Rav Wolbe Warns Stringencies Can Lead to Arrogance and Sin

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was raised in an secular Jewish home and received his education at the University of Berlin (1930–1933). During his university studies he became a baal teshuva through the efforts of the Orthodox Students Union V.A.D. (Vereinigung jüdischer Akademiker in Deutschland). After university he attended the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary. He continued to study at Rabbi Boczko’s yeshiva in Montreux, Switzerland. He then attended the Mir yeshiva in Poland, where he became a student of the mashgiach ruchani, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz, and, to a lesser extent of Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein.

He published his first volume of Alei Shur in 1966, which contains his mussar (“ethics”) analysis on a proper regimented life of a yeshiva student. The second volume published 20 years after the first was an intense glimpse into his actual mussar workshops for developing elevated character traits. The book contains step by step instructions and specific exercises.

Rav Wolbe believed that the student should not rely on habit or emotions, rather they should structure their lives. “The greater the person is, the more organized is his life.” (Alei Shur, Pg. 68)

Rav Wolbe felt that there are four basic areas aside from the regular Gemara curriculum of the yeshiva that the yeshiva student should master:
He must know the Halakha (Jewish law) that affects him through the Mishnah Berurah.
He should know Chumash with the commentaries of Rashi and Ramban as a basis for one’s hashkafah.
He should know Pirkei Avos with the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah (a cousin of Nachmanides) as a basic primer in acceptable character traits (midos).
He should know Mesillat Yesharim (by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) which he calls “the ultimate compendium dictionary for midos.” It must constantly be delved into.

(above from Wikipedia)

In the Sefer Rav Wolbe on Chumash, Parshas Chukas, published in 2014, he says:

“Although one must adhere to every halachah, a person should be wary of stringencies. If abiding by a stringency will cause him to become conceited about his high level of spirituality, then he is better of without it. It was because Bnei Yisrael were on such a high spiritual level – they merited having Hashem’s Shechinah reside in their midst – that they became haughty and subsequently sinned.”

The Ramban and Rambam on Korbanos

Here is an excerpt from and article By Rav David Silverberg on the Rambam and Korbanos.
Read the whole thing here.

The Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat Vayikra (1:9), famously cites and rejects the Rambam’s approach to the underlying reason behind the institution of korbanot (sacrifices). In the passage from the “Moreh Nevukhim” (3:46) paraphrased by the Ramban, the Rambam claims that God ordered that we bring sheep, cattle and goats as sacrifices because various pagan cultures in the ancient world worshipped these animals. We demonstrate our firm rejection of these beliefs by sacrificing these alleged deities to the one, true God. Earlier in the Moreh (3:32), the Rambam writes that God found it necessary to demand a sacrificial order because animal sacrifice had become the universally accepted mode of religious worship in the pagan world. Benei Yisrael could not have been realistically expected to accept a religious system that did not feature sacrificial offerings. It was in response to this need that God established the order of sacrifices outlined by the Torah here in Parashat Vayikra.

The Ramban sharply criticizes the Rambam’s comments and raises several objections against his theory. We will focus on his initial remarks after he paraphrases the Rambam’s stance: “These are nonsensical words, which offer healing offhand for a great wound and considerable difficulty.” This phrase – “offer healing offhand for a great wound” – is borrowed from a verse in Sefer Yirmiyahu (6:14), in which Yirmiyahu cites the Almighty’s condemnation of the false prophets who opposed Yirmiyahu. We cite here the relevant verse in context: “For from the smallest to the greatest, they are all greedy for gain; priest and prophet alike, they all act falsely. They offer healing offhand for the wounds of My people, saying, ‘All is well, all is well,’ when nothing is well.”

The late Professor Nechama Leibowitz a”h observed that the context of this verse may very well shed light on the Ramban’s specific claim in this passage. In the vast majority of his prophecies, Yirmiyahu conveyed to the people a message they were not interested in hearing – predictions of catastrophe and doom, and the need for a fundamental change in conduct and values to avoid the impending disaster. The false prophets, by contrast, eager to win the people’s favor, presented a far more pleasant prognosis: “All is well, all is well.” They eased the masses’ conscience by assuring them that God is on their side, that they need merely to continue along their current path and remain confident in God’s imminent salvation. In this manner, they “offered healing offhand for the wounds of My people.” They cavalierly dismissed the looming threat, insisting that in truth there is nothing to fear and no reason for any substantive change of lifestyle.

With this in mind, Professor Leibowitz suggested, we can understand the Ramban’s castigation of the Rambam’s theory. He felt that this approach all too conveniently absolves us from delving into the depths of the sacrificial system to uncover its true meaning and spiritual significance. The Rambam here allowed us to write off this entire institution as a phenomenon necessitated by an unfortunate circumstance, thereby obviating the need to search for any further meaning. A proper understanding of this critical topic, the Ramban insisted, requires thorough study and inquiry; in his mind, the Rambam’s speculative theory hardly suffices.

Of course, we may reasonably presume that the Rambam did not postulate this theory out of intellectual laziness, but rather because he honestly believed this to be the factor that prompted the Almighty to include in the Torah a system of korbanot. We may also assume that the Ramban here does not actually accuse the Rambam of laziness, or to equate him with the false prophets of the First Temple era. Rather, the Ramban was troubled by the fact that the Rambam’s approach effectively rendered meaningless any serious analysis of the korbanot. Indeed, later in his commentary, the Ramban writes that the concept of korbanot involved a “sod gadol” –– profound Kabbalistic meaning. He therefore objected to the Rambam’s theory, according to which we have no reason to attribute any deeper meaning to the system of korbanot.

Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

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

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

— Shemos 17:13

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

— Shemos 18:1,5

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

— Rashi ibid

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

 — Shemos 18:11

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

— Rashi ibid

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

— Devarim 12;2

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

— Yirmiyahu 11:13

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

— Yirmiyahu 2:20

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

— Mishlei 14:15

Strike the scorner, and the naïf grows shrewd. 

— Mishlei 19:25

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

 — Shemos Rabbah Yisro 27

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

— Shemos 20:2

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

— BeMidbar 24:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read more Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

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.

Read more Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence

Deep Into Darkness Peering, See the Light of the Intermediary Disappearing

This weeks installment is dedicated l’iluy nishmas Gitel Leah a”h  bas Menachem Mendel Hy”dMrs. Lidia Schwartz nee’ Zunschein whose yuhrzeit is this week.

Did the plague of darkness cross the boundaries of Goshen?
Why is the plague of darkness the only one in which the Torah reveals that the opposite was happening to the Israelites?

Moshe lifted his hand towards the sky and there was obscuring darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another nor could anyone rise from beneath [the palpable, immobilizing darkness] for [another] three days. However, there was light for all of the Bnei Yisrael in their dwellings.

—  Shemos 10:22,23

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the HaShem shines upon you. For, behold, darkness covers the earth and dark thick clouds [covers] the peoples; but upon you HaShem will shine, and His glory will be seen upon you. Nations will walk by your light and kings [will march] by the radiance of your shine.

— Yeshaya 60:1-3

No longer will the sun provide you with daylight and radiance, nor will the moon illuminate [the night for you]; but HaShem will be an everlasting light for you, and your Elokim will be your brilliance.

— Yeshaya Ibid:19

Even the darkness is not too dark for You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness is as the light.

—  Tehillim 139:12

HaShem will plague Egypt, plaguing and healing …

— Yeshaya 19:22

“Plaguing” the Egyptians and “healing” the Bnei Yisrael-the Children of Israel.

— Zohar commenting on the above pasuk

As in the days of your exodus from land of Egypt I will display miraculous things.

—  Michah 7:15

Rabi Yehudah combined and split up the makkos-plagues of Egypt; into simanim– mnemonics: Dtzac”h, Adas”h, B’acha”v

—  Haggadah shel Pesach

The Midrash says that wherever a Jew would sit down things would become illuminated for him. Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains that the Midrash deduces this from the difference in the Torahs description of the Bnei Yisrael being unaffected by makkas choshech– the plague of darkness; compared to the makkas barad-plague and hail.  When describing the plague of hail the Torah writes: “It was only in the Goshen where Bnei Yisrael were, that there was no barad” (Shemos 9:26). If makkas choshech had been identical to makkas barad what we should have had was a pasuk reading something along the lines of “No darkness dimmed the land of Goshen” or “there was abundant light throughout the boundaries of the Bnei Yisrael.” Instead the pasuk emphasizes the dwellings of the Bnei Yisrael rather than a particular area on the map of Egypt.

In fact, darkness lay on the land uniformly and respected no boundaries.  Darkness fell into pharaoh’s palace and land of Goshen equally.  The dichotomy between the Egyptian and the Israelite experience during this plague was not geographically rooted.  Instead, it derived from the difference between the Israelite an Egyptian soul. As the Jewish soul cleaves to HaShem, the dynamic that allowed the Bnei Yisrael to be untouched by this plague was that the Ohr Ein Sof Baruch Hu-the Light of the Endless One – Blessed is He [alternatively the Endless Light– Blessed is He]; was with them and, perhaps, diffusing through them.

While we’re all very familiar with the simanim of the Haggadah: Dtzac”h, Adas”h, B’acha”v , dividing the 10 plagues of Egypt into two sets of three followed by a final set of four, Rav Leibeleh Eiger introduces another way of categorizing the plagues.  He asserts that only during the first nine of the plagues, of which darkness is the final one, did the Egyptians have the opportunity of exercising their free will to liberate the Bnei Yisrael and dismiss them from the land.  The final plague, makkas bechoros-the smiting of the firstborn; forced their hands.  At that point they had they no longer had any choice in the matter.  Viewed in this way the makkos are divided into 9+1.  Makkas chosech was the final plague while makkas bechoros was something qualitatively different altogether.  As such, makkas chosech was the beginning of geulah-redemption; of the Bnei Yisrael from the Egyptian exile.  As darkness engulfed the land the salvation began.

In Jewish eschatology one of the hallmarks of the ultimate Geulah at the end-of-days, is that the presence of G-d will be palpable and manifest and that all powerless idols and false ideologies will be exposed for the obscuring mirages they are. Their smoke —their pollution — will blow away, scattered by the fresh winds of truth.  The Geulah will be a kind of cosmic reboot where everything is reset and recalibrated to the Manufacturer’s factory settings.  In order to get a glimpse of the ultimate Geulah it is instructive to study the sources describing how these “factory settings” where first fiddled with and misaligned.

Read more Deep Into Darkness Peering, See the Light of the Intermediary Disappearing

In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

Pharaoh asked Moshe to pray to end the plagues in a particular way. Why didn’t he?
Various plagues were wrought by HaShem, Moshe and Ahron.  Why was barad, in particular, brought about by Moshe?

“Try and test me” Moshe replied. “At precisely what time shall I pray אעתיר for you, your servants and your people … ridding you and your homes of the frogs so that they will only remain in the canal [i.e. the Nile]?”

— Shemos 8:5

Moshe and Ahron left the Pharaoh. Moshe cried out ויצעק to HaShem concerning the frogs that He’d brought upon the Pharaoh

— Shemos 8:8

Moshe replied “Behold I am leaving your presence. Tomorrow I will pray  אעתיר to HaShem, the mixed wild beasts will go away from the Pharaoh,  his servants and his people … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and prayed ויעתר   to HaShem.

— Shemos 8:25,26

[The Pharaoh asked them] “pray העתירו to Hashem. There’s been too much of this Elokim-induced thunder and hail. I will send you/ your nation away; you will not have to stay.” … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and exited the city. As soon as he spread his palms up ויפרוש כפיו to HaShem the thunder and din ceased and the hail and rain no longer fell to the ground.

— Shemos 9:28,33

There are six things which HaShem hates, seven which His Soul abominates: 1. stuck-up eyes, 2. a lying tongue, 3. and hands that shed innocent blood; 4. A heart that works out malicious thoughts, 5. feet that are quick in running to evil; 6. A false witness who exhales lies, 7. and one who causes conflict among brothers.

— Mishlei 6:16-19

Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say … One whose deeds surpass his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom surpasses his deeds, his wisdom does not endure.

— Pirkei Avos 3:9

There are 10 different expressions [in Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue;] for prayer …

— Sifri on Devarim 3:23

In an abstract way we are aware of the Chazal that teaches that there are 10 near-synonymous expressions in Lashon Kodesh to describe humans communicating with HaShem. On a theoretical level we are also cognizant of the fact that diverse words carry assorted shades of meaning and that, as such, there must be 10 different ways to pray, 10 distinct media for prayer.

Yet, we are accustomed to congregational prayer during which everyone must be on the same page, both figuratively and literally. We also pray using a liturgy fixed by the anshei k’nesses hagedolah-the men of the great assembly; with later accretions canonized by tradition. And so on a practical level for us there is only one way to pray.  Gradations in the quality of our prayer vary according to levels of ones understanding of the liturgy and ones sincerity and depth of kavvanah-directing his heart and attention towards G-d. To us, the notion that varying circumstances require a different substance or even style of prayer seems utterly foreign.

In Parshas VaEra the Izhbitzer school teaches that the style and substance of prayer must react and respond to the particular needs being addressed and to the root causes of the distress that one is praying to resolve. Just as no two crises are exactly alike so too no two prayers can be clones of one another.

In each of the makkos-plagues; of frogs, mixed wild-beasts and hail we find the Pharaoh of Egypt beseeching Moshe to pray for the cessation of the makkah.  The Pharaoh is consistent. Every time he requests Divine intercession of Moshe he employs a conjugation of the word עתירה atirah-pleading. Yet only in requesting the end of the makkah of the arov– mixed wild-beasts; does Moshe actually plead with HaShem. In order to get the frogs back into the Nile Moshe employs tzeakah-shouting or screaming;  and to stop the makkah of barad-hail composed of fire and ice; Moshe prays with perishas kapayim-spreading his palms outwards and upwards.  The second Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Bais Yaakov, offers insight into the three crises and why the three different prayers were appropriate for each one.

Observing that both the makkos of tzefardea-frogs; and arov were incursions of wild animals into human habitats, the Bais Yaakov asserts that all creatures, both domesticated and wild, yearn for the proximity of human beings for they have a deep-seated, instinctive consciousness that their own actualization and fulfillment can only be brought about by human beings.  But for the vast majority of baalei chaim-animals; hobnobbing with human beings is not the proper means through which man might perfect and fulfill them. Among the Creator’s creatures Man alone is endowed with free-will and thus, with the capacity to exercise free-will to serve G-d.  These acts of avodah-serving HaShem; distinguish man from beast and are what drive away undomesticated animals from human habitats. The power inherent in various types of avodah is what make the different baalei chaim maintain their distance.

The croaking frogs and toads are distinguished by their ability to give voice to wordless cries, groans and screams. They have voices, but their voices cannot inform words.  Correspondingly, the type of prayer-based avodah that keeps frogs separate and distinct from human society is human tzeakah which is similarly inarticulate and wordless. When tzeakah is wielded by a human being it is a non-verbal, yet voice-based, form of communication.  This is why, when the time came to end the makkah of tzefardea, Moshe prayed with tzeakah.

Read more In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Why was Yehudahs approach to saving Yoseph so different from that of Reuvens?
Why do the sages condemn those who find merit in Yehudahs tactics?

Reuven heard these words [the brothers’ plot to murder Yoseph] and tried to rescue him saying “Let’s not kill him.” And he said to them “Don’t commit bloodshed … “

— Bereishis 37:21,22

Don’t spill the blood of an innocent man

— Targum Yonasan ben Uziel ibid

Reuven responded and said “ didn’t I tell you not to commit a sin against the lad [Yoseph]? but you didn’t listen. Now a Divine accounting is being demanded for his blood”

— Bereishis 42:22

And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?”

— Bereishis 37:26

And the greedy one desirous of gain [ובוצע ברך] blesses himself … in having infuriated HaShem

— Tehillim 10:4

Rabi Meir says: This passuk  [ובוצע ברך] refers to none other than Yehudah, for it is written, And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” So all who praise/bless Yehudah, the botzeia; infuriate [HaShem] …

— Sanhedrin 6B

There was a small city, with only a few inhabitants; and a great king came against it, surrounded it, and built great siege-works against it.  A poor wise man was present in the city who, by his wisdom, liberated the city; yet no one remembered that poor man.

— Koheles 9:14,15

[The above passage is interpreted as referring to the milchemes hayetzer-man’s internal moral battle to exercise his free will properly. The “great king” refers to the yetzer hara-inclination to evil; while the “poor-wise” man represents the yetzer tov-inclination to good. The Gemara comments:] “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.”

— Nedarim 32B

Rabi Yehudah quoting Rav said  “One should always busy himself with Torah [study] and Mitzvah [performance] even if he does so for ulterior motives for the result will eventually be that, from within the ulterior motives, he will [develop to] attain the level of [Torah study and Mitzvah performance] for its own sake.

— Nazir 23B

Both Reuven and Yehudah tried to dissuade their other brothers from harming Yoseph. But their diverse approaches are markedly different. Reuven is an ethicist exhorting the brothers to avoid sin and spilling the blood of innocents. Reuven appeals the better angels of their natures and argues, in effect, that virtue is its own reward and that they ought to do the right thing for its own sake. Yehudah is a pragmatist.  His tactic to get the brothers to drop their murderous plan is “What’s in it for us? What do we stand to gain either monetarily (Rashi’s interpretation) or in terms of our fathers affection?”  There is no trace of a moral or halachic argument in Yeudah’s words.

The Izhbitzer explains that Yehudah based his approach on the psycho-spiritual dynamic revealed by the Gemara-Talmud; that “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.” When the Divine Will chooses to test us It causes us to completely forget the severity of the prohibition and to put the moral repugnance of the sin out of our minds. HaShem designed the mechanism of bechirah chofshis-human free-will; to function such that, in the heat of the nisayon-test; when the yetzer hara asserts itself, none can even remember the yetzer tov. While enmeshed in the ethical challenge to reject evil and embrace good, exhortations for moral and ethical behavior, to do the right thing for its own sake, will fall on deaf ears.  The time for understanding  and internalizing the lessons of the superiority of good over evil and that virtue is its own reward is pre-need. In the heat of the moment of trial the inclination to do good is nowhere to be found.

It is at times like these when the most efficient tool against embracing evil, abusing our bechirah chofshis, is to appeal to pragmatic considerations and ulterior motives. The Izhbitzer maintains that Yehudah was a down-to-earth “man of the world” well acquainted with hardheaded realities and that he recognized that the brothers were in the very thick of a great nisayon. There internal voices of conscience and morality had been silenced and he understood that any appeals based on morality and ethics emanating from him would be similarly ignored.  And so he forwarded the מה בצע –what’s in it for us?  What will we gain?; argument. Even when the yetzer hara holds sway people “remember” such practical considerations and, if compelling enough, they can dissuade would-be-sinners from doing evil or, at least, affect some damage-control and diminish the intensity of the sin.

The brothers were in the midst of a great nisayon, their collective memory loss of their yetzer tovs was so great that they were convinced that the murder that they sought to do was justified and was, in fact, the moral and ethical thing to do.  Many meforshim-commentaries take the approach that the brothers convened as a Sanhedrin and ruled that Halachah demanded that Yoseph  be put to death.  The Sforno (37:25) opines that they had ruled Yoseph to be a rodeiph-a “chaser” with homicidal intentions. In such cases anyone may kill the rodeiph to save the life of the would-be murder victim. While the Izhbitzer asserts that the brothers ruled that Yoseph, trying to drive a wedge between them and their father was amounted to sundering the unity of HaShem. In so doing Yoseph had committed a capital offense akin to idolatry.

Read more The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Parsha Vayetzei and Thanksgiving

From Sara Yoheved Rigler – Beyond Just Desserts: A Recipe of Thanksgiving:

JUST DESSERTS

Ten years later I was learning Torah in Jerusalem. The Rabbi was explaining why the matriarch Leah named her fourth son Yehuda, a name derived from the word “to thank.” Since the moniker “Jew” derives from the name “Yehuda,” thanking is somehow integral to being Jewish.

But why did Leah wait until her fourth child to use this name? Wasn’t she more grateful for her first child than her fourth?

Gratitude is a function not of how much we have, but rather of how much we have relative to how much we feel we deserve.

The Rabbi, citing classical commentators, explained that Jacob’s four wives knew prophetically that they would give birth to the twelve sons who would become the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Since there were four wives, each one expected to give birth to three sons.

When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she felt that she had received more than her fair share. So she named him Yehuda, saying, “This time I will thank God.”

This teaches us something essential about gratitude. Gratitude is a function not of how much we have, but rather of how much we have relative to how much we feel we deserve.

When you have worked hard at your job, you usually do not feel flooded with gratitude when you pick up your paycheck. Even a holiday bonus may come to be expected as your just desserts and not elicit a great surge of gratitude – unless it is a far bigger sum than you feel you deserve.

The opposite of gratitude is a feeling of entitlement. The attitude of “I deserve it” turns every gift into a paycheck.

……

A RECIPE FOR GRATITUDE

Here, then, are the 4 steps to gratitude:

1. Recognize the good that you possess.
2. Acknowledge that it is a gift, not something you deserve.
3. Identify the source of the gift, whether God or a human being.
4. Express your thanks.

The Pilgrims of the first Thanksgiving obviously traversed these four steps. They were grateful not for their high standard of living, but simply that they had survived their first winter in the New World. Deeply religious people, they felt gratitude to God. The first Thanksgiving feast was their way of expressing that gratitude to God.

According to Judaism, gratitude is the basis of everything: faith, joy, awe, and love of God. Only when we recognize how much God has given us and how little we deserve it, can we come to a place of faith and love.

Little wonder that a Jew is supposed to start every day with an expression of thankfulness for life itself, the recitation of the modeh ani.

———————

What better way to show gratitude to Hashem then by using some of our free time to learn Torah. Here’s Rabbi Rietti’s outline of Vayetzei. You can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash here.

Vayetze
# 28 Yaakov’s Dream
# 29 Yaakov Marries 4 Wives
# 30 Birth of Tribes & Yosef
# 31 Yaakov Flees from Lavan
# 32 Yaakov Enters Erets Yisrael

# 28 Yaakov’s Dream
* Yaakov goes to Haran
* Dream – Ladder
* Yaakov Builds an Altar
* Yaakov’s Promise

# 29 Yaakov Marries 4 Wives
* Yaakov removes stone from well
* Yaakov Marries Leah and Rachel
* Leah childs: Reuven-Shimon-Levi-Yehuda

# 30 Birth of Tribes & Yosef
* Yaakov angry with Rachel
* Bilha childs: Dan-Naftali
* Zilpa childs: Gad-Asher
* Doodayim
* Leah childs: Yisachar-Zevulun-Dina
* Rachel childs Yosef
* Yaakov wants to leave
* The Maklot
* Yaakov’s vast wealth

# 31 Yaakov Flees from Lavan
* HaShem tells Yaakov to return to the land of his fathers
* Yaakov confers with Rachel and Leah in the field
* Yaakov escapes
* Rachel stole Lavan’s idols
* Lavan in hot pursuit
* HaShem warns Lavan not to harm Yaakov
* Lavan rebukes Yaakov
* Yaakov’s response
* Lavan “everything you have is mine!”
* Treaty of Gal Eid between Yaakov and Lavan

# 32 Yaakov Enters Erets Yisrael
* Lavan returns home
* Yaakov enters Eretz Yisrael

Kindness, Cruelty and the Akeida

A few looks at the Akeida.

Rabbi Ari Kahn on “The Binding”


If the test for Abraham was to perform an act which was against his natural kindness, he surely passed with flying colors. But what about Isaac? If his personality is identified with justice, perhaps his test was in coming down the mountain, joining the rest of the world, and relating to God through the attribute of kindness. Did Isaac succeed in his test?

Rabbi Noson Weisz on “Its a Cruel World Out There”


Why was God interested in developing such a wide cruel streak in the character of his chosen one, Abraham, by giving him such inhumane tests? Isn’t the cruelty and intense ruthlessness required to succeed at these tests absolutely abhorrent in the eyes of God? What is the qualitative difference in being able to follow such Divine instructions and blowing up the Twin Towers and annihilating thousands of innocent lives instantly all for the greater glory of God?

The answer lies in understanding the concept of serving God with your evil inclination.

Rabbi Herschel Reichman on “Avraham – Combination of Din and Chessed”


Avraham, the founder of the Jewish people epitomized chesed. Yet Hashem wanted him to develop din so that he could become a complete person. Therefore He tested him with akeidat Yitzchak, a seeming act of the highest cruelty. But Avraham responded with alacrity and incredible willingness to do Hashem’s will. His love for his Maker was so deep that he succeeded in bridging chesed and din in the ultimate way. This is why the Midrash says “Vayavo Avraham,” He came from the akeida, an act of din, but he was able to make a spiritual shift to chesed and bury Sarah. So too, although he was light years away ideologically from Terach he made the long trip to bury his father because he felt that the din of Kibud av demanded that. Then he returned to the chesed of accompanying Sarah to her final resting place.

Only G-d Can Make an Identity

What is the true definition of Identity?

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

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

— 13th Article of Faith per Maimonides

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

 — Bereishis 12:2

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

— BeMidbar Rabbah-Nasso 11:4

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

— Avodah Zarah 10B

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

— Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer

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

— Koheles 7:29

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

— Zohar Beshalach page 54A

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

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayigash 8

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

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

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

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

Read more Only G-d Can Make an Identity

The Deluge of Youth

What do mankinds greatest and worst generations have to do with one another?
“The Fountain of Youth” … why has mankind been searching for it from time immemorial?

And HaShem said: “My Spirit shall not keep on judging man forever, for he is nothing but flesh.  His days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

— Bereshis 6:3

I will be slow to anger for 120 years. If they do not repent I will bring the Flood upon them.

— Rashi ibid

Where is Moshe alluded to in the Torah? — In the verse: “For he is nothing but flesh” [the gimatriya-numerical value; of the Hebrew words משה –“Moshe” and בשגם  – “For (he) is nothing but” are equivalent. Moshe lived exactly 120 years]

— Chulin 139BR

Go [My prophet] and call into the ears of Jerusalem, declaring: HaShem says as follows: For you[r sake] I will remember the affection of your youth, the love of your nuptials; how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an uncultivated land.

— Yirmiyahu 2:2

Remember, HaShem, Your compassion and Your loving-kindnesses; for they began before time. Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions …

— Tehillim 25:6,7

Who Satiates your old age with good; so that your youth will be renewed like the eagle.

— Tehillim 103:5

 

Youth is an uncanny time in our lives.  While imprisoned within it we want nothing more than to escape it. Once we have escaped it we spend the balance of our lives yearning wistfully and futilely to return to it. By turns we long for the carefree times, irresponsibility, limitless possibilities, direction-changing impressions, dependence
on-others, physical attractiveness, good health, idealism and the simplicity of time when we were young.  From ancient and 16th century legends of Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth to the contemporary multibillion dollar cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; vast swaths of mankind have never ceased looking for ways and means of recapturing youth.

Most of all we long for the sheer vitality, power and strength that marks our early lives.  When we were young we had the speed, strength, stamina, mental acuity, inquisitiveness, reckless courage and optimism to accomplish great and meaningful things.  Many used their youthful, robust powers for good. However, lacking the skill and wisdom of age and experience; youth is also characterized by catastrophic mistakes, crimes and misdemeanors. Accelerating at youthful takeoff velocity, the young often take forks in life’s road that make U-turns impossible. The lion’s share of crimes is committed by the young.  Maturity and old-age are marked not only by longing for the restoration of youthful energy, but by remorse and regret over youthful indiscretions and catastrophic misdeeds.

Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, teaches that this is not merely true of individuals but for mankind as a whole. In its youth mankind was capable of great virtue and good — chessed neurim-the lovingkindness of youth; and of incredible transgression and evil — chatas neurim-the sins of youth.

