The Myth of Self-Actualization

My senior year in college, my friends and I organized a party. Having exhausted such themes as “Come as your major” and “sixties revival,” we hit upon what seemed a novel idea: Come as you will be in ten years. Attendees rose to the occasion, coming as Greenpeace activists or genetic engineers. (For the sake of my children’s shidduchim, I decline to state how I came.)

My favorite costume, however, was that of Keith, who dressed in his usual sleeveless sweatshirt and jeans, adorned only with a name tag that read: Keith — self-actualized.

We used to joke that even after achieving self-actualization we would still need therapy to cope with the loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses. I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.”

Readers may be familiar with the story of Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is gabbai of the shul. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is ba’al tefillah for the Yomim Noroyim. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva fills in for the rav giving the Shabbos shiur. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is respected by everyone in the community. So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.

How many of us became ba’alei tshuva because the ideals of Torah attracted us by their truth and their beauty, because of the kedusha of the Shabbos table and the exultation of Simchas Torah? And how many of us subsequently came to question why, if the ideal was so inspiring, did the reality leave so much to be desired? How many of us gradually learned to cope by lowering our expectations for the community, and then, inevitably, for ourselves, only to wonder somewhere down the line what happened to us, to our enthusiasm, to our idealism?

And how many of us grew bitter, convinced that if only our communities were stronger, we could be so much stronger ourselves?

Is this self-actualization?

In a series of letters I exchanged a few years back with Rav Mendel Weinbach, shlita, of Ohr Somayach, I repeatedly vented my frustrations with this or that failing of Klal Yisroel. Rav Mendel never told me I was wrong, never chastised me for my intolerance, never ordered me to clean up my own house before I condemned others and theirs.

What did he tell me? Quite simply, he said: We’re in galus. This is galus.

It’s easy to become cynical, and it’s easy to justify our cynicism because there’s so much about which to be cynical. But we gain nothing through our righteous indignation, except to distract ourselves from our real avodah. Indeed, it’s possible that the ikkar avodah of the self-actualized Torah Jew is to accept the imperfections in the world around him, to understand that the world will only be perfect when we have perfected ourselves as avdei HaShem, and that fixating on the shortcomings of others only serves to prolong the galus. On the other hand, by striving to better ourselves we not only shorten the galus but ease our own passage through galus until Moshiach brings it to its final end.

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006

Norman

It was my third month at Ohr Somayach, and I had only recently come around to acknowledging the truth of the Torah and recognizing my obligation to keep the mitzvos.

Shabbos was easy; after all, eating, singing, and sleeping didn’t put too much strain on my impulse-control mechanism. Kashrus was easy; I had little money and ate exclusively in the yeshiva cafeteria and by my Shabbos hosts. Mincha and maariv weren’t too challenging, although I still davened in English.

Shacharis was a different story. After four years of college, my body clock had long been set for 9:00 wakeup, and rousing myself for 6:45 seemed downright fanatical. At that point in my Torah observance, I wasn’t even motivated to try.

My new roommate was motivated, but his body clock wasn’t any more cooperative than mine. He dealt with his problem by placing a smoke-alarm style alarm clock on the other side of the room. It took about 15 minutes of ear-splitting buzzing for him to get himself out of bed to turn it off. It took me about three weeks to move out.

I was just settling into my new room when Norman arrived. He didn’t want to be there, and he had no interest in Torah. In fact, he seemed to have little interest in anything at all … except girls. But his grandmother had offered to pay him a thousand dollars (or was it two thousand?) if he attended yeshiva for six weeks. So there he was, serving his time and sharing my room.

It was one of the most exciting periods in my life, challenging Rav Dovid Gottleib as he articulated the fundamentals of Torah philosophy, trying to pick apart his arguments and proofs, struggling to integrate my past into my present, and vexing over how much of my former life could be salvaged and how much would have to be discarded.

Norman wasn’t vexing over anything. He was just doing time.

Which is not to say that he was not engaged. He argued, he debated, he listened to our rabbeim present their ideas and their proofs and tried to rebut them. But never for an instant did he seem to seriously consider the possibility that he might some day become Torah observant himself.

I remember the day he packed up to leave. I asked him what impression six weeks in yeshiva had made on him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his answer.

“The rabbis are right,” he said. “They’ve answered all my questions. Their proofs are all sound. I can’t refute anything they’ve said.”

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Nothing. I like chasing girls.”

I still can’t understand his answer. He could have said that the concept of an infinite G-d is too grand and abstract for him to accept. He could have said that he believed that rabbinic logic was polished sophistry, and that the rabbis’ arguments were smoke and mirrors. He could have said a lot of things that I might have understood. But his essential rejection of mitzvah observance boiled down to this:

“The Torah is true. But I don’t care.”

How is it possible not to care? Perhaps this question is particularly poignant for ba’alei tshuva. Why else would we have recast our entire lives and worldviews, except because of the compelling magnetism of Torah? We can’t help but take the indifference of others personally, for it seems to negate everything we have done and everything we have come to believe.

After many years in chinuch, I’ve become adept at explaining answers to the same questions I posed to my rabbeim half a lifetime ago. I can teach ideas. I can teach information. I can teach skills. Sometimes I manage to inspire my students, and occasionally I can even get them to think. But the question that still haunts me the most, the one I still haven’t begun to answer, is this:

How do you teach someone else to care?

Maybe there is no answer. Maybe the only answer is that those of us who do care have to push ourselves to care even more.

Originally Published 02/13/2008

The Second Amendment and the Oral Law

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Timeless Wisdom for Modern Times

As president Obama embarks upon his latest unilateral campaign to repair the world, this time by expanding restrictions on gun ownership, it’s worth revisiting my article on the Second Amendment from 2010.

Perhaps the greatest danger to the Constitution is manipulating its words to validate predetermined conclusions. By doing so, we violate the talmudic admonition against making the law “a spade for digging,” i.e., a tool to advance our own ends.

To preserve constitutional integrity, we have to familiarize ourselves with the context of its times, then apply those observations to the times in which we live. That only works when we are committed to honoring the system, rather than exploiting the system to fit our own agenda.

Last month’s Supreme Court ruling affirming Second Amendment states’ rights (and coinciding with the predictable Republican grilling of Supreme Court nominee Elana Kagan over the same issue) has brought back into the spotlight the constitutional ambiguity regarding gun ownership in the U.S. of A.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. So states the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. At first glance, the stipulation seems clear enough. American citizens may own guns, plain and simple.

Or maybe not. The qualifying phrase that introduces the amendment appears to restrict constitutional protection to dependence upon a militia, or citizen army, to defend the nation. Accordingly, in times such as ours, when a standing army has assumed responsibility for the common defense, there may be no constitutional guarantee at all. And so, on second thought, the amendment seems to clearly limit the extent of private gun ownership.

Or, again, maybe not.

Perhaps the Founding Fathers meant that, since every citizen ultimately owns an equal share of the responsibility to defend his country, the right to bear arms is part and parcel of each person’s national duty to fight for the public welfare should the need ever arise. This would explain why the authors of the amendment might have mentioned a militia even if they never meant to restrict said right.

So what was the original intent of the Framers? If they were here, we could ask them. Since they are not, each side seems to have a fair and reasoned claim to support its respective position.

Is there any way to resolve the question of what was intended by men who passed away long before our grandfathers were born?

In fact, there may be.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Imagine that, as you pass by a window, you see a man wearing a mask raise a knife and plunge it into the chest of another man lying prone beneath him. You scream for the police, certain that you have just witnessed a murder.

Or, yet again, maybe not.

