Parshat Noach: Don’t just do right; make right!

אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ–נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ
(בְּרֵאשִׁית ו:ט)

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God. (Gen. 6:9)

Our parshah opens up with what seems like a very simple verse: Noah was a righteous man, who had a relationship with God. However, nearly all the classic commentators ask one very important question: if the verse wanted to convey that Noah was righteous, why not simply write

״נח איש צדיק תמים. את האלהים התהלך נח״
“Noah was a righteous and whole-hearted man; Noah walked with God.”

Why does the verse specifically mention that he was righteous in his generation?

The easy way to understand this addition is that the verse is trying to tell us that Noah was righteous only in relation to the generation in which he lived. As we will soon read, Noah’s generation was not the greatest, to say the least, and in relation to them, he was righteous. According to this reading, Noah’s character is less impressive. The line of thinking would dictate that if Noah lived in any other generation, he would not be considered righteous.

Rashi points out that this verse can actually be read in two ways. One could say that “in his generation” means that if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others could interpret it to say that in comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, for example, he would not have been considered of any importance.  The central question now becomes: was Noah truly righteous, and therefore worthy of praise? Or was he simply better than those around him, something much less impressive?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gives us a beautiful compromise between the two opinions. Yes, Noah may have been a lesser tzaddik compared to other greats such as Avraham. Objectively (if such a measure exists), he was less righteous. However, the fact that he was able to remain righteous in such an environment of iniquity was what was impressive. With all the negative influences around him, he could have simply gone with the majority, and conformed to their ways; however, Noah knew what was right and clung to it. This is what was impressive. Not that he was greater, but rather, that he had the strength and resolution to know what was right and stick to it.

This, Rabbi Hirsch says, is what the verse means when it says that Noah walked God. Noah walked with Godly values, and knew not to turn away from them. Noah had a certain set of heavenly blinders on. No matter where he went, or what was around him, he kept looking forward and staying true to what he knew was right. Noah teaches us that if you know where you are going, if you know where you need to be, you won’t be swayed by those around you. Abraham walked before God, Noah walked with God. Avraham followed in God’s ways, but Noah never left God’s side.

This is all well and good, but the Chassidic commentaries offer a slightly more nuanced understanding of Noah that sharpens our lesson. The Chassidic tradition calls Noah a “tzaddik im pelz”, a righteous person in a fur coat. What could they possibly mean by this? They explain that, for example, when you are stuck out in the cold with others, do you put on a fur coat and only warm yourself, or do you build a fire to warm everyone? Noah chose the former. He walked with God, he walked with blinders. He built an ark to save himself. Not once did he attempt to invite anyone on, or warn them of the forthcoming destruction. Noah was righteous, but he did not reach out.

Our parshah, and the character of Noah teach us two lessons. Firstly, find what is right, know it well and cling to it. But secondly, and more importantly, if you know what is right and see the wrong in the world, do something about it! Try to change the world around you instead of walking the lonely path reserved for the righteous. Do what you can to make those around you be righteous as well. Take what you know is right, and make it a reality.

Based on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah commentary, and the Kol Menachem Chumash.

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חזרת הד”ק (My Week in Review)

Lichvod R’Judith Z. Abrams, ז”ל

It was a sweet irony that during a break in my Gemara shiur yesterday, I found out that my first teacher of rabbinic texts, Reb Judith, as she was affectionately called, died suddenly of a heart attack the day before. She would have appreciated that, with a patented mischievous laugh and twinkle in her eye, wanting to be with “her guys,” as she referred to the talmudic sages, in the news of her death as much as she had been during her life. I want to dedicate this occasional series of posts reviewing my learning to her memory, that she may have a quick passage to the Beit Midrash On High.

Any great insights herein are my teachers’, and any mistakes are my own.

Gemara ג
This week, we started in on מסכת ברכות/tractate B’rachot, diving, in true Talmudic fashion, into the middle of it, on 17b. The Mishna starts with a phrase the immediately sets our tone, “one, which their dead has been placed in front of them,” and straight away, true to form, goes to list the mitzvot from which they’re exempted–recitation of Sh’ma, saying the Amida, putting on tefillin, and all the mitzvot that are discussed in the Torah. Your immediate relative has just died! How can think of mitzvot at this time*? Exactly.

