Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence

Why were there some who hoarded the manna?
What turned Wormy before it even spoiled?
Why did Yisro arrive right after the disaster at Rephidim?

Moshe said to them, “let no man leave any [mann-manna;] over until morning.”But they did not listen to Moshe, some men left some over until morning and it became maggoty with worms and putrid and Moshe grew angry at them.

— Shemos 16:19,20

And putrid: This verse is transposed, because it first became putrid and only later did it grow maggoty with worms, as it says: “It did not putrefy nor become maggoty with worms.” (ibid:24), and such is the natural progression of all things that become wormy.

— Rashi ibid citing Mechilta

They put it [the extra portion of mann that fell on Friday] away until [Shabbos] morning as Moshe had commanded. It did not putrefy nor become maggoty with worms.

— Shemos 16:24

The entire community of the Bnei Yisrael-the children of Israel; moved on from the Sin Desert traveling by the word of G-d, until they camped in Rephidim.

— Shemos 17:1

Moshe named the place [Rephidim] Testing-and-Argument after the quarrel of the Bnei Yisrael and after their testing of HaShem. They had asked “Is HaShem within us or not?”

— Shemos 17:7

To every thing there is a phase, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …   A time to love,  and a time to hate;  a time for war,  and a time for peace. 

— Mishlei 3:1,8

The lashon kodesh-Torah Hebrew; homograph/homophone middah can be defined as both a psycho-spiritual tendency, as in middos tovos-refined character traits, or as a unit of/ a tool for calculating measurements, as in middos umishkalos-measures and weights. From Maimonides to Rav Eliyahu Lazer Dessler (see Michtav m’Eliyahu II pp. 248-249), many baalei mussar-Jewish ethicists; explain the common root of these two dictionary entries as deriving from the truth that all of our psycho-spiritual tendencies are meant to be weighed, measured and applied in a precise, deliberate manner, at the proper time and under the correct conditions. Millimeters and kilometers are both true and valid metric units. But woe to the one who measures his footraces in millimeters and who gauges the thickness of his glass lenses in kilometers.

Even those middos that we consider to be intrinsically good can turn negative if pursued or applied excessively — nothing fails like excess.  The obverse of this coin is that there are no intrinsically evil middos and that we are meant to play the entire hand that G-d has dealt us. Perhaps the milk of human cruelty, jealousy and stinginess needs to be doled out with an eye-dropper and at very infrequent intervals (or even once in a lifetime) but as long as the eye dropper is wielded with measured, precisely calibrated applications, then cruelty, jealousy and stinginess become good middos as well.

Moreover, just as a merchant can put his thumb on the scale or otherwise falsify his weights and measures to short-change the customers, there exist counterfeit, false middos shebenefesh– psycho-spiritual tendencies; that somewhat approximate, but that misrepresent and counterfeit, the genuine article. The Izhbitzer examines two middos at the root of two narratives in our sidrah-weekly Torah reading; in light of this.

What motivated those who defied Moshe and left over a portion of their mann for the following day?  Most would aver that they lacked faith and trust in G-d, that despite already experiencing the mann’s miraculous descent from heaven and its extraordinary capacity to sustain them, they somehow felt that HaShem would not deliver on His promise the following day. But this really beggars credulity.  Why would anyone believe that HaShem would cause the mann to fall one day and fail to do so the next day?

The Izhbitzer maintains that their hoarding derived from not believing in themselves, from a self-confidence deficiency. In modern terms we’d call this low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. He says that the hoarders did not doubt HaShem’s munificence to the entirety of k’lal Yisrael-the Jewish people; and were sure that the following day mann would fall from heaven for k’lal Yisrael … just not for them personally — that somehow their particular allotted portions would be missing.  The Izhbitzer sharply condemns their low self-esteem terming this ersatz, counterfeit humility anavah beushah– rancid, putrefied humility.  Then as now, some people of a particular religious sensibility mistake low self-esteem for anavah-humility; a most laudable middah.   But the Izhbitzer teaches that no individual should consider themselves worse or less deserving than the balance of k’lal Yisrael. This is either taking humility to an exaggerated, and thus counterproductive, extreme or it is coming from an unhealthy element in the person’s makeup and is not sourced in true humility at all.

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I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Is Judaism a meritocracy or an aristocracy?
Why do we dwell in our Sukkos on Shabbos but do not fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav on Shabbos?
Why is a stolen Lulav invalid for performing the mitzvah when one does fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkah in anothers Sukkah?

[The nation of] Israel was crowned with three crown: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Ahron merited the crown of priesthood, as the passuk-verse; declares: “And it will be an eternal covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants following him.”(Bemidbar 25:13).  David merited the crown of royalty, as the passuk declares: “His progeny will continue eternally, and his throne will be as the sun before Me.” (Tehillim 89:37)

The crown of Torah lays at rest; waiting and ready for all, as the passuk declares:  “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4).  Whoever desires may come and take it. Lest you say that the other crowns are superior to the crown of Torah, consider that the passuk declares: “By me [Torah], kings reign, princes decree justice, and nobles rule” (Mishlei 8:15,16).  Thus, you have learned that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two.

