Falling In or Standing Out?

Why is Viduy Maasros called a viduy when we aren’t confessing to any wrongdoing?
Chazal teach us that on Rosh Hashanah we are judged collectively and individually. How is that possible?
… I have removed all sacred shares from my home; I have given [the suitable shares] to the Levi, the orphan and widow, in accordance with all the precepts that You commanded us. I have not transgressed your commands nor have I forgotten anything. I have not consumed of it [the second maaser-tithe;] while in mourning, I have not apportioned / consumed any of it while tamei-halachically impure; nor have I used any for the dead, I have paid attention to the Voice of HaShem my Elokim and have acted in harmony with all that You commanded me.

—Devarim 26:13,14

Hashkifah-Look down; from your holy meon– habitation; in heaven and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us, the land streaming milk and honey, as You swore to our forefathers.

—Ibid 15

And the men arose from there, and they looked down upon Sodom …

—Bereishis 18:16

and they looked down:  Wherever the word הַשְׁקָפָה =hashkafah is found in TeNaK”h, it indicates misfortune, except (Devarim 26:15) “Look down (הַשְׁקִיפָה) from your holy meon,” for the power of gifts to the poor is so great that it transforms the Divine attribute of Wrath to Mercy.

—Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Ki Sisa 14

Divine Judgment is passed on the world at four intervals [annually] … On Rosh Hashanah all those who’ve come into the world pass before Him like children of Maron i.e. single-file, individually

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 16A

And [please] do not put Your slave on trial; for before You [under Your exacting judgment] no living being will be vindicated.

—Tehillim 143:2

Who can say: “I have made my heart meritorious; I have purified myself from my sin”?

—Mishlei 20:9

Rabbah bar Bar Chanah said in the name of Rav Yochanan: [All the same on Rosh Hashanah] they are all viewed [together] with a single [all-encompassing] look. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok said: We also have learned the same idea: “[From the place of His habitation He looks השגיח upon all the inhabitants of the earth.] He that inventively designed the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their doings” (Tehillim 33:14,15). … what it means is this: The Creator sees their hearts all-together and considers all their doings[collectively].

Gemara Rosh Hashanah 18A

The revealed facet of this teaching of the sages is self-evident but the esoteric meaning is undoubtedly difficult to grasp

—Rambams commentary to Mishnah ibid

Rabi Yochonan taught “tithe so that you grow wealthy.”

—Taanis 8B

The pauper speaks pleadingly; but the affluent respond impudently.

—Mishlei 18:23

 The juxtaposition of the Yamim Nora’im-days of Awe; and Parashas Ki Savo, almost always read a mere two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, is among the oddest vagaries of the Torah calendar. Whereas the month of Elul, the yemei Selichos and Yamim Noraim are characterized by detailed A-Z confessionals the “viduy” maasros-“confession” of proper tithing; that we find in Parashas Ki Savo seems to be anything but a confessional. While the Sforno and other commentaries search for a subtextual sin being alluded to; on the surface it reads like a kind of turned-on-its-head anti-confessional informed by an apparently unseemly braggadocio.

In it the “confessor” does not own up to any wrongdoing at all. On the contrary — he spells out all of the righteous and law-abiding things that he has done vis-à-vis the tithing of his agricultural produce.  If this braggarts confessional were not enough the cocky confessor concludes his Divine conversation with a crude, insistent, strong-armed demand; boldly inviting Divine scrutiny and reeking of tit for tat: “Hashkifah … and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us … as You swore to our forefathers.” It’s almost as if the confessor was kivyachol-so to speak; challenging HaShem by insisting “I’ve done mine, now You do Yours!”

We know that on the yemei hadin-judgment days; of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the Divine Judgment proceeds along two, seemingly mutually exclusive tracks; the individual and the collective.  On the one hand the mishnah teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, like sheep passing beneath the shepherds crook for exclusive inspection, all pass before G-d single-file, kivyachol, to be judged individually.  But on the other hand the gemara, teaches that on Rosh Hashanah all are viewed and judged collectively with a single all-encompassing look. According to the Lubliner Kohen, the gemara was, so to speak, apprehensive of the awesome and awful implications of trying to survive such a withering examination and, so, it diluted “sweetened” absolute justice with the less demanding single, all-encompassing look. The Rambams comment that “the esoteric meaning of this mishnah is undoubtedly difficult to grasp” is interpreted by one of the great 20th century Jewish thinkers to mean that judging collectively and individually simultaneously are two antithetical elements in one process. It seems impossible that they could coexist.