Next, it explains when that the pallbearers–not necessarily immediate relatives–are exempt from mitzvot: before they’ve carried–exempt; after they’ve carried–obligated, even if they’re needed to carry again later. (You have to go back to the days before funeral homes and hearses to understand that carrying the dead was no small feat! Think of how many sweaty shifts of carrying it would take to transport your big-boned uncle Harry even a half mile.) But, it says, both those who have carried and have yet to carry are exempt from reciting the Amida.

Once you’ve buried the body and are returning, if you could start and finish your Amida before the receiving line, you should start, if not, you shouldn’t.

Those who are standing in the receiving line: if they are toward the front, they’re exempt (from what, it’s not clear), and those toward the back, they’re obligated.

And then, a most fascinating juxtaposition. We get a clause from a later mishna that seems to be mostly unrelated: Women, slaves and minors are exempt from recitation of Sh’ma and putting on tefillin, but are obligated in saying the Amida, mezuzahs and saying the blessing after the meal. What?! This isn’t about the customs of mourning! What might we infer by this juxtaposition. My teacher tabled the entire clause to study “in its proper place,” and my chevruta didn’t seem phased by this placement, saying only, “the sages wanted to remind us that these are other things we know about exemptedness and obligation in mitzvot.”

I don’t buy it. The Mishna is SO terse in its use of ink and real estate–why reprint this out of context? I don’t claim to have an answer, but it begs the question: what is it that we’re REALLY learning about here? Perhaps, simply, it is an object lesson in obligation, as my chevruta suggested. But these words–חייב obligation, פטור exemption–are so much the language of the entirety of the mishna, it doesn’t seem to be a chidush, a new learning. Is it that these categories of people inhabit a place that share some aspects with the mourner–not able to fully concentrate on these mitzvot, and thus exempt from them? What is it about Shema and tefillin that tell us that? I believe Rahel (Berkovits–a Pardes teacher) uses this passage as a jumping off point for a whole class on women and mitzvot that I’m not enrolled in, and my limited understanding thereof I won’t attempt to summarize, but I will submit that the Shema holds special status in the kavannah it requires, which might be at least part of why mourners, who are otherwise occupied, and women (at least in the historic time period), slaves and children, who are likewise not entirely unpreoccupied, are exempt.

Going in another direction, does this come into to tell us a bit about mourners? Do they share some characteristic with children? Even an adult child grieving a parent might, in the enormity of the realization that they’re truly an “adult,” might feel that same helplessness. With slaves? I can see how the immediacy of grief, for a parent, a sibling, a spouse or a child, could render anyone not their own master–emotionally or even physically. With women? In our culture, anyway, where tears and strong emotion are associated more immediately with women (halavai there’ll come a day when it’s equally culturally acceptable for men to cry and show a fuller breadth of emotion), then the mourner most definitely shares traits here, too.

Back on the page, however, Rashi immediately gives us an 11th century hyperlink to another piece of Gemara (noting we haven’t even gotten to the Gemara on 17b), back a few pages on 11a. He notes that the mourner is exempt, the same way a groom is exempt on his wedding day. (By the way, I’ve noticed that this is one of Rashi’s pet themes: how are weddings similar to funerals, and vice-versa. Perhaps I’ll write about that some other time.)

On 11a, we find a discussion already in progress between those paradigmatic arch-rivals, Hillel and Shammai, on when you should say the Shema. We pick up the argument with the introduction of a beraita, a piece of wisdom from the Misha’s cutting-room floor: “בשבתך בביתך” (in your sittings in your house–from the Ve’ahavta paragraph of the Shema) refers to when you are obligated to recite the Shema, but to the exclusion of someone who’s pursuing a mitzvah; “ובלכתך בדרך” (in your walkings on your way) is to the exclusion of a groom. This is where you can say, “huh?”

And just to “clarify,” from here, we understand when the groom is on his way to the bridal chamber with a virgin, he is exempt, but when doing so with a widow, he is obligated in the mitzvah of Shema. Yeah. Welcome to the Gemara.

This is where having a guide really helps. Meesh explained that the presumption is that the one marrying a widow is also not in his first marriage, which really focuses us on the first wedding night–a first sexual encounter for a pair of virgins. OK, might be a bit nerve-wracking. Ha! Who are we kidding? For a boy who’s been fantasizing about sex since the age of 10 or 11 to finally be confronted with the imminent act itself? Completely distracting is putting it mildly! So, this says something about mental state and our obligation in mitzvot.