— Rambam: Laws of Torah Study 3:1, 2

 

Today is to do them (the mitzvos) and tomorrow is NOT to do them. Today is to do them and tomorrow is to receive their reward.

— Eruvin 22A

Judaism contains elements of both an aristocracy and a meritocracy. On the one hand being a Kohen, a Levi or a candidate for Moshiach– the Messiah; is purely an accident of birth.  Jewish identity itself is determined by biological matrilineal descent while tribal identity is determined by patrilineal descent.

But on the other hand our sages teach us that a mamzer-one born from a kares prohibited union; who is a talmid chacam-Torah scholar; takes precedence over a Kohen Gadol-High Priest; who is an am haaretz-ignoramus. Anticipating sociological patterns, Chazal comment “take heed of [the dignity of] the children of the impoverished, for Torah [scholarship] shall emanate from them”(Nedarim 81A) and “[why is it] that the sons of talmidei chachamim are rarely talmidei chachamim themselves?” (ibid).  Some of history’s greatest Jews e.g. Onkelos, Rabi Meir and Rabi Akivah were geirim-righteous converts; or their descendants.  On this level Judaism is the ultimate meritocracy with no glass ceilings that impede upward social-spiritual mobility.

We will see that paradoxically; the aristocratic, heredity-based aspect is actually the more egalitarian, classless of the two elements whereas the meritocracy creates a stratified, multi-tiered hierarchy. Based on two Halachic differences between Sukkah and Lulav-the four species; the Izhbitzer understands the two mitzvos of the holiday in light of the hereditary- and merit-based components of kedushas Yisrael-Jewish sanctity.

On Shabbos the Halachah exempts us from fulfilling the mitzvah of Lulav whereas we are still obligated in the mitzvah of Sukkah.  The reason for the contrast is that Shabbos is a scintilla of Olam Haba-the Coming-World wherein avodah-serving the Creator through the exercise of free-will; no longer exists. There (then?) all that the person toiled to acquire in the here-and-now world through his choices and actions are secured in his heart. This is why all 39 categories of creative activity are prohibited on Shabbos. Whether we are speaking of our weekly Shabbosos or “The Day that shall be entirely Shabbos and eternal rest”, only one who has exerted himself on Shabbos eve will enjoy the fruits of his labors on Shabbos (Cp. Avodah Zarah 2A). Sukkah is an effortless mitzvah, one is merely “there.” Sukkah represents the hereditary kedushas Yisrael present in the heart of every Jew passed along like spiritual DNA from the patriarchs. The mitzvah of Sukkah resonates with same the kind of “all our work is done” sensibility that inform Shabbos and Olam Haba.

But Lulav, which we take up in our hands and move in every possible direction of human endeavor, is characteristic of all mitzvos maasiyos– the mitzvos requiring decision-making, exertion and activity. The Izhbitzer’s disciple, Rav Laibeleh Eiger points out that the gimatriya-numerical value; of Esrog is 610. When we count the other three species used to fulfill the mitzvah along with the Esrog the sum is 613, the precise total of all of the mitzvos. The 4 species embody every possible avodah endeavor. There is something very proactive, workmanlike and this-worldly about Lulav that makes it inconsistent with Shabbos.

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We are ‘Jewish’ Stardust

By Avraham Rosenblum of the Diaspora Band

On January 4th, 1971, I disembarked from the EL AL Boeing 707 at Lod Airport, suitcase and guitar in hand, in need of a change of scene. What I didn’t expect was the total change of direction I would take from following my dreams as an up-and-coming teen-aged rocker on the Philadelphia (my home town) and New York music scenes. But I need to back-track a little, to mid-August, 1969.

I was driving up the New York Thruway in my little brown Austen-America, heading to Montreal to drop in on some friends. I was running away from two heartaches; breaking up with my high school sweetheart, and my band, Valentine, falling apart. It was a great band. Philadelphia loved us. My girlfriend didn’t ‘get’ me anymore and so we broke up. Missing her gave me some good songs, though.

Somewhere around Yonkers I picked up a hitch-hiker whom I almost immediately poured my heart out to because, well, he dressed like me, had long hair, and had the same goofy sense of humor. As we got ‘goofier’ he asked me if I might want to distract myself at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, starting the next day near Monticello, NY. I had heard about it but had not planned to go. “Hey, dynamite idea!” I said.