Read more The Deluge of Youth

Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the Year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos. When all of Israel comes to appear before HaShem your Elokim in the place that he shall choose, you must read this Torah before all of Israel so that it is heard by their ears.  You must assemble the Nation; men, women, children and converts who dwell within your gates and let them hear it …

Devarim 31:10-12

When they are a third grown by the end of the seventh year [then] produce and olives that ripen in the eighth year {i.e. the first year of the new seven-year cycle} have the halachic status of produce and olives of the Sabbatical “Year of Letting-Go ”] What is the source this rule? — Rabi Assi said in the name of Rabi Yochanan (some trace it back to the name of Rabi Yohsee the Galilean): The pasuk states: “At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos..” Why should the [seventh] year of Letting-Go to be mentioned here? When the festival of Sukkos is celebrated [coming as it does after Rosh Hashanah] it is already the eighth year? It is into teach us that if produce has grown one third in the seventh year before New Year, the rules of the seventh year are to be applied to it even in the eighth year.

— Rosh Hashanah 12B

The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam

— Tehillim 115:16

 Whatever HaShem wills He has done, in heaven and in earth, in the oceans and in all the depths.

— Tehillim 135:6

 A Pruning Song of David.  The earth and it’s fullness [belongs] to HaShem; the world, and its inhabitants.

— Tehillim 24:1/daily psalm of Sunday

 

Rabi Akiva would say … All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. 

— Pirkei Avos 3:15

Rosh Hashanah is often mistranslated as “the New Year” and while it is the moed-festival that comprises the first days of a new calendar year the more precise translation is “Year’s Head.” The difference may seem inconsequential and hair-splitting at first glance but takes on greater significance when considering the obverse. Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

While this quandary is of primarily semantical interest every year, it is of particular interest when contemplating the impending year, 5775, the seventh year of the seven year cycle endowed with sabbatical and debt absolving properties. Per the halachah the cessation of agricultural activities indicative of the shevi’is-sabbatical; nature of the year begins when the year does; whereas the absolution of debts, reflecting the shemitah-“Letting-Go”; nature of the year begins when the year ends (Rambam: Laws of Release and Jubilee years 4:9). The Izhbitzer adds an insight into the essence of this extraordinary year that expands the years parameters beyond its “tail” terminus and that should have us thinking about it differently beginning from its “head.”

Man perpetually oscillates between G-d-reliance and self-reliance. The reality is that Divine Providence and Omnipotence is absolute and all encompassing as Rabi Akiva taught “All is foreseen.” Nevertheless the mysterious, Divinely granted autonomy of human beings; “yet freedom of choice is granted” seems to carve out a space for human self-reliance and self-determination and echoes the formulation of David the king that “The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam” i.e. that man was granted limited autonomy in terms of making moral and ethical choices, selections and refining in serving G-d.

Read more Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

Why does Mikra Bikurim-the declaration accompanying the bringing of the first fruits/produce begin with a review of the Egyptian exile and exodus? In particular, why is there an emphasis on the population explosion during the Egyptian exile? Why do these pesukim-verses; serve as the opening of the maggid section of Pesach evening Haggadah-telling? Is there a common denominator between the two?

And then you shall respond and say before HaShem your Elokim: “my patriarch was a wandering Aramean. He descended into Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an émigré; yet it was there that he became a great, powerful, and heavily populated nation.

Devarim 26:5

 … This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.

Devarim 8:3

According to the Jewish mystical tradition all of creation is divided into four tiers domem –silent (inert); tzomeach-sprouting (botanic life); chai-animate (animal life); medaber-speech-endowed life (human beings). Each tier of creation ascends to higher tiers through an upwardly mobile food-chain by nourishing, and thus being incorporated into, the level directly above it until, ultimately, it is assimilated into the human being, the creature that can face and serve the Creator. Minerals nourish plants and are absorbed through the roots buried in the soil and through photosynthesis. Plants are eaten by herbivorous animals providing nutrients for the animals’ sustenance and growth. Animals are ingested by carnivorous humans supplying the calories, vitamins and minerals human beings need to live and flourish.

This upwardly mobile food-chain has a spiritual dimension as well.

Man is more than highly developed biological machine that expires when enough of the moving parts wear down.  Man is endowed with a cheilek elokai mima’al-a spark of the Divine; and it is the union of soul and body that defines human life. Superficially the external symptoms of death may appear to be too many of the moving parts breaking down; in truth human death occurs as a result of the dissolution of the marriage between body and soul. This begs the question: If there is a spiritual element inherent in human beings what is it that nourishes the soul?  Eating food is often described as “keeping body and soul together” but how is this accomplished?

The Rebbe Reb Chaim Chernovitzer cites a teaching of the Arizal in response. Our sages teach us that even the smallest blade of  grass here below has a guardian angel on High that “bangs it on the head and exhorts it to grow”(Bereishis Rabbah 10:6). In other words, even the lowest tiers of creation have a spiritual element that animates them, lending them existence, form and substance.  In the case of grass, being a plant, a tzomeach-that which sprouts and grows; the grass’ “soul” demands growth. Presumably for animals the soul would demand and promote movement and vitality and for soil and all inert creatures the soul would demand and promote silence and stillness. Such that all food substances are also composed of both a body and a soul, albeit inferior to the human body and soul both physically and spiritually. The manifest, visible food is the “body” of the food, while the sacred emanation from on High exhorting it “to be” and not revert to nonexistence lending it form and substance is the foods “soul”.  When absorbed or ingested the physical element of the food nourishes the consumer’s material component while the “soul” of the food, i.e. its spiritual element, nourishes the consumer’s spiritual dimension.