The anonymous voice of the Gemara then asks, “what does this come to teach?” Rav Papa answers, “concerning דרך ‘way,’ just as you go on your way of your own discretion, so to this means any time when you’re acting on your own discretion, you’re obligated in the mitzvah of Shema.” Cool as cucumber. He seems to be saying that the groom’s exception is about volition or lack thereof, as well as, and not just because of, mental state.

The matter gets challenged again, and gets clarified again in a manner I thought I understood better at the time, but essentially makes it clear that the exemption for when you’re occupied in a mitzvah stands.

A question is brought about a merchant who loses his fortunes in a sinking ship–is he exempt? He must, after all, be feeling pretty distracted and bereft. It turns out that this might be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for exempted status. You need to be actively obligated in pursuing another mitzvah to be exempt from the second, and perhaps the Shema, in particular. In the case of the Shema, Meesh suggested we think of a soldier saying “I pledge allegiance.” When he’s in war, not necessary! He’s already demonstrating his allegiance to the flag. Likewise, someone pursuing mitzvot, especially these liminal-moment mitzvot of inception and caring for the dead, you don’t need to bear witness to G-d, taking upon yourself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven (which, after all, is what the Shema purportedly does).

So, nu? What do we learn? On the one hand, it’s a lesson in practical halakhic reasoning. On the other, it’s a glimpse into the human scope of Jewish law. In Modern Jewish Thought this week, we were reading A. J. Heschel’s take on the tension of halakha (law), on one hand, and agada (story) on the other. “Halakha deals with the law; agada deals with the meaning of the law…halakha deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; agada introduces us to a realm that lies beyond the realm of expression.” Now, while this sugya was full of halakha, the agadic lies just below the realm, and it’s hinted at by the odd juxtaposition we discussed above, as well as Rashi’s connection between burial and marriage. There is something going on here about the human condition in the moment of contact with great the spiritual energy released at the moment of death, as well as that created in the consummation of marriage.

The halakha is important, I won’t say it’s not. But, as Heschel writes, “the chief aim and purpose of mitzvot performed with our body is to arouse our attention to the mitzvot that are fulfilled with the mind and heart, for these are the pillars on which the service to G-d rests.” Just as there is something in the mere focus on the do’s and don’ts that misses the point, so to is a reading of our texts without attention to the human-divine connection that underlies them. “Halakha without agada is dead,” Heschel writes, “agada without halakha is wild.”

And so ends this blog post, more out of pre-shabbes necessity than completion of thought! May you be blessed to study and practice our tradition in the balance of halakha and agada, knowing moments of great intensity in which you can leave the structure behind, as well as mundane moments where the structure holds you up.
* This status, which I loosely call “mourners” in my post, is that of אנינות, deep sorrow, a period which lasts from the time of death until the burial. If you’re interested in an overview of practical halakhot on mourning (or anything else), I can recommend Isaac Klein’s classic Guide to Jewish Religious Practice.

[PCJE Dvar Torah] Really, A Rainbow?


AnnaPomsonI’d like you for a minute to imagine the scenario. Hashem sent a message to the whole world that they were not acting right. How did he send the message? He killed all of them except one family and few animals. The heavens opened and it rained for forty days and forty nights. Just imagine the worst rainstorm you’ve ever experienced and then think, what would it have been like if it had lasted forty days? Personally, extreme weathers give me a taste of Hashem’s power. We humans have no ways of stopping extreme weather and to me that puts the world into proportion.

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[PCJE] Bursting the Pardes Bubble

Samantha Vinokor Headshot“It’s a mitzvah!”

Over sukkot, I found myself in New York, running through Union Square to meet a friend. I was running late, laden down with packages (a necessity of every visit to Manhattan), when I was stopped by a man holding a lulav and etrog and asking every passerby who’d listen if they were Jewish. Some people avoided eye contact with him, awkwardly skirting around the man in a black hat and coat on an unseasonably warm day, standing in front of his sukkah on the busy corner. However, years of growing up in New York and living in Jerusalem have given me familiarity with all of these elements, so I made eye contact, letting him know that I am in fact, a Member of the Tribe. Instantly, he came over to me, holding out his lulav, and immediately asking me to come into the sukkah and fulfill the mitzvot of Sukkot.

