Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chukas, Bamidbar 21:8. The Mishna in Rosh HaShanna about the Brass Serpent

Mishna Rosh Hashanna 29a

 עשה לך שרף ושים אותו על נס והיה כל הנשוך וראה אותו וחי וכי נחש ממית או נחש מחיה אלא בזמן שישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתרפאין ואם לאו היו נימוקים

In  order to stop the plague of deadly snakes (Bamidbar 21:8,) Hashem told Moshe to place  a brass serpent on top of a pole in the encampment.  The Mishna in Rosh Hashanna asks, rhetorically, "Does a brass serpent cause death?  Does a brass serpent give life?  Rather, if the Jews looked upwards and devoted themselves to their Father in heaven, they were healed, and if not, they would decline."

The Mishna expresses the same thought in connection with Moshe Rabbeinu's hands in the battle against Amalek (שמות יז).  Hashem had told Moshe to stand with uplifted hands over the battlefield and the Jews would be victorious.  The Mishna asks, "Do the hands of Moshe make or break a battle?  Rather, when the Jews looked up and remembered their Father in heaven, the battle turned in their favor.  If they hadn't, they would have fallen."

  והיה כאשר ירים משה ידו וגבר ישראל וגו' וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או שוברות מלחמה אלא לומר לך כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתגברים ואם לאו היו נופלים

When I taught this Mishna to my shiur, someone expressed surprise, and said, "So it wasn't a miracle."  I responded that he was incorrect.  The fact that it wasn't the hands, or the serpent, made it a greater miracle.  If it were the hands of Moshe or the brass serpent, it would just be a mighty magical object.  But instead, it was the inspiration to do teshuva that saved the Jews- remembering that our life and death is in Hashem's hands, and that we need to do teshuva for our failings- that inspiration brought victory and healing.  Why is that less of a miracle?  That's a greater miracle.  A mental decision alone, a dedication to Hashem, a decision to do Teshuva, turned the world upside down, it changed the teva.  It's interesting, though, that a ma'amin sees the effect of tefilla and teshuva to be teva, but a magical serpent to be lema'ala miderech hateva!

But it's important to realize that his remark was incorrect for another reason as well.  Despite the fact that the Mishna uses a rhetorical question, "Was it the hands of Moshe?  Was it the brass serpent?" to elicit a negative answer and emphasize the essential role of bitachon and teshuva, the fact remains that yes, it was Moshe's hands, and yes, it was the brass serpent.  If these things only served to inspire emuna and teshuva, some other method would have sufficed.   Hashem davka wanted Moshe with uplifted hands on the rock over the battlefield, and davka the brass serpent, and these specific elements were essential in bringing about the victory and the healing.  So don't let a superficial reading of the Mishna mislead you.  The yeshuos were brought about by the combination- uplifted hands+bitachon, serpent+teshuva.  Both elements are necessary, neither alone would be sufficient.  They hands and the serpent were symbols, but they were not only symbols.


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Our Mishna is not discussing Mitzvos in general, and it is not directly related to the discussion in the Rishonim about Taamei Hamitzvos as opposed to doing mitzvos without thinking of their rationale.  Our Mishna is only talking about the cases where the Ribono shel Olam told us to do something specific in order to yield a specific and immediate result.

In another case in the Torah that fits into this category, the lesson of the Mishna is evident as well- in Kri'as Yam Suf.
Let's write our own Mishna.
ואתה הרם את מטך ונטה את ידך על הים ובקעהו.  וכי מטה של משה מציל או אינו מציל?  אלא עכשיו שקפץ נחשון ואמר הושיעני אלהים כי באו מים עד נפש הם ניצולים, ואם לאו היו אובדים.  הוי דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו- ואתה הרם את מטך ונטה את ידך על הים ובקעהו

There is no such Mishna.  I just Friedlaendered the Gemara in Sotah 37a into an addendum to the Mishna in Rosh Hashanna.  But it is clearly true.

