Revisiting The Pesach Hotel Controversy

It started with this article by Rabbi Jonathon Rosenblum titled Five Star Pesach:
I will never forget an address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the topic “Living a Life of Ruchnios amidst Gashmius.” I had never before heard Rabbi Wachsman, and I practically jumped out of my seat when he thundered: This topic represents a fundamental mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. To the extent that a person is living in the world of gashmius he is removed from ruchnius!

I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, “What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?” I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list.

“Pesach in hotels,” turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend’s central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew’s life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the advertisements, he told me: “No gebrochts” right next to “24 hour tea bar;” “Daily daf hayomi” next to “Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids.”

Rabbi Horowitz had his own take on this in The Greatest Threat to Yiddishkeit:

My dear chaver and colleague Reb Yonoson Rosenblum (#204; Five-Star Pesach) describes how he “practically jumped out of his seat,” listening to Rabbi Wachsman “thunder” that there is “no ruchniyus amid gashmiyus.” Well, I practically jumped out of my seat when I read Reb Yonoson’s quote of a Rav who claimed that Pesach programs are “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today.”

I do not know which Rav he was referring to, but I will gladly forward my home phone calls and those of Project YES to that Rav for a month. After listening to the terrible and very real challenges that we face individually and communally for thirty days and sleepless nights, I dare say that he may reconsider his thoughts as to what “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit” is.

Rabbi Rosenblum continued with Pesach Hotels: A Second Look and Rabbi Horowitz published an opposing opinion in Rabbi Horowitz, I Beg to Differ.

Which leads to Azriella Jaffe’s take on the subject in a Yated letter to the Editor:

5/5/08
To: Letter to the Editor, Yated

I felt I needed to respond to the strongly worded sentiments of late that sounds something like: “I-would-never-go-to-a-hotel for Pesach! What is the frum world coming to, that Jews with money pay to escape the workload of preparing for Pesach, and thus, miss the entire spiritual meaning of the holiday?”

Until this Pesach, I was one of those who felt something between envy, disdain, and plenty of negative judgment towards the hotel-Pesach crowd. I’ve done a 180 degree turn, and I hope that Hashem will forgive me for my regrettable, previous inability to give benefit of the doubt. Allow me to explain.

I am an author and speaker on Jewish topics by profession, and I was contacted by the organizer of a Pesach hotel program with this offer: “If you’ll give over workshops/speeches for our attendees on the Shabbos and Yomim Tovim of Pesach, we’d love to have your family join us as well.” Now, I had a dilemma. This was a magnificent opportunity for a professional and family experience we would never have otherwise; how could I turn it down? But I was philosophically against the hotel scene, so what should I do? After consulting with my husband and my Rav, we agreed to give it a try this year. Not only were we all pleasantly surprised, I see the entire scene differently now.

What I didn’t realize until I met, and talked with, numerous guests, is that none of the guests in the hotel that I met were there because they are lazy. They are there with a story. A mother with cancer who can’t possibly make Pesach. A divorced father whose kids are with their mother for Pesach. A Bubbe in her late seventies who realizes that she can no longer handle 27 extended guests in her home for the Yomim Tovim, and they have the financial means to treat the family for a gathering at the hotel instead, so why not? Elderly couples whose married children are now making Sederim with their inlaws. Older singles who don’t want to be spending all of Pesach at relative’s homes who look with pity and disdain at their single status. Houses under renovation, Jews who had some kind of major nisayon this year, (or in some cases, two or three major nisyonos!) and they just “need a break.” Jews who find the shiurim and nightly entertainment particularly uplifting, and they realize that their spirits need an infusion of “spark.”

Yes, the food is delicious, and it’s superb not to have to wash a dish, or scrub the house down before Pesach. It certainly is a vacation. Yes, the Sederim are different when you aren’t in the privacy of your own home, and perhaps not ideal for some families. No question about it – there is truth to the concern that we mustn’t abandon our responsibility to pass along to our children how Pesach, (and all of its relevant mitzvos), is prepared in one’s own home. The hotel scene may not be necessary, appropriate or even enjoyable for many of us. But I urge all of us, as a community, to withhold judgment. I now understand that for many in our community, Pesach in a hotel does not substitute for a spiritual Pesach experience, but rather, it makes a kosher, meaningful Pesach possible.

