The Downside of Spirituality

An Excerpt from Rabbi Noson Weisz: To Believe or Not to Believe, That Is the Question

The downside of spirituality is that it is infinite. There is no limit or measure to the spiritual union that one can form with God who is infinite Himself. You have to give it your all without reservation. Mediocrity is just not acceptable.

Moses was a great teacher and an inspiring leader. But to attach yourself to him you had to be willing to live purely on the manna. He drove his followers to a life of unalloyed spirituality, to maximum attachment to God. It was not by accident that the food available during his tenure as leader was the manna. Manna was the sort of food that matched Moses’ vision of the purpose of existence; the Jewish leader is a conduit for transporting the Divine emanation that sustains the world; Moses provided the wherewithal of survival for a spiritual life. He was not able to serve as a conduit to God for the provision of meat.

The meat they sought in the desert was not our sort of meat; we have no manna to eat as an alternative; to the desert generation meat was the antithesis of soul food; it was being demanded by people who were interested in indulging their physical desires and retreating from their level of spirituality. To be able to obtain such food from Heaven, Israel needed other leaders, who were not on the high spiritual plane of Moses.

“But you who cling to YHVH your God, you are all alive today.” (Deut. 4:4) How is it possible to cling to God when it is written in the same passage “For YHVH your God, He is a consuming fire” (ibid., 24). How can a human being cling to fire? He should connect with a Talmud Chacham, a Torah scholar. (Talmud, Kesubos 111b)

The gulf between Moses and the ordinary Jew is too great to bridge in one step. First one must connect to slightly lesser people and be inspired by them to grow spiritually until one is ready to connect oneself to Moses. Without the help of the elders Moses could not supply any meat.

Read the Whole Thing

There Are no Lightweights or Heavyweights … Only Half-Weights

Pikudei-Shekalim-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-

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

-Shemos 30:13,15

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

-Maomonides 11th principle of Faith

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

-Kiddushin 40A-B

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

–Shemos 38:25,27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also Bais Yaakov  Ki Sisa 17

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

Blinded by the Light

Toldos

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

Yitzchak had grown old and his eyes grew dim, so that he could not see.  He summoned Esav his older son.

-Bereshis 27:1

“so that he could not see” alternatively;  “(his eyes grew dim ) on account of seeing”.  When Avraham bound him upon the altar, Yitzchak gazed at the Shechinah-Divine Indwelling…at that time G-d decreed that his eyes be dimmed.

-Midrash Bereshis Rabbah  65:5

 HaShem appeared to [Yitzchak] and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall assign for you.

Remain an immigrant in this land, and I will be with you, and bless you…

-Bereshis 26:2-3

“Do not go down to Egypt.” You are [as] a perfect burnt offering, and being outside the Holy Land is not fitting for you.

-Rashi Ibid

 [Moshe]…Climb to the top of the cliff, and gaze westward, northward, southward and eastward. See it [the Land of Israel/ Cana’an] with your eyes [only]; since you will not cross the Jordan.

-Devarim 3:27

“See it with your eyes”: You requested of Me “Let me… see the good land” (Pasuk 25). I am showing you all of it, as it says: “And HaShem showed him all the Land” (Devarim 34:1).

-Rashi Ibid

And Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: but his eyes had not dimmed, nor had his natural powers faded away.

-Devarim 34:7

The Izhbitzer observed that Moshe and Yitzchak were polar opposites. While Yitzchak was forbidden to ever leave the Land of Israel he was, ultimately, unable to see it.  Whereas Moshe was denied permission to set foot in the Land of Israel but was allowed to look at the Land in its entirety!

His son, the second Izhbitzer adds an enigmatic wrinkle to his father’s thought-provoking observation: Moshe Rabenu is the Talmid Chacham-Torah scholar par excellence of the Jewish People. Talmidei Chachamim are, by definition, beings driven by keen perception and intellectual clarity. They channel the Divine will through precise, acute consciousness.

In contradistinction Yitzchak was, to use the contemporary parlance, “unconscious”.  Even when completely oblivious to his surroundings and what he was actually doing he channeled the Divine will.  Without consciously intending to do so he blessed Yaakov and this was, unknowingly, dare we say-blindly, consistent with HaShems will.

