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P A R A S H A - P A G E
by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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This week's issue is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather whom I remember so dearly, Mr. Israel Turkel of Vienna-N.Y. (10 Av 5740), and honors my determined grandmother, may she live a long and healthy life, whose inner strength lends courage to the entire family. *** To dedicate a Parasha-Page, please send mail to Spread Torah through the farthest reaching medium in all of history! *** TO RECEIVE THIS FREE EMAIL/FAX WEEKLY, FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS AT END OF ISSUE.


{The great debate}

The Gemara in Bechorot recounts the fascinating story of Rebbi Yehoshua ben Chananya's showdown with the sixty Elders of Athens. Prompted by a science-related disagreement between Torah sages and the Greek Elders, Rebbi Yehoshua ben Chananya goes to Athens. His purpose is to prove to the Roman Caesar who challenged his knowledge of biology that Jewish wisdom far surpasses that of the pagan Elders. (Although the Romans were in power at the time, the Elders of Athens were still respected as the epitome of human intelligence and philosophical thought.) The adventures of the sage as he breaks into the secret hideout of the secluded Elders, and the ensuing debate in which the Elders and Rebbi Yehoshua take turns posing riddles to each other make a truly fascinating account. (Needless to say, Rebbi Yehoshua wins the debate and humbles the Greek Elders.)

Although the riddles are all presented in their original cryptic form and remain in need of explanatory notes, it can be surmised that the focus of the debate was the omnipotence of the G-d of the Jews and the spiritual "chosenness" of the Jewish people over all other nations -- Rome included. Following these guidelines, a number of interpretations of the debate have been suggested (see especially Maharsha ad. loc., and the Vilna Gaon in his "Explanations of a few Agaddot," Vilna, 1800. The latter has been rendered in English by Rav Aharon Feldman in his brilliant work, "The Juggler and the King," Feldheim Books, 1990).

I would like to present here one of the riddles, which relates to the season of Tisha b'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month "Av," on which the Beis ha'Mikdash was twice destroyed) according to the interpretation of the Maharsha (Chidushei Aggadot).


{A time for victory; a time for defeat}

The Elders brought two eggs, and asked Rebbi Yehoshua, "Which of these eggs comes from a black hen, and which from a white hen?" Rebbi Yehoshua brought them two cheeses, and retorted, "Which of these cheeses comes from a black goat, and which from a white goat!" (Bechorot 8b)

What were the Elders trying to prove with "two eggs"? And how did Rebbi Yehoshua refute their words with "two cheeses"?

The Maharsha points out that on the previous page, the Gemara discussed the gestation periods of animals. The Gemara asserts that a hen's egg generally takes 21 days to hatch, just as the almond blossom takes 21 days to develop into a fruit. Tosafot ad. loc. quotes a Midrash (Introduction to Eicha Rabba, #23) that explains a prophesy of Yirmeyah based on this fact. Yirmeyah was shown an almond branch in a prophetic vision relating to Divine retribution and the destruction of Jerusalem. His vision demonstrated that just as the almond blossom takes 21 days to produce fruit, so too, the destruction of Jerusalem will be accomplished during a 21 day period; from the 17th of the month Tamuz, until the 9th of Av.

In a similar manner, the eggs presented by the Elders were hinting to two 21 day periods: the period from the 17th of Tamuz until the 9th of Av, and the period from Rosh Hashanah until Hoshana Rabba. Both periods are times when strict justice is being meted out (Rashi Eicha 1:3 discusses this theme in the three weeks preceding Tisha B'av, and Midrash HaZohar Vayikra 31b finds this theme in the three first weeks of Tishrei).

During the former period, the anger of Hashem seems to be directed against the Jewish people. These three weeks mark the capture of Jerusalem by the invading Roman armies (Gemara Ta'anit 28b) and the destruction of the Holy Temple. Suffering and loss is the Jew's lot. It is the Romans who see favor and success during these weeks. During the latter period, on the other hand, the Jews emerge from the Heavenly Court victorious. We rejoice in the confidence that our prayers on the High Holy Days have been accepted (see Gemara Rosh Hashanah 8b, Mishnayot Yoma end of Ch. 6, Yalkut Shimoni 651).

The Elders were telling Rebbi Yehoshua, "Don't you see? Jews aren't so special! You are subject to the powers of good and of evil, of victory and of defeat, just like the rest of us. Equal time is being given to your "lucky days" and your unlucky ones. The two "eggs," although both times of justice, clearly come from different powers. One comes from a "white" hen (symbolic of a deity of good), and the other, from a "black" one (symbolic of an evil and destructive deity)!"

