יום רביעי, 30 באפריל 2014


The Kohanim, sons of Aaron

Pinchas Leiser

Since the destruction of the Temple and beginning with the period of the Sages, the priests – the Kohanim – have undergone a change of status.  Back in the days of the Temple they played a central role in spiritual leadership and worship, but today they serve no significant function in leading the people and they do not enjoy a monopoly in any other important area of life.

It is interesting to note that the central prohibitions mentioned in the beginning of our parasha – the prohibition against becoming ritually impure from contact with a corpse, the prohibition against marrying a divorcee – remain in force today.  The Kohanim also give the Priestly Blessing and play a crucial role in the pidyon haben, the ceremonial redemption of a first-born son.  It is also customary to reserve the first aliyah of the Torah reading for Kohanim out of consideration for darkhei shalom, "ways of peace."

Despite all the above, when the Sages set about formulating the spiritual hierarchy that has clear halakhic implications in situations where lives must be saved, they said (Mishnah Horayot 3:8): "[When dealing with] a scholarly mamzer [man of illegitimate birth] and an ignorant High Priest; a scholarly mamzer comes before an ignorant High Priest."  That is to say, those spiritual achievements which determine one's rank for society depends on one's personal efforts and not on one's family pedigree.  The Talmud (Yoma 71b) relates an incident in which a group of people left the High Priest in order to accompany Shmaya and Avtalyon:

Our Rabbis taught: It happened with a high priest that as he came forth from the Sanctuary, all the people followed him, but when they saw Shemaya and Avtalyon, they forsook him and went after Shmaya and Avtalyon. Eventually Shmaya and Avtalyon visited him, to take their leave of the high priest. He said to them: May the descendants of the heathen come in peace! [Shmaya and Avtalyon descended from gentiles, according to tradition they descended from Sannacherib] — They answered him: May the descendants of the heathen, who do the work of Aaron, arrive in peace, but the descendant of Aaron, who does not do the work of Aaron, he shall not come in peace!
(based on Soncino translation)

This story gives clear expression to the revolution that had taken place in the Sages' notions of honor and social distinction.  The sage, the Torah scholar, took pride of place over the Kohen, and the Sages further established (Bava Batra 12a) that, "A sage takes precedence over a prophet."  The social hierarchy had changed.

The deterioration of the priestly status can already be found in Scripture when Eli's sons misused their position; similarly, the Kohanim were often puppets of the kings in the days of the monarchy.  The Hasmonean kingdom also degenerated, a phenomenon that gives cause for concern not only about overly close links between government and finance, but also between the spiritual leadership and political power.

In any event, as Jews who are loyal to halakhic tradition we continue to observe the prohibitions mentioned in the parasha: we give a Kohen the first aliyah, we reserve the Kohen his place in pidyon haben, and we pray that God should "return the Kohanim to their worship."

I believe that this question goes beyond the relevance of the Kohanim's status or the relevance of a "born aristocracy" in a modern society which has adopted – at least in principle – the notion that all human beings are born equal and should be judged by their accomplishments.  (Of course, it remains undeniable in our own times that a person's place of birth and ancestry can play an important role in determining his social status).

Are we to treat the preservation of the priesthood as a necessary remnant of earlier days which reflects the universal presence of some kind of "aristocracy" or another in every society?  I don't think such explanations relate with sufficient seriousness to the biblical verses and rabbinic traditions which took pains – despite the radical revolution within Judaism – to preserve something of the priestly status.

As I mentioned above, this question is not restricted to the status of Kohanim; it also touches upon everything we say in our prayers longing for the Temple service and the sacrificial rite.

When three times each day we say, "and return the service to the Devir ['Holy of Holies'] of Your House," are we really looking forward to an early restoration of the sacrificial rites as the were practiced in the First and Second Temples?

Even HaRav Kook, who appears to have taken care to study Seder Kedoshim together with the Hafetz Hayyim in case the Temple were rebuilt, wrote in his commentary on the Siddur that in the future all the sacrifices will be of vegetable matter.

