Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

Why do the episodes of the war with Amalek and Yisro’s arrival serve as lead-ins to the revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue?
Is it better to be shrewd or gullible?
Is there any room for skepticism in the hearts and minds of believers in the 13 Articles of Faith?

And [thus] Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his allies by the sword

— Shemos 17:13

And Yisro priest of Midyan , Moshe’s father-in-law heard about all that Elokim had done for Moshe and His people Yisrael, when He extricated Yisrael from Egypt … And, along with Moshe’s wife and sons, Yisro came to the desert where Moshe was camped near Elokims mountain.

— Shemos 18:1,5

And Yisro … heard: What news did he hear that [motivated him enough] to come? The splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the war with Amalek. —(from Zevachim 116A, and Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Now I know that Hashem is the greatest of all the deities, for [He came] upon them [the Egyptians] with the very thing that they plotted.

 — Shemos 18:11

Of all the deities: This teaches us that he [Yisro] was familiar with every type of idolatry in the world, and there was no pagan deity that he had not worshipped. (from Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Destroy all the places, where the nations that you are driving out served their gods, [whether] upon the high mountains, the hills, or under every verdant tree.

— Devarim 12;2

For your gods were as numerous as the number of your cities, O Judah …

— Yirmiyahu 11:13

… yet upon every high hill and under every leafy tree[traditional places of idols and their worship] you recline, playing the role of a harlot.

— Yirmiyahu 2:20

The naïf believes everything; but the incredulous understands the correct footsteps to tread.

— Mishlei 14:15

Strike the scorner, and the naïf grows shrewd. 

— Mishlei 19:25

“Strike the scorner” this refers to Amalek “and the naïf grows shrewd” this refers to Yisro

 — Shemos Rabbah Yisro 27

I am HaShem your Elokim who extricated you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery

— Shemos 20:2

And he [Bilaam] gazed at Amalek, and took up his allegory, and said: “Amalek is the first among the nations; but his end shall come to eternal destruction.”

— BeMidbar 24:20

Like fire and atomic energy; faith can be a tremendously positive and constructive or a negative and destructive force. When one has faith in HaShem, true prophets and chachmei haTorah-authentic Torah sages; it sustains and nurtures the life of the faithful, as the pasuk teaches v’tzadik b’emunaso yichyeh-and the just will live in/through his faith (Chavakuk 2:4). However, when faith is invested in false gods, false prophets and/or assorted charlatans, there is nothing more corrosive, detrimental to society and self-destructive. To carry the simile further, just as nations are better served by building safe and secure nuclear power plants than in stockpiling surplus nuclear warheads, one must be extremely judicious and discriminating in deciding what and/or whom to invest their faith in.

So, while faith can potentially be the greatest of virtues, it is not to be confused with gullibility and naïveté. Faith unleavened by healthy doses of discernment and skepticism is folly and, as Yirmiyahu the prophet implies by describing the idolatrous Jews of his era as “playing the harlot” and having as many deities as cities, a kind of promiscuity of the heart and mind.  The emunah-faith; of one who has “complete and perfect faith” in the thirteen fundamental articles of Jewish belief is of diminished value if he also believes in every outlandish hoax ever publicized or if he can be swindled into buying the Brooklyn Bridge because he is convinced of the seller’s integrity.  For faith in truth and belief in reality to be commendable one must first stop suspending his disbelief in mirages and repudiate the bill-of-goods that he had formerly been convinced of for the lies that they are.

At one time or another Yisro believed in every possible manner of fabrication. Chazal teach us that there was not a single pagan deity that Yisro did not worship. To buy in to so much and such varied deception means that Yisro was possessed of an extremely credulous and gullible nature.  The lashon kodesh-biblical Hebrew; word that defines this kind of folly is pessi-a naïf who’ll believe anything.

At the extreme opposite pole of human nature stands the letz-scorner/scoffer who believes in nothing and no one. Such people wear their incredulous disbelief as badges of honor marking them as wiser and as sharper than the credulous. They scoff at believers, first and foremost by mocking all that they believe in. Such skeptics scorn across the board and no target is safe from their sneering, scathing “appraisals.” Such letzim are the Wildean cynics who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Amalek is identified by Chazal as the letz incarnate.  The national character of Amalek is wired to scoff and mock everything, up to and including all that is real, true and holy. How else can we understand that while all other nations were awestruck by the events of the Exodus from Egypt and the Parting of the Sea of Reeds, so much so that they had come to some level of belief in the invincibility-borne-of-chosen-ness of the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish people; and the Infinite Power of the G-d of Israel, Amalek remained unimpressed?  The preemptive attack launched by Amalek was their über-skeptical “I’m from Missouri, you’ve got to show me” moment.

The Izhbitzer explains that once letzim are inevitably set in evil ways they become irredeemable. All exhortations to tikkun-repairing ones evil; depend on getting the perpetrator to believe in the value of change and improvement. But the scoffing, scornful, skeptical letz does not recognize or tolerate chashivus-value and significance. One can try to rehabilitate the letz with both high-minded arguments and/or corporal-punishment “convincing” and both will be wasted on those who know the value of nothing. On the other hand, when dealing with a pessi there is someone to talk to and something to work with.  The ethical challenge of the pessi is that he believes in the value of too many things.  Discernment and a healthy dose of skepticism come with experience and education, sometimes even from education gleaned from the lessons and exhortations wasted on the letz.

 

Read more Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

Hishtadlus, False Blizzards and Parshas HaMon

One good thing about the predictions of the record snow storms is that I was extremely happy that we only got 12 inches. Another good thing was the public humility of Gary Szatkowski, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, who apologized on Twitter (@GarySzatkowski) for the snow totals being cut back. “My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public,” Szatkowski tweeted. “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t. Once again, I’m sorry.”

We can second guess the city officials for their road and transit closures, but like us, they have to do their hishtadlus to protect the citizens. And like us, it’s hard to get the hishtadlus factor exactly right, no too much and not too little. The key for us believing Jews is to remember that even after our hishtadlus, everything is in Hashem’s hands. This is something we have to continually work on to internalize.

The halachic works suggest that we read Parshas Hamon everyday to internalize this message. (Tur 1; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:5; Aruch Hashulchan 1:22; Shulchan Aruch HaRav 1:9). The Mishna Berurah says “And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his livelihood comes through special Divine direction (hashgacha pratis)”.

From my observations, most people are lucky to get through all the davening, let alone recite extras like Parshas HaMon. However, it just so happens that Rebbe Mendel of Riminov said that saying Parshas HaMon on Tuesday of Parshas B’Shalach is a Segulah for Parnossa. And guest what – today is that Tuesday, and many of us are home because of the snow, so we probably have a few minutes to say it.

Here’s a link to the Art Scroll Interlinear translation of Parshas Hamon.

Righteous Indignation—the Root of Prayer and Salvation

Shemos-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

Blessed is Elokim, who has not removed my prayer, or His loving-kindness from me.

-Tehillim 66:20

The Izhbitzer taught that before the Divine Will to liberate is at hand a person remains blind, deaf and dumb to his own need for deliverance. The person cannot see his deficiencies and has no idea as to what he is lacking. However, once there is a Divine Will to liberate, It allows the one in need of deliverance to see the root cause of his deficiencies and proffers him the capacity to pray and cry-out for salvation.  Next, the one in need of deliverance begins to bluster and create a prayerful ruckus to HaShem. Then, HaShem shines his chessed– loving-kindness and the actual salvation transpires.

This is what the psalmist, King Dovid, meant when he wrote said “ … who has not removed my prayer, nor His loving-kindness from me.”  Even though the prayer is “mine” it is HaShem who implants the desire to utter it in my heart, He could remove it — but He chooses not to.

A long time then passed and the king of Egypt died. The children-of-Israel groaned (due to) [from] their slavery and they cried out; and their supplications ascended to G-d from [amidst] the slavery.

-Shemos 2:23

If one wanted to create a timeline charting the Geulah-salvation from Galus Mitzrayim-the Egyptian exile, the split second of this collective national groan would be the starting point of the timeline.  Before that moment they had no impetus, no drive to pray and call out to G-d. When the Divine Will decreed that the time for Geulah had come, HaShem stimulated their desire to be extricated from Galus and the will to pray for this salvation.  For the naissance of every salvation is the desire for salvation.

The Izhbitzer’s elder son, the Bais Yaakov, develops this concept further: The period of nocturnal darkness that is most intense and most concealing is the one directly preceding the dawning of the light. Our sages refer to this as קדרותא דצפרא–the starless morning gloom, and use it as a metaphor for the intensification of Jewish suffering. “A man and his young son were wandering on the seemingly interminable road and the boy began despairing of ever returning to civilization. ‘Father’ he asked ‘Where is the city?’ The man responded ‘Son, when we pass a graveyard that will be the sure sign that a city is not far off.‘  Similarly the prophet told K’lal Yisrael–the Jewish People ‘If you are swamped by travails you will be redeemed immediately — HaShem will respond on the day of your suffering’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 20:580)

When the new king ramped up the sadistic slave-labor he had overplayed his hand.  Somehow, the human capacity for adaptation to trying circumstances had allowed K’lal Yisrael to endure the slavery up until that point. They had grown inured and insensitive to the agonies and the indignities that their taskmasters heaped upon them.  But when the oppression intensified they finally sensed their own innate freedom and free men cannot tolerate being enslaved. They felt the pain and suffering of their slavery and began to sniff the sweet aroma of liberation. When it hurts, one groans and screams; ויזעקו   –“and they cried out.”

It wasn’t so much that the liberation was a response to the crying out, as the crying out was a reaction to the liberation process that had begun internally. By implementing the Geulah from the inside out it was, in fact, HaShem who gave them the drive to cry out.  This is the meaning of the pasuk “HaShem, You have heard the yearning of the humble: You will prime their heart, Your Ear will be attentive” (Tehillim10:17).  Once the human heart is primed for prayer that is the sure sign that the Divine Ear has already been attentive to the distress and taken the initial steps towards ending it. HaShem develops Geulah gradually until it is actualized. It begins with the end of endurance of Galus and the capacity to feel the pain, progresses to hope and the conviction that HaShem can help, flowers into crying out in prayer and culminates in the actual Geulah.

The Bais Yaakov adds an etymological insight: two nearly synonymous words in lashon kodesh-the holy tongue mean “to cry out”, זעקה-zeakah (beginning with the letter zayin) andצעקה  –tzeakah (beginning with the letter tzadee). Tzeakah is the verb employed when things are hopeless and the path to salvation is completely obscured. As that pasuk says “This case is identical to a man rising up against his neighbor and murdering him. After all, she was assaulted in the field, even if the betrothed girl had cried out (צעקה beginning with a tzadee) there would have been no one to come to her aid and save her (literally: she would have had no savior.)” (Devarim 22:26, 27)

Whereas zeakah is the verb employed when things are no longer hopeless and the salvation begins to become palpable. This type of “crying out” takes place when, sensing the possibility of salvation, one begins marshalling and concentrating all of his faculties towards the achievement of this goal, evoking a corresponding Divine response.  At its root the verb zeakah means to coalesce and band together as in וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-עֲמָשָׂא, הַזְעֶק-לִי אֶת-אִישׁ-יְהוּדָה שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וְאַתָּה, פֹּה עֲמֹד “And the king said to Amasha: muster the men of Judah together for me within three days, and you be present here.”  It is this latter verb that connotes hope and faith in the salvation, which our pasuk uses to describe the crying-out; וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ – The children-of-Israel groaned due to their slavery and they cried out.

