Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

Why did Avram seek advice before proceeding with milah-circumcision?
Why did some of his closest friends and disciples oppose his undergoing milah?

HaShem appeared to him [Avram] in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the opening of the tent as the day[‘s heat] blazed.

— Bereishis 18:1

Why did HaShem appear to him in the Plains of Mamre?  [He appeared there] as a reward Mamre for his offering Avram positive advice and encouragement concerning circumcision.

— Rashi ibid

… And He said to him [Avram] “I Am Keil Shakai. Walk yourself before Me and become perfect. And I will tender My covenant between me and you …

— Bereishis 17:1,2

This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must observe: you must circumcise every male. You shall excise the flesh of your foreskin and this will be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.

— Bereishis 17:10,11

The refugee came bringing intelligence to Avram the Hebrew who was living serenely in the Plains of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; they were the masters of Avram’s covenant.

— Bereishis 14:13

Why was Kiryas Arba-the Town of the Four; so called? Because of the four saintly people living there; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre and Avram

— Bereishis Rabbah 58:4

When the Holy Blessed One told Avram that he should circumcise himself, Avram sought the advice of his three beloved friends; Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. He first went to Aner and said “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Aner responded “He wants to make you a baal mum– someone defective/ an amputee?! The relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you in reprisal as you will not be able to flee.” He left him and then proceeded to Eshkol. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Eshkol responded “You’re old. If you circumcise yourself you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood. You won’t be able to endure it and you’ll die.” He left him and then proceeded to Mamre. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such. What is your advice?” Mamre responded “You ask me about this? Wasn’t it HaShem who saved you from the fiery furnace and wrought all the miracles for you?  Wasn’t it HaShem who saved from the kings? If not for His Might and Power the kings would have slain you in battle. HaShem has saved all 248 of your limbs and organs [numerous times] and you’re asking my advice about the small appendage to a single organ?  Do as He commands.

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 3

הקנאה, התאווה והכבוד – מוציאים את האדם מן העולם
Jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor eradicate a person from the world

— Pirkei Avos 4:28

The Izhbitzer School addresses various questions that arise from a superficial reading of the Tanchuma. How could Avram, greatest of the believers in HaShem, who had already withstood many Divine trials, grant Aner and Eshkol and Mamre “veto power” over a direct command from HaShem? Had all three advised against circumcision would he have actually complied with their advice instead of obeying HaShem? Why did Aner and Eshkol, described as “the masters of Avrams covenant” and as tzadikim-righteous ones; advise against circumcision? In Avrams previous and subsequent trials he did not seek anyone’s advice. Why did he seek advice regarding circumcision?

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer, understands the dialogues between Avram and his consultants as not being a question of “yes or no?” but of “how”?  What’s the best way to go about this? He wanted to decide whether to undergo circumcision inconspicuously or publicly.

The fact was that 20 generations had passed since Adam without anyone undergoing circumcision and that people have a strong predilection for resisting change and having a skeptical attitude towards innovation. Avram considered the possibility that publicizing this groundbreaking development in Man’s relationship with G-d would evoke enough opposition of others to try and prevent him from going through with it or, at minimum, mocking and scorning this bizarre operation, after all circumcision affects a most sensitive area. This societal ridicule and scorn would diminish the gravity and appeal of the Monotheism that Avram had devoted his life to teaching and preaching. Avram did not want HaShem to become cholilah-Heaven Forefend; a laughing-stock.

Additionally, Aner opposed publicizing the covenant of circumcision because of the personal danger it would expose Avram to. Opportunistic relatives of the 4 kings bent on vendetta killings would consider a circumcision-weakened Avram an easy target. Aner reasoned that one shouldn’t rely on miracles when natural means to avoid danger, in this case keeping the circumcisions secret, were available. While clear-headed and cautious, this advice did not appeal to Avram. HaShem had Chosen to Grant him victory over the kings in the most transparent, prominent and famous way. How then could fulfilling HaShem’s command publicly and openly lead to his downfall?

Eshkol thought that the threat of Avram dying as a result of post-operative complications was very real and that, perhaps, the trial of circumcision was a kind of auto-Akeidah; would Avram be willing to kill himself at G-d’s behest? But Eshkol fretted over the disastrous PR consequences of “passing” such a test. How many potential new monotheists would be discouraged and dissuaded? How many of Avrams proselytes would drop out of a religion demanding such supreme human self-sacrifice? How many people would condemn the G-d of Avram as a wrathful and capricious Deity?  If the circumcision-related causes of Avrams death were to become widely known an epic chilul HaShem-desecration of G-d’s name; would result.  On the other hand if the circumcision was a well-kept secret and, worst-case scenario, Avram did not survive it, the cause of death could reasonably be attributed to Avram’s “old-age” or any number of causes. Avram rejected this as well. He thought it inconceivable that HaShem would command him to do something that would result in his death.

Mamre’s recommendation and encouragement resonated with Avram for all the reasons that the suggestions of Aner and Eshkol did not.  Avram followed the advice of his consultant Mamre and “B’etzem hayom hazeh-In the very core of that day; Avram and his son Yishmael were circumcised. All the men of the household both homeborn and bought for cash from a stranger were circumcised with him.” (Bereishis 17:26,27).  Elsewhere Chazal have taught that the phrase “B’etzem hayom hazeh” connotes an in-your-face challenge to would-be opponents, scoffers, skeptics or those who would stop it outright.  As if to say “I/We did it out in the open at high-noon … stop us if you can!”