The Gemara (Ta'anit 17a) mentions the view of Rabbi, who prohibited the Kohanim of "our days" from ever drinking wine, just in case the Temple might be rebuilt and there will be an immediate need for fit Kohanim to perform the services there.

Other rabbis, such as R. Haim Hirschenson, thought that the renewal of sacrifices was unimaginable, since that form of worship is not suited to our age.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, RaMBaM views the worship of God through sacrifices as a necessary but temporary developmental stage that took into account the people's early spiritual condition in which they were unable to think in terms of any other form of worship.  He thought that prayer constituted a more highly developed mode of serving God than that of sacrifice.

I think that we should adopt the RaMBaM's attitude regarding the Messianic Age (Hilkhot Melakhim 12:2):

No one is in a position to know the details of this and similar things until the have come to pass.  They are not explicitly stated by the prophets.  Nor have the rabbis any tradition with regard to these matters.  They are guided solely by what the Scriptural texts seem to imply.  Hence there is a divergence of opinion on the subject.
(Yale translation)

We do not know how human society will develop.  Any description we offer of the future expresses our current experience of the world.  As a result, we are unable to have clear knowledge of the character of the worship of God in the Messianic Age and what role the Kohanim will play in it.

Nevertheless: I think that it was important to the Sages who shaped the halakhic tradition to preserve some of the symbols which tie us to earlier generations.  The Kohen, who represents memory of those early days when he served a central role, is one such symbol.  By way of the Kohen, who represents the Temple, we connect to roots which can nourish us with inspiration to undertake further spiritual development.  I think that a similar idea is expressed by the puzzling rule that Purim must be celebrated on the 15th of Adar in cities which were walled specifically "from the days of Joshua ben Nun." That rule honors the Land of Israel, which lay in ruins at the time of the rule's formulation.

The halakhic culture shaped by the Sages requires us, on the one hand, to connect with the memory of the past, but it also demands that we not become frozen in that past; it also insists that we be aware that we don't really know what the future will bring.

Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist

יום שישי, 25 באפריל 2014

"קדושה" אנושית - Human Transcendence

בני משפחתנו, חברותינו וחברינו היקרים,
הפרשה שנקרא מחר מתחילה בהוראה: "קדושים תהיו". האם מדובר בשאיפה שלא ניתנת להגשמה, או אולי עלינו להבין אחרת את ההוראה הזאת; הקדושה הנדרשת מאיתנו איננה קדושה במובן הרגיל. מדובר לרוב בהנחיות אתיות ; לא לנקום, לאהוב את הרֵע , שהוא כמוך נברא בצלם. כלומר הטרסצנדנטיות הנדרשת מאיתנו היא להיות מסוגל לצאת מהאינטרסים הצרים שלנו עם הפנים לאחר.
שבת שלום לכולכם
פנחס, ציפי ומשפחתם

Dear Family and Friends,
The Torah section we'll read tomorrow starts with the words : You shall be Holy. Is this an unreachable ideal we are required to strive for? Or maybe the correct translation of "Kedoshim" isn't "holy", but rather open to a transcendental  ethical  dimension. Many commandments following this general imperative deal with our relationship to the Other; so maybe this sense of looking beyond our personal egocentric needs is the more appropriate way of being transcendental.
Shabbat Shalom to all,
Pinchas, Tzippie and Family

יום שלישי, 22 באפריל 2014

Aftertaste of Pessach - Moral implications of the Shoah - Challenge of Independence