The first of the four famous expressions of Geulah (Shemos 6:6) is typically translated as “and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” But the first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chidushei haRi”m  reads it in a way that resonates with the Izhbitzer’s  fixing the split second of this collective national groan as the starting point of the Geulah from Galus Mitzrayim. The Ri”m renders the first expression of Geulah as “and I will extricate you from your patience (savlanus), from your capacity to bear it [Galus Mitzrayim] anymore” for the redemptive process cannot begin as long as the exile can be tolerated.  Only after the Bnei Yisrael can no longer bear it and are disgusted by it, can the Galus be liquidated.  Getting in touch with their inner freeman, they must first grow furiously offended about the affront to their dignity — the insult, more than the injury, of slavery.

Hashem doesn’t take the slaves out of slavery until he takes the slavery out of the slaves.

Adapted from:

Mei Hashiloach II Shemos D”H Vayeanchu
Bais Yaakov Shemos inyan29 D”H Vayeanchu page 29 (15A)
and inyan 30 D”H Vayeanchu page 30 (15B)

Originally posted Dec 2014

Only G-d Can Make an Identity

What is the true definition of Identity?

Why does the Midrash call the second blessing of the Amidah “HaShems blessing”?  as though the others are not.

I believe with complete faith that the Resurrection of the Dead will occur at the time when the Creator wills it … 

— 13th Article of Faith per Maimonides

 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and magnify your name. You shall become a blessing.

 — Bereishis 12:2

Rabi Chiya bar Ze’eerah said [How was Avraham’s name magnified? Through becoming a blessing! HaShem said] “Your blessing precedes mine for [in the amidah-silent standing devotion] only after they recite the blessing ‘Shield of Avraham’ do they recite the blessing of ‘He Who resurrects the dead’ “

— BeMidbar Rabbah-Nasso 11:4

 [The Caesar] Antoninus said: “I am well aware that the least one among you [Tannaim-authors of the Mishnah] can bring the dead to life”

— Avodah Zarah 10B

 An Angel comes to the grave and asks [the deceased] “what is your name?” He responds: “It is known and revealed before the Blessed One that I do not know my name.”  

— Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer

Elokim made man level/straight; but they [men] have sought out many schemes.

— Koheles 7:29

[During the Resurrection HaShem] Desires to Straighten the crooked.

— Zohar Beshalach page 54A

People are resurrected in the same condition in which they died.  If they were lame, deaf or blind when they died; they will still be lame, deaf or blind when they are restored to life. Only afterwards will they be healed of their blemishes … they will even be wearing the same clothes …   [Why will HaShem resurrect the dead in this manner?] So that the wicked will not claim “[this is not true resurrection for] those who rose are not the same persons which He slew”. So the Holy Blessed One says “Let them arise in the same state as they went [while alive], I will heal them afterwards.”

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayigash 8

 Rabi Chiya bar Ze’eerah’s teaching seems odd. Why, asks the Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, should the first brachah-blessing; of the amidah be considered any less “HaShems blessing” than the second?  HaShem is both “He Who resurrects the dead” and the “Shield of Avraham”?

The answer, simply put, is that while human beings could, theoretically, approximate the role of protecting Avraham from harm and enemies and thus presume the role of  “shield of Avraham”; no human being can quicken the dead — even for a moment. Thus of all the many prayers, blessings and liturgy that praise Him, HaShem chooses to describe the second blessing of the amidah as “His” brachah.

But this answer dare not be understood on a superficial level.  As we believe in hashgachah peratis-micromanaged Divine Providence; we know that even if a human being were to protect Avraham from harm and enemies he could not possibly do so without HaShem enabling him to do so. But if deeds accomplished through Divine facilitation (in other words all human endeavors) are still counted among human accomplishments then so should resurrection! The prophets Eliyahu and Elisha and, possibly, Yechezkal resurrected the dead. Moreover, as the Caesar Antoninus observed, any Tanna had this capacity as well. Some might argue that current microsurgery techniques that reattach severed limbs and restore them to full function is a kind of resurrection. Likewise, if cloning technology continues apace to the point that a fully functional and completely identical human organism can be replicated from a cadavers DNA, everyone will acclaim this as a medical miracle of resurrection.

Medicine has long been concerned with memory and identity loss through amnesia and dementia. World literature and folklore is replete with tales of identity swaps e.g. The Prince and the Pauper. While infrequent episodes of identity theft have always plagued society, in our era, in which identifying personal and financial information is routinely stored electronically, identity theft has become a crime pandemic. The Bais Yaakov teaches that what we believe as a part of our theology, what makes the ultimate Resurrection of the Dead uniquely Divine, is not so much that HaShem will restore life to lifeless corpses but that He will return the truest, profoundest identity to those who have lost it.

Read more Only G-d Can Make an Identity

Understanding Gods Plan as Best We Can

Admin’s note: the referer’s log is a great source for reposts. This post was first posted in January, 2007. Somebody from the MGM Mirage in Vegas was searching for Hashem Runs the World and came to this post. After rereading it and the comments, it is clear that it’s well worth reposting.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve started, and failed to finish, about 5 different posts for Beyond BT. While all were different, all had the same theme: why aren’t people seeing the same ‘truths’ that I see in the Torah?

I started all of these posts trying to engender a spirit of honest debate and questioning, but stopped before I’d completed them. Why? Firstly, because like everyone, I have my own baggage, and however ‘objective’ I wish I was, I know that my own slanted viewpoint creeps in here and there, and warps the real essence of what I’m trying to write.

Secondly, because many of the subjects I was trying to write about – and which are exercising me at the moment – are ‘biggies’. Let me share some examples: We moved to Israel from the UK, about a year and a half ago. While many people, thank G-d, have had an easy aliya, we have had quite a challenging aliya, with things going ‘wrong’ on many different levels.

Without belaboring the point, within a week of moving here, we lost all of our savings (thanks to an ‘unexpected development’ back in chutz); had a falling out with a close family member ostensibly upset about our move; and a firm offer of a job (again, with a firm in chutz) retracted.

From that point, we went on to have our credit card stolen, our house broken into, business difficulties which in turn lead to financial difficulties, and the dawning realization that socially, we just weren’t fitting in all that well.

Yet despite all this – or maybe, because of all of it – I haven’t stopped thanking Hashem that we made the move. In the UK, we were both workaholics; in Israel, we have had the time and space to really appreciate the blessings that are our children. In the UK, I was too busy making and spending money to really do much in the way of learning or chesed. Here, I can’t give tzedeka as freely as I’d like to. But boy, am I making an effort to have Shabbat guests and to find ‘free’ ways of doing nice things for people.

In Israel, thanks to many of our difficulties, I am now inordinately grateful for everything I do have, like my health, my husband, my family more generally. In chutz, I would get down if even the tiniest thing didn’t go my way. In Israel, I am meeting so many great people, who are really on an upward path in terms of their yiddishkeit. People who are really living their Judaism, and for whom Hashem permeates every minute, every moment, every decision and action. In chutz, I really wasn’t.

As one of the other posters here commented, all the arguments about moving to Israel etc, have been very well rehearsed. But when you live here – and you really struggle to live here – you understand how a Jew who doesn’t live here is missing out on a very fundamental part of their yiddishkeit. That’s controversial, I know. But it’s what I truly believe.

Here’s another ‘controversial’ thing that the last few months here have shown me: Having a lot of material wealth is an enormous obstacle to getting close to Hashem. Yes, the dream house, luxury car, gourmet meal and designer outfit is nice, on one level. But that level is incredibly superficial. I had nice things in London and lots of money. And I realize now just how complacent I’d become in my yiddishkeit as a result.

Here, I have prayed like I have never prayed before. It’s not always been a comfortable experience. But I’ve had to ask myself ‘what are we here for?’ and I’ve had to realize that the answer is ‘to work on ourselves and get closer to our creator’. And you don’t do that by shopping.

The last thing I’ve realized, again controversially, is that ‘feminism’ and Judaism really don’t go together. To the point that now, I try to steer clear of any self-styled ‘orthodox feminists’. Why? Because anyone who is putting gender politics into Torah really doesn’t grasp the basic principles underlying creation: G-d made the world. G-d is perfect. G-d knew exactly what he was doing, and if you have a problem with it, you are essentially saying that you know better than G-d.

I know others will differ, but for me, that is a fundamentally problematic position to take; it’s a circle that simply can’t be squared.

Every issue / problem / challenge has G-d at its root. From the small niggles, to the larger frustrations and the enormous tragedies, G-d is running the world, and knows better than we do what is for our best, and ultimately, what is for our ultimate ‘good’.

It sounds strange, even to me, to write these words and be that much closer to genuinely believing them. But coming to Israel, with all the ups and downs it has entailed, has helped me to realize that if I am to have a meaningful relationship with G-d, and also to my Judaism, I have to accept that I can only ever see a very small part of Gods plan – and that his ability to run the world is far beyond what I can comprehend.

Drowning on Dry Land

Why are so many segulos ineffective?
In particular why doesn’t fulfilling the Mitzvah of tzitzis transform us into spiritual supermen, as promised by the Torah?

These shall be your fringes and when you look at them, you’ll remember all the commandments of HaShem, and do them; and will not [continue to] go astray [following] after your own heart and your own eyes, which [have had the ability to this point of] leading you to immorality.  So that you will remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your Elokim.

—BeMidbar 15:39,40

 “So that you will may remember and do all My commandments.” This is comparable to one thrown into the raging waters to whom the ship’s captain flung a rope. The captain told [the man thrown overboard]  “grasp this rope in your hands and don’t let go for if you do  … you’re a goner.” Similarly, the Holy Blessed One told Israel: “as long as you hold fast to the mitzvos [you will live] [as it says] ‘And [only] you who cling to HaShem your Elokim are all alive today’ (Devarim4:4). And it says ‘Take fast hold of mussar-reprimands /moral instruction; don’t let go; guard her, for she is your life.’ (Mishlei 4:13)”

—Midrash Rabbah BeMidbar17:6

 In this allegory the life-preserving rope represent the strands of the tzitzis-fringes. Through them, we remember HaShem’s commandments and do not “drown” in the “raging waters” of malicious transgressions.

—Commentary of Rav Dovid Luria ibid

 Antigonus ish Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of receiving reward. And the awe of Heaven should be upon you.”

—Pirkei Avos 1:3

We live in an era when the ideal of serving HaShem with no ulterior motives has become almost passé.  As one wit put it “How did the Ahm Segulah become the Ahm Segulos?” It seems as though almost every worthy cause and endeavor is marketed as a “you scratch My Back and I’ll scratch yours” tradeoff kivyachol-as it were; with HaShem … Many people grow bitter and disappointed when, despite their best efforts at adhering to the segulah-prescribed practices, the promised yeshuos-deliverances; never come about.

Yet distinctions must be made between latter day segulos of unripened vintage and of dubious provenance and segulos that appear in the Gemara — or in the Chumash itself. For notwithstanding Antigonus ish Socho’s admonitions for completely selfless, non self-serving avodas HaShem-serving G-d; there are many mitzvah practices whose promised rewards are, in fact, guaranteed by the Gemara or in the Chumash.

Apart from the article of our faith that, in a general sense, observance of the Torah’s commandments reaps rewards (while transgressions evokes Divine retribution in the form of punishments); there is a lengthy causality list linking particular mitzvos and areas of Torah study to earning specific rewards: “Length of days” for honoring parents or shooing the mother bird away from the nest before taking the eggs or hatchlings, bountiful crops in the years preceding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in consideration of scrupulous halachic observance of those years, wealth for proper tithing and offspring who are Talmidei Chachamim-Torah sages; in exchange for care and concern in the kindling of mitzvah lamps/candles — to name but a few.

Still another distinction must be made between activities that are mesugal– supposed to cause material benefits to accrue; and those that are mesugal for spiritual advances, greater intellectual acuity and / or ethical edification.  This last category comes a lot closer to Antigonus ish Socho’s paradigm than those segulos that promise temporal benefits.

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher Lainer, The Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that the mitzvah of tzitzis–ritual fringes on four-cornered garments; is a segulah for comprehensive tzidkus-righteousness/ saintliness. Moreover, this segulah is explicitly described by the Torah. After all, the pasuk says that when we see our tzitzis we recall all of HaShem’s commandments and, knowing that they are commandments, not non-compulsory suggestions, and that we are the commanded, how could we do anything but carry out our Divine orders? Thus, the pasuk concludes with the promise/ prediction … “and you will do them.”

Read more Drowning on Dry Land

Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

Why is the Zodiac sign of the month of Sivan the twins?
Why are we often frustrated by failure despite having put forth our very best efforts?
Conversely, why does unanticipated success sometimes come our way, relatively effortlessly?

… Similarly the Holy One, blessed be He, say to [the Children of] Israel: ‘My children! I created the inclination to evil but I [also] created the Torah, as its antidote [lit. seasoning]; if you busy yourselves with the Torah, you will not be delivered to your inclinations to evil.

— Kidushin 30B

Our Rabbis taught: There are two kidneys within Man, one of which counsels him to good, [while] the other counsels him to evil; and it is reasonable to suppose that the good one is on his right side and the bad one on his left, as it is written, “A wise man’s heart /insight is at his right side, but a fool’s heart/ insight is at his left.” (Koheles10:2)

— Brachos 61A

I considered my ways, and retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies.

—Tehillim 119:59

If you will “walk/go in” My statutes (Vayikra 26:3)” This alludes to what is written in Tehillim “I considered my ways, and retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies” [King] David was [really] saying “L-rd of the Universe every day I used to think ‘I plan on going to a certain place, and to a certain dwelling’ yet my feet walked me [as if of their own accord] to synagogues and Yeshivos.  Thus ‘[I] retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies’ “

—Vayikra Rabbah 35:1

He enthroned the letter Zayin as king over motion and he bound a crown to it and he combined one with another and with them he formed Gemini (i.e. the zodiacal constellation sign of twins) in the Universe (Space), Sivan in Year (Time) and the left foot in Soul of male and female.

— Sefer Yetzirah 5:7

In the above excerpt cited above from Sefer Yetzirah we find an example of, the kabbalistic– teaching that we’ve learned about in recent weeks; that all that HaShem created exists on the three parallel planes of olam/shanah/nefesh-world/year/soul i.e. in the realms of space, time and spirit.

For Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, the parallel between motion, feet and Sivan are all fairly self-evident.  Sivan is the month of Mattan Torah-the Revelation at Sinai; when Torah was brought from Heaven to earth and the all-encompassing system of Torah observance is known as Halachah; a conjugation of the Hebrew verb translated as “walking” or “going”. In Parshas Bechukosai we analyzed passages of the Mei HaShiloach in which the kinetic nature of Torah, i.e. how Torah transforms “standers” and “sitters” into “goers” and “walkers” was explored at length.

What is less self-evident is why the motion of the Torah-of-Sivan relates specifically to the souls left foot rather than to the souls right foot. After all, the wisest of all men taught that mans inclination to evil is associated with the left side of his being (heart/ kidney) why should the Torah-of-Sivan, the source of all that is good and the antidote to the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil; parallel the foot that is on man’s “bad” side?

Read more Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

Time, Space and Soul

What is so awful about charging interest? After all it is the lubricant that greases the gears of commerce universally.
Why must even nirtza slaves, those who chose to stay on with their masters when they had the chance to become free, be liberated on the Jubilee year?
When where and why is it permissible to articulate and explicate the name of G-d?

When you come into the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest interlude, a sabbath for HaShem.  For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and gather your crops. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of sabbaths for the land, it is HaShem’s Sabbath during which you may neither plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards … You  shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants; This is your jubilee year;  when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family … Do not make him [your brother] pay advance interest , nor give him food for which he will have to pay accrued interest … And if your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, you may not work him like a slave. He shall be with you just like a hired servant, or a resident [farm] hand. He shall serve you only until the year of jubilee.

                                                                                                                                      —Vayikra 25:2-4,10,37,39,40

 A sabbath to HaShem: For the sake of HaShem, just as is stated of the Sabbath of Creation (i.e the Shabbos we observe on a weekly basis)

—Rashi Vayikra 25:2 from Toras Kohanim 25:7

 I.e., just as every seventh day is a holy Sabbath day, acclaiming that G-d Himself rested on the seventh day [after creating for the first six days] and thus confirming that G-d is the Supreme Creator of all that exists, similarly, man must refrain from working the land on the seventh year, for the Glory of G-d, not for the benefit of the land, so that it should gain fertility by lying fallow for a year.

— Sifsei Chachamim ibid

The mekubalim-expositors of the Torah mystical tradition; teach that all that HaShem created exists on the three parallel planes of olam/shanah/nefesh-world/year/soul i.e. in the realms of space, time and spirit. (cp. Sefer Yetzirah) In Parshas Behar the Izhbitzer school explores several applications of this concept.  Among our Sidrah’s opening topics we find the Shmittah/Shvi’is-sabbatical year; d’ror avadim-the liberation of slaves; and ribis-the prohibition of charging interest.  The Izhbitzer explains the common denominator of these three topics in light of olam/shanah/nefesh.

A ma’amin-one who is theologically correct and believes in the thirteen articles of faith should, in theory, have complete bitachon BaShem– reliance upon G-d.  Believing that G-d is Benevolent, Omniscient, Omnipotent and directly controlling of the infinite to the infinitesimal (hashgachah p’ratis) it would be foolish to place ones trust in anyone or anything else. Yet, as the chasm separating our dispassionate beliefs from our heartfelt emotions is vast; people are constantly looking for substitutes for G-d to place their trust in and to rely upon. First and foremost we search for things to vouchsafe our ongoing existence; ways and means that can maintain and sustain us and, broadly speaking, these ways and means fall into one of three categories; property, time-charges and other people.
Read more Time, Space and Soul

So Bad That it MUST be Good

A SPECIAL REQUEST: Please do not begin reading this devar Torah unless you intend to learn it thoroughly and reach the disclaimer at the very end. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to your spiritual development and health.

How can it be that a small spreading of the white negatzara’as rash causes ritual impurity but that if the rash spreads over the entire body it then becomes a sign of ritual purity?

Why is it that on a Sanhedrin tribunal judging capital offenses a mere majority of two voting for guilt is sufficient to execute capital punishment but that if the Sanhedrin votes for guilt unanimously that the accused is declared innocent and “walks”?

But if the white mark increases in size on the skin after it was shown to the Kohen, who purified it, the person must again show it to the Kohen.  If the Kohen observes that the rash on the skin has increased in size he shall declare the person impure, it is the leprous curse.

—Vayikra 13:7,8

[This is the law] if the leprous area flourishes over the skin so that it covers all the skin of the afflicted person from head to foot wherever the Kohen can see: When the Kohen sees that a leprous discoloration has covered all the [person’s] skin he must declare the afflicted person pure. It has turned completely white [and so] he is pure.

—Vayikra 13:12,13

Rabi Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously found [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? —Because we have learned that final sentencing must be postponed till the next day [after the completion of the trial] in the hope of finding new points in favor of the defense. But these [judges who voted unanimously] will no longer [be capable of] see[ing anything exonerating or meritorious] for him

 —Sanhedrin 17A

Rabi Yochanan said, “Yehudah wanted to pass by [Tamar], but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, ‘Yehudah!  Where are you going? Where will kings come from? Where will great men come from? Where will redeemers come from?’”… “And he veered towards her on the road” (Bereshis38:16)—Coerced against his will [not in his best interests

                                                                                                                                      —Bereshis Rabbah 85:8

Belief in human Free-Will is a fundamental of our faith. In Hilchos Teshuvah (chapters 5,6) the Rambam argues spiritedly and convincingly for the veracity and reality the human Free-Will refuting the arguments and beliefs of the determinists and incompatibilists, even the ones who attempt to support their contentions by quoting pesukim from the TeNaC”h.  Later commentaries point out that the eleventh Maimonidean article of faith is Divine Reward and Punishment and that such a belief is untenable unless human Free-Will is real and not a myth.

That said it is equally important to remember that our Free-Will is limited and not absolute or all-encompassing.  In his treatise on Free-Will, Rav Elya Lazer Dessler uses the following allegory to illustrate this point: When two neighboring countries are war with one another in theory the potential exists for the absolute victory of one country or another.  In this scenario country “A” would conquer and annex every last acre of enemy country “B”s land, raising their national colors and imposing their laws and governmental system over every inch of what was formerly enemy territory.  But in practice, on any given day during any given battle of the war only a small portion or, in a multiple front war, several small portions of territory are actually being contested.  Armies advance and retreat and what was firmly under the control of one country or another last week, last month or last year may be in enemy hands today.  Nevertheless, in a long wars ebb and flow the actual current battlefronts comprise a relatively small to tiny portion of the combatant countries total land mass. Read more So Bad That it MUST be Good

It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?
Why do we read Parshas Parah only at this time of the year?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you… just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cowThis is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3


מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

Read more It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

There Are no Lightweights or Heavyweights … Only Half-Weights

Pikudei-Shekalim 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

Everyone who is to be counted in the census must give a half-shekel according to the holy standard where a shekel is 20 gerah … the rich may not increase [their donations over and above] and the poor may not diminish [their donations below the amount of] (than) this half-shekel …

-Shemos 30:13,15

I believe with absolute assurance that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His commandments with good and punishes those who violate His commandments.

