Ways We Shape Our Experience of God’s World

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Evil Inclination Needs an Opening

Yalkut Shimoni 261, on Parshat Be-Shalah, compares Amalek to a fly, a comparison Kli Yakar notes Hazal also applied to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, in Berakhot 61a. The fly is too weak to make an incision, but takes advantage of open sores or wounds, expands the opening, colonizes the area, and infects the body (still true of many bacteria today). By analogy, the evil inclination cannot seduce fully righteous people, because there is no opening.

Ha-ba litamei, one who seeks or is open to becoming impure, has allowed the inclination in, making it much harder to battle it. [The phrase ha-ba litamei comes from Shabbat 104a, where the Gemara says pothin lo, Heaven opens the door for the sinner to find the way, should s/he stick to the unfortunate path. For Kli Yakar, the idea of the opening is crucial.

The Gemara contrasts it to ba li-taher, one who seeks to become pure/righteous, where the divine reaction is mesaye’in oto, Heaven helps him/her.]

As Does Amalek

Kli Yakar understands the Midrash to be saying the fly analogy applies to Amalek, too, that as long as the Jewish people are whole with God, and have peace among themselves, Amalek will have no power or ability to bother them. [He does not explain his addition of the need for peace within the people; this is an idea of his we have seen before, when he assumed one of the characteristics the Jews retained to deserve salvation was their not tale-bearing about each other. It suggests he thought the Jews of his time were insufficiently careful about maintaining peace with each other.]

The Jews’ travels through the desert to this point have been to places such as Masah and Merivah, so called because the people were at odds with each other, and Rashi to Shemot 19;2 had added that they tested God as well. [Almost an afterthought, it seems. For Kli Yakar, internecine fighting was almost worse than a troubled relationship with God.]

Amalek Then Pushes It Further

Given the opening, Amalek found ways to add to their impurity, introducing sexual immorality, a way to have God absent Himself entirely, God forbid, because we know—such as from the Bil’am story later in the Torah—God only resides among the Jewish people when they are careful about sexual morality. Without God’s protection, they would lose to Amalek in a war, because they also would not be able to band together to help each other, fighting amongst themselves as they were.

I cheated in that previous summary, because I left out the kind of sexual immorality Kli Yakar assumed Amalek brought. That it was sexual immorality at all he attributes to Moshe Rabbenu’s description in Devarim 25;18, asher karekha ba-derekh, translated by some of the translations I found on Sefaria [Koren, Metsudah, Everett Fox] as “met,” “chanced upon,” “encountered.” I believe Kli Yakar was playing on keri, the word for a male seminal emission, what he took to hint that there was some element here of what the Midianite women did to the Jews later.

Except here he says it was homosexuality, for reasons I do not think he made fully clear; the best I can come up with is that he took karekha to mean it was an act of pure keri, with no procreative possibilities, but that is a guess.

[Since I believe he often addressed his audience with the text almost a pretext, I wonder whether it was an issue in his time. Whether it was or wasn’t, I think it always important to notice when sources from long ago introduce homosexuality where unnecessary, because it reminds us there is nothing new or novel in today’s struggles with it. How we react to the challenge of people’s struggles with their sexual inclinations has to be answered in context-specific ways, but I fear we sometimes allow ourselves to think it is new and different, that none of the information from the past is relevant. An error, according to Kli Yakar the kind of error Amalek exploited to weaken us.]

Personalized Shiurim

The topic of shi’urim, how we calculate halakhic distance, weight, volume, and more, comes up often in our Jewish practice (prominently for most of us at the Seder, when we try to figure out how much wine and matzah to drink and eat to fulfill the mitzvot of the night). Shemot 16;16 gave Hatam Sofer a chance to advance a theory he likely would not have taken farther than he did, but that I find tantalizing.

The verse says the Jews gathered manna “ish le-fi ochlo, [loosely:] each person according to what s/he eats,” then also says it was an omer per person. If an omer was enough for a large person, Hatam Sofer points out, it was much more than needed for a smaller person. He suggests the solution lies in personalizing the omer. In other measures, the possibility of it being personal is clear: a tefah is four finger-widths, an amah six of those, and so on.

Pesahim 109b links length to volume in a mikvah, whose minimum size is either a space of three amot by one amah by one amah, or forty se’ah. Since an omer is .3 se’ah, you can do the math, but an omer can be figured out by lengths, and those lengths can be personal (in many areas of halakha, we adopt an average or general size; I think most who read this verse assume that was true of the manna that fell, the creative change Hatam Sofer is making).

As a person’s body grew, his/her finger, tefah, and amah all grew, meaning that person’s omer did as welland more manna fell. Each day, when they measured the manna they gathered, and it was an omerHatam Sofer thinks it was that person’s omer. To spot the lesson, people would have had to be aware of their growth, and take heed of the diet Hashem was teaching them, this amount for this size of person.

[I like the idea for its creativity and also because it brings up what we often sweep under the table, that not all legal elements of Judaism are defined by objective measures, that some of them are meant to be personal, and we have to be alert for those as well.]

The Limits of Praising God

A climactic and famous verse from the Song of the Sea, 15;11, calls Hashem nora tehillot oseh pele, feared, fearful, or awesome in praise, Who performs wonders. Ha’amek Davar identifies the awe/fear in our approach to praising God for pele, wonders we do not understand. In his view, we are not allowed to speak to God as One Who performs whatever if we do not understand that whatever.

For him, it explains Yoma 69b’s claim that Yirmiyah and Daniel adjusted their prayers, leaving out ha-gadol, the Great, ve-ha-nora, the Awesome. The way the Gemara presents it, the history of their times, non-Jews dancing on the place of the Temple and ruling over the Jewish people, made it impossible for them to use those appellations for God, until the Anshe Kenesset Ha-Gedolah found an explanation.

Netziv is saying that Yirmiyah and Daniel did not doubt that God still was those things, they just didn’t themselves understand it, and without such comprehension, it was prohibited to them to praise God in those ways.

Nora tehillot, awesome in praise, indeed, in that (according to Netziv) we must know what we mean when we address God with words of praise, even if Moshe Rabbenu taught us those praises. They must also be our own before we are allowed to say them.

How we shape our world, for Kli Yakar in making ourselves vulnerable to attacks from the more negative sides of existence, for Hatam Sofer in how much manna fell for each of us daily, and for Ha’amek Davar in what we may or may not say to praise God as we address our Creator.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter