Monday, December 28, 2015

Parashas Shemos: Seventy Souls and Seventy Perspectives

Originally written as a "newsletter dvar Torah" for the general populace, and posted in January 2012.

Seventy Souls and Seventy Perspectives

The second chapter of Sefer Shemos begins with the birth of Moshe Rabbeinu: “A man went from the house of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and gave birth to a son.” [1] This woman is subsequently identified as Yocheved. [2] 

The birth of Yocheved poses a difficulty in light of an earlier pasuk: “All the people of Yaakov’s household who came to Egypt were seventy.” [3] The Gemara notes the difficulty that the Chumash only lists 69 individuals. The Gemara answers by identifying the 70th individual as Yocheved, explaining that her name was omitted from the list because she “came to Egypt” in her mother’s womb and was “born between the walls” as Bnei Yisrael entered Egypt. [4] 

This Gemara leads us to an astounding conclusion. Based on the timeline in the Chumash, it turns out that Yocheved was 130 years old when she gave birth to Moshe! [5]

Rashi and Ramban take this Gemara at face value, as literal fact. [6] They maintain that the birth of Moshe to the 130-year-old Yocheved was a miracle. Indeed, the Gemara itself refers to her birth as a miracle. [7] Ibn Ezra and Ralbag disagree. They argue that that if the Torah went out of its way to mention the miraculous birth of Yitzchak to the 90-year-old Sarah, then it certainly would have mentioned the miraculous birth of Moshe to a 130-year-old Yocheved. [8] Ralbag adds that the Torah’s makes it a point to publicize miracles by mentioning them explicitly, since miracles are a cornerstone of our belief in God. [9]

How, then, do Ibn Ezra and Ralbag explain the aforementioned Gemara, which openly states that Moshe’s birth was a miracle? Their answer is simple: they interpret this Gemara as a non-literal midrash. Ralbag theorizes that the midrash was written “for the benefit of the masses, to establish in their hearts the power of Hashem’s ability to do miracles.” How do they explain the fact that the Chumash asserts that 70 souls went down to Egypt, but the pesukim only list 69 names? – Their answer is simple: by including Yaakov himself in the total of 70. And what about Yocheved’s Age? – Ralbag explains that if we assume Yocheved was born at the end of Levi’s life, then she would have only been 58 years old when she gave birth to Moshe; while this might be a late age to have a child, it would not require us to posit a miracle.

This machlokes provides us with the opportunity for a valuable methodology lesson. People often invoke the principle of “shivim panim l’Torah” ("there are seventy faces/perspectives to the Torah") [10] when confronted by divergent views. Unfortunately, the application of this principle is often misunderstood. Some people use “shivim panim l’Torah” as a way of saying, “All views are equally valid.” In my opinion, this represents an incorrect understanding of the principle. Rather, “shivim panim l’Torah” means that it is possible to have multiple valid theories to explain a certain set of facts. In some subjects – such as halacha, and certain areas of ethics and politics – conflicting theories can be equally true. But in other subjects – such as science, philosophy, metaphysics, and history – there is only one truth, since there is only one reality.

Our machlokes serves as an example of the latter. Does “shivim panim l’Torah” mean that the opposing views of these Rishonim are both true? No. That would be impossible. Either Yocheved was 130 years old when she gave birth to Moshe, or she 58. Both cannot be true. Rather, “shivim panim l’Torah” means that both views are based on sound theories. Both theories are logical, both are supported by solid evidence and reasoning, and both offer valuable insights into Torah. It is in that sense that we can invoke “shivim panim la’Torah.” 

[1] Sefer Shemos 2:1-2
[2] ibid. 6:20; Bamidbar 26:59
[3] Sefer Bereishis 46:27
[4] Talmud Bavli: Maseches Bava Basra 123b
[5] Given that the Jews lived in Egypt for 210 years, and Moshe was 80 years old when he spoke to Paroh, he must have been born 130 after the arrival of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt. Thus, if Yocheved was born “between the walls” as Bnei Yisrael entered Egypt, she must have been 130 years old when she gave birth to Moshe.
[6] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemos 2:1; Commentary on Sefer Bereishis 46:15, 26
[7] Talmud Bavli: Maseches Bava Basra 119b-120a
[8] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Bereishis 46:27
[9] Rabbeinu Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag / Gersonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemos 1:7

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Plans for Winter 2016

Dear readers, 

January 2016 is right around the corner. While I still do not have time to fully commit to regular blogging, I would like to at least make an effort to resume my endeavor to edit and transfer blog posts from the old blog to the new one. I'm going to start with the realistic goal of transferring the weekly divrei Torah posts, and establish that as my new routine for 2016. If that should happen to lead me to edit and transfer other old posts - great! And if my renewed involvement in the blog should happen to lead me to actually write an occasional new post - even better! 

No promises. But if you're a fan, then keep your eye on the blog.

- Kol ha'Seridim

Artwork: Enduring Renewal, by Harold McNeill