Category Archives: Archives 5761

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Elul 5761 – Midrash and P’shat

1 Elul 5761

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

The other day I had a friend who had asked me how to explain where all the midrashim in the Torah come from and how do later commentators, (Rishonim and Achronim), have the right, I guess, or know that they are right, to write their midrashim and interpretations down in the Chumash. I explained to her that these were all Emes and that they are all from Moshe Rabeinu when he gave us the Torah at Har Sinai, and how B’nei Yisroel were at the level where they understood what was behind each word on their own, but because of the yiridas hadoros, downfall of the genenrations, we have lost that great understanding and it needed to be written down. She also was confused about midrashim themselves. In her words, “sometimes they just seem so off the wall.” I explained as best I could and to the best of my knowledge that some midrashim are true and really did happen while others did not, but are there for us to learn from or to better understand something. I hope I am right.

She understood what I was saying and accepted but something still bothered her. Is there something else I am missing or is there a better way of understanding these two issues?

Thank you very much. I look forward to your response.

Name withheld
Darchei Binah

Dear Friend,

Medrashim and aggadic gemeras are there to teach things that are only alluded to in the Torah itself. If Moshe disappears at age 12 and reappears at age eighty, then obviously he was somewhere doing something during that time. The medrash fills in the story.

However, the purpose is not merely to fulfill our curiosity. Yitchok was seventy five when Avraham passes away. Presumably they had many conversations, but the only thing we are told that Yitzchok ever said to Avraham was “where’s the sheep?” Nothing else was essential for our understanding of the universe and it’s spiritual reality.

The Talmud is divided into halacha and aggadata. Halacha is from the word to walk, meaning it describes for us the path we need to take in our fulfillment of Hashem’s purpose for us in this world. Aggadata is from the word to tie together. It is the source of everything. As such the chazal wanted to reveal to us certain basic spiritual truths. What happened before creation, how do we grasp infinity and what is going on in the level called yesod? These are questions that can not necessarily be answered by the simple use of words and concepts familiar to us.

Rebbe Akiva explained not only every letter in the Torah, but even the tagin, the crowns on top of the letters. What in the world are the crowns on top of letters? Do they make sounds or have meaning? No, they are above the words, above the letters, beyond the sounds. Those are the secrets of the underlying spiritual meaning of existence. There are no words to describe them.

As such the chazal need to use as your friend says “off the wall” stories and descriptions to tell us ideas that are out of this world.

I was once discussing with a college student in Leeds University the story of the flood. He said he didn’t think that he could accept it from a historical point of view. I told him to put that aside – there are many historical events that are not described in the Torah. The question is why did the Torah tell us about the Flood. There is a message in it for us.

The question about a particular medrash is what is the message for us. Are they all “true”? Yes, but not necessarily historical. But they reveal truths.

This is of course the briefest explanation of a subject that volumes have been written about, but I hope this will serve as a helpful introduction.

Sincerely,
Dovid Orlofsky

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Tammuz 5761 – Vegetarianism

1 Tammuz 5761

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

I heard somewhere that The Jewish people were told by G-d only at a certain point in Chumash that they could eat meat. Before that they were vegetarians and at a certain point they ‘fell’ from grace for want of a better expression and were told they could eat meat.

Could you please clarify this for me? I have been a vegetarian for 25 years which makes keeping kashrut easy. My father and step-mother both eat meat etc.

I think some people, the more peaceful ones are naturally vegetarians whist others, descended from the hunter gatherers are attracted to meat. My dad asked a Rabbi about this but all he seemed to talk about was animal sacrifices skirting around the question of the mention of vegetarianism in the bible.

I look forward to your response.

Thank you.

Name & Seminary withheld

Dear Friend,

The Torah in Genesis Chapter 1 verse 29 describes G-d’s instructions to Adam in the Garden of Eden. G-d says you can eat from all the herbs and vegetables and fruit of the trees. G-d apparently doesn’t allow them to eat animal flesh. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 59b however explains that G-d meant he didn’t have the right to kill anything. Eating meat wasn’t prohibited – only killing animals. So if they died on their own, for example, they would be permitted to Adam. The Medrash states that the angels brought Adam roasted meat to eat.

