HaAzinu 5779

The retractable flame[1]

אם שנותי ברק חרבי ותאחז במפשט ידי וגו’‏
If I’ll whet My flashing[2] blade and My hand will grasp judgement…[3]

This week’s parsha contains Moshe’s parting song to the people. It contains prophetic insights into the Jewish people’s past, present, and future. Verses that seem merely poetic often convey deep concepts. One verse uses the word ברק to describe Hashem’s “blade”. Some2 explain it to connote “flashing”, but it literally means a bolt of lightning. Consequently, the Sages understand[4] the verse homiletically to be teaching us a unique aspect of Hashem’s power. Normally, when a person shoots an arrow, they are unable to retrieve it. Not so the Holy One, blessed is He. When He shoots an arrow, He is able to retrieve it. We see this because the verse describes His arrow as being a bolt of lightning, which is in His grasp. Besides the homiletical teaching, the verse also provides a resolution to a seeming contradiction apparent in one of the Sages’ opinions.

The Jewish day of mourning known as Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Regarding the Second Temple, we are taught[5] that the timeline was that the Romans entered the Temple courtyard on the seventh day of Av, defiled it on the seventh and eighth, and on the ninth, close to evening, they set the Temple on fire. The Temple burned on throughout the tenth until it was completely destroyed. Rabbi Yochanan says that if he was in the generation which established the day of mourning, he would have established it on the tenth of Av, not on the ninth. This is because most of the destruction of the Temple occurred on the tenth. The Sages however disagree, and feel that the beginning of the tragedy, which occurred on the ninth, is more significant an occurrence than its subsequent progression. This statement of Rabbi Yochanan seems to contradict his opinion in a completely different realm: in the laws of damages.

There is a dispute[6] how to understand the Torah’s perspective on arson. If I were to set fire to another’s property, is that looked at as if my property damaged them[7]? Is it the equivalent of my ox destroying their property? Or do we say that it’s as if my arrow was what caused the damage. That is to say, my own force; it would be as if I personally destroyed it. Rabbi Yochanan holds the latter. However, if my fire is looked at as if I am personally burning things, one could ask[8], how is it permissible to light Shabbos candles on Friday? True, the act of lighting the candles is before Shabbos started. But as the fire continues, Rabbi Yochanan understands it that the person is continuously personally lighting the flame. This continues even on Shabbos itself!

As a result of this issue, some[9] want to innovate that even though Rabbi Yochanan says that fire is akin to my arrow, it’s not considered as if I’m continuously causing the flame. Rather, fire is like shooting an arrow. Once the arrow is shot, the entire act is finished. All the resulting damage is a result of that initial act. So too fire, it’s as if all the damage was caused personally by the person. However, it’s all attributed to that initial ignition of the flame. Therefore, there’s no problem lighting Shabbos candles on Friday, as Shabbos hasn’t set in yet. All the resulting burning is attributed to that initial act. This attribution is possible because once the person shot their arrow, they cannot retrieve it. If the Torah looked at the resulting damage as one continuous act, the person should be exempt from payment. Once their initial act completed, the rest was beyond their control. Therefore it must be that everything depends on the initial act. However, this explanation of Rabbi Yochanan now creates a contradiction. If the damage resulting from a person’s arson is considered as if they themselves did all the damage at the initial ignition, why does Rabbi Yochanan care that most of the Temple was burned on the tenth? The initial act of burning was on the ninth. By this logic, all the damage occurred on the ninth[10]!

However, our verse in this week’s parsha could provide a resolution to this contradiction. There are many sources[11] which indicate that although the Romans were the agents for the destruction of the Temple, the real source of the destruction was Hashem Himself. Hashem considers it as if He were the one who set the Temple on fire. That would mean that He, as it were, was the one who “fired the arrow”. Hashem, as noted above, is not like human beings. When Hashem shoots an arrow, He is able to retrieve it, were He to so desire. Therefore, it’s not necessary to say that when Hashem shoots an arrow, all the resulting damage has already occurred. That was only true by Man. So too when it comes to fire. As the fire progresses, each moment is considered as if Hashem was personally igniting that part. Therefore, since most of the Temple was burned on the tenth, Rabbi Yochanan rightly considered, according to his understanding of fire, that the tenth was the more appropriate day to mourn the Temple.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Deuteronomy 32:41

[2] See Rashi ad. loc. s.v. אם שנותי

[3] Deuteronomy loc. cit.

[4] Rashi ad. loc. s.v. אשיב נקם וגו’, referencing Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael and Mechilta D’Rashbi to Exodus 15:3

[5] Taanis 29a

[6] Bava Kamma 22a

[7] This is the opinion of Reish Lakish

[8] Nimukei Yosef ad. loc. (10a in the pages of the Rif) s.v. אשו משום חציו

[9] ibid

[10] This question is also posed by HaMeir LaOlam I § 25 and Zichron Yehonasan Choshen Mishpat § 2. To answer this contradiction, they both differentiate between the liability of the arsonist and the damage occurred to the item itself. The arsonist is personally responsible for all the resulting damage that occurs the moment they ignite the object. However, the object itself is still viewed as having been continuously burned until it is destroyed. As a result, most of the damage done to the Temple was indeed on the tenth. The fact that the Romans were responsible on the ninth is inconsequential to when the day of mourning should be established

[11] Bava Kamma 60b; Sanhedrin 96b; Eichah Rabbah 1:41. See also Nefesh HaChaim 1:4