Sotah 37a:
זה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים וזה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים קפץ נחשון בן עמינדב וירד לים תחילה שנאמר סבבוני בכחש אפרים ובמרמה בית ישראל ויהודה עוד רד עם אל ועליו מפרש בקבלה הושיעני אלהים כי באו מים עד נפש טבעתי ביון מצולה ואין מעמד וגו' אל תשטפני שבולת מים ואל תבלעני מצולה וגו' באותה שעה היה משה מאריך בתפלה אמר לו הקב"ה ידידיי טובעים בים ואתה מאריך בתפלה לפני אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם ומה בידי לעשות אמר לו דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו ואתה הרם את מטך ונטה את ידך וגו'

First the Ribono shel Olam wanted to see Klal Yisrael jump into the sea with perfect faith- דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו.  Only then was Moshe told to raise up his staff and split the sea- ואתה הרם את מטך .  It wasn't Moshe's staff alone, and it wasn't Nachshon's self-sacrificial faith alone.  It was the staff plus the faith of Klal Yisrael.

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We've established that the theme our Mishna applies to Moshe's hands in the battle against Amaleik and the brass serpent applies equally to Moshe's matteh at the Yam Suf.   But there are cases when an object itself brought about a miraculous effect, without any "Ella shekol zman...."  Moshe's matteh brought about the makkos in Mitzrayim.  There, if the Mishna would ask "Do you think that the matteh of Moshe brings frogs or ends frogs?" the answer would be, "Yes, it did."  Similarly, Moshe's staff brought water from stones in Massa and Meriva, he used a piece of wood to sweeten the water in Mara, Eliyahu's cloak split the Yarden once for him (Melachim II:2:8) and once for Elisha (there passuk 14,) and Elisha's staff could have revived the בן השונמית had Geichazi not spoiled it (Melachim II:4:39.)  So why does the Mishna pose the question as if it were rhetorical with the answer being "No, of course not," when in some cases the answer seems to be "Yes, it was the object that caused the miracle"?


I think we're forced to say that although our Mishna illustrated the rule with these two clear examples, it is a rule of general application.  If that's the case, we have to say that the objects used for the makkos, for sweetening the water, for bringing water from stone, for splitting the Yarden, for reviving the בן השונמית, and for making the iron axe float (II R 6:6,) all were secondary, and in every one of those cases the primary ingredient was the emuna and bitachon of the person doing the neis (which explains why Geichazi's attempt failed.)

Assuming that the rule of our Mishna is general, I don't know why our Mishna had to use two examples, and why these examples were chosen.  It's a  "תנא ושייר" but I wonder what the צריכותא of davka these two cases is.


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In review, I think these he'aros in the Mishna need to be highlighted, because they are easy to miss.

1.  The Mishna is not detracting from the gadlus of the nissim of the war on Amaleik and the Nechash Hanechoshes.  By showing that the key of miracles was teshuva and emuna the Mishna multiplies the gadlus and significance of the nissim.

2.  While the teshuva and emuna (the  כוונה) were essential, the hands of Moshe and the Nechash Hanechoshes (the פעולה) were also necessary.  Neither the פעולה nor the  כוונה alone would have been sufficient.

3.  The Chiddush of the Mishna is evident in the story of Krias Yam Suf as well.

4.  I think that it's clear from the Mishna that the rule is global; in every case in Tanach where an object was used to bring about a neis, the object was only part of the formula.  The other part is always emunah or teshuva.