After the flood, G-d tells Noah in Chapter 9 verses 4-5 that now you are permitted to kill animals for food. The only prohibition given was that he couldn’t eat the meat while it was still alive. Otherwise, he could have what he wanted.

One could understand this as a fall from grace, that since Man was now on a lower level he might as well eat meat, because it doesn’t matter anyway. Many commentators however explain that since all the animals would have died if Noah hadn’t saved them, he now had the right to kill them if he wanted to. Adam didn’t have that argument.

We find in the Talmud that it is a mitzva to eat meat on Yom Tov and Shabbos. “One doesn’t fulfill the mitzva of rejoicing except by eating meat. It is also seen as a tremendous opportunity for an animal. As it stands, he is doomed to spend it’s existence as an animal. But if he’s eaten, he can become part of a human being and attach itself to eternal existence.

I hope this clarifies things for you.

Sincerely,
Dovid Orlofsky

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Sivan 5761 – Understanding Rape in Halacha

1 Sivan 5761

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

Recently someone I know read a book called “Genesis and Justice” by Alan Dershowitz, in which she came across, among other things, the Biblical punishment for rape. To say that she was upset would be an understatement, especially since the author of the book emphasized all the points of the halacha which most people would find upsetting – mostly the fact that the fine is paid to the father, as if the only damage done was to him because his “property” is now diminished in value.

Anyhow, after a long discussion, I decided to find out exactly what the halachos about rape are. I realize that this is a heavy question, and I understand if you will uncomfortable to answer it. However, if you could recommend an exposition on the topic — not a whitewashed, apologetic one but one that really explains the laws – I would appreciate it.

Thank you.

Name & Seminary withheld

Dear Friend,

First of all, I think it is a very important topic to discuss. It doesn’t often come up, but since it has been dealt with in a book that’s available to the general public, I think it should be discussed in an open forum like JemSem.

I frankly don’t believe that I’m qualified to explain any topic related to Torah, certainly not a definitive exposition, but I will share with you my thoughts and if you consider it a whitewash then I will be happy to suggest some people who are much more educated than myself.

Let’s present the problems first. A cursory reading of the parsha of oness, as rape is called by the Torah (and is, by the way, the source for the exemption of oness in all of Torah law) in Parshas Ki Saytzay, will present the following picture. A man who rapes an unmarried girl who is a virgin between the ages of twelve and twelve and a half must pay the father a fine of fifty selaim, the equivalent of two hundred zuz. That is the amount of money that must be paid by a man who marries a virgin in the event of his death or divorce. Additionally, the man may never divorce this woman.

It wouldn’t even take a Naomi Ragen to twist these laws into a scenario of pure horror. A man wants to sleep with a woman who spurns his advances. One day he lies in wait and brutally rapes her, tossing her the money with a laugh. Should she go to the court and he would admit his crime, he will be exempt from the payment since it is a fine and there is a principal that if you admit to a crime, you are exempt from paying the fine. Additionally, the judges will force her to live with this demon for the rest of her life with no hope of escape. It makes a good plot for a cheap novel, but bears no relation to reality.

Let’s begin by understanding the Torah’s system of justice. In New York, a fellow comes up to you and grabs your purse. You scream “thief!” and a passerby tackles the mugger. A policeman brings him to prison until his case comes to court. He is sentenced to years of prison as punishment for his crime. You get back your purse and justice has been served.

Now, in a Torah society, this fellow would be hauled before a bais din. The judges would hear the evidence and then, in keeping with Torah law, return your purse to you and send everyone home. Not a particularly effective approach apparently, since the thief wasn’t punished. There was no retribution. What’s to stop him from doing it all over again?