As he often does, the Biskovitzer concludes with a take-away lesson that we can apply to contemporary Avodas HaShem. He maintains that each of us have an internal Aner, Eshkol, Mamre. When we exercise our free-will to do good and perform mitzvos there are still “voices” within us that will try dissuading us from performing HaShem’s Will in the best and most fulsome way, more often than not by voicing some iteration of the fear of ridicule and public misunderstanding.

Read more Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

Turning Ourselves Upside Down and Inside Out

Ki Sisa 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Moshe turned away and began descending the mountain with the two Luchos HaEdus-Tablets of Testimony, in his hand. They were written on both sides with the writing visible from either side.  The Tablets were made by HaShem and written with HaShems script engraved upon the Tablets.

-Shemos 32:15,16

Rav Chisda said: “the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously” and, he added, “what was written on the Luchos could be read from ‘the inside and from the outside’ [i.e. from the front and from the rear] for example נבוב/בובן =nevuv/ buvan; רהב/ בהר =rahav/ behar; סרו/ ורס=saru/v’ras.

-Shabbos 104A

The writing pierced the entire Tablet. Hence a miracle was required so that the entirely circular letters of [the closing] mem and samach could be read accurately [without the circle in the middle falling out.]

-Rashi ibid

The words of Torah engraved upon the Luchos-tablets, penetrated the stones all the way through, from the front of the stones to their backs.  To illustrate this point, Rav Chisda mentions three words and their dyslexic inversions. Both Rashi and Tosafos ad locum are puzzled by the words that the he chose to use as examples.

Rashi simply states that these words did not actually appear in the tablets; that Rav Chisda chose words at random. Rashi further maintains that we learn nothing more from these examples than that the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously. Per Rashi, Rav Chisda seems to be repeating himself.  Tosafos is more explicit and asks why would Rav Chisda do such a thing when he could have illustrated the same point using words that actually do appear in the aseres hadibros-Decalogue.

Additionally there is a margin gloss on that page of the Gemara that changes the sequence of one of the pairs of words; from rahav/ behar to behar /rahav, presumably because in the other two pairs of words the familiar, meaningful word appears first followed by the inverted, and apparently nonsensical, gibberish word.

The Izhbitzer teaches that Rav Chisda was describing two distinct miraculous, gravity-defying properties of the Torah; the ability to keep things that ought to be moving and falling stationary and the ability to effect drastic movement on things that otherwise would petrify and stay frozen in their places. The former being the stone “donut holes” in perfectly chiseled circles and the latter being the midos-character traits, of set-in-their-ways human beings.

None of the words that Rav Chisda uses to illustrate the latter point are gibberish, nor were they chosen at random.  The Izhbitzer presents a close study of the root etymology of these words to reveal that they are polar opposites and not mere word jumbles arbitrarily spelled backwards.  The inverted spellings serve as a metaphor for the words antithetical meanings. Think of an easy-to-remember lexicon of antonyms where every words antonym was merely the same letters arranged in the opposite order e. g. if the antonym of “cold” was not “hot” but “dloc” or if the antonym of “bottom” was not “top” but “mottob”.

The words that Rav Chisda chose describe midos that are antithetical to one another.  Taking issue with margin gloss the Izhbitzer asserts that the Gemara’s text stand as is, for in each illustrative example the first word describes a negative, antisocial midah-character trait, while the second defines it’s positive polar-opposite midah.

The outer, copper mizbayach-altar of the Mishkan was constructed by filling in a copper plated acacia wood shell with soil or sand.  The Torah calls this construction method nevuv luchos-a hollow structure made out of boards (Shemos 27:8).  This is the precedent for the word nevuv describing something hollow.  When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to an empty-headed ignoramus, void of any Torah content.  Whereas the word buvan is etymologically related to the word binah, the word that defines the cognitive faculty for understanding and deductive reasoning.  Torah has the power to transform minds and spirits that are vacuum-like voids into minds and spirits filled to overflowing with meaningful, intelligent content and wisdom.

The Zohar (parshas Terumah 170B) teaches that the “prince”/guardian angel of Mitzrayim-the Egyptians, was named  Rahav.  In Jewish lore the ancient Egyptians were infamous for their licentiousness and unbridled passion.  This is the precedent for the word “rahav” describing something sensual and lusty. When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to a ba’al ta’avah-someone overly drawn to, and even obsessed with, the temporal pleasures of the here-and-now world. Whereas the word behar-“in the mountain” connotes both being elevated from the earth and its mundane concerns and materialistic pleasures and being in an atmosphere that is less humid and drier than the air in lower elevations, in particular, in valleys.  Dry mountain air is symbolic of a dispassionate, sober and abstinent sensibility. Torah has the power to transform minds plagued by untoward thoughts and spirits drawn to immorality into drier, cooler minds and spirits that aspire to the noble, the lofty and the otherworldly.

The word saru (generically translated as: ”they strayed ”) refers, in particular, to one who has ossified and hardened because of anger and bitterness; as in “the king of Israel went to his house (סר)surly and  (וזעף) disgruntled, and came to Samaria.” (Melachim I 20:43) Or as we find the Gemara admonishing as us against verbally abusing a disenfranchised minority because “their hardened anger is terrible.” (Bava Metzia 59B)  The word v’ras is etymologically related to the root ras which connotes softness and fluidity. E.g. “so long as one would be memareis –shake or stir, the blood of the Passover sacrifice … [in order that it retain fluidity and not harden and coagulate.”] (Mishnah Pesachim 61A) Or as in laros es hasoles– and 1/3 of a hin of oil, to moisten the fine flour. (Yechezkel 46:14) Torah can help spirits hardened by rage and bitterness, regain gentleness, suppleness and goodwill.