Although I made the point that our Mishna is not discussing mitzvos in general, and is only talking about a tzivui to take an object and use it to cause a specific immediate result למעלה מדרך הטבע, I think perhaps that our Mishna is a remez to the hashkafa question much discussed among the Rishonim- the significance of contemplating Ta'amei HaMitzvos, the symbolic meaning and the rationale of mitzvos, in contradistinction to viewing mitzvos as inherently significant exclusively because they are the tzivui of Hashem, and doing them without analysis because whatever their rationale may be, it is unknowable to anyone but the Ribono shel Olam.  Taamei hamitzvos only cover the rationale or the symbolic aspect, but they don't address the inherent significance of the ma'aseh mitzva as a tzivui of Hashem.  There is a great deal of discussion about the weight we should assign each aspect (Rambam in the Moreh ג:כ"ו leaning toward rationales, while in the Yad in 3 Teshuva 4 he leans toward doing it because it is a tzivui; Reb Yehuda HaLevi כוזרי ח"א עט and the Tur in the beginning of YD 181, who advocate emuna peshuta in kiyum ma'aseh hamitzva because it is a tzivui, and Chinuch מצוה טז).

If this is the case, we must point out the irony of this Mishna telling us the pshat in the Nechash HaNechoshes when Parshas Chukas begins with the lesson of Para Aduma, which teaches us that Hashem's mitzvos are gezeiros; as Rashi says, גזרה היא מלפני ואין לך רשות להרהר אחריה.  All the achronim ask, why was Para Aduma given in Mara, what is so fundamental about it.  They all answer that the Mitzva of Para Aduma was intended to teach Klal Yisrael that every mitzva should be viewed as a chok.  The first Maharal on the parsha asks, why is this lesson taught at this late date in the Torah?  It applies to every single mitzva, they are all Gzeiros, as we see in Brachos 33b, that if one davens and asks for mercy just as Hashem showed mercy by Shiluach Hakan, we silence him, because he's matil kin'a in maasei Breishis, or it makes middos of the Ribono shel Olam Rachamim when in fact they are only Gzeiros.  The Maharal answers that of course Mitzvos have a taam, but the taam is not the Rachamim of the Ribono shel Olam.  True, the Rambam holds like the first answer, kin'ah, because he holds we don't pasken like the second teretz to look at Mitzvos as if they're Gzeiros, but it's still ironic that davka in Chukas Chazal read a rationale into a mitzva.

Again, the fact is that Chazal in our Mishna are focusing on these actions because they weren't stam mitzvos, they were actions Hashem commanded explicitly in order to generate a specific effect.  Only here do Chazal say that it's not mistavra that it was the act alone that brought the effect, because if it were, then Hashem would just do it Himself.  There must have been some result within Klal Yisrael that was necessary for the result to occur.  What the Ribono shel Olam was looking for was a strengthening of emuna and teshuva.  So it's not exactly the same as the general discussion of Taamei HaMitzvos.  But I still say that it is very similar to the discussion of Taamei HaMitzvos.


Here is a good example of the Rambam using our Mishna's approach in order to read a rationale into a mitzva:
  • The Trumpet of Taanis- Rambam 1 Taanios 1-3, discussing the Mitzva Deoraysa to blow a trumpet in times of danger.
מצות עשה מן התורה לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבא על הצבור. שנאמר על הצר הצורר אתכם והרעותם בחצוצרות. כלומר כל דבר שייצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן זעקו עליהן והריעו:
ודבר זה מדרכי התשובה הוא. שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו עליה ויריעו ידעו הכל שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הורע להן ככתוב עונותיכם הטו וגו'. וזה הוא שיגרום להסיר הצרה מעליהם:
אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית. הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים. ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות. הוא שכתוב בתורה והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי גם אני עמכם בחמת קרי. כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה כדי שתשובו אם תאמרו שהיא קרי אוסיף לכם חמת אותו קרי:

The Pri Megadim/Mishbetzos in 575 uses this to explain why the Rambam puts the trumpets of tzaros and of korbanos together in one mitzva- because the rationale is identical:
שלא יאמר  מקרא הוא או ממערכת השמים האדם חומר צריך התעוורות רב ולזה נצטוינו להריע בחצוצרות וכיון שהכונה אחת מנה במ"ע אחת
Since the כוונה is so central that the Rambam combines the teru'ah of korbanos and tzaros, it is like our Mishna that says that the פעולה alone is not the only thing that matters.