That said, being judged as a member of a large collective is the safer of the two tracks and lends itself to greater optimism for a positive outcome for the defendants. As the Izhbitzer explains; HaShem judgmental scrutiny is infinite in its scope and breadth and plumbs the infinitesimal in its attention to detail.  Whenever He focuses on a single individual that individual is gripped by terror, for no individual can face G-d and declare that s/he is completely righteous and totally free of sin. One on trial by G-d can only exhale and begin to relax a bit when s/he is part of a communal body and when it is that collective entity, rather than its individual component parts, that is being judged. In a collective the component parts “clarify” one another for every soul is outstanding and pure in one specialized field. Or, as the Lubliner Kohen puts it, component parts of the whole are complimentary.  What one lacks another completes … and vice versa.

Read more Falling In or Standing Out?

Let’s Get Away (From it All) … With Murder!

Mishpatim 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

If he (the killer) did not hunt and trap to murder, but Elokim brought about involuntary-manslaughter through him, then I will lay down a space where the killer can flee.

-Shemos 21:13

[HaShem said to Kayin] “You are more cursed than the ground … When you cultivate the soil it will no longer yield its strength to you. You will be restless and isolated in the world.” 

-Bereishis 4:11.12

Kayin responded “Is my sin then too great to forgive?”

 -Ibid 4:13

 Kayin left HaShems presence. He dwelled in the land of Nod (isolation) to the east of Eden.

-Ibid 4:116

We live in an era in which our lives are kinetic and restless.  In every phase of life and during all of our waking hours, we are always on the go. Yet few people really seem to mind. The pan-societal consensus seems to be that whenever a person is on the move, that he is doing so for his own good.

Some people transfer to new universities or yeshivas in middle of their education. Others relocate to advance their careers.  Even the increasingly rare “company man” who stays with one firm throughout his entire career will make frequent business junkets.  The travel industry does not refer to the area between first-class and coach as business-class for nothing.

Most ubiquitous of all is traveling for pleasure. Stay-cations are indicative of a general economic downturn or of one’s own lack of financial success.  The old saying goes that “if you’ve got money … you can travel” and most people who have money — do.  The rule of thumb for achieving greater social status through travel is that the further-flung the destination, the better the vacation.

People advance all kinds of rationalizations to validate their wanderlust.  “Travel is broadening” they will say or they might claim “a change of scenery will do me a world of good.”  Still others associate their homes and offices with stress and tension and, impatient for the afterlife, their vacations as the precursors of the ultimate reward in the world-to-come; “I’ve worked really hard and I deserve some R&R.” Some will even couch their constant flitting about in religious terms.  משנה מקום משנה מזל – “a change of location will result in a change of fortune.” (cp Rosh HaShanah 16B and Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbos 6:9).

But some latter-day nomads dispense with the rationalizations altogether.  They travel lishmah, so to speak. They may not be able to articulate it as eloquently, but they are in general agreement with Robert Louis Stevenson who said “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Perhaps it is modern man’s relentless movement that robs him of the luxury of pausing to ponder; why this is so?  Why is the great affair to move? What is the real subconscious compulsion, the psycho-spiritual dynamic at work, which induces us to travel for travel’s sake?

Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin provides an eye-opening and astonishing answer to these questions:

Like Kayin, we are wanderers because we are murderers.  This is not to say that we are guilty of the most flagrant and literal forms of homicide.  Stabbing, strangling, shooting or poisoning the victim is not required.  Our prophets and sages taught that there are other sins that, while not causing the permanent irreversible termination of life, are still iterations of murder.

We’re all familiar with the Chazal that equates inflicting public humiliation to the point of blanching, with murder. (Bava Metzia 58B) Chazal coined a term “the three forked tongue” to describe sins of lashon hara–gossipy speech, because these sins kill three people; the speaker, the listener and the subject of the conversation.  (Arachin 15B) The prophet Yeshaya condemned another form of non-homicidal murder when he thundered “You that inflame yourselves among the Terebinth trees, under every leafy tree; that slay the children in the riverbeds, under the clefts of the rocks!” (Yeshaya 57:3 see Niddah 13A)

While those who transgress sins that do not rise to the legal and halachic definition of homicide are not sentenced to utterly abandon their homes and exile themselves to a refuge city or to the camp of the Levi’im they become unsettled, itinerant wanderers all the same.  The Lubliner Kohen goes on to say that, the good news is, when we do begin to lay down roots in a particular place and achieve some tranquility and stability we can rest assured that we have been metaken-ameliorated these homicide-like offenses.