-Maomonides 11th principle of Faith

Our Rabbis taught: A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious [so that] if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he, for he has tipped his personal scale towards merit; if he commits one aveirah-transgression, woe to him for tipping his personal scale towards guilt … Rabi Eleazar son of Rabi Shimon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of his personal good or bad], if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he for tipping the scale, both for himself and for the whole world, [down] on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for tipping the scale for himself and the whole world towards guilt …

-Kiddushin 40A-B

The silver census money collected from the community came out to 100 kikars–talents and 1775 shekels by the holy standard …  The 100 [silver] kikars were used to cast the foundation sockets for the Mishkan and that the cloth partition. There were a total of 100 foundation sockets made out of 100 [silver] kikars, one kikar for each foundation socket.

–Shemos 38:25,27

Everyone, both rich and poor was commanded to contribute exactly the same coin.  As the census numbers were calculated by counting these coins the need for a standardized contribution is easily understood.  If the wealthy were to drop multiple coins, or a larger, weightier denomination, into the contribution box it would have been impossible to arrive at an accurate tally. Still, it would seem that a full shekel coin, the standard unit of currency, would have been a more appropriate uniform contribution for one and all. On a pragmatic level, it could simply be that this level of contribution might prove onerous for the poorest people in K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, whereas everyone could afford a half-shekel without being pinched too severely.  But the Izhbitzer drew a great, defining lesson in avodas HaShem-serving HaShem, from the use of the half, rather than the whole, shekel.

In our newfangled economies cash money has become nearly obsolete.  With the advents of ACH, wires transfers and scanning codes for payment; even credit cards and checks, that supplanted cash, are becoming passé.  But once-upon-a-time cash was the “new” currency. The truth is that our “fiat money” — paper document banknotes, AKA cash, is intrinsically useless and valueless; they are used only as a medium of exchange. They replaced banknotes of the gold and/or silver standard economies under which governments would not print more banknotes than they had precious metal reserves to back. Under the bimetal standards, one could redeem their dollars for fixed amounts of gold and silver. Before that there was no paper money at all. Currency was exclusively coins made of precious metals; gold and silver.  These coins did have inherent value and the value of the various coin denominations was determined by the weight of precious metal that each contained.  E.g. a silver dollar weighed four times as much as a silver quarter.

We can now understand the etymology of machatzis hashekel-the half shekel.  The verb in lashon kodesh-the holy language, for weighing is sh’kol, the noun for weight — mishkal. Thus, a more precise translation for machatzis hashekel would be “the half weight”.  The full unit of currency, the shekel, was very aptly and descriptively named, as it was the standard unit of weight of precious metal for the currency system. Larcenous coin-debasement practices such as coin-clipping and coin-sweating aimed at reducing the weight of precious metal of the coin while continuing to circulate it at face value. In fact, striping or engraving the rims of coins was first introduced to prevent clipping the coins’ circumference.

Mefarshim-commentaries, have explained that Maimonides 11th principle of faith; belief in reward and punishment, also expresses the belief in human Free-Will.  For as of the Rambam himself writes; if human Free-Will was an illusion if our thoughts, words and deeds were predetermined by Divine Providence then “through what system of justice would HaShem exact punishment from the wicked or compensate the righteous with reward? Would the Judge of all the earth not render justice?” (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:4)

Based on the Gemara  in Kiddushin the Izhbitzer extrapolated from the maftir of Shekalim that we read this week, that the opposite is equally true; that there can be no human Free-Will or, at least, that human Free-Will cannot be fully exercised, unless the willful choices that we make result in the ultimate in reward and punishment. If, when facing every new situation we do not confront the ultimate in reward and punishment, then we are self-sabotaging our Free-Will.

On the Beyond Teshuva Blog the challenge of plateauing has been explored many times.  Most people begin their lives as ovdei HaShem with the period of sustained growth.  Of course we stumble and suffer setbacks but, in general, the arrows on the graphs of our spirituality head upwards.  Then, for a variety of reasons we begin to flatline.  We get into a groove (some would call it a rut) and, essentially, we stop growing.

The Izhbitzer avers that the two primary causes of plateauing are the smug self-perception of secure, set-for-life spiritual wealth on the one hand and the utter hopelessness and sense of futility arising from the self-perception of spiritual poverty on the other hand.

Like the young entrepreneurs who may have found themselves in the right place at the right time making boatloads of money in a go-go economy, some of us, who’ve already learned lots of Torah and performed many mitzvos feel as though we can coast for the rest of our lives.  The spiritually rich, and sometimes even the spiritually nouveau riche, feel as though they’re so far ahead of the game that their next move, i.e. their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly negatively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.  In their delusional organization of reality they imagine that they have a very thick safety cushion, that  they have accumulated such a huge pile of Torah and mitzvos that spiritual bankruptcy, and the draining of their heavenly reward points accounts awaiting them in the afterlife, is unthinkable.

In stark contrast, the spiritually impoverished are paralyzed by hopelessness.  Their self image tends to be one of an inveterate sinner.  Like the compulsive gambler or the irresponsible social climber who purchased a home that he could not afford, who finds his mortgage underwater and his credit rating damaged beyond repair, the spiritually impoverished delude themselves into thinking that the hole of debt that they have dug themselves into is just too deep and profound to ever climb out of. The spiritually poor, and sometimes even those who just transgressed one “whopper” of a sin, feel as though they’re so far behind the game that their next move, i.e.  their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly positively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.

But what the rich and the poor share in common in these cases is an apathetic, detached approach to the future based on a profound sense of one-sidedness and imbalance.  In their minds eye the scales of Divine Justice, reflective of their own personal ledgers, are not in equilibrium.  There is no balance at all between their merits and their demerits, between their credits and their debits between their mitzvos and their aveiros.  As a result the next move is of no consequence.  Irrespective of what they do next time, the lopsided scales will not budge.  What both the smug and the hopeless lack is the machatzis hashekel sensibility.  If only they were to follow the advice of Chaza”l and view the personal, civic and global scales of spiritual merits and demerits to be in perfect equilibrium; their every move would be invested with cosmic consequence.  There would be no room for either taking it easy or for giving up.

This, says the Izhbitzer, is what the pasuk means.  The status of the rich and the poor described in the pasuk is not determined by the size of the persons bank account.  Rather, these terms describe their personal spiritual ledger; the scales of the persons mitzvos and aveiros or, at least, their perception of those scales.  The Torah issues as a stern warning “the rich may not give a more and the poor or may not give less than this half weight.” The Torah doesn’t ask us to build a house of G-d with the full shekel sensibility.  The Torah demands that they “give” i.e. that they perceive and come to realization, that half the standard unit of weight weighs down one side of the scales and that the other half standard unit of weight weighs down the other side of the scales in perfect equilibrium, and that the persons next move, his next exercise of Free-Will, shall tip the scales one way or the other.

Chaza”l have a very close, precise reading of the pasuk “they will make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in THEM.” (Shemos 25:8) Per Chaza”l this means that HaShem declares “I will dwell in them (the builders-klal Yisrael) not in it (the mere building.)”  In other words each and every one of us can become a tabernacle and sanctuary for the Divine Indwelling.  Rashi (Shemos 30:15) says that there were three separate terumos and that the first one that the Torah demanded of klal Yisrael, the machatzis hashekel, was used to supply the silver for the adanim-the foundation sockets of the Mishkan. I’d like to add that in light of the Izhbitzer’s Torah that we learn this take away this lesson: Our lives are meaningful. Our thoughts, our words and our deeds are of cosmic importance and that this gift of the machatzis hashekel sensibility and perception forms the very adanim-foundation sockets, of restructuring ourselves as abodes for the Shechinah.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach II Ki Sisa D”H Inyan Machatzis

See also Bais Yaakov  Ki Sisa 17

Shabbos … the Great Unifying Principle

Vayakhel 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 gathered the entire assemblage of the Bnei Yisrael , and said unto them: ‘These are the words which HaShem has commanded, that you should do them. Six days creative activities shall be done, but the seventh day t shall be holy day for you, sabbath; a day of complete respite for HaShem. Whoever actively creates in it shall be put to death.

-Shemos 35:1,2

And let every wise-hearted person among you come, and make all that HaShem has commanded. The Mishkan-tabernacle, its tent, and its covering, its hooks, its vertical boards, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets. The Ark etc.

-Shemos 35:10-12

 All that is called by My Name, and whom I have created for My glory, I have formed him and even made him.’

– Yeshyaya 43:7

 Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Betzalel [principal artisan of the Mishkan] knew how to bond and combine the letters through which heaven and earth were created.

-Brachos 55A

How did Moshe gather everyone together, and forge them into a unit? Why is the commandment of building the Mishkan preceded by the commandment of Shabbos?

The Maharal of Prague explains that anavah-humility, is rooted in pashtus-generic simplicity and the lack of any specialty. There is a certain infinite quality to simplicities non-delineation. Simplicity specializes in nothing in particular and so; can be everything at once. Committed to nothing, simplicity enjoys infinite possibilities. This is how the Maharal explains the hanhagah Elyonah-Divine administration of the cosmos, expressed in the theological concept of “Wherever one discerns the Holy blessed One’s Might and Greatness there one will find His Humility.” (Megillah 31A) The Humility/ Simplicity IS the Greatness/ Infinity. Considered more deeply, this is the basis of monotheism. It is the Divine “property” (for lack of a better word, for this word implies specialization, chiseled-definition and constraining lines as well) of anavah that “makes” HaShem k’vyachol-as it were, both the undivided “One” and the encompassing “All.”

The roots of human ga’avah-ego and egotism, lie in the self-perception of individuality and specialization. That which we specialize in is what makes us salient and exceptional. “I am what YOU are not. I am capable of what you are incapable of, or, if your are capable of the same, I can do it better than you can.”  We are proud of what sets us apart and so; what separates and divides us is our pride. As any manager will tell you, a major part of teamwork is the surrender of ego.  There is nothing more ego-deflating than to feel that one is a fungible, interchangeable part in a larger entity, a mere cog in the machine. But for collective entities to coalesce and integrate the balloons of ego must first be deflated.

The Izhbitzer explains that when a craftsman works to produce something it is intrinsically a distinctive, one of a kind item.  Produced by his own individual mix of perceptions, tastes and faculties; it is as unique to him as his fingerprints and the antithesis of a mass-produced article.  As our sages expounded “just as their faces are dissimilar so too are their attitudes and perceptions (deos) divergent.”(Midrash Tanchumah-Pinchos) This is true even in as rarified and superhuman a “craft” as prophecy. As Chazal taught “No two nevi’im-prophets prophesize in the same style.”(Sanhedrin 89)

Logically, custom-made items should not be able to dovetail or interlock. Yet;  although the Mishkan was fabricated by individual craftspeople, each proud of their own unique talents and style, the individual components that they crafted were stitched, hooked, inserted in sockets, ringed or staved together to form a seamless whole. Oblivious to it at the time they plied their supposedly unique, inimitable specialties; they all conformed to the precise specs of a master plan. The Mishkan reduced one-of-a-kind artists to molds and die casts in a mass production assembly-line. When the Mishkan was complete and all could see how harmoniously everything fit together this observation raised their consciousness of the siyatta diShmaya-the Divine assistance that worked It’s Will through them.

