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RAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN’S Minchat Aviv: A REVIEW

Aviad Hacohen

Minchat Aviv: Studies in Talmudic Topics (Hebrew)

HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein

Editor: Rav Elyakim Krumbein

Jerusalem: Maggid Books and Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2014

xvi + 659 pages; source and subject indexes

Available here.

           

A person must exert considerable effort before producing words of Torah and wisdom. Toiling in Torah can be compared to toil in working the land: one must plow and sow, irrigate and fertilize, hoe and aerate, develop and cultivate, harvest and gather. Only after one completes all these tasks and receives God’s blessing does one merit to bring the fruits of one’s labors into one’s home and fulfill with them the mitzvaof ingathering. Is it any wonder, then, that of all the Torah's commandments, and of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar, it is Sukkot, the Festival of Ingathering, that merited the designation of chag – “holiday” par excellence – and the special mitzvaof “And you shall rejoice in your holiday”?

Ingathering of the Sheaves

The publication of Minchat Aviv, a collection of “lomdish” and halakhic essays authored by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and 2014 Israel Prize laureate for Torah literature, is cause for celebration for all lovers of Torah. For over half a century, HaRav Lichtenstein has been disseminating Torah both in Israel and abroad. Though some of his lectures have been adapted for print by students and are enjoyed by readers across the world, his written work has been relatively limited.

The eight volumes of lectures that have appeared to date under the title Shi’urei HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein testify to HaRav Lichtenstein's breadth of knowledge and profundity in analysis. But, as is often the case when works of Torah scholarship are recorded not by the master himself, but rather by his disciples, sometimes the author's particular "spark" is missing, both in substance and in formulation. While the lectures are unquestionably brilliant, and serve to showcase HaRav Lichtenstein’s unique style effectively, the personal electricity that one feels when learning HaRav Lichtenstein’s Torah directly from the source cannot be replicated. It is only natural that the lectures in the 8-volume series are largely limited to the Talmudic tractates that constitute the standard fare of yeshiva study, though here too HaRav Lichtenstein has left his mark. Thus, for example, one of the volumes deals with Taharot (ritual purity), while another deals with Dina De-garmi – an extraordinary phenomenon in itself in the yeshiva world.

Due to his very heavy teaching schedule, HaRav Lichtenstein has never been free to commit his teachings to writing in a systematic and consistent manner. Nevertheless, in free moments, and during the breaks between his classes, he has written on various topics. Over the years, these writings have increased in number and scope. The original articles appeared in a variety of journals, both in Israel and in the US. Only now, when HaRav Lichtenstein has reached his eighties, have these articles been gathered together and published in a single volume.

In their attempt to define the category of work known as immur, gathering, both with regard to the laws of Shabbat and with regard to the commandments relating to the Land of Israel, the halakhic authorities, both medieval and modern, took note of the nature of the labor of gathering. They understood that a sheaf is greater than the sum of its parts. A sheaf is not merely one ear of corn joined to another, but rather a new entity, of a different quality and with a different essence.

This is true in the field and equally true in the house – the house of study. Like the sheaf and like ingathering, so too the teachings of HaRav Lichtenstein. Collecting his articles in a single volume is not merely a technical act of gathering scattered items into one place, but rather a new creation. Studying the volume reveals a profound interplay of Torah and Jewish thought, of Halakha and Aggada, its various parts interconnected in different ways.

Alongside the standard issues found in the Talmudic orders of Mo'ed, Nashim and Nezikin, we find in-depth studies concerning the laws of Zera'im and the commandments relating to the Land of Israel, essays regarding matters discussed in the orders of Kodashim and Taharot and even several practical halakhic analyses. This is a book for experienced travelers in the world of Torah, but anyone who is ready to commit to reading it with the necessary concentration will profit from doing so, both with respect to the reader's learning skills and through the expansion of the reader's knowledge. 

