Yasher Koach!

Yasher Koach!

Delivered at Kehillat Sha'arei Orah, Shabbat Parshat Ekev, 8/20/2022

At the end of this Dvar Torah, it’s entirely possible that an Ashkenazi will wish me a big “yasher koach.” This is, of course, a diminutive of “yishar kokhacha” (not yeyasher kokhacha, as is commonly thought, but that’s for another time). Where does this custom derive from, and what are we trying to convey?

It comes from a classic rabbinic teaching that is based on the verse in this week’s parsha (10:2) as well as Ki Tissa:

וְאֶכְתֹּב֙ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶ֨ת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָי֛וּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר שִׁבַּ֑רְתָּ וְשַׂמְתָּ֖ם בָּאָרֽוֹן׃

In Shabbat 87a, as well as three other passages in the Gemara, Reish Lakish explains that the phrase asher shibarta suggests that yishar kokhacha she-shibarta: God congratulated Moshe for shattering the Tablets.

I have three questions. First, across all the manuscript versions with which I am familiar, this view is attributed to Reish Lakish. What is the significance of this attribution?

Second, the fact that God's cogratulation is formulated in the future tense seems odd. Hashem isn’t congratulating Moshe for breaking the Tablets; He’s saying that Moshe should continue doing the same in the future. This sounds eerily like the Jewish parent whose child received a 98 on a test, and the parent demands to know what happened to the other two points. Except that here it’s even worse. Moshe scored a 100, and Hashem responds, “That’s lovely. Show me a 100 next time too and maybe we can talk.” Why passively-aggressively ignore Moshe’s accomplishments in favor of unrealized future achievements?

Third, the meaning of the phrase itself is unclear. What does God mean when he blesses Moshe that his strength remain straight?

The simplest answer to the meaning of the phrase is the most common explanation: “strength”‘is used as a metaphor for courage. Hashem was congratulating Moshe for making the spontaneous decision to shatter the Tablets in the face of the sin of the Golden Calf, despite Moshe’s inevitable fears that he was engaged in an act of terrible heresy instead of sanctifying  God’s name.

This meaning fits with the Talmudic usage of a similar phrase, חילך לאורייתא, and especially the shortened version “yishar,” which appear nine times throughout the Talmud, and is always used in reference to a questionable position taken by a Talmudic scholar. On this reading, yishar kokhacha means that Moshe should continue to act on the strength of his convictions.

But there is another, more literal meaning. The phrase “yishar kokhacha” appears on only one other occasion in the Gemara - this time in reference to physical strength. The Gemara records the following story at the end of Yevamot:

אני והוא היינו הולכין בדרך ורדף אחרינו גייס ונתלה בייחור תאנה ופשחו והחזיר את הגייס לאחוריו אמרתי לו יישר כחך אריה אמר לי יפה כוונת לשמי שכך קורין אותי בעירי יוחנן בן יונתן אריה דמכפר שיחיא
He and I were traveling on the road together, and a troop of soldiers chased after us. He hung onto a fig branch, and tore it off, and forced the troop to withdraw by intimidating the soldiers with the branch. I said to him: May your strength continue to be firm, lion. He said to me: You have intuited my name well, for that is what they call me in my city: Yoḥanan, son of Yonatan, the lion from the village Shiḥayya.

In this case, the phrase yishar kokhacha clearly denotes not only bravery but physical prowess as well. (Not only does the lion symbolize brute force, but shahya is Aramaic for "armpit" - and armpit hair is a rabbinic symbol for masculinity.) Indeed, we find the same meaning elsewhere in rabbinic literature. Shemot Rabba (20:10) testifies to the power of God by charging us “to declare to the One who performs good deeds, ‘yishar kochacha.’” And regarding Moshe himself we find a similar idea. The midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:32) records that after Moshe, in a display of physical strength, rolls the stone off the well and saves Yitro’s daughters from the Midianite shepherds, Yitro’s daughters congratulated him, “yishar kokhacha for having saved us from the shepherds’ clutches.”

Indeed, we even find this usage regarding Moshe shattering the Tablets: Midrash Lekah Tov uses the phrase “yishar kokhacha she-shibarta” spcifically to congratulate Moshe for having shattered the Tablets with strength.

Which of these interpretations, the metaphoric or literal, applies here?

We can gain further insight from another Talmudic teaching, which suggests that Hashem is invoking both meanings at once. We noted that Reish Lakish is the only authority identifies as the author of our statement. In this context it is noteworthy that it is the same Reish Lakish, who began as a gladiator and was urged by Rabbi Yohanan, “Cheilkha le-Orayta,” to direct his strength to Torah (Bava Metzia 84a). As Rashi comments there, “kama yafeh kokhacha lisbol ol Torah,” "how fitting is your strength to bear the yoke of Torah." Reish Lakish was a physical warrior who harnessed and sublimated his power toward Torah.

And even if the Gemara Bava Metzia suggests that Reish Lakish lost some of his strength - Daniel Boyarin would say he was effeminized - when he accepted the commitment to Torah study, he never lost his physical strength or bravery entirely. The Yerushalmi in Terumot (8:4) teaches that

Rav Imi was captured in a dangerous area. R. Yonatan said, “Wrap the dead in his shrouds.” R. Shimon ben Lakish responded, “I will either kill or be killed, I will go with might and save him.”

And so, kamikaze-style, he entered - and left unscathed. Reish Lakish, before and after his “epiphany,” was no one's pushover.

So I think that it’s no coincidence that Reish Lakish was the one who taught the famous phrase yishar kokhacha she-shibarta; in fact, I think it was autobiographical. Reish Lakish learned that his physical endowments were not meant to be denied in favor of Torah, but redirected toward a life of Torah. Reish Lakish places in God’s mouth the very same blessing to Moshe. In Moshe’s youth, whether by defeating Egyptians or removing well stones, he demonstrated unusual physical strength. Breaking the stone Tablets was not like shattering glass - it was an act of immense physical strength. God’s intention was to encourage him not only to continue acting on his convictions, but also to use his physical strength - his natural gifts - in the worship of God.

For the same reason, it’s not passive-aggressive for Hashem to congratulate Moshe by referring to the future: his blessing was that Moshe take his natural-born talents and continue to apply them in the future.

When I finish speaking, will anyone wish me a yasher koach? We’ll see. But drawing on the model of Reish Lakish and Moshe, I can say with conviction, “yiyasher kochachem.”