‘By the time we got to Woodstock’

It was still pretty early on that Thursday, the day before the concerts started, when I parked near the festival site, somewhere just below Happy Avenue, one of the roads leading to the sloping, expansive meadow of Max Yasgur’s Farm. Along the upper ridge were the campers, tents, artisans and vendors, where it felt like a medieval village populated mostly by jesters. At the bottom of the meadow stood the huge hand-built stage, and the speaker towers. You could hear a band jamming in a closed rehearsal area. My passenger soon drifted away never to be seen again, and as I waded into the growing sea of happy people who also dressed and talked a lot like me, I got an epiphany that this was going to be a life changing event. “Far out, man!”.. I thought.

I was elated to be part of this new social order. I belonged in it. I had worked hard to forget my origins as a First Generation Yiddish speaking Holocaust Survivors kid from Northeast Philadelphia. My music and this culture were my way out and into the melting pot of America. My band-mates and friends were mostly children or grandchildren of Italian, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. Few were Jews. We were all looking for the same thing. And, me being me, I interpreted my Woodstock experience as spiritual, in the sense that our generation was in search of peace, love, harmony, anti the Vietnam War, and I was very impressed by the well-known turban clad swami who gave the opening benediction. For those few days we all partied, heard some great musicians and bands, and sang, “Come on people now / smile on your brother!/ everybody get together / try to love one another right now!” Peace brother! The swirls of images of ‘Woodstock’ that remain in my mind are proof- to myself – that I was there. Years later I even caught a glimpse of me in an early scene of the movie. See – I really was there!

One thing led to another quickly; the crowd got larger (500,000!), the music more intense, the weather rainier, and my sense of direction- which normally was quite acute – limited to ‘up or down’ mode. On Saturday night, after some hours of searching, I found my car. Six very helpful hippies helped me roll it out of the mud. I clearly remember feeling grateful to ‘someone’ that my guitars and belongings were still there. I was wet, chilled, and hungry, and stupidly determined to continue northward to Quebec even though the hour was getting late. But a few miles up the road I realized that the snaking center line was not a good sign as my head began to hurt and I started to feel feverish. I turned around and ‘somehow’ found Monticello General Hospital where, after a cursory look by a staffer, I was very kindly shown to a chair in the waiting room, in which I fell asleep.

‘My Yiddish Kite’

I awoke as people began to enter the room at 9 AM. I noticed a number of them were “frum” (although in those days I had no clue about Chassidim vs Misnagdim or Sefardic vs Ashkenazic. But I knew my family was from Vilna and that that made me a Litvak). So there I was – my unwashed shoulder length hair, love beads, well-worn denims, and muddy shoes on display, when I caught the glance of one young ‘yeshiva bochur’ whom I instantly greeted:

“Shalom! Vos machts du?” (Peace! How are you?)
“Vos tust’DE doh?”, (What are YOU doing here?) he asked with surprise.
“Ich hob kekumen tzu Woodstock!” (I attended Woodstock!) I answered forthrightly, as if to impress him.
“Un vus host’du gezucht bei Woodstock?” (And what were you looking for at Woodstock?) he asked with some genuine interest.
Switching to English, I said something about finding G-d in the big experience of unity, and not being limited to a synagogue. Unfazed, but needing to fulfill his mission of visiting a sick friend, the yeshiva bochur apologized for not having the time to continue our conversation and wrote down a phone number and address on a piece of notepaper which he handed to me while recommending “If you’re really looking for G-d and spirituality check this out. Shalom. Zei Gezundt!” (Be well!)

I did continue looking for G-d for the next year – in a small Jewish-Buddhist-Christian cult and through the Timothy Leary – ‘Doors of Perception’ method, while writing and performing songs written in that vein. But by September of 1970, when my last American band, Freehand, was getting good reviews in New York at the most notable Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, I was a mess and felt lost. I quit the band and within a month I reluctantly went home to my family back in Northeast Philadelphia. They were actually quite glad to see me. But the family dog, Dolly, was not happy to meet my cat, Thumb, who disappeared soon after.

I had one last encounter with possible fame that December, when a show business contact personally introduced me to legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway” and more) who took an interest in me for their new record label.

‘A Greener in a Green Land’

Well, I actually took that trip to Israel in 1971 with my mother, Edith, Aleha Ha’Shalom, and my Aunt Helene, Aleha Ha’Shalom. The family thought it would be good for me to get away from ‘everything’ and I decided that taking a break to see some of the world couldn’t hurt before I resumed my career. I called Barry and Cynthia to postpone my test sessions in New York for few weeks, which they were OK with.

When we landed all I could think was how green and fresh everything looked. It was in fact a brand new country – only 23 years old! I was 20. Something began to stir. I was excited to be there. Why? I wasn’t observant. I hadn’t gone to synagogue in years. What could it mean? I did try to volunteer to go to Israel in 1967, during the Six Day War. I was only 16 so the consulate rejected me. That was it. I also went to my Godmother’s funeral around that time too. That was Jewish, but.. Yes, I was feeling all kinds of feelings, seeing things I didn’t expect to see, asking all kinds of questions, and hearing the sounds of bubbles frequently bursting.