Cancellation of debts in the shemita Year

            An examination of the various issues dealt with in this volume shows one common characteristic: the attempt to clarify the fundamental principles from which and through which the particulars arise. For this purpose, HaRav Lichtenstein makes use of all the expanses of Halakha, from top to bottom. For example, in discussing the mitzvato cancel debts in the shemita (Sabbatical) year, HaRav Lichtenstein starts with the explicit verse in the Torah, formulated in both positive and negative terms, the meaning of which is rather obscure: “Every lender who lends anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact of it of his neighbor, or of his brother” (Devarim 15:2). What is the meaning of this mitzva and how is it fulfilled? HaRav Lichtenstein cites a disagreement among the medieval authorities. According to the Yere'im, it is not the date in itself that nullifies the debt, but rather the lender's declaration: “I release it.” Once the shemita year ends, the lender acquires an obligation to cancel the debt. In contrast, the Or Zaru'a maintains that the passage of time, i.e., the end of the shemita year, is what cancels the debt. This also follows from the words of the Rambam: “When the sun sets on the night of Rosh Ha-shana of the eighth year, the debt is nullified” (Hilkhot Shemita Ve-yovel 9:4). Of course, the practical difference between the two positions expresses itself in a case where the lender, contrary to Torah law, fails to declare: “I release the debt.” The Ittur combines both positions and asserts that the cancellation of debts in the shemita year is governed by two parallel laws: a personal obligation upon the lender and a “Royal cancellation” by heavenly decree.

HaRav Lichtenstein does not stop here after setting each of the various opinions in its place. In light of the Rambam's opinion, he raises a difficult question: If indeed the cancellation of debts in the shemita year is a “Royal cancellation,” what exactly is the mitzvaimposed on the lender?

In typical fashion, HaRav Lichtenstein examines the Tosafot, who try to explain the matter based on the law of a firstborn animal. There is a mitzvato sanctify the animal, even though it is automatically sanctified from birth. HaRav Lichtenstein concludes that the two cases are not similar. In the case of a firstborn, the mitzvato sanctify the animal does not merely dictate a “declaration,” a confirmation of the existing situation, but rather it “necessitates a novel act of sanctification that bestows additional sanctity upon the firstborn.” As for the cancellation of debts, however, if the debt is already cancelled, the lender's release adds nothing at all. Thus, the question remains: What is the nature of the positive commandment obligating the lender to cancel his debts in the shemita year?

Even according to the opinion that the cancellation of debts is a “Royal cancellation,” this release does not nullify the debt; it merely “freezes” it. This explains the need for the active cancellation of the debt on the part of the lender, which adds force to the borrower's exemption from repaying his debt, and utterly severs the connection between the lender and the borrower, not just temporarily, but absolutely and forever.

Using his characteristic method of tying together seemingly unconnected areas of Halakha, HaRav Lichtenstein links the laws of a firstborn to the laws of usury, and the laws of repaying a debt to the laws of a gift, and through them and with them he builds his edifice, a tower of scholarship, perfect precision and spectacular analysis. His subtle analysis, which penetrates the very foundations of the law, uproots the common assumption. According to HaRav Lichtenstein, in contrast to the common understanding, the “Royal cancellation” does not absolutely cancel the debt, but merely weakens its force. Thus, we understand why a borrower can repay a loan after the shemita year has passed, and why the Sages are pleased when he does so: The debt was never wiped out, but merely frozen. Based on this understanding, it is clear why the cancellation must be completed by way of an active step on the part of the lender. 

Intimacy in prayer

While the book is principally a volume of advanced halakhic analysis, between the lines it allows us a glimpse of HaRav Lichtenstein's spiritual world. For example, in the chapter discussing the issue of sounding one's voice in prayer, here and there HaRav Lichtenstein uses characteristic formulations that reflect the “man of prayer” in him: “There is an internal balance between two factors that shape the character and content of prayer, greater concentration on the one hand and a soft voice on the other.”

