Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Metaphorical Meaning of Parshat Sotah

Today as I was learning Parshat Naso as I was coming home from work on the train. I was thinking about the connection between the halakhot of Sotah and Nazir that appear one after the other. I was suddenly thunderstruck with yet another brilliant insight into the deeper, if not the deepest, meanings of the Torah. Naturally, when this happens to me I try and add my insight to the blogosphere. Fortunately for the blogosphere - my children are taking along time to fall asleep and I am afforded the opportunity to write a blog post as I dutifully sit outside their doorway.

It is practically a literary fact that the Sotah ritual is also a metaphor for the relationship between HaShem and B'nei Israel. For example, after the חטא עגל, Moshe Rabbeinu ground up the עגל הזהב into water and forced B'nei Israel to drink the mixture. This mixture reminds us of the Sotah potion which contains water, dirt from the floor of the Ohel Moed, and ink from the Sotah שבועה. When B'nei Israel worshipped the עגל הזהב they were unfaithful to HaShem they were being compared to a Sotah and her husband. There are numerous imageries in the Tanakh comparing B'nei Israel to an unfaithful wife because they have abandoned HaShem and the Torah u'Mitzvot. (Sefer Hoshea leaps to mind and I am sure that there are other examples.)

This comparison between the Sotah ritual and the Egel is the basis for my brilliant insight into Parshat Naso - the burning question on everyone's mind is: Why is the Sotah ritual located in Parshat Naso?! It would make much more sense if it was found in Parshat Ki Tisa after the עגל הזהב! The answer to this burning question is: B'nei Israel are being warned at the beginning of their journey to conquer Eretz Yisrael. This is going to be a difficult and challenging journey and they will need every bit of emunah that they can muster so that they can succeed. The Sotah ritual is a warning to B'nei Israel of what might happen to them if the do not follow HaShem and Torah u'Mitzvot.

Unfortunately, we all know that this journey was actually a disaster and that the vast majority of this generation of B'nei Israel were not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. In fact, the ten bad spies die in a horrible plague (another support for my brilliant insight) similar to the punishment for the Sotah. However, in Parshat Naso everything is still going well and B'nei Israel are dutifuly following HaShem's commands (see BaMidbar 5:4). And we can clearly see that the halakhot of the Sotah were taught to B'nei Israel at the beginning of their journey to Eretz Israel to warn them not to stray from HaShem's commands.

Photo Credit - Ron Almog http://www.flickr.com/photos/ronalmog/302026953

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lost in Translation

Parshat Naso contains the description of the ritual of the Sotah (suspected adultress). This ritual is rich with descriptive imagery of what can happen to a husband and wife who allow animal desires to override their rational thought. For example, the husband is overcome with insane jealousy (5:14), and the wife brings barley as a korban which is associated with animal feed (Rashi 5:15).

However, I would like to use the Sotah ritual as an opportunity to pontificate about the importance of reading pesukim in their original Hebrew. There is a beautiful phrase that is used to describe a part of the Sotah ritual, and it is impossible for this phrase to be conveyed in translation. (Certainly an English translation - I cannot claim that there is a language out there that might be able to give a faithful rendering of the Hebrew. Anyone know Esperanto?)

The Sotah is forced to drink a potion that even Severus Snape could not prepare - and this potion will have a nasty impact on the Sotah's limbs if she is indeed guilty of adultery. R. Aryeh Kaplan (a noted kabbalist) translated the description of the potion as, "the curse-bearing bitter water," in his magnum opus - The Living Torah. This translation is a big improvement over the 1917 JPS translation which uses the following traslation: "the water of bitterness that causeth curse." Yet The Living Torah is still a far cry from the richness of the original Hebrew phrase: מי המרים המאררים (mei hamarim hamarrim). This phrase is a rhyming alliteration and the literary power is lost in translation, because neither the rhyming, nor the alliteration can be conveyed in English.

A few words about this bitter cursing potion. Water is usually a positive symbol, and it is generally associated with birth and Torah. However, if the Sotah is guilty of adultery, then the bitter cursing water is a source of death and not life. It is interesting to note that in Massechet Berachot (32b - I think), Chazal explain that an innocent woman who undergoes the Sotah ceremony would become pregnant. So actually the מי המרים המאררים is less of a potion and more of a catalyst - if the Sotah is gulity, than that sin is catalyzed into a physical punishment. If the Sotah is innocent, then the water has a positive effect on her.

If you like my little d'var Torah - great; but more importantly, I hope you have learned the lesson of reading pesukim in the original Hebrew! Don't get lost in translation.

ps - I have not seen the movie.

pps - The image is taken from wikimedia commons and is pretty neat. It is a:
Scan of plate 19 of the 1880 translation of the 1849 Johann Scheible (editor) version of The Sixth And Seventh Books Of Moses. No Author given. "The sixth and seventh books of Moses: or, Moses' magical spirit-art, known as the wonderful arts of the old wise Hebrews, taken from the Mosaic books of the Cabala and the Talmud, for the good of mankind."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

To Count, or Not to Count?

