Monday, June 14, 2010

Rav Shmuel Brazil on the Apocalyptic BP Oil Spill

A hat tip to yaak of Yeranen Yaakov for pointing out this interesting devar Torah by Rav Shmuel Brazil, of Shaar Yashuv, about the BP oil spill. He discusses a gemara in Sanhedrin 98a, which appears to predict it, and eventually in this post I will address it, but first, two quotes too good to pass up.

Oil in lashan hakodesh is equivalent to עול. Are we really accepting the daily yoke of Torah and mitzvos upon ourselves? In the על חטא  we mention our failure for  פריקת עול throwing off this yoke. Even though we recite shema Could it be that at some instances like at work we do not accept this wholeheartedly by saying that in the work place this עול must be modified or compromised? Could the same apply to the way we make our simchas that the עול has slightly been repressed. Well maybe this spill over is sending us the message that the עול מלכות שמים  has to emerge from its hiding place.
Heh. עול is indeed pronounced oyl in lashon hakodesh, in certain communities. I pronounce it as ohl, with the vowel as a cholam rather than a choylam, in which case this derasha doesn't work. Despite this, I think that we should draw strength, or חוזק, or chozek in lashon kodesh, from this dvar Torah. ;-)

But I am being unfair here. I am almost certain that Rav Brazil knows this, and is speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Another oil phenomenon that was hinted about over hundreds of years ago was what Rav Chaim Vital wrote in Tehillim on the passuk לולי ה' שהיה עלינו בקום עלינו אדם Tehillim 124,2. He writes that Yishmael is the fifth galus subjugating Yisrael and they are called adam because they have bris milah. Even though they are Bedouins and have no power or wold [sic -- should be "world"] influence one day they will rule over the world. Rav Chaim wrote such prophetic words hundreds of years ago. Even 60 years ago such a statement would have seen utterly ridiculous. Yet today the Arab world through the control of their oil possessions, rule the world.
This was not so prophetic when Rav Chaim Vital made his statement, I think. Rav Chayim Vital was born in 1543 and passed away in 1620. The Ottoman Empire lasted from from 1299 to 1922 as an imperial monarchy, and to cite Wikipedia, "At the height of its power (16th–17th century), it spanned three continents, controlling much of Southeastern EuropeWestern Asia and North Africa." The 16th to 17th century means the 1500s and 1600s. Thus, Rav Chaim Vital was writing during the time of the height of the Ottoman empire. And while he was born in Italy, Rav Chaim Vital also lived in Egypt and Israel, which was under Ottoman rule. Perhaps 60 years ago such a statement *might* have seen utterly ridiculous. But in its time and place, it made perfect sense. And that it makes perfect sense nowadays, once again, does not necessarily indicate that they were spoken in prophetic manner.

We need to approach Torah texts with some modicum of historical awareness.

But what impelled me to write this post was his discussion of the gemara in Sanhedrin, another Torah which would make no sense back then but now makes perfect sense. He writes:
If there is a sign close to home that heralds in the coming of Mashiach well this is it. Those who just finished Sanhedrin in the daf Yomi will remember on daf 88 [sic] that right before Mashiach Hashem will fill the rivers and seas with oil and the fish will die. Incredible! To make such a definite statement over 15 centuries back would not have been fathomed in one’s wildest dream and yet here it is being fulfilled day by day moment to moment. 
That was a minor error, a typographical error, in writing daf 88 instead of daf 98. But 15 centuries back?! He must be attributing it to Rabbi Chanina in the gemara, who made the statement, rather than to the navi Yechezkel, whose prophetic words are being interpreted. He is absolutely right, of course; I was making a rhetorical point. We should see what Yechezkel says and understand what his words mean in context, on a peshat level; then Rabbi Chanina's derasha, which might well be the meaning of Yechezkel's statement on a midrashic plane; and then consider whether it is necessarily, or logically, the same as the meaning we are ascribing it today.

Because it is all too common nowadays to retroject modern meaning onto ancient texts, in a way that every new event finds a source in some prophecy, or apocalyptic text found in the gemara or Zohar. There are enough such texts, and enough ambiguity in these texts, for one to consistently find such predictions of the modern day. But often enough, if one were committed to engage in this exercise 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago, etc., one would be able to find just as many predictions of contemporary events. And this, not because all those times were "potential" times for geulah, but because of a methodological flaw in this approach.

(I should note that Rabbi Brazil most likely did not innovate this reading of the gemara, but is just repeating an inspirational idea and reading in the gemara.)