Although HaRav Lichtenstein generally avoids kabbalistic matters, he cites the Zohar,which states: “If a prayer is overheard by another person, it will not be accepted above,” and emphasizes, on the basis of this passage, “the intimacy and privacy of prayer, in the absence of which prayer is impaired and not accepted above.” While the analysis is strictly halakhic, the spirit of HaRav Lichtenstein's thought, rife with emotion, penetrates the dry and meticulous preoccupation with Halakha, instilling it with flavor and endowing it with sweet fragrance.

Another example, one of many, appears in the book's concluding essay, which concerns itself with a “routine question,” as it were, sent to HaRav Lichtenstein by his students serving in the army. The students wanted to know whether an army tent requires a mezuza.

In his usual manner, HaRav Lichtenstein does not content himself with the bottom line, with a halakhic ruling issued, as it were, by way of divine inspiration. He opens with a comprehensive clarification of the plain meaning of the verse that speaks of “the doorposts of your house,” and attempts to define the term “house,” both regarding the prohibition of leavened bread on Pesach and regarding the prohibition, “You shall not bring an abomination into your house” (Devarim 7:26). From here he moves on to the distinction between “house” on the proprietary level and “house” on the geographic and functional level – a “residence,” the place where a person establishes his principal dwelling in actual practice. HaRav Lichtenstein considers the essential distinction between the different halakhic realms: Regarding leavened bread, the “house” is not part of the fulfillment of the mitzva, but merely a circumstantial detail, the place in which the prohibition of leavened bread happens to apply. Regarding a mezuza, on the other hand, the “house” is the cheftza, the object of the mitzva, and that which obligates the mezuza’s very installation.

A practical difference, one that is mentioned already in the Talmud, and afterwards in the words of the later authorities, relates to a renter's obligation in mezuza. If we are dealing with an obligation of the inhabitant of the house, the question of ownership is irrelevant. But even if the obligation depends on ownership, there is room to consider whether or not renting creates proprietary rights in the property, if only temporarily (see Bava Metzi’a 56b). Characteristically, HaRav Lichtenstein also discusses the different levels of obligation. Even if a renter is not obligated to affix a mezuza to his doorpost by Torah law, it may be that he is bound to do so by Rabbinic decree.

Restoring Former glory

Here, as usual, HaRav Lichtenstein asks: What precisely was the Rabbis' innovation? Did they expand the mitzvain such a way that even when there is no “possession,” but only “residence,” there is still an obligation to install a mezuza? Or perhaps they expanded the law of renting and established that even “temporary possession” is considered possession with respect to the Rabbinic obligation of mezuzah? From the words of Tosafot in another passage (Avoda Zara 21a), he determines that it suffices that the house “appear to be his”for one to be obligated in the mitzvaof mezuza. That is to say, according to the Tosafot, we are dealing with an expansion of the idea of possession, and that even a residence that only appears to belong to the person in question suffices to obligate him in the mitzva of mezuza on a Rabbinic level.

Still not satisfied, HaRav Lichtenstein moves on to an analysis of the concept of “residence,” examining the question whether or not a forced dwelling, e.g., a jail, or, in stark contrast, the chamber in which the High Priest resides during the week before Yom Kippur, is considered a “residence” for the purpose of obligation in the mitzva of mezuza. From here, HaRav Lichtenstein shifts gears, taking time to clarify the term “temporary residence,” e.g., living on a boat during an extended journey or in a hotel. In addition to all these considerations, it may be that the obligation to affix a mezuza to the tent does not apply to the soldiers themselves, as they are “temporary guests” in the tent, and certainly not to its owners, but rather to the community or to the army, which owns the tent/house.

In a world where people are especially meticulous about the mitzvaof “making many books” (Kohelet 12:12), out of the abundance of books that inundates us, HaRav Lichtenstein's volume stands out, as its words of Torah are built on the most solid of foundations. Amidst the cacophony of "SMS responsa," lacking sources and reasoning and presenting their conclusions as a sort of divine fiat, Rav Lichtenstein's essay sing out with a unique melody, one that is clear and profound, systematic and logical. HaRav Lichtenstein's work restores the crown of Torah study to its former glory. Between the lines, it reveals something of the author's personality, in its moral and emotional dimensions – a personality in which Torah and wisdom, Halakha and Aggada, join together and become one.