According to The Izhbitzer’s interpretation both the word choices and the sequence in Rav Chisda’s second statement were very specific.  All three word pairings convey the concept that the Torah is more than a guide to self-improvement; it is transformative and empowers those who study it and observe its mitzvos to achieve a 180° turnaround and makeover.

ADDENDUM AS OF 12:20 AM EST 2.14.14

This concept is echoed by other Chasidic masters in their commentaries to Avos and Tehillim.

He (Rabi Yaakov) would also say: A שעה אחת sha’ah achas– single hour, of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than the entire life of the World to Come. 

-Pirkei Avos 4:22

 … and HaShem turned towards-vayisha, the offering of Hevel. But to Kayin and towards his offering, He did not turn-lo sha’ah and Kayin became very furious and depressed.

-Bereshis 4:4,5

He [HaShem] has distanced our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.

-Tehillim 103:12

The Kozhnitzer Maggid provides a novel translation of the word sha’ah.  Based on the pesukim describing the HaShems acceptance of Hevels offering His rejection of Kayins offering the Maggid translates the word to mean — turning. I.e. A sha’ah achas– a single transformative “turn”; of repentance and good deeds in this world — an epiphany, a consciousness altering revolution, that turns someone completely around; upside down and inside out, that kind of teshuvah — THAT is what’s greater than the entire life of the World to Come.

The pasuk in Tehillim begs the question; just how far is east from west?  Is it the vastness that intervenes between California and Eastern Europe?  Is it the expanse of continents and oceans that separate New York and China?  Or, perhaps, is it a short as the relatively minor distance between an address on west 57th street and east 57th street on Manhattan Island?  The Rebbe Reb Avraham the second of Slonim explains that the distance between east and west is minute.  If one is standing facing the east, rotates on his heels, and does a 180° about-face, he has “traveled” as far as the east is from the west. One needn’t journey far in order to be distanced from his transgressions.  What one must do, however, is to make a U-turn.

As one great and influential 20th century rosh yeshivah put it “teshuvah is nisht dehr taitch besser tsu verren … nohr anderish tzu verren-teshuvah is not ‘becoming better’ but ‘becoming different’” It is not about self-improvement but about total transformation.  This is the message and the power of the Torah words that were engraved all the way through the Luchos.

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Ki Sisa D”H Vayifen

and from MiMayaanos HaNetzach Pirkei Avos 4:22

Of Open-Book Enigmas and Whispered Secrets

Tetzaveh 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah:Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Make a  Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate. It shall be of patterned brocade, like the ephod.  Make it out of gold; sky blue, dark purple and crimson wool and twirled linen. … Set it with four rows of mounted gemstones.

-Shemos 28:15,17

… And the gemstones shall be upon the names of the 12 sons of Israel, one for each of the 12 stones. Each one’s name shall be engraved as on a signet ring to correspond to the 12 tribes.

-Shemos 28:21

Thus, Ahron will carry the names of the sons of Israel in the Choshen Mishpat over his heart when he comes into the sanctified site; it shall be a constant remembrance before HaShem.  Place the Urim and Thumim in the Choshen Mishpat and they shall be over Ahron’s heart when he comes before HaShem. Ahron will bear the just-decision instrument for the children of Israel upon his heart, before HaShem, perpetually.

-Shemos 28:29,30

This [the Urim and Thumim refers to a] writ bearing the explicit Name, which he [Moshe] would place within the folds of the Choshen, through which it would illuminate words on the gemstones (מֵאִיר) and perfect (ומתמם) those words. [i.e., the Urim and Thumim lit up letters forming words, and those words like an incontrovertible halachah/mishpat, were dependable. (Yoma 73b)] … Because of that Name-bearing-writ, the Choshen  was called “justice,” as it is said: “and he shall seek the just-decision of the Urim before HaShem on his behalf” (BeMidbar. 27:21).

–Rashi ibid

Conventional wisdom understands the power of the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate as some kind of a sanctified Ouija Board, chalilah-Heaven forefend.  The questions would be put to it and it would, miraculously, “predict” future events.  According to this understanding the destiny of K’lal Yisrael–the Nation of Israel, is fungible.  As an entity existing entirely in the “now”, any number of alternative histories and futures are possible.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom fails to convey the deeper meaning.  Not only does it give the wrong impression the mechanism of the Urim and Thumim, the Choshen Mishpat and the “battery” that powered it but it misconstrues K’lal Yisrael as a temporal entity rather than as the eternal being that it actually is.  Transcendent of time, K’lal Yisrael is not subject to alternative histories.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that the “power cell” that activated the mechanism of the Choshen Mishpat was the very heart of Ahron the Kohen Gadol-the High Priest, not merely the writ bearing the explicit Divine Name. His explanation for how it functioned follows the pasuk and midrashic excerpts:

HaShem’s wrath blazed against Moshe, and He said, “Is not Ahron the Levi your brother? I know that he knows how to speak; moreover, observe, he is setting out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.

