things, I believe that G-D is teaching us a valuable lesson here. G-D told Moshe to use a plant to fix the water and not just wave his hand. Also, he created the world with this spot in the desert that fit the Jewish people's needs perfectly and did not just conjure it into existence from thin air. However, G-D did use supernatural means to save the Jews at the Red Sea and to destroy the Egyptian army. There is one verse that can clearly explain the difference and it is found at the end of Chapter 14 (verse 31):

לא. וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְ־הֹוָ־ה בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת יְ־הֹוָ־ה וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּי־הֹוָ־ה וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ:
31. And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant.

Why did the Jews believe in G-D and Moshe? What prepared the Jews to believe in G-D and Moshe in order that they could now go to Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah? It was this single event that happened at the Red Sea, the supernatural occurrence of the sea splitting and G-D making His supernatural presence felt. Only then could the Jewish people claim that they KNEW G-D was G-D and that He was the supreme being. Only then could they be certain that all other G-D's were false and all other "powers"  in the world were false. Only G-D has the power to control anything in the world. 

Unfortunately, this revelation also had a draw back, the Jews now expected open miracles that reverse nature on a constant basis. This is why they complained about not having water. They wanted G-D to magically produce water in the middle of the desert. However, G-D wanted to teach them that the world does not work like that. The only reason G-D revealed Himself and His supernatural presence at the Red Sea was in order that the Jewish people know He exists and believe in Him. Before His revelation there was no guarantee that Moshe was not just an amazing sorcerer or working for a powerful Idol. It was only through G-D's personal revelation to the Jewish people that they now knew who Moshe was and G-D's power.

Essentially, G-D was telling the Jews NOT to rely on unnatural miracles to get them through hard times. Therefore, G-D showed Moshe how to turn the unusable water into usable water, through natural means that took effort and the part of the Jewish people. Also, the Jewish people needed to travel to Elim in order to reach the springs of water and the date trees. Their hard travels and hard work payed off and they were able to reap the benefits of their labor. 

I think that is the lesson the Torah is trying to teach us here. Even though the Torah teaches us about a supernatural G-D that is all powerful, we still should not expect Him to bend the laws of nature for us. We must work and toil to get what we need. We must fight and defend ourselves in order to survive. Sitting back, closing our eyes and hoping G-D will provide is never an option. There always must be those willing to sacrifice and lead or we will be in big trouble.  

Friday, January 7, 2011

Pharoh's Free Will

There are so many good topics to discuss in this week's Parsha of Bo. However, I would like to focus on the first verse of this week's parsha. It states (Shemos 10:1)

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה:  כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ.1 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them;

There are so many things going on here that it is hard to decide where to begin. I guess that the order of the verse is a good place to start. Why does G-D have to tell Moshe to go to Pharoh BECAUSE of anything? Why does G-D have to justify Himself to Moshe? Furthermore, why does G-D have to harden the heart of Pharoh and his servants? Not to mention, how can G-D take away someone's free will just to prove a point?

It seems to me that all of these questions can be answered in a single idea. First, let me explain an argument between the Rambam and the Ralbag. These great Torah scholars argue about one of the most basic philosophical concepts, free will and G-D's knowledge. The question is "How can G-D know what I am about to do yet my choice to do that action that is known to G-D is my own choice?" The Rambam gives a very simple answer in "The Guide for the Perplexed." He tells us, basically, that just because G-D knows you will do a certain action does not mean that it was not your choice. The Rambam basically defines free will as you coming to the conclusion yourself and G-D's knowledge that you will perform that action is irrelevant. However, the Ralbag answers the question much differently. He believes that G-D's knowledge that you will perform a certain action takes away the free will choice of that action. Therefore, the Ralbag explains that G-D's knowledge of human actions only encompasses general actions and not specific actions. Meaning, G-D knows what happens to a nation and understands human nature. This allows G-D to understand what humans are doing, but not to know what they will do in the future. The Ralbag is complicated and, in order to fully understand his idea, one must read his ideas in depth in the Wars of the Lord (Milchamus Hashem).

Moshe thought that talking to Pharoh was fruitless and pointless. However, G-D explained to Moshe here that there is a reason why Pharoh refuses to send out the Jews, because his heart and the heart of his officers have been hardened. Why? In order that G-D could perform the ten plagues. The Rambam would explain this verse in a somewhat traditional way. G-D knew that Pharoh would continue to reject any plea from Moshe, because G-D knows the future beyond a shadow of a doubt. This also allowed G-D to  KNOW that all ten plagues would be performed. However, in order to make Pharoh's future into this reality, G-D had to harden Pharoh's heart and the heart of his servants, because otherwise they would not have rejected Moshe's plea. "What about free choice?" G-D had already given enough opportunity to Pharoh to repent. At this point G-D wanted to reveal his amazing power to all of creation through the conduit of Pharoh. Pharoh NO LONGER HAD FREE WILL.

The Ralbag, I think, would explain this episode a little different and in a very innovative way. The Ralbag would tell us that G-D was telling Moshe that Pharoh is a stubborn man, because G-D created him that way. "I [created him] with a heavy heart and [I created] his servants [with a heavy heart] in order that I can perform my miracles." That is what G-D was telling Moshe, that even though any conversation with Pharoh is pointless, having a conversation must be done. G-D knew the nature of Pharoh and his servants. G-D did not know the specific acts of Pharoh's future, but he knew Pharoh's inherent genetically transcribed nature. Just like a pedophile or a rapist will not stop, so too Pharoh will not stop. In all of these situations their inherent nature is to follow their animalistic desires.

According to the Rambam we would have to say that G-D removed Pharoh's free will. However, the Ralbag allows us to see that Pharoh had free will, but some people are inherently evil. Their inherent nature is wicked and they do not care to overcome their deficiencies. This is an important lesson for several reasons. I was listening to the radio and I heard about this 16 year old boy who tried to kill someone. He did not succeed and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. However, the supreme court ruled that a person under the age of 18 can not be given a life sentence for a non-lethal crime. The lawyers are going to be arguing about it. This case gave me pause. Why shouldn't someone who is under 18 be given a life sentence? Can you rehabilitate someone under the age of 18 better than over? Personally, I believe that there are two aspects to who a person is, their nature and their nurture. The nature of a person is their inherent drive. Some people are born with an animalistic desire to kill and others are not. On the other hand, some people are born in neighborhood where they are taught it is ok to kill those that you hate, while others are raised in neighborhoods where that is unacceptable. The mixture between an inherent drive to kill and a perception that it is ok to kill is very dangerous.

While a person is still young and impressionable, that is when their nurture can be altered. A person that is taught it is ok to kill can still be taught that killing is unacceptable, hence they should not be permanently punished, but rehabilitated. However, after a certain point, a person is set in their ideals and thoughts, that person can no longer be rehabilitated. Pharoh and his officers where beyond the point of being rehabilitated. Moshe would never be able to convince Pharoh to let the Jewish people go. This is why G-D knew that He would be able to perform all the ten plagues on Egypt, because Pharoh was set in his evil ways.