(Translated by David Strauss)

Prof. Aviad Hacohen is Dean of Shaarei Mishpat College and author of The Tears of the Oppressed – An Examination of the Agunah Problem: Background and Halakhic Sources (New York, 2004) and Parashiot u-Mishpatim: Mishpat Ivri be-Parashat ha-Shavua (Tel Aviv, 2011).

This post is based on a session with Rav Lichtenstein held on Friday of Parshat Vayera (17 Marcheshvan 5773, November 2, 2012), at the end of the week in which Hurricane Sandy took place.  While original formulations were generally maintained, I tried to include translations of some phrases in endnotes, and a few in the text, as well as providing many of the sources in English, to enable those whose Hebrew is more limited to follow the basic gist.  The text was not reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.

-Dov Karoll

Question: Just a few centuries ago, a cataclysmic event like Hurricane Sandy would have been viewed as the direct hand of God in nature.  Contemporary Jews seem less inclined to adopt such a view.  Could the Rosh Yeshiva relate to appropriate religious reactions to Sandy in particular, and to the changed perspective of modern Jews in general?

The response to this question is partly a more specific one, relating to either the specific event of this particular storm, or, in a more generic sense, natural disasters, which are here described as cataclysmic, and indeed not only that but catastrophic.  Consequently, to a great extent, one’s response to this kind of an event is a function of one’s general view: a) of the interaction between מלכותא דשמיא[i] and מלכותא דארעא [ii] – of natural events within a supernatural context, and: b) one’s right, and, some would say, one’s duty, to reflect upon the events themselves, to try to gauge and to delineate the dimensions, the roots, of events of this kind.  That could take a number of forms.

Some people, who are not to be counted amongst the believing modern Jew, but to deal with humanity in general, find the events so terrifying that they find it, for themselves personally, virtually impossible to digest the enormity of the events, so that it becomes, to them, beyond comprehension, and in the extreme case, it results in people who lose their religious faith in general, whether Jews or gentiles.

Here, for Sandy, I imagine that this response has been more limited, because while it’s a storm with enormous force, it is one that, at the human plane, has taken relatively few lives.  I say relatively, because obviously we can’t speak lightly of the life of one person or 100 people, but when you look at historical events which had that effect – Voltaire lost his religious faith in the terrible earthquake in Lisbon in the middle of the 18th Century, and there, thousands perished; looking back to the tsunami of recent memory, that happened likewise, and people responded likewise.  That is the kind of response which, to a certain extent, we can understand, and, if we are very tolerant and very liberal, even sympathize with, and try to avoid being judgmental with regard to people who are making that response.  But it is a response – I don’t know how widespread it is, but it certainly exists.

To move from that to responses which are within the purviews and within the parameters of religious faith: here, you could move to the extreme, from the losses of one’s faith which I mentioned earlier, to the various poles of response which entail, not the rejection or denial, whether blasphemy or not, but, to the contrary, to move to responses which are viewed as a manifestation of the divine, breaking through, as it were, the crust which, imaginatively, encompasses the human orbit, of the natural world, and to see this, in a most fiery way, as an expression of divine anger, and the manifestation of one’s view of the רבונו של עולם,[iii] particularly in view of that aspect of מלכות שמיםi which is not, of the י”ג מידות,[iv] ק-ל רחום וחנון,[v] but rather that which many נביאים [vi] saw in terms of their perception, their vision. ישעיהו and יחזקאל[vii] both were privileged to be able to see מלכות שמים,i but one saw the beneficence of קדוש, קדוש קדוש[viii] while one saw הקרח הנורא.[ix]  But people who have no limitations in any way of making statements affirming what they presume to know about the ways of the רבונו של עולם,iii and who say, not as ישעיהו did, נסתרה דרכי מה’ (40:27) but לא נסתרה דרך ה’ ממני, who audaciously ascribe a cause and effect relationship to a tragedy which befalls mankind, and, on the other hand, is an expression of a message being addressed to us by the רבונו של עולם.iii

