Wednesday, March 09, 2011

How did Moshe remove his shoes?

I saw this cute devar Torah the other day in a parsha sheet, about Hashem's instruction to Moshe to remove his sandals, at the burning bush.

From the Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, they lead off with the following warning:
Sometimes it happens that an individual attending a d’rashah (Torah lecture) may not be enthralled with the speech.  Upon its conclusion, he takes the liberty to share his critiques of the speaker with his peers. The Chofetz Chaim decries this somewhat prevalent practice (Hilchos Lashon Hara, footnote to 2:12). Amongst the numerous reasons he supplies in condemning such slanderous behavior, the Chofetz Chaim makes a poignant observation: Simply put, people vary in their tastes. Some prefer to hear a novel interpretation of a verse; others are more eager for an intricate theoretical discourse; and still others favor a nice parable or an interesting story. The end result is that it is nearly impossible for any speaker to satisfy the particular interests of all listeners. That being the case, where is there room, really, for complaints about a given speech? Perhaps the very thing that this individual didn’t like was actually quite appealing to someone else; and had the speaker curtailed his remarks to appease the complainer, someone else would be equally disappointed! Against this backdrop, we have a clear illustration in this week’s  parshah of the multifaceted nature of Torah exposition. When appearing in the Burning Bush, Hashem tells Moshe, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ, מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ--כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא. "Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you are standing is holy ground." (Shemos 3:5). In keeping with the theme of people’s varied interests, this passuk can be understood on a number of levels: practical, philosophical, halachic and inspirational. It is our hope that each individual will find an approach suited to his unique preference.
My guess is that the reason for issuing this warning is the last explanation they offer, from Rav Kanievsky, and against the backdrop of the viral video "Yeshiva guy says over a vort". If you haven't seen this video before, here it is:

Krumbagel, the author of this video, explained his intentions in this Hirhurim post. As part of the post, he noted the following:
One final point about the d’var torah that the yeshiva student repeats in the video. It can be found on the internet and is cited in the name of R’ Chaim Kanievsky. So doesn’t that mean my video is poking fun at R’ Chaim? No. As I mention above, it is my firm belief that this vort belongs to a certain genre of d’var torah referred to as “shalosh seudos torah.” Their main goal is to be playful and clever rather than to explain p’shat in the pasuk. What makes me confident that this is the case? The vort makes no sense as p’shat even if one accepted the maximalist position. As the tan bear herself asked, if Yaakov knew the whole Torah, how can he be uncertain about the bracha on lentils? Also, the vort isn’t even about Yaakov’s mitzvah observance. It is about Esav’s. So the d’var torah goes beyond even the maximalist position. In fact, a sefer of R’ Chaim’s divrei torah on Chumash was recently (?) published. It is filled with short questions and answers somewhat similar to the yeshiva guy’s dvar torah. I recently perused it quickly and noticed that one of the questions asked about some inconsistency between a certain story in Bereishis with halakha (I don’t recall the details) and his answer was simply “we don’t learn halacha from the stories in Bereishis,”
Given that the final explanation of the pasuk given in this parsha sheet is a vort from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and indeed along the same lines as the vort by the Yeshiva Guy, it makes some sense that this was the prompting of their warning to the reader.

Their final explanation, from Rav Kanievsky, is as follows:
Based on its phraseology, R’ Chaim Kanievsky perceives additional  halachic  undertones to this directive. There is another term – bypassed by our passuk -- that is commonly used in the context of shoe removal: חַלִיצָה. This would have indicated a more hands-on approach, where the wearer removes his shoe manually. Instead, the word שַׁל was employed.
 here, implying a mere sliding off of the shoe without actually touching it. Hashem purposefully instructed Moshe in this manner, to facilitate the communication. Had Moshe actually touched his shoe, he would first have had to wash his hands before engaging in such sacred activity. (Derech Sichah, vol. II)
This is actually not so bad as assuming that Yaakov would keep to a machlokes in the gemara as to the beracha on lentils, but does seem to assume that Moshe would keep halacha. Of course, we can say like the Rashba (in his "maximalist" position) that halacha was laid out explicitly later, but reflects an underlying reality. So too here, washing hands after touching a shoe reflects a spiritual value, and the same would have held true in the time of Moshe. And so, Hashem might have insisted on this method.

(One could argue, wondering whether shal means the same thing in sefer Rus, and what basis there is to assert that this is the precise meaning of shal as opposed to chalotz, as well as this general trend of the avos, etc., keeping the Torah. Also, this is a neo-midrash which Rabbi Kanievsky is creating here.)

Without mocking it, still, there is room to question such divrei Torah, and to wonder from what perspective Rav Kanievsky is approaching this. Is this shaleshudes Toirah, meant as an intellectual and enjoyable exercise within the framework of halachic assumptions? Is this an attempt at peshat? Does he believe that this is literally true. These are things to consider, surely. Are we operating in the same universe of possibilities and plausibilities that Rav Kanievsky (and indeed, the chareidi word in general) operates in? Is this a bar towards communication?


Joe in Australia said...

The idea that the Avot kept the tarya"g mitzvot is midrashic, and like many midrashim we need to think about what it means rather than what it says. I'd like to compare this idea of pre-existing mitzvot with the secular Common Law that underlies the English (and North American, Australian, etc.) legal systems.

Common Law is based entirely on precedent - the decisions made by earlier courts are binding on their successors unless formally overturned, which rarely happens. If a court needs to decide a case differently it might claim that it is merely "restating" the law, although it is really redefining it, or it might say that the earlier decision "should be confined to the facts" - that is, the previous decision was right under those very precise circumstances (that the crime was committed by a thief aged 37 years between the hours of 2 and 3 AM in London, 1848) but that the law generally is actually different. You will even find older law books claiming that judges do not create but merely "discover" the law.

You might say that all this is pointless formalism and that we should frankly admit that the Common Law is merely accumulated jurisprudence. I think that this argument may be true, as far as it goes, but it misses the point. We don't want judges to decide things arbitrarily. The whole song-and-dance about precedent is designed to encourage a conservative approach, and it means that judges today can (and do) usefully study cases that are five or six hundred years old. When we say that the judges "discover" the Common Law we are really saying that it is coherent and consistent, and we implicitly commit ourselves to keeping it that way.

The same goes for these midrashim. Did Avraham really keep Pesach? Almost certainly not. But when we treat him as if he did, on a midrashic level, we are declaring that our religious practices are part of a continuum that extends to the earliest exemplars of our religion. In effect we are saying that we stand by them - that their actions are justifiable within our system of halacha. So this cute idea that Yaakov was really worried about Esov saying the wrong bracha isn't an attempt at a historical discovery. The Torah isn't a history book. It's really a statement about us - that we respect our forebears and that we ascribe good qualities to them, so that any midrashic "hook" in the text can become an opportunity to think well of our forebears.

Sarah said...

I appreciate the point the Yeshiva Guy Says... video is making, but I'm sad the vort mentioned in it is getting such a bad rap. The video leaves out the vort's punchline, which is that even today there are people who obsess over saying the right brachot while committing much worse transgressions. The vort isn't just being cute for the sake of cuteness; it builds up to a reminder for people to get their priorities straight. Sometimes it's easier to accept such a message if it's presented in a humorous way.


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