Sefer Shmuel w/ Rav Blau Chapter 3: Shmuel’s Call to Prophecy

  • Is Eli’s blindness symbolic of a theme stated in the beginning of the chapter?
  • Shmuel’s first prophecy is unique among prophetic initiation chapters in that he does not realize that God is calling. Could that also be related to the theme of the opening pasuk?
  • Pasuk 14 states that the sins of the house of Eli cannot be atoned for with sacrifices. The gemara (Rosh Hashana 18a) Infers that acts of compassion or Torah study could provide atonement.   One possible understanding is that chessed and talmud Torah are simply more valuable.  Can you think of another explanation for why Eli’s sons require other mitzvot to achieve atonement? See Maharsha’s approach.

מהרש”א חידושי אגדות יבמות דף קה עמוד א ולפי שהם חטאו בעבודה כמ”ש למה תבעטו בזבחי ומנחתי גו’ ואין קטיגור נעשה סניגור אבל בב’ עמודים השניים שהם התורה וג”ח מתכפר

  • Pasuk 20 says that Shmuel was a prophet who was נאמן to God. Is that phrase used about another famous prophet?  Are there other parallels between Shmuel and this other prophet?   See Yirmiyahu 15:1 and Tehillim 99:6.

Sefer Shmuel w/ Rav Blau Chapter 2: The Sons of Eli

The first part of this chapter includes Chana’s thanksgiving prayer.

  • Chazal (Megilla 14a) suggest that Chana was a prophetess. Is there something in this prayer that might lead to that conclusion?
  • In pasuk 5, Chana refers to a barren woman who has seven children? Is this self-referential and does she indeed have seven children? See pasuk 21 and Radak on pasuk 5.

רד”ק שמואל א פרק ב פסוק ה  ומה שאמר שבעה אינו דוקא אלא שהוא סך החשבון כי כן דרך הכתוב כשירצה לומר רבים יאמר שבע כמו אומללהיולדת השבעה שבע כחטאותיכם שבע יפול צדיק וקם

  • How does this chapter contrast Shmuel’s behavior with that of Eli’s sons?
  • The punishment for Eli’s family emphasizes seeing rivals succeed (pasuk 32) and dependency on them (pasuk 36). Is rivalry a theme we have already encountered in this sefer? Is it a broader theme in Sefer Shmuel?

Sefer Shmuel w/ Rav Blau Chapter 1

Welcome to our first day of learning.  I hope you will enjoy it.

Chapter 1:

  • Compare pesukim 7-8 in our chapter with the dialogue in Bereishit 30: 1-2. How does Chana compare or contrast with Rachel?  What about Yaakov and Elkanah?
  • Does the dialogue with her husband inspire Chana’s prayer? See Malbim’s comments.

מלבי”ם שמואל א פרק א פסוק ט  ותקם. הנה עד עתה סמכה את עצמה על תפלת בעלה שהיה צדיק, ועתה שראתה שהוא מתיאש מן הרחמים התעוררה להתפלל בעצמה

  • Pasuk 16: Who is the בת בליעל Chana refers to?  Would the answer affect our understanding of Chana’s relationship with Peninah?  See two possibilities in Radak.

רד”ק שמואל א פרק א פסוק ט (טז) לפני בת בליעל – לפני ה’ כבת בליעל כלומר אל תחשוב שאעמוד שכורה לפני ה’ ית’ כבת רשע ויונתן תרגם לא תכלים ית אמתך קדם בת רשיעא נראה מדבריו כי בת בליעל אמרה על פנינה צרתה ואמרה לו לא תכלימני בפניה כי היא תשמח לאידי והיא מכעיסה אותי

  • Pasuk 28: Which verb in the pasuk is also a biblical name? Do you think this is an accidental reference?

Chodesh Nissan Learning Project: Sefer Shmuel with Rosh Yeshiva Rav Blau

Dear Orayta Students and Alumni,

We are pleased to announce a new learning initiative for this year’s Pesach break.   Current students off for the month looking for an enjoyable and realistic Talmud Torah project for the month of Nissan as well as alumni can benefit from participation.  The goal is to finish Sefer Shmuel Alef over the course of the month and the pace will be a chapter a day.  This intriguing sefer includes the prophecy of Shmuel, the flawed reign of Shaul, and the tension between Shaul and David.  Students will learn through the chapters on their own, and I will send out questions for further thought on each day’s perek.   The first day will be this Shabbat,Rosh Chodesh Nissan, March 21.  Please feel free to send me your thoughts and comments.

