Letters June 2024

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Making Errors: Angels vs. Jews

Tova: Why were angels rebuked, but the Jews were not?

 Rabbi Yocḥanan said, “What is the meaning of that which is written: ‘And the one [Egypt’s army] did not come near the other [Israel] all the night”? (Exod 14:20)  

When God drowned with the Egyptians in the Reed Sea, the ministering angels wanted to sing, for the angels would sing songs to each other, as it states, “And they called out to each other” (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He said, “The work of My hands [Egyptians] are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing?” This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked. (Megillah 10b)

Rabbi: God’s will is that all mankind recognize Him. This is God’s purpose in creating man. But when man sins—although not God’s preference—man requires punishment, or death. In this case, song is inappropriate, so God silenced the angels. Nonetheless, the Jews rejoiced in song when God drowned the Egyptians, and God did not silence them. Why then did God rebuke the angels but not the Jews when singing praise for the death of the Egyptians? 

 The Jews were praising God for their salvation; thanks was mandatory. However, the angels did not experience salvation, and must operate without that sentiment. Therefore, singing was inappropriate. For even the Jews would agree with God's sentiment that when man does not follow God, and is punished, it is a loss. But the Jews’ personal salvation demanded thanks to God. And this does not contradict the impropriety of song when sinners suffer. One matter concerns those saved, and another matter concerns those punished. The Jews must sing in thanks for their lives. But angels have no cause for thanks, and should operate where song is inappropriate. That was God’s message to the angels. But how could angels make an “error?”  

In fact, this dialogue between God and the angels never occurred. The rabbis scripted this allegory to teach this lesson: angels assist good people; allegorically they sided with Israel and wished to sing. Angels cannot err, they are not human and have no instincts to derail rational actions. Angels act perfectly in line with God’s will. But this allegory reveals that their scope of function is limited. As messengers of God to help good people, they do not possess the “larger picture” that only God possesses, that being of ultimate mercy. Desiring to sing at Egypt’s demise, and God rebuking them, teaches that angels don’t share God’s full perspective. 

Planets Have Souls

Dani:  Based on God’s severe response, “I will set My face against him”, stated only regarding idolatry and blood-eating, you said these 2 are the worst crimes: both assume the existence of a powerful being other than God. Blood eating assumes demons enjoyed the blood with man and could help man, and idolatry says God isn’t the only god. But superstitions don't make this list, because when one believes in bad luck for example, it's similar to believing in “laws,” and not that a “being” besides God exists. The greatest crime is assuming God is not the exclusive cause of the universe. In such a case, man’s idea of God is completely wrong. His life is purposeless.

My question: Maimonides said the planets have souls. Why isn’t this too on his list of the worst crimes, as a belief in a will other than God?  

Rabbi: Idolatry and demon belief suggest beings exist possessing control over all matters, and thereby they can help man and man worships or services them. But this is not what a soul in a planet suggests. Planetary souls merely generate the planet’s rotation, and nothing more. Their limited scope of function is like a person’s limited scope, and the belief in either planetary souls or human souls is not a belief in powers that can help us. Both are limited.

“Pursue Justice, Justice” (Why twice?)

Howie: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20).  Why is the word “justice” repeated? 

Rabbi: The rabbis comment:

Moses speaks to the disputants. Moses repeats the word justice to indicate that one should pursue justice whether one gains or loses. Or the word is repeated to indicate that one should pursue justice as long as one exists; or the word is repeated for emphasis. (Ibn Ezra)

The reason for the repetition is to indicate that the judges should judge the people with righteous judgment, and you must also pursue justice constantly by going from your place to the place of the great Sages: “after Rabban Yochanan ben Zaccai to Jabneh; after Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] to Beth Shearim.” (Ramban)

Doctors’ Pitfalls

Willie: Are doctors evil?

Rabbi:  Kiddushin 82a sheds light: 

“Most sailors are pious” [since the great danger of the seas instills in them the fear of Heaven.]  “The best of doctors goes to Gehenom” [Rashi: They do not fear disease. They eat the food of the healthy, and they do not act humbly before God. Sometimes they kill, and sometimes they are able to heal a poor person. but do not do so.”]  “Even the fittest of butchers is a partner of Amalek” [Rashi: Meat which could possibly be not kosher they sell to others because they don't want to lose money]. 

The message: professions carry dangers. 

Work and Learning

Rabbi Nehorai says: “I set aside all the trades in the world, and I teach my son only Torah, as a person partakes of its reward in this world and the principal reward remains for him in the World-to-Come, which is not true of other professions, whose rewards are only in this world. Furthermore, if a person comes to be ill, or old, or undergoes suffering, and is unable to be involved in his trade, behold, he dies in hunger. But with regard to the Torah it is not so, since one can study it under all circumstances. Rather, it preserves him from all evil and sin in his youth, and provides him with a future and hope in his old age.

