Letters Nov. III
Not the Man
Reader: Rabbi Ben-Chaim, Thank you for your prompt reply, knowing that you have a truly heavy schedule. It is somewhat a shame that Rav Chaim Ozer’s momentous statement (and I truly mean momentous) cannot be corroborated by a first- or second-hand testimony (written in a sefer by a chaver or talmid of his). I cannot quote this to anyone I am debating with, as the obvious retort will be “show me your source”. Can you share your source of the statement with me? How can I be more confident about the quote?
Thanking you again,
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: The “source” you truly want - which contradicts my main point here - is from Rambam, who says, “Hear the truth from anyone who speaks it”. In other words, a source or a person is not authoritative: the idea’s logic is. The idea is more important than “who” said it. Rav Chaim Ozer’s point is irrefutable, and should be accepted based on its sound logic, not its author. For light to reach us from a star 10,000,000 light years away, the universe MUST have existed that long, in order that this light traveled this distance. If I can travel up top 100mph at top speed, and I was seen in two towns 200 miles apart, I must have existed for at least 2 hours, the duration necessary to travel that distance. Irrefutable.
This allegiance to personalities over principles is crippling our people. Jews accept anything, as ludicrous as it sounds, as long as there’s a reputation backing that statement. And when Jews today meet with two contradictory statements from equally popular Rabbis, their minds go blank. However, if teachers would train our students to engage the same reasoning found in Talmud debates, applying it to daily life, our people would easily refute all the popular idolatry practiced today.
Ramban did not accept Maimonides’ words based on reputation, but he reasoned for himself, and disagreed many times. Maimonides did not accept all of Aristotle’s claims; he too engaged his mind and disagreed.
Their honesty and attachment to reasoning enabled them to truly become “convinced” of truths. For merely saying “I agree” with some Rabbi’s statement is of no merit, since the person has not become convinced of anything. And when we are not convinced, we fail in what God desires of us. We fail to arrive at new knowledge of the Creator, His Torah, and the universe. God did not place each of us here to merely verbally “agree”, or flow with the tide of ignorance and idolatry. God placed us here, with intelligence, so that each of us might engage this Tzelem Elohim in clear thought, arriving at convictions.
We earn no reward if we cannot prove what we claim. We are simply “yessing” others to gain their approval. We are elevating social needs above our only valued and true obligation…to approach God.
Isn’t it a crime that so many of us seek approval by agreeing with others, who themselves cannot prove their claims?
Not the Place
Reader: Dear Mesora, I have the following question that confuses me. I hope you can help me. Where did Aaron die?
In Numbers 20:27-30 we find:
“And Moses did as the Lord commanded; and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mount.”
And correspondingly, in the account of the Israelites’ journeys in the book of Numbers it is written:
“And they went on their journey from Kadesh, and encamped on Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom. And Aaron the priest ascended to Mount Hor according to the commandment of the Lord, and died there, in the fortieth year after the Exodus of the children of Israel from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first day of it. And Aaron was one hundred and twenty and three years old when he died on Mount Hor.”
But in Deuteronomy 10:6 we find:
“And the children of Israel went on their journey from Beerot Benei Jaakan to Mosayra: there Aaron died, and there he was buried; and Eleazar his son became the High Priest after him.”
Now, the question is where, according to the Torah,
did Aaron die: on the top of Mount Hor, or at Mosayra? Almost all the
Scriptural commentators tried to settle this contradiction, but all of them
failed to produce an account consistent with all the verses. The most reasonable
explanation of this contradiction is that the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy
were written by two different authors, each of whom had his own tradition of
Maybe Mesora has some other insights.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Good question Hugo. However, your statement that the commentators “failed” to respond, is itself a “failed response”. Rashi resolves this issue beautifully!
Aaron did in fact die on Mount Hor as you cited. How then can Deuteronomy state that he died in Mosayra, a campsite the Jews left eight journeys earlier? Numbers 33:31-37 chronologically records eight campsites traveled by the Jews. It commences with Mosayra, and concludes eight locations later with Mount Hor. 33:38 openly states that Aaron died on Mount Hor, a completely different location than Mosayra. However, this only appears as a contradiction.
Rashi cites this problem, adding another question: “What does Aaron’s death have to do with the current story of the broken Tablets on Sinai?” He answers,
“The death of the righteous is as difficult before God, as was the day Moses broke the Tablets; and to make known that it was as difficult to Him when they said, ‘set us a leader to return to Egypt’, as was the day they forged the Golden Calf.”