Some people will not speak in terms of an actual message which sounds very direct, and, from a certain point of view, is not an expression regarding anger but, on the contrary, of divine beneficence, that the רבונו של עולםiii is taking us under His wing and relating to us.  The worst possible thing that can happen to an individual or to humanity as a whole is that the רבונו של עולםiii should simply leave us all to our devices – and, from a certain point of view, even if that does not occur and we are collecting the victims – being a victim is better than being ignored completely.  Rav Nachman says in the gemara in Sanhedrin (105a) – כל כי האי ריתחא לירתח רחמנא עלן – may the רבונו של עולםiii take such drastic steps as He sees fit, ולפרוקינן – but keep us in mind and redeem us.

That there have been people who were entitled to speak in that vein, I think, goes without question, within the parameters of our אמונה.[x]  We believe that there are certain individuals – נביאיםvi as a category – who have been blessed – sometimes they are not blessed they are tortured – but, in any event, have some kind of mystical contact with the רבונו של עולםiii through נבואה.[xi]  In תנ”ך we have many different “faces,” so to speak, of the רבונו של עולםiii – המשילוך ברוב חזיונות, הנך אחד בכל דמיונות – and the same themes that you have in שיר הכבוד, Chazal speak of the רבונו של עולם’s different faces: one is in מתן תורה, where it is כזקן יושב בישיבה, קריעת ים סוף, there it is כגבור ואיש מלחמה, ה’ איש מלחמה ה’ שמו.[xii]  But that there is a “face” which, in terms of our immediate response, seems to be assuming that the רבונו של עולםiii is pulling out all the plugs, an expression of His response to, one form or another of action which is unbearable, then one can say: this is the רבונו של עולם’s response because we are sinning this way or that way.  מפני חטאנו[xiii] – transmitted at the national, super-national, not simply at the personal, vein.

It’s a very difficult response to digest, but some people glory in it; it gives them an opportunity to reflect upon their own virtue, as opposed to the infamy which they see in those around them in other communities, in other people.  And apart from asserting their own virtue, it gives them an opportunity to serve as a shofar of the רבונו של עולםiii – כשופר הרם קולך[xiv] – now that is very flattering to many [about themselves].

But whether it’s flattering or not is not the only issue here.  Let’s assume you are dealing with people who are not flattered but are pained – the other question is: does one have either a right or a duty to speak that language?  Here there certainly are differences between a more modern temperament, and the earlier – some would say more primitive, others would use alternative terms – the older forms of response and relation – both in terms of how one feels himself and in terms of what he communicates to others, in the broad community within which he finds himself.

As you probably know, I come from a school of thought which reacts very strongly against statements, assertions, defamations, made by people who claim to have, or who speak as if they think they have, some direct hotline to the רבונו של עולם,iii so that they are able to contemplate events, and interpret the events in accordance with their philosophic orientation, their spiritual stance, and say: ah hah, I told you so.

I take my tact from a different world, particularly the gemara in Sanhedrin (105b) – the gemara says with regard to Bilam – יודע דעת עליון [xv] is the way he described himself, and Chazal comment: יודע דעת עליון? השתא דעת בהמתו לא הוה ידע, דעת עליון הוה ידע?  The message the אתון (donkey) communicated to him, that he couldn’t understand; the will of the רבונו של עולםiii he could understand?  This is partly a problem of folly – and it would be foolish of me to pretend to read cuneiforms or picture languages, and it’s folly for a person to imagine that he is יודע דעת עליון.xv