They experienced a collective epiphany that it was HaShem, not they, who had actually built the Mishkan.  They came to realize that they were no more than the proverbial garzan b’yad hachotzeiv– the ax in the hands of the lumberjack. The ax is an integrated implement uniting blade, handle and the pegs that bind them.  Even if the ax was composed of sentient beings the blade could still not lord it over the handle or the pegs for none could accomplish their task or fulfill their role without the others. Moreover, even when their tree-felling missions are accomplished , the humbling realization that “axes don’t  fell trees … lumberjacks do” would unite them in their true, cooperative, integrated identity as the lumberjacks implement, rather than as free-lancers working on their own.

The Izhbitzer asserts that Shabbos is the key to this awareness.  The Shabbos concept lies at the core of every mitzvah performed l’shemShamayim –purely for HaShem’s sake with no ulterior motives whatsoever. He goes so far as to say that they are synonymous, that intent l’shemShamayim IS Shabbos by another name. I’ll attempt to offer a possible explanation for the Izhbitzer’s enigmatic axiom.

The Midrash teaches that the Divine Will for creation is described as nisaveh lo dirah b’tachtonim –He yearned for an abode amidst the lower spheres. (Tanchumah Naso 16) This seems odd. HaShem is transcendent, Existing outside of time in non-chronological terms; so how can any given time play host to HaShem? HaShem is omnipresent, Existing outside of place in non-spacial terms; so much so that Chazal tell us that HaShem is nicknamed HaMakom-The Place, because “He is the Place of the cosmos, the cosmos is not His place” (Bereishis Rabbah 68) so how can any given location serve as His abode? Yet … we also know that kedushas haz’man and kedushas hamakom – sanctified time and space are real, not delusions. HaShem’s dwelling place within the lower sphere of time is Shabbos. He ceased creating on the seventh day for His Will, that all of creation declare His Glory, had been done.

When, in perhaps the ultimate act of halicha b’drachav- imitatio dei, shomrei Shabbos cease their creative activity, they bear witness to the veracity of the Torah’s Genesis narrative. More than that, they bear witness that the creative activity of Genesis could cease because the goal of creation had been achieved. HaShem had his abode in the lower spheres in a cosmos in which every infinitesimal component part, and the grand macrocosmic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, declare His glory.  And so, every mitzvah performed l’shemShamayim, for HaShem’s Will and Glory alone, is yet another iteration of Shabbos; the accommodating time in the hospitable place in the lower spheres that provide HaShem k’vyachol, with a glorifying abode.

How did Moshe congregate everyone?  How did he instill unifying humility in the hearts and minds of the formerly prideful, specializing craftspeople who, collectively, built the Mishkan for the Shechinah-HaShems Divine Indwelling? By first commanding them to observe Shabbos and by making the Shabbos concept clear to them.

Just as HaShem did not bless and sanctify the seventh day until all the work was done, until the cosmos was complete and perfect so too He would not allow His Shechinah into the Mishkan until it was complete and perfect. Had one peg anchoring the curtains of the Mishkan’s courtyard been missing or not engineered according to specs, the Divine Indwelling would have remained in the upper spheres. How then could the fabricator of the aron habris-the Ark of the Covenant have felt superior to the peg maker?  One and all the artisans and craftspeople had been an implement, the ax wielded by the Divine Lumberjack.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Vayakhel D”H Vayakhel
Nesivos Olam-Nesiv Anavah 1

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Denying G-d and Denying Humanity

Beshalach 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

 This weeks From the Waters of the Shiloah is dedicated in memory of Gitel Leah A.H. bas Menachem Mendel HY”D; Mrs. Lidia Schwartz, the authors mother, whose yuhrzeit is Thursday, 8 Shevat.
Please learn this dvar Torah l’ilui nishmasah.

HaShem will wage war for you [against Egypt] and you must remain silent. And HaShem said to Moshe, Why do you cry out in prayer to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.

-Shemos 14:14,15

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.” Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,”

-Rashi ibid

And so it was that as long as Moshe held his hands up Israel would be winning but when he let his hands down then the battle would turn in Amalek’s favor …  and his hands remained faithful; steady until sunset. 

-Shemos 17:11,12

All is foreseen, yet autonomy is granted

-Avos 3:14

And Rabi Chanina said “all is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven”

-B’rachos 33B

There are two conflicting approaches to confronting the enemy that appear in this week’s Sidra.  Towards the beginning of the Sidra, when the Jewish people literally had their backs against the wall with the pounding surf of the Sea of Reeds before them and the Egyptian cavalry giving chase from the rear, the Divine command for silence came.  Not only were the Jews not allowed to wage war against their enemies; they were not even permitted to pray for Divine intervention.

In sharp contrast to this, at the end of the Sidra, we find that prayer was the weapon of choice when the Jews were waging war against the Amalekites. Our sages teach us that during the Amalek war, when Moshe had his arms outstretched in prayer, the tide of the battle would turn in the Jews favor (Targum Yerushalmi ad locum).  When the hands would drop and the prayers stop, so would the military advances.  The Mei HaShiloach asks: why were there such a drastic difference in tactics and strategies for confronting these two mortal enemies?

His answer is based on the succinct epigram that encapsulates kivayachol -if you will, the “division of labor” between HaShem and human beings. “All is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven IE how one serves HaShem.” This means that absolutely everything in our lives; our health, our wealth, our popularity and the success of our relationships is up to HaShem.  The only area in which we enjoy a true autonomy is in exercising our human free-will to make moral and ethical choices.

Both halves of the axiom are equally true.  To claim that “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” is patently heretical.  This position advances a false theology that would limit HaShem’s Infinite Power.  But in Judaism it is not enough to have an accurate and true theology.  One must maintain an accurate and true “humanology” (for want of a better word) as well.  To deny the second half of the axiom by saying that there are no exceptions to the rule; that ALL is in the Hands of Heaven, period, including “the awe of Heaven” IE including how one serves HaShem, is no less heretical.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that, historically, the nations of the world that have opposed, antagonized and oppressed  Klal Yisrael-the Jewish people have been proponents of one of these two heresies.  Their cultures, their weltanschauungs, their very collective national beings, were predicated either on the proposition that not everything is in the Hands of Heaven or that, on the contrary, all is in the Hands of Heaven including human awe of Heaven IE that human free choice is an illusion and that all human behavior, even apparent moral and ethical choices, are entirely controlled by HaShem .

The Egyptians under the Pharaoh are archetypes of the first heresy.  Having positioned himself as a deity in his own right Pharaoh could hardly have conceded exclusive and absolute control of the cosmos to a “rival” deity.  On the contrary Pharaoh portrayed himself as the one in total control of all the transpired in Egypt as he declared; “The [Nile] river is mine, and I have made it.”(Yechezkel 29:9).  He was a living incarnation of “It was my own might and the personal power of my hand that has brought me all this prosperity”(Devarim 8:17)

The nation of Amalek is the quintessence of their progenitor, Esav. Esav is portrayed by our sages as a yisrael mumar-a Jew who has traded true faith for heresy (Kiddushin 18A). There are as many ways to become a heretic as there are heresies and the precise nature as of the Esavs heresy is unclear.  However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 60A,Berachos 10A-Hagahos HaBac”h footnote 2) use this term, yisrael mumar, to describe another Biblical character; Ravshakei.

He was the one who said to the emissaries of King Chizkiyahu “Did I now arise against this land to destroy it without HaShem? HaShem said unto me: go up against this land, and destroy it.” (Yechezkel 36:10). Ravshakei and the emperor he represented, Nebuchadnezzar, had exercised their free-will to arrive at the decision to destroy Chizkiyahu’s kingdom.  Yet he did not consider himself accountable.  He attributed his own choice to G-d.  In his soliloquy Ravshakei asks many rhetorical questions.  Expecting no answers, he was actually telling Chizkiyahu’s emissaries “don’t rely on your military alliance with Egypt.  But don’t rely on HaShem either, for it was He who sent me to destroy you.   I am no more than a knight in the hands of the Divine chess master.”

The Izhbitzer asserts that Ravshakei’s ostensible affirmation of emunah is, in fact, a denial of humanity, of the grandeur of human free-will and that this denial of humanity is the precise heresy of Esav and Amalek as well. Esav/ Amalek is a mumar because of believing that all is in the Hands of Heaven, there is no “except etc.” Amalek maintains that all of the evil that he does is, chalilah, the Will of G-d, that absent HaShem’s Will he would never have been able to have done it.  Superficially, it is almost as if Amalek accords greater honor to HaShem than K’lal Yisrael does.  The stance of Amalek-Esav is that HaShem’s control and authority is absolute.  They deny that humanity has any autonomy at all.

As one great 20th century thinker put it, when our sages taught that Amalek is “one who knows his master and intends to rebel against Him” they don’t mean that Amalek intends to rebel against HaShem in spite of knowing  that HaShem is their Master, but because of knowing  that HaShem is their Master; that their rebellion consists of knowing that HaShem’s mastery over them is absolute.  There is no wiggle room.  Not one small space, albeit a tiny one, for human independence, autonomy and free choice.

We can now resolve the apparent contradiction between the dissimilar tactics of war employed to battle the Egyptians and Amalek.  When the enemy rides under the banner of “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” then the Jewish response must be to emphasize HaShem’s control.  Against the Egyptians it would’ve been out of place for the Jews to highlight and emphasize human free-will.  Free-will, AKA “the awe of heaven”, human avodas HaShem, is best exemplified through prayer; the “service of the heart”(Ta’anis 2A). So they silenced their prayers, eliminating their part in the “division of labor” and HaShem took total control of the battle. All, absolutely everything, was in His Hands.

But when the enemy rides under the banner of “ALL is in the Hands of Heaven with no exceptions” and that human free-will is a sham, then the proper Jewish response is to exercise our free-will. Human free-will is best exemplified through our service of the heart , our avodas hatefilah.  And so, during milchemes Amalek when Moshe would raise his arms in prayer the Jewish warriors would advance.  When his prayers faltered IE when his arms grew weak so would the Jews military efforts. 

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Beshalach D”H HaShem yilachem

To Be Willing to Do More than Die… so That Others May Live

Vayigash 5774-An installment in the seriea
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

 Love HaShem your L-rd with all your heart, with all your soul and with your entire uttermost.

-Devarim 6: 5

The second modifier of this commandment “love…with all your soul/ life” is the scriptural source for the halachah-Torah law that one must lay down their lives and die ahl kiddush HaShem– through holy martyrdom to sanctify The Name rather than transgress the prohibition of idolatry(Sanhedrin 74A). There are several other transgressions and circumstances where the halachah demands “death before transgression.” Those brave and G-d-loving souls who were equal to this ultimate test of tests have gone down in the annals of Jewish history as kedoshim-holy ones.

As all death is certain, if we were able to pick the circumstances of our deaths the noblest and wisest choice would be to die ahl kiddush HaShem confident that, in doing so, this end of our temporal lives will gain us holiness and entrée to an exalted eternity.  Rabi Akiva prayed for such a death every day and his prayers were answered (Brachos 61B). Those who die ahl kiddush HaShem occupy such an exalted position in the world-to-come that their station is inaccessible even to those who lived righteous lives but died conventional deaths. (Pesachim 50 A)

The Rambam goes so far as to say that dying ahl kiddush HaShem instantly redeems a terribly lived life. In his words “A person who’d lived a wicked life whom HaShem affords the merit of the exalted level of dying ahl kiddush HaShem, even if his sins were as great as those of Yeravam ben Nevaht and his cohorts (who’d lost their share in the world-to-come) will gain a portion in the world-to-come.” (Igerres Teiman).

The conventional translation for the last modifier of this pasuk is “Love HaShem…and with all your might.” But the Hebrew word meod literally means “very/ exceedingly.”  The word that concludes the pasuk is the second person, singular, possessive construct of this word. In this vein “and with your entire uttermost” comes close to a hyper-literal translation. Such a translation means that we are commanded to love HaShem by giving Him that which we value above all else, that which we would gladly trade our hearts and souls to obtain. The Izhbitzer teaches that there are times and circumstances that call for more than trading a fleeting life for an everlasting one. There are times and circumstances when mesiras nefesh means sacrificing our eternity, NOT sacrificing something else to get it.

His disciple Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, cites many examples of this supreme type of self-sacrifice:  After the sin of the Golden calf Moshe Rabenu offered to be erased from G-d’s book in order to save the Jewish People (Shemos 32:32).  When his son plotted to commit regicide/ patricide, King Dovid sought to do damage control by worshipping idols, forfeiting his own share in the world-to-come, so as to minimize desecrating HaShem’s Name (Sanhedrin107A).  For his love of Torah, in order to be the precedent-setting case that would bring a disputed halachah to light the mekoshesh eitzim-wood gatherer / chopper was willing to desecrate Shabbos (BeMidbar15:32-26, Tosafos Bava Basra 119B). Similarly, all those who “strolled in the Orchard”(Chagigah 14B) i.e. who studied the mystical secrets of the Torah, did so for the selfless, reckless love of Torah. They were cognizant of the risks these Torah studies posed to their bodies, sanity and even their faith. To lose ones faith is to lose the world-to-come.

“Send the boy with me” said Yehudah to his father Yisrael …”I will be responsible for him myself.  You can demand him from my hand. If I do not bring him back and have him stand here in your presence I will have sinned to you for all time.”

Bereishis 43:8,9

 Yehudah walked up to Yoseph and said “Please, your highness, (alternatively; my Master is within me) please let me say something to you personally…”

Bereishis 44:18

“Besides, I offered myself to my father as a guarantor for the lad. I told him ‘If I do d not bring him back to you I will have sinned to my father for all time.”

Bereishis 44:32

The sidra opens with Yehudah’s dramatic monologue. Apparently his peroration is being delivered in front of Tzafnat P’a’aneyach, the viceroy of Egypt. Superficially, pasuk 32 reads as a maudlin plea for mercy; “look at what I stand to lose unless your highness reconsiders…” But, in truth, even prior to Yoseph’s revealing his true identity, Yehudah was, in effect, speaking to Yoseph. More precisely; he was acting as his own advocate before HaShems heavenly court over the sale of Yoseph, and over Yoseph’s presumed loss to the history and kedushah-development of K’lal Yisrael. Earlier there had been a consensus among the brothers that all of their troubles in Egypt, now having culminated in Binyamin being accused of stealing Tzafnat P’a’aneyach’s divining cup, were Divine retribution for the sale of Yoseph. (Bereishis 42:21,22)

As criminal-defense attorneys will tell you, in many cases the best defense is a good offense. Yehudah’s line of attack was that he could supply K’lal Yisrael with everything that Yoseph had to offer…. and more. The second Izhbitzer, the Bais Yaakov, explains Yehudah’s words as follows: “Yoseph’s greatest spiritual strength derives from his supreme self-control.  Even when the most overpowering temptations sing Yoseph a siren-song calling for an expansion of self that would overspill these boundaries, Yoseph, personifying yesod-immovable, defined foundation, has ability to constrict himself and respect boundaries that are just not to be crossed.

“But” Yehudah argues “I possess that power as well because; bi adonee-HaShem’s theonym is within me, His holy Name is subsumed inside my own (the name Yehudah is the tetragrammaton with the letter dalet intervening between the final two letters) and His divine power to maintain boundaries is contained within me.

“Moreover I have a capacity for self-sacrifice that Yoseph lacks.  I can be moser-nefesh / neshamah-sacrifice my soul.  I posses the singular selflessness, the self-abnegation,  to forfeit not merely my temporal body but my everlasting soul so that others may live. Yoseph does not. Ki ahvd’cha ahrav es hanaaar– your slave has cosigned for the youth (Binyamin).”

Chazal teach that when Yehudah guaranteed Yaakov the safe, live return of Binyamin he did it on penalty of losing his share in the world to come (See Rashi-Bereshis 43:9). Yehudah was willing to do more than merely sacrifice a few remaining years of life on Binyamin’s behalf.  He was ready to forfeit eternity. According to the Bais Yaakov’s reading “If I do not bring him back to you I will have sinned to my father for all time” is no weepy supplication for clemency; it is a bold and defiant assertion of superiority.

Adapted from:
Mei Hashiloach V’eschanan D”H v’ahavta page 57B
Tzidkas Hatzadik 201page 78
Bais Yaakov Vayigash inyan 14 page 404 (102B)

 

Working Smarter — After Working Hardest

VaYetzai 5774-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

She (Leah) was pregnant once again, and bore a son. She said: “This time let me express gratitude to HaShem.” She named the child Yehudah. Then, she stopped having children.

-Bereshis 29:35

Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children. Rachel was jealous of her sister (Leah) and she said to Yaakov: “Give me children, or else I will die.”  Yaakov became furious with Rachel: “Shall I take HaShem’s place?” he said “It is He who is holding back the fruit of the womb”.

-Bereshis 30:1,2

 There are teachings of Chaza”l that, when measured in the crucible of reality, challenge our emunas chachamim– faith in the Torah sages.  Perhaps none so regularly and personally as this one: “If one were to tell you ‘I have toiled but I have not found- tried hard but have not succeeded’ do not believe him.  ‘I have not toiled but I have found- have not tried but have succeeded’ (again) do not believe him” (Megillah 6B).

How many of us have been frustrated by failure in our personal lives, our academic efforts and/or our careers despite having put forth our very best efforts? Conversely, how many times has unanticipated success come our (or our competitors) way, relatively effortlessly?

The Izhbitzer teaches that our two matriarchs Rachel and Leah, are, to all appearances, the exemplars of these two claims, equally lacking in credibility.   Rachel, after years of heartfelt prayer and buying a “fertility drug” (the mandrakes) was still childless. To that point, her life story had been one that veritably shouted: “I have toiled but I have not found”.   On the other hand, Leah named her fourth son Yehuda as a way of thanking HaShem for having “taken more than my fair share” (Rashi ibid). Taking more than ones fair share is another way of saying “I have not toiled… but I have found”.

But the Izhbitzer tweaks the claims of the sisters and, in so doing, answers our questions. For now, we’ll concentrate on Rachel’s claim that “I have toiled but I have not found”.

Imagine a person wanting to enter a home, banging loudly and repeatedly on one of the homes windowless and doorless solid exterior walls the livelong day, but, tenaciously maintaining his position at the solid wall and refusing to move towards the door.  While expending great efforts and burning many calories to achieve the goal of entry, he’s banging in the wrong place, his enormous efforts are misdirected. He may be working hard but he is not working smart. Were he to move a few feet and just rap on the door ever so lightly, it would immediately swing open and he would gain entry.

HaShem provides every individual soul with a unique makeup and an incomparable defining middah– characteristic, a leitmotif that colors all their perceptions, impacts all their decisions, tests them at every juncture and motivates all of their thoughts, words and deeds. The Divine Will desires that one’s leitmotif  be both their greatest strength, their supreme source of good and their worst weakness, their most horrible enabler for evil.

Rachel was toiling mightily in prayer but where she really needed to concentrate her efforts was on the birur-the purification of her particular defining middah.   Rachel’s soul was endowed with a matchless capacity for jealousy. But jealousy can be a stingy, malcontent green-eyed-monster or the engine that drives self-improvement and self-actualization.

Unholy, evil jealousy begins with an attitude of “It’s not fair. You don’t deserve that. I hope that you lose it. Only then will justice be served!”  But jealousy can be sublimated into something good and holy, into the proverbial kinas sofrim –the academic envy of the wise students that spurs them to greater scholarship. The anthem of kinas sofrim is: “Hmmm…that looks good.  You’re certainly entitled to what you’ve gained but I’d like some too.  Some is good so more must be better. There’s plenty to go around and I won’t rest until I’ve gotten it, and more, too.” Kinas sofrim observes a good mousetrap and the boons that it brings  to the mousetrap builder and to society. It then goes out and builds a better one.

The Ramba”n fails to understand Yaakov’s vehemence.  What did Rachel do wrong?  After all, the Gemara advises those suffering from illnesses, in her case infertility, to approach sages and ask them to daven on their behalf (Bava Basra 116A).  Yaakov grew testy over Rachels misplaced yegiah-efforts and exertions. All her prayers, or any that Yaakov might have added, were like knocking on a brick wall instead of on a door.  He recognized that she was jealous, that this was her defining characteristic. But he realized that she had yet to be mevarer– to clarify and purify her middah.  Was her jealousy of the run-of-the-mill, catty, begrudging variety, or, was it the high-minded kinas sofrim that utilizes the irritants of envy to produce the pearls of ever-greater effort, innovation and achievement?

Rachel said: ‘Here is my handmaid Bilhah. Come to her and let her give birth on my lap.  Through her I will then also have a son.’

-Bereshis 30:3

“Isn’t it enough that you’ve taken my husband away?” snapped Leah “Now you’d even take my sons mandrakes? “All right” Rachel responded “Yaakov will lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.”

-Bereshis 30:15

 Rachel offered Yaakov Bilhah, and negotiated a deal resulting in yet another pregnancy for Leah. These concessions brought more “competitors” into the marriage. By doing so she had rid her jealousy of any elements of pettiness and malice and distilled pristine kinas sofrim from her defining middah. With this small, yet significant step, she had stopped working hard and started working smart. She’d stopped pounding the brick wall and began lightly rapping on the door. Unsurprisingly, the door then swung open and she soon conceived Yoseph.

Essentially Yaakov bellowed at Rachel “I’m skeptical when you claim ‘I have toiled but I have not found’ because you’ve toiled, but in the wrong way, at the wrong spot. To unlock the doors of fertility you don’t need to pray anymore.  Purify your jealousy and you’ll be knocking on the doors.  You have not “toiled” smartly and that’s why you have not yet “found”. Work smart and those doors will swing open “

The second Izhbitzer adds that the efforts Rachel expended at working hard were not wasted.  The Gemara teaches that if one sees that their prayers were not answered they should pray again (Berachos 32B). The Divine Will decrees precisely how long we must work our hardest before we attain salvation by working smart. There is no free lunch and there is no free epiphany that allows a person the sudden intuitive leap of understanding to correctly identify precisely which middah is their own leitmotif . Once discovered, one may begin the “working smart” of distilling the goodness of, i.e. being mevarer, their middah.