There’s even an intermediate condition during which, while we may be more or less fixed and established in a particular location, we are not really happy about it.  The normal state of affairs is that of חן מקום על יושביו-“every place is charming to its own populace.” (Sotah 47A) If, on the other hand, we do not find anything attractive or satisfying about our homes, neighborhoods, towns or workplaces this is symptomatic of having repaired and been forgiven for the deed that was in some way equivalent to murder but that the antisocial thoughts that motivated us to act as we did, still require tikun-repair and teshuvah-atonement.  While our feet may not be itchy enough to take the first step in a journey of 1000 miles, our minds and spirits remain agitated, distracted and 1,000 miles away.

In his classic work of Hashkafah, Michtav M’Eliyahu (Strive for Truth), Rabbi Eliyahu Lazer Dessler, z”l, views the entire contemporary human condition through the prism of the Lubliner Kohens teaching.  Writing presciently in the mid twentieth century he points out that never before has mankind been so murderous and, not coincidentally, so nomadic and adrift.

Weapons of mass destruction can lay waste to entire cities in a matter of moments.  Gossip is no longer something whispered in dark corners but a multibillion dollar publishing industry.  Slander, inaccuracies and half truths coupled with a breakdown in civil discourse had transformed character-assassination by means of public humiliation into an international sport.  Unparalleled pornography, lasciviousness and loose morals had disseminated the form of murder that the Prophet Yeshaya decried to previously stern and puritanical corners of the earth.

Concurrently, advances in aviation and other technologies made modern man substantially more mobile than his ancestors.  From one end of the earth to the other, millions of people traverse unprecedented distances at previously unimaginable speeds.  And while these travelers may dream that all this running about is advantageous to them or that they’re doing so for pleasure and entertainment (entertainment being synonymous with a deep-seated disquiet, distraction and scattering of the soul-pizur hanefesh) they are, in fact, just living through the curse of Kayin, humanities first murderer. Despite all of the giant leaps forward in technology man has never felt so rootless, anxious and insecure.

Imagine how much sharper Rav Dessler’s critique of modern man and how vindicated his linkage of high-speed, easily accessible travel with WMDs, the venality and universality of gossip and humiliation would be, were he writing today.

Virtue is always its own reward. So we already had ample incentives to avoid doing the many sins that our tradition teaches are equivalent to murder.  But if we needed an ulterior motive the Lubliner Kohen, has provided us with one.  As the Torah is eternal HaShem “lays down a space where the killer can flee” and be free of the curse of Kayin in every generation.  Refraining from lashon hara, publicly humiliating others, withholding wages et al seem a small price to pay to achieve a sense of a rootedness, connectedness and tranquility via entry to the sanctuary surrounded by invisible walls of Torah and teshuvah — the space that HaShem has laid down.

~adapted from Tzidkas HaTzadik 82

and Michtav M’Eliyahu IV:Kavanas haMitzvos; Page 171 

The Pursuit of Truth

Great minds think alike. When important thinkers from very different perspectives reach the same conclusion we should pay attention to what they’re saying.

Mussar comprises the Torah’s approach to personal and religious growth. Mussar teachings are spread throughout our religious literature and have received renewed emphasis during the last few hundred years of Jewish history.What does mussar teach us? Rav Dessler, an influential Rabbi regarded for his contributions to Jewish thought, defines mussar very succinctly. He says that people need to question their ability to reach valid conclusions and decisions. We’re not necessarily in a position to exercise good judgement because we are, unfortunately, likely to be swayed from truth.

Our wants bias our judgement. What we want shapes the way we view any given situation and the way we think through decisions. Our character flaws and self interest shape our wants and help to distort our perspective. To reach truth we need to refine our character traits (our middos) and develop an intense desire for truth. This is mussar. Mussar requires that we must become fully aware of the limits of our objectivity. Mussar then provides us the process through which we free ourselves from these limitations.

Rav Dessler describes that “This is the only way: to destroy bias at its source. Many years of devoted and selfless labor are needed before one can hope to strengthen the yearning for truth to such an extent that one can free oneself from the bias of the middos (1).” He goes even further and says “If an opinion or decision comes to him easily, without a struggle, he should hold it in suspicion and search for how his decision was motivated by self interest (1).”