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt
Pinchas Leiser
The holiday of Pesah, the season of our liberation, ended a week ago, and it reminded us of the foundational experience of our exodus from bondage to freedom. Of course, that is not the Torah's only commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. We observe many different commandments which mention this great foundational event of our history. Indeed, the month of Nisan is the first of months - some say that the world itself was created in Nisan. It is also said that, "They were redeemed in Nisan, and their future redemption shall occur in Nisan." The Exodus from Egypt is commemorated in different contexts, and even towards different ends. In the parasha of Aharei Mot, we are warned not to commit practices such as those of the land of Egypt.
On the other hand, the phrase for you were strangers in the land of Egypt appears four times in the Torah, serving as a moral and psychological argument that must guide our treatment of the strangers among us.
In parashat Mishpatim, we read:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemot 22:20)
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemot 23:9)
In our own parasha:
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Lord am your God. (Vayikra 19:33-34)
And in the book of Devarim:
For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10:17-19)
Some exegetes explain that the stranger referred to by the Torah is a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism. However, it is not necessary to accept this interpretation; in fact, it may make more sense to assume that these verses are talking about an alien who lives among us. After all, the second half of the verse, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, must be understood in this way; we did not convert to the religion of ancient Egypt, rather, we lived as aliens there. In addition, the whole notion of conversion to Judaism as it is known to us was developed later in our history.
We, then, are commanded by the law of the Torah to treat the stranger fairly, not to deceive him, and even to love him. We must do this because it is incumbent upon us to walk in the ways of the Lord, Who does justice for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The Torah finds it necessary to take the opportunity to remind us that we were also strangers, and so we know the feelings of the stranger. Various commentators have related to this statement in different ways. The RaMBaN offers us a well-developed theory:
The correct interpretation appears to me to be that He is saying: "Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking as you might that none can deliver him out of your hand; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppressed (Shemot 3:9) you, and I avenged your cause on them, because I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there is power (Kohellet 4:1) and I deliver each one from him that is too strong for him (Tehillim 35:10). Likewise you shall not afflict the widow and the fatherless child (Shemot 22: 21), for I will hear their cry, for all these people do not rely on themselves but trust in Me." And in another verse He added this reason: for you know the soul of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt (23:9). That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and his eyes are always directed towards God, therefore He will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you, just as it is written, and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage (2:23), meaning that He had mercy on them not because of their merits, but only on account of the bondage [and likewise He has mercy on all who are oppressed]. (RaMBaN on Shemot 22:20, Chavel translation)
The RaMBaN emphasizes that God will seek justice for every persecuted person, out of divine sympathy for the oppressed. On the other hand, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch contrasts Egypt's tribal morality with the Torah's universal ethic:
As aliens, you had no rights in Egypt; that was the root of the slavery and troubles which afflicted you. Therefore - such is the formulation of the warning - you must take care not to base human rights in your state upon any other foundation than pure humanity, which dwells in every human heart inasmuch as a person is human. Any neglect of human rights opens a door to arbitrariness and human persecution - which were the roots of Egypt's abominations. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch on Shemot 22:20)
These unambiguous words did not appear in a "Betselem" manifesto, nor in an advertisement of the Association for Civil Rights; they were written 150 years ago by one of Germany's great Torah leaders. They awaken wonder and enthusiasm; I would be happy to hear more statements like this from our contemporary rabbis.
Why, then, are such voices so rare today? Why do troubling phenomena of exploitation and discrimination against aliens occur in Israeli society?
There may be many reasons, but it might be that one source of our lack of moral sensitivity is connected - quite paradoxically - with the Jewish People's own experience of the Holocaust and persecution in many lands. One might understand - but perhaps not justify - a lack of openness in a victim who has difficulty shaking off his own identity of victimhood. We may have left the diaspora, but we have not removed the diaspora from within us, and we have failed to take full responsibility for what happens in our own society.
It should be noted that these commandments, which require fair and equal treatment of strangers, are part of the parasha Kedoshim tehiyu (You shall be holy). Holiness involves self-overcoming and restraint, but it can exist only in a society based upon justice.
Prof. Nehama Leibowitzz"l, demonstrated that the expression fear of the Lord occurs in connection with the treatment of members of minority groups, of alien peoples, since, quite naturally, the stranger is weak and depends more upon the good graces of the regime than does a citizen who belongs to the majority group.
We should welcome the new awakening of social initiatives - involving rabbinical participation - which battle social injustice and discrimination. However, there is still room to raise up a great outcry against the humiliating treatment of the strangers among us, and for the situation to be redressed. These aspects of holiness and fear of God are always worthy of consideration, all the more so in the days between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzma'ut.
Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist

יום ראשון, 20 באפריל 2014

מעשי ידיי טובעים בים...