Originally Published June 2, 2008

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

Defeating Self-Defeat

Why do people constantly sabotage themselves?
How does the scapegoat atone for the sins of Uza and Azael?

And Ahron [the Kohen Gadol-high priest] should place two lots on the two goats; one [marked] for HaShem and the other [marked] for Azazel

— Vayikra 16:8

And Ahron should press his two hands on the live goats head and confess all the sins of the Bnei Yisrael-Jewish people; on it, rebellious acts and unintentional offenses.  When, by doing so, he has placed them [all of these sins] on the goats head, he should send it into the desert with a man of the hour.

— Ibid 16:21

What would he [the man of the hour] do? He would take a crimson ribbon and tear it in two.  Half was tied to a sharp boulder while the other half was tied between the goat’s two horns.  He then pushed the goat backwards [over the peak] and it would roll down the mountain.  The goat was ripped limb from limb before it got halfway down the craggy mountain.

— Mishnah Yoma 6:6

The Rabbis taught: [why] “Azazel”?  That it should be strong and hard … the academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught [why] “Azazel”? for it atones for the deeds of Uza and Azael [two fallen angels].

—Yoma 67B

Rami bar Chama taught: the numerical values of the word Hasoton-the Satan; is 364. This implies that for 364 days of the year he has authorization to prosecute but that on [one of the year’s 365 days] Yom Kippur … he does not.

—Yoma 20A

Reish Lakish taught: The Satan-the prosecuting attorney on High; the Yetzer Hara-the inclination to evil; and the Malach Hamaves-the Angel of Death; are one and the same entity.

—Bava Basra 16A

It is odd and almost counterintuitive that man, allegedly the most highly evolved of all organisms, should have the weakest of all survival instincts.  From the cradle to the grave humans are capable of reckless behaviors that endanger lives and limbs.  Humanities self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways.  From subconscious acts of self-sabotaging predicated on the excessive fear of failure, to cuttings and other forms of self-inflicted mutilation; from anorexia to obsessive overeating; from rampant consumerism that spells ecological disaster to nuclear fueled geopolitics that continue to push the envelope towards assured mutual destruction.

The most striking expression of the inclination to self-destruct is found in individuals who commit suicide including the most faddish and trendy iterations of murdering oneself including physician-assisted suicide, cop-assisted suicide and murder-suicides characteristic of both domestic violence and terrorist bombings. All in all both individual humans and humanity as a whole seem hell-bent on self-destruction.

Whence this uniquely human drive to destroy ourselves?

The centerpiece avodah –Divine service; of Yom Kippur was the lottery of the two goats; one goat dedicated to HaShem whose blood was sprinkled in the inner sanctum while the other goat was designated as the sair laAzazel-the goat “dedicated” to Azazel; and was pushed off of a jagged cliff in the desert wilderness.  In the popular vernacular the goat that “lost” the lottery is commonly known as the scapegoat.  Many a proverbial quill has been broken in the commentaries attempts to explain such a puzzling avodah, especially on the holiest day of the year. The Ramban characterizes it as a bribe to the sitra achara-“the ‘other’ [dark] side”; while the Lubliner Kohen does not mince words and calls it an act of idolatrous worship that is, nevertheless, the Will of HaShem.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer Rebbe, offers a novel approach that recasts the sair laAzazel as the antidote for the human drive for self-destruction. But before presenting it I must introduce the foundation to unlocking the mystery of human self-destructiveness upon which the Bais Yaakov’s approach is based. It is a teaching found in the text and a hagahah-margin gloss; in Rav Chaim Volozhiners Nefesh Hachaim (pp.21, 23).

