Menachot 29b – Moshe in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash: Some Additional Thoughts

Moving beyond the implications regarding the authority of Torah she’b’al peh, as we explored in the previous post, it is worth considering some additional points that emerge from the story of Moshe, R. Akvia’s beit midrash, and God’s tying crown on letters.

  • The crowns on the letters are a fixed, predictable phenomenon, as the Gemara relates a few lines letter: the will always – and only – appear over the letters שעטנ”ז ג”ץ.  This then raises the question – how can R. Akiva derive halakha from these crowns!  The obviously don’t add any meaning, since they always accompany these letters!   This, perhaps, is exactly the point – R. Akiva was so creative in his approach to Torah she’b’al Peh, that he was able to determine halakhic implications in ways that never could have been implicit in, or suggested by, the verse itself.  [Consider R. Yossi HaGlili’s statement to R. Akiva: “אפילו אתה מרבה  כל היום כולו איני שומע לך” – “Even if you go on expanding the whole day, I refuse to listen to you.” – Zevachim 82b]  Although this was in no ways what the verse meant or could mean, God is putting on these crowns to give him “a peg to hang on,” to empower him to interpret the Torah as he understands it, and this is the Torah that becomes binding, that becomes – and that is – Torat Moshe.
  • מי מעכב על ידיך – Who is staying Your hand?  As Rav Moshe Feinstein points out, it is hard to understand what is exactly meant by this phrase.  Rashi translates it, essentially, as “what is delaying you.”   In fact, this phrase is particularly resonant in the context of this perek in Menachot whose theme is components of mitzvot which are מעכבים זה את זה, which hold one another back, which are all required in order for the mitzvah to be performed correctly.  Moshe is saying to God – God, this is Your Torah!  No one else “holds you back,” in making it effective.  It is all You!  To which God replies – No.  Even regarding the Torah, there are 2 components which are מעכב זה את זה – God and the Sages.  The Torah and halakha would not be authoritative were it not given by God.  But, on the other hand, the Torah would have no this-worldly practical meaning if human beings, if R. Akiva and his colleagues, did not participate in the process.  Halakha requires its authority to come from God and its interpretation and application to come from the Sages.  For this to happen, the crowns are needed.  God is tying the crowns, because when it comes to the Torah, God and the Rabbis are מעכבין זה את זה.
  • When Moshe challenges God as to the injustice of R. Akiva’s death, God responds “שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני.”  “Silence!  So it is my plan!”  This part of the story is perhaps one of the most profound statements that Chazal make regarding theodicy.  The Torah continuously repeats the theme of reward and punishment – of one does the mitzvot, one is rewarded; if one sins, one is punished.   The Rabbis, when confronted with the empirical evidence to the contrary – צדיק ורע לו, רשע וטוב לו – explain that sometimes the ultimate reward is left for the world-to-come.  This is a major theme in the first chapter of Berakhot.  Nevertheless, they are always ready to explain how certain tragedies and misfortunes fit into the Divine economy of שכר ועונש.  Hence we hear how the first Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of idolatry, murder and sexual sins, and the second one was destroyed because of senseless hatred.   However, it is quite hard to maintain this approach in a post-Holocaust world, and it is often quite offensive (to say the least) to hear how easily some people can determine how God acts in this world and why certain tragedies befell certain people.  Our Gemara is profound in that it acknowledges that sometimes the tragedy is so great, and the suffering so out of proportion with any sense of justice, that the only meaningful thing we can say is that we do not understand how God acts.  “Silence!  Such is My decree.”  We do not give up believing in God’s role in history, but at the same time we do not do a profound injustice to our own sense of reason, or to our own concept of a just God, to claim that a certain tragedy can make any rational sense within a system of reward and punishment.  We continue to believe, but we do not understand.
  • The “Silence!  Such is my plan!” is said twice – once in response to the question why God chooses to give the Torah to Moshe and not to Rabbi Akiva, and once in response to the challenge why Rabbi Akiva suffered the fate that he had.   As was pointed out by one of the students in my shiur, Dr. Rachel Yehudah, these statements of not understanding how God works in the world stand in stark contrast to R. Akiva’s approach of omnisignificance, of interpreting from each tittle “mounds and mounds of halakhot.”  R. Akvia’s approach assumes a world of meaning, order, and significance of even the smallest details.  God’s statements of “Silence!” declares that it is folly to try to understand how God operates in the world and to make rational sense of it all.  Perhaps the point here is exactly to contrast the two endeavors – theology and halakha.  Theology is an attempt to use human reason to understand God.  In the end, this attempt will by definition fail, since we can never fully understand God or how God operates in this world using our own limited reason.  In contrast, halakha is an attempt to interpret and apply the Torah to our world.  It is not – as we saw in the last post – to get to the “true” meaning of the Torah. something that would be impossible for the human mind.  It is rather to use our Divinely-granted authority to interpret and apply the Torah according to our reality.  This is within our grasp, and to allow us to do this we must assume order and significance.  We must adopt R. Akiva’s stance and be prepared to read meaning even into the smallest dots and tittles.

About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
This entry was posted in Conceptual, General Interest, Halacha, Menachot and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s