(The black hen may even hint at a time when power is given to Esav, son of Yitzchak, the patron father of the Romans according to Rabbinic tradition -- see Rashi to Bereishit 36:43. Esav was otherwise known as "Edom" [literally, "the red one"- see Bereishit 25:25,30]. According to Chazal, the color black is generally seen as a permutation of the color red -- see Gemara Suka 33b, Nidah end of 19a. The Elders referred to a "black" hen in order to hint at both the destruction of the Jewish nation and the rise of Rome with the same allegory.)


{Every defeat can become a victory!}

Rebbi Yehoshua retorted, "Which cheese of these two is from a black goat and which is from a white goat?" What is the meaning of his mysterious response?

Rebbi Yehoshua was making it clear that *both* of the periods the Elders mentioned were actually times that Hashem was showing His love for the Jewish People and showering His mercy upon them. On Yom Kippur, the Torah commands us to bring two identical goats to the Holy Temple (Vayikra 16:5, Mishnayot Yoma 6:1). One is to be brought as a sacrifice. Its blood is sprinkled in the inner sanctum of the Beit Hamikdash, in a ceremony which remains of unparalleled spiritual significance among the Korbanot. The second goat is to be sent out to the Judean desert, where it is pushed off a cliff and tumbles helplessly toward its death -- the biblical scapegoat.

An unknowledgeable observer would undoubtedly conclude that two deities have to be "appeased," one of holiness and kindness and the other of barrenness and destruction. These are the "white" and "black" goats to which Rebbi Yehoshua was referring. (Here too, the "black" goat can be seen as relating to the Romans. The Ramban, in his monumental work on the Torah, alludes to the fact that the scapegoat represents Esav -- Rome's forebear -- and all that he stands for, see Ramban Vayikra 16:5). However, this clearly is not the case. The two goats are certainly not brought to opposing forces, for from the two goats emerge two identical white cheeses. How is that?

Our Sages tell us that two red ribbons were put aside for use on Yom Kippur, one was tied to the head of the scapegoat and the other to the neck of the sacrificial goat. When the scapegoat was pushed off the cliff, both ribbons miraculously turned white. This was alluded to in the words of the prophet Yeshayah (1:18), "If your sins are red as crimson, they will be made white as snow [when you repent]" (Mishnayot Yoma 4:2 and Tiferet Yisroel, Ibid 6:6,8).

The "black" goat brings us atonement just as the white goat goat does. The two goats produced identical "white" cheeses. (Cheese and milk are generally symbols of mercy -- see Parasha-Page, Shavuot 5757). They were both brought in the service of Hashem, the merciful G-d, to bring forgiveness to His chosen nation (see Ramban, ibid). In the same vein, the 21-day period leading up to the destruction of the Holy Temples demonstrates Hashem's love for His people as well. Sometimes Hashem finds it necessary, in His merciful ways, to punish the Jewish nation. Even this, however, is also for their ultimate good.

Hardships melt away a person's sins. (Berachot 5a)

Hashem said, "I shall punish them in this world, in order that they may be stronger in the World to Come." (Avodah Zarah 4a)

The destruction of the Holy Temple brings an atonement for the people. (Rashi, Bamidbar 24:5)

When the Jews are punished, they humble themselves and pray to Hashem... [It may therefore be said that] the curses pronounced against sinners preserve the Bnai Yisroel's spiritual integrity. (Midrash Tanchuma beginning of Nitzavim see Rashi ad loc.)

(Perhaps the scapegoat itself alludes to this theme. By shoving the scapegoat off a cliff to tumble towards its death, we are acknowledging that Hashem sometimes deems it necessary to punish people severely in this world. We are demonstrating our confidence that such treatment is actually necessary and even beneficial to us, and that we are willing to accept whatever Hashem decrees upon us lovingly.)

In this way Rebbi Yehoshua refuted the claims of the Elders. The punishments that we sometimes suffer at the hand of Hashem demonstrate Hashem's love for us just as much as does the security and peace that He bestows upon us at other times. May Hashem speedily return us all to His land and, in our times, rebuild the Holy city of Jerusalem, and the Beit Hamikdash!This week's issue is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather whom I remember so dearly, Mr. Israel Turkel of Vienna-N.Y. (10 Av 5740), and honors my determined grandmother, may she live a long and healthy life, whose inner strength lends courage to the entire family.

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