Read more Defeating Self-Defeat

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

And For an Offering … I Will Sacrifice My Soul

Vayikra 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

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When a man will bring near, from [among] you,( meekem) a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice           

–Vayikra 1: 2

When he brings. [The pasuk is not discussing an obligatory sacrifice, in which case it would have said, “a man shall bring ….” Rather,] the pasuk is speaking here of voluntary sacrifices [and thus says, “When a man …brings a sacrifice”]. — [Toras Kohanim 1:12]

from animals: but not all of them. [The phrase therefore] excludes the case of animals that have cohabited with a human, as an active or a passive partner. – [Toras Kohanim 1:17]

from cattle [The phrase] excludes an animal that has been worshipped [as a deity].

from the flock: [This phrase} excludes muktzah-an animal set aside [i.e., designated for sacrifice to pagan deities]. — [Toras Kohanim 1:18]

–Rashi ibid

Several sefarim from the Izhbitzer school pose a grammatical question about this pasuk ; Why the garbled sentence structure with the verb appearing before stating the subject precisely? The syntax of the sentence ought to have been “When a man from among you will bring near?

What follows is a sampling of the wide array of answers that are offered:

Referencing the famous drasha-derivation of a Halachah from close textual readings, of the gemara ( Sukkah 41B): “and you shall take lachem-to yourself–from that which belongs to you”, Rav Leibeleh Eiger  understands the odd placement of the word meekem – “from (among) you”, to mean that the real sacrifice is not from ones property / livestock, but from oneself. After all, the pasuk need not mention that the donor of the sacrifice is from “among” the Jewish People as the entirety of the Torah is addressed to an exclusively Jewish audience. Rather, the pasuk seeks to convey the concept that the “stuff” of the bringing near/sacrificing is from “you”, from the very being of the donor.

Many people tend to compartmentalize their lives.  Their attitude is that they “owe” G-d the performance of mitzvos and the avoidance of transgressions.  However, if something in their lives; be it a thought, a word or action is Halachically / morally neutral; a devar reshus– something we are neither commanded to do nor to avoid; then we are, so to speak, free agents, we are on our own.  As long as something is Halachically permissible then, the thinking goes, we ought to “go for all the gusto”, take full advantage of all permissible pleasures and thus, live life to its fullest.

This may be a pervasive attitude but it is not an authentically Jewish one.  At the beginning of Parashas Kedoshim the Ramban famously condemns it as being the mind-set of a nahval birshus hatorah– a vile lowlife with the Torah’s imprimatur and “seal of approval.” Rav Leibeleh teaches that the nearness and the sacrifice of what is termed a korban derives mainly from meekem; giving up something of yourself, leaving some pleasure on the table, some of the great deals unconsummated or some adventurous experience unlived.

This, he maintains, is what Rashi is referring to when he explains “the pasuk is speaking here of voluntary sacrifices,” that a generosity of spirit and volunteerism grip the worshippers heart so that he is prepared to strive for the paradigm of  “sanctify yourself with [i.e. by giving up some of] what is permitted to you.”

There is a well known argument between the Ramban and the Rambam as to the main underlying reason for the mitzvah of the korbanos-sacrifices in general . Per the Ramban (Vayikra 1:9) korbanos are meant to be an audio-visual aid to the teshuvah process of the sinner offering the korban.  The animal being sacrificed becomes a stand-in; a substitute for the donor.  When observing the sacrificial process the following types of thoughts and emotions are supposed to run through the heart and mind of the donor:  “There but for the grace of G-d go I. By offending my Creator and the transgressing His will I have forfeited my right to exist.  If justice was not tempered by mercy it is my own throat that ought to have been slashed, my own blood collected and sprayed, my own skin flayed from my body and my own viscera or limbs immolated on the altar.”

In light of this Ramban and extending the concept that, even after using the animal as a surrogate, the essential offering of the korban is still meekem-from you, the Izhbitzer and Rav Leibeleh Eiger argue that it follows that any Halachic limitations applying to the animal would apply to the donor as well. These limitations are the pasuks way of explicating ways and means to achieve the goal of sacrificing oneself through “sanctify yourself with [i.e. by giving up some of] what is permitted to you.”

Just as the animal is invalid for sacrifice if it was used for immoral purposes so too the donor must sacrifice meekem; of his pleasure-seeking, and purify himself from his baser animal instincts that drive his libidinous tendencies. Just as the animal is invalid for sacrifice if it has been worshipped, so too the donor must sacrifice of his ego-gratification and cleanse himself of lording it over others and being domineering over others or making himself salient above others in any way. Just as the animal is invalid for sacrifice if has been dedicated/set aside-huktzah as a sacrifice for idolatry, so too the donor must sacrifice of his social-networking with parties that have dedicated themselves to causes antithetical to the service of HaShem, the root of sadness and depression, and the donor must lose any sense of awe and self-abnegation towards anything worldly and temporal.

