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 []

Ants, Engineering, and Epistemology

Scientific American reports:

Tiny Robots Mimic Termites’ Ability to Build without a Leader

Using sensors coupled with a simple set of rules, the robots worked independently to build structures

Termites can create mounds that are hundreds of times their own size, working independently without communication or a leader. Inspired by the creatures, scientists have created robots that use just a few simple rules and environmental cues to build castle-like structures and pyramids.

The robots all work independently. Each travels along a grid and can move, climb a step and lift and put down bricks. And they use sensors to detect other robots and existing bricks, and react to these stimuli according to a simple set of rules, such as when to lay a brick or climb a step higher. The template for each three-dimensional structure is translated into a specific set of ‘traffic rules’ and combined with fixed laws of robot behavior, says co-author Justin Werfel, a computer scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His team’s results appear today in Science.

The idea of combining traffic rules and robot behavior is “brilliant from an engineering perspective”, says Alcherio Martinoli, a roboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It just decouples a complex reverse-engineering problem into two pieces of information which have to work together,” says Martinoli, who was not involved in the work.

The remarkable ability of ants1 to work industriously without a leader was already noted by King Solomon:

לֵֽךְ־אֶל־נְמָלָ֥ה עָצֵ֑ל רְאֵ֖ה דְרָכֶ֣יהָ וַחֲכָֽם׃ אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֵֽין־לָ֥הּ קָצִ֗ין שֹׁטֵ֥ר וּמֹשֵֽׁל׃ תָּכִ֣ין בַּקַּ֣יִץ לַחְמָ֑הּ אָגְרָ֥ה בַ֝קָּצִ֗יר מַאֲכָלָֽהּ׃2

The Talmud records that R. Shimon b. Halafta, who apparently had a scientific mind and took nothing for granted, performed an experiment to determine whether ants really have no king, on account of which he was given the (possibly pejorative) appellation עסקן בדברים, “since he did not wish to rely upon the authority of Solomon” (Rashi):

הוה אמרו עליו על רבי שמעון בן חלפתא שעסקן בדברים היה … מאי עסקן בדברים [רש”י: למה נקרא שמו עסקן תחלה] א”ר משרשיא דכתיב לך אל נמלה עצל ראה דרכיה וחכם אשר אין לה קצין שוטר ומושל תכין בקיץ לחמה אמר איזיל איחזי אי ודאי הוא דלית להו מלכא [דכתיב אשר אין לה קצין והיינו עסקן דלא בעי למיסמך אהימנותיה דשלמה] [הנמלים אוהבים צל ושונאים חום] אזל בתקופת תמוז פרסיה לגלימיה אקינא דשומשמני [נמלים] נפק אתא חד מינייהו [מתוך חורי הקן ובא לחוץ וראה הצל] אתנח ביה סימנא [להכירו לידע מה יעשו לו חבריו כשימצא שקרן] על אמר להו נפל טולא נפקו ואתו דלייה לגלימיה נפל שמשא נפלו עליה וקטליה אמר שמע מינה לית להו מלכא דאי אית להו הרמנא דמלכא לא ליבעו3

The Talmud, however, proceeds to deny the conclusiveness of this experiment, concluding that we have no choice but to rely upon the authority of Solomon, “whose statement was inspired by רוח הקודש” (Rashi):

א”ל רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי ודלמא מלכא הוה בהדייהו א”נ הרמנא דמלכא הוו נקיטי [שכל המהתל בחברו יהרגוהו] אי נמי בין מלכא למלכא הוה [מת המלך ועדיין לא קם אחר ודרך ארץ לעשות איש הישר בעיניו כדכתיב בימים ההם וגו’ איש הישר בעיניו יעשה] דכתיב בימים ההם אין מלך בישראל איש הישר בעיניו יעשה אלא סמוך אהימנותא דשלמה [נאמן הוא על כך וברוח הקדש אמרה]

The commentators note that the idea that it is legitimate to submit claims of the Sages to independent empirical verification apparently contradicts a different Talmudic account:

כי הא דיתיב רבי יוחנן וקא דריש עתיד הקב”ה להביא אבנים טובות ומרגליות שהם שלשים על שלשים וחוקק בהן עשר על עשרים ומעמידן בשערי ירושלים לגלג עליו אותו תלמיד השתא כביעתא דציצלא לא משכחינן כולי האי משכחינן לימים הפליגה ספינתו בים חזא מלאכי השרת דיתבי וקא מינסרי אבנים טובות ומרגליות שהם ל’ על ל’ וחקוק בהן עשר ברום עשרים אמר להו הני למאן אמרו ליה שעתיד הקב”ה להעמידן בשערי ירושלים אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן אמר ליה דרוש רבי לך נאה לדרוש כאשר אמרת כן ראיתי אמר לו ריקא אלמלא (לא) ראית לא האמנת מלגלג על דברי חכמים אתה נתן עיניו בו ונעשה גל של עצמות4