-Shemos 4:14

… Your suspicions about your brother, that he would resent you for your eminence as My spokesman, are unfounded. On the contrary, he will be happy for you. Rabi Shimon bar Yosee taught: “the heart of he who rejoiced in his brother’s eminence will wear the Urim and Thumim as it is written: ‘ … and they shall be over Ahron’s heart’”

-Midrash Rabbah Shemos 3:17

The opposite of love it is not hatred.  Very often, hatred is the same deep, passionate emotion as love, inverted.  As William Congreve wrote “”Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” The true antithesis of love is envy.

Love seeks to give to others and grows more tender and warmer with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the loved one(s).  In stark contrast; envy seeks to take away what others have and grows more venal and bitter with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the envied one(s).  Ahron’s heart was devoid of pettiness and was aflame with the love of Israel.  As there is no greater success imaginable for human being than to be HaShem’s spokesman and agent,  his heart had withstood the definitive litmus test determining if one is a giver or a taker in the crucible of the most extreme potential for envy; sibling rivalry.  Exulting in his younger brother success, he proved his heart to be utterly empty of envy and brimming with ahavas Yisrael-the love of Israel.

Unrequited love is the exception to the rule.  The default setting for love, as it is for all human emotions, is reciprocity.  Shlomo the king put it best when he wrote “as the face that is replicated in the reflecting pool, so is ones man’s heart to another”(Mishlei 27:19).  This axiom is borne out by the mutual and reciprocal of love that existed between Ahron and the people of Israel. When Ahron the Kohen Gadol died …  “The whole congregation saw that Ahron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days. “ (BeMidbar 20:29) All of the people loved him intensely.

As Rashi, citing Chazal, says:  [both] the men and the women [loved him], for Ahron had pursued peace; he promoted love between disputing parties and between man and wife.(Avos d’Rabi Nassan 12:4).  Loving all the people and realizing that their own success and fulfillment depended upon their loving one another, the greatest gift that Ahron could bestow upon them was to eliminate the pettiness, envy and disputes and that drove them apart.  Loving them, he gave them the ultimate gift of love for each other.

It is in the nature of those in love to share secrets with one another.  In some instances this is because only those who love us will continue to accept us and not be too harshly judgmental when they discover our darkest secrets.  But, more often, it is our noblest secrets, our loftiest and dreamiest ambitions that we only feel comfortable sharing with those whom we love and who love us.  Those things about us that are closest to the core of our beings can only be revealed within the framework of love.

As a great twentieth century Torah sage explained; this may be because the supreme expression of love is, itself, a secret. Chazal interpreted the pasuk “It is the glory of Elokim to conceal a thing; but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Mishlei 25:2) to mean that matters pertaining to the Genesis narrative-hishavus haOlamos, are shrouded in mystery and must remain hidden away. G-d brought the cosmos into being as an expression of His love.  As human beings are b’Tzelem Elokim– in the image of the Divine , tznius-top-secretiveness is apropos for the supreme expression of interpersonal love in that it is the closest that human beings, the  Tzelem Elokim, will ever come to emulating Elokim’s act of creation.

As we stand in the present moment, our most ancient past, lost in the mists of time, and our concealed and our unknowable futures, are secrets. Just as those in love share their most intimate secrets with one another, so too K’lal Yisrael bared her secrets to the human heart that most loved her. It was the loving heart of Ahron, the Kohen Gadol, that served as the “power cell” that activated the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat. The Choshen was not handicapping probabilities or predicting the future.  The letters that glowed and grew salient on the Choshen’s gemstones sounded the silent, soundless whisperings of eternal, transcendent, beloved K’lal Yisrael revealing her secrets to and through the loving heart of Ahron.

Sisrei Torah-the secrets of the Torah, are very much in vogue today. Everyone wants to learn, Kabbalah. Lamdanim-Talmudic theoreticians, have long known that even within nigleh-the more revealed, less mystical component of the Torah, there are hidden secrets; gems waiting to be unearthed. What many fail to realize is that a kabbalistic text and, in a larger sense, any Torah text, is an encoded message.  Merely setting one’s eyes upon the text and reading, or even intermittent and halfhearted attempts at deciphering, will no more force the Torah to yield any of her secrets than will with futile efforts of a third party who had intercepted love letters trying to grasp the hints and cryptic terms of endearment that these missives contain.

The Lubliner Kohen maintains that what is true for all interpersonal relationships informed by love and, writ large, what is true for K’lal Yisrael, is equally true for TorasYisrael. The Torah must be wooed and pursued. Sisrei Torah are not for weekend-warriors —  semi-committed dabblers who can take the Torah or leave it. Those who ardently love the Torah are loved by the Torah in return.  As Shlomo the king taught: “Does not Wisdom call out … ’I love them that love me, and those that seek me earnestly shall find me.’”(Mishlei 8:1,17) One’s heart must be ablaze with the love of Torah.  Torah must become a passion, an obsession and an infatuation, only then will the Torah reveal her innermost secrets.

~adapted from Tzidkas HaTzaddik inyan 198 

Thinking Inside THE Box(es)

Terumah 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

HaShem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel and have them lift an offering up to Me. Take My offering from anyone whose heart stirs them to give.

-Shemos 25:1

Make an Ark of Shittim-Acacia wood 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ cubits wide and 1 ½ cubits high.  Envelop it with a layer of pure gold; it should be covered on the inside and the outside, and make a gold lip all around its top. 

