Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Shavuos is NOT About Matan Torah

Truth be told, the title of this blog post only reflects two out of the three views that will be discussed here. But this title is definitely more eye-catching than a boring vanilla title like "What is the Theme of Shavuos?" so I rolled with it. If you're REALLY short on time and just want the bottom line, skip to the summary at the very end.

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Artwork: Mountain (THS), by Adam Paquette

Shavuos is NOT About Matan Torah

The Question

Ask your average Jew, "What is Shavuos about?" and you are bound to get the answer, "Shavuos is about Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah at Sinai)." That's what I thought until I started looking into the issue. 

There is a major problem with the aforementioned standard explanation: the pesukim never identify "Matan Torah" as the theme of Shavuos. Sure, one can argue that there are allusions to this theme in the Torah she'bi'Chsav (Written Torah), and there are numerous supports in Torah she'baal Peh (Oral Torah) and halacha. But it is definitely noteworthy that the pesukim themselves do not mention anything about Matan Torah in relation to the Chag ha'Shavuos

The aim of this post is to summarize the approaches taken by three meforshim (commentators): the Ralbag, who agrees with the conventional explanation, and the Abravanel and Rav Hirsch who disagree. As is the case in any machlokes (disagreement), each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the reader will have to make his or her own determination as to which explanation is the most convincing.

Ralbag: The Traditional Theory

The Ralbag [1] notes the difficulty we mentioned, but nevertheless insists that Shavuos commemorates Matan Torah:
"In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai" (Shemos 19:1). This refers to the day of Rosh Chodesh itself ... And since this indicates at the very least that Matan Torah occurred on the third day of the third month [since the pesukim go on to say,] "On the third day when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning, etc." (ibid. 19:16), which is close to the time of Chag ha'Shavuos, which is on the 6th of Sivan, and it is possible that Israel camped there for three days before Moshe said to them, "Be prepared after a three-day period" (ibid. 19:15) - therefore, it is proper for us to believe that the day of Matan Torah was on the 6th of Sivan. Furthermore, it would be bogus [to claim] that the Torah left for us an impression and a commemoration of the time we left Egypt by making a Chag ha'Matzos but didn't leave for us an impression and commemoration of the time that the Torah was given in this wondrous manner. For this reason it is clearly evident that the Chag ha'Shavuos is at the time of Matan Torah, to remind us of the wondrous phenomenon of Matan Torah to firmly establish our conviction in the words of Torah always. 
The Ralbag makes two arguments to support his assertion that Shavuos commemorates Matan Torah: (1) since Shavuos is on the 6th of Sivan, and since the pesukim can be read in a way which indicates that the Torah was given on or around the 6th of Sivan, it follows that the 6th of Sivan is the day of Matan Torah, and the Chag ha'Shavuos is its commemoration; (2) it would be absurd for the Torah to commemorate the day of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) and not commemorate the day of Matan Torah

In Parashas Emor the Ralbag [2] supports his theory with his explanation of the Shtei ha'Lechem (Two Loaves), which is the unique korban of Shavuos. In short, he explains that we bring loaves of chametz-bread as a korban to reflect the Torah-regimen, which brings man to perfection. He writes:
Before man’s actions and concepts are perfected through the Torah-regimen, his actions and concepts are deficient – just like matzah-bread, which lacks the perfection of leavening. But afterwards, man’s actions and concepts become perfected, like chametz-bread, which has the greatest degree of perfection. 
(For a full treatment of this subject, see our post entitled, Torah as Melachah.)

The strength of the Ralbag's theory lies in its intuitiveness, and its consonance with other sources and halachic practices. The strongest proof is that in our tefilos (prayers) we refer to the holiday as: "Yom Chag ha'Shavuos zman matan Toraseinu (the day of Chag ha'Shavuos, the time of the giving of our Torah)." Then there's the fact that the krias ha'Torah (public Torah reading) of the moadim corresponds to the theme of that moed. What do we read on Shavuos? The widespread minhag (custom) is to read the Torah's account of Matan Torah in Shemos Chapters 19-20. And there are numerous other minhagim which also support the Ralbag, such as the reading of Megilas Rus (which deals with Rus's personal acceptance of Torah), the reading of Akdamus (which deals with the theme of Torah), the minhag to stay up all night learning Torah, and more. 

The weakness of the Ralbag's theory is the lack of support in Torah she'bi'Chsav. It is awkward, to say the least, that the Ralbag relies on inferences to establish both the date of Matan Torah and the theme of Shavuos, and utilizes each one to support his argument for the other. At the end of the day the Ralbag must contend with the fact that the pesukim don't say anything about Matan Torah in conjunction with Shavuos. 

Abravanel: The Scriptural Theory

The Abravanel's argument [3] hinges entirely on Torah she'bi'Chsav's treatment of Shavuos. He begins by expressing the view that is the title of this blog post:
Behold! The Torah didn't give as a reason for this chag that it is a commemoration of the day of Matan Torah because this chag was NOT established as a commemoration of the giving of our Torah, since this God-given Torah that is in our possession and this nevuah (prophecy) that is in our possession - they are their own witnesses, and there is no need to sanctify a day to remember it. 
Right away we see that the Abravanel's view is the polar opposite of the Ralbag's. The Ralbag argued that it would be absurd for there NOT to be a holiday commemorating the day of Matan Torah, whereas the Abravanel says that there is NO need for such a holiday! (As much as we would like to return to this point in this post, it will probably have to wait for another time; feel free to suggest a definition for this machlokes in the comments.)