By not maximizing his own self-actualization and sacrificing of his lusts, of his glory-seeking, of his need for social approval and of his worship of temporal worldly matters the korban will be meekem, from the essential YOU.

~adapted from Toras Emes Vaykra D”H Adam (the first)

Mei HaShiloach II Vayikra D”H Adam

See also Bais Yaakov Vayikra Inyan 23

The Natural, the Supernatural and the Counter-natural

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

Therefore say to the Bnei Yisrael-chidren of Israel, “I am HaShem. I will extricate you from the burdens of Egypt and free you from their slavery. I will redeem you with a demonstration of My power and with great acts of judgment.

-Shemos 6:6

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and thus will produce the opportunities to display many miraculous wonders and signs in Egypt.

-Shemos 7:5

At the end of parshas Bo, in validating the centrality of the mitzvos that serve as reminder to the exodus from Egypt, the Ramban famously explains that the makkos– the 10 plagues, were meant to pierce the veil that conceals G-d.  The strands of which that veil is woven are the Laws of Nature. All of the makkos were openly miraculous, flouting numerous Laws of Nature in the most overt way.

The Maharal and the Chidushei haRi”m explain that the 10 makkos , seven of which occur in our Sidra, were the bridge between the asara ma’amoros shebahem nivra haolam– the 10 pronouncements through which the world was created, and the aseres hadibros-the 10 commandments through which the Torah was revealed.  A world that does not perceive god as the Creator is unready to accept G-d as the Divine Legislator.  By laying bare the existence of a Force that superseded Nature, that could utterly manipulate Nature and that could bend Nature to It’s supernatural Will, the makkos removed any the lingering doubts about the existence of G-d the Creator and proved the truth of numerous principles of our faith.

Thus understood, one could jump to the erroneous conclusion that the G-d-concealing, illusion-of-independence-projecting, natural order is constantly at odds with G-d. In fact, nature is the regular and consistent expression of the Divine Will.  Why and when the Divine Will chooses to superimpose the hanhagah nisis– the miraculous management of the cosmos upon and, apparently, against the hanhagah tiv’is– the natural management of the cosmos, is something that only the Divine Mind knows.

In this same vein many of us striving to make good moral/ethical choices and grow spiritually regard our own human natures as G-d-negating, mortal enemies. We are conditioned to fight our natural impulses. We associate them with our yetzer hara – inclination to evil. But the pasuk says “everything that HaShem has made is for His own sake.”(Mishlei 16:4) That is to say for His greater Glory.  All of the works of creation are expressions of the Divine will.

When inanimate objects and living beings behave according to the laws of nature they are fulfilling the will of HaShem. The great challenge with things behaving “naturally” is that they appear to be on autopilot.  The Divine Will that created the Laws of Nature and that continues to direct natural law often becomes obscured by natural processes. This is why Torah numerologists have pointed out that Elokim shares an equal numerical value with  hateva-the Nature (86) and why Torah etymologists teach that the root of the word olam-cosmos, world, is he’elam-concealment.

When Rabi Pinchos ben Yair traveled to redeem a captive Jew (pidyon sh’vuyim-redeeming captives, is the highest form of tzedakah-charity) he reached the banks of the Ginai River and could go no further. He commanded the river waters to interrupt their flow so that he could cross through the riverbed and proceed on his mission of mercy. The river responded “you go to do the Will of your Creator and I go (flow) to do the Will of my Creator.  There is only a chance that you will fulfill the Creator’s Will but, so long as I flow, I’m most definitely fulfilling the Creator’s Will. If so, why should I cease my flowing so that you can get going?” (Chulin 7A).

Ultimately the river split for Rabi Pinchos ben Yair and he accomplished his mission of pidyon sh’vuyim. But the “conversation” between him and the river is significant in that it establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that even inanimate things functioning according to the Laws of Nature are doing the will of the Creator, HaShem. It belies the philosophy that Nature opposes G-d. Nature is no more G-d’s enemy than the veil is the face’s adversary.