Now imagine that you were unfamiliar with the concept of open-heart surgery. Only after the police arrive and explain that the man in the mask is a surgeon working to repair the heart of the man on the table beside him will you understand that he is in fact saving a life and not taking one.

Context is everything. It orients us in time, space, and circumstance, transforms isolated acts into links in a chain of connected events, none of which can be understood in isolation. And so, if the words of our forebears sometimes appear to us muddled or imprecise, the surest way to achieve clarity is to examine comments and opinions from the same thinkers and the same era.

Here are a few examples to provide historical context:

James Madison, on the principle of individual rights: [A bill of rights] should more especially comprise a doctrine in favour of the equality of human rights; of the liberty of conscience in matters of religious faith, of speech and of the press; of the trial by jury… of the writ of habeas corpus; of the right to keep and bear arms.

Massachusetts Representative Fisher Ames: The rights of conscience, of bearing arms, of changing the government, are declared to be inherent in the people.

Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, contributor to the drafting of the Constitution:The defense of one’s self, justly called the primary law of nature, is not, nor can it be abrogated by any regulation of municipal law.

Vice President Elbridge Gerry, signatory to the Declaration of Independence, on national defense: What, sir, is the use of militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty.

In the context of the times, the intention of the Framers becomes difficult to debate. Only in relatively recent times, when the concept of a militia has become an anachronism, has it become possible to question the true meaning of the Second Amendment.

PRESERVING THE INTEGRITY OF THE LAW

Is there any way for words to retain their clarity despite the persistent evolution of cultural references and values? Is there any method for protecting ideas from the ravages of changing times and sensitivities?

Indeed there is. It predates the United States Constitution by 31 centuries, and it is called the Oral Law of the Torah.

Consider these biblical commandments:

Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy… And this will be a sign upon your arm and a remembrance between your eyes … Slaughter your [livestock] in the manner that I have prescribed… Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.

These precepts, as they are written in the Torah, are impossible to observe. What does it mean to keep the Sabbath “holy,” and what actions — if any — are required to “remember” it? What kind of sign are we to place upon our arms, if elsewhere the Torah prohibits the application of any tattoo, and how do we place a “remembrance” between our eyes? Nowhere does the Torah outline any prescription for ritual slaughter, nor does it imply what is commonly understood, that that the prohibition against cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk extends to every mixture of meat and dairy products.

In spite of these and many other ambiguities, the basic practices of the Torah observant community have remained essentially unchanged for over 3300 years. The explanation is simple. Unlike the family encyclopedia which once gathered dust on the shelf and now gathers dust on the CD rack, the Oral Torah forces every committed Jew to see himself as custodian of a living tradition that connects him with the origins of his identity and enables him to live in the modern world without compromising the values of his ancestors.

No longer purely oral, the discussions and debates of past authorities have been recorded for their children in the writings of the Talmud and the commentaries that elucidate them. Unlike the records left behind by the Framers of the Constitution, however, these records have become canonized as part of the structure and process through which Jewish law is determined in each and every generation. Even when questions and disagreements arise, there is no debate within the Torah community over the methods through which answers and solutions are to be found.

Society changes, technology changes, and the values of human beings twist in the winds of time like a weather vane spinning before a storm. Electricity, automobiles, computers, cloning, and in vitro fertilization may have once been unimagined, but we have inherited a legacy that teaches us how those earlier generations would have resolved the problems of our changing world if they were here themselves today. And so the Torah Jew never loses his bearings, for he is guided by the words of his forefathers and finds comfort in the knowledge that the ancient wisdom of the Torah will never become stagnant, corrupted, or out of date.

As my teacher Rabbi Nota Schiller often says, the Oral Torah allows the Jews to change enough to stay the same.

Originally published by Jewish World Review

Der Meistersingers of Athens – What’s Up with the Tune for Maoz Tzur?

Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Xmas carols. Maybe it’s because what passes for Jewish music these days is frequently Jewish words grafted onto pop or rock instrumentals. Or maybe it’s because the perpetually waning enthusiasm I see in our young people today might be stemmed if we helped them tap into their neshomas rather than strengthening their connection with secular culture.

I suppose it’s really all three and more. But the bottom line is this: the one thing I despise about Chanukah is the pervasive, annoying, and distinctly un-Jewish niggun the whole world sings to Maoz Tzur – evoking not the heroism of the Hasmoneans but the flaky ambivalence of “Rock of Ages” and the red-suited jolliness of “Good King Wenceslas.”

It should come as no surprise that our popular Maoz Tzur sounds so goyish. It’s been traced back to an old German drinking song, and before that to the 16th Century hymns of the Benedictine Monks. I guess it fits right in with the inescapable practice of gift-giving, also borrowed from Christian society.

I know there are those who don’t object to borrowing Gentile melodies for our niggunim. But why can’t we borrow something that’s worth borrowing? Why do we have to embrace a tune that sounds like it should be accompanied by fat carolers sporting white cotton beards? And if we have to sing it, why can’t we limit it to Maoz Tzur and not repeat it endlessly in Lecha Dodi, Birkas HaChodesh, Shabbos morning kedusha, and twice in Hallel?

Above all, why doesn’t it bother us that on this of all holidays, the season when we celebrate the integrity of Jewish culture, we define our celebration by embracing the culture of Eisav, the culture that continues to dominate us in our final exile and which stands between us and the coming of Moshiach?

What’s that? You don’t know any other niggun? Call me, and I’ll hum a few for your over the phone.

Check out Rabbi Goldson’s latest articles at yonasongoldson.com.

Originally Published December 2008

If You Could Be Supergirl

The new CBS drama “Supergirl” premiered last night to surprisingly positive reviews. (No, I didn’t watch it.) Critics liked the return to an all-American, disarmingly optimistic protagonist after the recent rash of moody, brooding, self-doubting superheros who spend one moment saving the world and the next wallowing in their own personal angst.

Perhaps “Supergirl” is a step back toward lost innocence, and maybe a step forward toward a future when traditionalists don’t have to apologize for their commitment to traditional values.

We can only hope, and contemplate these thoughts on heroism, which were originally published in 2008 on Aish.com.

If You Could Be Superman

The question caught me off guard, which doesn’t happen often after 15 years in the classroom. “If you could have any superpower,” asked Aliza, the ‘reporter’ for the school newspaper, “which would you choose?”

I pondered my choices. Super strength? Invisibility? Mind control? X-ray vision? I wouldn’t like becoming a green mutant like the Incredible Hulk, but swinging on webbed ropes like Spiderman might be cool.

The question is more than a variation on the genie-in-the-bottle scenario. Three wishes make narrowing the field of possibilities much easier, and focus on what you want to have, as opposed to who you want to be.

Ironically, it was two Jews who brought the whole genre of superheroes into the collective consciousness of popular culture. In 1933 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, responded to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany by reinventing their comic character, Superman, as a defender of truth, justice, and the American way. The only time they couldn’t work on their project was Thursday nights, when their “drawing board” was confiscated by Joe’s mother, who used it to knead the dough for her Shabbos challah.

Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, and the Green Lantern were all created by Jews as well. For the not-yet assimilated Jew trying to find his place in gentile society, the invincible alter ego of the mild-mannered misfit was the perfect symbol of cultural ambivalence.

Jewish tradition has its share of larger than life heroes. Samson defeated the Philistines with superhuman strength. Jacob’s son Naftali possessed supernatural speed. The biblical prophets predicted the future and performed countless miracles, including at least two incidents of resurrecting the dead. The kabbalistic literature includes credible accounts of sages possessing knowledge of other’s secret thoughts or personal histories.