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[PCJE] Bereshit: The Nature of Creation

Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah.

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בְּרֵאשִׁית ב:ט

וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע

  1. “The Lord God made grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to look at and good to eat, [including] the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.”

This verse is the cause of probably the most infamous incident in the entire Torah: what is generally called the Sin in the Garden. Some of the biggest questions to be asked about this whole episode is why would God create this situation, and what then was his ultimate plan? These are very big questions, and their answers help us to understand the fundamental nature of Creation.

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[PCJE] Vezot HaBeracha: His Last Bow

Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah.

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א  וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַךְ מֹשֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים–אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  לִפְנֵי, מוֹתוֹ

ב  וַיֹּאמַר, יְהוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ–הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן, וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ; מִימִינוֹ, אשדת (אֵשׁ דָּת) לָמוֹ

  1. “This is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, bestowed on the Children of Israel before his death.”
  2. “He said: ‘The Lord came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Seir, and made an appearance from Mount Paran; from the holy myriads, He brought the fire of religion to them from His right Hand.”

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Red Light, Green LIght

DSGWhen I arrived at Pardes in 2012, I had already been out of college for two years. I have to admit, during those two years between college and Pardes I was pretty lazy. I spent a few hours teaching at religious schools, and a few hours applying for jobs while living with my parents. It was relaxed. So, when I came to Pardes, where we spent sometimes up to 12 hours a day studying, it took quite a bit of adjusting. Of course, this is true for almost anyone, being that college is also quite relaxed compared to a schedule devoted to Torah study. I got used to it though, and began to discover just how much I loved it.

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[PCJE] Kohelet: Let it Go

Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.51.44 AMKohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, which we read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, is a depressing and troubling book. It is written by “Kohelet the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecc. 1:1). Who was this king, and why is he so ambiguously named? Tradition gives us a couple answers: from Solomon, the literal son of David, to Hezekiah and his court, David’s descendent, and a righteous and wise king in his own right. But regardless of the exact authorship, it is the message of this name that is important. It is a name that connotes prominence and wisdom. Kohelet, קֹהֶלֶת, comes from the root קהל, meaning assembly or congregation.

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Getting out of the Beit Midrash

In Pirkei Avot, we learn the world rests upon 3 things: Torah, service of G-d, and acts of loving kindness.

Steven StraussHere at Pardes, we do an excellent job in studying Torah. We engage with text for hours on end each day, debating with our chevruta and analyzing each word we read. We diligently criticize and construct arguments and challenge our teachers. Pardes also provides opportunities for us to pray and serve G-d daily or weekly if we choose to do so. We may also attend learners’ services or take classes on prayer.

Pardes also helps us fulfill the last aspect of these three – acts of loving kindness. Built into our class schedule is an afternoon for us to dedicate ourselves to a weekly service project.

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[PCJE Dvar Torah] Sukkot: A Time for Rejoicing

daIn Rambam’s Laws of Sukkot 8:12, he writes,“Even though it is a mitzvah to rejoice on all the festivals, there was an additional celebration in the Temple on the festival of Sukkot, as [Leviticus 23:40] commands: “And you shall rejoice before God, your Lord, for seven days.”

אף על פי שכל המועדות מצוה לשמוח בהן, בחג הסוכות היתה שם במקדש שמחה יתירה שנאמר +ויקרא כ”ג+ ושמחתם לפני ה’ אלהיכם שבעת ימים, וכיצד היו עושין ערב יום טוב הראשון היו מתקנין במקדש מקום לנשים מלמעלה ולאנשים מלמטה כדי שלא יתערבו אלו עם אלו, ומתחילין לשמוח ממוצאי יום טוב הראשון, וכן בכל יום ויום מימי חולו של מועד מתחילין מאחר שיקריבו תמיד של בין הערבים לשמוח שאר היום עם כל הלילה.

The holiday of Sukkot is known within Rabbinic literature and liturgy as “זמן שמחתנו”: “the season of our rejoicing”. As we have just emerged from a time of deep personal reflection and introspection over the course of the ימים נוראים (Days of Awe) and יום כיפור (Yom Kippur), it is fitting that we now transition into a mode of happiness and rejoicing. It is only through deep reflection that we can cultivate and prepare for a true feeling of happiness — happiness and rejoicing which has purpose, commitment, and fulfillment.

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