The Unknown Revoked Vow
The Torah says that in a case where a woman took a vow which her husband subsequently revoked, God will forgive her (Numbers 30:13). This is difficult to understand. Even if she transgressed her promise, why would she need atonement if her husband revoked her vow? The Talmud (Nazir 23a) explains that the Torah is referring to a case in which a woman's husband revoked her vow unbeknownst to her, such that although the promise was no longer binding, she thought that it was still in effect and that she was violating it, an act which necessitates God's forgiveness.
The Talmud likens this to a person who thought that he was eating non-kosher meat but in reality consumed kosher meat, yet still must repent his sinful intentions. The Talmud adds that when Rabbi Akiva studied this verse, he began to cry, commenting that if a person requires atonement when he thought that he was sinning even though in reality he wasn't, all the more so does he need forgiveness if he actually sins. Why did this concept specifically pain Rabbi Akiva more than any of the other rabbis?
The Arizal writes that the Asarah Harugei Malchus - ten great Rabbis who were brutally and tragically martyred - were killed as atonement for the sin of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. Of the ten Rabbis, Rabbi Akiva died in the most cruel and painful manner because he was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Shimon, who was the primary instigator of the plot to harm Yosef (Rashi - Genesis 42:24) and bore the most responsibility for the sin.
After Yaakov's death, Yosef's brothers approached him to ask forgiveness for the sin of selling him into slavery. Yosef responded (Genesis 50:20) that there was no need for him to forgive them because even though they had intended to harm him, no damage was done and the ultimate result was beneficial, as God brought him to Egypt where he became viceroy and was able to use his position of power to sustain them during the famine.
Rabbi Shmuel Falkenfeld points out that Yosef's reasoning is remarkably similar to the case described by our verse, in which a woman thought that she was sinning by violating her vow, but in reality, no transgression was committed because her husband had already revoked it. Nevertheless, the Torah explicitly states that in such a case, the woman requires forgiveness due to her intention to sin.
Although Rabbi Akiva was still alive and did not know what fate would ultimately befall him, there was some part of his soul which was aware of its past incarnation and impending punishment. Therefore, whenever he learned the verse which teaches that a person must repent for an action which he intended to be sinful even if circumstances beyond his control result in no sin being committed, he became afraid of the harsh punishment that Shimon and his brothers would require for their cruel plan to sell Yosef into slavery even though Yosef's journey ultimately had a happy ending, and it was this subconscious fear which moved him to cry.
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Is a non-Jew who converts to Judaism required to immerse all of his utensils in a mikveh, as he is now legally considered a Jew who "acquired" them from a non-Jew, or does this law apply only when the Jew and non-Jew are two different people?
The Maharshag writes that the concept of immersing vessels was taught in the context of the war with Midian. Because it is a Torah decree, only utensils in scenarios similar to that one require immersion. In that case, the ownership of the vessels was transferred from the Midianites to the Jews. Therefore, a non-Jew who converts would not need to immerse his utensils, as although the religious status of their owner has changed, no transfer of ownership has occurred. (Darkei Teshuva - Yoreh Deah 120:4)
However, because he is unsure of this reasoning and didn't find it mentioned in earlier sources, he suggests as a practical matter that the vessels be immersed without a blessing. The Tzitz Eliezer (8:19-20) seems to agree with this ruling.
On the other hand, the Chadrei Deah explains that the reason that utensils purchased from non-Jews need to be immersed in a mikveh is to signify the fact that they no longer belong to non-Jews and have entered the holiness of Jewish ownership. As such, he maintains that a non-Jew who converts would be required to immerse his vessels, but because this requirement isn't mentioned in any earlier source, he also advises immersing them without a blessing. This is also the ruling of Tevilas Keilim (3:24), although he does cite several sources who rule that a convert does not need to immerse his utensils.
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APPEARANCE OF WRONGDOING
Moshe told (Numbers 32:22) the tribes of Gad and Reuven that they must fulfill their conditions in order to be clean in the eyes of God and the Jewish people. The Sages derive from here several laws requiring a person to exceed the strict letter of the law in order that he not appear to be doing something inappropriate to those who observe him, often referred to as "maris ayin." If somebody is doing something only to prevent a case of maris ayin but which would require a blessing if it was required according to the letter of the law, may he recite a blessing?