The minchah minyan at work asked me to give a short dvar Torah this week, and I thought I would share it with you.
Parshat BaMidbar is not exactly an action filled Parshah - it almost exclusively consists of numbers. And not even interesting numbers like 7, 40, or 613. It is full of the numbers of the population of Jews in each shevet - are those cyber-snores that I hear? Chas v'sholom that an entire Parshah in the Torah could be called boring, allow me to enlighten you to the deeper meaning of counting.
How does one perform a Biblical census? It is assur to go out and simply count every Jew. Rather the population was counted passively with the מחצית השקל. (Everyone had to pay an annual half-shekel tax. So if you halved the total tax collected, you would have the total population of the Jewish people.) Why is it assur to count every individual Jew?
A couple of years ago in my prior incarnation as a teacher, I attended a seminar that focused on Holocaust education. One of the speakers mentioned her strong dislike for the documentary, "Paper Clips." The documentary focuses on a school in Tenessee that collected 6 million paperclips to commemorate the Holocaust. The speaker objected to the idea that her grandmother could be compared to a paperclip. The same idea can be applied to the counting in Parshat BaMidbar - every Jew is a unique individual. An ordinary direct census removes that uniqueness and transforms a human being into a number. Thus it is assur to count people purely for the sake of determining the population. Instead, you may only calculate the population as a result of another action - like the מחצית השקל. As B'nei Israel begin their journey towards Eretz Yisrael, they have become one nation - yet it they are comprised of unique individuals.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rambam Sefer Zemanim (Part 2)

The content of Sefer Zemanim is almost identical to the content of Seder Moed in Shas. The only difference is that Chazal placed Massechet Chagigah at the end of Seder Moed, while Rambam placed Hilkhot Chagigah in Sefer Korbanot. It is interesting to note that many Halakhik seforim (notably the Rif, and the Tur/Shulchan Aruch) only discuss and posken halakhot that are relevant today. They do not discuss the halakhot of the Mikdash and Korbanot because they have no relevance for practical halakhah (הלכה למעשה). The Rambam discusses all 613 mitzvot whether they are observed today or not - thus the fact that the Mishneh Torah poskens halakhot about the Mikdash and the korbanot makes it a unique sefer. However, Rambam dedicated two seforim of the Mishneh Torah to discuss all of the halakhot relating to Korbanot and the Mikdash. Chazal mixed practical halakhot with halakhot about korbanot and the Mikdash in Seder Moed.

For example, the first four perakim of Massechet Pesachim discuss the halakhot of chametz and matzah. The next five perakim are concerned with the details of the Korban Pesach. The final perek discusses the halakhot of the Pesach Seder. One massechet analyzes all of the halakhot of Pesach.

The Rambam places the halakhot of the Korban Pesach in Sefer Korbanot and the rest of the halakhot of Pesach in Sefer Zemanim. Unlike Chazal, the Rambam wanted to place the practical halakhot in a separate section from the halakhot that are not currently observed. Another explanation (דבר אחר): Rambam wanted the mitzvot that applied to all the Jewish people in one section, and the mitzvot that focused on the kohanim in another section. Once you begin to realize the different halakhik structures between the Rambam and Chazal - the perushim are endless.

Here is the list of halakhot that appear in Sefer Zemanim:
  • Hilkhot Shabbat
  • Hilkhot Eruvin
  • Hilkhot Shevitat Assur - Laws of Yom Kippur
  • Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov
  • Hilkhot Chametz u'Matzah
  • Hilkhot Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav
  • Hilkhot Shekalim - Laws of Annual Half-Shekel Tithe
  • Hilkhot Kiddush HaChodesh - Laws of Declaring Rosh Chodesh
  • Hilkhot Ta'aniot
  • Hilkhot Megillah u'Channukah
Happy learning.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rambam Sefer Zemanim (Part 1)

I apologize for getting a little off course from my comparison of the organization of the Mishneh Torah to Shas - but now we can resume analyzing the different approaches to organizing the halakhot. And after all, what are a couple of months between friends?

The third sefer of the Mishneh Torah is Sefer Zemanim. We can immediately see that the Rambam has abandoned the halakhik structure of Shas. Chazal placed Massechet Berachot at the beginning of Seder Zeraim - the halakhot of agriculture. Rambam places Sefer Zeraim as the seventh book of the Mishneh Torah. I would suggest that the Rambam wanted to connect the halakhot of agriculture to the halakhot of the Beit HaMikdash which is the eighth sefer of the Mishneh Torah. I will discuss the placement of Sefer Zeraim in a (much) later post.

The Rambam states in his Introduction to the Mishnah Torah (hat tip to Rabbi Josh Weinberger for bringing this to my attention) that the theme of Sefer Ahavah is to enhance the relationship between the Jewish people and HaShem. This same theme could explain why the Rambam placed Sefer Zemanim after Sefer Ahavah - one of the purposes of Shabbat and the Chagim is also to enhance our relationship with HaShem. This them connects the halakhot of Tefillah and Shabbat/Chagim and should not be interrupted by Sefer Zeraim and the halakhot of agriculture.