A proper understanding of these narratives requires an appreciation that the personalities in the Bible are not cartoon characters. Moses was infinitely greater than Charlton Heston could ever make him out to be, and the memory of Samson is poorly served by his common portrayal as a World Wrestling Federation caricature. The biblical heroes of Judaism were real people who, through extraordinary dedication and self-sacrifice, achieved extraordinary things.

The Responsibilities Of Power

Nevertheless, there is a critical point in common between the heroes of Jewish tradition and the heroes of comic book fantasy: all recognized that their unique talents and abilities obligated them in service beyond individual self-interest. As Cliff Robertson says to Tobey Maguire in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility”.

crossing-the-red-seaThe heroes of the Bible did not seek greatness. Moses tried to argue his way out of the yoke of national leadership. The prophet Jeremiah protested that he was too young and inexperienced to rebuke his fellow Jews. Samson’s divine mission was prophesied before his birth. Yet each of them rose to the responsibility imposed upon him by the power with which he was endowed by his Creator.

Consider the structure of the Jew’s daily prayer, composed by the sages to include every possible category of request. We ask for knowledge, so that we can know the difference between right and wrong. We ask for forgiveness, repentance, redemption from our problems, health, guidance, and for the arrival of the messianic era. In short, we ask for the Almighty to bestow upon us the resources we need to help bring His plan for creation closer to its fulfillment.

None of which requires superpower.

The Real Heroes

So what should one ask of his Creator? It is with this request that the devout Jew begins his day: Bring us not into the hands of careless sin or wanton transgression, nor into the hands of trials or disgrace; let us not fall under the dominion of the inclination to do evil, and distance us from wicked men and every wicked companion. We do not ask for super power to defeat our enemies, but for the inner strength and the divine protection to rule over ourselves.

The attraction of superhuman power and the mystique of superheroes springs forth from a romantic adventurism that renders ordinary life unsatisfying by comparison. We find our lives mundane and therefore long for the excitement of fantasy. We discard the value of the everyday and seek to live vicariously through the imagined and the unattainable.

It is noteworthy, therefore, that Biblical Hebrew contains no word for either romance or adventure. These are concepts of the modern world, both of them betraying the modern world’s dissatisfaction with reality.

So what superpower would I ask for? I still can’t say. And when I asked a group of my students, not one would commit to an answer. Perhaps our reticence comes from our innate appreciation that we are already supermen by virtue of the soul that resides within us. How else to explain the courage that compels human beings to battle daily against ignorance, prejudice, laziness, impatience, dishonesty, and deceit. To conquer those enemies, day after day and year after year, and to return to the fight when they have conquered us — this is the measure of true heroism.

We don’t need super powers to become extraordinary. Striving to fulfill the potential with which we were endowed by our Creator makes us the greatest hero of all.

Take a look at Rabbi Goldson’s latest book: Proverbial Beauty: Learn to Love Life.

Offering Up Our Egos on the Altar of Elul

I was recently reminded of an incident that happened nearly 20 years ago. In the English-speaking beis midrash where I learned, smoking was strictly forbidden. The Israelis who davened with us respected the rule even with, according to their cultural predisposition, they couldn’t quite understand it.

On one occasion, a young Israeli new the community lit up right after davening. I was standing near by and asked him politely to put out his cigarette. He waved me away without breaking his conversation. I asked him again, this time more forcefully. This time he complied, extinguishing his cigarette on my sleeve. The other Israeli with whom he had been speaking was considerably more outraged than I was. The young man shrugged his shoulders and walked away with a chuckle.

I didn’t see this young fellow often, but on the infrequent occasions I did I made a point of setting my face into the fiercest scowl I could manage.

It must have been nearly a year later, possibly in Elul, although I can’t say for sure. I was walking along one Shabbos afternoon and spotted the young man coming toward me. As I prepared to scowl at him, I suddenly asked myself what I hoped to accomplish. Surprising myself as much as him, I relaxed my expression and said, “Gut Shabbos.” I don’t remember whether or not he answered me.

Less than a week later there was a knock on my door. Guess who? Yes, it was the same young man holding a stack of seforim in his hands. He offered them to me, and I gave him a quizzical look. He said he wanted to ask forgiveness for the incident with the cigarette.

How little effort it required to restore shalom! How great a reward for so tiny an investment. And yet, how difficult was it for me to make the decision to turn my scowl into words of greeting.

Perhaps, if we thought more about how much we can accomplish through such small expenditures of effort, we would find it easier to set aside our petty egos and choose to do what’s right.

Please visit Rabbi Goldson’s blog Torah Ideals.
Originally Posted Aug 28, 2008

Wake Up and Smell the Bacon

It was my first visit back to my parents’ house since I became frum. Over a year had passed, a year without the king-size bed in their guest room, without central heating, without 24/7 access to a fully stocked fridge and cupboard. My mother had, most graciously, stocked up on every kind of O-U foodstuff she could find on the supermarket shelves.

My father, on the other hand, hadn’t spoken to me for half a year.

I felt some trepidation, leaving the womb of yeshiva for the spiritual wilderness of Palm Springs, CA and a secular home. I hardly felt competent to survive without my rabbeim at arm’s reach and without a local makolet that stocked only glatt-kosher food. I had no notion what I would do if a question came up on Shabbos that wasn’t addressed in my English translation of Shemirath Shabbath. I wasn’t even certain how to manage lighting my oil menorah for Chanukah — I had never used anything other than 30 minute candles.

But what I really wasn’t ready for was the first real evidence of how much I had changed.

I woke up my first morning back, not contemplating the luxury of my overlarge bed, but rather with mild bewilderment as my first conscious thought formed around the question, “What is that horrible smell?” It permeated my room, suggesting something dead and rancid, and it seemed incongruous with the obsessive cleanliness that dominated every corner of my mother’s house.

I don’t remember whether I finally identified the odor on my own, or whether I actually had to go out and investigate. But I do remember the source.

Bacon. A whole pound of bacon sizzling in the oven.

Let me explain. Before becoming frum, there was no food in the world that I enjoyed more than bacon. I could eat as much of it as anyone could cook up and serve me. Forget the eggs. Skip the flapjacks. Pass on the toast. Nothing else was worth eating if bacon was on the menu.

So that first morning back my father had started cooking, hoping that powerful aroma of cured pig flesh would penetrate my sinuses and my psyche, vanquishing the religious fanaticism that had taken hold of his once-sensible son.

It’s not remarkable that Dad’s plan didn’t work. Anyone who exchanges a year’s commitment to Torah for a whiff of bacon was never really committed to begin with. What is so remarkable is that an aroma that had previously aroused my senses like the fragrance of Gan Eden now turned my stomach before I even recognized what it was.

This, I realized, is the power of Torah. The power to transform us, to change who we are so that even our temptations change. I would later hear my Rosh Yeshiva say many times that, more than anything else, our yeitzer hara shows us where we are up to in the world. The desires that tempt us at one point in our development later hold no attraction for us because we are no longer the people we once were. As we become more spiritually refined, so too do our physical and material impulses adapt to challenge us on our new level.

I often wonder if, as ba’alei tshuva, we sell ourselves short, waxing nostalgic over the days when we were “free” to do as we pleased, or setting too modest goals because we think it unreasonable to expect more from ourselves. What a pity if we don’t appreciate how much we have changed, and how we can continue changing and growing with every day and week and year.

Blast from the past first published Jun 14, 2006

Fathers and Sons

Students of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmudic law, allegory, and mysticism, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, places Rashi in a class by himself. With deceptive simplicity, he draws our attention to the most profound nuances and gently forces us to consider scriptural anomalies, weaving the breadth and depth of Torah wisdom into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.