One afternoon as I walked along Rehov Allenby near our hotel, I noticed another guy carrying a guitar case. He looked American, the case looked like it might be carrying a quality instrument, and so I flagged him down. I was right on both counts, and soon Sam from Chicago and Allen (my English name) were jamming our way across Israel on buses, at Hebrew University Campus, and one cloudy but enlightening afternoon in the back of an Old City Arab smoke-shop, where we got “hookahed up” and played some good ole boy country music for the un-country-like, loose garbed patrons – and they loved it! From there, Sam led me to my first encounter with The Wailing Wall (which of course I now only know as The Kotel HaMaaravi) and a rabbi who had me put on Tefillin for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. The sounds of Hebrew prayer all around me woke something up, and as the rabbi attempted to coach me in reading the blessings, my mouth had already formed the words – that flowed sweetly out across my tongue: “Shema Yisrael / Ado-Shem Elokeinu /Ado-Shem Echad…”

Just like that. What a long, strange trip it had been.

End of Part 1.

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

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

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

-Shemos 11:4,5

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

-Shemos 12:13

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

-Shemos 12:23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The “Absolute Value” of Middos

VaYetzai 5774-An addendum 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

Conventional wisdom dictates that when taking inventory of ourselves, that we should use a bookkeepers ledger sheet as a model. We divide our strengths and weaknesses along the lines of credits and debits but, generally speaking, we never insert the same item into both columns. We catalogue anger, stinginess and haughtiness as our bad middos – character traits on the negative side of the ledger and patience, humility and generosity as our good middos on the positive side. Never shall the twain meet.

But earlier this week, when probing Rachels middah of jealousy we learned that the Izhbitzer disabuses us of this notion and, basically, invalidates this bifurcated model of our kochos hanefesh-faculties of our souls.  He taught that (I paraphrase, remember, these are interpretive adaptations, not verbatim translations): “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. “

A good way to understand the Izhbitzer is by drawing on the mathematical concept of “absolute value”. The absolute value of a number is its distance from zero on the number line and it makes no difference if it is a positive or a negative number.

The absolute value of x, denoted “| x |” is the distance of x from zero. This is why absolute value is never negative; absolute value only addresses “how far?” not “in which direction?” This means not only that | 3 | = 3, because 3 is three units to the right of zero, but also that | –3 | = 3, because –3 is also three units to the left of zero.  It is the same for middos and kochos hanefesh, the absolute value of the negative/ evil ones and their positive/ good counterparts are equal. E.g. the | zealousness| (which is read as “the absolute value of zealousness) = passion.  But the | anger AKA – negative zealousness | = passion as well. Understanding that they share the same root “value” illustrates why sublimating the negative into the positive is eminently doable.

The Izhbitzers disciple, Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, develops this concept making it a source of encouragement and a beacon of hope.

Each of us has a visceral awareness that our yetzer haras obsession should be our own. Those tendencies that the yetzer hara presses us most incessantly about are the precise ones that we could utilize to excel at with pristine goodness free of even a trace admixture of evil or ulterior motives.   The faculties that we’ve abused to sin most egregiously with are precisely the ones that we may use to maximize our capacity for goodness and holiness with.

This is why the Midrash teaches that we ought to do Mitzvahs with the same limbs that we’ve used to sin with. (VaYikra Rabbah 21).  This is much more than a mere means to repair the damage done by the sin midah k’neged midah -quid pro quo.  It is a mending of the sinners soul as well.

Every individual was created to be mesaken-repair and sanctify one particular thing.  Each of us is a super-specialist with a unique and inimitable mission of tikun. No two faces are clonishly alike because the face is the portal through which ones tzelem Elokim-image of G-d, may be perceived. Our faces are reflective of our Divine singularity for HaShem is not only אחד=one but יחיד ומיוחד=singular. Thus the subtext of the famous Talmudic query (Shabbos 118B) “Which matter was your father most careful about?” is; what was your fathers uniqueness? What was his understanding of his soul’s peerless mission that expressed itself in his placing the emphasis of his Avodah-Divine service, in a particular area?

The Gemara that teaches that “One does not stand on Torah matters until and unless he’s been tripped up by those (particular) Torah matters” (Gittin 43A) can be understood in the same vein. One doesn’t trip on generic, fungible Divrei Torah. The particular Divrei Torah that served as his customized stumbling blocks attune him to those selfsame Divrei Torah’s potential for being his personalized stairway to heaven.

Tzidkas haTzadik Inyan 49

 

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) 

Opposites Attract…AND Repel

If I say to the girl “Tip your jug over and let me drink” and she responds, “Drink, and I will water your camels as well” she is the one whom You have verified [as the mate] for Your servant Yitzchak. [If I find such a girl] I will know that You have done lovingkindness to my master.

-Bereshis 24:14

She [Rivkah] is fitting for him [Yitzchak]for she will perform deeds of lovingkindness and is worthy of coming into the house of Avraham.

