SOME CHALLENGING QUESTIONS*
You and I, dear Reader, are going to have to flex our intellectual muscles. Chazal teach us that reexamining the old comes much harder than learning something new. That is so because we have a vested interest in leaving good enough alone. Casting a critical eye upon well known and well loved platitudes will only force us into a battle that we cannot win. Why put ourselves into a position in which we will have to admit that until now we have been satisfied with the shallow and the nondemanding? Who needs the headache?
But you know dear Reader, the mere fact that you are continuing to read marks you as a stouthearted optimist. You may know from experience, or if you do not, you at least intuit, the boundless sweetness in which newfound clarity and understanding comes packaged. You may know, or if you do not, you intuit that in selfabnegation lies selfaffirmation, that the one possession that nobody can ever take away from you is that knowledge which, by your effort and your determination, you wrested from the abyss of ignorance in which we all initially flounder.
I will tell you how I know all this. It all happened to me in the last few days. I have passed through valleys of despondency when I realized that after many, many years of learning I am still woefully ignorant of some of the most basic components of yiddishkeit. But, I came out at the other end. I worked hard and made some discoveries. I am less ignorant now than I was before. There is a lot of joy in that.
Enough said. Let us get to work.
In this initial essay, our interest will focus upon the introduction that the Ribono shel Olam gave to Moshe Rabbeinu when we first arrived at Sinai.(Shemos 19:3-6). Let us see what was actually said and then we will get to the exciting part, the analysis that will give us a better understanding of what truly happened in those packed and portentous six days.
We will use the remainder of the present chapter to scan these four verses and see what issues seem to require explanation. After we have done that, we will be able to take our time. Sometimes we will be able to go straight to the issue at hand; occasionally a more roundabout route may be required. I cannot promise that we will be able to tackle the problems in the order in which we raise them. It lies in the nature of learning Torah that, far from being able to impose solutions upon recalcitrant subject matter, we must hope and pray that the solutions will seek us out and lovingly offer themselves to us, often when we least expect them. I hope that by the end of the book, we will be able to feel confident that all the subjects that we raise here will have been addressed. I promise you that there will be enough to keep us busy.
We begin with verse 3. Thus shall you speak to Bais Yaakov and tell it to the B’nei Yisrael. I would like to understand why we, the Jewish people, are divided into Bais Yaakov and B’nei Yisrael. We all know the famous Rashi that Bais Yaakov refers to the women, and B’nei Yisrael, to the men. Ramban, at least on this pasuk, is silent. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that Ramban disagrees with Rashi.
We need very much to get this straight. It matters, indeed it matters profoundly, how the Ribono shel Olam looked upon us at this pivotal moment. Let us think this through together.
Before anything else, let us lay down the groundrules that will govern our research. It is a truism that in the Ribono shel Olam’s Torah, nothing appears in the text without a purpose and, even if the purpose is clear, it will only appear at the specific place where it is absolutely required if it is to accomplish its function. If you have taken the time to glance at note 3, you will surely agree that this is so.
Let us then put Rashi’s interpretation to the test. The Ribono shel Olam wants Moshe Rabbeinu to realize that the best way to teach women is not identical to the method that is appropriate for men. The approach to men should be businesslike and sharp. Things are to be taught as they are, including the punishments that will follow upon an infraction and all the many details that are required if the total picture is to be grasped. Women require a softer, gentler tone. No need to trouble them with threats of punishment for dereliction. No need to pile on all the stringencies that, under varying circumstances, might be involved.
That is clear enough. But why now? Why before anything else? On this first day, in this first communication, there is not even a hint of commandments to follow, which might involve punishments if they are not fulfilled punctiliously. Where, amid the call for being true to the Ribono shel Olam’s covenant and readying oneself to become part of a Kingdom of Kohanim and a Nation Cleaving to Him Who is Holy are the many details which would weigh down upon the women? The pedagogical message is no doubt important and would, when the time comes to teach the mitzvos, have to be conveyed to Moshe Rabbeinu. But why now, before it is of any practical application?
It is for this reason that I suspect that even Rashi might agree that the Midrashic interpretation that he cites is not the p’shuto shel mikra, is not the simple meaning of the phrase.
I mentioned earlier that Ramban offers no interpretation for these two expressions. However I know of two other places where his remarks might shed light upon how he reads our passage. The first is close by, right here in our neighborhood. In verse 1 we have a phrase which tells us that after Klal Yisrael reached Midbar Sin, Yisrael camped over against the mountain. Ramban is troubled by the seemingly superfluous word “Yisrael”. He suggests that the wording is meant to convey that only “Yisrael”, only those who were Jewish by birth, camped immediately in front of the mountain. The erev rav, the Egyptians who had decided to throw in their lot with the Jews, were camped further back. Ramban reasons as follows: “. . . for the Torah was to be given only to the Jews, as it is written, “Thus shall you speak to Bais Yaakov and tell it to the B’nei Yisrael.”
From this wording it would appear that Ramban takes the combination Yaakov/Yisrael as the Ribono shel Olam’s way of describing the Jewish people in its narrowest sense, that is, with even proselytes excluded. The idea that Klal Yisrael might be regarded as a composite made up of “Yaakov” and “Yisrael” certainly does not derive from the fact that one of the names stands for women and the other for men. Every nation is constituted of both males and females. It must be that these two names convey the idea that the Jewish people have a unique mix of characteristics. There are some that can be traced to the “Yaakov” aspect that was lodged in the third Patriarch, and others that belong to the “Yisrael” within him.
This is borne out by the Ramban to BeMidbar 23:9. There Bil’am praises Klal Yisrael as a people that dwells alone. Ramban explains: Israel will never blend comfortably into the family of nations. They have standards which are not compatible with those of other people�they dwell alone under the names of Yaakov and Yisrael.
Clearly, in this context, Yisrael and Yaakov do not stand for men and women.
We have reached the point at which we can reiterate the question that we asked above. Why, in the present context is it appropriate to assign the two names, Yaakov and Yisrael, to the Jewish people?
This brings us to the end of our problems with verse 3.
From the point of view of its content, verse 4 is unproblematic. The message of love and caring that it conveys could not be clearer. If there is a problem it is one of “Why?” not one of “What?” Why mention this here? Why would this have any bearing upon Ma’amad Har Sinai? 9 The answer is not obvious and we must live with the fact that we will not understand verse 4 correctly until we win a better understanding of what was about to happen.
The issues with verse 5 are more complex. The verse contains three subjects: we are to listen carefully to God’s voice; we are to be true to His covenant; and this will result in our becoming God’s segulah. Each of these ideas will require our definition. What, in the first phrase, is God’s voice telling us? Which covenant does the second phrase have in mind?11 What exactly is the segulah that we are to become?
Verse 6 is very much like verse 4. There is nothing particularly difficult with any of the terms, but we will not fully grasp what is being said until we understand more precisely what the entire passage is meant to convey.
We are going to be very busy throughout this book. Come, let us stride on together. Clarity lies at the end of the search and clarity is worth pursuing. May the Ribono shel Olam guide us along our path.
*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.