The Talmud (Chullin 75b) rules that if a pregnant animal is ritually slaughtered, its fetus may be Biblically eaten without being slaughtered. However, if the fetus walks or moves on the ground, the Sages required its slaughter because of maris ayin. Rashba (525) rules that one should say a blessing on this slaughter just as one says a blessing on any rabbinical commandment.
However, Besomim Rosh (283) and Pri To'ar (19:1) disagree, arguing that no blessing is made on a mitzvah which is solely due to maris ayin. The Talmud (Shabbos 23a) rules that if a person has windows facing different directions, he must light a Chanukah menorah in each of them so that somebody passing an empty window won't suspect him of neglecting the mitzvah. The Ran writes that no blessing is made when lighting the additional menorahs. Pri Chodosh and Pri To'ar equate the concepts of maris ayin and chashad and maintain that the Ran disagrees with the Rashba, although Kreisi U'Pleisi (13:4) differentiates between the two concepts and argues that there is no disagreement between the Ran and Rashba.
Birkei Yosef (Yoreh Deah 13:4 and Orach Chaim 571:11) questions this logic and additionally argues that it is incompatible with the explanation of the Rashba himself. Finally, Michtam L'Dovid (Orach Chaim 23) suggests that there is no dispute, as the Ran is discussing a case in which a person already said a blessing when lighting his first menorah.
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TRUE TRIBAL INTENTIONS
At the end of Parshas Chukas, the Jewish people conquered the lands of Sichon and Og, which were just across the Jordan River to the east of the land of Israel proper. In this week's parsha (Numbers 32:6-7), the tribes of Gad and Reuven approached Moshe with a request. They noticed that these lands were particularly well-suited for raising animals. As these two tribes were blessed with an abundance of livestock, they asked for permission to receive and settle this area as their portion in the land.
Moshe responded harshly, questioning why their brethren should go to battle to conquer the rest of the land of Israel while they remain behind living comfortably. He also argued that their actions could dissuade the rest of the Jews from wanting to enter and conquer the land, in a manner similar to the negative report brought back by the spies.
The tribes of Gad and Reuven clarified their intentions, explaining that after they built cities for their families and animals in this region, they would join the rest of the Jews in the battle for the land of Israel proper. Only after it was fully conquered and settled by their brethren would they return to their families. Upon hearing this, Moshe agreed to their request, but only after making a legally-binding agreement with them.
The commentators explain that the two tribes always intended to assist in the conquest of Israel, but because they didn't see this point as significant, they didn't say it explicitly until pressed by Moshe. Why did Moshe accuse them so harshly, and why was it so important to him to make an explicit legal stipulation with the tribes regarding this point?
In his work Shemen HaTov, Rabbi Dov Weinberger explains that Moshe recognized their original good intentions. Nevertheless, he was concerned that after they actually built the cities for their families and animals, they would be tempted to reconsider their plans. After 40 years of wandering through the wilderness in pursuit of a stable home, it would be quite natural for them to be tempted to reevaluate their commitment to spend an additional 14 years helping their brethren conquer and settle the land of Israel.
To prevent this from occurring and to keep their actions consistent with their original intentions, Moshe insisted on making an explicit and binding agreement with them. Only if they fulfilled their end of the deal by assisting with the conquest of Israel would they be permitted to keep their land on the east side of the Jordan River.
This explanation brings to mind the following story. The Alter of Novhardok once heard that a certain individual was coming to visit his town. He was in doubt whether it was appropriate for him to go to the train station to greet and welcome the guest. Since it was the middle of the frigid winter, the Alter worried that perhaps he would decide against going not for the right reasons, but because he was motivated by laziness and comfort. To remove this concern, he traveled to the train station and proceeded to make his decision once he was already there.
Many times in life we are confronted with difficult decisions. When weighing the various factors involved, it is important to be aware of our personal biases and to strive to reach conclusions based on pure, unbiased thinking.