-Rashi Ibid

She is worthy of him, for she will perform acts of kindness, and she is fit to enter the house of Abraham;She is worthy of him, for she will perform acts of kindness, and she is fit to enter the house of Abraham;

At first glance the litmus test for Rivkah’s compatibility with Yitzchak seems ill-advised.  While it’s true that Avraham Avinu is identified with Chesed-lovingkindness, Yitzchak Avinu is identified with Gevurah-might and self-control. So, while extending favors and lovingkindness might demonstrate that Rivkah was worthy of entering the house of Avraham, Eliezer had been dispatched to choose a bride for Yitzchak, not for Yitzchaks father. As such, perhaps Eliezer should have prayed for HaShem to arrange for circumstances that would test Rivkahs self-restraint, courage and strength rather than her lovingkindness.

HaShem said “It is not good for man to be alone.   I will make him a helpmate opposite him

-Bereshis 2:18

Rashi famously explains this Pasuk as an either / or proposition; “If one is worthy (his wife) will be his helpmate, if he is unworthy then she becomes his opponent to wage war”.  However, the Izhbitzer writes that a straightforward reading of the Pasuk tells us that Hashem’s Will is that one’s help arises from a challenging opponent rather than from an ostensibly sympathetic ally.

To illustrate this concept he cites the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84A) that relates that after the death of Reish Lakish, Rebee Yochonon became despondent. Rebee Yochonon had been the deceased’s adversary in numerous Halachic disputes, At first Rebee Elazar ben Pedas was sent to him as a new disciple to “replace” Reish Lakish. But Rebee Elazar turned out to be a “yes-man” ally, buttressing each of Rebee Yochonon’s Halachic opinions with corroborating braisos. Rather than drawing comfort from his new student Rebee Yochonon grew even more grief-stricken and cried out “You are nothing like the son of Lakish! When I offered an opinion the son of Lakish would pose twenty four questions and I’d supply twenty four answers. In this way the topic would be illuminated and clarified.”

Hashem’s stated goal in the creation of the first woman; adversarial assistance, was to become the template for all subsequent women. The antithetical natures of man and woman are reflected on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels. Human males and females perceive reality in distinctive masculine and feminine ways. They are two genders divided by a common language. A contemporary author aptly titled his bestselling book about relationships using a metaphor indicating that men and women come from different planets and are as extra-terrestrial aliens to one another.

Chazal tell us that since the time of Creation, HaShem is a Matchmaker who “sits and pairs up couples.” (Bereshis Rabbah 68:4). Based on how He designed the first human couple to function as a unit this means that besides the two genders being diametrically opposed to one another in the broadly generic sense the Divine “Maker of pairs” customizes opposing forces in every specific couple according to each partner’s unique make-up.

The Izhbitzers great disciple Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, carries the concept further:  The attraction and pairing of opposites is based on more than the dynamic tension of opposing forces strengthening and sharpening one another. It is also because each individual is incomplete unto themselves. To use the Talmudic imagery, a single person is merely half a body.  So when antithetical males and females are paired they complement one another and fill in that which their partner lacks.

This explains the prayer of Avraham’s servant, Eliezer. It is precisely because Yitzchak is defined by Gevurah that Eliezer sought a mate for him imbued with Chesed. To have paired Yitzchak with a woman of Gevurah would have been redundant, so to speak,  as Yitzchak would already have provided the marriage with that half of the equation. Such a match would work against the Divine template for matchmaking; “a helpmate…. opposite him” davkah.

There are two ways in which a Midah B’Kedusha-A characteristic rooted in holiness can be linked to another characteristic;  either by uniting with its opposing Midah B’Kedusha or by being conflated with its sympathetic, mirror-image Midah B’Sitra Achra-a characteristic rooted in evil.  When two antithetical Midos B’Kedusha join forces their relationship is symbiotic. They complement one another like nesting concave and convex figures with each Midah B’Kedusha rounding out the other to form the whole.  So, while a tension exists between them, sensing that it is their “adversary” that will make them complete, they are attracted to one another as well.

On the other hand when a Midah B’Kedusha connects to its mirror-image Midah B’Sitra Achra nothing beneficial accrues to the Midah B’Kedusha . It is stuck with and to the evil Midah B’Sitra Achra as part of the inescapable fallout of the cosmic mish-mash of good and evil resulting from the Original Sin *1. But there is no reason, hence no way, for a Midah B’Kedusha to unite with an antithetical Midah B’Sitra Achra. When confronted with an antithetical Midah B’Sitra Achra the Midah B’Kedusha senses all of the tension and the antagonism but none of the opportunity for fulfillment. In such instances, the Midah B’Kedusha is utterly repelled by the adversarial nature of the Midah B’Sitra Achra.