Consequently, few things make scholars more nervous than Rashi appearing to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.

And Elokoim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, “I am HaShem; and I appeared to your forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, as Keil Shakkai, but My name HaShem I did not make known to them” (Shmos 6:2-3).

(This will get a bit technical, but bear with me; the payoff will make it all worthwhile.)
Rashi begins by explaining that scripture’s use of the name Elokim – referring to G-d’s attribute of justice – places our verse in its proper context as a response to Moshe’s complaint at the end of last week’s parsha: “My Master, why have you brought evil (i.e., injustice) upon this people, and why have you sent me?”

Rashi’s next comment addresses the shift from Elokim to the name HaShem (Y-H-V-H), which represents the divine attribute of mercy and here implies the fulfillment of promises; even though G-d had in fact identified Himself to the patriarchs using the name HaShem, He never revealed Himself to them as such by fulfilling His promise to give them the Land of Israel, a promise that would only be realized in future generations. Rather, He appeared to them as Keil Shakkai, a name descriptive of potential power and self-restraint.

It is Rashi’s next comment, however, that confounds us. On the words And I appeared, Rashi offers this observation: to the patriarchs.

Why is this remark so puzzling? For one thing, in the very next breath the verse itself tells us that HaShem had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for another, there are only three patriarchs of the Jewish people. So why did Rashi feel the need to explain what is glaringly self-evident?

*****

The Zohar, the classic book of Jewish mysticism, explains that Torah wisdom is both inherited and acquired. It is the hope of every teacher and parent that our students and children will surpass us in knowledge and wisdom. Even so, if not for the wisdom handed down to parents and teachers by previous generations, no child would have the foundation necessary to attain any level of accomplishment at all. Even Moshe the Lawgiver, whose unparalleled mastery of piety and spiritual wisdom sets him apart from every other figure in Jewish tradition, built his own achievements upon the spiritual foundations of his forebears.

However, to this rule there are three exceptions: Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov – the avos, or patriarchs — so called because they had no one else from whom to learn and no one else’s accomplishments upon which to build.

Born into a generation in which all knowledge of HaShem had been effectively forgotten, Avrohom came on his own to a recognition of his Creator and spent his life developing within himself the attribute of chesed – lovingkindness – the perfection of mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments between man and his fellow. And although Yitzchok inherited from his father a knowledge of the Almighty, he nevertheless labored to develop within himself the entirely different quality of gevurah – spiritual self-discipline – with no model from whom to learn the process of perfecting mitzvos bein adam L’Makom, commandments between man and G-d.

Finally, as much as Yaakov learned chesed from Avrohom and gevurah from Yitzchok, he had no model for how to perfect within himself mitzvos bein adam l’atzmo, commandments between man and himself, by blending the mutually exclusive qualities of his father and grandfather into a new attribute called emes – ultimate spiritual truth.

Henceforth, with these three qualities woven into the spiritual fabric of the universe and implanted as the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people, all Torah achievement rests upon the foundations of the patriarchs.

What does all this have to do with our parsha? Maskil L’Dovid explains that Rashi recognized an allusion to this profound and mystical lesson in HaShem’s reply to Moshe.
*****
According to Sfas Emes, Moshe had calculated that the suffering of Jews in Egypt was enough to tilt the scales justice in favor of their redemption, thus prompting his complaint that Hashem “had brought evil upon this people.” If the accounting balanced, argued Moshe, then to make the people suffer further was not only pointless but unjust.

What Moshe could not have realized was that, even if the Jews of this generation did not deserve further oppression, the survival of future generations would depend upon the collective suffering experienced by the Jewish people now. That suffering, apparently without just cause, would not only harden the Jewish people so that they could survive thousands of years of tribulations, but would also provide them “credit” against future transgressions to protect them from the harshness of divine judgment later on.

In response to Moshe’s complaint, HaShem rebuked him not for his reasoning but for his lack of trust. “I appeared to the avos,” said HaShem, “not because of merit they had inherited from their forebears but because of merit earned by what they made of themselves. And although none of them saw his life’s work come to fruition, they never wavered in their trust that I would ultimately fulfill the promises I made to them.

“That trust,” explained HaShem, “is the basis of how they became great, how they became the patriarchs whose merit has brought you to the cusp of redemption, just as the merit of your generation will stand by those who come later. So how can you complain to me now, where they never opened their mouths against Me?”

Three times a day, we begin our silent prayer by acknowledging our relationship with HaShem – our G-d and the G-d of our fathers. By standing upon the shoulders of those who came before us, we benefit as the inheritors of a monumental spiritual legacy; at the same time, we acquire our own merit as the avos of our children, who will themselves benefit from what we accomplish.
The power of each — merit received and merit earned — and the power of both together, is beyond comprehension. And the trust we have in that power, especially in the darkest of times, is the key to our ultimate redemption.

Rabbi Goldson writes at http://torahideals.com

The Candles and the Tree

It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.

My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”

“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn’t know, either.

A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.

Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.

When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.

Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.

Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.

But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.

I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.

Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.

Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.

Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.

Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.

Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.

When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they originally banned only three practices: Shabbos, bris milah, and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.

The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Bris milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.

The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to more oppressive decrees and, ultimately, to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Shabbos, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the bris, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.

Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new synchronism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the flame of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.

Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.

But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.

In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own children are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They have always known that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older, they come to appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.

Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.

Originally Posted on Dec 23rd, 2007

My Intolerance of the Faithful

The moment the rabbi walked through the door all the students jumped to their feet… and I looked about desperately for a way out of the room.

The rabbi wore a long coat, a wide, antiquated black hat, an untrimmed beard, Coke-bottle spectacles and, incredibly, sidelocks. I knew — I just knew — what was going to happen next: the rabbi would lecture us in a thick German accent and tell us we were all damned to hell. There was no way I could sit through such an ordeal.

But I had taken a seat in the far back corner of the room and now found myself trapped by the crowd of glassy-eyed acolytes eager to drink in the torrent of demagoguery that was about to come our way. I would have made a spectacle of myself climbing over people to get out. Instead, I slumped back in my chair and told myself that I could survive anything for an hour.

Then the rabbi began to speak. I leaned forward, immediately drawn in by an introduction as elegant and articulate as if he had been an Ivy League academic.

Which he was, despite his Chasidic garb: a former professor at Johns Hopkins University, in fact. Over the next two months, he systematically shattered my stereotypes and dismantled my arguments against the existence of G-d and Torah from Sinai, drawing upon proofs from science, history, and human psychology, which he wove together in a tapestry of irrefutable logic. Three decades later, my mind still returns to his lectures as I teach my own students.

Imagine how differently I might view the world today had I seated myself nearer the door on that fateful morning half a lifetime ago.

The kind of ignorance of which I was guilty was far more excusable than that of the Forward’s contributing editor Jay Michaelson, whose selectively documented hit-piece against traditional Torah observance proves Alexander Pope’s famous observation that a little learning is a dangerous thing.

In a drive-by “editorial” not worthy of a hyperlink, Mr. Michaelson spews forth with an eruption of pure vitriol prompted by the most egregious violation of politically correct jurisprudence: non-conformity to liberal ideology. Here are some representative excerpts:

Call them what you will — ultra-Orthodox Jews, “fervently Orthodox” Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic…

[M]ainstream American Jewish organizations must stop pretending to have common cause with Jewish fundamentalists. Just as mainline Christian denominations recognize Christian fundamentalism to be a threat to their religious values, so the mainstream of Jewish denominations — including Modern Orthodoxy — must recognize that this distortion of Judaism is actively destructive to Judaism itself.

