Care for and Observance of Mitzvot as Natural and Supernatural

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Meshech Hochmah to Va-Yera: Care for and Observance of Mitzvot as Natural and Supernatural

Torah Needs Protection

When Gd tells Avraham he and Sarah will soon be having a son, 18;10 describes Sarah as hearing at the opening of the tent, ve-hu aharav, and he (or it) was behind him. English translations think the “it” was the tent, which was behind him, Avraham. Meshech Hochmah notes Bereshit Rabbah 48;19 suggests the “he/it” was Yishma’el, whom Avraham had sent to the tent to be sure Sarah did not have a problem with yichud, being alone with any of the angels should they enter the tent.

[He does not comment on the complications of this idea, because usually it would be yichud for Yishma’el and Sarah themselves.  A quick search turned up Yefeh To’ar to Midrash Rabbah, further analyzed by Chida in Beit David. It is not significant to Meshech Hochmah’s discussion.]

Meshech Hochmah thinks the Midrash implicitly explains why the last Mishnah in Kiddushin made the statement that idea Avraham kept the entire Torah before it was given. The Mishnah and the two prior ones had spoken about yichud, and here we see Avraham himself careful about avoiding a situation where a man and woman would be secluded together. Once on the topic, the Mishnah pointed out Avraham had kept the whole Torah, yichud a prime example.

In fact, it shows Avraham observed protective add-ons to the Torah, since yichud is not a Biblical obligation. Meshech Hochmah therefore reads the Mishnah to mean Avraham understood that care about Torah and mitzvot includes following rules not legislated by the Torah. It is why Hashem tells Yitzhak (Parshat Toledot, 26;5) the blessings he and his descendants would receive were a result of Avraham’s hearkening to Gd’s Voice (bare mitzvah observance), va-yishmor mishmarti, guarded (or kept) My charge. The phrase reminds Meshech Hochmah of u-shmartem et mishmarti, Va-Yikra 18;30, cited by Mo’ed Katan 5a, in the name of R. Ashi (or Yevamot 21a, in the name of R. Kahana) as the source of rabbis’ right to make protective ordinances for the Torah.

For Meshech Hochmah, Avraham’s adding to the Torah to protect it, is what shows his dedication to it, especially because Avraham was less tempted to violate the Torah than the rest of us, he thinks, because he had not yet been commanded to observe it. This echoes the explanation rishonim such as Tosafot and Rosh offer for the Gemara’s idea (such as in Kiddushin 31a) gadol ha-metzuveh ve-oseh mi-mi she-eino metzuveh ve-oseh, one who is commanded and fulfills a mitzvah is greater than one who did it without command. They attributed the greatness to the ability to overcome the natural resistance commands engender. Avraham (and Sarah) had not yet been commanded, and therefore did not have this resistance, yet he realized the value and importance of protective mechanisms.

Better than observance is care to observe, caring enough to take measures to ensure against failure.

Is Mamzerut Inherent?

For Jews, the Torah sets up the status of mamzer, a child of a relationship the Torah prohibited at a karet or capital level. Such a mamzer may not marry ordinary Jews, nor may any of his descendants (halachah has a whole cottage industry of ways to help mamzerim themselves marry, as well as to produce children who will not bear this stigma). Meshech Hochmah agrees with Massechet Kallah, a “minor tractate,” whose halachic status is somewhat uncertain, that there’s more to it. Kallah says mamzerim are likely to have the problem of azut panim, brazenness (other opinions there connect it to other issues, such as being the child of a couple who did not observe the laws of niddah).

[He does not point it out, but Talmudic sources link other aspects of the act of procreation to the type of child produced, so this is not out of line with what we see in more authoritative sources.]

He is aware his version suggests mamzerut happens to a child by virtue of the illicit impregnation rather than the Torah’s having set up such a status. Perhaps all of Ammon and Moav should be considered mamzerim, then, since the Torah tells us their national progenitors were the product of Lot’s daughters sleeping with him. Most problematically, Rut, the ancestress of King David, was from Moav!