The proper parallel to the Torah understanding of thievery however is really closer to home. Your child is playing with the neighbor’s kid when, as happens, one of them starts to cry. “He took my toy!” the neighbor’s child wails. What is your response for your son? Imprisonment? Hard labor?

Unlikely. More likely you will say, “it’s wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you. Give it back”. Because you are starting with a basic underlying assumption – my child is a good boy. He sometimes forgets how to behave properly. Therefore we have to inculcate him with values – if you take something from someone, give it back. If you make a mess, clean it up. If you break something, you pay for it.

Justice among good people works the same way. Take responsibility for your actions. Pay for what you damage, give back what you take. That’s why there is a principle in the Talmud; you can not have a verse that gives a punishment without first having a verse that gives an azhara, a warning. First there has to be a “thou shall not” before any punishment can be initiated.

Now let’s examine crimes of violence. A person gets so angry with someone that he pulls out a hatchet and chops off his arm. An unbelievably heinous act. The same principle applies – make restitution. Not an easy thing to do, but as in all things, halacha makes calculations. There are five things you need to pay him. First of all you have to pay his medical expenses. Then there are his lost wages for the time he was bedridden. You have to pay him for the physical pain and the embarrassment, what today is called “mental anguish”. Finally, you have to pay him for the lost income because of the loss of his limb. Together this amounts to an enormous amount of money. But instead of imprisonment, even for such a terrible crime, we apply the same principle – you damaged, make amends for the damage you caused.

Rape is a difficult subject for society. On the one hand it is a sex crime. On the other hand, the women’s movement has fought for years to have rape recognized for what it is – an act of violence. The Torah recognizes the legitimacy of both views. Today, the most common form of rape is what is known as date rape. Some guys, unfortunately don’t respect the fact that no is no. Now, what happens if there is a relationship between two decent people and the man, perhaps thinking the woman really wanted to have relations, forces himself on her. She loses her virginity, perhaps she is pregnant, and all the years spent preparing herself for a particular type of life is destroyed. The Torah says she has the option to demand that the man “do the right thing” and marry her. But it is her choice, not his. If she doesn’t want to marry him, that’s it. But if she does, then the man loses the right to divorce her. The Torah gives the man responsibility for the marriage under the assumption that he is trustworthy. A man who shows he isn’t to be trusted, loses that right. She can still go to court to get divorced from him, but he can no longer initiate proceedings.

Assuming, that she isn’t interested in marrying him, or in fact if he was a disreputable individual who attacked her, then the Torah recognizes the act for what it is – an act of violence. We then calculate the damages, pain, suffering, etc. If she ends up in therapy for the next twenty years, he pays. Since there is no loss of a limb per se, the virginity is seen as the limb. A woman who is a virgin commands a larger kesuva than one who isn’t. As such, that loss is also given to the woman. If the woman is a minor than the fine is paid to the father, who has responsibility for his daughter and essentially is given all of her earnings. But the fine is also seen as a form of punishment, which is waived in an instance where the felon takes responsibility for his actions, since that ultimately is the purpose of our legal system as I explained earlier.

This is by no means an exhaustive study but I hope it gives some insight into a difficult subject.

Sincerely,
Dovid Orlofsky

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Iyar 5761 – The Paradox of Bechirah and Hashem’s Omniscience

15 Iyar 5761

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

I recently had a discussion with a friend about our having bechira vs. Hashem knowing everything that will happen beforehand. On one hand Hashem can’t NOT know something (i.e. what we choose) but since that’s the case how is it that our bechira is not preordained? I understand that at the time of our choosing Hashem is not forcing us to do things one way or the other, but the fact is that Hashem knows who we are even before we are born. How is this reconciled with the fact that the Torah says that everything is determined by Him except for whether a person becomes a tzaddik or rasha?

Thank you.