Like Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is extremely new. It arose in response to modernity, and it radically changed Jewish values. Formerly, the Jewish mainstream balanced strictness and leniency: In the battle between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel, Hillel always won.

But the Haredi world is a phalanx of Shammais. The strictest is always the best. Moses wore a shtreimel, the fur hat that many married Haredi men wear, at the Red Sea. Scientific knowledge is evil. These are radically new Jewish ideas presented as radically old ones. Those of us who do not share them must recognize them as a threat.

Of course, human nature being what it is, the Torah community is not perfect. We have our lapses and even our outrages, like the indefensible violent zealotry against the so-called women of the wall. We have those among us who succumb to the same superficiality that characterizes popular culture and those who cross legal or moral boundaries under the burden of financial pressure.

But to overlook the Torah community’s extraordinary acts of kindness, charity, and devotion to the traditions handed down over a hundred generations in apoplectic rant against back hats and Talmudic scholarship is disingenuous at best and pathological at worst. What Mr. Michaelson denounces as “fundamentalism” is in truth the selfless commitment to the path of our forefathers, without which the Jewish people would have become extinct many centuries ago.

And no, Mr. Michaelson, no one believes that Moses wore a fur hat when he split the Sea.

Neither does the Torah community have any quarrel with science. Indeed, a growing community of Orthodox physicists, biologists, and chemists make an articulate case for reconciling Torah and science, and they convincingly expose the myopic fallacies indulged by secularists unwilling to concede the limits of their own understanding.

Finally, before Mr. Michaelson repeats his condemnation against the philosophy of the great sage Shammai, he might want to do his homework. One of Judaism’s most famous maxims in Talmudic literature is recorded in the name of Shammai: Greet every person with a cheerful countenance. “Every person” — even those who froth at the mouth and defame you without cause or justification.

It is sadly ironic how the self-appointed defenders of free speech and ideological tolerance consider themselves exempt from both tolerance and civility toward those whose values might force them to question their own. The Forward does its readers a disservice by providing a platform to drive the stake of senseless hatred ever deeper into the heart of the Jewish community.

Originally published on Jewish World Review here.

American Pie Purim

It’s become a tradition here in St. Louis that my wife and I invite the Yeshiva High School senior boys over each year for our Purim seuda. Given the logistics of our house, the males gather around a long table in the den while the women watch in amusement and, occasionally, dismay from the relative safety of the dining room. How my wife prepares enough food to satisfy the appetites of a minyan of teenage bochurim is one of the great mysteries of life.

I begin with the Reading of the Rules (e.g., anyone who feels sick must make it to an emergency exit before, well, you know), move swiftly through a parody of kiddush, then come to the main part of the celebration, where I introduce all the students in turn with lyrical grahamen and they earn their fare by presenting divrei Torah. When the last one is finished, I give my own davar Torah, which somehow weaves together all of theirs in sequence. (Don’t be too impressed; it’s a lot easier to do drunk than sober.)

Lower classmen, although not officially invited to the meal, often drop in as do graduates who happen to be in town, for a chance to see the effects of a full bottle of wine on their unswervingly staid rebbe. (According to rumor, I never loosen my tie). It’s also not often that a bochur gets to hear his rebbe perform a drop-dead, Paul Robeson rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

But the highlight of the afternoon festivities (which typically run between three and four hours) is my annual exegesis of Don Maclean’s American Pie.

The references are a bit dated for today’s teenagers, although they still know Buddy Holly (the music), Mick Jagger (Satan), Elvis (the king), and Bob Dylan (the jester), and they usually get the Lennon-Lenin pun. Such references as Charles Manson (helter-skelter), the sock-hop, Woodstock, James Dean, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (the “sweet perfume” may be tear gas) require a bit more explanation. And a few of the lyrics need editing (e.g., the Father, Son, and Casper the Ghost). Don Maclean’s message of modern music’s messianic hope and ultimate failure seems to resonate well within the spiritually complex structure of Purim.

I suppose some might suggest that I am degrading Purim, introducing the secular, the mundane, even the profane into avodas haKodesh. And although I generally avoid listening to modern music with its coarse or often heretical lyrics, although I never insert secular melodies into Shabbos davening or Shabbos zemiros, although I struggle to squelch discussions of baseball whenever they turn up at the Shabbos table, I would argue that Purim, with its theme of blurring the boundaries between Mordechai and Haman, is different. Moreover, I would argue that Purim offers a unique opportunity to resurrect, selectively and briefly, the ghost of my secular past as a demonstration of the need to strike a balance between the spiritual and the physical.

Who can measure the impact on Amerian kids of the lingering memories of a Purim celebration that integrates the culture they find so enticing without losing focus on avodas HaShem? And what could ever have replaced what has become my trademark Purim schtick if I hadn’t learned American Pie way back when?

First published Fev 28, 2008

Song, Hope and Salvation in Honor of the L’Chaim of Yaakov and Amanda

An elaboration of remarks made this week at the l’chaim for my son Yaakov and his kallah, Amanda:

It’s especially fitting to celebrate an engagement this week, when we will observe Shabbos Shira. It’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Egypt when, after watching the systematic and miraculous obliteration of the empire that had oppressed them for generations, after witnessing the death of four-fifths of their brethren who refused to trust in the hand of heaven, after setting forth into the forbidding desert with great wealth and fanfare, after finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the unyielding sea – after all that, to launch themselves forward between towering walls of water may have been the only option available to them but was by no means a simple act of self-preservation.

Panic, desperation, terror, relief, and disbelief – all these emotions caromed back and forth through their collective consciousness as they raced forward into uncertainty. And, as they came out soundly on the other side, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings coalesced into a divinely inspired harmony we call the Shir Shel Yam – the Song of the Sea.

For all that, the commentaries all question the syntax of the opening phrase, Oz yoshir Moshe u’vnei Yisroel – contextually translated as, “Then, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang,” but curiously rendered in the future tense rather than the past. Explains the Sfas Emes: although the people were inspired to sing as they passed through the sea, their preoccupation with the practical business of fleeing for their lives demanded that their lyrical expression of elation would have to wait until their salvation was completed.

And so we learn that Hashem is closest to us not during those times when we have already connected with Him, but rather when we are seeking Him with the sense that revelation is nearly within reach. Naturally, we express our deepest gratitude after we have been saved. But our most intimate connection with the Almighty comes during those moments when salvation is imminent but not yet complete. Only then can we experience the spiritual intensity of absolute dependence upon divine intervention even as we see our redemption unfolding before our eyes.

Indeed, the Zohar tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu felt humbled when he beheld prophetically the generation before the coming of Moshiach. For Moshe, who lived in an era of open miracles and divine revelation, it seemed a simple matter to trust in Hashem and His providence. But to live in a generation of such spiritual darkness that even the faintest glimmer of divine light seemed to have vanished, and to retain nevertheless even the smallest shred of faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah – that was something the Moshe himself could not fathom; that was the source of his profound humility.

We find ourselves in such a generation, so much so that it’s easy for us to reckon ourselves like King Louis XV of France who said, “Things may last my time, but after me – le deluge.”

It’s terrifying to contemplate the world in which our grandchildren will grow up and the storms our children will have to navigate. But on the occasion of this l’chaim, I’m filled with hope.

The Danger Of Lowering Our Expectations

In a recently letter to the editor of Jewish Action, Dr. Bernard H. White of Dallas, Texas, responded to an editorial by Dr. Simcha Katz, in which the OU president recounted the story of a young man who, although the product of a prominent Jewish day school and high school system, confessed to feeling “ignorant of Judaism” even after a year in Israel. Dr. White observed:

It is likely that Sam’s parents spent about a quarter-million dollars on his Jewish education, only to end up with an “ignorant” product. What a devastating indictment of the education we are providing to the next generation.