To carry the allegory further, there is something about banging on walls that eventually, cumulatively points us towards the door. And so, even while working hard and, apparently, ineffectively; claiming “I have toiled but I have not found” is a lie. All the banging on te wall eventually culminates in allowing the wall-banger to see the door that he must knock on. We toil, then we find. We work smarter, davka after working our hardest.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I VaYetzai D”H vaTomer haPa’am

Bais Yaakov VaYetzai Inyan 66 (page261) 

To Feast or to Fast… THAT is the Question!

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

 It (Yom HaKipurim) is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to you and a day when you must afflict your souls. You must keep this Sabbath from the ninth of the month until the next night.  

-VaYikra 23:32

Chiya bar Rav of Difti taught: “and …you must afflict your souls…[on the] ninth of the month” Do we begin fasting on the ninth?  [In truth] we don’t fast until the tenth! Here, the Torah is teaching us that all who eat and drink on the ninth are considered to have fasted on both the ninth and the tenth.

-Yoma 81B

On the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict your souls and not do any melacha…This is because on this day you shall have all your sins atoned to purify you. Before Hashem you will be purified of all your sins.

-VaYikra 16:29, 30

There is a lot of conflicting data on the subject of the Torahs attitude towards asceticism.  On the one hand, Shabbos the basis of sanctified time, is identified with pleasure “And call Sabbath pleasure” (Yeshaya 58:13 ) and the entire chapter of Yeshaya 58 takes a rather dim view of fasting unless it is coupled with social justice. On the other hand, the very holiest time, the Sabbath of Sabbaths is a fast day.  The Nazir, who abstains from the fruit of the vine, is called both holy (BeMidbar 6:8) and sinful (Nedarim 10A) as is one who engages in voluntary fasts (Ta’anis 11A). The place of eternal rewards is called “the Garden of Delights”, but the delights there are of a decidedly non-physical variety; “the righteous sit with their heads crowned and bask in the radiance of the Shechina-the Divine indwelling”

In practical terms this quandary is most pronounced on the 9th and 10th days of Tishrei when the day of feasting that precedes the Day of Atonement and self-denial is reckoned as a day of fasting as well.

The often irresistible lure of this-worldly pleasures is, arguably, the major contributing factor to sin and its concomitant impurities. As such, there is a compelling logic to how abstaining from of this-worldly pleasures would help us attain the contrary outcome of decontamination.  As the Pesukim (VaYikra 16:29, 30) state: “afflict your souls …to purify you! “  However, as Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains, HaShem desires to sublimate everything (in his parlance to “sweeten” everything). Eating and drinking are the general categories under which all the temporal desires and delights fall.  HaShem wants all of these to be sanctified as well.  Holy self-gratification may sound like an oxymoron. But since our only will is to fulfill His will and “we cast that which weighs us down upon Him” He then “sustains us” with spiritual nourishment. (Tehilim 55:23). When we eat on Erev Yom Kippur in order to fulfill HaShems Mitzvah, eating becomes a catalyst for purity identical to the mortifications of Yom Kippur itself.

The Mohn-Manna Bread provides an intriguing precedent for this counterintuitive concept. The Torah states that the Mohn was like a “honey doughnut” (Shemos 16:31). Per Chaza”l diners tasted every flavor that they could imagine emanating from the Mohn (Yoma 75A). Moreover, the clouds that showered down the Mohn sprinkled pearls and jewels as well (ibid). The impression one gets is that the Mohn delighted all the senses. Yet the Torah describes the Mohn experience as one of mortification and affliction (Devarim 8:2, 3). Cognizant of the one-day-only supply of Mohn we can well imagine the anxious longing with which the Jews in the wilderness anticipated its daily arrival. The take away lesson for all generations of Jews from this Hedonistic-Ascetic hodgepodge is that we should yearn for HaShems salvation and be totally reliant on Him for both the eating and the abstention from eating. The feasting and the fasting are both only done to fulfill His will.

The verse: “Before Hashem you will purified of all your sins” implicitly alludes to Erev Yom Kippur. “Before HaShem” meaning feasting on the day before HaShem’s great and awesome day, Yom Kippur, will purify and decontaminate of your souls just as the fasting on Yom Kippur itself does.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen,  taught that whenever a Jew consumes food as a Mitzvah the food contains the flavor of Mohn which is the bread of the ministering angels and, as such, it is the flavor of other-worldly pleasure, the taste  of the radiance of the Shechina.  The topic of Mohn appears in the chapter entitled Yom HaKipurim in tractate Yoma because Mohn consumption is exactly like fasting on Yom Kippur the point of both activities being to experience spiritual gratification by absconding from the temporal pleasures of the physical world. When the Gemara says “all who eat and drink on the ninth are considered to have fasted on both the ninth and the tenth“  it is not because eating on the 9th  is like fasting but rather because fasting on the 10th is a different kind of eating, a spiritual angelic ingestion.  On Yom Kippur we dress, stand, go barefoot and wear white like angels.  We fast and are at peace with one another like angels. On Erev Yom Kippur we eat like the nullivore angels dining on “the grain of heaven and the bread of the mighty” (Tehilim78: 24, 25).

 Adapted from Toras Emes Erev Yom Kippur 5625-1865 A.C.E. (page 57)

and Machshevos Chorutz 12 (page 95)

Moving from “Miracles” to “Hashgacha Pratis” – Reflections on the Lessons of Operation Cast Lead

Moving from “Miracles” to “Hashgacha Pratis”
Reflections on the Lessons of Operation Cast Lead

by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis
(based on a shiur heard from HaGaon Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita, Ravad of Yerushalayim, leil Shabbos Parshas Shemos in Beis Keneses HaGra, Har Nof.)

Victors in Battle
The War in Gaza appears to be drawing to a close. The enemy has sustained a serious blow to its infrastructure, but their leadership and ultimate goal of destroying the Jewish People remain intact. Although the Israeli military forces can hardly claim victory, a major battle has definitely been fought and won; and that is, the knowledge that Hashem alone runs the world.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will make mention of the name of Hashem” (Tehillim 20,8). The enemy has fired enough deadly missiles to, chas vashalom, wipe out large numbers the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, Hashem’s Name was sanctified among the many faithful Jews who have turned to him in their hour of need, and He answered us with open miracles, a sign of clear victory in the battle before the coming of moshiach.

The Sifrei Musar tell the story of a band of soldiers on their way home from a glorious battle who meet an elderly rav. Instead of congratulating them on their victory, the rabbi surprises them with his remark: “While you have won a minor war, the major one still lies ahead. Combat with flesh-and-blood soldiers is easy compared to the war with the yatzer hara which rages constantly throughout a person’s life.”

Whatever the outcome of the Gaza conflict, each of us will find that our own personal war with the yatzer hara will rage on. The front-line in this war is our emunah, which he is actively trying to undermine. The newspapers have reported so many miracles over the past few weeks that they have almost become mundane. How can we ensure that the true message of this war will be make a lasting impression on our hearts?

The answer is that we must stop using the word “miracle” and start referring to “hashgacha pratis” (personal Divine Supervision). A miracle is a remote concept that does not obligate us to make real changes in our lives. The recognition of hashgacha pratis, however, is one of the fundamental principles of the Jewish faith, and entails an obligation to seriously reconsider our outlook on life.

“I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His name, creates and guides all creatures, and that He alone made, makes and will make everything” (1st of the 13 Ikrim). Seemingly, every mitzvah of the Torah can be considered ikrim, fundamental. What is so special about these thirteen?

Rav Chaim Brisker explains that a person who does not believe in hasgacha pratis or any of the other ikrim has crossed a red line and is no longer considered part of Klal Yisrael. Similarly, the Ramban writes at the end of Parshas Bo, “Anyone who does not believe that there is no such thing as ‘nature’ and doesn’t realize that everything is hashgacha pratis and Divinely guided, does not have a portion in Toras Moshe.” hashgacha Pratis is the foundation of our relationship with Hashem and His Torah.

A Knock on the Door
“My Beloved is knocking saying, ‘Open to Me, my sister, my love'”… (Shir HaShirim 5,2). Over 1,000 missiles have been fired at us from Gaza. Hashem intended every one of them as a wake-up call to us, to arouse us from our slumber to an active awareness of His Providence. They were His way of ‘knocking on the door’ and letting us know that the end of days is approaching.

Even though this war took place in Eretz Yisrael, Hashem wants this message to be heard around the world. In recent months, He has toppled global financial markets and massive amounts of wealth have disappeared without a trace. Economists are baffled but the meaning is clear to all believing Jews – Hashem is knocking on our doors and begging us to stop relying on other sources of power. He alone should be our source of security.

“Hashem is lifted up above all of the nations, His glory is in the Heavens” (Tehillim 113,4). Dovid Hamelech reveals to us the fundamental difference between Hashem’s relationship with the Jewish people and with the other nations of the world. While non-Jews view Hashem as too exalted to get involved with their personal lives, Jews proclaim, “Who is like Hashem Elokeinu, who is enthroned on high yet looks down to behold the mundane matters in the physical world (ibid. 113,5).”

Although Hashem is the unchallenged ruler and creator of the whole universe, this does not stop Him from getting involved with every single detail of a Jew’s life, no matter how trivial or unpleasant. “He raises up the poor from the dust heaps, and the destitute from the lowest grime” (ibid. 113,6). He rules the entire universe – yet the true mark of His greatness is His humility. It’s his care for every detail of every Jew’s life that characterizes him as a loving Father.

When a Jew davens, he should feel Hashem is with him. He has to know that every single word of his prayers is heard, and that every thought that is passes through his mind is noted. This is all part of Ikrei Emunah, and hashgacha pratis is first of the 13 Ikrim.

Chazal tell us that if we do not recognize Hashem’s Prescience in our lives He will send upon us a “cruel king like Haman.” We have the capability to save ourselves from a terrible fate. We must replace take the word “miracle” out of our vocabulary and replace it with hashgacha pratis.

Although the obligation to see Hashem in our lives is borne by every Jew, it is especially crucial for Roshei Yeshivos, Rabbanim and Mechanchim of both boys and girls, to relay this message to their students. If the Zohar tells us that when people discuss hashgacha pratis, Hashem gathers all of the melachim to hear, it is certainly a good use of our time to speak about it as much as possible. In doing so, we will make Hashem a very real part of our daily lives, and awaken an awareness of His hashgacha pratis in our hearts.

Hastening Redemption
Sefer Daniel describes the bitter tribulations that Klal Yisrael will suffer during the times of moshiach. Yet in Sefer Yeshiyah (60,22) the pasuk says “I, Hashem, will hasten it in it’s time.” The Chasam Sofer explains that if we merit Geula, Hashem will hasten it, If not, we will have to wait for the time and the circumstances that accompany this day.