The pasuk in question is Yechezkel 32:14. This is part of a lamentation Yechezkel is commanded to raise upon Pharaoh the king of Egypt. The perek begins:

2. "Son of man, lift up a lamentation over Pharaoh the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: You resembled a young lion among the nations but you are like a crocodile in the seas, and you went out with your rivers, and you sullied the water with your feet, and you trod their rivers.

Where Rashi explains:

You resembled a young lion among the nations, but you are like a crocodile in the seas: You should have lain in the midst of your rivers, as is the custom of the fish, and not gone out to the dry land; but you were haughty in your heart, and you compared yourself to a young lion, which dominates the dry land and goes forth to tear prey.
and you went out with your rivers: [Heb. וַתָּגַח,] and you went out with your rivers, the same meaning as in (Ps. 22: 10): “You drew me (גֹחִי) from the womb” ; (Job 40:23), “he will draw (יָגִיחַ) the Jordan into his mouth” ; Jud. 20:33), “And the liers in wait of Israel drew forth (מֵגִיחַ).” [This is] an expression for something flowing and going out of a hidden place.
and you sullied: [Heb. וַתִּדְלַח,] an expression of making something murky.
with your feet: You had no feet, but I made for you feet like the beasts of the earth, to cross the waters of the lands and to tread their rivers. The symbolism is like Targum Jonathan: and you waged war with your camps and you caused the peoples to quake with your supporters, and you destroyed their countries.

Thus, all this is metaphorical, including sullying water with feet when trodding the rivers of other nations. The peshat, that is, is that this is all metaphor. We should understand the plain meaning of the text while realizing that it is symbolism, and part of the peshat is not just the mashal but also the nimshal. To take it absolutely literally, about real water, crocodiles, and rivers, is to miss the point and misunderstand the peshat. Or if trodding and thus sullying rivers is meant literally, it is literally in the course of war and domination.

But the setup here is that initially there is muddying of rivers, and trodding of feet in those rivers. Then, later on in the perek, we read (the pesukim with Rashi's commentary):

13. And I shall obliterate all its cattle from beside abundant waters, and the foot of man will no longer sully them, neither will the hoofs of cattle sully them.
from beside… waters: of other countries that you used to sully.
14. Then I shall sink their waters, and their rivers I shall cause to flow like oil, says the Lord God.
I shall sink their waters: The foot of cattle will not make it murky, and the mud will sink, so that the water will be clear and clean like refined oil.

That is, Egypt will no longer have this negative impact on other lands. The foot of man and cattle will no longer sully those waters, bringing up mud in the course of trodding though it. Then -- and this is pasuk 14, the important pasuk under discussion, Hashem will sink their waters, making the mud go down so it is not murky, and the water will be clear and clean, like refined oil. Perhaps, I would say, that it would flow smoothly, like refined oil. Would there be fish in those waters? Most probably, because they are not being disturbed by the mud and the foot of man and beast.

Then, in a statement repeated in Talmud Bavli, in Sanhedrin 98a:
אמר רבי חנינא אין בן דוד בא עד שיתבקש דג לחולה ולא ימצא שנאמר  (יחזקאל לב, יד) אז אשקיע מימיהם ונהרותם כשמן אוליך וכתב (בתריה)  (יחזקאל כט, כא) ביום ההוא אצמיח קרן לבית ישראל
R. Hanina said: The Son of David will not come until a fish is sought for an invalid and cannot be procured, as it is written, Then will I make their waters deep, and cause their rivers to run like oil; whilst it is written, in that day will I cause the horn of the house of Israel to bud forth.

This represents a radical reinterpretation of the pasuk in Yechezkel. In both cases, it presumably means worldwide, since even in the original, it was the end of Egyptian worldwide domination. But this is now certainly literal, rather than metaphorical. And rather than a good thing for all these nations, it is a bad thing.

Furthermore, each phrase in the pasuk is being interpreted in a way opposite to its intended peshat meaning on the literal plane. As Rashi explained it in place in Yechezkel, אשקיע  means sinking, that is the sinking of the mud so that the water is clear. And כשמן אוליך regarding their rivers means that it is pure and like refined oil. In Rabbi Chanina's radical reinterpretation, אשקיע  means "muddy". (This, even though Soncino didn't offer this as part of the translation.) Check out שקיע in Jastrow, where he gives the meaning of sink, but also notes Tanchuma's use of דרך של שקיע, a muddy road. These are admittedly semantically related, because a dirt road which is sunken under water is muddy. But check out שקע and see that besides sink, it can also mean "mixed up beyond recognition". And then, just as אשקיע  means the opposite, so does כשמן אוליך. (Alternatively, there is no reinterpretation of ashkia, but just the second cited phrase.) Rashi -- the same Rashi who explained in place in Yechezkel that it means like refined oil, here explains that

כשמן אוליך - שיהיו כולן קפויין וכיון שהם קפויין אין דגים נמצאין בחכה:

that it is congealed / murky / muddy, and therefore fish would not be found in it. Of course, this does not work at all in context, but this is not supposed to work in context. It is derash, which is hyper-literal. That is why it is compared to a pasuk in another perek in Yechezkel, rather than the immediately preceding pasuk, or contrasted with pasuk 2 in the same perek.