-Shemos 25:10,11

Betzalel (the chief artisan constructing the Tabernacle) built three Arks; two of gold and one of Acacia wood.  All had four walls and a floor but no roof (i.e. the “Arks” were boxes, open on top).  He inserted the wooden one within the exterior golden one and the interior golden one within the wooden one.  He then coated the upper lip with gold. As such (the Acacia wood Ark) was covered on the inside and the outside. 

-Rashi ibid

None of the furnishings of the tabernacle were made exclusively of gold other than the Menorah. (but I’m puzzled) Once a golden Ark was made, why was a wooden one necessary? 

-Ibn Ezra ibid

Several peculiarities distinguished the Aron HaBris–the Ark of the Covenant from the other structures and furnishings of the Mishkan-tabernacle. The specs for its dimensions were in half, rather than in full, ahmos-cubits. Unlike the Menorah it was not made of solid gold but unlike the other wooden Mishkan structures and furnishings coated with metal, it was composed of three substantial inlaid boxes, akin to Russian nesting dolls, rather than plated with a paint-thin coating of gold or copper.

The Aron HaBris was the vessel for the Luchos HaBris–the tablets of the covenant and so it serves as a powerful allegory for human bearers of the Torah, talmidei chachamim-Torah sages and, in a larger sense, Klal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Chazal drew a metaphorical lesson from the design and structure of the Aron HaBris: Rava said (the fact that the inner and outer boxes of the Ark were composed of the identical substance [gold] teaches us that) “any talmid chacham-Torah sage, whose interior is inconsistent with his exterior (i.e. who is insincere or hypocritical, who lacks yiras Shamayim-the awe of Heaven) is no talmid chacham at all.”(Yoma 72B)

Based on this homiletic precedent the Izhbitzer School provides many insightful interpretations about the design and structure of the Aron:

The Izhbitzer taught that in order to acquire Torah a person must view himself as incomplete without the Torah that, as was the case with the measurements of the Aron, that they’re only “halfway” to completion and fulfillment. On the other hand, if one only has an intellectual curiosity about Torah similar to an academic interest in other disciplines HaShem will not allow him to become a receptacle for the Torah.  If a person feels as though he can live without Torah, he may study and contemplate it for years, but he will never truly absorb it.

The Izhbitzer’s younger son, the Biskovitzer Rebbe, explains that the reason for the three individual inlaid boxes was to demonstrate the Torahs intrinsically hidden nature.  It is not merely that the true meaning of the Torah’s narratives, mitzvos and teachings often eludes us; the proverbial “riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” but that there are three barriers that must be transcended and pierced in order to perform the mitzvos fully. The following impediments prevent people from committing themselves single-mindedly to the service of HaShem and, thereby, transforming themselves into abodes for His Divine Indwelling:

1.  So many millennia have come and gone and so many “end times” have been predicted without the long-awaited dawning of the messianic era-kalu kol hakitzin.  The dispiriting sense of hopelessness in Mashiach ever actually arriving cools our ardor for the mitzvos.

2.  The leadenness of our natures steers us towards undemanding, path-of-least-resistance, mitzvas anashim melumadah-rote performance of the mitzvos.  Bringing a sense of awe, wonder and freshness to the performance of mitzvos time after time is very challenging when we’ve been trained to do the mitzvos from our earliest youth.

3.  The burden of our past sins weighs us down.  We feel humiliated before HaShem and utterly convinced that our relationship with Him has been irrevocably broken.

The Biskovitzer explains that the midrash (Shemos Rabbah 33:3) interprets the pasuk “I am asleep but my heart is awake” as an allusion to these three barriers. “I” may be insensate to the end of days, but “my heart” — the Holy Blessed One, is awake, maintaining and stoking the very last embers of longing for the messianic era within me.  “I” am deadened to the vitality of the mitzvos by my robotic, by-rote performance but “my heart” — the merit and legacy of my forefathers, who were trailblazers and who were forever breaking new ground, is awake.  “I” am anesthetized and alienated by the ether of guilt wafting malodorously from the incident of the golden calf, but “my heart” — HaShem, my Merciful Father, refusing to give up on even the most wayward of sons, is awake.  The Holy Blessed One called for me to build the Mishkan.  If the alienation caused by sin was truly irrevocable would HaShem ever have invited me to participate in the building of an abode for His Divine Indwelling?

He cryptically concludes that, of the three boxes, it is davka the wooden one that symbolizes the impediment of sin-engendered guilt feelings and especially, on a national level, the guilt engendered by the incident of the golden calf. Puzzling, because the Midrash Tanchumah that he cites (Parshas Vayakhel 8) says the Aron was made of Shittim wood to atone for the sin committed at Shittim. This is an apparent reference to the sin of licentiousness with the Moabites that occurred at Shittim and not referring to the sin of idolatry of the golden calf (that occurred at the foot of Sinai).

[A more direct reference might have been the Midrash Tanchumah from our own parshah (Terumah:10) that states; HaShem told Moshe “they committed a folly (shtus) and angered Me with the calf; let the Acacia wood-atzei Shittim come and gain atonement for their folly.”  The problem with the latter citation is that the Acacia wood in question is that of the mizbayach-altar and not of the aron.]