Imagine two archers both hitting one bulls eye after another. One was endowed with 20/10 vision and peerless hand-to-eye coordination while the other was myopic and all thumbs, but every arrow in his quiver had been fitted with a GPS  device guiding it to its target, his arrows were mini “smart bombs”. Yitzchak was like the latter archer. HaShem had granted him the ability to see without seeing, to know without knowing.

While not contrasting Moshe and Yitzchak, Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, offers a deeper understanding of Yitzchaks blindness stemming from his binding upon the altar.

The problem with gazing at the Divine Indwelling is that it is fatal. “HaShem said: ‘You cannot have a vision of My Presence, for no man can have a vision of My Presence and live.’”(Shemos 33:20).  This begs the question; we know that the Akedah-the Binding of Yitzchak, was a near-death experience. But if Yitzchak beheld the Divine Indwelling at the Akedah why did it not result in his actual death?

A darkness exists that can become more visible than light “He made darkness His hiding-place, His Sukkah surrounding Him; the darkness of waters, the thick clouds of the heavens” (Tehilim 18:12). The blind can “see” as well in a pitch-black room as in a brilliantly illuminated one. This may be among the meanings of teaching of our Sages OBM that “one who is blind is considered dead” It is the tzimtzum of Yitzchak, his powerful personal restraint/constraint and self-abnegation, his trait of יראה –Awe of HaShem that allowed him a ראיה-a vision, of the invisible. (The two terms, יראה and ראיה, in Lashon Kodesh-Biblical Hebrew, are word jumbles of one another.) Yitzchak’s eventual blindness of the material world was a direct result of his visual perception of the spiritual world. To enter and perceive that supernal World is to cross the threshold of the surrounding darkness.

This metamorphosis of Yitzchak’s vision not only allowed him to see HaShem but to see kiv’yachol as Hashem does. “for it is not as men see: for a  man gazes at the outward appearance, but HaShem sees into the heart.’” (Shmuel I 16:7).  Although he saw into Esavs heart and understood his hypocrisy he still summoned Esav and intended to bless him, and not his younger brother. He knew that Esavs pretense of piety was the homage his vice was paying to virtue and imagined that the blessings could redeem Esav, while Yaakov did not need them.  Yet through his unconsciousness and blindness to the material world he marched in lockstep with the Divine will.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Toldos D”H Vehee

Bais Yaakov Toldos Inyan 35 (pp 223224)

Yisrael Kedoshim page 86 D”H  V’Noda & V’heenei

 

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

Of Open-Book Enigmas and Whispered Secrets

Tetzaveh 5775-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

Make a  Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate. It shall be of patterned brocade, like the ephod.  Make it out of gold; sky blue, dark purple and crimson wool and twirled linen. … Set it with four rows of mounted gemstones.

-Shemos 28:15,17

… And the gemstones shall be upon the names of the 12 sons of Israel, one for each of the 12 stones. Each one’s name shall be engraved as on a signet ring to correspond to the 12 tribes.

-Shemos 28:21

Thus, Ahron will carry the names of the sons of Israel in the Choshen Mishpat over his heart when he comes into the sanctified site; it shall be a constant remembrance before HaShem.  Place the Urim and Thumim in the Choshen Mishpat and they shall be over Ahron’s heart when he comes before HaShem. Ahron will bear the just-decision instrument for the children of Israel upon his heart, before HaShem, perpetually.

-Shemos 28:29,30

This [the Urim and Thumim refers to a] writ bearing the explicit Name, which he [Moshe] would place within the folds of the Choshen, through which it would illuminate words on the gemstones (מֵאִיר) and perfect (ומתמם) those words. [i.e., the Urim and Thumim lit up letters forming words, and those words like an incontrovertible halachah/mishpat, were dependable. (Yoma 73b)] … Because of that Name-bearing-writ, the Choshen  was called “justice,” as it is said: “and he shall seek the just-decision of the Urim before HaShem on his behalf” (BeMidbar. 27:21).