This is fine. It is a derasha from a member of Chazal, using well-established rules of midrash aggada.

Note that in my explanation, based on Rashi's explanation, there was no reference to oil spills. And when the statement was made by Yechezkel and then by Rabbi Chanina, they had no oil rigs. It is possible that since these are messianic predictions, they were made with prophetic foreknowledge of oil rigs and then the BP oil spill. But I know how people retroject ideas and predictions onto Chazal, and I would be cautious. Would it have a different meaning to people of the time? Absolutely! In sefer Yechezkel, it is explicit from context. And in the gemara, Rashi explains it in a way that does not rely on oil rigs.

And so the statement that
Incredible! To make such a definite statement over 15 centuries back would not have been fathomed in one’s wildest dream and yet here it is being fulfilled day by day moment to moment. 
may be true, but it is not necessarily fulfilled in the way they would have understood, at the time and place the statement was made.

I would note that even Soncino gets into the act. Writing much earlier, they place a footnote:
 Ezek. XXXII, 14. When an oily film covers the water, fish cannot be caught-an anticipation of the havoc to sea life wrought in modern times by oil-burning vessels?
A very environmental message. And it is tempting to do so. But we should be cautious. Soncino's explanation is just as speculative as the one repeated by Rabbi Brazil.

Furthermore, I would take issue with the version of the gemara put forth by Rabbi Brazil. He writes:
Those who just finished Sanhedrin in the daf Yomi will remember on daf 88 [sic] that right before Mashiach Hashem will fill the rivers and seas with oil and the fish will die.
But that is NOT AT ALL what the gemara says, or the pasuk says. The pasuk, in the context used by the gemara, is that fish cannot be caught, because of the muddiness of the waters where they would try to fish. Not necessarily that the fish will die. The pasuk never states that Hashem will fill the rivers and seas with oil! It states "waters" and "rivers". And most importantly, it states כשמן, LIKE oil. The pasuk does not say בשמן or משמן, which would mean WITH oil. This is a profound difference.

Further, the gemara talks about a profound lack of fish, not just (or even) that fish will die. If there really were no fish, then we would not have the present controversy about the anisakis worm in fish! Call me when there really are no fish available, and then we will talk. For the moment, read this article about how despite the oil spill, gulf seafood is safe and plentiful:

To stress this point: the gemara says something different than what is being presented.

Now, this can be derash on the derasha in the gemara, rather than peshat in the derasha. Fine. But there is a difference between a member of Chazal making a derasha on a pasuk, and modern day eager folks with apocalyptic leanings kvetching a gemara and presenting it as Chazal's prediction.


Dave (Balashon) said...

Great job!

I'd also point out that the שמן mentioned there is probably olive oil, not petroleum - very different substances...

yaak said...

A Kvetch? Yes, but still close enough to warrant closer look.

Note my recent treatment of another close drasha, which I'm surprised you didn't comment on. Maybe you missed it, or maybe because I did your job for you.

joshwaxman said...

"A Kvetch? Yes, but still close enough to warrant closer look."
indeed. but now that we see that it is most likely not the intent of Rabbi Chanina, we should dismiss it from our minds.

"maybe because I did your job for you."
i saw it. very nice, and indeed, because you did my job for me.


S. said...

>We need to approach Torah texts with some modicum of historical awareness.

Depends what your goal is, doesn't it?

Moshe R said...


joshwaxman said...

"probably olive oil, not petroleum"
thanks. good point.

"Depends what your goal is, doesn't it?"
heh. true, we wouldn't want facts to get between us and inspiration. but i do think that Rabbi Brazil would not be putting it forth were he aware of the history.

Moshe R.:
Thanks. I checked it out, and commented there, responding to a comment that in the next statement of the gemara, the religious Zionists could be basing themselves on the explanation of Maharsha rather than that of Rashi.

kol tuv,


Blog Widget by LinkWithin