לבני משפחתנו, חברותינו וחברינו היקרים,
"מעשי ידי טובעים בים ואתם אומרים שירה?!" - כך מתאר המדרש את תגובתו של הקב"ה לשירת המלאכים בזמן קריעת ים סוף. זו גם הסיבה המובאת במדרש לאי אמירת ההלל השלם בשביעי של פסח (ולכן גם בימי חול המועד). ואולי בא הדבר ללמדנו התייחסות מורכבת; מחד, ניתן ויש לשמוח ולברך על שחרורנו מעבדות, אך יש להימנע מלשמוח על אבדן חיי אדם,  גם אם מדובר באויבים, כי כל בני אדם נבראו בצלם. התייחסות מורכבת זו מצריכה בגרות.
חג שמח לכולכם
פנחס, ציפי ומשפחתם

Dear  Family and Friends,
According to the Midrash, the reason for not reciting the complete  Hallel  on the last day of Pesscah  is connected to the ethic imperative not to rejoice when our enemies die. Maybe this teaches us to relate in a complex way to events; we can and even have to be happy about our liberation; nevertheless we have to avoid rejoicing when human beings, even enemies are killed, since all Human Beings have been created to G-d's Image. This complex attitude requires a high degree of maturity.
Chag Sameach to all,
Pinchas, Tzippie and Family 


יום רביעי, 16 באפריל 2014

Iמ Every generation...

In Every Generation One Must View Oneself..."


As every year, one of the central passages which we will recite on Seder night, taken from Mishnah Pesahim (10:5), reads: " In every generation one must regard himself as though he had gone out of Egypt." RaMBaM (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Hametz and Matzah 7:8), formulates it as follows:
In every generation, one must show himself as though he himself has just exited the slavery of Egypt as is written "And He took us out of there..." (Devarim 6:23). Regarding this, the Torah commanded: Remember that you were a slave (Devarim 5:14ibid., 15:15; ibid., 16:12; ibid., 24:18; ibid., 24:22), meaning, as if you yourself were a slave, and went out to freedom and were redeemed.
From the Mishnah and the subsequent ruling of the RaMBaM, we learn that the commandment of relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt has a goal: it is to sense anew every year the experience of the liberation, of the passage from slavery to freedom.
The Talmud (Pesahim 116a) recounts an interesting conversation between Rav Nahman and his servant, Darro:
Rav Nahman said to his servant Darro: "A slave who is freed by his master, who gives him gold and silver, what must he say to him?" He replied: "He must thank and praise his master." He said to him: "If so, you have released us from the obligation of reciting the Ma Nishatana questions." He began to recite Avadim Hayinu.
Imbuing this story with actual and relevant significance presents a serious challenge. True, we are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt at frequent intervals (in the Shabbat Kiddush, in the passages contained in tefillin, in the Shema, in the prohibition against cheating the stranger, etc.), but the commandment "to relate"  applies only on the evening of the 15th of Nissan - "when matza and the bitter herbs lie before you" - and it differs in essence from the commandment to constantly remember.