–Rashi ibid

Conventional wisdom understands the power of the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate as some kind of a sanctified Ouija Board, chalilah-Heaven forefend.  The questions would be put to it and it would, miraculously, “predict” future events.  According to this understanding the destiny of K’lal Yisrael–the Nation of Israel, is fungible.  As an entity existing entirely in the “now”, any number of alternative histories and futures are possible.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom fails to convey the deeper meaning.  Not only does it give the wrong impression the mechanism of the Urim and Thumim, the Choshen Mishpat and the “battery” that powered it but it misconstrues K’lal Yisrael as a temporal entity rather than as the eternal being that it actually is.  Transcendent of time, K’lal Yisrael is not subject to alternative histories.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that the “power cell” that activated the mechanism of the Choshen Mishpat was the very heart of Ahron the Kohen Gadol-the High Priest, not merely the writ bearing the explicit Divine Name. His explanation for how it functioned follows the pasuk and midrashic excerpts:

HaShem’s wrath blazed against Moshe, and He said, “Is not Ahron the Levi your brother? I know that he knows how to speak; moreover, observe, he is setting out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.

-Shemos 4:14

… Your suspicions about your brother, that he would resent you for your eminence as My spokesman, are unfounded. On the contrary, he will be happy for you. Rabi Shimon bar Yosee taught: “the heart of he who rejoiced in his brother’s eminence will wear the Urim and Thumim as it is written: ‘ … and they shall be over Ahron’s heart’”

-Midrash Rabbah Shemos 3:17

The opposite of love it is not hatred.  Very often, hatred is the same deep, passionate emotion as love, inverted.  As William Congreve wrote “”Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” The true antithesis of love is envy.

Love seeks to give to others and grows more tender and warmer with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the loved one(s).  In stark contrast; envy seeks to take away what others have and grows more venal and bitter with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the envied one(s).  Ahron’s heart was devoid of pettiness and was aflame with the love of Israel.  As there is no greater success imaginable for human being than to be HaShem’s spokesman and agent,  his heart had withstood the definitive litmus test determining if one is a giver or a taker in the crucible of the most extreme potential for envy; sibling rivalry.  Exulting in his younger brother success, he proved his heart to be utterly empty of envy and brimming with ahavas Yisrael-the love of Israel.

Unrequited love is the exception to the rule.  The default setting for love, as it is for all human emotions, is reciprocity.  Shlomo the king put it best when he wrote “as the face that is replicated in the reflecting pool, so is ones man’s heart to another”(Mishlei 27:19).  This axiom is borne out by the mutual and reciprocal of love that existed between Ahron and the people of Israel. When Ahron the Kohen Gadol died …  “The whole congregation saw that Ahron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days. “ (BeMidbar 20:29) All of the people loved him intensely.

As Rashi, citing Chazal, says:  [both] the men and the women [loved him], for Ahron had pursued peace; he promoted love between disputing parties and between man and wife.(Avos d’Rabi Nassan 12:4).  Loving all the people and realizing that their own success and fulfillment depended upon their loving one another, the greatest gift that Ahron could bestow upon them was to eliminate the pettiness, envy and disputes and that drove them apart.  Loving them, he gave them the ultimate gift of love for each other.

It is in the nature of those in love to share secrets with one another.  In some instances this is because only those who love us will continue to accept us and not be too harshly judgmental when they discover our darkest secrets.  But, more often, it is our noblest secrets, our loftiest and dreamiest ambitions that we only feel comfortable sharing with those whom we love and who love us.  Those things about us that are closest to the core of our beings can only be revealed within the framework of love.

As a great twentieth century Torah sage explained; this may be because the supreme expression of love is, itself, a secret. Chazal interpreted the pasuk “It is the glory of Elokim to conceal a thing; but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Mishlei 25:2) to mean that matters pertaining to the Genesis narrative-hishavus haOlamos, are shrouded in mystery and must remain hidden away. G-d brought the cosmos into being as an expression of His love.  As human beings are b’Tzelem Elokim– in the image of the Divine , tznius-top-secretiveness is apropos for the supreme expression of interpersonal love in that it is the closest that human beings, the  Tzelem Elokim, will ever come to emulating Elokim’s act of creation.