The Abravanel continues by stating what he holds to be the real theme of the chag:
But the reason for the Chag ha'Shavuos is that it is the beginning of the wheat harvest. Just as the Chag ha'Sukkos is at the end of the gathering of the produce, so too, the Chag ha'Shavuos is at the beginning of their gathering. For Hashem desired that at the start of the gathering of the produce that sustains man - of which wheat is the primary species, and which is first harvested at the Chag ha'Shavuos - they should make a chag to give thanks to "He Who provides sustenance to all flesh." And at the end of the produce [gathering season] they should make another chag
In the Abravanel's view, Shavuos and Sukkos are both harvest festivals: Shavuos occurs at the time of the first major harvest, and Sukkos occurs at the very end of the harvest. In a sense, these two moadim may be compared to brachah rishonah (the blessing of praise we make before partaking of our food) and brachah achronah (the blessing of thanks we make after partaking of our food). We thank and praise Hashem at the beginning, so that we enter "harvest mode" with the right mentality, and we thank and praise Hashem at the end, to make sure that we don't get caught up in our own success. 

At this point one might ask, "Wait a minute - does the Abravanel deny that the Torah was given on the 6th of Sivan?" The answer is no - and yet, the Abravanel explains that overlap of the day of Matan Torah and the day of this harvest festival is (for lack of a better term) a coincidence! He writes:
Without a doubt the day of the Chag ha'Shavuos is the day that the Torah was given, but we were not commanded in this chag in order to remember [Matan Torah]. The same is true of Yom Teruah (i.e. Rosh ha'Shanah). It is stated [in the Mussaf of Rosh ha'Shanah]: "This day is the beginning of Your works, a remembrance of the first day" - but despite all this, it doesn't say that the reason why He commanded us to observe Yom Teruah is for the sake of this remembrance; rather, [He commanded us to observe the Yom Teruah] as the Day of Judgment. The same is true of the Chag ha'Shavuos: it occurs at the time of our Matan Torah, but we weren't commanded in it for this remembrance; rather, [He commanded us to observe the Chag ha'Shavuos] as the beginning of the wheat harvest.
It should be noted that while the Abravanel does explain some connection between Yom Teruah and the initial act of creating the universe (as we wrote about in our post Yom ha'Din and Yom Teruah), he does not offer any explanation of a thematic connection between the wheat harvest and Matan Torah - at least, not that I have seen. We will return to this point later.

The Abravanel concludes his explanation of Shavuos by citing ample evidence for this theory from Torah she'bi'Chsav:
Likewise it was stated in Seder Mishpatim: "and the Chag ha'Katzir (Festival of the Harvest) of the first fruits of your labor that you sow in the field, and the Chag ha'Asif (Festival of the Ingathering) at the close of the year, when you gather in your work from the field" (Shemos 23:16). And in Seder Ki Sisa: "and the Chag ha'Shavuos with the first offering of the wheat harvest, and the Chag ha'Asif shall be at the changing of the year" (ibid. 34:22). And in Seder Pinchas: "On the day of the first-fruits, when you offer a new meal-offering to Hashem, on your [Festival of] Weeks" (Bamidbar 28:26). And in Seder Re'eh: "You shall count seven weeks for yourselves, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you shall observe the Chag ha'Shavuos" (Devarim 16:9-10). Behold! You see that this chag is only called by the name "Shavuos" and that we were only commended in it because of the first fruits, not as a remembrance of Matan Torah.
This is why it was stated by the Chag ha'Shavuos: "[You shall convoke] on that very day" (Vayikra 23:21), since [its identity as a holiday] it is because of the day itself, in that it is the first wheat harvest - not because it was [the day of] Matan Torah ... 
And since this Chag indicates the beginning of the wheat harvest, as I explained, therefore the Torah commands us in its purpose immediately after this, saying: "When you reap the harvest of your land, [you shall not remove completely the corners of your field as you reap and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest; for the poor and the convert shall you leave them; I am Hashem, your God]" (ibid. 23:22). In other words, just as the beginning of the harvest is for the kavod (honor) of Hashem in the Chag ha'Shavuos, so too is the purpose of His service in leaving peah and leket for the poor.
The evidence marshaled by the Abravanel is quite compelling! Literally every pasuk in the Torah which discusses the theme of Shavuos supports his theory. The anomalous use of the term "on that very day" to describe Shavuos is consistent with his explanation that Shavuos celebrates a phenomenon associated with the day itself (i.e. the harvest that we begin at that time of year), rather than a historical event which the holiday was established to commemorate (i.e. Pesach). Last, but not least, the Abravanel's theory answers a question we addressed in our previous blog post as to why the Torah follows its discussion of Shavuos by reminding us of laws of the harvest. If the theme of Shavuos were Matan Torah, this reminder would be a non-sequitur. But once we see that the theme of Shavuos is thanking Hashem for the harvest, it naturally follows that this recognition should reinforce our observance of the tzedakah-mitzvos which govern the manner in which we harvest. 