This explains descriptively why Moses joined Aaron’s death to the story of the broken Tablets. Let’s pause to understand this correlation.
This means that God’s will in giving the first Tablets on Sinai, was to offer man a means of education. As the Jews were found worshipping the Golden Calf upon Moses’ first descent from Sinai, the Jews displayed a corruption that would also be applied to the Tablets: they deified a lifeless golden statue, and would certainly deify Tablets received by the true God. Moses broke the Tablets since they would not serve God’s intended purpose. The Torah’s mission was compromised. But how is Aaron’s death comparable? All men must die, so why is Aaron’s death “difficult before God” as was the Jews’ deviation in worshipping the Golden Calf?
We must understand; it is not the ‘death’ of the righteous per se that is difficult, since death is God’s will. However, why did Aaron die here, before entering Israel? It was due to his sin in not sanctifying God’s name at Mereva. (Numb. 20:24) We also note that it is not the death of “all” men that is difficult before God: only the death of the “righteous”. This means that when a righteous person dies due to his sins, it too compromises the Torah’s mission, just as the destruction of the Tablets due to idol worship.
Man views the righteous as proof of the Torah’s truth and value. And when they sin – certainly in a public event – the Torah loses credibility. This is what is meant that it is “difficult” before God. Of course, God has no “difficulties”. But this Rabbinic statement alludes to that, which opposes God’s will. That is the correct definition of “difficult before God”. Both, the destruction of the Tablets, and the sinful cause for Aaron’s premature death conflicted with God’s objective Torah retain a pristine reputation. Breaking the Torah (Tablets) and witnessing a righteous person die for his sins equally tarnishes the Torah.
Therefore, when Moses was rebuking the Jews regarding the cause of his breaking the Tablets, he includes another rebuke: their desire to set up a new leader and return to Egypt after Aaron died. When the Jews thereafter backpedaled eight campsites, returning to Mosayra, Moses writes that Aaron died “there”, the source of your problem Hugo.
The Torah is not a history book. Each and every verse includes deep lessons, as its one Author – God – possesses infinite wisdom. He created the universe from nothingness, a concept the greatest scientists cannot fathom. The greatest man ever, Moses, too could not know what God is. Therefore, we must be mindful of His unattainable wisdom when we read God’s words, and not offer simple answers, which also conflict with all of our wise Sages, as you suggested, “the Torah had two authors”. Just as we would not enter Einstein’s lab, and offer a quick suggestion to a problem he was grappling with, we must certainly not do so when addressing God’s words.
What is Moses’ lesson here? Moses says, “Aaron died there at Mosayra” when we know in fact that he died in Mount Hor. But Moses did so since he is their Rebbe and leader: the greatest teacher of human perfection. He describes Aaron’s death “as if it was in Mosayra”, to indicate the “cause” of why the Jews found themselves back at Mosayra.
Moses subtly taught the Jews that he attributed their national reversion to Egypt (by way of Mosayra) to be in connection with Aaron’s death, and the departing of God’s protective clouds at that time. As Rashi teaches, the Jews were then fearful of warring with the King of Ard. They headed back towards Egypt. This was a rebellion, and it required a rebuke. But instead of openly stating this rebuke as Moses did when describing the breaking of the Tablets, here, Moses used a subtle hint. Why? Perhaps this rebuke required more understanding by the Jews, as their sin was not as overt as prostrating to a Golden Calf. That sin could be addressed openly, since no one could deny his or her corruption. But on the surface, “traveling backwards” does not appear as sinful. In order to engage the mind of the Jews, Moses created an apparent contradiction in Aaron’s place of death, which would awaken the Jews to ponder that location of Mosayra, and hopefully, awaken them to consider ‘why’ they arrived there. They might now consider that earlier event, and their rebellious nature. Joining Aaron’s death with the rebuke of the broken Tablets, Moses helped the Jews associate Aaron’s death and their return to Mosayra, with the sin of the Tablets and the Golden Calf. They might then view their return to Mosayra in the same sinful light, and unveil for themselves their national error.
Their desire to return to Egypt – why they were back at Mosayra – should also make the Jews realize their attachment to Egypt. But if Moses openly rebuked the Jews, and did not allow them to consider apparently contradictory burial sites of Aaron, their minds would be less engaged, and they would not ponder that return to Mosayra, with all of its ramifications. They would not reflect as much, and they would neglect to grasp their attachment to Egypt. Rashi concluded with these words:
“…it was as difficult to Him when they said, ‘set us a leader to return to Egypt’, as was the day they forged the Golden Calf.”