Apart from the folly, there’s a certain arrogance involved in this, and a certain self-confidence, which one finds very repugnant.  A person lives through a period of tragedy; hopefully one would expect a response which, on the part of the person, does not focus upon his understanding and perception of why and how the רבונו של עולםiii is running the world.  Theoretically speaking, one could, of course, ascribe a certain result to the רבונו של עולםiii primarily regarding the result as a punitive, or as a neutral, act – when I say neutral, I don’t mean that the results are neutral; many people being killed of course is not neutral at all – but neutral in the sense that the Ramban and, to some extent, the Rambam, when they speak of השגחה פרטית[xvi] – they speak of it being limited to a small number of people – whether the virtues which qualify a person for that are the moral-religious virtues of the Ramban or the intellectual virtues of the Rambam – but jointly, taking the position that השגחה פרטיתxvi varies, is a noble and lofty station, and it is not something which guards the [ordinary] individual.  What happens to the individual, is that he and – with regard to the individual I don’t just mean one person, his whole community – [possibly even] the universal community of his time – is left to the devices of natural forces.

In connection with this I once mentioned, and I published this too, I once went to see Rav Hutner z”l and asked him about the Ramban and the Rambam – and he said, no, חס וחלילה, it doesn’t mean that השגחהxvi has no way of dealing with those who deserve to be punished – it means simply that he is left to his own devices and to natural forces – and it’s a way of the השגחהxvi dealing with those who defy מלכות שמייםi – he’s dealt with, He is now taking someone – throwing him into the lion’s den, and the lions do what they naturally do….

In either case, whether it’s simply with regard to being ignored, and his pleas and prayers also being ignored, or whether it’s an active, punitive act, the assumption that one is able to make such statements – both that he has the right, because he has a sense of his own virtue, and feels it’s his duty – he’s hoping to save his generation – terrible calamities occur because of their sins, and as יחזקאל was able to explain the churban (destruction) of ירושלים, the בית המקדש, etc. – it’s their duty to help humanity mend its ways and restore contact and communication with the רבונו של עולםiii and the י”ג מידות.iv

For all of this, people like myself have no stomach.  First of all, the arrogance implied in יודע דעת עליוןxiii is frightful.  Secondly, even if a person were a יודע דעת עליון, the assumption that his priorities are not to mend himself, his ways, to have teshuvah (repentance) which is focused upon his own misdemeanors or worse, but his primary duty is, assuming that he’s already in good shape, he is out to put the whole world in good shape.

This is a total misconception of what teshuvah demands of a person.  Occasionally – there are נביאיםvi who are נביאיםvi – Yonah could have entered Nineveh and given that message – and then you ask yourself, is that all he has to do?  Why not do something first to amend himself?  The answer could be that there was nothing to mend, that he was a perfect person; that was his self-image.  But if you read the last perek in Yonah, what you get over there, if you have my sensibility – is anything but perfection – there is so much in Yonah’s ultimate station and ultimate mode of expression which requires mending and teshuvah.  It’s not for naught that we read Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur – because Yonah is there not simply to communicate to us, but to give you an example, of what a person who sets himself up as a navi la’goyim (prophet to the nations), where he stands himself.  Chazal were aware of that – Chazal speak of the fact that Yonah was addressed by the רבונו של עולםiii twice – שנית – twice he was addressed, and a third time he was not addressed – part of that self-centered selfishness which comes to expression later.

All of this relates to a religious response, as opposed to the earlier responses that I mentioned, of Voltaire and others.  We live in an age which is after the Shoah, and that is something that we cannot get off our backs, nor something that we should get off our backs.  There are people who speak of the Shoah itself in the vein of מפני חטאנו:xiii why did the Shoah happen, a phenomenon which is much worse from our point of view.  First of all, it is quantitatively, such an enormously larger number group of people.  Secondly, it is focused upon Klal Yisrael, and here, Amos’s message (3:2) – רק אתכם ידעתי מכל משפחות האדמה על כן אפקוד עליהם את כל עונותיכם is there.  Thirdly, the part of Knesset Yisrael which presumably sinned the most was relatively not affected – Western Europe, which is where the sins of that generation were focused – was hit much more mildly, if you can speak in that way, than Eastern Europe, where traditional Yahadut,held sway amongst many.  Nonetheless, there are people who say, no: מפני חטאנו.xiii  That kind of response to the Shoah has elicited terrible responses.

