Saturday, October 23, 2021

A Lot about Lot

Lot is a curious figure in the book of Genesis. He is heavily associated with Avram/Avraham, who founded the Jewish people and is considered a master of chesed and of hospitality. His nephew Lot was associated with him for many years and was heavily influenced by him. And in much of Lot’s behavior we see a shadow of Avraham’s standards – superficially trying to emulate him but getting the details so horribly wrong. Lot is a cautionary tale that imitating the behavior of a righteous person without understanding their underlying motivations is a path likely to lead one astray. 

Let’s start with the beginning of this week’s parsha. Avraham Avinu is sitting in the door of his tent, which is the threshold between his private space and the public space which he strives to influence. He sees three people passing by. They are actually angels, but either he only perceives them as men or chooses to act as if that was the case. He runs to meet them and bows down to the earth. He invites them in and offers them a small meal, which they accept immediately. Then he goes and actually orders a lavish feast for them. Hashem decides to inform Avraham of the impending destruction of Sedom. Famously, Avraham tries to save the entire city (actually all 5 cities of the plain) for the sake of the righteous who might dwell there. He does not make any special plea for Lot. Hashem and the messengers leave Avraham without Avraham knowing whether he has succeeded or not. 

Lot is sitting in the gate of the city of Sedom, the threshold between the insular unwelcoming city of Sedom and the outside world it exploits. He sees two angels appear. Notice that the messengers appear to Avraham as men, but to Lot as angels. Do the angels think Lot needs more of a reason to extend hospitality than Avraham would? Rashi claims Avraham was so used to angels appearing to him that to him they were like men, whereas to Lot in Sedom any guest is a rariety, and presumed to be important, In any event, Lot rises up to meet them, and then falls down on his face to the Earth, just as Avraham did. Lot asks them to come to his house and stay for the night, offering even more hospitality than Avraham did. The angels initially refuse, and Lot continues to press the invitation until they accept. It is easy to draw the conclusion that Avraham was offering genuine hospitality to the men, while Lot was eager to bring powerful messengers/angels to his house and perhaps put them into his debt. This is supported midrashically by the fact that Avraham did give them a lavish feast, whereas the meal Lot offered was so meager that he had to ask his neighbors for salt. So it seems Lot understood the basic idea of inviting guests, but tended to do so solely for his advantage. 

Lot gives another example of not understanding what Avraham’s principles are all about when he shows his hospitality to his powerful visitor by offering his own daughters to appease angry mob that would otherwise have abused his guests. Is this horrific offer a case of him putting his duties to his guests above his responsibility to his daughters? Is he concerned with his own survival, and offering his daughters because he misunderstood how Avraham behaved in Egypt with regard to Sarah? Once again an apparent attempt to mimic Avraham is shown to have Lot’s self interest as the primary motivator.

The angels then inform Lot about the forthcoming destruction of Sedom. Lot tries to bring his whole family along to flee the city, but is unable to get them to cooperate. He keeps stalling the angels until at the end they literally drag him, his wife, and his two daughters out of the city before it is destroyed. They tell him that all the cities of the plain will be destroyed and tell him to to flee to ‘the mountain.’ Instead, he bargains with them, asking that then nearby small city of Zoar be preserved and he be allowed to flee there. His request is granted. Lot and his daughters flee to Zoar, but after the other cities are destroyed they proceed on to the mountain, and it appears that Zoar itself is then destroyed. Unlike Avraham, who bargained to save the lives of the people of Sedom, Lot again is interested in the survival of himself and his family.

Lot’s journey after Sedom reflects the initial arc of the story of Abraham. Back at the end of Noach, Terach takes both Avram and Lot out of Ur, intending to go to Canaan. Some commentators think that is was also a divine command, But in the event, they stop at Haran, and is from there that many years later Avraham and Lot complete the journey. They do, they enter the land, and Avraham is told that his descendants will not fully inhabit it until the land vomits forth its current inhabitants due to their (mostly sexual) immorality.