This is the meaning of the pasuk “that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.” The motza pi HaShem-that which emanates from HaShems mouth; refers to the Divine Will that this thing/ foodstuff exist. It is the motza pi HaShem lending tzurah-form; and spirituality that is indispensable for human beings to live, not the corporeal, apparent bread alone.

 

Read more The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

Why is the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei offensive while the one mentioned in Behaaloscha defensive?
Why is victory guaranteed in the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei ?

 And when war will come in your land against the tormenter that puts pressure on you, you shall sound a staccato on the trumpets. Then HaShem your Elokim will remember you and will save you from your adversaries.

BeMidbar 10:9

When you set out to wage war against your adversaries HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them such that you will capture [his] prisoners.

Devarim 21:10                                                                                                                         

In the day of good be absorbed of good, and in the day of evil observe; for Elokim has made one parallel the other.

Koheles 7:14

And the two of them were naked, the Adam and his wife, but they felt no shame.

Bereshis 2:25

 Prior to the sin they were purely good and they related to “the face below” as they did [and still do] to “the face above” [i.e. as there is no shame in eating, hearing, smelling or seeing or in the organs that are the channels of these senses so too there was no shame in reproduction or the organs of reproduction]. For the component of evil that became incorporated in human beings is what differentiates between the two “faces”.  It is in the lower portion of the human gestalt where evil acquired an abode. By way of proof observe: The sign of the holy covenant is surrounded by a husk, the foreskin, which HaShem commanded to excise for it is there that shidah rested [see Yeshayahu 34:14].

— Ohr HaChaim ibid

There are several marked differences between the two pesukim-verses; describing the wars of the Bnei Yisrael– the Nation of Israel.  The pasuk in BeMidbar describes a defensive war, a war that “will come” to you while the pasuk at the beginning of our sidrah-weekly Torah reading; speaks of an offensive, aggressive war: “When you set out to wage war”.  While rescue and living to fight another day is promised in the former pasuk, victory over the opponent is guaranteed only in the latter pasuk.

When weighing the decision of whether or not to wage war there are a myriad of factors that require consideration. The first among them is if the projected war or fight is winnable. No individual, nation, tribe or even terrorist entity launches a fight or a war that they know that they can’t win.  While combatants may be prepared to lose many rounds or battles and to clash for years and even decades; no one sets out to lose the war.

That said few war decision-makers are 100% certain of their ultimate victory. Military history is replete with many “David vs. Goliath” upset victories. Hubris, megalomania, underestimation of the enemy, bad intelligence, poor diplomacy and a host of other uncontrollable factors may delude combatants into thinking that their victory is assured. Still, most rational military men understand that it takes more than valor or superior technology and manpower to win a war.  They understand that they must remain ever vigilant, persistent and brave because; “it ain’t over till it’s over”.

This is what makes the opening of our sidrah so odd. The prophecies of war should have been stated conditionally; “When you set out to wage war against your adversaries IF HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them and if you will capture [his] prisoners.” In point of historical fact the Bnei Yisrael were not victorious in every war nor did they always capture prisoners. Why then does the pasuk guarantee victory?

Understanding that all of the wars of Bnei Yisrael are not merely physical and geopolitical but metaphysical and spiritual and that, when applied to the microcosm of individual Jews, they translate into milchemes hayeitzer-the war against our inclinations to evil;  Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains the distinctiveness of the war described at the beginning of our sidrah allegorically.

Imagine a great warrior king whose crown prince is his only son. While the king wants the prince to achieve the glory and honor that only military victory can accord, he is unwilling to actually risk his only, irreplaceable son’s battlefield defeat and death. And so the king, aware of the tactics, strategy and covert intelligence reports, waits until “the fix is in” and does not dispatch the crown prince to wage a war until and unless he, the king, knows that victory is not only probable — but a foregone conclusion. Military observers, combatants and reporters following the war may imagine it to be a closely contested competition — but the king knows better.

Read more Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on The Mistaken Rejection of Torah Leaders

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in Darash Moshe comments on the mistakes of those who reject Torah leaders:

Korach’s argument, the entire congregation — all of them — are holy, and why do you exalt yourself over the congregation of Hashem, is the basic argument of those who reject the Torah leaders and think that they know the Torah as well as the gedolim, and they do not need a teacher or a leader.

Without the tradition from one of the great men of the generation, one can easily err, just as Korach erred in the laws of tzitzis and mezuzah, and just like the apostasy of Eleazar ben Po’irah, who maintained that the sefer Torah is lying in a corner, and whoever wishes to learn may come and learn (Kiddushin 66a).

The fallacy of this assertion is not only regarding the Written Torah,as the Sadducees maintained, when they denied the authenticity of the Oral Torah. One who believes that the Talmud and all the sefarim in the world are lying “in a corner,” and that anyone can learn from them without the direction and guidance of Torah authorities, is an apostate.

As is manifest, all kinds of apostates find support for their erroneous views in some Rabbinic maxim. This is because they misunderstand the meaning of the Rabbis. Even the generation of the desert, upon whom the Shechinah rested, for they had heard the first two commandments of the Decalogue, still required Moses and Aaron and all the sages of the generation.

An Ambidextrous Theology

Why is the Sotah’s case adjudicated through trial by watery potion?

Why do kohanim put their hands together when bestowing the priestly blessing?