What, then, is the relevant significance of the Exodus narrative?
A reading of the entire above-mentioned mishnah reveals two controversies:
        v             Regarding the recitation of the Hallel on Seder eve, before the eating of the matzah, the bitter herb, and the meal, Bet Shammai says: Until what point does he recite? Until the mother of the sons rejoices (i.e., until the end of the first chapter). Bet Hillel disagrees: Until water from the rock (i.e., the end of the second chapter). There are different explanations of this controversy, but the Jerusalem Talmud explains that Bet Shammai is stringent regarding remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt (appearing in the second chapter - As the Children of Israel left Egypt) after midnight, time of the beginning of the redemption; Bet Hillel opines that there is no need to wait for midnight, because in any case the Exodus from Egypt began only in the morning.
        v             Rabbi Tarfon is of the opinion that the recitation of the Hallel ends with " who redeemed us and redeemed our fathers"  - sans any concluding benediction. He disagrees with Rabbi Akiva , who adds the passage relating to the future "So, may our God and God of our fathers bring us to other festivals and appointed times which approach us, in peace, rejoicing in the building of your city, and delighting in your service, and that we shall eat of the offerings and of the paschal sacrifice..." concluding with the benediction: "Blessed are you, God, who redeemed Israel."
The Tosafists explain Rabbi Tarfon's position, saying that it was his custom to be sparing with requests. Here, too, he makes do with thanks for that which already happened, the redemption which already occurred. Rabbi Akiva was wont to request at length, and therefore he concludes the Hallel with a request relating to the future redemption.
Rabbi Tarfon was careful, in certain instances, to rule in conformity with Bet Shammai (Mishnah Berakhot 1:3), because he had studied in Shammai's academy. Therefore one can find a common denominator between the two controversies:
In Bet Shammai's view, reliving the past experience demands that we wait until that hour when the event occurred. Perhaps we can compare Bet Shammai's position in this case to his stand on the lighting of the Hanukkah candles (lighting fewer each night). His religious consciousness is based upon that which has already occurred and which is occurring now (past and present). But according to Rabbi Akiva, it is permissible to praise and laud for a past redemption, even if the exact hour in which it occurred has not arrived.
Rabbi Tarfon's religious consciousness, too, relates to that which has already happened and to the current significance of that event, but his religious consciousness does not include the future. Rabbi Akiva, however, the "optimistic" believer, relates to prophecy due to materialize as though it had already materialized (See the story of the fox which emerges from the Holy of Holies, at the conclusion of Tractate Makkot).
RaMBaM rules that we must tell the story of the Exodus and experience in our lives, here and now, the experience of liberation, but together with this - in his version of Hagaddah - he rules like Rabbi Akiva (and Bet Hillel), integrating the request expressing our anticipation for the future redemption into the benediction which concludes the first portion of the Hallel.
Religious awareness based on memory of the past and upon internalization of the moral messages which flow from this memory, can create an attitude of empathy towards all who are enslaved, just as we were in Egypt. But when this awareness does not include an aspect of hope for, and belief in, a better world, it may result in despair and depression.
MaHaRaL, in his commentary on the Haggadah, observes that religious consciousness based on faith in the future, can infuse hope into situations in which we undergo again the experience of slavery. This was also the greatness of Rabbi Akiva, who, in a period of destruction, merited hearing his despairing friends say " Akiva, you have comforted us."  
Occasionally, however - and this happened to Rabbi Akiva - there exists the danger that an overabundance of anticipation of the redemption, will result in " forcing the end,"  in messianic interpretation of historic events. Along with this danger, there exists another danger, no less serious than the first: the belief that our redemption can be attained at the expense of others.
Only proper balance between the two consciousnesses can advance us, some day, to the complete redemption. In the words of the RaMBaM (Laws of Kings 12:7-8):
7. The prophets and the Sages yearned for the days of the Messiah not that they may rule over all the world, and not that the have dominion over the nations, and not that the nations exalt us, and not in order to eat and drink and be merry: but in order that we be free for the Torah and its wisdom, and they will have neither oppressor nor one to keep from study of Torah, but so that they merit life of the world to come, as we explained in the Laws of Repentance.
8. At that time, there will be neither hunger nor war nor jealousy and competition - there will be an abundance of goodness, and all delicacies will be as commonplace as dust. The world will be engaged only in the knowledge of God. Therefore will there be great wise men, and those who know the deep and hidden knowledge; they will achieve knowledge of their creator according to human ability, as is written For the world will be full of the knowledge of God, like the waters which cover the seas (Isaiah 11:9)
Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist

יום שישי, 11 באפריל 2014

חירות אישית וסולידריות - Personal Freedom and Solidarity

לבני משפחתנו, חברותינו וחברינו היקרים,
הפילוסוף עמנואל לוינס כתב (בספרו "חירות קשה"): "חירותו של אדם היא חירותו של משוחרר מעבדות הנזכר בשיעבודו והחש סולידריות כלפי כל המשועבדים". דומני שיש שני משפטים חשובים שכדאי להפנים לקראת ליל הסדר:
א."בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים"
ב. ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר, כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים.
יש צורך להשתחרר מכל סוגי העבדות (החיצונית והפנימית) , מתחושת הקרבניות כדי להיות אמפתי עם כל המשועבדים.
שבת שלום ואיחולינו לחג של חירות ושמחה
פנחס, ציפי ומשפחתם