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, asserts that the essential aron was the one that was made of wood.  Unlike inert-mineral gold, wood came from a living, thriving, flourishing tree.  The Torah itself is referred to as “the tree of life.”  The atzei Shittim box in the center represents the ardent, almost libidinous, yearnings for Torah-chamidu d’Oraysa that are the necessary prerequisite for the acquisition of the Torah’s wisdom (cp Rambam Isurei Biah 22:21).  While the sincere awe of heaven, represented by the interior and exterior golden boxes, contains, defines and sublimates the unbridled, wild infatuation represented by the wood.

Elsewhere the Lubliner Kohen notes that during the creation of Heaven and earth, the darkness preceded the light.  He postulates that every personal or national advancement towards greater spirituality and “the light” must be preceded by, and grow out of, a darkness.  It was not simply that the Shittim wood of the Aron atoned for the sin of the calf it was that the dark sin of the calf was an indispensable precondition that engendered the light of the Aron and, as the epicenter of its sanctity, the entire Mishkan!

The sin of the calf was motivated by Klal Yisrael’s desire for a palpable sensory-perceivable Elohim that would lead them.  While directed towards the calf this desire was something dark and sinister.  But the radiance and illumination of the Mishkan — a place where HaShem’s Indwelling was palpable, and the only site where all “seekers of HaShem” went to find what they sought (Shemos 33:7), followed and grew out of the darkness of the calf. Through the atzei Shittim, the shadowy “shtus” of the calf became part and parcel of the Aron’s and Mishkan’s radiance.

 ~adapted from: Mei HashiloachII Terumah D”H Kol Middos
Neos Deshe Terumah D”H  v’Ahsu (the first)
Pri Tzadik Terumah inyan 8 page 152
Resisei Laylah inyan 24 pp3031

REVISED 5:30 PM EST 1.30.14

If You Can’t Stand the Light, Get Out of the Vision

Bo5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

And Moshe said [to Pharaoh] “HaShem said as follows: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and every firstborn in Egypt will die …’ “

-Shemos 11:4,5

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and there won’t be any lethal plague in your midst when I strike the land of Egypt.  

-Shemos 12:13

G-d will then move across to afflict Egypt. When He sees the blood over the door and on the two doorposts G-d will pass over that door and not allow the force of destruction to enter your homes to strike.

-Shemos 12:23

There was a pronounced difference between the Jews and the Egyptians during all the plagues prior to “the striking of the firstborn”. The Jews were invulnerable to the destructive effects of the plagues.   During the first plague, if a Jew and an Egyptian would drink from the same vessel, the Jew would swallow sweet fresh water while the Egyptian would gag on blood.  The ninth plague caused a palpable; immobilizing darkness to lie upon the land but the children of Israel had abundant light in all of their dwellings.  The same applied to plagues two through eight. Moreover, it was G-d Himself who produced these disparities.  No heroic measures were required on the part of the Jews.

These differences were so pronounced, foretold and deliberate that the Izhbitzer School interprets them to be part of the exodus process itself. HaShem sought to take one nation out of the midst / “the innards” of another nation.  Debunking the alleged equality between Israel and Egypt was part and parcel of the process. Yetzias Mitzrayim-the exodus from Egypt, was about more than liberating a group of Egyptian slaves; it was the birth of a nation and the creation of a new man.  Thus understood, the sequence of the plagues was not just a war of attrition to break the will of the Egyptians. The disparities that existed between the Jews and the Egyptians during the plagues gradually advanced the nation of Israel “through the birth canal” as it were, towards the ultimate goal of a new, distinct identity and absolute individuation.

In light of this Rav Tazdok, the Lubliner Kohen, asks several pointed questions:

1. The Egyptians had “earned” the striking of the firstborn as the wages of the sin of their continued refusal to release the children of Israel. But the Jews had done nothing to delay their own release. So why did they warrant the striking of the firstborn?
2. During the final plague, why were the protective measures of daubing the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the lintel and the doorposts and not leaving their homes all night necessary when no such measures had been needed during the first nine plagues?
3. As HaShem moved across Egypt to strike the firstborn Himself the rule of “once the destroying angel is given a license to act he does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous”(Bava Kama 60A) should not apply. Then what did the Jews have to fear?
4.  How, in fact, did HaShem dispense kivyachol-as it were, with the services of the destroying angel when our theology teaches that “no evil (i.e. punishment or suffering) emanates out of the mouth of the Most High” (Eichah 3:38)

Before presenting his answer the Lubliner Kohen introduces a novel understanding of a particular type of death.

Imagine a simple, standard-issue garden hose being attached to a fire hydrant to extinguish a fire.  After just a few moments the hose would crack and burst.  Garden hoses are not engineered to withstand that level of water pressure per square inch.  This serves as an allegory for the human soul’s interface with G-d’s Infinite Light.  An overload of Divine Light accrues to “the breaking of the vessels.” This is the meaning of the pasuk “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ “(Shemos 33:20) to which Chazal appended this significant addendum: “But at the moment of death, man shall see [HaShem]” (Sifri B’Ha’aloschah 103).

The Tenach and the Talmud are replete with examples of those who reached for medregos– levels that exceeded the grasp of their own actual madregah and who perished from an inability to endure the intensity of the Divine Light:

Four great Tannaim entered the Parde”s. One of them, ben Azai, tragically “glimpsed and died” shattered by the intensity of the G-d knowledge he’d grasped there. (Chagigah 14B). This was the cause of death of Ahron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, as well. Those baalei teshuvah-masters of repentance, who fast-track their teshuvah-turning and reacquire perfection proverbially בשעתא חדא וברגעא חדא -“in one hour–one moment” also part with their souls in this manner. This was the cause of death for the exemplary baal teshuvah “Rabi” Elazar ben Durdai. (Avodah Zarah 17A).