The Tosafos explain that R. Shimon was not challenging King Solomon’s assertion, but merely attempting to ascertain the source of his knowledge:

אע”ג דכה”ג חשיב בהמוכר הספינה (ב”ב עה.) מלגלג גבי ההוא תלמיד דאמר ליה רבי יוחנן אם לא ראית לא האמנת מלגלג על דברי חכמים אתה שאני הכא שבא לברר הדבר ולהודיע איך ידע שלמה:5

Maharsha considers this דחוק, since Solomon certainly derived his knowledge from רוח הקודש. He explains instead that there is an epistemological imperative to independently derive even those truths that are established by tradition:

כתבו התוספות … והוא דחוק דשלמה ודאי ברוח הקודש ידע ואמרה אבל הנראה דאין זה מלגלג כמו שכתב בעל חובות הלבבות בדברים התלוים באמונה אף שידע אותם בקבלה צריך כל אדם לחקור אותם במופת והוא שקראו עסקן בדברים בעלמא כגון זו עסק וראה ר”ש בן חלפתא לחקור אחריהם לידע אותם במופת וק”ל:6

Others explain that R. Shimon was simply fulfilling King Solomon’s instructions to “go to the ant [and] see …” – and so he said “I will go and I will see …!”

שמעתי מהרר”י סג”ל ז”ל דשלמה אמר לך אל כו’ ראה כו’ אמר איזיל אחזי כו’ וק”ל:7

Rav Yosef Ḥayyim of Baghdad explains that while one is indeed generally required to accept assertions of King Solomon as fact, משלי (where our discussion of the ant is found) is an exceptional case, since the work, as per its self-description, comprises parables, which may have been composed with poetic license and not be true in a literal sense:

הנה בודאי יש לו לסמוך על דברי שלמה המלך ע”ה ורק מפני שפסוק זה נאמר במשלי שהוא דברי משל וככתוב בתחלת הספר משלי שלמה בן דוד, לכן נסתפק אם הוא כן בודאי שאין להם מלך, או דלמא נקיט כן בדברי משל וצחות לשון ואין הדברים כפשוטן, לכך אמר איזיל אחזי אי ודאי הוא דלית להו מלכא:8

  1. Termites are not actually ants, but there are many similarities between them. []
  2. משלי ו:ו-ח. ועיין פה []
  3. חולין נז:‏ []
  4. בבא בתרא עה.‏ []
  5. תוספות חולין שם ד”ה איזיל ואחזי היכי איתא מילתא []
  6. מהרש”א חולין שם חידושי אגדות ד”ה מאי עסקן בדברים []
  7. מהר”ם שי”ף חולין בתוספות שם []
  8. בן יהוידע חולין שם ד”ה אמר איזיל אחזי []

The Songs of the Prophetesses and Risky Circumcisions

I currently deliver a weekly lecture (usually two versions thereof) on topics related to the coming week’s Torah reading, and write a short weekly column on halachic topics related to the same (the latter is usually a condensed, written version of the former). I intend to begin posting these regularly here.

For פסח, my weekly lecture was titled “The Songs of the Prophetesses”; it is an expanded version of this post.

My weekly column:

In the haftarah of the first day of Passover, we are told that “all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt” had not been circumcised (Yehoshua 5:5). The Talmud (Yevamos 72a-b) justifies this apparent dereliction by explaining that due to the particular circumstances of the sojourn in the desert, circumcision would have been dangerous. The Ramban in his commentary to this Talmudic passage takes for granted that the general rule that a father’s failure to circumcise his son disqualifies the father from participating in the Paschal offering (korban Pesach) applied to this situation of the Jews in the wilderness, and he therefore assumes that the derelict fathers of that period did not offer the korban Pesach.

The Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah #323) finds this baffling, since the nonperformance of circumcision due to danger is not generally disqualifying. He resolves this by the proposal that a mere “suspicion” (chashash) of danger is insufficient grounds for neglecting the performance of the commandment of circumcision. After all, circumcision always entails some level of risk, and the Torah nevertheless demands it! He therefore concludes that the Jews in the desert had actually acted improperly by not circumcising their sons, and he notes that we are in fact told that the tribe of Levi did practice circumcision in the desert.

The Beis Yitzhak (Yoreh De’ah 2:90), on the other hand, assumes that the Jews were within their rights to refrain from circumcision due to the danger, but that the members of the tribe of Levi were also within theirs to volunteer to brave the danger and circumcise their children. He infers from this that the mitzvah of circumcision legitimizes the voluntary risking of not only one’s own life, but even that of one’s child (but cf. Avnei Nezer ibid. and #326).

Several years ago, I recorded a lecture on the general topic of the performance of circumcision in dangerous circumstances (previously posted here).