Rashi teaches us that the Jews’ return to Mosayra – a mere stop along the way back to Egypt – carried a sin equal to the Golden Calf. Just as the Golden Calf expressed idolatrous tendencies, surely their return to the origin of calf worship – Egypt – expressed their sustained, idolatrous attachment.
Hugo, we learn from your good question how deep are Moses’ lessons, and how much deeper are God’s words. The Torah is not a history book, so its text must be studied, together with the counsel of the Sages’ words, and not simply read. It had only one author. No Sage ever suggested otherwise, certainly, we must at the least investigate why the Sages held as they did, before offering suggestions that contradict all Jewish leaders.
I thank you for your question, as I learned a great deal. With this new understanding and appreciation, we may all now approach new areas of our Torah study with an increased level of awe for our Creator’s wisdom.
Reader: Is it true that the Jewish Religion does not belief / accept the New Testament? If so, can you tell me in short why they do not belief in it. If they do not recognize it, I assume they also do not belief that Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Did GOD Himself appear to Paul on the road to Damascus?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Hansie, we do not accept any historical claim unless there are masses of witnesses, which the accounts of Jesus fail to provide. In contrast, we fully accept accounts of Alexander, Caesar, and the Jews’ receipt of Moses’ Five Books at Sinai, since all of these accounts were witnessed by masses. Additionally, all of Jesus’ accounts were reported decades after the fact, in multiple, contradictory stories or gospels. Had Jesus or anyone performed miracles, those stories would have been accepted; not only by his followers, but also by Jews and all others, since witnessed fact cannot be denied. But the lapse in time between his supposed miracles and their published accounts is proof of fallacy. Mass silence is impossible. Christianity’s originators knew this and therefore incorporated “blind faith” as a credo of their new religion, since proof was absent.
We do not accept scientific theory unsupported by proofs. Contrary to popular ‘belief’, Religion is no more excused from rigorous proof as the only means of validation.
No religion except Judaism offers proof.
No other religion is truly God’s word.
Not God’s Religion
Reader: Let me address one of the most divisive issues between Christian and Jews. When you look at the early Church Fathers, you find that so many of them came from pagan philosophies and religions that painted different pictures of the physical world than what the Bible truly says. If you were one of the early Church Fathers who were raised in a pagan philosophy most of their lives, and then converted to Christianity, you would view the Jewish Biblical writings with pagan filters.
In the minds of many of Early Church Fathers, the physical world was evil and the soul was waiting to be "redeemed" into the realm of the "spirit." In other words, the only real goal of the Believer was to wait until he or she died and could go to Heaven. To show you what these Fathers believed, some of them stated that the "Original Sin" was sex, and not just eating from the Tree of Knowledge! Around the Nicene Creed time the early Church forbade sexual relations, even between married husbands and wives. They said that sex was so evil that the Holy Spirit had to leave during married sex. And of course, that prohibition did not last long!
Christianity has taught that we are born so much in sin that there is no purity in kids.
Reader: Ibn Ezra (Exod. 20.1) states:
“...The second category (of commandments) are commands which are hidden, and there is not explained why they were commanded. And God forbid, God forbid that there should be any one of these commands which goes against human intelligence. Rather, we are obligated to perform all that God commands, be it revealed to us the underlying “Sode” (principle), be it hidden from us. And if we find any of them, which contradict human intelligence, it isn’t proper that we should understand it as implied. But we should consult the books of the wise men of blessed memory, to determine if such a command is a metaphor. And if we find nothing written (by them) we (must) search out and seek with all our ability, perhaps we can fix it (determine the command). If we can’t, then we abandon that mitzvah as it is, and admit we are ignorant of it”.
According to Ibn Ezra you quoted, “abandon that mitzvah as it is”, refers to commands, which do not comply with human reason. My question is why Abraham accepted the command of slaughtering his only son. Isn’t this in opposition to human reason, to kill your own child? This question is strengthened, as the Ibn Ezra’s very example of incomprehensible laws is the command “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”. This is a matter of killing as well, but here, Ibn Ezra says it is impossible that we should take this literally, i.e., to cut out our hearts. If this is so impossible on the literal level, what made Abraham so willing to sacrifice his son? Shouldn’t he abandon the command from God, just as Ibn Ezra says we should?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Your question is very good. However, there is one distinction I would make. Regarding the Ibn Ezra, if a command FOR ALL JEWS would exist as literally “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”, this would cause the end of Jewish people, a direct contradiction to God’s will that Jewish people should exist. Additionally, the second half of that verse reads, “and your necks shall no longer be stiff”. This means that the command of “circumcising the foreskins of your hearts” must result in an improvement in man’s nature, where he is no longer “stiff” or stubborn. Clearly, the command of “circumcising the foreskins of your hearts” is not a directive to kill ourselves, but rather to improve our ethics - to eradicate our stubborn nature in connection with Torah adherence.