HaShem brought the cosmos into being through the “10 pronouncements”.  All that exists in the cosmos, and the way in which they function, are expressions of HaShems will. We define a mitzvah as a thought, word or act having a positive and ethical charge.  What makes them “good” or positive is that they are consistent with, and fulfillments of, HaShem’s will.  As such it follows that every one of HaShem’s non-free-will-endowed creatures that behave according to natural law is, in a sense, performing mitzvos.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that just as in the macrocosm, a river running downstream is “running to do with the Will of its Creator” so too, in the microcosm known as man, all the natural impulses induce man to “run to do the Will of his Creator.”  When a man thirsts, it is G-d’s will that he hydrate himself.  When a man hungers, it is G-d’s will that he ingest nutrition.  When a man desires intimacy it is G-d’s will that he procreate.  When a man grows fatigued it is G-d’s will that he sleep. When human acts of eating, drinking, procreating and sleeping are done as responses to the dictates of human nature they too are mitzvos.  When they are indulged in excessively, going beyond the dictates of nature, they are not. This is the point that the gemara is trying to get across when it says that when one engages in physical intimacy that he do so “as if compelled by a demon” (Nedarim 20B). Absent an irresistible compulsion to act, physical intimacy fails to rise to the level of “running to do with the Will of his Creator”

Over the past decade Perek Shirah has gained enormous popularity. This concept is the deeper meaning of Perek Shira.  When we hear a frog croaking cacophonously we run for a pair of earplugs. We hardly consider this croaking to be the music of a symphony orchestra. But when the frog tells King Dovid that “I sing HaShem’s praises day and night” (Zohar Pinchos 222:B)what it really means to say is that just acting naturally and croaking, in accordance with the nature endowed in the frog by its Creator, is sweet music, a “singing of the Divine praise.”

… [The frogs will be] in the homes of your officials and the people, even in your ovens and in the kneading bowls.

-Shemos 7;28

Why did Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah deliver themselves to the fiery furnace, for kiddush HaShem-the sanctification of the Divine Name? They argued a kal v’chomer- a fortiori to themselves: If frogs,[of the second plague] which are not commanded concerning kiddush HaShem yet it is written of them, “and they shall come up and go into your house . . . and into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls.” when are the kneading bowls to be found near the oven? When the oven is hot! [Then we must certainly do so.]

-Pesachim 53B

While behaving “naturally” is the default setting for “running to do with the Will of the Creator” it is essential to remember that in some unusual times and circumstances, supernatural and contra-natural behaviors are required in order to “run to do with the Will of the Creator”. The most basic instinct for all species is the survival instinct. Yet, during redemption process, when HaShem chose to superimpose the supernatural hanhaga nisis upon the hanhaga tiv’is, then, as part of the second plague, the frogs threw themselves into the hot ovens flames contravening their survival instinct.

While humans are endowed with free-will and the rest of G-d’s creatures are not, we must nevertheless learn from them and exercise our free-will choices appropriately. While choosing to maintain our lives and responding to the dictates of our natures is often a mitzvah, making choices that are contra-natural, even to the point of mesirus nefesh and self-destruction, can be “running to do with the Will of the Creator” as well.  As the pasuk says “[HaShem] Who teaches us — from the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser — from the birds of heaven.”(Iyov 35:11)

As it goes for the macrocosm so it goes for the microcosm.  There is room for the redemptive and the supernaturally, contra-naturally miraculous within human beings as well.

Adapted from: Tzidkas Hatzadik 173

A Gourmands Approach to Sukkos

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

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

A Sukkah built taller than twenty Ahmos is posul-unfit to perform the mitzvah in. What is the source of this law? Rabbah answered: The Posuk states:,” That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in Sukkahs” (V’yikra 23:43) [With a Sukkah] up to twenty Ahmos [high] a man ‘knows’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, but with one higher than twenty Ahmos he does not ‘know’ that he is dwelling in a Sukkah, since his eye does not catch sight of it [the schach-roofing]!