I’m a talmid of Rav Hutner’s, and some of my friends are as well, and one of the things which we, people of my persuasion, and some of my colleague’s persuasions, find it impossible to digest, is the kind of position which the Rosh Yeshivah took – he was interviewed and was asked about the Shoah and he gave a disquisition to explain, based on the Parshiyot in Vayelekh and Nitzavim respectively, and with some analysis of modern European history, primarily focused upon the sinful stance which Western Europe adopted after the French revolution – it was all מפני חטאנו.xiii  With all my respect and admiration, in many aspects, of the Rosh Yeshivah, that is something which I could absolutely not begin to fathom, how one could make that kind of a statement.

What all this adds up to is: one cannot assert that the מפני חטאנוxiii theory is not correct objectively.  But what it does mean is that you have no way of knowing that, and when you don’t know, and you have two options: one is to focus upon your own spiritual needs or the needs of your community, and try to somehow mend our collective ways, and the other option is admitting you don’t know, we will never know, עד ביאת גואל צדק – and therefore, our priorities need to be teshuvah – which includes in it an element of הכרת החטא,[xvii] but that’s not the only element.  Most simply, it’s much better to admit you don’t know rather than to give answers which are, in every way, unsatisfactory from a spiritual point of view.

Emil Fackenheim, who started out as a reform rabbi in Germany, ended up as a ba’alteshuvah in our camp, in the middle of that period, in Reflection and Return, he quoted someone as having asked somebody else, do you think we’ll ever know the explanation for the Shoah.  And the answer that person gave, to which Fackenheim subscribed: I hope not.  I hope not.  I don’t think that anyone can speak in a vein of certainty, or even of likelihood, probability, and then turn around and explain that everybody else was swept aside because they were good for nothing, but he should be saved because he is very good for everything.

I am aware that there are people who don’t think as I do.

It’s frightful to contemplate, but a religious response has to be religious, spiritual, submissive, and not supercilious in any way.  This is not to push – I do push one particular response, religiously speaking – but this is not to bar any number of other possibilities – it’s not for us to limit the רבונו של עולםiii in terms of what he can or can’t do.  We live by a faith, which is manifested in this week’s parshah, that the רבונו של עולםiii is guided by moral principles, by principles of justice, as Avraham Avinu questioned: השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט.[xviii]  We assume there is משפט (justice).  Assuming that, there are questions, admittedly: could the Jews of Eastern Europe have done anything so terrible in terms of violating Shulchan Arukh or violating Shabbat or anything else to deserve the fate which befell them – we can’t begin to imagine that, and we shouldn’t want to imagine that.  So, we need to be submissive and, to some extent, hope for the better, but at the same time that we weep, as it were, for the worst.

There’s another point which comes up in connection with this matter, and that is: some people use such an event as a base for solidifying their religious faith, just the opposite of Voltaire, and they like to talk about human weakness, etc. – just see what the רבונו של עולםiii can do – with the flick of a stick, to upset the whole equilibrium of nature, etc.  Now why someone who is aware, at the most superficial level, of what the modern world knows, which earlier generations did not know, simply in numbers: Einstein, with all his חשבונות (calculations), arrived at the conclusion that the world: 1) is finite, and 2) that its diameter is 35 billion light years.  Now, we believe that ה’ א-לוקינו ה’ אחד – the whole shebang is run by the רבונו של עולם.iii  So, this is something which we need, knowing there is a world out there which is 35 billion light years, which is, perhaps, unfathomable; so that, the רבונו של עולםiii runs every day – in that we believe – המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית – but whether He could have the waters of Long Island 10 feet high or 15 feet high – that we need in order to believe that the רבונו של עולםiii in running the world?!  It makes no sense logically or psychologically – but some people use this as a stick to bang over the heads of the secularists – ah hah, you see, you’re getting it in the neck now.

