D'var Torah on Parshat Va'era
D’var Torah for Minyan Tehillah
Parshat Va’era/Rosh Chodesh Shevat
So, I’m sure you’ve been wondering:
What does this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Va’era - have to do with Rosh Chodesh Shevat, Tu B’Shevat, Beit Shammai vs. Beit Hillel, and my recent trip to Israel?
Well - I’m glad you asked…
In last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, Moshe recoiled from God’s mission of redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt by claiming inarticulateness: In Shemot 4:10, he beseeches God: “Please, my Lord, no man of words am I, not at any time in the past nor now since You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued.” Despite his protests, God sends him to Egypt.
At the start of this week’s Torah portion, we encounter Moshe shortly after his first unsuccessful attempt to get Paro to “let His people go”. Moshe then fails in his attempt to rouse the Israelites from their bondage. God’s response to this is to charge Moshe to again speak to Paro “that he send off the Israelites from his land.”
Moshe’s response to God is: “Hein b’nei yisrael lo shamu eilai – v’eich yishma-eini Paro? They – the children of Israel – did not heed me…and how is Paro to heed me?”
As I considered everything that occurs in this week’s Torah portion – the beginning of the plagues, the hardening of Paro’s heart, etc. – this question resonated with me: “They did not heed me; How is Paro to heed me?” Moshe is acutely aware of his own limitations. I imagine that he must feel very small in the face of the enormous task being placed upon his shoulders.
How can Moshe persuade the Israelites? How – if at all – can he persuade Paro? Perhaps at a deeper level, how can Moshe persuade himself that he is, in fact, capable of leading through his words and his actions?
The question of how to communicate effectively brings me, perhaps somewhat tangentially, to Rosh Chodesh Shevat. And, in particular, to the first mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which says the following:
"The four new years are:
On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals;
On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals;
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, in the first of Tishrei
On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting of vegetables
On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof."
According to the House of Shammai, today – Rosh Chodesh Shevat – is in fact the New Year of the Trees. So why do we not sample the starfruit and enjoy the seven species nuts and berries and all kinds of good stuff today at kiddush?
Because, the mishnah concludes, “The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof”.
And we follow Beit Hillel: We celebrate Tu B’Shevat on, well, TU b’Shevat – the 15th.
Why do we go by Beit Hillel? It’s not entirely clear, at least not on the surface.
As we know, there are many makhlokot – disputes – recorded between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Usually, both sides have well-reasoned, well-supported, strong answers, yet in the vast majority of cases we follow Beit Hillel. At Chanukah, the question is whether to light one candle the first night, the second candle the second night (the opinion of Hillel), and so on in ascending order, or to start with all eight nights and move in descending order (the position of Shammai). We go with Hillel.
A perhaps more powerful example, which I was reminded of last weekend at Limmud NY by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, is the makhloket between Hillel and Shammai recorded in The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, 16b-17a, on this question: What song does one sing before the bride on her wedding day? Should we sing that she is beautiful – even if she is maybe not so beautiful? Beit Shammai says that we sing to the bride as she is. If she is not beautiful, one does not say that she is. In other words, we should sing a song of truth that reflects how she really is. Beit Hillel says, “Beautiful and graceful bride”! Every bride has to be regarded and praised as beautiful and graceful.
For Beit Hillel, we sing to each bride that she is beautiful. Not for “darchei Shalom” (the ways of peace); not because it’s the nice thing to do, even though it’s a little white lie. We sing that she is beautiful because we are not singing for the way WE see the bride, but for the way he – her chatan – sees her. We sing that she is beautiful because, in viewing the world this way, that is the truth.
Why, then, do we hold by the words of Beit Hillel? The Gemara explains it concisely, explicitly, and beautifully:
"For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting,
'The law is in agreement with our views.' and the latter contending, 'The law is in agreement with our views.' Then a bat kol (a voice from heaven) announced, ' Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim ‘these and those are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.'
Since, however, 'both are the words of the living God', what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the law fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the words of Beit Shammai before their own.(Eruvin, 13b)"
What is powerful about this? A superficial reading of this is that, well, both Hillel and Shammai were right, but the House of Hillel was nicer, so the nicer guys win out. But I think it goes much deeper than that. They were not just “nice”. They were noach – pleasant…comfortable with themselves and others, perhaps. They were modest. They studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai.
Most important, when engaged in argument, they didn’t just state their position. They listened. The sense of the passage is not just that they showed humility by placing the words of Beit Shammai before their own, but that they strove to understand where their opponents were coming from, what was motivating their arguments – who were the people behind those arguments.
Last month, I had the privilege of leading a group of Harvard students and their Israeli peers on a two-week study tour of Israel. Throughout the journey, we encountered voices from various perspectives on the political, military, and societal challenges facing Israel; and we explored the personal and communal relationships between American and Israeli Jews. We heard from an Israeli-Arab Bedouin who calls herself a Palestinian living within Israel; from a former head of the Shin Bet security services who is now a labor MK; from an Islam expert at the University of Haifa; from a right-wing former mayor of Tsfat; from a Golan settler and vulture expert who tracked Hizbollah terrorists in Lebanon last July; from a left-wing peace activist who gave an assessment that both justified and problematized the security fence between Israel and the West Bank; from a founder of Shira Chadasha; and numerous others. Our speakers were nearly all excellent – informative, thought-provoking, often inspiring and moving.
But the point of the trip was not just to hear great speakers – it was about drilling deep into this teaching of elu v’elu. In the words of Bernie Steinberg, our trip reflected “the desire of a group of young Jews to struggle intellectually and emotionally with the painful, complex realities in Israel, and to express both their courage to hope – without delusion – and their willingness to accept responsibility for the future.”
It was a chance for 28 American students and 7 of their Israeli peers to spend two weeks struggling together to explore the complexities of the current conflict and to ask themselves and one another the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions about their own relationship and commitments to Israel and to Judaism.
It was a chance for a leader of the Progressive Jewish Alliance on campus to listen to a leader of Harvard Students for Israel, for them to move from argument to conversation; from debate to thoughtful dialogue; from email flame-throwing to deep, personal inquiry.
In Parshat Va’era, Moshe asks, in plaintive tones: “How will Paro heed me?” How can my words make me an effective agent of change? The question reflects self-awareness, which is the beginning of the wisdom of beit Hillel.
It is an awareness of the limitation of one’s own knowledge and capabilities, and an attempt to be aware of the motivations of the other (and of one’s own motivations).
How will they listen to me? Moshe asks. Hillel answers, hundreds of years later, they will listen to you when you are able to listen to them, to absorb and integrate their concerns into your understanding, and then to present your own truth, forcefully, in a way that is real and true and deep.
So my wish for all of us, 2000+ years later, as we enter the month of Shevat and the stories of redemption in Shemot, is that we deepen our appreciation of the complexity of communication and endeavor that our arguments become divrei elohim chaim in their content, and divrei beit Hillel in their method and intent.
Shabbat shalom and Chodesh tov.