Lot receives a divine command to flee Sedom and go to ‘the Mountain’. He initially only travels partway, as far as Zoar. But after a very short interval he leaves Zoar and completes the journey to ‘the Mountain.’ But instead of living a life of virtue among the inhabitants, he and his daughters are the only ones there, and they jointly participate in the kind of immorality that will eventually lead to the Caaninite’s destruction.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Bo knows tribalism

After shul yesterday someone asked how we can reconcile two statements

1 The midrashic claim(*) that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt because they kept their language, their clothing, and their names
2 The assertion of the Zohar(?) Jews were at the 49th level of Tumah and had to be redeemed immediately because they if the reached the 50th level of tumah they could never be redeemed.

I suggested the following. The language, clothes, and names meant that the Jews still had their common tribal identity. They recognized one another as being part of their group, and that others were outside the tribe. The 49th level of tumah indicated that the Jews had nevertheless assimilated bad middot from the surrounding culture, as shown in the example of the Jews who betrayed Moses to Pharaoh after the killed the Egyptian, as well as the character flaws caused by slavery and oppression that came out in the desert.

Basically, the Jews remembered who they were, but not what they were supposed to be about. That is why they had to be redeemed from Egypt, isolated in the desert, and retrained in what being a Jew was supposed to be about.

(*) There actually is no Midrash that says all of this in one place. See the excellent article by Rabbi Elli Fischer for details.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Tzom Gedaliah - the fast of excess

Tzom Gedaliah is observed on the third of Tishrei, immediately after Rosh Hashana. The RMLBY suggests that the fast is a tikun (a repair) for excess. After the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah and destroyed the first Temple, they appointed Gedaliah, a Jew, as the governor of Judah. At that time the Babylonians did not exile masses of the people, although many of the priesthood and the nobility were moved to Bavel. Gedaliah ruled well, and many Jews who had fled the advancing armies of Bavel returned. Despite the lenient treatment of Judah, Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama, of the royal family of Judah was angry that Gedaliah was co-operating with the Babylonians. Out of excessive zealotry and patriotism, he assassinated Gedaliah. The Babylonians appointed a new, Babylonian governor, exiled many more people, and left the land desolate. Gedaliah too displayed excess. He was warned in advance of the assassination attempt. Because there was no direct evidence, he decided it was lashon hara. Since we are forbidden to believe or act upon lashon hara, he took no special precautions when the assassins came, which undoubtedly facilitated his murder. It is possible for us to take Rosh Hashanah to excess as well. The most frequent form of excess is lavish meals where the focus is on the pleasures of eating. It is good to feast on Rosh Hashanah, but we should use the feast to remind us of the bounty that Hashem gives us, the skills of those who composed the recipies, and the labor of those who cooked and served the meal. Another possible form of excess on Rosh Hashanah is to pay too much attention to the symbolic aspects (don't eat food with nuts, various foods served as signs for a good year, etc.) while not focusing on the actual point of the day - Hashem's kingship and our own need to look into ourselves and find ways to improve ourselves.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Are rabbis scientists or statesmen?

The Orthodox world has seen a number of disputes lately about a variety of issues - most but not all of them related to the role of women. One of the issues not directly related, but highly relevant to the outcome of these question is who gets to make decisions on halachic topics, and to some extent who even gets to have their voices listened to.

Rabbi Marc Angel, in his book The Search Committee: A Novel has a dialog between a traditional charedi rabbi and his supporters and a more Modern rabbi and his, when both are being interviewed for the role of Rosh Yeshiva of a fictional version of BMG. After the winner is chosen, the two candidates get to make final statements to the board. The charedi rabbi informs the board it was invalid from the start, the questions such as the selection of a Rosh Yeshiva are properly decided by traditional torah scholars. The role of lay people is to act as fundraisers only. They are not even entitled to offer advice. The charedi rabbi's final words were "You have no voice." The modern rabbi takes the opposite tack, saying that the lay members of the community are important stakeholders in the community and have an actual responsibility to speak up and offer guidance. His final words are "You have a voice."

