|Pirkei Avot 5:10: The Voice of Torah|
|Written by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger|
1) The Mishnah in Avot (5:10) makes reference to a famine of “batzores”. Rishonim explain this to be a kind of targeted drought. A related word, “bitzur”, is understood to mean “prayer”. Aside from the fact that one facing a drought might come to engage in prayer, what is the link between these two meanings of the same word?
2) The word appears again in a Rashi commentary on Parshat Pinchas (Bamidbar 26:11). On the verse “The sons of Korach did not die”, Rashi says, “They were part of the original conspiracy, but at the (critical) moment of the dispute, they repented in their hearts. As a result, a shelf was secured (‘nit-batzer’) for them at the heights of Gehinnom, and there they remained.” First of all, how can this explanation be reconciled with the verse? If someone is in Gehinnom, they are presumed to be dead. Even if the sons of Korach are on a shelf at the heights of Gehinnom, they are still in Gehinnom. How can the verse assert, then, that they did not die? Elsewhere, we find that they lived, married, became prophets, and wrote Psalms. That might agree with this verse, but how does it square with this Rashi who says they went down into the mouth of the Earth, just not as far down as everyone else, and with a Gemara in which Rabbah bar bar Chana is said to have been taken to a spot in the ground out of which the sons of Korach could be heard calling, “Moshe is true and his Torah is true”. Furthermore, what does the securing of a special space in Gehinnom have to do with the word “bitzur” (nit-batzer)?
3) Another form of the word is found in Parshat Va-etchanan. The Torah identifies three cities that Moshe designated along the East Bank of the Jordan River to someday serve as Cities of Refuge for an inadvertent murderer seeking safety from his victim’s family members. One of the three cities, the one in the territory of Reuven, is named Betzer. While Targum Onkelos does not find it necessary to translate the name, Targum Yonatan translates the city name as “K’vatirin”. What does this tell us about the meaning of the word “bitzur”?
4) The Gemara in Megillah (14a) makes reference to the sons of Korach. Expounding on the first verse in Sefer Shmuel, the Gemara wonders why Elkanah is described as one who came from “The Heights”. One explanation is that he was descended from individuals who stood at the “heights of the world (b’rumo shel olam)”. And who were these individuals? The sons of Korach, for whom a shelf was constructed in the heights of Gehinnom. How could the Gemara possibly confuse people who were at the heights of Gehinnom with people who are “b’rumo shel olam”? No matter how high in Gehinnom you rest, you’re still in Gehinnom! How can that be a praise equivalent to that of prayer itself, about which the Gemara says elsewhere its source is “b’rumo shel olam” – “at the very heights of the world”?
It is commonly understood that the word “bitzur”, meaning prayer, comes from the word “Batzar” in Tehillim 18:7 – “Batzar li ekra Hashem” – and the word “Batzar” in Devarim 4:30 – “Batzar l’cha u’m’tza’ucha”. But this cannot be right, as in both cases the commentaries read the word as “ba-tzar” – “in (my/your) distress”, with the letter “bet” serving as a prepositional prefix and not as part of the root of the word.
It seems to me more accurate to suggest that “bitzur” comes from the word in the Rashi in Parshat Pinchas cited above, where it means “securing” and is related to the word “betzuros” as in Bamidbar 13:28:
The cities are fortified (by security walls - betzuros) and are very great.
Let us go back to the names of the Cities of Refuge and explain.
Three cities are named in Parshat Vaetchanan: Betzer, Ramot, and Golan. Let us imagine that a person is accused of a great crime. From the moment he hears about the accusation, what three basic reaction options does he have? He can run, he can stay put and plan to defend himself, or he can give up and plead for mercy.
These three options are alluded to in the three names of the Cities of Refuge. “Golan”, from the root word “golah”, meaning exile, suggests that one can run and try to escape apprehension. “Ramot” means the high ground, the place you want to be if you will be coming under attack from enemies. This name suggests that one can seek to prepare himself and defend his ground. “Betzer”, then, must mean that one has the option of giving up and throwing oneself upon the mercy of the court. This is confirmed by the Targum Yonatan’s translation of “Betzer” as “K’vatirin” – a word derived from the word “vitur” – “giving up”. Now, we can readily understand either the decision to run or to defend oneself. If one runs, there is a chance he may never be apprehended and he may avoid punishment. If one mounts a defense, he may win and get off the hook. But why would a person choose to give up and ask for mercy? What chance does he have to avoid punishment?