The strength that the Abravanel's theory derives from Torah she'bi'Chsav is matched by the weakness of his theory from the standpoint of our halachic practice. What does the Abravanel do with the phrase "zman matan Toraseinu" in our tefilos? What does he make of the many minhagim which support the Ralbag's assertion that Shavuos is about Matan Torah? Is he really not bothered by the fact that the day of Shavuos and the day of Matan Torah just happen to coincide? Unfortunately, I am not aware of any place where the Abravanel addresses these difficulties with his theory. 

Rav Hirsch: The "True Commemoration" Theory

All three of the meforshim whose views are discussed in this blog post are undoubtedly original thinkers. And yet, Rav Hirsch's explanation of Shavuos is, to my mind, the most creative of the three. Unlike Ralbag and Abravanel, Rav Hirsch begins with the premise - taken from Torah she'baal Peh - that Shavuos has something to do with Matan Torah. With that in mind, he begins by taking up the same question as the Ralbag, namely, when did Matan Torah actually happen, and what is the relationship between the day of Matan Torah and the day of Chag ha'Shavuos? Rav Hirsch [4] writes:
As is well known, in accordance with our definite tradition, in our prayers, we designate the bikkurim-day, called Chag ha'Shavuos in Shemos 34:22 and Devarim 16:10,16, as "zman matan Toraseinu," as the time of our law-giving. And in fact, a careful reading of Chapter 19 in Exodus shows that the day of the Revelation at Sinai was on the 6th or 7th day of the third month, accordingly on or about the 50th day of the day-and-month counting which began on the 16th day of Nisan, as explained in detail in Shabbos 86b. 
At this point Rav Hirsch departs from the Ralbag. Whereas the Ralbag relied solely on the pesukim in Torah she'bi'Chsav to infer the relevant dates, Rav Hirsch openly consults the sources within Torah she'baal Peh and takes them as his foundation. According to the Gemara in Shabbos 86b, Matan Torah happened on either the 6th or the 7th day of the month of Sivan. Rav Hirsch goes on to explain, in contrast to the Ralbag, that the day of Chag ha'Shavuos cannot commemorate the day of Matan Torah
According to the tradition generally firmly held in the Nation, the Day of Matan Torah was on a Shabbos; the day of the Exodus from Egypt, the 15th of Nisan, was, according to the [midrash] Seder Olam, on a Friday, but according to the Talmud (Shabbos 87b) it was on a Thursday. According to that, taking the reckoning from the Seder Olam, the Matan Torah would actually have been on the 50th day from the 16th of Nisan - but according to the Talmud, which is authoritative for us, it would only have taken place on the 51st, which the Magen Avraham on Orach Chayim 494 remarks as being striking; so that the 50th day after the Omer would be, not the anniversary of the day of Matan Torah, but of the day before it!
Without going into the complications and proofs discussed in the Gemara and the meforshim, the upshot is like this: we know from the pesukim that Shavuos takes place on the 50th day after the 16th of Nisan; we also know from the Talmud that the 15th of Nisan was on a Thursday, and that Matan Torah happened on Shabbos; accordingly, it turns out that the day we celebrate Shavuos is 50 days after the 16th of Nisan, but the day of Matan Torah is 51 days after the 16th of Nisan. Thus, Chag ha'Shavuos is celebrated on the anniversary of the day before Matan Torah. As such, it is difficult to say that Shavuos commemorates the day of Matan Torah!

Rav Hirsch then provides a second reason why Chag ha'Shavuos can't commemorate the day of Matan Torah:
Now we have only to realize that, according to the Torah, the fixing of the beginning of the months is dependent on the observation of the new moon, kidush al pi ha'reiyah, to see that the 50th day after the omer is by no means definitely attached to a particular day of the month of Sivan. This is remarked on in [the Gemara] Rosh ha'Shanah: that the festival of Shavuos starting on the 50th day after the omer can fall on the 5th, the 6th, or the 7th of Sivan. Had the Torah intended the recurrence of the Matan Torah to be a day of remembrance of that event, it would have given us that historic date with the same precision that it gave us the 14th and 15th of Nisan to be days of remembrance for the Exodus from Egypt. But the idea of such a festival of remembrance may be so far from the intention of the Torah that it expressly wanted to ward off such an erroneous conception by saying "u'krasem b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh" ("you shall proclaim [a holiday] on that very day itself"). For, so we believe, this wants to say: not on the day of the month on which the event of Matan Torah took place, which lies so near, but on the 50th day after the omer which is fixed for the bringing of the bikurim-bread, are you to celebrate this festival, without any consideration of the day of the month ...  
In other words, if Shavuos were intended to be a historical day of remembrance of the day of Matan Torah, as Pesach is a historical day of remembrance of the day of Yetzias Mitzrayim, then the Torah would have assigned it to the same calendar date that the event of Matan Torah actually took place, just as it assigned Pesach to the same calendar date that the event of Yetzias Mitzrayim took place - but it didn't! Instead, the Torah assigned Shavuos to the 50th day after the 16th of Nisan, which - depending on when the witnesses report seeing the New Moon - can fall out on the 5th, 6th, or 7th of Nisan. Thus, the Torah clearly didn't intend Shavuos to be a festival of historical remembrance!