He [the kohen] will then make the [suspected adulteress] woman drink the bitter curse-bearing waters and they will begin to take effect. ~BeMidbar 5:24

Speak to Ahron and his sons, saying: This is how you must bless the Bnei Yisrael-the Nation of Israel.  Say to them … ~BeMidbar 6:23

Your right Hand O HaShem is awe-inspiring in strength, Your right Hand O HaShem pounds the enemy … You stretched out Your right Hand the earth swallowed them. ~Shemos15:7,12  

Another interpretation (of the repetition of “Your right Hand) When the Bnei Yisrael perform the Will of G-d they transform the left into the right. But when they don’t, they transform the right to left as the pasuk (Eichah 2:3) says “He has drawn back His right Hand from before the enemy” ~Mechilta on Shirah Parshah 5

And he said: … I saw HaShem sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right Hand and on his Left. ~Melachim  I 22:19

Does G-d have a left Hand/Side? [How could this be] when the pasuk states “HaShem’s right hand is exalted; the right hand of HaShem performs valiantly.” (Tehillim 118:16) [implying that, kivyachol -as it were; there are two Divine right Hands but no left Hand at all]. Rather [the meaning is] those Angels that advocate for clemency and mercy are described as being on the Right while those angels that prosecute and demand retribution are described as being on the Left.  ~Rashi ibid

Rabi Shmuel bar Nachman said “Woe to the wicked who transform the right into left ….and the righteous who transform left to right are commendable ~Bereshis Rabbah 73:2

[Do not divert from the ruling of the Judges] either right or left: Even if this judge tells you that right is left, and that left is right [believe them]! ~Rashi to Devarim 17:10,11 from Sifri

For the vast majority of human beings (estimates range from 70-95% of the population) who are right-handed, their left hand is the weaker and less nimble of their two hands. This statistic is reflected in our traditional Theology. In Jewish thought the middah-Divine trait for administration of creation; of Chessed– lovingkindness; is identified with the right side/ arm while the middah of Gevurah-rigor/ justice- untempered-by-mercy/retribution; is identified with the left side/ arm.   This is because the middah of Chessed is relatively stronger, kivyachol-as it were; than the middah of GevurahChessed is, kivyachol, HaShem’s “original” intent and antedates His administration of His creation, it is the middah that informs His very Creative process itself.  In the words of the psalmist “For I have said: ‘For the olam– cosmos; is built through Chessed” (Tehillim 89:3)

Gevurah is sometimes viewed as Chessed’s handmaiden; meant to add traction and heft to Chessed. The principle of nahama d’kisufa-“the bread of shame”; teaches that were Gevurah not even a possibility then the unearned gifts of Chessed heaped upon the recipients would humiliate them.

Alternatively, Gevurah is deemed to be obstructed, frustrated Chessed. One great late-twentieth century thinker explained the relationship between the two middos allegorically. When one throws a ball in a certain direction the throwers expectation is that the ball will run its course in the same direction that he threw it.  If a sudden impediment, e.g. a wall, springs up in the balls path the ball will not merely fall to the ground, it will boomerang back in the opposite direction, but with less force and velocity.  Our own misdeeds (or sinful thoughts or words) are barriers to the Divine “plan A” kivyachol of bestowing favor and blessing. The frustrated, impeded Chessed that could not run its course and reach its target ricochets and manifests itself as Rigor and Retributive Justice.

The disciples of the Izhbitzer school taught that our sidrah provide examples of the right “becoming” left, i.e. of Chessed and Rachamim-mercy; becoming Gevurah and Din-justice and vice versa.

Read more An Ambidextrous Theology

Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

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

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

— Kidushin 30B

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

— Brachos 61A

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

—Tehillim 119:59

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

—Vayikra Rabbah 35:1

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

— Sefer Yetzirah 5:7

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

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

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

Read more Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

Time, Space and Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sifsei Chachamim ibid

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

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

Beauty may be Skin-Deep but Some Hideousness is to the Bone

Today, 29 Adar Sheini is the yuhrzeit-anniversarry of the death of the great Polish Chassidic Master Reb Shloimeleh Rabinowicz; zy”a, the first Radomsker Rebbe, as well as other tzadikim and talmidei chachamim-Torah sages. The following Devar Torah is adapted from his work on the Torah and Holidays, Tiferes Shlomo, and is dedicated l’iluy nishmas –for the ascent of the sou,l of

Mrs. Lottie B. Valberg who shares the same yuhrzeit by her grandson lhbc”c Mr. Simcha Valberg, sponsor of the weely Izhbitzer Torah.

אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים.

If a person (Adam) has a white blotch, discoloration or spot on the skin of his body and it [is suspected] of being a sign of the leprous curse on his skin; he should be brought to Ahron the Kohen or to one of his descendants; the kohanim…

—Vayikra 13:2

זֹאת תּוֹרַת, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶגַע צָרָעַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תַשִּׂיג יָדוֹ, בְּטָהֳרָתוֹ

This is the Torah governing he who has within him the leprous curse…

—Vayikra 14:32

Comparing and contrasting  these two pesukim we find that there are two distinct types of metzoroim; one whose tzaraas-leprous curse is superficial; no more than skin-deep and the other whose tzaraas is described as being “within him”; at the core of his being. Moreover the first type of metzora is described as being an adam, the word in lashon kodesh –Torah Hebrew, that connotes human-beings at their highest level.

Reb Shloimeleh Radomsker, echoing the Ramban, (Vayikra 13:46 D”H v’habeged) reiterates the concept that the entire spectrum of negaim –skin ailments that exude tumah-ritual impurity, and their purification has nothing to do with physical maladies nor are the kohanim mandated by the Torah to deal with negaim dermatologists.

Negaim are HaShems way of disciplining the afflicted person and affording him the opportunity to cast his sins aside and return to HaShem where he will find mercy and healing. Read more Beauty may be Skin-Deep but Some Hideousness is to the Bone

So Bad That it MUST be Good

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

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

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

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

—Vayikra 13:7,8

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

—Vayikra 13:12,13

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

 —Sanhedrin 17A

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

                                                                                                                                      —Bereshis Rabbah 85:8

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

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