Monday, September 3, 2012

Do the Mitzvot have reasons? -Berachot 33b

I am struggling with the mitzvah of שלוח הקן  sending away the mother bird. About this mitzvah our Mishna famously says: אומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך... משתקין אותו One who says in his prayer that G-d should have mercy on us like he has mercy on the mother bird, one silences him.

The Rambam and Ramban famously argue over the reason for the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird. The Rambam states that this mitzvah is in fact a sign of G-d's mercy. He explains that despite the fact that the Torah allows humans to eat meat, it enjoins us from undue cruelty to animals. This includes the mitzvah of ritual slaughtering in order to kill the animal as painlessly as possible, the mitzvah not to slaughter a mother animal and its child on the same day, and the mitzvah to send away the mother bird when taking her young from the nest.

The Ramban argues that G-d is not concerned with mercy on the mother bird. Otherwise, he would prohibit eating her or her young altogether. Rather the mitzvot are not an expression of mercy on the animals and birds but rather they are commanded to teach US to be merciful. (For an excellent summary of these two opinions and others on שלוח הקן and טעמי המצוות in general, see Nehama Leibowitz's Studies in Devarim, Ki Teze 2, pgs 217-222.)

Fundamentally both the Rambam and Ramban agree that G-d commands the mitzvot for a reason that we should try to deduce. In the case of שלוח הקן they only argue on what that reason may be. So how do they deal with our Mishna?

The Gemara gives two explanations to why our Mishna enjoins against such a prayer. The first answer could fit easily into both Rambam and Ramban. One should not invoke G-d's mercy on the birds since this would result in jealousy on the part of other creations who would wonder why G-d is merciful on the bird and not on them.

It is the second answer that is more difficult the explain. The Gemara states: מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות. [One cannot evoke G-d's mercy on the mother bird in prayer] because one makes G-d's actions to be based on mercy when they are only divine decrees. This reason seems to enjoin against any delving into טעמי המצוות, trying to find reasons for the commandments.

The Mitzvot according to this approach are solely divine decrees. They are designed to test our ability to be עבדי השם divine servants. Any other reason found for a mitzvah where the Torah does not explicitly give one will cheapen our role as slaves totally subservient to our Almighty master and should therefore be silenced.

My question is how the famous ראשונים who try to find reasons for the mitzvot like Rambam and Ramban deal with this opinion in the Gemara. Do they merely say that this is a minority opinion which is to be rejected or do they try to find a way to reconcile this starkly anti-טעמי המצוות approach with their own attitudes towards טעמי המצוות? I welcome your feedback in the comments to this posting.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Audacity of our Avot- Berachot 31-32

People often assume that what makes our biblical personalities great is their blind obedience to Hashem no matter the situation. Today's daf indicates that in reality often the opposite is true.

The Gemara continues a discussion from yesterday about three of our great biblical giants who "threw words towards heaven", הטיח דברים כלפי מעלה. On Berachot 31b it lists Channah and Eliyahu.

Channah spoke insolently towards G-d in her prayer for a son, as it says 'ותתפלל על ה. Channah did not pray to G-d, literally she prayed "on" G-d, meaning she threw her words to heaven in an insolent manner. Rather than be angry at her, Hashem listened to her prayer and gave her a son, the great Shemuel who anointed the first two kings of Israel.

Similarly, Eliyahu threw his words to heaven when he blamed G-d for the wicked ways of the people of Israel by saying ואתה חסבות את לבם אחורנית. Eliyahu pointed his accusatory ginger towards G-d saying it is not the people's fault for doing wrong, rather it is Hashem who turned their hearts astray by giving them a יצר הרע, an evil inclination. Likewise, here Hashem ultimately agreed with Eliyahu's accusation.

The most notable example of a biblical character who threw accusatory words to heaven is Moshe Rabbenu. In his defense of the Children of Israel after the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe actually blames G-d for this betrayal. He says that if Hashem had not laden the people with gold and silver after the miracle of Yam Suf, the people would never have used these precious metals to build a graven image.

The Gemara gives a number of parables to explain this. One notable example is of a father who has a favorite son. He spares him nothing bathing him, anointing him, feeding him, and giving him a large wad of cash to hang around his neck. He then places his son by the door to the brothel. Who is at fault if the boy sins. In this case as well, Hashem consented to Moshe and spared the Jewish people despite their sins.

Moshe's case is especially noteworthy since Moshe Rabbenu defended his people without any concern for his own needs. Hashem promised Moshe that after the people were destroyed, Moshe would father a new Chosen Nation. Moshe spoke against this. Moshe was even willing to tell G-d to kill him rather than kill his people.

These three examples and dozens of others throughout the Tanach teach us a great lesson. Hashem does not want mindless robots. Hashem wants fighters. Hashem does not ask for blind obedience he asks for thoughtful obedience and sometimes even principled dissent. What made our biblical characters the great exemplars for us is that they had such a high standard of right and wrong that they were even willing to hold Hashem accountable כביכול when they felt he was not living up to it.

As Avraham Avinu rhetorically asks in his defense of the people of Sdom, השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט? Should the Judge of the world not act justly? This heroism and moral rectitude is what made our biblical forefathers and mothers great and is an example for us to aspire to.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

An Unforgettable Parable – Berachot 30b by @slerner Shimon Lerner

Continuing on the theme of "Awe and Joy" as it relates to today's daf, I just wanted to highlight an amazingly powerful explanation of the concept given by R' Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan.

I first heard this explanation from my Rosh Yeshiva in High School more than 20 years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since (even more so after becoming a father, as will soon become clear). [If you are capable and have the time, I highly recommend reading R' Kaplan's entire essay "Be-Ikvus Ha-Yirah" in Hebrew. I personally revisit it at least once a year before Rosh Hashana.]

"Yir'ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. To what may yir'ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance... It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness... It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son's every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways - his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the "bundle" of his life's meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir'ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it - then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices..."
(Translation taken from R' Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer here:

I think any added words on my part would be superfluous.