After establishing these facts, the central question remains:
But the fact that the day which is elevated to a festival should be just not the day of the revelation on Sinai, but the final day of the counting which leads up to that, the greatest event in our history; that it should be, according to the generally accepted reckoning, the day before Matan Torah, which did not occur on the 50th but on the 51st - that fact should surely have a deep and important meaning for us.
Rav Hirsch now presents his theory:
It is not the fact of the revelation of the Torah, but our making ourselves worthy to receive it, that our Matan Torah festival celebrates. It is the day before the Matan Torah, the last day of the hagbalah (fencing off of boundaries around Sinai) and prishah (separation of man and wife in preparation for the Revelation), the day on which the nation finally presented itself as ready and worthy for the great mission to the world, to be the receivers and bearers of the Law of God, it is that day which the 50th day of the counting of the omer represents. 
As we have remarked elsewhere, this festival, differently to all the others, is not called after that which characteristically has to be done on it, but "Shavuos," after the counting of the weeks which preparatorily lead up to it. The Lawgiving, too, was in no wise concentrated on the day of Sinai. The Lawgiving and the receipt of the laws lasted during forty years [5], and the ten commandments received at Sinai have no greater divinity or holiness than any of the other 613 commands and prohibitions which God gave through Moshe. Quite clearly God Himself has explained the meaning and importance of the revelation on Sinai as being only an introduction to the laws which were to be transmitted through Moshe. The Sinai-day was to be a proof by personal experience that God can speak to Man and had spoken to Moshe, so that we would receive the whole Torah from the mouth of Moshe with full confidence that it was the Word of God. "Behold! I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever" (Shemos 19:9). [6]
According to Rav Hirsch, Shavuos is a celebration of our readiness and preparedness to receive Torah - not a commemoration of the Revelation at Sinai or Matan Torah itself. It is for this reason that we celebrate Shavuos on the day before Matan Torah rather than the day of Matan Torah. It is also the reason why the holiday is called "Chag ha'Shavuos," based on the weeks during which we prepared to receive the Torah, rather than something like "Chag Matan Toraseinu" or "Chag Maamad Har Sinai." And since, according to Rav Hirsch, the entire Torah was not received on the day of the Revelation at Sinai, it would be somewhat misleading to make that day into a Matan Torah holiday 


In summary, all three meforshim were confronted with the problematic fact that Shavuos occurs at around the same time as Matan Torah - and yet, the Torah never explicitly identifies Matan Torah as its theme. 

Ralbag maintains that Matan Torah is the theme of Shavuos, and the Chag ha'Shavuos is a historical commemoration of the day of Matan Torah. His main argument is that it would be absurd to commemorate Yetzias Mitzrayim and not commemorate Matan Torah. The strength of his theory is its intuitiveness, and the many halachic practices which point to Matan Torah as the theme of the holiday. The weakness of his theory is the complete absence of explicit evidence in Torah she'bi'Chsav.

Abravanel maintains that the theme of Shavuos is the beginning of the wheat harvest, and that Chag ha'Shavuos and Chag ha'Sukkos are designed to bracket the harvest season, thereby giving us the opportunity to give thanks for the bounty we have received. He maintains that there is no need for a "day of remembrance" for Matan Torah, since the Torah itself bears witness to the event of its giving. The strength of the Abravanel's theory is that Shavuos is exclusively presented in Torah she'bi'Chsav as a harvest festival. The weakness of his theory is that it is difficult to say that the overlap of Matan Torah and this harvest festival is a mere coincidence, and that one has nothing to do with the other - especially in light of the halachic practices cited above. 

Lastly, Rav Hirsch maintains that the theme of Shavuos is a celebration of the worthiness and willingness of Bnei Yisrael to receive the Torah. This is why Chag ha'Shavuos is celebrated on the day before Matan Torah, and why the date of the holiday is not fixed to the historical day of Matan Torah, but is entirely dependent on the counting of the omer - a mitzvah which signifies the preparatory period leading up to Matan Torah. This is also why we call it "Chag ha'Shavuos," after the weeks leading up to Matan Torah. The strength of Rav Hirsch's theory is his explanation of the peculiar manner in which the Torah legislated the date of Chag ha'Shavuos. The weakness of his theory is that it relies on a number of premises that emerge from details and inferences within the Talmud, rather than the plain pshat of Torah she'bi'Chsav and Torah she'baal Peh

In conclusion, we see how each of the meforshim were confronted with the same question, and used the available data to come up with a theory about the theme of this holiday. Neither theory is perfect, but each allows us to appreciate a different aspect of the chag.

And, as a bonus, here is a little Venn diagram to depict where these three meforshim agree and disagree.

