12 Av 5774
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Vaet'chanan/Shabbat Nachamu: The impure well-springs of redemption
by Daniel Pinner
Parashat Va-et’chanan continues and completes Moshe’s first farewell discourse, which began last week at the beginning of Parashat Devarim and continues until Deuteronomy 4:40. Then comes a brief historical interlude recording the three Cities of Refuge which Moshe designated (Deuteronomy 4:41-43), after which Moshe begins his second farewell discourse (v. 44), which will continue until the end of Chapter 26 (in Parashat Ki Tavo, in another 5 weeks).
Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Va-et’chanan, which contains the first paragraph of the Shema, always falls on the first Shabbat after the 9th of Av – either the 11th, 13th, 15th, or 16th of Av (this year the 13th of Av).
The 9th of Av encapsulates one of the fundamental concepts of redemption in Judaism: it is the day of the most terrible catastrophe, and the day of the ultimate redemption.
The Midrash recounts a most peculiar event that occurred on the day the Holy Temple was destroyed: “It happened that a certain man was ploughing, and one of his oxen lowed. An Arab was passing and said to him, What are you? He replied, I am a Jew. [The Arab] said to him: Unharness your ox and untie your plough [as a sign of mourning]. [The Jew] said to him: Why? [The Arab] said to him: Because the Holy Temple of the Jews has been destroyed! He asked him: How do you know? [The Arab] said: I know it from the lowing of your ox. While he was still talking to him, the ox lowed again, and [the Arab] said to [the Jew]: Harness your ox, tie up your plough, because the Jews’ redeemer has been born” (Eichah Rabbah 1:51).
The Matanot Kehunah (commentary to Midrash Rabbah composed by Rabbi Yissachar Ber ha-Kohen Katz, Poland 16th century) adds that “the Jew was so far from Jerusalem that he did not know what was happening.”
Among the many ideas that this Midrash implies, one is that the mashiach is born on the same day as the catastrophe of the destruction. The inference is that disaster in and of itself brings forth its own cure.
Several years ago, in a D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeishev, we addressed the singularity that the ancestry of the mashiach is steeped in impurity. One branch of his ancestry descends from the union between Judah and his erstwhile daughter-in-law Tamar, who seduced him by disguising herself as a harlot (Genesis, Chapter 38). Another branch descends from the union between Lot and his daughter, who gave birth to Moab (Genesis 19:36-37). Another problematic union was that between Boaz and Ruth, the Moabitess who converted to Judaism, despite the Torah’s commandment that “an Ammonite and a Moabite shall not enter into Hashem’s congregation [i.e., convert into Judaism] – even the tenth generation; they can never enter Hashem’s congregation, ever” (Deuteronomy 23:4).
When Boaz accepted Ruth as a convert and married her (Ruth 4:10), he was doing something highly controversial. He argued that the Torah prohibition applied to a Moabite, not to a Moabitess (see Yevamot 76b, Ketuvot 7b; Ruth Rabbah 2:9 et al) – a hairsbreadth of halachic sophistry. So controversial was Boaz’s decision that it would not become accepted as mainstream halachah until their great-grandson David was anointed and recognised as king of Israel a century later.
Such is the origin of the mashiach – inherently impure, seemingly against the Torah. As many Kabbalistic masters (such as the Vilna Gaon, the Mahara”l of Prague, the Ramcha”l, and Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook) have explained, the redemption has to come into the world from unexpected sources. The Satan – the adversary whose purpose is to prevent the Redemption from coming into the world – will fight to frustrate holiness and purity. Hence, in Kabbalistic terminology, the supernal Light of Redemption has to be concealed within the klipot (shells) of impurity. This is the only way that Redemption can come down into this physical world.
It is, of course, entirely consistent with this that the mashiach, the redemption, is born out of the destruction of the Holy Temple. And it is equally consistent that the Jew in the above-quoted Midrash misses the significance of both the destruction of the Holy Temple and of the birth of the mashiach. The ox proclaims both (within moments of each other), and the Arab recognises the meaning of the ox’s lowing, and has to explain it to the Jew.
This first Torah-reading after Tishah be-Av includes, as part of Moshe’s second discourse, “Shema Yisra’el…” –“Hear, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4), which has become Judaism’s most central Declaration of Faith.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946), in his commentary to the Siddur, writes that the Shema is “a proclamation of the existence and Unity of G-d; of Israel’s complete loyalty to G-d and His commandments; the belief in Divine Justice; the remembrance of the liberation from Egypt, and its corollary, the Election of Israel. These are the foundation pillars of the Jewish Faith. Especially does the opening verse, ‘Hear, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One’, sound the keynote of all Judaism.”
Later, in his note on the history of the Shema, he adds: “Thanks to the Rabbis, the fullness of that sacred truth gradually saturated the souls of the lowliest, as of the highest, in Israel. The recitation of the Shema was part of the daily worship in the Temple. The Rabbis took it over to the Synagogue, and gave it central place in the morning and evening prayers of every Jew. We may judge the important part it played in the rabbinic consciousness from the fact that the whole Mishnah opens with the question, ‘From what hour is the evening Shema to be read?’ (Berachot 1:1).”