Recently Rabbi Hershel Schachter published a missive that could have been written by that charedi rabbi. A Rabbi who was the principal of a school made a halachic decision for the members of that school. The decision was publicized and caused much controversy. Rabbi Schachter stated that the rabbi simply did not have the necessary stature to make halachic decisions for his own school community. Properly the rabbi should have contacted a greater authority (such as Rabbi Schachter himself) and abided by whatever that greater rabbi decided.

When I discuss this issue with my charedi friends, I often get told that questioning a great rabbi's decision is like questioning the decision of a great doctor or a great physicist. Why should any deference be paid to the opinions of someone with a college level knowledge of quantum mechanics in the face of the opinion of some Nobel prize winning physicist? Sometimes this gets into an interesting discussion of the role of the patient versus his doctor with respect to health care. Many people today will argue with their doctors regarding choice of treatment. The decision of whether to undergo chemotherapy for advanced cancer, where the treatments may only purchase an additional couple of months of pain filled life is surely not the sole purview of the doctor. (In addition to the patient's rabbi, I also think the patient has a voice.)

What I've come to realize is that some people see rabbis primarily as scientists or lawyers, who study the universe around them or the legal codes and come up with definitive definitions of the way things are or should be. But other people view them as statesmen(*), who are major players in drafting the way our society functions, but whose specialized knowledge is not so great as to make the opinion of the average person affected by their decisions irrelevant. A third view is that rabbis are members of the community who have influence based on their individual prestige, but that the community as the whole is the ultimate decisor. That may be true for practical purposes - no matter how influential the rabbi, views of his that are not adopted don't have force - at least not until they are adopted, sometime generations later. But that isn't how the system is supposed to work in most cases according to O understandings.

Do other people find this distinction more useful than the Daas Torah vs. local rabbinic authority dichotomy? Am I completely off base? Is there a third perspective?

(*) Originally I wrote politicians here, as I did in the title. But politician is a term that currently carries negative connotations. I think statesmen carries the connotations I want of expertise without inarguable authority. Political scientists might also do.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Cooking for the Generations

For parshat Toldot I traditionally make some kind of lentil dish, preferably using red lentils. This year I made Coconut Lentil soup. The curry powder made the soup turn green, but it was still delicious. Some other notes:

1) The soup was really thick - like a pottage or a thick pea soup rather than a broth.
2) I made it somewhat differently because of Shabbat - I made the main part Thursday night and then mixed in the coconut and 'milk' before heating it again for Shabbat.
3) Soy milk or even regular milk could be substituted for the coconut drink. I think actual coconut milk would be both too strong and too thick.

1 1/2 cups red lentils
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 inch piece fresh ginger root, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh shredded coconut
3/4 cup milk or milk substitute (I used Silk Coconut Milk)
1 tablespoon curry powder 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. Place the lentils and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Stir in onion, garlic, and ginger. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender.
2. Place the coconut and milk in a blender, and blend until smooth and thick. Stir into the lentil mixture. Season with curry and pepper. Continue cooking 10 to 15 minutes.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Truth is too good for mere humans

Divre Rmlby1:

While the seal of Hashem is truth, the seal of rabbanus(rabbinical authority) is sheker(lies). It comes in many forms. The sheker b'ahava(lies made out of love) of Aaron HaKohen, who lied to make peace between men and of Hillel, who said one dances before an ugly bride singing praises of her beauty. The Sheker B'Yira (lies based on awe/respect) of the Chatam Sofer, who said to preserve a rabbinic law it was permissible to say it was a biblical law, and of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who did just that with his rulings on Mechitza2. The sheker b'tzimtzum (lies of hiding, removal, omission) of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who said that when writing a psak where one rules based on kavod habriyot(human dignity), one should give a different reason, even a poor one, because the principle of kavod habriyot is so easily misused.

1. Reb Moshe Leib Ben Yaakov

2. This point is argued - there is no reported statement from RMF saying he was doing this.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Emunat Chachamim

Currently, one of my favorite blogs is Out of the Orthodox box. Ruchi Koval, the owner of the blog is a kiruv professional and an excellent one. She has created a site for interested non-observant Jews to learn about Orthodox Jews and their lives. A light but firm touch on moderation (all comments are previewed) keeps the conversation remarkably civil and informative.