[1] Rabbeinu Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag / Gersonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemos 19:1
[2] ibid. Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23
[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23:21
[4] Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on Vayikra 23:21 
[5] There is a machlokes (disagreement) as to whether the entire Torah was given at Sinai when Moshe went up to receive it, or whether he only received some of the Torah there, and the rest of the mitzvos throughout the forty years in the Wilderness. Rav Hirsch clearly holds by the latter, and this view happens to support his theory about the purpose of Shavuos.
[6] Rav Hirsch adds an additional possibility as to why Hashem avoided making a holiday based on the day of Matan Torah. Since it touches upon a whole different topic, and is not essential for Rav Hirsch's theory (by his own admission), I have decided to relegate it to this footnote instead of including it in the main body of the post. Rav Hirsch writes:
So that as "the Ten Commandments" received no special place in the order of the daily public services (due to the beliefs of the heretics), so as to give no support to the non-Jewish idea that the "Ten Commandments" form the whole of God's laws, or even that they had only a greater degree of godliness and holiness (see Berachos 12a), in the same way probably a similar consideration is the motive of the Torah in not raising just the day of "Revelation of the Ten Commandments" to a national festival.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Mikdash, Moadim, and Tzedakah

I set out to write a blog post on a Shavuos related theme, but I realized that this idea doubles as a blog post on Parashas Emor and Parashas Kedoshim (hence the modified title below). This post was difficult to write since the themes it treats are so broad. Hopefully I did it justice.

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Artwork: Plains (Kaladesh), by Clint Cearley

Parashas Emor/Kedoshim: Mikdash, Moadim, and Tzedakah

Parashas Emor is the first comprehensive presentation of the moadim (holidays). The Torah walks us through each of the moadim, providing us with details about their dates, their korbanos, their mitzvos, and - in some cases - their themes.

After completing the presentation of Shavuos, the pesukim take an unexpected detour before moving on to Rosh ha'Shanah. Here is the passage in context:
You shall count for yourselves - from the morrow of the rest day, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving - seven weeks, they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem. From your dwelling places you shall bring bread that shall be waved, two loaves made of two tenth-ephah, they shall be fine flour, they shall be baked leavened; first-offerings to Hashem ... You shall convoke on this very day - there shall be a holy convocation for yourselves - you shall do no laborious work; it is an eternal decree in your dwelling places for your generations. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove completely the corners of your field as you reap and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest; for the poor and the convert shall you leave them; I am Hashem, your God. (Vayikra 23:15-21)
Right in the middle of its presentation of the moadim is a reminder about the agricultural tzedakah mitzvos of peah (leaving the corners of the fields unharvested) and leket (leaving the ears of grain that fall to the ground). This unclaimed produce was left to be gathered by the poor, the convert, and the other downtrodden individuals, thereby ensuring their sustenance in a systemic nationwide manner. 

The commentators are bothered by the glaring question: What are these non-moadim-related mitzvos doing in the middle of the Torah's presentation of the moadim? It would be one thing if this were the primary place where the Torah discusses peah and leket, but it's not. In fact, these mitzvos were introduced a few chapters earlier, in Parashas Kedoshim. Their appearance here is clearly intended as a context-specific reminder. Why is this reminder needed?

Rashi [1] cites a midrash from Toras Kohanim [2] which explicitly addresses this question, albeit in a cryptic fashion:
Rav Avdimi b'Rebbi Yossi said: Why did the Torah see fit to place this [reminder] in the middle of the festivals, with Pesach and Atzeres on one side and Rosh ha'Shanah, Yom ha'Kippurim, and Sukkos on the other side? To teach you that anyone who properly gives leket, peah, and shichechah [3] to the poor - it is considered as though he built the Beis ha'Mikdash and brought its korbanos in it.
This answer raises yet another question: How are the mitzvos of leket, peah, and shichechah equivalent to building the Beis ha'Mikdash and offering korbanos in it? The two categories of mitzvos don't even seem related: the former pertains to the realm of agriculture and tzedakah in everyday life, while the latter pertains to the avodah of the kohanim in the world of Mikdash!

The Ibn Ezra provides us with a clue - not in Parashas Emor, but in Parashas Kedoshim, where these mitzvos first appear. The pesukim there follow a similar pattern:
When you slaughter a feast peace-offering to Hashem, you shall slaughter it to find favor for yourselves. On the day of your slaughter shall it be eaten and on the next day, and whatever remains until the third day, it is rejected - it shall not be accepted. Each of those who eat it will bear his iniquity, for what is sacred to Hashem has he desecrated; and that soul shall be cut off from its people. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not complete your reaping to the corner of your field, and the gleanings of your harvest you shall not take. You shall not pick the undeveloped twigs of your vineyard; and the fallen fruit of your vineyard you shall not gather; for the poor and the convert shall you leave them - I am Hashem, your God. (Vayikra 19:5-10)
Here, too, we see halachos of korbanos followed by a mention of the agricultural mitzvos of leket and peah. The Ibn Ezra [4] remarks on this juxtaposition:
The meaning of "when you reap the harvest" after [these laws of] slaughtering a peace offering [is as follows:] just as you have given the parts of the korban to Hashem, so too, you shall give to the poor and to the convert from the harvest of your land - for the sake of kavod Hashem (honoring Hashem).
Ibn Ezra identifies the common denominator between korbanos and the agricultural mitzvos: they all result in a kiyum (effect/fulfillment) of kavod Hashem. The question is: How?

