Reading Aurora Leigh In Mishpacha

And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And,–glancing on my own thin, veined wrist,–
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with G-d:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude. — Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Seventh Book

R. Dovid Bashevkin writes:

[Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan] begins one essay with a poem that I remember to this day by Elizabeth Barret[t] Browning, a 19th-century poet: “Earth is crammed with heaven / And every common bush is afire with G-d / But only he who sees takes off his shoes.” At the time, I found it intriguing to find a poem within his writing. But to this day, it may be the one piece of his writing, though not his own words, that I can cite verbatim. I think in many ways the poem captures who Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was and what he intended to demonstrate. There is holiness to be found wherever you look. But in order to access lasting spirituality, you need to connect with people and their experiences. You must take off your shoes and feel the common ground upon which people walk. Rabbi Kaplan’s words set fire to many bushes. And his lasting inspiration continues to remind me to remove my shoes.1

ברוך שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה, that the leading general audience English language Haredi magazine is discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning! But I think that R. Bashevkin, at least (I don’t know what R. Kaplan actually wrote), misunderstands the poem, and has the relationship between seeing G-d and removing one’s shoes backward: it is clear from both the poem’s wording as well as the underlying Biblical narrative that removal of the shoes is not a prerequisite of seeing G-d, but a consequence of seeing Him!

[I have discussed the episode of the burning bush in several lectures, available at the Internet Archive: I have surveyed the halachic perspectives on the removal of shoes in the synagogue in lectures available here and here, and I have cited Ralbag’s interpretation of Moses’s interest in the bush as typifying his scientific curiosity, “which enabled him to reach the wonderful level that he reached” in a pair of lectures available here.]

Regarding Barrett Browning, הואיל והזכרנו אותה, נספר בשבחה: as I have long noted, Sonnet XIV of her Sonnets from the Portuguese is an absolutely perfect rendering of a famous Mishnah in Avos into verse:

כל אהבה שהיא תלויה בדבר–בטל דבר, בטלה אהבה; ושאינה תלויה בדבר, אינה בטילה לעולם. איזו היא אהבה שהיא תלויה בדבר, זו אהבת אמנון ותמר; ושאינה תלויה בדבר, זו אהבת דויד ויהונתן.2

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
“I love her for her smile–her look–her way
Of speaking gently,–for a trick of thought

That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”–
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,–and love, so wrought,

May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,–
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

It should be noted that this wonderful, thoroughly Victorian (in the best possible sense) poem was written by a woman to the man she eventually married and with whom she literally lived happily ever after, until the day of her death.

  1. R. Dovid Bashevkin, Mishpacha Issue 744 (10 Shevat 5779 / January 16, 2019, p. 44. []
  2. אבות ה:טו []

Moshe Rabbeinu: A Life

R. Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:

One of the meforshim of the Hagadah comments on מתחילה עובדי ע”ז היו אבותינו, תרח Was Terach one of the avos? Well, yes! From Terach, Avraham learned that there was a higher power, even if Terach got it completely wrong.

R. Adlerstein unfortunately does not name the commentator in question, but the idea presented is strikingly similar to a remarkably provocative one of Ralbag that has long fascinated me: G-d engineered the raising of Moses in Pharaoh’s household since that was the intellectual center of Egypt, and this eventually led to his acquisition of natural philosophy and [consequently] the achievement of prophecy, “for the doctrines of the Egyptian scholars, even though they were erroneous, inspired him to find the truth”:

התועלת השני הוא בדעות, והוא להודיע עוצם השגחת השם יתעלה במושגחים ממנו, שהוא סיבב שתמצאהו בת פרעה ותחמול עליו להצילו, והיה זה סיבה אל שגדל בבית פרעה והתחכם שם עם חכמי מצרים, והיה זה כלי לו אל שהשיג חכמת הנמצאות והיה נביא; וזה כי דעות חכמי מצרים, ואם היו משובשות, הנה העירוהו למצוא האמת.1

In the same vein, Ralbag explains Moses’s curiosity about the anomaly of the burning bush (which he apparently understands to have occurred within a prophetic vision)2 as illustrative of his customary scientific curiosity – “he would yearn to know the causes of things to the extent possible” – which was the key to his achievement of his wondrous spiritual level:

התועלת הששי הוא בדעות, והוא שראוי לאדם לחקור בסיבות הדברים הנמצאים לפי מה שאפשר לו, ולא יקצר מזה. כי בזה האופן יעמוד על חכמת השם יתעלה בשומו הנמצאות על האופן שהם עליו, לפי מה שאפשר לו מזה, ויהיה זה סיבה אל שישיג השם יתעלה לפי מה שאפשר; כי אנחנו נשיג מה שנשיג מהשם יתעלה – בהשגתנו מה שנשיג מנימוס אלו הנמצאות המסובבות ממנו יתעלה, וסדרם וישרם, כמו שביארנו במאמר הראשון מספר מלחמות השם ובחלק השלישי מהמאמר החמישי ממנו. הלא תראה כי משה רבינו ע”ה, תכף שראה זה הענין הזר – והוא היות הסנה בוער באש והסנה איננו אוכל – התעורר לסור ולראות, כדי שיעמוד על סיבת זה הענין. וזה ממה שיורה שכן היה מנהגו, רוצה לומר שכבר היה משתוקק לדעת סיבות הדברים לפי מה שאפשר, ולזה הגיע אל זאת המדרגה הנפלאה אשר הגיע אליה.3

I discuss these sources, among others, several years ago in my lectures for parashas Shemos, available, along with accompanying handout, at the Internet Archive.