As a traditionally observant Jew with a considerably different background and take on Orthodoxy than Ruchi, I often comment and try to provide other perspectives. I really appreciate the way Ruchi and the other posters (hi, sbw!) make me have to think seriously to clarify my perspectives.

One issue which seems to come up repeatedly is our attitudes towards the rabbis, both contemporary and classic. Ruchi asked me to explain my approach. Since this turned out to be a long post, I decided to post it on my blog and link it from hers. This post should be considered to be a work in progress - I retain the right to change it (at least in the comments) based on any feedback I get. With that out of the way:

Emunat Chachim - (trust in the sages). I view this principle as the reason Orthodox Jews more closely resemble Catholics than Protestants in their view of how to interpret scripture. Emunat Chachim is the idea that we trust the mesorah (transmitted tradition, mediated through the rabbis of the past) to tell us what the halacha and the Bible really mean, rather than personally reading the text and interpreting it. Thus. although the text of the Torah says we start counting the Omer on the day after Shabbat on Pesach, we start counting the day after the first day of Pesach itself, since the mesorah says that Shabbat in this case refers to the holiday itself. Similarly, we don't cook a kid in its mother's milk, despite the fact that the Hebrew letters without vowels present in the Torah text could also be read to be the word 'fat' rather than 'milk'.

In the Talmud, there is a story of how someone came to the Tanna Hillel and asked to be converted with the condition the convert would follow the written law, but not the oral law. Hillel started teaching him the first day by teaching him the aleph bet (Hebrew letters). The next day the student returned and Hillel began teaching him the aleph bet again, but this time he called the letters by different names. The student protested, and Hillel said "You have to rely on me even to know the letters, in the same way you have to rely on me about the Oral law.” I think we are all in the same place as that convert.

To me, emunat Chachim does not mean that Chazal were correct about everything they wrote in the Talmud that is not a matter of halacha . The sun does not pass through the dome of the sky at night before going either under the Earth or over the dome and passing back through the next day. The liver is not the seat of intellect. Snake do not habitually inject poison into open beverage containers at night. However, despite the fact that their understanding of the laws of nature was wrong in places, I completely accept their rulings as to at what time Shabbat begins and ends.

For contemporary rabbis the principal of emunat chachim is more limited. Rabbis contradict one another all the time, and there is no universally accepted court of last appeal. (I'm not sure if the following example falls more appropriately under emunat chachamim or daat torah.)

Imagine a local rabbi who knows me well. He is familiar with how I call myself 'mystically tone deaf'. He is aware of my aversion to Kabbalah and my opposition to segulot. Over the years we have discussed numerous halachic questions and I have accepted his guidance. We've discussed theological and philosophical questions as well, although he has never told me what I must believe. So I go to this rabbi and say “I'm having marital problems. I'm fighting with my wife all the time. What can I do to improve matters?” He asks questions, tells a few parables, and offers some suggestions. The last suggestion is “Pay careful attention when you fold your tallit after davening. Be sure to do so neatly.” In spite of the fact I think this is crazy, I would follow that suggestion, at least for a while.

On the other hand imagine the great anav (humble person) and ohavei yisrael (lover of Jews) the Fictionaler Rebbe said 'Any Jew who desires marital harmony should fold his tallis with especial care and kavanah.' Frankly, I'd probably say to myself 'Thanks Fictionaler, you're humble and loveable(*).' and ignore the whole thing. Even though he is far 'greater' than my local rabbi, he doesn't know me, I don't believe in segulot, and emunat chachamim does not require me to obey his instructions when I haven't asked him a question.

(*) This sort of light hearted reaction can be characterized as 'bizayon talmedei chachamim ' being disrespectful to Torah scholars. It can be considered a sin in its own right. I'm not yet at the point where I feel yirat (respect/fear/awe) talmedi chachamim requires me to turn off my sense of humor, even though I am a Yekke.