We tend to think about tzedakah in the framework of kindness, righteousness, and justice - not in the framework of honoring Hashem. This underappreciated aspect of tzedakah is referenced in at least one pasuk: "Honor Hashem with your wealth, and with the first of all your produce" (Mishlei 3:9). Ralbag [5] explains:
"Honor Hashem with your wealth" in the same way as the Torah commands you to give the first of all your produce, seeds, and fruits as gifts to the Kohanim and Leviim for the wondrous benefit of guiding you to recognize that all good things flow from Hashem.
Similarly, Ralbag [6] writes that the purpose of the Mikdash and its korbanos is:
... to guide us to believe in the Existence of God, Lord of all, and that it is proper for Him to be worshiped, for everything is from Him, and therefore we are obligated to honor Him with our wealth; He is of the utmost greatness and glory, and for this reason we make for Him this Mikdash which wondrous in its beauty, artistry, and quality of construction.
Herein lies the connection between the tzedakah-mitzvos of peah, leket, and shichechah, and the purpose of the Mikdash and its korbanos. Mikdash exists for the kavod Hashem, to bring all human beings to the recognition of His Existence, His Malchus (Kingship), and His beneficence which extends to all of His creatures. All of the korbanos and matanos (gifts) we bring to the Mikdash reinforce this recognition. The requirement to give of the fruits of our labor counteracts the kochi v'otzem yadi ("my might and the power of my hand made me this wealth") mentality by prompting us to realize that all of the good we enjoy comes from Hashem, and that "He opens His hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing" (cf. Tehilim 145:16).

However, it is not enough merely to know that Hashem is the Cause of the good. This knowledge must be real to us to the extent that it affects our actions, and compels us to emulate His ways. We were not created to be passive admirers and observers of the Creator, but to be active agents of His Will to do chesed, mishpat, and tzedakah on earth. To praise Hashem for His beneficence and not emulate His ways would be hypocritical, and would constitute a pgam (blemish) in His kavod. By observing these agricultural mitzvos as agents of His will to do chesed, mishat, and tzedakah, we are enhancing His kavod by demonstrating the extent to which the Melech cares for His subjects. By fulfilling the mitzvos of leket, peah, and shichechah, we are demonstrating through our actions that God not only provides for our needs, but He guarantees the provision of the needs of those unfortunate individuals who live on the fringes of society.

This kiyum of kavod Hashem is only complete when both components - Mikdash and tzedakah - are fulfilled in concert with each other. To only discharge our duties vis a vis Mikdash would constitute a recognition of Hashem as ha'Tov ve'ha'Meitiv (the One Who is Good and does good), but the benefit of that recognition would be limited to our own minds, and would not impact the world around us. Likewise, to only fulfill our tzedakah duties would be good insofar as our implementation of chesed, mishpat, and tzedakah in the world are concerned, but our actions would not reflect the recognition that all of the goodness and blessing we enjoy comes from Hashem. The proper framework is only achieved by doing both sets of mitzvos in conjunction with each other, and only then do we achieve the full kiyum of kavod Hashem.

This, I believe, is what the midrash in Toras Kohanim cited by Rashi is getting at. The proper fulfillment of the mitzvos of leket, peah, and shichechah complements the proper fulfillment of the mitzvos of Mikdash and its korbanos. Both sets of mitzvos bring us to an awareness that Hashem is the Cause of all good. The act of giving of tzedakah to the poor produces the same kiyum as building the Mikdash and bringing its korbanos - provided that one is aware of this idea.

In answering our question in his commentary on our pesukim, the Ralbag [7] emphasizes that this idea is especially true in relation to the specific mitzvos associated with Shavuos, namely, the minchas ha'omer (Barley Offering brought after Pesach) and the Shtei ha'Lechem (Two Loaves brought on Shavuos):
This [reminder of leket and peah] came in this place to teach us that for the same reason that Hashem commanded us to offer the Minchas ha'Omer and the Shtei ha'Lechem from the new harvest - namely, to remind us that everything comes from Hashem - He also commanded us to provide benefit from this [harvest] to the poor before it comes into our possession, in order to remind us that this comes from Hashem, and He desired us to provide the poor with their portion and ourselves with the remainder, for everything comes from Him.
Since Shavuos is the Harvest Festival (as will be explained in our next post), the pesukim about Shavuos is the most appropriate place to remind us of this relationship between the agricultural mitzvos and Mikdash, though the idea is pertinent to all moadim and all korbanos in Mikdash year-round.

[1] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Vayikra 23:22
[2] Toras Kohanim 13:12
[3] "shichechah" is another mitzvah in the same category as leket and peah. We are required to leave "forgotten" bundles of grain in the field to be claimed by the poor. Since it's in the same family as leket and peah, I'm going to continue to mention it along with them for the remainder of this post, even if all three aren't specified by the meforshim.
[4] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra (Ibn Ezra), Commentary on Vayikra 19:9
[5] Rabbeinu Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag / Gersonides) Commentary on Sefer Mishlei 3:9
[6] ibid. Commentary on Sefer Shemos 25, ha'toeles ha'shelishi
[7] ibid. Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23:22

Friday, May 26, 2017

Parashas Bamidbar: Click HERE to See the a Picture of the REAL Aron ha'Kodesh!