This helps us better understand the family dynamics of our earliest patriarchs and matriarchs. Avraham Avinu was defined by his midah of Chesed– loving-kindness, giving to, and pouring out upon, others. His mate, Sara, complemented and completed Avraham through her opposing midah of Gevurah. In the next generation the roles of the male and female marriage partners were reversed. Yitzchak Avinu was defined by his midah of Gevurah-forceful self-restraint.   Informed by Hashems awe-inspiring Infinity, Gevurah is the trait of conquering, and impeding the expansion of, oneself.  His mate, Rivkah, complemented and completed Yitzchak through her opposing midah of Chesed.

The evil parallel midah of Chesed is Znus-debauchery which bears some superficial similarities to acts of “giving to and pouring out upon others” but which is informed at its core by selfishness and egotism rather than by selflessness and altruism. The evil parallel midah of Gevurah is Shfichas Damim-homicide which bears some superficial similarities to acts of “forcefulness, conquering, and impeding expansion” but which seeks to dominate others rather than oneself and that is informed at its core by self-indulgence and paranoia rather than by self-abnegation and the awe of G-d.  Yishmael is the embodiment of Znus while Esav is the personification of Shfichas Damim [The arms are Esavs arms…You shall live by your sword].

Although Yishmels midah was evil it had some affinity to the holy midah of Chesed and so Avrahams Chesed allowed him to tolerate Yishamel.  But Sara, who possessed holy Gevurah, the trait intrinsically hostile to Chesed, was completely repulsed by Yishmaels unholy, evil “Chesed” and so she drove him away. In precisely this manner while Esavs midah was evil it had some affinity to the holy midah of Gevurah and so Yitzchaks Gevurah moved him to affection for Esav.  Yitzchak loved Esav (Bereshis 25:28).  But Rivkah who possessed holy Chesed, the trait intrinsically hostile to Gevurah, was completely revolted by Esav’s unholy, evil “Gevurah” and so she orchestrated events to disinherit him.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach Bereshis D”H E’Eseh Lo                                                                                                                                                      and Kometz HaMincha Inyan 50 (page 4647)

1* This fundamental concept received a fuller treatment in an earlier installment in this series.  To learn about it CLICK HERE

Wearing My BT Badge with Pride

This is a response to the post, Can and Should BTs become Virtually Indistinguishable? I wish I could have seen the entirety of the letter for the Kiruv organization that was quoted. My immediate gut reaction was insult. In a frum community, if all members are following halacha and more or less the same customs, what is the issue with being a little different?

It reminds me of some conversations that I’ve had with the ultra-Orthodox community I studied with as I began to take on mitzvot. I asked why the men would all wear black suits. Where was the individuality? I was told that once you’re in the community and get to know people, you notice little accessories or personality traits that makes each person individual.

There is a lot to be said about conformity and community, but personally, I wear my BT badge like I do my American accent that won’t go away when I speak Hebrew — with pride. I don’t need to flash it around, but I don’t stuff it away either.

Just a few days ago I was at an ultra-Orthodox wedding. Putting on a black headscarf to accompany my black dress and black tights, I certainly looked like I belonged, but it felt a bit like a Purim costume. I wondered if others could see through the veneer. And then, once the party started, oh the dancing. I can’t ever get those circle dance steps right. Could anyone tell I was out of sync? Part of me hoped so. And then, back at the table, I was asked about a family I might know from my hometown. When I didn’t, she asked “You’re not chozeret l’tshuvah, are you?” and I felt a little embarrassed to say “Yes.” Given my outfit, would she know that was not my choice? Why did that matter?

The following day I put on a different outfit for running errands in town – a tunic shirt, cotton skirt, and headscarf, all in bright blues and purples. To carry some of my belongings I had an Israeli army צה’ל bag. I looked the part of a typical daati leumi woman. I felt stares. “Do they know I’m a poser American who would be too scared to actually live in a settlement?”

While I wear a head covering and skirts in part because I want to be identified as religious, I struggle with the idea of being like the man in the suit.

While trying to find a place among the choices of religious communities in Israel, I still hold on dearly to my secular past. I’ll hum zemirot to myself while shopping for Shabbat, but all a friend or my husband has to do is to say a word or a phrase that will send me off into a pop or rap song with the same verse. And when I bust a rhyme, I hope people overhear me.

I agree with the e-mail that “it is possible and almost always advisable to maintain many relationships from the past, especially familial ones.” It is my belief that Jews are not to sequester themselves away from the outside world, but rather to uplift it, and to be a “light upon the nations”. BT’s can be a strong chain in the link between the two worlds. I would argue that, within reason, it’s okay and even advisable to maintain the most precious elements of our lifelong relationships, hobbies, and habits, for they were placed in our lives for a reason, and they too are a badge that reminds us we made a choice.

Visit Ilene’s blog. here.