As we stand in the present moment, our most ancient past, lost in the mists of time, and our concealed and our unknowable futures, are secrets. Just as those in love share their most intimate secrets with one another, so too K’lal Yisrael bared her secrets to the human heart that most loved her. It was the loving heart of Ahron, the Kohen Gadol, that served as the “power cell” that activated the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat. The Choshen was not handicapping probabilities or predicting the future.  The letters that glowed and grew salient on the Choshen’s gemstones sounded the silent, soundless whisperings of eternal, transcendent, beloved K’lal Yisrael revealing her secrets to and through the loving heart of Ahron.

Sisrei Torah-the secrets of the Torah, are very much in vogue today. Everyone wants to learn, Kabbalah. Lamdanim-Talmudic theoreticians, have long known that even within nigleh-the more revealed, less mystical component of the Torah, there are hidden secrets; gems waiting to be unearthed. What many fail to realize is that a kabbalistic text and, in a larger sense, any Torah text, is an encoded message.  Merely setting one’s eyes upon the text and reading, or even intermittent and halfhearted attempts at deciphering, will no more force the Torah to yield any of her secrets than will with futile efforts of a third party who had intercepted love letters trying to grasp the hints and cryptic terms of endearment that these missives contain.

The Lubliner Kohen maintains that what is true for all interpersonal relationships informed by love and, writ large, what is true for K’lal Yisrael, is equally true for TorasYisrael. The Torah must be wooed and pursued. Sisrei Torah are not for weekend-warriors —  semi-committed dabblers who can take the Torah or leave it. Those who ardently love the Torah are loved by the Torah in return.  As Shlomo the king taught: “Does not Wisdom call out … ’I love them that love me, and those that seek me earnestly shall find me.’”(Mishlei 8:1,17) One’s heart must be ablaze with the love of Torah.  Torah must become a passion, an obsession and an infatuation, only then will the Torah reveal her innermost secrets.

~adapted from Tzidkas HaTzaddik inyan 198 

The Interplay of Dread and Love

Why didn’t Yitzchak Avvinu seek his bride himself? Why was Eliezer dispatched?
Yitzchak represents gevurah, how was Rivkah, a personification of chessed, a fitting match for him?
Eliezer was not a card-carrying PETA member. Why was it so crucial that the intended bride water the camels as well?
Yitzchak was on his way, from Be’er laChai Roee. He was dwelling in the Negev Land at the time. Yitzchak went out to converse in the field toward evening.  He raised his eyes and saw camels come into view.

— Bereishis 24:62,63

For I have declared “the world is built through lovingkindness.”

— Tehillim 89:3

… Yaakov swore by the Dread of his father Yitzchak.

— Bereishis 31:53

Ben Zoma would say: … “Who is mighty? One who overcomes his inclination. As is stated ‘one who is imperturbable is better than a powerful, champion warrior; and one who reigns over his own spirit [is mightier] than the captor of a city. (Proverbs 16:32)’”

— Avos 4:1

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

Koheles 7:14

He [Eliezer] said [a prayer] “O HaShem, the Elokim of my master Avraham, Please cause occurrences to go my way today and do lovingkindness with my master Avraham … If I say to a [one of the towns] girl(s), ‘Tip your jug over and let me have a drink’ and she responds, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ she will be the one whom You have proven to be [the bride] for your slave Yitzchak. Through such a girl I will know that You have done lovingkindness with my master.

— Bereishis 24:12,14

As I live, says HaShem Elokim, surely with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with outpoured fury, I will be king over you.

— Yechezkel 20, 33

The Izhbitzer School teaches that the middos-defining character traits; of Avraham and Yitzchak, while antithetical to one another, are also complementary with each filling in what the other lacks.  Avraham was the exemplar of chessed-altruistic, overflowing loving-kindness; while Yitzchak was the paradigm of gevurah-strength-infused control.  Chessed is sourced in love while gevurah is rooted in fear and awe.

As the Lubliner Kohen explains both altruism and narcissism fall under the rubric of chessed as both are forms of love and, when acted upon, are both expressions of love. While altruism is a love that overflows the narrow boundaries of self and is considered holy, narcissism is a love directed inwardly and that never goes beyond the parameters of one’s own being. It is regarded as antisocial and evil.