Resh Lakish, Yevamot 78b, said mamzerot, female descendants of such an illicit impregnation, are permitted to marry ordinary Jews after ten generations. Fortunately, Rut’s genealogy in Scripture shows her to have been a tenth-generation descendant from Moav, allowing he to conceive a child with Boaz who would bear none of that mark.

[Unfortunately for his idea, Shulhan Aruch Even Ha-Ezer 4;1 accepts the Mishnah’s view, mamzerim are mamzerim forever, male or female. I thought this comment worth reviewing more for the possibility it entertains, that the prohibition and negative status has a real-world impact on non-Jews as well as Jews. It ties into a question a former havruta and close friend raised last week, the extent to which mitzvot show us objective realities of the world or are ways Hashem told us to act, because they are appropriate for our particular role as Gd’s representatives in the world.

Meshech Hochmah seems to think if a non-Jew was considering marrying someone born of an adulterous affair, and asked us for advice, there would be room to say the children born of such a person would likely be prone to greater character challenges than most children. I am not sure I accept the claim about this particular ase, but it comes up in many places, all tied to the same question: do mitzvot teach us about the world, or about ways Gd wanted Jews to act?]

Hagar, Avraham, and How People Interact with Angels

Hagar has two experiences of angels. In last week’s parsha, she got pregnant and looked down on Sarah, who had been exposed as the reason she and Avraham were unable to have children. Sarah disciplined her (or worse) and she fled. An angel appeared and spoke to her, telling her to return and bear Sarah’s oppression. In our parsha, 21;17, another angel appears to her, when Yishma’el is deathly ill after she was expelled from the house (for her son’s misbehavior with Yitzhak).

This time, the angel speaks to her from Heaven. Meshech Hochmah ascribes the difference to her having been expelled from Avraham’s household. When she had fled, and was about to be sent back, she was still a member of a household for whom seeing angels was an ordinary event (he assumes, I think partially because of the ease in Avraham and Sarah’s interactions with angels at the beginning of Va-Yera). No longer a member of the household now, the angel spoke to her from Heaven, as it were, meaning she heard a voice without any form.

[I first notice he is saying Avraham’s ability to deal with angels easily would have carried over to her while she was in his household. It sees the human ability/inability to engage with angels as less a matter of personal merit or status than I would have thought.

In a rough human parallel, we see the logic in a servant in an august household having regular and comfortable interactions with celebrities, a standing that disappears with the loss of one’s job. With angels, I wouldn’t have thought the parallel relevant, because the challenge is the spiritual ability to interact with them. Perhaps Meshech Hochmah thought angels can choose how much of themselves to reveal to any human, regardless of that person’s merit. If so, it’s very different than how I am used to thinking of such encounters.]

His assumption about Avraham’s ease with supernatural beings means he must question why the angel who stops him from slaughtering Yitzchak at the Akedah speaks to him from heaven rather than directly. He says the act of the Akedah, where Avraham was willing to sacrifice his son for Gd’s sake, brought a revelation of the Divine Presence similar to the one the High Priest would have in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur [this act of Avraham’s earns a certain revelation; is it that Avraham elevated himself, or Gd was sort of rewarding him? I think Meshech Chochmah might mean the latter, otherwise Avraham should forever after have had those kinds of revelations].

The Torah says no other man shall be in the Tent of Meeting during the Yom Kippur service (Va-Yikra 16;17), and Yerushalmi Yoma 1;5 extends that to angels. Avraham’s angel, too, could not be down with him on the mountain, had to speak to him from above.

Hagar could no longer speak directly with an angel because she had lost her membership card in Avraham’s house; the angel of the Akedah could not speak directly with Avraham because Avraham had put himself in a spot of close contact with Gd, where the angel could not enter.

I am not sure our three comments hang together in one theme. They do argue mitzvot need protection, inherently, even when being observed by someone not yet tempted to disobey; that at least some mitzvot have an impact on the world, such as mamzerut, the flaw created by conceiving a child through an unacceptable relationship; and that people can find ways to interact with angels, perhaps by their associations, their actions of dedication, or their overall spiritual level.

We might ladder from one to the other, the care Avraham showed for mitzvot helped him avoid any of the consequences of transgression, put him in a place where the metaphysical world was almost as much part of his life as the physical.

About Gidon Rothstein

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