With regard to his youth, what does it say about a Torah scholar? ‘But they that hope in God shall renew their strength, as eagles grow new plumes: they shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not grow faint’ (Isaiah 40:31). With regard to his old age, what does it say? ‘They in old age they still produce fruit; they are full of sap and freshness’” (Psalms 92:15). (Kiddushin 82a)  

Rabbi:  How can we explain the distinction of benefits between younger and older people? When young, man still seeks to accomplish and to progress. But he grows weary. Why? It's because as these pursuits are not God’s intent for human happiness; man does not find pleasure and satisfaction in them. He is wearied from seeking satisfaction from matters that inherently cannot provide it. he grows frustrated.

But if man follows a life of Torah, “He shall run and not grow weary, he shall march and not grow faint.” Torah is perfectly designed to satisfy all man’s intense energies. The pursuit of wisdom has no end, and with each new insight, man is satisfied and also excited, and journeys on further to open up new areas to his mind. It is this endless pursuit that fully satisfies man. On the contrary, physical pursuits cannot endure long enough to satisfy man’s abundant energies, and they also inflict pain when indulged too long. And the pursuit of psychological satisfaction is so short-lived, man again quickly meets with frustration.

Even when old, King David says Torah affords man satisfaction, “They in old age, they still produce fruit; they are full of sap and freshness.” Producing fruit refers to the creative process of uncovering new wisdom, and being full of sap and freshness means their minds have not waned. Older people no longer seek accomplishment. They have exposed worldly pursuits as dissatisfying, and have grown more attached to wisdom, so physical weariness is not discussed. Older men perfected by Torah seek knowledge, not accomplishment.

God and Jews: Eternal Bond

Odupa: How do you understand the idea of an unbreakable covenant between God and the Jewish people?

Rabbi: God’s eternal covenant with Israel is a testament to the patriarchs’ perfections. Without Torah, using their minds alone, the patriarchs recognized and taught the truth of monotheism, the fallacy of idolatry and other assumed powers, and morality. In God’s desire that all mankind benefit from the patriarchs’ values, He included their role model lives in His Bible—Torah—which also includes His laws for typical man who could not arrive at the patriarchs’ perfections without those laws. God chose the patriarchs’ descendants to be His emissaries to mankind and teach Bible to the world. God’s will does not change, therefore His covenant does not change. He eternally endorses the patriarch’s values by eternal providence over their Jewish descendants with an unbreakable covenant.

Odupa: What can we learn from the "rejection of rejection" concept, regarding how we treat others, particularly those who are different from us?

Rabbi:  I am unfamiliar with "rejection of rejection.” But Torah supports human equality.

Odupa: How can we best keep our commitment to our faith and heritage, even when it is challenging?

Rabbi:  Performing what is true and good is unaffected by unfortunate circumstances. Becoming poor, sick or afflicted does not diminish the great joy and benefit in Torah study and performing mitzvahs. One experiencing poor circumstances should reflect on his actions, and perfect his ways and pray, so God can assist him. One must trust in God, as His providence over the patriarchs in all areas of their lives is a lesson for how He relates to all mankind. As He assisted those great individuals, He does not change and will act the same for anyone following their perfections.

Torah Complies with our Nature

Alex: You write: “The highest level is where a person loves his Torah study; he does not view it as an obligation.” However, aren't we supposed to view serving Hashem as fulfilling His will—an “obligation?” One serving God from pure love joins fulfilling God’s will and seeing it as a pleasurable activity, but not eliminating “obligation.”

Rabbi: Recognizing the “obligation” to study Torah does not obscure the enjoyment. But he does not act as one under duress, as suggested by the term “obligation.” This is my meaning. He is fully desirous to meet the obligation to learn Torah, so there is no conflict or sense of pressure.

Alex: You write: “Judaism is perfectly conforms with human nature.” But what about statements of the Rambam that one requires withdrawal from lusts to perfect the soul. One has to fight against the bodily desires.

Rabbi: At life’s start, man is still following his emotions until he studies Torah, accepts its ideals and follows them. This transition from emotions to intellect can be a struggle, so in this sense you are right. Judaism conforms to man once he travels on the path of perfection. Once man sees the truth and the value of intellectual and moral perfection, Torah completely complies with this perfected person’s nature. But of course, if man is corrupt, and fails to follow Torah, he will find conflict with everything Torah asks.