Reader: That is not the reason that the Ibn Ezra says though. He doesn’t mention the last part of the verse or anything about it contradicting another part of the Torah, namely that the Jewish people should exist to perfect themselves.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: But that last half of the verse does in fact exist, and is divinely connected with the first half. We do not require all to be written by Ibn Ezra. You must learn the Ibn Ezra, not simply read him, and you must use reasoning. If God placed two ideas in one verse, they are inherently intertwined and related.
Reader: Ibn Ezra says, “does He (Hashem) wish to murder us like a cruel person?” In other words there would be no benefit what so ever in taking the commandment literally, just the opposite; it is totally destructive and makes no sense, and so it goes against reason. It is for this reason alone that he mentions the example of “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”. He doesn’t say that if one commandment goes against another part of the Torah that we have to reinterpret it. He says if it goes against “reason” we can’t take it literally. That is his point.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: But isn’t that which opposes another part of the Torah something which you consider going against reason”? Of course. So we must look at the entire verse, and the entire Torah.
Reader: So my question on the Akeida stands. Forget about the example of “Umaltem”. The fact is the Ibn Ezra (and not just him, Rav Saadia Gaon as well as many others) says that if our understanding of a Mitzva goes against reason “it is not proper to believe it literally”. So my question on the Akeida stands.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: A command to Abraham to slay his son doesn’t contradict anything. It is not unreasonable for him to kill his son at God’s command. He is only killing one person, and not the entire nation. A Rabbi taught, Abraham questioned God upon His decision to destroy Sodom. Why did Abraham question God on Sodom, but at the command to kill his own son, Abraham did not question? The Rabbi answered that in terms of determining God’s justice; man may investigate and arrive at reasons. What God administers to man must be appreciated in man’s terms of justice. But how killing Isaac would perfect Abraham, here, Abraham felt, “God may have a method unknown to me just how this will benefit me. If God commands me in this act, it must contain perfection somewhere, although I may not be able to see it. My ignorance does not remove the perfection, or the obligation to act.” Justice (Sodom) is a different story; it is meted to man as a result of his actions, as a lesson to man or mankind. As such, “lesson” means that there is comprehension - there is understanding. Therefore, Abraham inquired about areas of justice - Sodom’s destruction - but did not inquire into the command to kill Isaac. A command relates to the realm of “activity”, and we cannot state that our understanding is a prerequisite for acting upon God’s command. That is arrogant. God’s knowledge is far beyond that which mortal man comprehends. But if God invites Abraham to discuss Sodom’s fate, this is not an area of action, it is an area of thought and education. Abraham rightfully inquired as to the justice of Sodom. But he did not inquire before killing Isaac, or circumcising himself, and his household.
Again, nothing in the act of killing Isaac contradicted reason - but wiping out the entire nation by taking literally “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts” is unreasonable, and must be interpreted. We do not allow our ignorance to question God’s commands. However, contradictions are different, and that which is contradictory cannot be followed. God gave us a mind to lead our actions. This means, by definition, that contradiction goes against God’s wish for man’s actions. Abraham slaughtering Isaac presented no contradiction. Jews following a command literally of “circumcising the foreskins of our hearts” is a contradiction to God’s plan that mankind endures, and that murder is a Torah violation. Therefore, “circumcising the foreskins of our hearts” cannot be understood literally.
Now, you might say it contradicts God’s very promise to make Abraham’s seed as numerous as the stars and the sands. Perhaps Abraham thought there were new considerations to which God reacted, altering His original plan.
Reader: How can Hashem change his mind? First He tells Abraham to bring his son as a sacrifice, then He tells him not to. Either Hashem changed his mind, or, God forbid, one of the commands was not true, since contradictory statements cannot both be true! (Even Hashem can’t do that, that’s not possible). Many commentaries ask this question.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: God altered His plan to have man live forever. But this is not a “change in His mind”. After the first sin, man caused his death to become a reality. Why cannot God alter His plan, as “part” of His plan? God knows the future! Ibn Ezra teaches that God initially desired the firstborns to serve in the Temple, but they were exchanged for the Levites subsequent to their sin of the Golden Calf. God knew this was to happen. He did not change His mind.