“Unless You have utterly rejected us, and are extremely angry with us, Turn to us Hashem and we shall return, renew our days as of old” (Eichah 4:22 – 23). The Yeshuas Yaakov offers a beautiful explanation of these verses.

When someone is disgusted with his friend, he cuts off all ties with them and has nothing to do with them. On the other hand, if he instead expresses his anger and disappointment to his friend, this is a sign that he still hopes to continue the relationship in the future. If we see that Hashem “is extremely angry with us” and as a result has punished us, it is a sign that He still loves us and wants us “to return to Him as in the days of old ” when we were free of transgression.

We can best understand the situation of the Jewish people today through its parallel to a famous story of a tzadik who davened and toiled all his days for the redemption of the Jewish people. He vowed that when his soul left the world that he would shake the heavens until moshiach would finally come and finally put an end to the suffering of Klal Yisrael. Yet after his death, moshiach still did not come.

The tzadik was granted permission to come back to this world and appear to his friend in a dream. He explained that we live in such times of darkness, every mitzvah that we does has incalculable merit, and is extremely precious in Hashem’s eyes. From his new vantage point in Shamayim, he understood that the suffering of his fellow Jews was cherished by Hashem because it did not shake their commitment to serving Him.

We must hold on just a bit longer, and keep performing Hashem’s mitzvos faithfully, while strengthening our recognition of His hashgacha pratis. In this way, we will surely merit to hasten the arrival of the moshiach, amen.

Rabbi Travis is a Rosh Kollel in Yerushalayim and is the author of Shaylos U’Teshuvos Toras Chaim and “Praying With Joy – A Daily Tefilla Companion” a practical daily guide to improving one’s prayers, available from Feldheim Publishers.

Dealing With Doubts on the Teshuva Process

I recently read a D’var Torah that really spoke to me. Part of it focused on Devarim (Deuteronomy) 25: 17-19

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear G-d. Therefore… you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.”

It then brought us back to Shemoth (Exodus) 17:1-8, when the Jewish people just left Egypt and camped in Rephidim. There was no water to drink. The people questioned “Is G-d in our midst or not?” This was right after departing Egypt, after the 10 plagues, the miracle of the parting of the Reed Sea, etc. After such miraculous events, how could they question “Is G-d with us?” Moses is so annoyed that he names the place “Challenge and Strife.” Then, right after the Jews showed doubt in Hashem, the nation of Amalek attacked from the rear, picking out the weakest and destroying them.

Next, the D’var torah pointed out that the Hebrew word for doubt (safek) has a gematria, or numerical value of 240. This is the same numerical value for Amalek. And when words have the same value, it shows they are interconnected. Thus the fight against Amalek can also be seen as a fight against doubt.

For me as someone trying to become more observant, this is something I constantly face. Why do I try so hard to keep kosher? It would be so much easier for me if I went back to only keeping kosher in the home, but eating anything, or even just “vegetarian” outside the home. Why do I bother being Shomor Shabbos? Does it really make that much of an impact that I don’t check my email, or watch TV? After all, I survived for many years not keeping it. Why keep struggling?

And the biggest doubt of all. Why am I becoming observant at all? Is it really worth doing? Who the heck am I doing it for anyway? Does G-d really care what I do? Little ol’ me? After all, I’m just a speck in the grand scheme of everything.

The D’var torah ends by talking about how to defeat Amalek, and thus doubt. It points out that Amalek is irrational and counterintuitive. To overcome him, we need Faith/Emunah. It is not something we develop, but rather it’s something already inside of us that needs to be unveiled.

And subconsciously, that’s what I’ve been using most of the time to quell these doubts. I’m doing it because I’m seeing the truth in the Torah, and how it relates to all people, even little ol’ me. And if that’s true, then the Torah as a whole shouldn’t be treated as a “Chinese Menu” (e.g. I’ll take two from column A, and 1 from column B, I don’t need anything from column C.) I have faith that there is a reason for everything, even if I don’t yet know what it is. Seeing it spelled out, especially with the allegory of Amalek helps to strengthen my faith even more. Will I ever completely defeat doubt? Probably not. Like all epic battles, it’ll probably be one fought through the ages (at least until the Moshiach comes). But at least the tools to fight it off are more clear.

Preparing for an Emunah Enhancing Pesach

Preparing for Pesach goes beyond ridding our homes of Chometz. Our seforim teach that the opportunities for spiritual growth on Pesach are huge, but we need to prepare ourselves for that opportunity.

The principles of Jewish Belief broadly fall into three categories: belief in Hashem, belief in a G-d given Torah and belief in reward and punishment. Each of the three Jewish holidays emphasizes one of these: Pesach is Emunah, Shavuos is Torah and Succos is reward and punishment. So our focus on Pesach should be on strengthening our Emunah.

How do we define the Emunah we are trying to strengthen? Emunah is clearly not just a yes answer to the question, “Do you believe in G-d?”. Emunah is a knowledge-level clarity that there is a Creator, Who created and runs the world. But as Bilvavi and others point out, this knowledge has to go beyond the intellectual and reach the experiential.

Experiential knowledge is knowing something with a certainty beyond what our intellect can bring us to. For example, philosophers have shown that it is impossible to prove without a shadow of a doubt that we exist. Perhaps we are experiencing a dream-like illusion. Yet each one of knows with absolute certainty, that we do exist. Another example: do we have to prove to ourselves that we have a hand? No, our experience of moving and controlling hand leaves no doubt.

It is possible to reach that same level of experiential knowledge of Hashem. It should be clear to us that we have quite a ways to go in this matter, as how many of us can say we experience the reality of G-d in the same way we experience the reality of the existence of our hand.

Pesach gives us the opportunity to significantly increase our experiential knowledge. The Torah commands us to re-experience and re-tell the story. And Chazal through the seder and it’s 15 steps provide us with additional tools to experience G-d in even a deeper manner. Every single step of the seder (and all seven days of Pesach) provide the potential of experiencing Hashem in a deeper and clearer manner. If done with foresight and focus, we can each reach the next rung in our spiritual growth ladder.

To achieve this growth we need to prepare. One suggestion is to get one of the great Hagaddah commentaries and start reviewing it today. Try to concentrate on the Emunah enhancing commentaries (suggestions are welcome).

A second suggestion is to work on enhancing experiential knowledge well before Pesach. Perhaps consciously focusing our thoughts on the fact that there is a Creator and He created us, a number of times a day as Bilvavi suggests. Or focusing on feeling and experiencing Hashem’s greatness, might, and awesomeness when saying those words in the first brocha of Shomoneh Esrai.

Real growth takes real effort and we have a tremendous opportunity to achieve real growth in the next month. Please share any experiential Emunah enhancing techniques you have found in the comments.

A Privileged Trip

Because I have four children in Israel, I travel there often to see them, and I belong to a frequent-flyer club. As a result, when I purchased my ticket for the trip from which I am coming back as I write this, I was able to get a one-way upgrade to a premium class. I decided that I would get the upgrade on the flight back from Israel, my reasoning being that, firstly, it would alleviate some of the “blue” feelings I always have when I leave my children and leave Israel, and secondly, the westward trip is longer.

So here I am, sitting in the premium cabin on an international flight – something I have never experienced before – and as everyone sleeps while I am trying to stay awake and readjust my inner clock to Dallas time, this is a good time for reflection.

My family and friends laugh good-naturedly at my trait of always being early for everything. I had spent my last Shabbat of this trip at the home of my daughter, who lives in a remote village in Shomron, across the green line. Most taxi drivers don’t go there, but another daughter of mine, on her most recent trip, had found one who would, so I used his services also. My flight was scheduled to depart on Motzae Shabbat, and I asked the taxi driver to leave his home base right after the end of Shabbat to pick me up and take me to the airport. Hashem made everything go smoothly; I arrived at the terminal in plenty of time.

As a premium ticket holder, I was invited to while away the hours in an exclusive lounge with all sorts of amenities. Regular coach passengers have to be ready to board an hour or two ahead of time, but premium passengers can spend their time in the lounge and go to the gate only one-half hour prior to departure. I got so caught up in the various creature comforts in that lounge that, when my flight was called, I had to run to the gate! As I was sprinting there, I thought about the well-known metaphor we’ve probably all heard, about how life is like a cruise ship which makes an interim stop at a pleasant port. Some of the passengers get off the ship but hurry back in plenty of time. Some get so involved in the pleasures of the port that they almost don’t make it back to the ship; those are analogous to people who get so caught up in the pleasures of this world that they nearly forget about the World to Come. The lesson was just too obvious to ignore!

When I boarded the plane, I was ushered to a section of magnificent, roomy seats with many features you don’t find in coach. I had asked for an aisle seat; this section of the plane was set up in a 2-3-2 pattern, with my seat being at the end of one of the “3” parts. A woman sat next to me in the middle seat of the three; she started scolding one of the flight attendants, protesting that here she was in a premium class but she was in a middle seat “like a tourist.” The seats were arranged with plenty of room to get up and move around nevertheless, but my seatmate was not a happy passenger. As I write this, she is asleep. I hope she is comfortable; all of the seats in this section can recline like beds. To me, though, this experience is too exciting to sleep through – and I am usually one who sleeps on planes, even when I’m cramped in coach.

I once watched a movie where a woman, blind from birth, was given the opportunity to see for a period of a few hours before she would once again be blind. To me, flying in a premium class is like that. Why would I want to sleep through it when I can be awake and have all these new experiences? To be attended to and served and have my every whim catered to is not my everyday life.

There is an article on Aish HaTorah’s Web site by someone who was upgraded to first class, and he mused on how it was so easy to feel superior just because one is sitting in a premium class. I’m glad I read and reread the article, because it keeps me mindful of not falling into that trap. Flying is usually a very stressful experience for me. While in Israel, I bought a book about emunah, faith in Hashem, and I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons it teaches. It’s almost like Hashem has given me a special gift now, to let me enjoy this flight, because I have taken a first step toward strengthening my faith and trust in Him. So rather than feeling superior, I feel grateful to Hashem that He is showing me such overwhelming kindness. Of course, He shows me kindness every day and every moment, but I’m not always able to see it. I can see it and savor it now, at this moment, as I sit in this roomy seat. On a practical level, as well as thanking Hashem, I am trying to compliment and thank the flight attendants as much as I can for their help in making the flight pleasant for me. I want to spread my happiness around and make it easier for service people, whose lives are certainly not easy. And I’m sure that in a premium class, more is expected of them than in coach, as shown by my unhappy seatmate.

Judaism is such a beautiful religion. Hashem doesn’t ask us to deny the pleasures He gives us in this world; He asks only that we keep a higher goal in mind and look toward the World to Come. We have to remember what the Chofetz Chaim said: We are only passing through. But meanwhile, as long as we remember Who is giving us the pleasures we have, we are free to enjoy the banquet He sets before us. When He gives us a free gift like this, He is like a loving parent who gives his child a prize. The child, if properly raised and not spoiled, just wants to hug and kiss the parent for showing such love to the child. I sing in my heart to Hashem, and thank Him for letting me enjoy this wonderful experience. And most of all, I thank Him for once again having let me visit His holy Land of Israel and my beloved children who live there.