Thursday, May 13, 2010

How the Jews merited mattan Torah

Summary: Trying to trace a midrash, and its meaning. As far as I can tell, the idea that they traced their lineage via sifrei yuchsin is a late midrash, and the midrash itself tells us the import.

Post: In parashat Bamidbar, we read the following pasuk and Rashi:

18. and they assembled all the congregation on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees according to their families according to their fathers' houses; according to the number of names, a head count of every male from twenty years old and upward.יח. וְאֵת כָּל הָעֵדָה הִקְהִילוּ בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי וַיִּתְיַלְדוּ עַל מִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם:
and they declared their pedigrees according to their families: They brought the records of their pedigrees and witnesses of their birth claims, so that each one should trace his genealogy to a tribe.ויתילדו על משפחתם: הביאו ספרי יחוסיהם ועידי חזקת (לידתם) [לידת] כל אחד ואחד, להתייחס על השבט:

As I may discuss in another post, both Ibn Ezra and Ramban take issue with this explanation. Judaica Press (above) gives no source for this Rashi, so it seems as if Rashi came up with this idea himself, rather than citing from a midrash.

Reference to this idea can indeed be found in a midrashic source, but that Midrash is Yalkut Shimoni, which is post-Rashi. Yalkut Shimoni cites midrashim from Chazal, but also from Geonim and Rishonim, into the 12th century. It probably was writtem in the early 13th century. As such, a midrashic author might have expanded on the idea in Rashi, and Yalkut Shimoni cited that. That Yalkut Shimoni reads as follows:
בשעה שקבלו ישראל את התורה נתקנאו אומות העולם בהן מה ראו להתקרב יותר מן האומות, סתם פיהן הקב"ה אמר להן הביאו לי ספר יוחסין שלכם שנאמר הבו לה' משפחות עמים כשם שבני מביאין, ויתילדו על משפחותם, לכך מנאם בראש הספר הזה אחד המצות, אלה המצות אשר צוה ה' את משה אל בני ישראל בהר סיני, ואחר כך וידבר ה' במדבר סיני שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל שלא זכו ליטול את התורה אלא בשביל היוחסין שלהן, גן נעול אחותי כלה וגו' אחת היא יונתי תמתי, שמעו האומות אף הן התחילו מקלסין להן ראוה בנות ויאשרוה וגו'. לא עשו אלא כשבאו לשטים ויחל העם לזנות, שמעו האומות אותה עטרה שהיה בידן כבר היא נטולה מהם אותו השבח שהיו משבחין הרי בטל שוין הן לנו, כשבאו לידי נפילה זקפן המקום שנאמר אם אמרתי מטה רגלי חסדך ה' יסעדני, נגף המקום את כל מי שנתקלקל והעמידן על טהרתן שנאמר ויהי אחרי המגפה וגו' שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל:
Thus, when the other nations saw Israel receive the Torah, they complained. In what merit do they deserve this? Hashem told them to bring their own documents of lineage. Read it all.

What is the import of bringing documents of lineage? It is not the idea of racial, national purity. Rather, it is the idea of maintaining purity in their sexual behavior. Thus, the citation from the pasuk in Shir Hashirim, גן נעול אחותי כלה, that my sister is a closed up garden. And later in this midrash, כשבאו לשטים ויחל העם לזנות, שמעו האומות אותה עטרה שהיה בידן כבר היא נטולה מהם אותו השבח שהיו משבחין הרי בטל שוין הן לנו, when they came to Shittim and the nation began to engage in sexual misconduct, the nations heard, and said that this crown that was in their hands is now removed from them, and this praise that they had praised them with is nullified. Behold, they are the same as us, the nations said. Thus, the idea of sefer yuchsin is that the nation's sexual conduct was proper, and in this merit, they were awarded mattan Torah. Asking the nations to provide similar documentation of their lineage was a challenge to match this achievement. They could not, because of widespread adultery, incest, or harlotry.

Despite it appearing in Yalkut Shimoni, and thus being a midrash, one should not jump to state that it is Chazal, that is, from the Tannaim or Amoraim. As noted above, it could well be from a later source than Chazal. (If someone has seen it in an earlier source, please let me know.) Also, before trying to discover new meaning, one should probably read the Yalkut Shimoni inside to see what meaning it itself contains, and if one's suggestion can be supported by the words of the midrash.