The first step of mussar is to become aware of and critically analyze our thought process. Don’t accept the conclusions you reach without examining the thought process that led to those conclusions. Without hard work we won’t see things as they truly are.

The words of Rav Dessler can certainly stand on their own. In this case, however, I believe that by examining some other sources we can clarify and extend what Rav Dessler says.

Aaron Beck is a major contributor to the field of cognitive psychology. Beck has a revolutionary theory of emotion and writes that “The affective response is determined by the way an individual structures his experience…The cognitive structuring or conceptualization of a situation is dependent on the schema elicited. The specific schema, consequently, has a direct bearing on the affective response to a situation. It is postulated, therefore, that the schema determines the specific type of affective response (2).”

Beck is saying that our emotions are a function of our thought process. “Your emotions result entirely from the way you look at things (3).” To change our emotional response to a given situation we must be aware that our feelings are generated by the way that we view and experience that situation. Our schema are the way we look at the world and at various situations which arise. Without our awareness, these schema affect our decisions, specifically our emotional responses. To reach truth, it follows that we need to become aware of our schema and of how they shape our thinking. Again we see the same idea – we don’t automatically see things as they truly are. Our perspective is heavily colored by our own pre-existing wants and beliefs.

This idea is also implicit in Stephen Covey’s concept of a paradigm. Stephen Covey has sold over 15 million copies of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and has had a major impact on countless individuals and businesses. Covey explains that the way that we relate to the world and to situations that arise flows from our paradigms – from the models that we use to understand the world. Often we aren’t sufficiently cognizant of the effect that our paradigms have on our decisions and actions. “We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually even unaware that we have them. We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be (4).” It follows from this that to make significant changes in our lives we need to examine and revise our paradigms. “Paradigms are powerful because they create the lens through which we see the world. The power of a paradigm shift is the essential power of quantum change… (5)”

What emerges from these sources is that the way we feel and the choices we make depend to a large degree on how we look at the world. We need to listen to our internal conversations and learn to focus on our middos. Our individual perspective effects our emotional responses and our decisions. To achieve personal growth we need to reexamine our thought process.

(1)Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1, Mabat HaEmes, The Truth Perspective
(2)Beck, Dr Aaron, Depression: Causes and Treatment (Philadelphia 1967), pages 287-288
(3)Burns, Dr David, Feeling Good (New York 1999), Page 29
(4)Covey, Stephen, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York 1990), page 24
(5)Covey, page 32

Making Choices

R’ Micah Segelman

The Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that the creation of the world was worthwhile even for a single person. The Alter of Slobodka explains the Mishna that the creation of the entire world is justified in order to provide an opportunity for a single person with free will to choose to fulfill Hashem’s commandments (1). Rav Hirsch describes the “sublime mission and lofty purpose of man” that “The Law to which all powers submit unconsciously and involuntarily, to it you shall also subordinate yourself, but consciously and of your own free will (2).”

Rav Soloveitchick writes that “Halakhic Man is engaged in self creation, in creating a new “I” . . . Choice forms the base of creation . . . then man becomes a creator of worlds (3).” The Ramchal tells us that Hashem created man to give him ultimate goodness and perfection. Yet Hashem didn’t simply grant this to man. Only by actualizing himself through making choices could the goodness be perfect and Hashem’s will fulfilled (4).

It is commonly known that the Torah teaches us that the purpose of our existence is to strive for perfection in our service of and connection to Hashem. These sources emphasize that only through people freely making choices can this purpose be realized.

However, the ability to make decisions is not automatic. Rav Dessler writes that only a person who has successfully overcome his natural tendencies perceives his power to make choices. Someone who has never exercised self control has learned from his experiences to think that he is controlled by outside forces (5). A person must learn, as Stephen Covey writes, that “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose (6).” We must discover that freedom.

We can sometimes feel powerless against external forces. There are many things which are, in fact, outside of our control or influence. Yet we often don’t perceive the opportunities we have to be proactive and exert our influence. I’ll cite seven illustrations of this principle which I hope people will find meaningful.

We often blame other people for problems that exist. Blaming other people is natural and easy. It is also self defeating. When we take responsibility for ourselves and our decisions we are empowered because we’ve put ourselves in control. Rachel Imeinu turned to Hashem in prayer only when she saw that she couldn’t rely on Yaakov to pray for her. Relying on Yaakov to take the initiative and then blaming Yaakov stymied her whereas by taking responsibility for herself she was able to come closer to Hashem (7).