BT Syndrome

By R. W.
University of Texas

I suffer from something
Maybe you’re familiar…?
You see, I’m not from around here.
Saturday morning cartoons and Micky D’s after Volleyball

You played sports? YES I played sports (well, sort of)
These hips do more than pushing babies
Facebook pictures in tank tops. Pants. At The Beach.
Can I leave those up? Isn’t there some kind of Heter for that? Like married women who still have pictures pre-sheitl? No? Oh…

I know what bacon tastes like! Oh, And Cheeseburgers
Eh, yall aren’t missing much…. but waiting 6 hours?
That’s a lot to ask.

My artifacts: cursing, 7 old pairs of jeans, tube tops.
My racey bucket list.
Ex boyfriends (their artifacts)
Myspace
The crowd I used to own now baby mamas, tattooed, trash.

Yeah, I have a past.
The Mishnah (like I remember which one) tells others not to ask
Kidding? I love this subject.
Me, me, sin, light, Israel, me, sem, me. etc.

On Saw You at Sinai, you can indicate preferences to date only FFB‘s
What are we, Muggle-born?
Are you kidding? We have a lot more fun.

Accepting Rabbinic Authority – Is The Individualistic American Outlook a Deterrent?

When we think of America, one of the core principles is freedom. The Bill of Rights enshrined and gave freedom a legal foundation. Much of American history, whether in the debates against slavery and its expansion, the protection of one’s right to think, speak and worship or not to worship and even an asserted right to privacy, revolve around an individual’s rights and his or her ability to push the envelope of society-whether intellectually or culturally-at the expense of what other elements in society would consider immoral, inappropriate or violently offensive to their sense of decency. Based upon these facts, it is no accident that the media, etc of 2008 are neither that of 1988 nor 1888.

The Torah and especially halacha, in my opinion (IMO), offer a different point of view (POV) on freedom. The Halacha is first and foremost a a system that is premised on both the individual and the community. Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (RYBS) pointed out that the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim incorporated this factor intentionally to highlight the discrete roles of the individual and the community. However, as an individual, halacha is premised on how one fulfills one’s obligation in a particular context called a mitzvah. In other words (IOW), the issue is not how one pushes the envelope to get away with fitting in with the system, but rather in fulfilling one’s obligations in a sense that one fulfills the spirit as well as the letter of the law. By comparison, a First Amendment based challenge or even far less seemingly significant cases are all based upon pushing the level of existing precedents or merely blindly defending them.

Given that premise and the American tradition of individualism, the demand that a Jew nullify his or her own will and rely on what a Rav says or after many years of study, what they think that their rebbe would say, is no small intellectual challenge. It requires rewiring your mind to think first and foremost-what does halacha require and how can I best fulfill my obligation as a Jew. IOW, I would suggest that attempts to manipulate halacha to accommodate those who view Halacha as either sexist , etc, fail to recognize that halacha is based on obligations, not rights.

In its most pristine and ideal form, all of halacha is built first and foremost on how each of us can best fulfill his or her obligations , whether on the individual or communal level. Seder Zeraim, beginning with Brachos and continuing thru the end of that seder that deals which deals wiith many of the Mitzvos HaTelyos HaAretz, reminds us that man may only consume from this world in a proper and Divinely permitted way. Seder Moed tells us that time is sacred. Seder Nashim teaches us to get married , be a better spouse and to use our mouths and minds in a proper manner. . Seder Nezikin tells us how to compensate an injured party, how to pay for one’s negligence, how to respect someone else’s property as well as how a court system should operate. Sidrei Kodashim and Taharos instruct us how to offer what we earn to God and how to act in a holy manner. The key is how do I fulfil my obligations-not how I can stretch the meaning of the law. Even the language of Halacha speaks of obligations-Yotzei, Chayav, Patur, Lchatchilah, meizid, shogeg. Once one has fulfilled their obligation, then and only then, can one speak of enhancing one’s fulfillment of any mitzvah via minhagim , etc.

The easiest contrast between the American values of freedom and how a Torah observant Jew views the world is in the realm of marriage . In this regard, just read any of the supermarket tabloids or even the NY Times Sunday Styles and contrast the wedding announcements with those in any media that is read in the Torah world ranging from the Jewish Press to the Yated. The contrast between the two is very palpable.

Let me suggest a relatively simple explanation.Obviously, the halachic view of the family neither is hedonistic nor one based on Victorian notions of prudery. However, IMO, there is a major factor that firmly accentuates the community’s right and obligation to sanction the creation of a Bayis Neeman B’Yisrael.

The Rambam in the beginning of Hilcos Ishus describes marriage before and after the giving of the Torah and the fact that Halacha demands that the marriage ceremony be held before a minyan. RYBS once commented that the Rambam was emphasizing that marriage is an act that requires communal approval and sanction, as opposed to the contemporary ethos that basically looks at marriage either as the consummation of a long “hook up” of two pieces of plumbing for convenience or a merger of assets to obtain economic benefits. While contemporary society almost venerates romantic love as the basis for marriage and worships at the holy grail of society, Halacha, in a revolutionary way, reminds us that marriage is the holiest of acts between a man and woman for a higher purpose that requires a communal approval. It is only after the vort, chasunah and sheva brachos that a couple can learn, on a day to day basis, to love and cherish each other.