Here too God “changed” His plan. In reality, God never intended that Isaac die, only that Abraham be tried by God’s command. Once Abraham prevailed, just before cutting Isaac’s throat, God told Abraham the truth, that Isaac is not to be killed, but that it was a trial. Only after this new command to abstain from killing Isaac, did Abraham understand this to be a trial. But prior, he fully knew God desired that he kill his son. God knows all future events. Based on this reality, we cannot say He has changed His mind, as His “mind” is never ignorant, therefore, no changes are required to compensate for unforeseen events.
Reader: Another question could be asked. If Hashem came to you and asked you directly to sacrifice your son would you be able to refuse? What was such a great test that Abraham went through?
Moshe Ben-Chaim: Jonah refused God’s command; anyone can refuse. This is
what is meant by free will. The greatness of Abraham is that he didn’t refuse,
and was willing to sacrifice his beloved son.
Reader: The Ralbag points out that really there can be two understandings of Hashem’s initial command to Abraham. 1) Bring him as a sacrifice. 2) To bring Isaac up the mountain to bring a sacrifice ‘with’ him, to educate him in bringing sacrifices…but not to kill Isaac.
Using this insight of the Ralbag I would suggest that Abraham was in a dramatic dilemma. Should he interpret Hashem’s words literally and go against his reason? Or should he use his reason to reinterpret Hashem’s words? Abraham simply did not know what to do! Don’t forget, for the first period of his life Abraham discovered God using his intellect alone as the Rambam so beautifully describes. Then he merited prophecy later in life. But now these two “chords” that attached him close to Hashem contradicted each other! What should he do?
Now Abraham could have taken the easy way out. He could have reinterpreted Hashem’s command to fit with reason. But he didn’t! This was Abraham’s great test! He figured that, if in doubt, he should show the maximum sacrifice to Hashem. This shows Abraham’s Yiras HaShem.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: I disagree with the Ralbag, or with your understanding of him. For if Abraham never thought he was truly commanded to kill his son, what great perfection is this story conveying? Why have all the greatest minds praised Abraham for risking the loss of his son, had he believed he was to sacrifice a sheep, and not Isaac? The converse is true: Abraham understood God’s command to be that he literally kills Isaac. The Talmud supports this.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) presents the story of Abraham traveling to the mountain to kill Isaac. Satan - a metaphor for Abraham’s own instincts - is recorded as trying to convince Abraham to abandon God’s command, now that following God will prove to be the death of Isaac. What was the Satan (Abraham’s instincts) saying? He was saying a principle we hear so often, “Why serve God when things go bad?” Satan was saying that adherence to God is worthless unless life is 100% good. But we know this life cannot be 100% good, as God gave all mankind free will. At some point in life we must be confronted with the harmful effects of corrupt individuals using their free will to harm others. This is exactly what King David said in Psalms, “Many evils befall the righteous, but they are saved from them all”. This means that although due to free will, many evils must exist; nonetheless, God will remove their harmful effects from reaching the totally righteous person. God does not alter the free will of the evildoers - this cannot be. But God does protect the righteous.
So Satan (Abraham’s emotions) was attempting to avoid killing his precious son. However, Abraham prevailed over Satan’s arguments.
Abraham struggles further with his instincts, and posed another possibility to himself, as you suggest, (the Talmud continues), “Satan said, ‘I heard behind the curtain (in heaven) “the sheep for a sacrifice, and not Isaac”. Again this illustrates what Abraham’s instincts were feeling. Perhaps he is to merely sacrifice an animal, and not Isaac. The Talmud entertains the idea that Abraham’s instincts produced some doubt regarding killing his son. What was Abraham’s response? “This is the punishment of a liar, that even when he tells the truth, he is not listened to.” Abraham’s instincts sought to confuse his comprehension of God’s command. But when he said to Satan (to himself) “that even when Satan tells the truth, he is not listened to”, Abraham was saying that since this idea came from his instincts, its veracity is inconsequential. As this thought originated from the instincts, it is not trusted. Abraham completely denied any value his emotions presented through these rationalizations to spare Isaac. Abraham prevailed over Satan - over his strong emotions.
Another thought: When faced with the emotional appeal that an animal was to be killed and not Isaac, Abraham reasoned, “It is purposeless that God would make a statement so vague, allowing me to be doubtful as to which one I shall slaughter. If He wished an animal, He would say so clearly.” Perhaps Abraham saw that his confusion is just the workings of the emotions, and he did not heed to his emotions. This is what is meant by, “that even when Satan tells the truth, he is not listened to”, that is, “even when my emotions suggest other possibilities, I cannot follow my emotions.”