Is this an intentionally clickbait title? Maybe yes, maybe no. You'll have to decide based on the content of the post.

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Parashas Bamidbar: Click HERE to See a Picture of the REAL Aron ha'Kodesh!

In the third chapter of Parashas Bamidbar we are informed of the responsibilities entrusted to each of the three Levite families: Gershon, Kehas, and Merari. Each family was responsible for transporting certain components of the Mishkan (Tabernacle):  
The charge of the sons of Gershon in the Tent of Meeting was the Tabernacle, the Tent, its Cover, the Screen of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, the curtains of the Courtyard, the Screen of the entrance of the Courtyard that surrounded the Tabernacle and the Altar, and its ropes  ...
[The charge of the sons of Kehas] was the Ark, the Table, the Menorah, the Altars, and the sacred utensils with which they would minister, the Partition and all its successors ... 
The assignment of the charge of Merari was the planks of the Tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, and all its utensils, and all its accessories; the pillars of the Courtyard all around, and their sockets, their pegs and their ropes (Bamidbar 3:21-37).
At the very end of the parashah the Kohanim are given a mysterious warning regarding the Bnei Kehas:
Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying: "Do not let the tribe of the Kehas families be cut off from among the Leviim. Thus shall you do for them so that they shall live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aharon and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and his burden. But they shall not come and look as the holy is covered, lest they die" (ibid. 4:17-20).
What does this mean? What, exactly, are the Kohanim being commanded to do or not do? How is the fate of the Bnei Kehas ("lest they die") dependent on the actions of the Kohanim?

The Abravanel [1] offers an explanation which he supports by citing a midrash:
It is possible to explain this in reference to the Bnei Kehas, that they shouldn't enter to look when the holy is covered - in other words, when they (i.e. the Kohanim) cover it (i.e. the keilim), if they (i.e. the Bnei Kehas) see it uncovered, they will die ...
And in the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 4:19) it was stated: Moshe said: “Master of the Universe! Is the blood of the children of Kehas prohibited and the blood of Aharon permitted?” Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu said to him, “No. Rather, Aharon is holy of holies, as it is stated, "He separated Aharon to sanctify him as holy of holies" (Divrei ha'Yamim I 23:13)” – and holy of holies cannot harm holy of holies. But the Bnei Kehas are not holy of holies; therefore, if they see the holy of holies, it will harm them and they will die. 
According to the Abravanel, the pesukim are warning the Kohanim to make sure that the keilim (i.e. the Aron, the Menorah, the Shulchan, etc.) are completely covered and ready to be moved before the Bnei Kehas enter to transport them. If the Kohanim fail in their duty, and the Bnei Kehas see the exposed keilim, they will die. 

This midrash aims to address the glaring double-standard in our pesukim. One can imagine a member of Bnei Kehas asking: "Why should we be subject to death, but not the Kohanim? You're telling me that the Kohanim can look at these keilim all they want, but if the Bnei Kehas so much as catch a glimpse, we'll die?!"

But the answer given by the midrash is perplexing. What do Chazal mean when they say that the holy of holies (i.e. Kohanim) cannot be harmed by the holy of holies (i.e. the keilim), but the Bnei Kehas can be harmed this way, since they are merely "holy" and not "holy of holies"? 

I believe that an insight provided by Rav Hirsch [2] explains this midrash, even though he doesn't cite it directly:
In the preceding verses the order had been given that the Bnei Kehas were to be given the holy objects they were to carry only after they had their covers put on to avoid their touching those objects directly. Now here it is said that they may not even be present when the covering is done. They are not to "see" the holy objects when they are being covered. Unless we are mistaken, the effect of this prohibition would be that the holy objects remain to their bearers as symbolic objects, subjects for the mind, for thoughts, not so much as actual tangible objects, and so all the more fill their minds with thoughts of their meaning. And this keeping constantly in their minds the true meaning of the holy objects entrusted to them would be an essential factor of their duty to which gazing at their being wrapped up for transit could very well have a disturbing effect. 
We have written previously about the power of art. We followed the approach of Ayn Rand who theorized that: "Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts." Indeed, this is why the klei ha'mikdash needed to be designed and fashioned not only by talented artists, but by those who possessed "a Godly spirit, wisdom, insight, and knowledge" - those who understood the metaphysical concepts that these works of art were meant to embody.

According to this theory, to the extent that a person's grasp of metaphysics is sound and accurate, the keilim would amplify the reality of his concepts in his mind and help him to better relate to those ideas - but to the extent that his metaphysics is distorted, the keilim would further that distortion by anchoring his faulty concepts in tangible objects which appeal to his imagination and psyche and clouding his intellectual apprehension. 