In order for the choice of pleading guilty to make sense, he would have to be able to say, “I know what this king, judge, or other authority really wants. He may declare that one who commits crime X must receive such-and-such a punishment, but I know that behind the declaration lies a deeper will not to punish anyone, but rather to have them acknowledge their crime and repent.”
The parallel would be a child who has broken one of his parents’ house rules, for which the penalty for said infraction is well known by the members of the household. Yet, he appeals to his parents for mercy, knowing that there is a superior will beneath the surface that if the child genuinely regrets his misdeed, the parent really prefers not to have to punish.
If we just think about this, is this not what we know of as prayer?
The prayer that we are calling “bitzur” is a prayer we say when we feel certain that Hashem has a hidden will other than that which He seems to be displaying on the surface, and that we have the ability to tap into that reserved space and access His favorable response.
It aligns with the word “b’tzuros” – fortified, secure – because it is a prayer that wells up from a certainty, a sense of security, that with my knowledge of the King’s inner wishes, I can emerge with a positive judgment.
We can now return to our Rashi in Pinchas. There he says that B’nai Korach had a shelf secured – nit-batzer – for them at the heights of Gehinnom. We asked: How could the Gemara in Megillah equate this with people sitting b’rumo shel olam – at the very heights of the world? Aren’t they merely at the heights of Gehinnom, hardly the heights of the world?
We can now offer an answer. Imagine a person who is about to be jailed. He remembers that he has a friend, a contact in a very high place in the government. He calls the contact, who promises to do whatever he can for his friend. The guy is brought to jail, but there he is escorted to a private cell, away from the lowlifes and profligates, complete with 24-hour cable TV and maid service. Anyone who would see his set-up would understand that, his being in jail notwithstanding, this is a man with contacts in high places!
B’nai Korach recognized their error and realized they were going down. But deep down inside, they had a certainty, a secure knowledge, that Hashem did not really want them to be lost, so they initiated contact with a Friend in high places and did teshuva in their hearts. In so doing, they tunneled their way through to a wellspring of Hashem’s inner ratzon, and they were “nit-batzer” – granted the special favorable treatment available only to those who access the highest connections. This is the sense in which the Gemara labels the sons of Korach as having been b’rumo shel olam – it means that the shelf provided for them in Gehinnom was the result of their having made contact with the One who sits in the highest of places. Indeed, it became their great-great-granddaughter-in-law, Channah, who went on to develop tefillah, deepening the channel to God’s inner will, furthering the initiative started by B’nai Korach and, quite appropriately, also considered davar ha-omed b’rumo shel olam.
But, wait. If the sons of Korach had accessed Hashem’s true inner will to spare them, if they truly had made contact with this Friend in high places, why were they not able to be spared entirely? Why did they need to go down to Gehinnom at all – even if only to a cushy private suite?
This brings us to the rest of the story. Many people are of the belief that when you daven for something and you do not see the prayer answered, that means the answer was “no”. I have always been bothered by this. It seems too difficult to treat prayer as something real, when its “failure” can so easily be explained away as an arbitrary negative response. Why would a loving, all-powerful, fatherly figure ever want to say “no”? Am I always such a poor judge of my own welfare that I am constantly asking for things that He decides are bad for me?
I contend that “bitzur”, for one, always results in an answer of “yes”. When you have used teshuva or tefillah to locate the ratzon l’heitiv hiding behind the ratzon la’anosh, you have uncovered Hashem’s desire to say yes! Of course He says yes.
There is only one snag: Others are watching. Imagine that all your children have disobeyed you and been disrespectful and earned a punishment. As the punishment is about to be administered, one particularly sensitive child wakes up to the wrong he has committed, and he genuinely regrets having hurt you. You see the child’s face and you know he is experiencing sincere anguish over his action and will never do it again. In silence, he communicates his repentance and you receive it. You wish nothing more than to take him in your arms, let him know how much you appreciate his sincere reversal, and snatch him away from the consequence he was about to face. But you quickly realize that the other children will not understand. They don’t see his repentance, only you do. To their eyes, they sinned and got punished. He sinned and did not. You realize you cannot grant immediate and total reprieve.
So you say “yes” with a proviso. I can grant your reprieve, you say to your repentant son, but I need plausible deniability. I must be able to say to the others that you received your punishment along with them. Once that has been established to their satisfaction, I can grant you the fullness of my desire, which is to fulfill your desire.