All the best,

Yitzchak Blau

Purim-The Holiday of Choice

By Rav David Silverstein

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) cites a very interesting Midrashic attempt to understand the exact nature of the Jewish peoples’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. According to the Talmud, at Mount Sinai, God decided to suspend a mountain over the heads of the ancient Israelites and declare effectively “accept the Torah or face death.” Interestingly, the Talmud is bothered by the forced nature of this type of covenant and wonders how God could coerce the Jewish people to accept His law. After all, there is a well-known halachic principle that an agreement made under duress is of no halachic significance. Replying to this critique, the Talmud acknowledges that while it is true that the coerced covenant at Sinai lacked formal legal backing, the Jewish people reaccepted the Torah without being forced in the aftermath of the Purim miracle.

This philosophical strength of this Midrash is sharpened by an interesting interpretation of the Meshech Chochma. According to the Meshech Chochma, the image of God suspending a mountain over the head of the Jewish people is intended to be a metaphor for God revealing His essence to the Jews at Sinai. By providing the Israelites with total clarity regarding His existence, God effectively “forced” the Jews into a covenantal bond since no one would reject a covenant being presented by God himself.  If we extend the metaphoric interpretation of the Meschech Chochma, it becomes clear why the Purim story is the perfect corollary to the experience of Sinai. Lacking any mention of God in the Megillah, the story of Purim is one of the Jewish people “accepting” God’s presence and sovereignty even in a place where His presence is not made explicitly obvious.

Interestingly, some of the laws of Purim reflect this dynamic of Purim as a holiday celebrating the voluntary acceptance of the Jewish tradition. The Sridei Eish notes that two of the central mitzvoth of Purim, matanot l’evyonim and mishloach manot, are mitzvoth that are performed without the recitation of any formally required blessing. The Sridei Eish expands on this interesting facet of the Purim experience by highlighting the fact that we actually don’t recite a blessing on any positive commandments that are interpersonal in nature. Visiting the sick, honoring one’s parents, giving charity, and comforting mourners are all foundational mitzvoth in the Jewish tradition yet surprisingly no blessing is recited! The Sridei Eish addresses these questions and claims that since the purpose of interpersonal commandments (ie: visiting the sick, mishloach manot, giving charity) is to bring people closer together, reciting a blessing while performing a such a mitzvah may actually be counterproductive.  After all, it runs the risk of turning the individual to whom the mitzvah is being performed from a subject to an object! Reciting a bracha, for example, before visiting a sick relative may create the mistaken impression that one is performing the mitzvah simply out of a desire to fulfill a formal obligation and not out a more profound sense of compassion and care. Interestingly, the absence of blessings from many of the mitzvoth of Purim allows us to tap into a more elevated level of divinity based on choice and not coercion.

The extent to which voluntary acceptance of religious identity has the potential to generate a more profound sense of religious commitment is stated by the famous sociologist Robert Wuthnow. Reflecting on the nature of commitment levels of religious people (both Jews and Gentiles), Wuthnow wonders, “how do people who grew up religious move from the take for granted world in which they had been raised to a more deliberate, intentional approach to faith?”

Answering this question, Wuthnow claims that “although the specific practices may vary, the common dimension is that people start to take responsibility for their own spiritual development and thus begin to acquire personal knowledge and skill that goes beyond what they have learned simply by being members of a congregation.” In other words, the defining quality of the passionately religious person is someone who takes ownership over his identity and makes religion his own. People born into observant homes parallel the Jews standing at the foot of Sinai. Just like God “forced” the Israelites into a covenantal bond, so too, parents raising observant children effectively “force” their children into an acceptance of the Jewish tradition. While this is an essential component of child rearing (or nation building), the real moment of “acceptance” of one’s ancestral values takes place when one voluntarily accepts his own tradition outside the confines of any model for formal enforcement.

The celebration of Purim annually followed by Pesach highlights the multi-layered dynamic inherent in the God-man relationship. By internalizing the lessons of Purim and accepting the Torah from the perspective of choice, we are much more prepared to appreciate God’s overt involvement in the lives of the Israelites as we experience it at the Pesach Seder.