The Kohanim, whose lives are devoted to the avodah in the Mikdash, and who are kept in check by their many additional mitzvos - they are not likely to be "harmed" in this manner by seeing the keilim, since their grasp of the metaphysical ideas represented by the keilim is firm and well-protected. This is what the midrash means when it says that the Kohanim, who are "holy of holies," can't be harmed by the keilim, which are also "holy of holies." In other words, the average Kohen in the Mikdash has perfected his tzelem Elokim (intellect) to the extent that it will not be overwhelmed by his nefesh ha'bahamis (animalistic soul) upon seeing the keilim; thus, he will be shielded from the type of distortion that would befall those who are on a lower level of kedushah.

In contrast, the Bnei Kehas - and certainly the other Leviim and Yisraelim - are not as grounded in their grasp of metaphysics, nor have they reached the level of kedushah to ensure that their tzelem Elokim will prevail over their nefesh ha'bahamis when confronted with these dazzling, emotionally charged objects. Therefore, if they see the keilim, there is a chance that their psyche and imagination will get caught up in the aesthetic grandeur and mystique of the keilim, thereby endangering their grasp of the metaphysical concepts that the keilim are designed to reflect.

To remedy this, the Kohanim are instructed to cover the keilim before they can be seen by the Bnei Kehas. This allows the Bnei Kehas to "see" the keilim without actually seeing them. As Rav Hirsch explained, this affords the Bnei Kehas the ability to contemplate these keilim as "objects of thought" rather than "tangible objects." The covering of the keilim is, in effect, a warning label which declares: "At your stage of development, these should be objects to think about - not objects to look at. Only those who can think about these objects properly are permitted to gaze upon them."

In other words, the requirement of covering the keilim isn't designed to deny the Bnei Kehas of a privilege reserved for Kohanim. Rather, the covering of the keilim is a boon for the Bnei Kehas, in that it protects them from harm and guides them towards a proper relationship with the keilim - a relationship that is essential for them not only as Jews, but as the family charged with the task of transporting the vessels of the King.

[The actual dvar Torah ends here, but I thought I'd address a follow-up question that some of you might have. I'll place this piece of distracting art in the middle to indicate the break, and making good on my clickbait promise.]

I promised you a picture of the actual Aron ha'Kodesh. Here it is!
You might be wondering: "What type of distortion are we talking about here? Do you mean to tell me that the Bnei Kehas will arrive at false conclusions in metaphysics simply because they looked at the keilim?"

No, not quite. The type of distortion we're talking about is far more subtle. I suggest you read/review our post on Ayn Rand, Art, and Avodah Zarah to fully appreciate the type of phenomenon we're talking about. But I'll add a bit of explanation here which might clarify things.

In conjunction with this midrash the Abravanel mentions the boundaries that were created around Har Sinai and the warning that Moshe was instructed to give to the people:
Hashem said to Moshe, "Descend, warn the people, lest they break through to Hashem to see, and a multitude of them will fall. Even the Kohanim who approach Hashem should be prepared, lest Hashem burst forth against them" (Shemos 19:21-22).
According to the Rambam, some of the greatest members of Bnei Yisrael fell prey to this temptation, as it is stated:
They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of the heaven in purity. Against the great men of the Children of Israel, He did not stretch out His hand - they gazed at God, yet they ate and drank (ibid. 24:10-11).
The Rambam [3] explains that these pesukim are to be read as a censure - not a praise:
The "nobles of the Children of Israel," on the other hand, were overhasty, strained their thoughts, and achieved apprehension, but only an imperfect one. "They saw the God of Israel, and under His feet etc." and not merely "They saw the God of Israel." For these words are solely intended to present a criticism of their act of seeing, not to describe the manner of their seeing. Thus they were solely blamed for the form that their apprehension took inasmuch as corporeality entered into it to some extent - this being necessitated by their overhasty rushing forward before they had reached perfection. They deserved "to perish." However, [Moshe], peace be upon him, interceded for them; and they were granted a reprieve until the time that they were burnt at Taveirah, whereas Nadav and Avinu where burnt in the Ohel Moed, as is stated in a correct tradition. This having happened to these men, it behooves us, all the more, as being inferior to them, and it behooves those who are inferior to us, to aim at and engage in perfecting our knowledge of preparatory matters and in achieving those premises that purify apprehension of its taint, which is error. It will then go forward to look upon the divine holy Presence. It is accordingly said: "Even the Kohanim who approach Hashem should be prepared, lest Hashem burst forth against them." Accordingly Shlomo has bidden the man who wishes to reach this rank to be most circumspect. He said warningly in parabolic language: "Guard your feet when you go to the house of God" (Koheles 4:17).
This is the type of distortion that the Bnei Kehas would be subject to if they saw the keilim. It's not that the "nobles of the Children of Israel" reached mistaken conclusions about Hashem. If you gave them a test on Hilchos Yesodei ha'Torah, they would all get 100%. Rather, as the Rambam explained, their apprehension of these abstract ideas became subtly tainted with corporeality.

It's one thing to know the correct ideas, but it's another thing for that knowledge to be real to the psyche. This "taint of corporeality" strengthens the veil (to borrow a mashal from the Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim, Perek 4) between our tzelem Elokim and Hashem. In perceptual terms, this "misperception" is more comparable to tinted glasses rather than a full-blown hallucination.

[1] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 4:20
[2] Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 4:17
[3] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon, Moreh ha'Nevuchim 1:5