The Shema is recited night and morning; night represents exile, and morning represents redemption. The Talmud (Berachot 12a), in a discussion on the correct blessings to say over the Shema, quotes Psalm 92:2-3: “It is good to give thanks to Hashem, and to sing praise to Your Name, O Exalted One – to tell of Your loving-kindness in the morning, and Your faith in the nights.”
In the bright sunshine of the morning of redemption, it is appropriate to speak of G-d’s loving-kindness. But in the dark night of exile, surrounded by enemies, hounded and persecuted, we do not experience G-d’s loving-kindness. Then, indeed, all we have is faith.
The second Mishnah continues by asking: “From what hour is the morning Shema to be read?” and then proceeds to cite two opinions: “From the time that one can distinguish between techelet [sky-blue] and white; Rabbi Eliezer says, between techelet and light green.”
The opinion that the earliest time for reciting the Shema is “the time that one can distinguish between techelet and white” was the majority opinion among the Sages of Lod (Rabbi Eliezer the Great’s Beit Din), and Rabbi Eliezer was in the minority with his opinion – the time that one can distinguish between techelet and light green.
In later generations, after the Romans had destroyed the facilities to manufacture techelet, it became necessary to find alternative definitions which did not depend upon the now-defunct techelet. Hence the Gemara cites three more definitions offered by the sages of a generation later: “Rabbi Meir says, when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a dog and a wolf; Rabbi Akiva says, when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a domesticated donkey and a wild donkey; and others say, when there is sufficient light that when one sees a friend from four cubits [about 2 metres/6’6”] one can recognise him.” (Berachot9b)
The Talmud (Eiruvin 13a) records that Rabbi Meir (who defined the earliest time for reciting the Shema as when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a dog and a wolf) was the closest disciple of Rabbi Akiva (who defined the earliest time for reciting the Shema as when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a domesticated donkey and a wild donkey).
Both men were leaders of their generations, and both men were sons of converts: Rabbi Meir’s father, Niron, was a general in the Roman Army who converted to Judaism shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple (Gittin 56a), and Rabbi Akiva’s father, Yosef, was likewise a convert (Rambam, Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; see also Berachot 27b).
And both rabbis used the identification of unclean animals to determine the earliest time for reciting the Shema of the morning – for telling of G-d’s loving-kindness, for heralding the morning of redemption.
And these two unclean animals –the dog and the donkey – are remembered for good for having helped us during the Exodus from Egypt.
The final time that Moshe confronted Pharaoh, warning him of the impending tenth and final Plague, the Slaying of the Firstborn, he told him: “Against all the Children of Israel, no dog will whet its tongue” (Exodus 11:7). Commensurate with this, the Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Kaspa 2 s.v. lakelev tashlichun) notes that as a reward for not threatening us on the way out of Egypt, G-d commanded that “animal flesh which has been torn in the field you shall not eat; you shall throw it to the dog” (Exodus 22:30).
Or, in the words of the Midrash Rabbah, “‘Against all the Children of Israel, no dog will whet its tongue’– therefore you owe the dogs, as it is said ‘animal flesh which has been torn in the field you shall not eat; you shall throw it to the dog’” (Shemot Rabbah31:9).
And “every first-issue of a donkey you must redeem with a lamb or kid” (Exodus 13:13). The Talmud analyses: “Rabbi Hanina said: I asked Rabbi Eliezer in the study-hall, why are the firstborn of donkeys different from the firstborns of horses or camels? He told me: This is a Biblical decree [which we obey whether or not we understand why]; and furthermore, it is because they helped Israel when they left Egypt: every single one of the Israelites had ninety Libyan donkeys [Rashi: the best quality donkeys] laden with the silver and gold of Egypt” (Bechorot 5b).
Hence the donkey is the sole non-kosher animal which is to be redeemed (Rashi and Malbim to Exodus 13:13; Rashi to Exodus 34:20; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 18 s.v. ve-chol peter; Sifrei, Korah 118; Tanhuma, Bo 12).
Rabbi Meir connected the Exodus from Egypt– the first redemption – with the morning Shema – the paradigm of the final redemption – by defining the earliest time for reciting it as when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a dog and a wolf. And Rabbi Akiva connected the Exodus with the morning Shema by defining the earliest time for reciting it as when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a domesticated donkey and a wild donkey.
Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Meir, both sons of Romans who had converted to Judaism, originated from impure sources, and both became Torah-leaders of their generations. They, more than anyone else, recognised that unclean animals – the dog and the donkey – can symbolise the light of the dawn of redemption, and can therefore be used to determine the earliest time for reciting the Shema of the morning.
Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir, who lived through the destruction of the Holy Temple, infused this teaching into the Jewish national body: though the reality appears totally disastrous – the final, complete, utter destruction of Israel, of Jewish independence, of the Holy Temple, of Judaism itself, the ultimate victory of evil – nevertheless “our hope is not yet lost”!
From the ashes of the worst disaster in our history, from the most impure of well-springs, will yet sprout forth our salvation!