But the midrash, in abbreviated form, is well-known, and that can spark all sorts of reinterpretations as to its meaning.

Here are some examples. From the Sichos in English website, an online book called Vedibarta Bam. This reading is actually pretty good:
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 684) relates that when the Jews were receiving the Torah, the other nations asked Hashem, "Why are You giving the Torah only to the Jews? We also want the Torah!" Hashem told them that they should bring their sefer yuchsin — records of family pedigree — to Him, just as His children — the Jews — were bringing their sefer yuchsin to Him, as stated, "and they established their genealogy" (see Rashi).
What was Hashem's intent in requesting the sefer yuchsin of the other nations? 
This can be explained with the following parable: A man's biological son and his foster son became ill, and the doctor prescribed bitter medicines for both children. The father forced his biological son to swallow the medicine and he immediately felt better. The foster son, however, was not forced to take the medicine, and the illness lingered on. Later, the foster son asked his father why he had not also forced him to take the medicine. The father answered, "Once before when you were sick and the doctor gave you sweet medicine, I forced you to drink it. Since you spat it out then, I assumed that any attempt to force you to drink bitter medicine would have been in vain." 
Hashem's reply to the nations of the world was "I have already given you a 'sweet' Torah of only seven commandments and your book of heritage indicates your parents' record of poor observance. However, the Jews' sefer yuchsin depicts the devotion of their forefathers and establishes them as worldly recipients of the Torah." 
Thus, the counting of the Jewish people based on their sefer yuchsin in the beginning of Bamidbar follows the end of Vayikra to indicate that Hashem gave the Torah and mitzvot to the Children of Israel because of their sefer yuchsin — their parents' good record of fulfilling mitzvot the past.
Thus, rather than a national record of proper sexual conduct, sefer yuchsin becomes a symbol for a link to the past, and of their parents behavior in performing the sheva mitzvos. Actually, I think in this instance, this reading is rather spot-on. The author, quite possibly, is just being circumspect in his language, and sheva mitzvos is a stand in for a particular one of those 7 Noachide Commandments, namely that of adultery. (The biological vs. foster son is a strange divergence, though.)

Here is one from the Weekly Dvar:
Rashi informs us that prior to the census each Jew was required to produce a book of their lineage. The Midrash adds that producing this book was also required to be able to receive the Torah. Why is receiving the Torah dependent upon having this book of lineage? 
Rabbi Zweig explains that surpassing the expectations that have been defined by one's social upbringing is what gives a person a sense of accomplishment. If a person is able to identify their lineage, they might learn that their ancestors were people who took responsibility for themselves and had honorable standards.
I would have to see Rabbi Zweig's words inside. But the suggestion seems to be that having such sefer yuchsin is a prerequisite for learning about their ancestors, and such a knowledge is needed to giving the present generation expectations to strive for. This can also work out with the midrash, if we think about it for a while, in terms of the "honorable standards". I'd have to see the words inside to know for certain. But there is little need for such explanation, as to why a book of lineage is a prerequisite. The midrash itself informs us. Further, it seems pretty similar to the next example.

Another example, from Peninim Al HaTorah:
Rashi explains that they brought their documents of lineage and witnesses to the status of their birth, in order to trace their ancestry to the particular tribe to which they claimed to belong. Chazal tell us that the other nations also claimed their stake in the Torah and were rebuffed by Hashem due to their lack of yichus, lineage. This is problematic, because surely Bnei Yishmael can trace their lineage back to Avraham Avinu and Bnei Eisav can trace their pedigree to Yitzchak Avinu. Apparently, a deeper meaning supports the idea of presenting their documents of lineage. 
The Pupa Rav zl, takes a practical approach towards explaining this Chazal. He posits that zechus avos, the merits of one's ancestors, are credited to the children only when one sees the avos in the children, if their good deeds are reflected in the actions of their progeny. Chazal teach us that the Jewish People were redeemed from the Egyptian exile because they did not change their Hebrew names, their Hebrew language or their traditional manner of dress. They adhered to the legacy which their ancestors had transmitted to them. While they were spiritually deficient in many areas, they still maintained a filial bond with their forebears. 
When the other nations came to complain that they had no part in the Torah and Eretz Yisrael, Hashem asked them to produce their documents of lineage. Hashem was telling them that in order to stake a claim, to be part of the Jewish nation, they had to show that they carried on from their ancestors. One cannot expect to invoke the memory of his forebears if, indeed, he does not in any way, shape, or form demonstrate a relationship with them. An individual cannot dress, speak and act like the nations of the world and expect to be part of the Jewish destiny just because he is able to trace his lineage to the Patriarchs. There is more to being Jewish than simply having a Jewish surname.
Firstly, this is asserting that Yalkut Shimoni = Chazal, which is by no means certain. Furthermore, the assumption here is that the sefer yuchsin needs to be specifically to Avraham Avinu, such that the fact that the Bnei Esav could produce such documents is problematic.