This was precisely the dynamic at work during the final plague; the striking of the firstborn. HaShem Himself, (or as our sages put it בכבודו ובעצמו) kivyachol “emerged” and “moved across” Egypt. This was an unprecedented gilui Shechinah-Divine revelation. The Egyptians, engrossed as they were in idolatry and licentiousness lacked the necessary “vessels” to contain this tsunami of light.  In fact, the grossness of rank-and-file Egyptians’ impurity actually left them with no capacity to sense the light of holiness at all.

But before Matan Torah– the giving of the Torah, sacrifices were offered by firstborns. The firstborn of every nation possessed some modicum of sensitivity to holiness. Still, their capacity for absorbing holiness was minimal and constrained. The gilui Shechinah at midnight of the exodus came into the souls of the non-Jewish firstborn with all of the force of fire hydrant-pressurized water entering a garden hose. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly shattered.  Their deaths were not punishments in the conventional sense.  On the contrary, nothing became their depraved and debauched lives so much as leaving it through this one glorious moment of G-d-perception. No evil had emanated from the Most High.

As for the Jews; eventually they would develop “vessels” broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  The Torah, when describing the revelation at Sinai, attests to this after the fact: “has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and lived?” (Devarim 4:33) Yet, at midnight of the exodus this potential was underdeveloped.  For the Jews to have ventured outdoors then would have been a reckless exercise in “reach” that exceeded “grasp”.  As was the case with Rabi Elazar ben Durdai, such a meteoric ascent, in which lofty madregos are gained “in one hour–one moment” would have cost them their lives.

Paradoxically, it is the Jewish capacity for mesirus nefesh-giving up their lives for HaShems sake, which transforms their souls into vessels broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  This was manifested just prior to Matan Torah, when they agreed to take the Torah, no questions asked.  All the other nations lacked this capacity.  When the other nations were offered the Torah they would ask “what is written within the Torah?” and when they discovered something in the Torah that rubbed against their grains; that disagreed with their constitutions, they rejected the Torah and its Author.

The blood of the Passover sacrifices that the Jews daubed on their doorposts served as a sign of the Jewish potential for mesirus nefesh.  On the night of the exodus the Jews were passing and skipping over the gradual, slow-and-steady approach to attaining madregos.  Even so, behind these doors signed with mesirus nefesh they were protected from the shattering and soul-taking effects of HaShem’s awe-inspiring, devastating Infinite Light.  As they could not stand the light they stayed out of the vision.

Adapted from Resisei Laylah 58 pp 172174
See also Mei Hashiloach II Bo D”H Vayomer (the first such D”H)


A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Do not erect a sacred Monolith for this is something that HaShem your L-rd hates                                                                                                                                -Devarim 16:22

Although HaShem commanded us to make Altars of soil and multiple stones He hates the (single stone) monolith… even though the monolith was beloved by Him during the era of the patriarchs He hates it presently…                                                                                                                        -Rashi Ibid

Good habits become second nature. As we grow and mature we develop attitudes and approaches that are translated into specific behavioral patterns. Once well established these attitudes and behavioral patterns become very difficult to break. On the rare occasions of inconsistency we are often described as “acting out of character” and most people consider consistency an unquestionable virtue.  We associate immutable consistency with being principled, sincere, dependable and serious.

However the Izhbitzer cautions against being too obstinate to ever alter ones attitudes or behaviors. In contemporary post-sacrificial terms this is what the prohibition of “erecting a monolith” means.  A monolith is a single pillar or slab of hard inflexible stone. While soil is soft and malleable and the variegated stones of a multiple stone altar are of different shapes, sizes and colors, a monolith is a model of, well, monolithic, monochromatic, monotonous consistency.    Even sacred monoliths are hated by HaShem.  Even regarding ones manner of relating to and worshiping HaShem the Torah prohibits monolithic, heels-dug-in inflexibility.

In the bygone era of the patriarchs, when HaShems sovereignty was not yet acknowledged by the vast majority of the mankind this kind of obstinacy was beloved by Hashem. At that time the call of the hour was for the Avos and Imahos to dig in their heels, draw lines in the sand and to be moser nefesh-to lay down their lives, for every minute detail of worship of the One True G-d. Whereas for us there are only three cardinal sins for which the Halacha demands death before transgression in all circumstances. It goes without saying that if in given situations we must steer clear of obstinacy and be flexible enough to actually sin then, depending on a variety of variables, we must certainly be responsive and flexible enough to adjust our ways and means of fulfilling Mitzvos and worshiping HaShem.

Understanding that the capacity for inconsistency is required of us in our relationship with Hashem has a tremendously positive impact on our interpersonal relationships as well. If we had the luxury of monolithic inflexibility we’d find it much easier to be dismissive of other people, their Hashkofos and approaches to Avodas HaShem –serving G-d. But since we ourselves must eschew a monolithic style in Avodas Hashem, if we ourselves serve HaShem in a less-than-absolutely-consistent range of ways then we are much better able to tolerate the diverse approaches of our fellow Jews.