Unfortunately, Jewish schools and educators have not been immune to the lunacy sweeping the educational enterprise—suppression of competition, safeguarding students’ feelings at all costs, promoting self-esteem over academic achievement and dumbing down coursework to the level of the least-capable student. What has been lost is the insistence on excellence, an aggressive curriculum of core subjects (both Jewish and secular) and devotion to hard work.

The truth is that this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it goes back to nearly 2,800 years ago and, in a very real sense, it lies at the heart of all the problems that have plagued the Jewish people ever since.

The Jewish nation reached its halcyon days early in the reign of Shlomo HaMelech. The kingdom was secure from its enemies, its monarchy firmly established, its sphere of influence extending as far as Babylon, its Temple the single greatest wonder of the world. The people lived according to the dictates and values of the Torah, their spiritual integrity rewarded by Hashem’s blessing for material wealth. The opportunity to usher in the messianic era seemed palpably within their grasp.

But that potential was never realized. The introduction of idolatry by Shlomo’s foreign wives eroded the nation’s merit and caused the kingdom to be split in two. And although the separate kingdoms might have both prospered, the corrosive paranoia of King Yerovom of Yisroel propelled his people into a downward spiral culminating in the dissolution of his own kingdom and the moral corruption of neighboring Yehudah.

Despite Hashem’s promise of a dynasty like that of King David, Yerovom feared that when the Jews of Yisroel returned to Jerusalem to observe the festival of Sukkos, their joy at being reunited as one people would inspire them to reject Yerovom and pledge their loyalty to the House of David. Rather than risk losing his kingdom, Yerovom placed border guards along the roads to Jerusalem, erected a pair of golden calves for his people to worship, and proclaimed the words at still echo across the ages:

“Rav lochem – It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem! Behold your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

In a single phrase, Yerovom created within Jewish society a culture of mediocrity. After the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the victories over Amoleik and Midian and Sichon and Og, after forty years of mann and the miracles in the desert, after nearly five centuries combating enemy nations given free reign over the Jews because they failed to live up to the standards Hashem and the Torah had clearly laid out for them – after all that, Yerovom blithely declared that Hashem would readily accept Yisroel’s service to idolatrous intermediaries in order to spare his people a few extra miles of travel up to the place where their father Avrohom had been prepared to offer his only son in the supreme act of spiritual self-sacrifice.

And the people eagerly accepted his dispensation.

For our part, we refuse to learn the lessons of the past. If only we expected less of our children, the current thinking goes, then they would love their Judaism. So we lobby for shorter school days, easier grading, less homework, accelerated and abbreviated davening – and we look the other way when they pull out their phones to text on Shabbos.

Then we see that it isn’t working, so we just keep expecting less and less. What will we say when there’s nothing less for us to expect?

Rabbi Goldson writes at http://torahideals.com
To subscribe to his Torah Ideals email newsletter, go to the torahideals.com website and find the subscription link on the sidebar. Articles are posted, on average, every week or two.

It’s Lonely in the Middle

First Published Dec 4, 2006

I’ve long been taken with the following quote from Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik: “All extremism, fanaticism, and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist.”

Perhaps the quote has stuck so firmly in my mind because of the context in which I first saw it. Rabbi K., a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi, invoked this quote in an article railing against the Chareidi world for its “intolerance,” castigating Chareidim again and again for their unwillingness to accept the validity of any expression of Torah observance other than their own.

It’s a pity Rabbi K. didn’t read his own article. The thick vitriolic brush with which he paints the entire Chareidi world would do any extremist proud.

Which doesn’t mean, of course, that he doesn’t have a point. The Chareidim do, too often and too typically, look down their noses at “less committed” communities within Orthodoxy. But this kind of disdain for anyone not like ME is hardly unique to men in black.

The problem of invalidating other hashkofos seems to have become far more common of late. George Carlin once said (or so I’m told) that everyone driving down the highway thinks that he is going at exactly the right speed, and that everyone else is either obstructing traffic or a reckless maniac. But is it possible that the rational middle really has come to represent fewer and fewer Torah Jews and Torah movements than ever before, so that every group condemns every other as either fanatical or heretical? Why have the Orthodox grown so insecure that we are all racing headlong toward one extreme or the other?

In a deeply thoughtful essay in Tradition Magazine (“Torah Without Ideology,” published in 2002), Professor Moshe Koppel offers an elegant explanation for the polarization within the Orthodox world. As a physical being striving for spirituality, as a spiritual being exiled in a physical world, every Jew is sentenced to a life of inevitable and irreconcilable tension. If he embraces the physical world, he may compromise his spiritual health. If he eschews the physical, he may endanger his physical well-being. How does he choose?

Professor Koppel observes that both the modern world and the Chareidi world make the same fundamental mistake, each in its own way. In their efforts to eliminate this spiritual-physical tension, Chareidim are inclined to reject any involvement with the physical, whereas Modern Orthodoxy is inclined to legitimize everything physical in the context of being a Torah Jew. In my own language, Chareidim tend toward forbidding everything not expressly permitted, while the Modern Orthodox tend toward permitting everything not expressly forbidden.

Of course, these are not the stated ideologies of either camp, but this is where many adherents end up. In practice, each camp frequently becomes a caricature of itself. Because the painstaking avodah of evaluating what to take and what not to take from the physical world produces such acute, chronic tension, we flee for the extremes instead of striving to find balance. And, on our way, we condemn everyone who has staked out a position different from ours, lest we face the tension of having to ask ourselves why they have engaged more or less of the physical world than we have.

I can’t say it any better than Moshe Koppel: “[Internalized values] are always full of tension between conflicting poles: between loyalty to Jews and loyalty to the values they embody, between the letter of halachah and its spirit, between conformity and individualism, and so on. This tension is a wonderful, healthy thing — it is the source of a person’s intellectual vitality and creativity. Living a Torah life means living with tension…”

But it’s not easy. Today’s extremism is no mere matter of right versus left. It is the unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of other hashkofos within the bounds of halachah. It derives from a passionate desire to avoid tension, whether that tension comes from our uncertainty of how to synthesize the spiritual and the physical or from our insecurity that maybe someone else is doing a better job of it than we are. And the middle is that place where we can struggle with the tension of living as a Torah Jew, each in his own way, without resorting to the defamation of those who go about it differently.

The flight of so many Torah Jews from the middle testifies to just how hard it is. And it gets even harder for the few of us left in the middle when we find ourselves increasingly isolated from the growing community of observant Jews who refuse to accept that there is more than one kosher way to live as a kosher Jew.

The Illusion of Freedom

After generations of slavery and oppression, amidst miracles unprecedented and unrepeated, the Children of Israel marched forth out of Egypt and into the wilderness as a free people for the first time in their collective memory. Fifty days later they stood together at Sinai to receive the Torah — the code of 613 commandments that would define every aspect of their lives.

What happened to freedom? What happened to the promise of redemption when all that really happened was the trading of one master for another?

Much of the modern world has built its understanding of freedom upon Thomas Jefferson’s famous formulation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But what would life be like in a society of unrestricted freedom? How many of us would chose to live in with no rules at all, where everyone was free to drive on either side of the road, to take whatever they desired regardless of rightful ownership, to indulge every whim and impulse without a thought of accountability? The absolute “freedom” of pure anarchy would provide no protection for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Consequently, it would provide no freedom at all.