But the point of the midrash is not the tracing to Avraham, or to Yitzchak. It is rather a mark of not committing adultery or other sexual impropriety, such that each person could assert positively his father and his mother, all the way back. There were no shtukis, asufis, etc. There were no mamzerim. If you look at the convoluted lineage of Esav, together with the midrashim on it, a picture emerges of extreme levels of incest. Producing such sifrei yuchsin would not suffice for Hashem's requirement.

So the question was not a question. And the answer, that it is a matter of familial bond with one's ancestors, and carrying on in their ways, is not in accordance with the explanation given explicitly in the midrash.

Another example, from Contemporary Halachic Problems, by Rabbi Bleich:

This is given as an attempt to identify specifically with Avraham Avinu, as Jewish lineage. I don't think that the midrash really supports such a reading.

Another example:
Why is a nation’s ability to trace its lineage a prerequisite to receiving the Torah? Aren’t good character and understanding far more important than knowing who was your great great grandfather?...

Israel has proven to be a worthy guardian of the Torah. Not only have we preserved an unbroken chain of transmission but each generation endeavors to ensure that all future generations will protect the Torah.

Another example:

The obvious question presents itself. Why was it necessary to validate their yichus (lineage) in order to merit kabbalas haTorah?
The Yismach Moshe (founder of the Satmar and Sighet dynasties, 1759-1841) cites the Talmud (Mesechta Eruvin13), “Noach lo l’odom shelo nivra – it would have been better for the person had he not been born.” The Maharsha explains that the reason for this statement is because there are more negative precepts contained within the Torah than there are positive commandments. Consequently, there is the consideration that it is more probable that the individual will accumulate more transgressions than mitzvos.
The Hafla, however, counters this with the maxim cited in Kiddushin (40a) that if a person had good intentions to do a mitzvah and then was unable to implement it, Hashem nevertheless credits him with the mitzvah. In addition, we say in the Lecha Dodi on Friday night, sof ma’aseh b’machashavah techilah – every deed begins with a thought. The plan to fulfill the mitzvah is also a mitzvah, and thus the assessment for each mitzvah is doubled. .
This explains the presentation of the sifrei yichusim by Klal Yisroel. The lineage of Klal Yisroel stems from the avos hakedoshim, our holy forefathers, who have established within their progeny a desire and a natural tendency to do good. The chezkas kashrus – premise of legitimacy -- has already been confirmed that we, indeed, aspire to perform mitzvos and not to transgress Hashem’s Torah.
Again, specifically tracing back to the Avos. This really does not seem to be the intent of the Yalkut.

And another example:

At the giving of the Torah, the envious nations wanted to know why they could not be the recipients of the Torah. Hashem responded by demanding that they produce a letter ofyichus(privileged ancestry). The Yalkut Shimoni asks why yichus would figure as a requisite for learning Torah - should not a desire and willingness to learn suffice? The Ramban posits that belief in the Torah is only sustainable when earlier generations transmit their knowledge and traditions to later generations.

Our elders validate the true meaning of acceptance of the Torah by illustrating their own reverence and adherence to the belief system. A nation whose children regard themselves as being more perceptive and intelligent than their forebears lacks that laudable lineage essential to receiving the Torah.
Now, all this is not to say that this reinterpretation of the midrash is wrong. It might not reflect the intent of the Yalkut -- almost certainly not, but this does not mean that the idea is bad. Rather, it is simply, unwittingly, a different midrash, of extremely late construction. And this is OK so long as we don't end up attributing this idea to Chazal, or to whomever the author of this midrash was.


Nosson Gestetner said...

Yasher koach, this Rashi had bothered me when reading earlier today. Thanks :)

joshwaxman said...

i'm glad.
be'ezras Hashem, i'll pick up discussion of this rashi next week.

shabbat shalom,


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