-Mishna and Gemara Tractate Sukkah 2A

 As an apple-tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons. I yearned for His shade and sat underneath it, and His fruit was sweet to my palate.

-Shir HaShirim 2:3

While it’s often been said that there’s no accounting for taste a societal consensus does exist as to what constitutes good taste and poor taste. While hamburgers, franks and coca cola are flavorsome and greasy comfort foods it is foie gras caviar and champagne that come to mind when we contemplate the finer things in life.  Day-Glo bright colors may appeal to kindergarteners when finger-painting, but a more developed visual sensibility perceives beauty in the muted hues and the delicate interplay of light and shadow that inform the work of the great renaissance masters. Certain artistic, fashion, cultural and even political choices are considered refined and sophisticated while others are scorned as low-brow or philistine.

Torah and Mitzvahs are the very finest things in life. While we all know this to be true on an abstract level it is the rare soul that has an inborn taste for the spiritual high-life. For the vast majority of people who hanker for ruchniyus-spirituality it is an acquired taste. We find that Dovid HaMelech-King David had “eyes to behold the goodness of the light” i.e. highbrow spiritual tastes. Here is the glowing review that he wrote about Torah and Mitzvahs: “They are more enviable than gold, even more than a great deal of fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and the drippings of honeycombs.” (Tehilim 19: 11).

The question is…how do we cultivate our spiritual palates? How should we go about acquiring a preference for the very finest things in life?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger cites a passage in the Zohar stating that the “shade” mentioned in this posuk in Shir HaShirim refers to the Mitzvah of Sukkah. He adds that the end of the posuk: “his fruit was sweet to my palate” refers to the Mitzvah of the daled minim – Lulav, Esrog etc.  By means of performing the Mitzvah of Sukkah one gains the heavenly assistance required to develop a King David-like keen and subtle vision. The essence of the Mitzvah is about vision. The tractate expounding this Mitzvah opens by proclaiming that a Sukkah that the eye cannot catch sight of is no Sukkah at all.

Accordingly, a more in sync translation of the posuk (and, coincidentally, a more literal one as well) would be: “In/ due to His shade [the shade of the Sukkah- described in the Zohar as “the shade of faith”] I have come to covet, to crave [the truth]…and due to His fruit [the various produce of the Holy Land that comprise the Mitzvah of the four species the truth has become] sweet and savory to my palate.”

But here’s the rub: How does one acquire a taste for the Mitzvahs of Sukkah and the daled minim ?

To carry the food analogy a bit further we should regard these specific Mitzvahs as Hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, as their name suggests, are items served at the beginning of the meal to stimulate the appetite or small samples of the main course that fuel the desire for more. Antipasto and Hors d’oeuvres are cooked and spiced by design to make the consumer crave, and better enjoy, the other courses.  One who arrives at a banquet with a poor appetite will nibble on them and they get his gastric juices flowing. Rav Leibeleh proposes That we begin thinking of Sukkah and the daled minim as appetite stimulants and palate refineries for spirituality. If we do, we will seize upon them with gusto.

Contrary to the popular cliché seeing is not believing.  It is, well, seeing!  There is no longer any need for faith in something’s coming or existence once we behold it with our own eyes. This is among the things that our sages were alluding to by calling the Mitzvah of Sukkah “the shade of faith”.  Faith precedes actual vision like an appetizer precedes a real meal.

As we work on acquiring a more refined taste, a more cultivated palate, a subtler sensibility we must have faith that we will get there one day.  You can’t wean a person off of hamburgers and beer unless he comes to believe that, if he keeps working at it, at some point he’ll find filet mignon washed down with a good cabernet sauvignon even more delicious. The shade of the Sukkah provides shelter and relief to all those who can’t yet see the light or taste the sweetness of Torah and Mitzvahs but who deeply believe that in the shade of the Sukkah, in the Sukkahs delicate interplay of light and shadow , they will come to covet and crave the truth.

Adapted from Toras Emes-1st Day  Sukkos 5634-1874 A.C.E. (page 81)  

You Don’t Desire? Then Yearn to Desire!

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

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

For the Mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not beyond your grasp or remote from you…Rather it is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can accomplish it.’  