Intuitively, we understand that some freedoms have to be sacrificed in order to preserve order and ensure the common welfare. If so, we are forced to refine our concept of freedom. In contrast to ancient Egypt, in which our ancestors were coerced by the rod and the whip to bow before Pharaoh’s will, the G-d of our redemption allows us the freedom from immediate retribution. By doing so, the Almighty empowers us with the freedom to make our own choices, to take responsibility of our own actions, and to transform ourselves from creatures of physical impulse into beings of spiritual refinement.

Ultimately, the freedom we possess is the freedom to choose our own master, to choose the leaders and system of laws that will best serve our collective interests in the long run.

Because we live in a society with others who also demand freedom, our choices will necessarily be limited by the conventions of society. More significantly, the values of the society in which we live will shape our own attitudes, influencing the ways we think that priorities we hold dear. From the moment we are born, our impressions are determined by others: our parents, our teachers, and our peers, as well as writers, celebrities, sports stars, and advertisers.

How often have we asked ourselves whether the ideas that govern our choices as spouses, as parents, and as community members are truly our own? How often do we stop to reflect whether we have acquired the values that guide us in our relationships and our careers through thoughtful contemplation or through cultural osmosis?

The illusion of freedom convinces us that our own gratification comes before our obligations to others, before even our obligations to ourselves. If we allow our desire for unrestricted freedom to steer our lives, we will find ourselves enslaved by our desires no less than a chain smoker is a slave to his cigarettes or an alcoholic is a slave to his gin. Convinced that freedom is a goal in itself, we will sacrifice everything of true value for the cruel master of self-indulgence. Deceived into believing that responsibility is the antithesis of freedom, we will invest ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, in philosophies like this one:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, now now. And feeling good was easy, L-rd, when he sang the blues, You know feeling good was good enough for me, Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

These are the words that made Janice Joplin into a counterculture idol, before she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

Less dramatic examples confront us every day. Politicians, movie icons, and athletes destroy their careers and their family lives for a few fleeting moments of pleasure. Parents allow their children to grow up without direction or discipline lest they quash their creativity or damage their egos by imposing structure and meaning upon their lives. A once-productive citizenry increasingly looks to receive support on the backs of others, whether through welfare, lawsuits, or pyramid schemes that leave countless victims footing the bill.

More than anything, Passover celebrates the freedom to think, to take stock of our lives and reassess our values, to take a fresh look at our own motivations and our own decisions, to acknowledge where we may have lost sight of truly meaningful goals and sincerely commit ourselves to striking out on a truer course.

Last year we were slaves to our inner masters; this year we have a chance to set ourselves free to seek the paths of truth and follow them toward the destination of enduring spiritual redemption.

Originally posted in April, 2009

Denouncing Spiritual Terrorism

On March 16, 1968, soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company committed one of the most notorious war crimes in American history when they brutally massacred over 300 villagers in the Vietnamese hamlet of Mỹ Lai.

Was every soldier in the American army complicit in the crime? Did the perpetrators of the massacre act in accordance with the dictates and the mission of the American military? Was the savagery inflicted on innocent men, women, and children indicative of the country whose soldiers wore its insignia on their uniforms?

The simple answer is: no.

We can talk, legitimately, about collective responsibility and the mixed cultural messages that may have contributed to the atrocity. But when Americans learned about the barbarism of their own soldiers, the untempered outrage that poured forth testified that the individuals had acted as individuals, and that their inhumanity in no way represented the values of their country.

The same was true about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 by the marginally religious zealot Yigal Amir. As unpopular as Rabin may have been among the religious community, only the most extreme ideologues saw his actions as anything other than an aberration of the Torah values he invoked to justify cold-blooded murder.

And the same is true now with respect to the hideous spitting incident in the Beit Shemesh community in central Israel. It doesn’t matter that the perpetrator may wear a frock coat and sidelocks. It doesn’t matter that he may refrain from kindling fire on the Sabbath, may keep a strictly kosher diet, and may stand in prayer before his Creator three times a day. It doesn’t matter that he may study Talmudic texts and analyze the finest points of Jewish law. It doesn’t matter if his neighbors, whether few or many, sympathize with his attitudes and his actions.

At best, he is a misguided fool. At worst, he is an imposter and a terrorist. Whatever he is, he does not represent the ideals of Torah Judaism.

The sad truth is that the Torah, the Almighty’s guide to morality and virtuous conduct, is only as good as we allow it to be. The Torah may be a perfect expression of the Divine Will, but it only works to the extent that imperfect humans are willing to let it shape their conduct and, even more essentially, their character. It does not mystically or magically turn us into saints; rather, it teaches us how to transform ourselves into spiritual beings. But it remains up to us to follow the path it lights before us.

The sad truth is also that there are imposters among us; the Talmud itself laments the “pious fools” who clothe themselves in the external trappings of religiosity with no comprehension whatsoever of true spiritual values. The Jew who prays fervently and then cheats in business, the Jew who clops his chest in repentance then slanders his neighbor, the Jew who meticulously trains his son to read from the Torah scroll and then spits on a child who may have innocently absorbed the social mores of the surrounding secular world – a Jew such as this is worse than a fraud. He is nothing less than a terrorist, for he brings violent derision upon the Torah and all its sincere practitioners.

Frequently at odds with contemporary Western values, Torah values are easily mocked, satirized, and misrepresented by intolerant skeptics who would rather ridicule than seek answers to their questions. But the Orthodox community includes tens of thousands of Jews like myself, Jews raised in irreligious homes who chose to return to Torah observance, Jews who learned to appreciate the ancient wisdom of our people by asking those same questions, by searching for teachers and mentors who could articulate the answers, and by listening patiently to their explanations.

Unfortunately, many secularists and most of the media prefer to deal in stereotypes. It’s easier to depict bearded men in long coats as fanatics than it is to examine the historical and philosophical foundations of their tradition. It’s more provocative to caricature women wearing head-scarves, three-quarter sleeves, and knee-length skirts as burqa-clad Jewish Wahabists than it is to concede the modest elegance projected by many Orthodox women. It suits the progressive agenda better to decry separate seating on buses in religious communities as Shariah-like segregation than it does to contemplate how sensitivity to sexual boundaries bolsters the integrity of the family structure against the hedonism of secular society.

The useful idiots who masquerade as devoutly orthodox but possess little understanding of authentic spiritual refinement empower cynics eager to smear an entire theology with the broad brush of condemnation based on the actions of a few. But amidst the outrage, consider this: Does it make any sense that true adherents of the culture that taught the world the values of peace, charity, and loving-kindness would endorse the public humiliation of a little girl in the name of piety?

It doesn’t. And we don’t.

Rabbi Goldson writes at http://torahideals.com. To subscribe to Torah Ideals email newsletter, go to the website and find the subscription link on the sidebar. Articles are posted, on average, every week or two.

Rabbi Goldson recently published Dawn to Destiny – Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom. A captivating analysis of Jewish history and philosophy from Creation through the era of the Talmud

Torah Study and Worldly Occupation

This week 2 is the third cycle of Pirkei Avos. In the second mishna of the third perek it says:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will ultimately result in desolation and will cause sinfulness.

All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of the community’s forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own.

Commentary from Rabbi Goldson from this post on Aish:

Rabban Gamliel first taught that, even though there is no higher calling than Torah study, Torah will come to nothing unless it is channeled into positive action. We might think, therefore, that we must sacrifice some Torah in order to preserve the rest.

At the end of the Mishna, Rabban Gamliel assures us that directing Torah into positive action is the highest expression of Torah itself, whether that action takes the form of professional occupation or of extending oneself to benefit the community. There is no loss. Just the opposite: by taking time away from Torah to ensure the preservation of Torah values and ideals, we receive credit as if we had immersed ourselves in Torah without interruption. By taking time away from Torah study is in order to put Torah ideals into practice, then our reward will continue to multiply over and over again.