When we have difficulties in interpersonal relationships we again often blame the other person. It is often possible, however, to unilaterally change the dynamics of the interaction by changing the way that we act and react. This is particularly true for parents and teachers. Changing our attitude and approach can dramatically impact our relationships.

People can feel overwhelmed by emotions. Many psychologists maintain that our emotions result from the way that we think. We can become more aware of our own thinking and thus exercise greater control over the emotions we experience. This requires becoming aware of our inner dialogue and examining the way in which we look at the world. In the words of Aaron Beck, a person “is generally aware of the following sequence: event or stimulus — affect. He must be trained to fill in the link between the stimulus and the affect: stimulus — cognition — affect.” (8).

Exposure to an outside value system can rob us of the ability to truly make decisions. For example, our attitudes to money and career are influenced by our exposure to the prevailing mentality which equates our worth with our achievements (9). We’re not truly free to make decisions until we shape our own world view. Otherwise we are pressured to conform to norms which are imposed on us.

Similarly, people who strongly depend on the validation of others curtail their own freedom to choose. The pressure to conform to other people’s expectations precludes free choice. Growth requires one to learn not to depend on the approval of other people (10).

As Torah Jews, there are aspects of our Jewish contemporary culture that can hamper our ability to make choices. Young people, especially, can feel pressured by communal expectations to conform and thus be stifled. Rav Wolbe writes, “Both planting and building are essential to the development of our children and students. We must build them. We cannot rely exclusively on their spontaneous, independent growth . . . However, if we only build our children by inserting behaviors into their personality, without providing time and space for them to sprout, then their ability to grow on their own degenerates and they turn into robots . . . they will lack initiative. Initiative flows from vivacity, but that quality rotted away long ago (11).” When we block legitimate avenues of self expression for our children or students we interfere with their proper development. And we ourselves need to develop the ability to think issues through carefully and seek the appropriate guidance where necessary. And we must learn to do that which is right because it is right – not because of what others will think.

We are justifiably proud of our Torah weltanschauung. But when improperly understood our ideology can interfere with people assuming proper responsibility for their decisions. We legitimately emphasize the importance of consulting Talmidei Chachamim when making decisions. People must, however, develop their own independent judgment. We should never relinquish responsibility for what we do. We don’t cede control of our medical decisions to our doctors though we seek to benefit from their expertise. We are the ones affected by the results of our decisions and we must be willing to stick with our choices when the going gets tough. To do this we need to feel ownership of our decisions. In the final analysis we must answer for ourselves.

There are two sources that essentially make this point. Rabbeinu Yonah says that ultimately we bear responsibility for our own spiritual growth. Receiving advice and inspiration from others is valuable. “But if we don’t inspire ourselves – what will mussarim accomplish (12) ?” Only we can change ourselves. And the Seforno explains the pesukim in Netzavim that teshuva is unlike other mitzvos. Recognizing the way to move forward in our personal growth doesn’t require the input of great scholars (13). We ourselves can and should determine where we need to improve and how to approach Hashem– it is “within our own mouths and within our own hearts to do.”

Fundamental to Slobodka Mussar is that only by appreciating our potential for greatness are we empowered to achieve greatness. Only by understanding that we have the capacity to grow can we truly grow. Let us all feel empowered to make the necessary choices.


(1) Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (The Alter of Slobodka), Ohr Hatzafun, Sefer Toldos Adam: Part B

(2) Rav Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters (Spring Valley, NY 1988), Letter Four

(3) Rav Soloveitchick, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia 1993), Part Two: IV

(4) Ramchal, Derech Hashem, 1:2

(5) Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1: Kuntras Habechira

(6) Covey, Stephen, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York 1990), page70

(7) Ramban, Pirush al HaTorah, Breishis 30:2

(8) Beck, Dr Aaron, Depression: Causes and Treatment (Philadelphia 1967), page 322. See also Burns, Dr David, Feeling Good (New York 1999)

(9) see Burns chapter 13, and Twerski, Rabbi Dr Abraham, Ten Steps To Being Your Best (Brooklyn, NY 2004), chapter 2

(10) see Burns chapter 11, R Twerski chapter 3

(11) Wolbe, Rav Shlomo, Planting & Building (Jerusalem 1999), page 16

(12) Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuva 2:26

(13) Seforno, Devarim 30:11-15