This is what happened to the sons of Korach. They repented fully, but since they were using a private channel, accessible only to the One Who knows the inner thoughts of man, no one but Hashem knew of their complete sincerity. Had He spared them going down to Gehinnom, He would have lost the message He was trying to instill into the rest of Klal Yisrael, to whom it would seem the B’nai Korach were getting away with evil. So He said, “You will go down into the abyss with all the others, but don’t worry – I am all-powerful. You will be spared. It will just manifest itself in a way that will not compromise My larger message.” And so it was. In Gehinnom, they were given preferential treatment, and after sufficient time passed, they were restored to terrestrial life and granted their freedom. To the unknowing eyes of the public, B’nai Korach received the same punishment as did their father. To the knowing mind of Hashem, they were granted a full reprieve. Despite all appearances to the contrary, “B’nai Korach did not die”.
Why are we not informed of this arrangement until Parshat Pinchas? Because Pinchas gave us the ability to learn about it. Pinchas’ deed was a revelation of the two levels of God’s will. On the surface, God’s position seemed to be against taking a consorter’s life. Indeed, if Pinchas would have asked a sha’ala, the answer would have been: No, it is forbidden to kill Zimri. But Pinchas had a secure and abiding knowledge that what Hashem really wanted was for someone to step in and stand up for His debased honor, even if that meant taking Zimri’s life in a display of zealous loyalty. He acted on that principle, and the reward demonstrated its veracity. Only in Parshat Pinchas can we be told that B’nai Korach did not really die, as they had tapped into a channel leading to Hashem’s deeper ratzon.
This is why the Gemara laments so loudly over the Jewish people’s disregard for the power of prayer, a power that stands b’rumo shel olam. If we use “bitzur” as our example, not only is it our avenue to Hashem’s inner and overriding ratzon l’heitiv, but it is a channel the requests of which Hashem never responds to with a “no”! If we want it, God wants it for us. And if we don’t see it manifesting immediately, that is only because God needs plausible deniability for those who are not privy to the private channel. Your request is granted. Fret not over how it will show – Hashem is unlimited!! Yaakov Avinu did not die, says the Talmud. But did they not embalm his body, asks Tosafot? Yes, comes the answer, he appeared to have died, but he did not die. Is this too difficult a trick for an all-powerful Being? Here too – B’nai Korach did not die, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
One more item remains. The city of Betzer is in the territory of the Tribe of Reuven. Why is it in Reuven’s territory that we need to learn the lesson of approaching God through His hidden channel, using the method of “bitzur”?
It is a tikkun for Reuven. Reuven was the first one to recognize two levels of ratzon – in his father, Yaakov! Yaakov openly declared that his primary partner after the loss of his beloved wife, Rachel, would be her handmaiden, Bilhah. Reuven said, “I know my father’s true ratzon is to move in with my mother, Leah. It’s just that he cannot come out and say so, because it will hurt Bilhah. So I will move his bed for him, and that way he has plausible deniability and can end up where he really wants!”
Maybe so, Reuven. But you made one mistake. Information that is known through silent channels must remain silent. Reuven did not cross the line when he determined that Yaakov’s true ratzon was to live with Leah. He crossed the line when used that determination to act publicly. Yaakov may have agreed with that truth, but he may not have felt it was yet the right time to make it known. Reuven was not authorized to make it public, and he lost his right to malchus because of it.
Many of the individuals involved in the maaseh Korach were from Shevet Reuven. They supported Korach, and maybe they had some justification. Maybe Korach would have been a good leader. Who knows? Maybe he would have spoken to the rock and not struck it, as Moshe and Aharon did. There is serious evidence to suggest that Korach will be the Kohen Gadol l’atid lavo. But for the public, this was not the right time, and, once again, Shevet Reuven erred.
Bitzur revisits the idea that we can be right about our understanding of the true ratzon Hashem. But we must keep it between ourselves until its revelation is indicated. Indeed, this is the significance of Channah’s innovation being not prayer, but silent prayer. If the city of “Betzer” helps us learn this lesson, it is appropriately situated in the territory of Shevet Reuven.
With regard to our Mishnah in Avot, then, a famine of ba’tzores is one in which Hashem really does not want us to starve. If we can detect His deeper will, we can access it and use that access channel to ask for what we want, and He will say yes. If anything, He wants us to make a cheshbon hanefesh, ask ourselves why God feels it necessary to bring a famine, discover the answer, and make the necessary spiritual repairs.