Adina Strassburger
Michlalah 5760

Dear Adina,

My favorite example to understand this paradox is from the old game show “Let’s Make a Deal”. I’m sitting at home watching a rerun and Monty Hall tells the contestant that she can choose what’s behind Door #1, Door #2 or Door #3. Now I already saw this show the first time and I know she is going to choose Door #2. And sure enough she does. Now, did my knowing beforehand that she was going to choose Door #2 force her choice? In a sense yes, because I knew it would happen. But in another sense, her choice was free, even though I knew what she was going to do.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his very important book “Inner Space” presents the idea on a deeper level. The way Hashem created the world was by hiding himself in creation, then giving people the keys to the universe. In a sense, Hashem allows a person to tell Him what to do. And even though a person is born with a certain potential he has the ability to transcend even that.

For a deeper look into the subject see the book, specifically Chapter 5 footnote 26, where he brings down most of the major forces.

Sincerely,
Dovid Orlofsky

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Nissan 5761 – Living Happily Insane

1 Nissan 5761

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

The reason I am writing is because a friend of mine has a question that I don’t know how to answer. She described her question using the following mashal of a nonfunctional person who is basically a vegetable. Other people decide to help that person and give them therapies and put them on soft chairs instead of their confining wheelchair etc. – she claims that the person is happy as he is. The OTHER people aren’t happy with how he is and try to change his environment. But he doesn’t need it to be changed. He IS happy already!

That was really the mashal we talked about after she gave me this one about a prisoner. He goes insane in prison and watches cockroaches crawling through his cell all day, and he is completely happy that way. He is unaware that there is another way – and he doesn’t want any other way, because he is very content now – he LIKES watching the cockroaches! On the other hand, his captors tell him that if he does a certain uncomfortable thing each day, they will free him. But he has no interest – he doesn’t want to go free – he is happy with the cockroaches. Everyone else wants for him what’s better. What she is saying is that everyone wants for her to be frum, to keep Torah. They want her not to do drugs, not to drink, to associate with the right people, not to do foolish things with herself.

What do I tell her? That there is another way? She knows there is another way – and knows it’s better. But questions why we have to live that way if we can be happily insane? Why does everyone have to be normal?

Rabbi, any suggestions?

Name withheld.

Dear Friend,

In Charles Dickens “Tale of Two Cities” there is a character named Dr. Manet. During his long years in the Bastille, he goes insane and just sits at his workbench, muttering to himself. His family and friends are shocked to see what he has become of him and rescue him. When he eventually regains his sanity, he is appalled by the years he spent out of touch with existence.

Your friend works with the assumption that she is like a deranged prisoner watching cockroaches crawl who will never regain her sanity. But life doesn’t work that way. She is making decisions now that when she is in her forties and fifties, perhaps with her beauty gone and with it the possibility of male companionship, unfortunately (because that’s what happens when you play with cockroaches), and perhaps no career, no family, nothing but a stark realization of how life passed her by, and all she has to look forward to is a few more decades of sadness, because she has regained her sense of reality, then it is very possible she will turn to those well-meaning friends and say either “you were right” or “why didn’t you try harder to save me?”

By the way, how can she see into the soul of the retarded child? Just because he seems happy on the outside doesn’t mean he isn’t suffering on the inside with a very real sense of his painful predicament. In “Tuesdays with Morrie”, Morrie describes how his body is degenerating from Lou Gherigs disease. Though he can’t move his body, he still feels pains. Perhaps the disabled boy is happier than he can possibly express – in this world. But there will come a time when he will express the appreciation for all the caring people who helped him feel better.

The gemera tells the story of Elazar Bar Durdai who used to frequent all the prostitutes in the world. One day he heard about a particularly special one who was far away and very expensive. He traveled and paid the money and as he was undressing, she passed wind. Perhaps to obviate her embarrassment she looked at him and said “just as that passes away, so will you”. This moment of stark realization of reality (from one of the cockroaches) so shocked him that he was overcome with remorse. The pain was so great that he ended up crying himself to death. You see, we Jews never lose it completely – only temporarily. And when we wake up and remember who we are the shock can be devastating.

Good luck and I hope this helps.

Sincerely,
Dovid Orlofsky