While uniform standards govern the actual implementation of the 613 Mitzvahs that are equally binding on each and every Jewish Soul, the Ta’amei HaMitzvos– the rationale and motivation underpinning the Mitzvahs are “tasted” (Ta’am) and experienced by each soul in a unique and inimitable way.  This is why the  Pasuk (Devarim 6:17) says: “You (plural) should be very careful (Shamor Tish’merun) to keep the commandments of Hashem your L-rd as well as the Edos.. that He commanded you (singular- Tzivcha) . The Edos refer to the Ta’amei HaMitzvos which differ from individual to individual.  Hence the second person singular conjugation of the verb “command”.   It is imperative for each of us to understand that, in fact, it is impossible for our fellow Jews to observe the Mitzvahs using our unique and inimitable approach and attitude and that to expect their approach to be consistent with ours is not merely being judgmental and dismissive, but completely irrational and foolish.


Adapted from Mei HaShiloach to Devarim 16:22 (D”H Lo Sakum )

and 6:17 (D”H Shamor)


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

Iggeres HaRamban in Memory of Rochel Bas Aryeh

The following entry is Zecher Nishmas (in memory of) Rochel Bas Aryeh. She was a friend of Beyond BT commentor Jaded Topaz (JT). JT relates that she was a very caring, thoughtful, altruistic, brilliant and modest person – and an awesome listener. Even when she was very sick she continued with the same level of altruism, caring and concern for others. Her Yahrzeit is today and she always used to say over the Iggeres Ramban.

Here is a the Iggeres HaRamban for anybody who would like to carry it in their wallet and read it regularly.

JT relates:
“They gave the letter out at her shloshim which is why I started saying it many moons ago. I think it is a very good doctrine to base ones personal spiritual life space on because it gives you a framework to be in control of your emotions. I love how it breaks down respect for others , humility, pride, haughtiness, anger. I love the think before you speak sentiment. Also I think it has a cumulative effect. I’ve gotten less emotional and more logical and rational over the months I started saying it every morning. I used to say it once a week. Sometimes it was the only religious thing I did. It helps me stay focused not angry, pride free, and haughty less. That’s why I love it. ”

Here is the Iggeres HaRamban. Perhaps you can read through it in memory of Rochel Bas Aryeh:

Listen my son to the admonitions of your father, and do not disregard the teachings of your mother. Attempt to constantly speak softly to every person, at all times, and through this you will avoid anger, which is a terrible trait, and (which) causes people to sin. The Rabbis have taught us that whoever gets angry, all forms of purgatory are visited upon him, as it says, “Remove anger from your heart and evil from your flesh.” This “evil” refers to purgatory, as it says, “Also wicked on the day of evil.” When one saves himself from anger he begins to reflect on the trait of humility, which is the best of all the wonderful traits, as it says, “The heel of humility is the fear of Hashem.”

As a result of humility you will reflect on the trait of fear, as you constantly think: from where did you come, and to where are you going? In life you are an insect and worm, and also in death. And before whom are you destined to give an accounting? Before His Honor, the King, as it says, “Behold, the Skies and heavenly skies cannot sustain you, certainly not the heart of men.” It also says, “Is it not so that I occupy the heavens and earth, says Hashem.”

When you will think of all this, you will fear your Creator and guard against sin, and with these traits you will be happy with your lot. When you will act with humility, to be ashamed before all men, and to fear from them and from sin, then, the spirit of Hashem will descend upon you, together with a halo of glory and life in the world to come.

Now, my son, know and observe, that one who is arrogant, is rebellious against the Heavenly Kingdom, as it says, “Hashem rules, dressed in arrogance, etc.” With what should man be arrogant? If with wealth – Hashem impoverishes and gives wealth; if with honor – this belongs to Hashem, as it says, “Wealth and honor are from you,” and thus how can one flaunt with the honor of his creator? If he flaunts with his wisdom, “He uncovers the lips of the trusted ones and removes sanity from the elderly.”

Since everyone is equal before Hashem – who, when angry, cuts down the arrogant and with His will lifts up the downtrodden – therefore lower yourself, and Hashem will uplift you. I will therefore explain to you how to constantly act with humility; all your words should be said softly, your head should be bent, your eyes should look down to the ground and your heart should be up; do not stare at a person when talking to him; every person should, in your eyes, be greater than you. If he is wise or wealthy you must honor him; if he is lacking and you are wealthier and wiser than he, think in your heart that you are the guiltier, and he is the more innocent – since if he sins it is unintentional, while your sins are intentional.

With all your words, actions and thoughts, and at all times, think in your heart that you are standing before Hashem, and His countenance is upon you, since His glory fills the world. Your words should be with fear and trepidation like a servant before his master. Be shy before every man; if a man calls you, don’t reply in a loud voice, but rather softly, like in the presence of your master.

Be careful to constantly read the Torah so that you will observe it, and when you finish your study, search out what you have learned to see if there is something you can now observe. Review your actions in the morning and in the evening, and in this way all your days will contain repentance. Remove all your worldly issues from your heart during prayers, and prepare your heart before Hashem. Purify your thoughts and think before you speak; do this all the days of your mundane life in every area, and you won’t sin. In this way your words, actions and thoughts will be straight, your prayers will be pure, clean, well-intentioned and acceptable to Hashem, as it says, “Prepare their hearts – your ears will pay attention.”

Read this once a week, and not less, to observe and constantly go in the way of Hashem, so that you will succeed in all your endeavors and you will merit the World to Come that’s hidden for the righteous. Every day that you read it they will answer you from Heaven, whatever you will decide to request, forever – may it be so eternally.