  • Finally, we find the same idea by the Shofar of Rosh Hashanna- Rambam 3 Teshuva 4
אע"פ שתקיעת שופר בראש השנה גזירת הכתוב רמז יש בו כלומר עורו ישינים משנתכם ונרדמים הקיצו מתרדמתכם וחפשו במעשיכם וחזרו בתשובה וזכרו בוראכם.

Our Mishna presented the physical act, the מעשה מצוה, as being less significant than the effect on the person's heart and mind, but here, the Rambam begins by saying אע"פ שתקיעת שופר בראש השנה גזירת הכתוב, that we must first recognize that our primary motive in doing Mitzvos is to do the מעשה מצוה as commanded by the Ribono shel Olam, and then, as a secondary matter, we can contemplate the "Remez" of the effect of Tekias Shofar on our heart and mind (unlike his approach in the Moreh, as noted.)  



IMPORTANT ADDENDUM, 10/23/17
I'm thinking about segulos for victory in war, such as kviyus makom for tefilla or Torah (different girsos, see OC 155 and Gra there,) and putting on the shel yad first and not being mafsik between it and the shel rosh. I think that the Mishna in RH is asking the question because other cases involve a mitzvah. A mitzva done at a certain time or in a certain way might become a segula. But stam an action, like lifting hands, or a copper serpent on a stick, is not an inherently meaningful act, so it can;t be a segula on its own. It has to ACQUIRE meaning. So now that it brought teshuva, or emunah, the act becomes meaningful, and AS A RESULT IT CAN FUNCTION AS A SEGULA.  Yes, these things brought about the yeshuva. But a meaningless act cannot do that. It has to be an act that has an element of kedusha. Once it's a meaningful act, it can, sometimes, become a lemaalah min hateva instrument.

5 comments:

  1. Brachos 54a-b implies that the battle with Amalek/Yiddei Moshe were indeed a miracle.

    ואבן שישב עליה משה בשעה שעשה יהושע מלחמה בעמלק

    However, see Ha'emek She"eila here:
    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=39101&st=&pgnum=95

    bottom of first column, who assumes that the milchama was all derech hateva.

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    1. Nice mareh makom. But boy, that's kind of prosaic, that the bracha you make on the אבן שישב עליה משה is because he managed to keep his hands up all day-
      אלא הנס היא שנתן ה׳ כח במשה להגביה ידיו כל היום
      ואף שתמכו אהרן וחור בידיו מכ"מ אינו בדרך הטבע שיסבול אנוש משך רב כזה
      Apparently he doesn't mention the miraculous effect of Moshe's hands because of our Mishna, which attributes the victory to the emunah of Klal Yisrael, and a victory based on morale is just teva. Sometimes you wish he was a little more chasidish.

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  2. I think the uniqueness of the 2 cases in the Mishna is that the hands of Moshe and the Nachash caused the people practically to be Mistakel Klapei Maalah, which in turn led to their being Meshaabed their hearts to Hashem. That's why the Mishna in these specific cases downplays the role of the intermediaries. In all the other cases, including Krias Yam Suf, it is unclear how the Mateh, for example, caused Nachshon to jump into the sea or how it caused Bnei Yisroel to do Teshuva. Accordingly, the Mishna does not attempt to explain its role. Or, if you prefer:
    מתני' אלא עכשיו שקפץ נחשון כו' גמרא מי דמי? בשלמא התם ידיו של משה הוא דקא גרם להו לאיסתכולי כלפי מעלה, אלא מטה דמשה מי קא גרם ליה לנחשון דיקפוץ לימא

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    1. I really, really like your Gemara. But you don't disagree that the rule is of general application, you're just saying that the focus on the matteh and the yadayim was because they directly precipitated the emuna ingredient.

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  3. Thank you! Correct. (I'm assuming it's a typo and you mean the nachash and the yadayim).
    Yehuda Oppenheimer

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