Parshat Zachor- Amalek and the Risks of Skepticism

By Rav David Silverstein

Parshat Zachor introduces us to a very unique mitzvah, both in its content and application. On the one hand, the requirement to eradicate the memory of Amalek is so extreme that we are obligated to kill both any human or even animal connected to the Amalekite nation. Moreover, while wars of complete destruction were not foreign to the world view of the ancient near east, Rav Elchanan Samet notes that “in general, the mitzva of cherem [destruction] was aimed at a certain city, and therefore its period of validity was restricted: once the city was exterminated, the war of cherem against it was over.” The commandment to destroy Amalek, by contrast, is different.  “Since Amalek is a nomadic nation, their destruction is not like the destruction of a city: it is not a one-time act, but rather an ongoing battle from generation to generation.”

The Torah’s insistence upon complete destruction of the Amalekite nation raises questions about the nature of the Amalekite sin that prompted the harsh biblical command. Rav Hirsch, for example, argues that “Amalek, which only finds its strength in the might of its sword. …. stepped out to oppose by the power of the sword the first entry into the history of mankind of the People representing the victory of the power of the word.” For Rav Hirsch, the war against Amalek is a battle against a worldview premised upon brute force and power. As long as that ideology exists in the world, the battle to eradicate that vision is still in play.

Chasidic as well as mystically inclined Jewish thinkers frame the challenge posed by the existence of Amalek differently. Noting the numerological equivalent between the words Amalek and Safek (doubt), these scholars see Amalek as a nation representing irrational forms of skepticism.  Looking to the biblical text for support, Chassidic rabbis note that the war of Amalek against the Jewish nation takes place immediately after the Israelites leave Egypt. The exodus from Egypt represented an undeniable moment of divine intervention into the lives of the Jewish people. The Torah even testifies that after crossing the sea, a “fear” [of God] befell the nations of the world. Despite the obvious demonstration of God’s existence and power after splitting the sea, Amalek decided to attack the Israelites with the goal of challenging a truth claim that was obvious to all. Doubting the very premise of God’s involvement in human history and possibly His very existence, the Amalekite goal was to cast doubt upon what was perceived to be an undeniable moment of divine revelation (see. Shem Mishemuel zachor, תרע”ט).

Expanding on the theme of doubt in defining Amalek’s unique halachic status, Rav Yitzchak Hutner calls attention to the Torah’s directive that the obligation to destroy Amalek be for every generation (דר דר). According to Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Purim, page 65) there are two dimensions to the mitzvah of destroying Amalek. The first is the formal requirement for the physical destruction of Amalek. The second is a broader obligation to pass on the tradition of the Torah from one generation to the next (דר דר). Questioning assumed sacred cannons, the “Amalekite” entices younger generations of committed Jews by tempting them to challenge the belief paradigms of their parents. We erase the memory of Amalek by overcoming this form of skepticism and affirming our faith in tradition.

This default orientation of radical skepticism proposed by the Amalekites is problematic on philosophical grounds as well. Dr. David Shatz, highlights some of the inconsistencies of the extreme skeptic by quoting the great philosopher David Hume, who said that “in my study… I come to appreciate that I lack adequate grounds for all sorts of things I take for granted in my life—the regularity of nature, the reality of the physical world; yet when I exist, those intellectual infirmities have not the slightest influence on my belief system.” According to Hume, “a philosophical skeptic, someone who casts doubts on our grounds for these and other common beliefs, cannot live his skepticism.” In other words, even the Amalekite worldview is premised upon basic assumptions and beliefs. There is no better way to reduce the argument of the extreme skeptic to the absurd than by questioning the very basic assumptions that underlie his skepticism.

Rav Kook addresses another problem with the skeptical model advocated by Amalek. Questioning and probing information is a certainly a healthy and sophisticated way to achieve a more complex and nuanced understanding of the data being presented. In some instances, the questioner may be so bothered by a given question that he may end up rejecting one model of truth and opting for an alternative model that doesn’t fall prey to the same challenges. However, there is another model of questioning where the questions are ends and not means. In this model the questioner is only interested in challenging base assumptions without advocating any alternative vision or philosophy. Applying Rav Kook’s construct, one could argue that this second model is the one that motivated the Amalekite attack. Lacking any military reason for waging battle again the Israelites, the Amalekites attacked the Jewish people in order to challenge the sacred premise of God’s divine providence.

Since hearing Parshat Zachor constitutes the fulfillment of the biblical requirement to remember the battle against Amalek, the annual reading provides an opportunity to reflect upon the lessons of this epic battle and apply the necessary applications to our daily lives. More specifically, Parshat Zachor allows us to reflect upon complex questions such as the role of certainty in our faith commitments, the place for doubt in our religious lives, and the complex tension of affirming a sophisticated approach to commitment in a cultural climate of extreme skepticism.