ARE MOSHE"S HANDS LOADED WITH SOME MAGICAL POWER?
The majestic efforts Rabbi Yehuda Ha'Nasi devoted to codifying the Mishnah has resulted in a work of
momentous importance to the Jewish people and provides us with limitless opportunities to learn and reflect.
Towards the end of Chapter 3 of Tractate Rosh Hashanah in Mishnah 7 the following passage appears: "If one blows into a pit or a cistern or a barrel and can hear the sound of the shofar, that individual has performed their religious duty. However, if one hears the echo, that individual has not performed their duty. Similarly, if one was passing behind a synagogue or if their house was adjoining the synagogue and that individual heard the sound of the shofar or of the Megillah being read and listens with attention, he or she performs the religious precept. Otherwise, that individual does not fulfill the religious precept. Although one hears equally with the others, the one listened with attention while the other did not listen with attention." The halacha at the end of Mishnah 8 concludes the chapter: "A deaf-mute, a lunatic, or a minor cannot perform a religious duty on behalf of a congregation. The general principle is that one who is not under obligation to perform a religious duty cannot perform it on behalf of a congregation".
Between these two halachot a magical passage apparently not directly connected to the text appears. This passage says, " 'When Moses held up his hand and Israel prevailed,' etc. (Exodus 17:11), now did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? Not so for the text only signifies that so long as Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their ears to their Father in heaven they prevailed, but otherwise they fell. The same lesson may be taught thus, 'Make thee a fiery serpent and set it up on a pole, and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he sees it, shall live' (Number 21:8). No, did the serpent kill or did the serpent keep alive? No, when Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their hears to their Father in heaven, they were healed. Otherwise, they pined away."
In his commentary "Beit Ha'Bichira" on Tractate Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo "Ha'Meiri", provides an explanation to the previous Mishnah of the mysterious passage. "As this referred to the intention of the heart, he brought this to show that everything is based on intention of the heart." The version of the Mishnah used by "Ha'Meiri" stressed that "Whenever Israel turned their thoughts above" and they were not enslaved, etc.
With a single glance we can connect the Halacha on religious intention with the mysterious passage that underscores the power of this intention in instances of war and healing. Upon further examining "Ha'Meiri's" writing, we discover more than what meets the eye.
The commentaries on Exodus 17 (in the war with Amalek) and Numbers 21 (the episode of the serpent and the copper) presents a perspective which struggles with ideas related to magical powers. The commentary states that neither Moses nor the copper serpent possesses magical powers. Rather, the fundamental moral and spiritual power of each human being can defeat Amalek or the serpent, which are sent as a result of spiritual laxity. The insight of the Sages is expressed in many places in the midrashic literature such as Mechiltah on B'shlach, which emphasizes the spiritual aspect of the war with Amalek "Amalek" and the "serpent" can metaphorically represent two types of dangers we can confront. The Amalekiteness represents the temptation of humans to use power and abuse this power to harm those in a weaker situation. "The serpent" or the impatience, which resulted in punishment by the fiery serpent, represents a loss of direction, hopelessness, and lack of meaning. The Israelites do not understand the meaning of their exchanging slavery for freedom and prefer to return to their enslaved state. These two dangers, the temptation when being intoxicated by power accompanied by acting against the weak and the loss of direction face each individual at all times. In any individual or national struggle for growth, liberation, or redemption, there are ups and downs. Any ideology can be corrupted, no matter how noble the ideology. There has not been a people in history that has never succumbed to the temptation of abusing power.
The commentary in the Mishna, which "Ha'Meiri" bases his writing, teaches us that the only way to prevail against these two temptations is by utilizing "intention of the heart". By being cognizant of these dangers and realizing the ethical and spiritual obligations to our "Heavenly Father" who brought us out of Egypt and commanded us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we are commanded to recognize the vulnerability of the stranger and the weak. In Deuteronomy 24:17-18 we are commanded as follows: "Do not pervert justice for the proselyte or orphan. Do not take a widow's garment as security for a loan. You must remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and G-d your Lord liberated you. It is for that reason that I am commanding you to do this". The "intention of the heart" required here means the recognition of the reality of redemption and the resulting obligation providing the principle of "intention of the heart" with meaning and justification. What, then, is the connection between these lofty ideas and the Halacha which appears at the end of Mishna 8 (a deaf-mute, a lunatic, or a minor cannot perform a religious duty on behalf of a congregation, etc.)? The halachic ruling which appears at the conclusion of the Mishna, "one who is not himself or herself under obligation to perform a religious duty cannot perform it on behalf of a congregation", provides us with a better understanding of the meaning of this connection. The fundamental principle in fulfilling this commandment and the creation of a covenant between the public messenger and this individual's ability to perform the religious duty on behalf of a congregation is a willingness to accept personal responsibility. This is connected, on one hand, to "intention of the heart", which requires the recognition of liberation and redemption towards understanding the ethical and spiritual meaning of that liberation. On the other hand, fulfilling the commandment relates to the objective and subjective capability of that person to connec them as a person who possesses religious intention.
In this context, we might better understand the Halacha which does not allow the "deaf-mute, lunatic, or minor", as viewed by the Sages, to accept the obligation with full intention of the heart or to be public messenger in shofar blowing, which demands special intention. We note, though, that ideas about deafness have changed throughout the ages and resulted in halachic discussion to re-examine the Halachic status of the deaf. According to the Rambam "Both the listener and the person sounding the horn must have the requisite intention." The public messenger must possess the awareness, intention, and communication skills for people to rely on this individual to carry out this function and for the public messenger to know that the people support him. The sound of the shofar, like Moses' hands and the copper serpent, does not possess magical powers. The sound, which on its own is neutral and meaningless, is given meaning by those who fulfill the commandment of blowing and hearing the sound of the shofar. Beyond the personal significance that each individual can find in hearing the sound of the shofar meant to encourage reflection and repentance, we have halachic rulings, which define these sounds. The sound of the shofar must be authentic, original and not an echo of another sound ("if an echo of another sound has been heard, this does not fulfill the obligation"). The general ruling states that "all sounds of the shofar are kosher" and assumes the legitimacy existence of different, authentic sounds of different types of shofars.
We further explore the significance of the sounds of tekia, teruah, and shevarim. The sound of tekia is interpreted by both the Talmud and the Rambam as a simple sound and is associated with redemption, victory and important occasions such as "on that day a shofar sound will be blown."
Regarding the sound of teruah, the Rambam writes, "As a result of the long succession of years and the sore tribulations of the Dispersion, we are in doubt as to the precise meaning of the Scriptural term teruah and the exact sound which it represents. The sound might be a sobbing sound like that of lamenting women, or a sighing sound like the repeated sighs of a man whose heart is oppressed by great trouble, or a combination of both, the sighing sound and the sobbing sound that usually follows it. For a man in trouble will usually sigh first and then sob. Accordingly, we sound all three notes." (Shofar 3,2)
The gemarah in Rosh Hashanah 33, 72 also discusses the significance of the sound of the teruah. "It is written, 'It shall be a day of teruah unto you' (Numbers 29:1), and we translate [in Aramaic] a day of yebab, and it is written of the mother of Sisera, 'Through the window she looked forth' (Judges 5:28) [wa'teyabeyv]". The sounds of the shofar also have two perspectives, which the Mishnah addresses. The sound of the tekiah requires us to reflect and believe in the general principle of liberation and redemption without losing hope. The sound of the teruah, yevava, teaches us not to lose sensitivity towards other human beings' suffering, even if we are engaged in war, for even Sisra's mother was concerned and suffered for the welfare of her son.