 Dear Family and Friends,
The Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote (in his book "Difficile Lliberte"): The Freedom of a Person is the Freedom of someone liberated from slavery, who remembers his being a slave and who experiences solidarity with the oppressed".
I believe that 2 sentences are crucial to  experience Pessach in a meaningful way:
a. In every generation, a person has to experience the liberation from Mitzrayim (everybody has his own Mitzrayim...) as a personal existential experience.
b. And you know (understand) the soul of a stranger, since you have been strangers in Egypt.
This teaches us that we have to liberate ourselves form all kinds of slavery (external and internal), from being the eternal oppressed, before we are able to be empathetic with the oppressed.
Shabbat Shalom, and a Pessach of Joy and Freedom
Pinchas, Tzippie and Family

יום שישי, 4 באפריל 2014

ברכת האילנות כהזמנה למחשבה על צדק חלוקתי

לבני משפחתנו, לחברותינו ולחברינו היקרים

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה'  אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁלֹּא חִסַּר בָּעוֹלָמוֹ כְּלוּם וּבָרָא בוֹ בְּרִיוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְאִילָנוֹת טוֹבוֹת לְהַנּוֹת (נ"א לֵיהָנוֹת) בָּהֶם בְּנֵי אָדָם.

זה נוסח הברכה כשרואים פריחה חדשה בחודש ניסן, הוא חודש האביב. דומני שאולי המילים "שלא חיסר בעולמו כלום" עשויות לעורר אצלנו לחשוב שיש לנו עולם נפלא, שיש בו הכל שצריך להספיק לכל בני האדם ושכל הסיפור הוא חלוקה נכונה של משאבים בין בני אדם ובין עמים. אם בני אדם ועמים ילמדו לשתף פעולה זה עם זה ולא לדכא, להשפיל ולנצל זה את זה, אז באמת נוכל כולנו ליהנות מתוך חירות אמיתית מהבריות הטובות ומהאילנות היפים.
שבת שלום לכולם
ציפי, פנחס ומשפחתם

לקריאה נוספת על פרשת השבוע (מצורע): 

Dear Family and Friends,
When we see flowers on the trees , we say:
'Blessed be He who hath not left His world lacking in anything and has created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees for the enjoyment of mankind'.
Maybe the words "hath not left His world lacking in anything" teach us that we have a wonderful world able to provide all needs of mankind and the whole idea is to divide all resources properly between individuals and nations. If people will learn to cooperate without exploiting or humiliating one another, we'll all be able to  enjoy   nice people and nice trees and flowers with a real sense of freedom
Shabbat Shalom  to all,
Pinchas, Tzippie and Family