I would add one small caveat, A system that is predicated on individual rights seemingly at the expense of the community invests all with the same abilities and rights to an opinion, regardless of their level of knowledge. Halacha insists that while all Jews are created in the Divine Image and our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, only those with the most knowledge of Torah and Halacha are entitled or should render an opinion, especially on cutting edge issues of halacha. It is akin to seeking medical or other specialized advice. Only someone with expertise in a subject can be counted on for an intelligent, albeit not infallible opinion.

Seder Reflections: Where are you coming from?

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine – Torah Links of Cherry Hill
www.teach613.org

The Pesach seder revolves around one simple phrase. “Start with the negative, and conclude with the positive.” The Talmud records two views as to how this should be done, both of which are implemented in our hagadah. One view focuses on physical salvation and says, “We were once slaves to Pharoh in Egypt…but G-d set us free.” The second view focuses on spiritual ascent. “Our family before Avraham were idol worshipers…but now G-d has brought us close to Him through Torah.” In these two ways the hagadah reminds us of who we once were so that we can properly celebrate who we are today.

The Dubno Maggid describes the structure of the hagadah by way of analogy. He describes a man who was once very poor and then experienced good fortune and became a wealthy man. Once a year he would take out the rags that he wore in his poverty and would wear them to remind himself and his family how it used to be. This, the Dubno Maggid says, is the point of the seder. We strive to remember where we come from, both physically and spiritually, in order to fully appreciate who we are today.

Although the analogy is meant to explain the Pesach seder, it also serves as an important lesson for life. Often people experience good fortune and go “from rags to riches,” only to forget how it used to be. In most cases they mean no harm. They just get used to the good fortune. But the structure of the seder teaches us that at least once a year, a person should remember where he is coming from.

The Kotzker Rebbe used to ask his students, “Who is higher? The person on the bottom of a ladder, or the person near the top?” When the students looked at their mentor is puzzlement, the Kotzker explained, “Who is higher? It depends in which way they are climbing. If the person on top is going down, but the person on bottom is climbing up, then I maintain that the person on bottom is considered higher.”

For a person to properly gauge where he is up to, it is not sufficient to know which rung on the ladder they are standing. Where you are coming from is also a critical piece of information. This helps to appreciate one’s mission in life and assess one’s achievements.

I once read an account of a man who grew up in a city in southern United States in the 1950s. When he graduated from high school his family took a trip to Israel to celebrate, and through a series of events they began their journey towards observance.

This man describes how he excelled in his studies and in observance until there was only one area of observance in which he did not participate. He describes how in his teenage years it was very “in” to get tattooed. When he was seventeen he had gotten a series of tattoos on his back that went from one shoulder to the other. True to the environment he was then in he had chosen the most provocative “I’m doing my own thing” tattoos imaginable. Now as an observant Jew there was only one area of observance he could not bring himself to participate in. The custom of going to Mikvah before the High Holidays was unthinkable. He could not bear the thought of having people see him without his shirt.

Eventually he decided that he would have to figure out a solution. He was observant in every area of life. Every law and custom in Jewish tradition had become the norm of his life. He was a beloved member of the community and was blessed with a delightful family. He decided that he would have to figure out a way to go to Mikvah before the Holidays.

After much deliberation he decided that it could be done. He would simply take off his shirt in a corner and then cover himself with a towel until he was in the Mikvah. No one would see his back, and he would be able to fulfill the sacred custom.

But somehow things don’t always go as planned.

As he walked across the wet tile floor he slipped slightly and reached for the railing to regain his balance. In doing so, however, he lost hold of the towel that was covering his back. In his account he describes the “roaring silence” that he perceived as the towel slipped off and people saw the tattoos for the first time.

The milliseconds felt like hours as he stood frozen to his spot not knowing what to do. Then, he describes, how the gentle hand of a sixty year old man touched him. He looked down at the man’s hand and saw that the man was pointing to the numbers that were etched on his own arm. The older man said, “I also have tattoos. My tattoos remind me of what they wanted to do me. I must never forget. Your tattoos should do the same. You should never forget where you are coming from. We’ve both come a very long way.”

Often, as we climb our own personal ladder of life we wonder if there is any point of remembering the past. Our sages taught that at least once a year there is purpose in appreciating the uniqueness of where we are coming from.

Sometimes we mistakenly think of people as clones of one another. The reality is that we are all very different and unique. Consider, for example, the difference between handmade articles and those that are made by machines. When an item is made by machine the manufacturer will take pride that every item is made the same. But when an item is handmade the craftsman takes pride that each item is unique.

Every human being is handmade by G-d. Each of us is unique in circumstances and in qualities. Appreciating one’s past is critical in order to climb one’s ladder properly.

May all the rungs on your ladder be blessed ones.