  1. רלב”ג על התורה, פרשת שמות (וילך איש מבית לוי) תועלת ב’ []
  2. (אמר שבזה העת הרב) שם באור דברי הפרשה []
  3. שם תועלת ו’ []

Smuggling, Swearing, and Kissing

A famous midrash:

וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו וְאֶת אַחַד עָשָׂר יְלָדָיו וַיַּעֲבֹר אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק. ודינה היכן היא? נתנה בתיבה ונעל בפניה. אמר: הרשע הזה עינו רמה היא, שלא יתלה עיניו ויראה אותה ויקח אותה ממני. ר’ הונא בשם ר’ אבא הכהן ברדלא אמר: אמר לו הקב”ה: לַמָּס מֵרֵעֵהוּ חָסֶד [וְיִרְאַת שַׁדַּ-י יַעֲזוֹב], מנעת מרעך חסד, מנעת חסדך מן אחוך, דאלו איתנסיבת לגברא לא זינתה. בתמיה. לא בקשת להשיאה למהול, הרי היא נשאת לערל. לא בקשת להשיאה דרך היתר, הרי נשאת דרך איסור, הה”ד: ותצא דינה בת לאה.1

At least as far back as the medieval period, commentators have been puzzled by this criticism of Jacob for withholding Dinah from Esau: do we really expect a man to give his young daughter to a villain in the hope of reforming him?!

ואם תאמר וכי מי שיש לו אח משומד וכי ישיא לו את בתו שהיא בת ו’ שנים כאשר היתה דינה, והלא משנולד יוסף עבד בצאן, ודינה נולדה עם יוסף בפרק אחד, כמו שעשה הפייט סילוף דינה ביוסף להנחות, ושמא יש לומר שקבל עליו תשובה על מנת שלא יזלזל כו’ כמו שנאמר (לקמן לג:יב) נסעה ונלכה ואלכה לנגדך בשוה ביהדות.2

Rav Ovadiah of Bertinoro gives a stunning answer to this question: whatever the objectively correct course of action may have been, Jacob acted out of malice. He did not want his brother to reform, since that would have granted Esau mastery over him:

קשה אדרבא היה ראוי שתחשב לו לצדקה שמנעה מיד הרשע. יש לומר שיעקב לרעה נתכוון שלא היה רוצה שאחיו יהיה צדיק כדי שלא יתקיים בו ברכת הוה גביר לאחיך ולפיכך נענש:3

The sheer cold-bloodedness of this is reminiscent of the thought of another Italian writer, almost exactly contemporary to the Ra’av – Niccolò Machiavelli:

I say that many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind, being more prone to evil than to good, his successor might employ for evil purposes the power which he had used only for good ends. Besides, although one man alone should organize a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organization of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it. That Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother and that of his associate, and that what he had done was for the general good, and not for the gratification of his own ambition, is proved by the fact that he immediately instituted a Senate with which to consult, and according to the opinions of which he might form his resolutions. And on carefully considering the authority which Romulus reserved for himself, we see that all he kept was the command of the army in case of war, and the power of convoking the Senate. This was seen when Rome became free, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, when there was no other innovation made upon the existing order of things than the substitution of two Consuls, appointed annually, in place of an hereditary king; which proves clearly that all the original institutions of that city were more in conformity with the requirements of a free and civil society than with an absolute and tyrannical government.

The above views might be corroborated by any number of examples, such as those of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, and other founders of monarchies and republics, who were enabled to establish laws suitable for the general good only by keeping for themselves an exclusive authority; but all these are so well known that I will not further refer to them.4

I discuss the above (Jewish) sources, as well as several cases in the halachic literature involving the smuggling of people and goods, in my lectures and halachah column for this past parashas Lech-Lecha. The lectures, along with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive. Here’s the column:

In parashas Lech-Lecha, when Abram is about to enter Egypt, he requests of his wife Sarai that she say that she is his sister (12:13). According to the midrash, this was merely Abram’s fallback plan; he actually attempted to smuggle Sarai into Egypt by hiding her inside a box, but was forced by customs inspectors to open the box (Bereishis Rabbah 40:5).

A famous account of an attempt to smuggle women past border officials by dissembling about their relationships to the smugglers appears in the seventeenth century work Shut. Chavos Yair (#182). Two men were traveling from Frankfurt to Worms, and two women, one married with her husband in Worms, and the other her single daughter, wished to make the same journey. The women lacked the requisite travel documents, without which they would be subject to a fine at the checkpoint in Oppenheim, so they asked the men to declare them as their wife and daughter respectively, since the mens’ documents allowed them to travel freely with their wives and family members. At the checkpoint, the customs official refused to believe the mens’ declarations, and insisted that they swear to their veracity, or else prove their kinship by kissing the women. The men replied that they could not kiss the women, since they were currently niddah, a fact that the women confirmed. After some further negotiation, the men eventually settled with the customs agent for a minimal sum, but one of them subsequently reported the episode to the author of Chavos Yair, who penned an analysis of the relevant halachic issues.

He concludes that since the men had been attempting to deceive the official, who was appropriately carrying out his duty by investigating their claims, it was prohibited for them to kiss the women or even to swear that the women were niddah based upon their representations, even if they were afraid that by failing to do so they would suffer financial harm, and it was certainly prohibited for them to falsely swear to their kinship, even to avoid a great loss.

  1. בראשית רבה עו:ט []
  2. מושב זקנים בראשית לב:כג []
  3. עמר נקא שם []
  4. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, First Book, Chapter IX. []