If one had to have some link between this and hashgachah – better to feel sorry for the resha’im (wicked), to respond in that vein in Chazal: מעשי ידי טובעים בים ואתם אומרים שירה,[xix] and tell someone speaking in this vein: מעשי ידי טובעים בים and you are delivering sermons?

I don’t suggest all of this to be something which is satisfying: when all is said and done it’s very sad.  And, as I said, when there is loss of life involved, I don’t know how much money is involved, what the losses are.  One day they put in the press $10 billion or $20 billion, yesterday I saw someone who said that they are putting a cap on it of $50 billion – so you and I think $50 billion is a lot of money.  I assumed, as a דבר פשוט, that the stock market would crash the following day – גארנישט – $50 billion rolled off the cap – and I realized why it didn’t crash: because the sum total of the value of the companies which are listed on the NYSE is way in excess than $50 billion – so if you take the $50 billion divided amongst a lot of people in this world, so it is $10 per person, they can manage, but that’s a separate matter.

Follow-up Question: It seems that Chazal instruct us to find specific reasons and to be תולה the יסורין[xx] which befall us on that specific reason.  For example, in the gemara in Berakhot which says of ראה יסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו, [xxi] eventually, if you don’t find anything, you are תולה on ביטול תורה.[xxii]  How do we relate to that?

Answer: I fully subscribe to that, but that statement, in the gemara itself, does not state with any degree of certainty, much less speak categorically, of why something happened to him.  We once had a discussion here, in Rav Amital’s days – I remembered Rav Amital speaking, if you come home and you can’t find your key to get into the house – it’s nothing tragic but very disconcerting, and then you can ask yourself – what happened?  Everybody else got home ok.   This one got home ok, that one will get home ok and poor you – you don’t get home ok.  So you don’t know –it could be an accident – is the Ramban or the Rambam being acted out on your entering your house, or maybe there are other issues: maybe you didn’t daven minchah with kavanah, maybe you spoke a little lashon hara with your wife, וכדומה with other things – you need to take everything into consideration, and the consideration and response needs to be a spiritual response of mending your ways by reducing, massively, the possible grounds for what happened to you.  That is clearly a desirable and feasible response, but it doesn’t mean that you can say for sure that you are important enough to have such a message addressed to you.

The Rambam in the beginning of Hilkhot Ta’aniyot addresses himself to this question – והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי עמכם בחמת קרי – קרי is exactly accident, force of nature, being left to our own devices.  We are, particularly with regard to what happens to Knesset Yisrael, we are commanded not to ascribe it to accidents, but it doesn’t mean that you can say with certainty what the answer is, since you don’t know, take care of the eventualities, and raise possibilities.

I do not question the fact that there are many statements in Chazal which speak of a cause and effect relationship between different things, and which, very often, are troubling to us because of what seems to us an imbalance between the crime and the punishment.  Take the gemara in Nedarim (32a), which has to do with our Yeshiva too, in a sense: why was Avraham Avinu punished – being punished for him meaning that his generations, his progeny, were punished – שעשה אנגריא בתלמידי חכמים – he drafted Yeshivaleit into the army.  You ask yourself, מרא דעלמא כולה – let’s assume it was a weakness on Avraham Avinu’s part, and you and I wouldn’t say that, we are very humble before Avraham Avinu, we should be, but Chazal had the authority to say that – is it a statement which we can digest with moral comfort?!  We open up another gemara in Sanhedrin, where Mosheh Rabbeinu addressed the רבונו של עולםiii – למה הרעות לעם הזה[xxiii] – and Chazal explain – what he was talking about, למה הרעות לעם הזהxx – he wasn’t talking about a little discomfort – he couldn’t find the key to get into the house – למה הרעות לעם הזהxx – these are thousands of people drowned – כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו[xxiv]

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