יום רביעי, 2 באפריל 2014

The Afflicted House

The afflicted house never existed and never shall exist.
Why was it written about?
Expound upon it and receive a reward."
Pinchas Leiser
The expression derosh vekabel sakhar - "Expound upon it and receive a reward" - occurs several times in various contexts within rabbinic literature. Bavli Sota 44a mentions it while treating Proverbs 24:27. There the Sages set out the correct progression for Torah study: one should first study Scripture, then Mishnah and Gemara and perform good deeds and later he can explicate and receive a reward." This drasha may intend to tell us that one should first build his cultural, spiritual, and social foundation before becoming able to be creative and make his own personal mark.
The Sages also use this expression in reference to items that have no contemporary halakhic application (death penalties, sacrifices) or that they claim "never existed and shall never exist," such as the rebellious son [ben sorer umoreh] and the ir hanidahat - the condemned town.
Nega'ei ha'bayit [the "afflictions" of houses] have caught the interest of Bible commentators ever since the Sages wondered about the phenomenon's strangeness. Rashi chose to interpret the matter midrashically, and understood the nega'ei habayit as constituting a kind of blessing. He wrote:
And I inflict an eruptive affliction - This was an announcement to them that these plagues would come upon them, because the Amorites concealed treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during the whole 40 years the Israelites were in the wilderness, and in consequence of the nega they would pull down the house and discover them [the treasures]. (Based on Silberman translation)
Hizkuni cites the words of the Tosafot which claim that the nega'ei ha'bayit marked the houses in which idols had been worshipped, so that the Israelites would know which buildings had to be destroyed.
Sanhedrin 71a offers the most radical interpretation of nega'ei habayit. This appears in the context of a discussion of those commandments which appear in the Torah, but which lack practical application - commandments meant to serve as objects of purely theoretical interest to be "studied in order to receive a reward [from heaven]." Regarding the nega'ei ha'bayit the Talmud there states:
There never was and never will be an afflicted house. And why is it written? Expound upon [it] and receive a reward.
Indeed, the Gemara does present us with other interpretations and even testimony supporting the existence of afflicted houses, but the author of the discussion grants ample space to those who hold that the ben sorer umoreh [disobedient child], the ir ha'nidahat [city which turned to idolatry], and the afflicted house all "never existed nor will ever exist in the future" and were mentioned in the Torah only in order to afford people the opportunity to "expound upon [them] and receive a reward."
What, then, is there to be expounded upon in this matter? We find two apparently contradictory approaches regarding the possibility of houses in Jerusalem being afflicted:
The Gemara in Yoma 12a says that Jerusalem - and certainly the area of the Temple - cannot suffer afflictions, since they are not included in the category of your possessions, in accordance with the view holding that "Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes." Contrastingly, in Vayikra Rabbah 17:7, we read:
And I shall inflict an eruptive affliction upon a house in the land you possess - This refers to the Temple, for it is said, I am going to desecrate My Sanctuary, your pride and glory (Ezekiel 24:21).
Of course, it is possible to reconcile the two statements by pointing out that the quote from Yoma is halakhic, while that from Vayikra Rabbah is a midrash aggadah meant to express a theological idea. The midrash even continues along the metaphorical thread that it had begun:
The owner of the house shall come (Vayikra 14:35) - That is the Holy One Blessed be He, for it is said, because of My House which lies in ruins (Haggai 1:9)
And tell the priest (Vayikra, loc cit) - That is Jeremiah, for it is said [that he was one] of the priests that are in Anatot (Jeremiah 1:1).
Something like an affliction has appeared upon my house (Vayikra, loc cit) - That is the filth of idolatry. Some say: That is Menashe's idol.
It seems to me, however, that both the midrash and the Talmudic statement may be read in a different way since, in any event, this halakhah has no practical application, and halakhah may also be interpreted on the philosophical level.
In his comments on the verse from Vayikra, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that on the one hand, the afflictions only occur in the Land of Israel, while, on the other hand, they only occur in the land you possess, i.e., in houses belonging to known individuals. Thus, at the ideal level, Jerusalem and the Temple "cannot be made impure with afflictions."
The affliction is, therefore, a social affliction connected with the consequences of the acquisitiveness that can arise from private ownership.
If so, there is an essential contradiction between ownership and holiness. The holy is set apart and cannot be included in any kind of real estate holding or sovereignty. There is also an opinion (Yoma 12a) that Jerusalem was not apportioned to the tribes, and a beraita is cited stating that, "Houses are not rented in Jerusalem, because they do not belong to them." These dicta strengthen the philosophical view that finds ownership and holiness to be mutually incompatible. Therefore, the afflictions can damage the Temple when the attitude towards it is acquisitive - an acquisitive attitude necessarily defiles the holy.
This affliction is remedied by emptying the house, placing it under quarantine, removing of the affected stones (idolatry), dispersing them to an unclean place, and replacing them with other stones.
I do not think there is need to write at length in order to make understood the meaning of these ideas for today. The creation of the State of Israel sets before us many important challenges. We can be able, if we so wish, to build in our hearts and in our society a place for the Temple, where our lives will be sanctified and our society built upon a solid foundation of justice. No material stones are needed, but rather the construction of a society that seeks peace, cares for the stranger, for the orphan and for the widow. It may be that in order to achieve this we will have to substitute afflicted stones with other stones, but in order to preserve the house's future, we must expound upon the laws of nega'ei habayit, and find a way to apply them.
Zion shall be redeemed with justice and those returning to her with righteousness.
Pinchas Leiser, the editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.