-Devarim 30: 11, 14

While the closeness of “the Mitzvah” is described as being in our hearts and mouths it is not said to be in our hands. Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, draws an essential lesson about the limitations of human free will from this omission. The precedent for this lesson can be found in the Torahs dissimilar narratives of Avraham Avinus leitmotif.

The hospitality Chesed that Avraham Avinu offered to human travelers is well documented in Chazal and yet in the Written Torah there is only the scantest allusion to it (VaYeetah Eishel-Bereshis 21:33).  In marked contrast the hospitality that he extended to the three angels is described in great detail in the Written Torah.  This is especially odd inasmuch as the Angels were only pretending to eat, drink and rest and needed neither the physical rest and recreation provided to them nor the monotheistic lessons that diners at Avraham Avinus table learned. Avraham genuinely wanted to do kindness to the angels just as he did to all of his visitors. But in reality he did not provide for any of the needs of these special guests.  His desire to do Chesed went unrealized. But the Torah places the greatest emphasis precisely on the episode of desired Chesed, in which no actual Chesed took place.

In truth all that HaShem demands of us, all that is really within the parameters of our autonomy and freedom, is our will, our wants, our desire to do good as expressed in our hearts and our mouths. As the Gemara in Sanhedrin 106B says:  HaKadosh Baruch Hu Leeba Boyee –HaShem wants the heart. Whereas the actual realization of our good will, wants and desires, the actual execution of the Mitzvah comes about only through Seyata DiShmaya,-Divine assistance.  As our posuk says; the Mitzvah… is very close to you…in your mouth and in your heart. However you will need HaShems help so that you can accomplish it.’

L’Dovid HaShem Ohree V’Yishee  is the “anthem” of the month of Elul and the Days of Awe. In it we find the problematic verse (Tehilim 27:4) “One thing have I asked of HaShem,  I will ask it; that I may dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of HaShem , and to inspect  His palace.” Once the Meshorer-Psalmist declared that “One thing have I asked of HaShem” why not continue immediately with what is being asked for?  “that I may dwell in the house of al HaShem all the days of my life etc. “ Why repeat “I will ask it”? The blatant, superfluous redundancy of the posuk demands a clarification.

The Rebbe Reb Binim of Przysucha (P’shischa) explains that what the Meshorer has asked of HaShem is NOT to dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of his life but that dwelling in the house of  HaShem become his fondest desire, truly the one thing that he seeks, asks and prays for. He is asking to ask, desiring to desire, wanting to want.  The one thing that I have asked of HaShem is that Ohsah Ahvakesh…that this/it is what I will ask and pray for.

Our hearts are not always in the right place. Perhaps when we were young, or young in our Judaism, as long as we were shtaiging-progressing in our spiritual lives we could get by with very little materially. Even in our youths it is rare that dwelling in the house of HaShem all the days of our lives is our one and only request and desire. Instead it is just one, albeit a major one, of our many desires, wants and needs. Then setbacks, disillusionments, disappointments, societal and family pressures all conspired to distort our value systems and rearrange our fondest dreams and desires. We may have become more interested in maintaining and amplifying our creature comforts and financial security than in finishing Sha”s, davening ecstatically or creating a new Chesed organization that would alleviate the suffering of hundreds. In a word, we are no longer sincerely asking to dwell in the house of HaShem at all. So, whether young or old, during these days of Divine Mercy in particular we echo the prayer of the Meshorer twice daily. We ask to ask nothing else, desire to desire exclusively, want to want monomaniacally all that is good, kind, holy and exalted.

The Kohen of Lublin amplifies the Rebbe Reb Binims reading of Pslam 27. It is not that the Meshorer was trying to avoid overplaying his hand in prayer by asking to actually dwell in the house of HaShem etc. or just “having an off day”. It is that, truth be told, we can never ask for more than correct, ethical and holy yearnings.  The exercise of our free will is limited to what we want and desire and does not extend to what we do and accomplish. The mitzvah is in our hearts and mouths.  The actualization of Mitzvahs is HaShems domain, not that of human beings.

Adapted from Pri Tzadik Parshas VaYera Paragraph 10 (Page 29A)