Inside/ Outside

Boarding the plane for my 6:00 AM flight from LaGuardia, bleary-eyed from too little sleep, I forced myself to offer a moderately enthusiastic good morning to the smiling steward as I crossed over the jet way and through the hatch. The steward echoed my greeting, then added, “You look very sharp today.”

I felt my eyebrows rise up toward my hairline. This isn’t a comment one hears every day. I thanked him and made my way down the aisle to find my seat.

Mid-way through the flight I wandered up toward the front of the plane. The steward stepped forward immediately when he saw me. “I hope I didn’t offend you earlier,” he said.

“Why would I take offense at a compliment?” I asked.

“Well, you never know these days,” he replied. “But you stood out so strikingly from the other passengers that I had to comment.”

I hadn’t considered my ensemble in any way remarkable. I was wearing a $120 gray suit, a $5 blue tie, and a black sweater vest that was a gift from my mother.

The steward wasn’t finished, however: “When you headed down the aisle, I saw that you were Jewish,” he said. “I’ve noticed that Jewish people are always conscious of how they dress.”

It was a nice kiddush Hashem to start my day, all the more so because it seemed to fly in the face of the stereotype that Torah Jews are unconcerned with the finer points of self-presentation.

I went on to explain to the steward – who showed more interest than many of my students – that the Jewish value of modesty has less to do with how much skin we leave exposed than with the projection of human dignity and our awareness of the sanctity that resides within every human being. We may reside within a shell of flesh and blood, but essentially we are beings of spirituality. By dressing in a way that is smart yet simple, restrained yet distinguished, those around us cannot help but take notice and, on some level, absorb a portion of our appreciation that the physical is meant to serve the spiritual and that our external form is merely a garment for the soul.

The interrelationship of the revealed and the concealed should occupy our thoughts as we approach the holiday of Purim. The apparent coincidences of the Purim story, the supernatural reversal of fortune, and the illusion of peril that prodded the Jews of Persia to rediscover faith in the wisdom of their Torah leaders… these are all part of the theme of hester ponim – the hidden face of G-d – that lies at the heart of the holiday. The physicality that surrounds us masks the spiritual reality of our universe, and by conscripting the material into service of the spiritual we succeed in showing the world (and reminding ourselves) who we are and why we are here.

Mind Your Step

Looking on the bright side, I’m fortunate to have made through nearly half a century of life without breaking a bone. I’m fortunate to be in good enough physical condition to hold my own on the racquetball court, even if don’t usually win. I’m fortunate that it wasn’t my left ankle, so I can drive myself to work every day. I’m fortunate that it was a clean break, uncomplicated by torn ligaments or splintered bone. And I’m fortunate that, aside from the initial stab of pain that seared through my body like a white-hot skewer following the distinct crack of rending marrow, I experienced relatively little discomfort and seem to be on my way, bli ayin hara, to a quick recovery.

Nevertheless, for all that I have to be thankful, I still come home exhausted every day and have trouble meeting my responsibilities with adequate energy and attention, even when I’m stationary and pain-free. As it turns out, the amount of concentration required to think about every single step is profoundly debilitating. I can’t follow my routine on autopilot. Every movement demands intense planning and caution so that, after the most insignificant foray from here to there, my mind rebels against further taxation.

Needless to say, the loss of any capacity serves to restore our appreciation for those things we take for granted. In this case, my broken ankle has prompted me to give more thought to a bracha we recite every morning.

Boruch atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech ha’olam, HaMeichin mitzadei gover – Blessed are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, who prepares the steps of man.

Rav Shimon Schwab explains that all the preceding blessings we recite at the outset of each day serve to reflect upon the past – our spiritual identity and the resources with which the Almighty has endowed us to fulfill our potential. With the blessing HaMeichin mitzadei gover, however, we turn our attention to the future.

Hashem creates every human being with free will, so that we can earn our eternal reward by resisting temptation and doing good. But Hashem has not left us to grope in the darkness of moral confusion. Rather, He has illuminated our way with the mitzvos of His Torah, requiring us only to follow the derech ha’emes – the path of truth that He has laid out before us. By providing us with a clear path, Hashem has prepared our steps; all we have to do is follow the path and not stray to either side.

But familiarity and habit are powerful opiates, and we easily slip into the narcotic rhythm of routine. To concentrate on every step, to weigh and calculate every action, exhausts us to the point that we would rather trust the unreliable patterns of yesterday than reevaluate our actions from day to day and moment to moment.

And so Hashem has no choice, so to speak, but to trip us up from time to time, to place obstacles in our way and sometimes let us fall, thereby forcing us to mind the path that lies ahead.

“If one comes to purify himself,” teach the sages, “then his is enabled to become pure” (Shabbos 104a). If we mind every step and choose our path carefully, Hashem will lead us along the road to spiritual success. If we drift into a trance of routine and thoughtlessness, then we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences of inattention.

When that happens, Hashem has countless ways of steering us back on the straight path. So I’m not complaining about my broken ankle. If that’s the worst I need to remind me to mind my step, I’ll try to be more attentive and be grateful for the warning.

With praise for and gratitude to the Master of the World, Rabbi Goldson is pleased to announce the publication of his first book:
Dawn to Destiny: Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom

A comprehensive overview of Jewish History from Creation through the redaction of the Talmud, illuminating the intricacies and complexities of Torah tradition and philosophy according to the sages and classical commentaries, spanning the length and breadth of Jewish experience to resolve many of history’s most perplexing episodes, offering profound insights and showing their relevance to life in the modern world. An invaluable resource for scholars and laymen. A priceless tool for education and outreach. For more information click here.

A Tale of Two Michaels

As music icon Michael Jackson was planning his return to the stage, basketball icon Michael Jordan was appearing in a less familiar arena. At the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge, Mr. Jordan shot an 86 — not bad, but a little off his game.

His foursome included Justin Timberlake, Ben Roethlisberger, and Larry Giebelhausen, a Phoenix police lieutenant who had won the privilege of playing in such celebrated company with a six-word contest entry: “I’m a Cop; I’ll Shoot Low.”

It’s hard to imagine Michael Jackson having participated in a similar venue. Whatever common touch the pop star might have once had, it disappeared decades ago, along with his original nose, cheekbones, and coloring, under the searing lights of fame and fortune. It’s to Michael Jordan’s credit that he has retained a bit of humility, to allow “one of the folks” to hobnob with him over 18 holes (not to mention remaining gracious while performing below his usual standard).

No one really doubts whether Mr. Jackson’s meteoric success from such a young age contributed to his tragic decline into scandal, freakishness, and premature death. The kind of humility displayed by Mr. Jordan could never have survived the early adulation accorded Mr. Jackson, no matter how humble his beginnings.

Perhaps the difference can be summed up by what Michael Jordan once said about himself: “I’ve failed over and over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The sages teach that a tzaddik falls seven times. By grappling with obstacles, by failing and learning from their mistakes, those with the potential to achieve spiritual greatness succeed in achieving it. So too in almost every form of endeavor.

Michael Jordan may not be what we think of as a tzaddik, a truly righteous man. But it is reassuring to see someone who occupies the highest strata of celebrity status showing us that wealth and notoriety do not have to produce the kind of self-absorption, self-indulgence, or ghoulishness that we have come to expect. It is equally reassuring to contemplate how there may be no more reliable strategy for climbing the ladder of success than by persisting in the upward ascent from one rung of failure to another.

Rabbi Goldson writes regularly at Torah Ideals