The opposite can be said of gevurah. When this middah is self-directed we think highly of it and even revere it as sacred self-control. But gevurah that does not practice restraint and brims over the borders of the individual’s personality seeking to overpower others, often degenerates into dehumanizing, Machiavellian manipulation and, when a verbal or physically aggressive element is added, it becomes the foundation of all interpersonal violence and tyranny. Even when leading friends and overcoming foes is the call of the hour, the strength of true champion warriors flows from a deep-rooted self-control. As Douglas MacArthur, one of history’s greatest champion warriors prayed “O L-rd … Build me a son … who will master himself before he seeks to master other men.”

The Izhbitzer elucidates the pesukim-verses; leading up to Yitzchaks first encounter with his zivug-soulmate; Rivkah, through the prism of his middah of awe-based gevurah.  The lashon kodesh-holy tongue; root of the word Negev-desert; means dehydrated or dried out. Waters, perhaps because, absent containers, they are without form, represent lusts, yearnings and loves. Thus the Izhbitzer interprets the passuk “He was dwelling in Negev Land” to mean that Yitzchak, whose relationship with HaShem is described as “Dread” had exercised great gevurah to “dehydrate” himself of all lusts and yearnings. It is in the physical nature of dehydrated items to shrivel, shrink and withdraw somewhat into themselves and it is in the metaphysical nature of ovdei HaShem m’yirah bi’gevurah-those who serve G-d through awe and holy self-conquest/control; to shrink i.e. to be closely circumscribed by the boundaries of their own beings lest they contaminate their middah with manipulation and control of others; and withdraw from risks and being active altogether lest proactivity lead them to crossing the Will of the One they dread.

Read more The Interplay of Dread and Love

Why American Jews Reject Torah

Having been heavily involved with Kiruv and BTs for many years, it has always bothered me why we have such a low success rate of attracting people to Torah. I’m not talking about becoming fully observant, but rather about showing interest in Torah learning and practices.

My experience interacting with BTs and non-observant chavrusas, friends and relatives drives my thinking. I have also discussed this for countless hours with others involved in kiruv. I would like to share my current thinking on the matter.

I think the main reason Torah is rejected is because most non-observant Jews come to the conclusion that increasing their Jewish knowledge or practice will not significantly increase their pleasure or happiness and is therefore not worth their effort. They come to this conclusion largely from their observation of Torah observant Jews.

Let’s dig deeper using the four human dimensions: the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the physical dimension, Torah requires us to limit our physical pleasures in the areas of food, sensuality and sun and fun activities. Most non observant people enjoy their restaurants and vacations, and even with the tremendous increase in kosher restaurants and resorts, it doesn’t compare. In regards to financial stability, the higher costs of Torah living, specifically tuitions, gives an advantage to the non observant.

From an emotional vantage point most non observant people seem to control their anger, envy and desire for honor on a level with the typical observant Jew. Although Torah provides the prescription for great relationships and emotional maturity, the typical secular person also has decent relations with their spouses, children, friends and relatives. Regarding happiness, the growth of the positive psychology movement with its focus on happiness has provided more paths for non observant Jews.

In the mental domain, non observant Jews find meaning in their jobs, communal activities and political discourse. Although Torah learning and mitzvah observance provides additional avenues of meaningful activities, this is not always observable.

The spiritual domain is one in which Torah provides a tremendous advantage. However, belief and connection to Hashem is difficult to measure. In addition our davening and observance of mitzvos performance often lack observable degrees of spirituality and purposeful living.

In summary, I think the secular lifestyle provides an advantage in the physical sphere and can approach the typical Torah life in the emotional well being and happiness areas. Regard meaning and the mental dimension, Torah has the potential to provide advantages. In the spiritual and purposeful living arenas, Torah is clearly superior.

So why do most observant Jews think a life of Torah is better, while most non-observant American Jews are not convinced? I think the reason is that most people are more focused on the lower realms of physical pleasure and happiness than they are on the higher ones of meaning and purpose. Torah observant people experience all the realms so they typically live a more fulfilling life, while the non observant experience more physical pleasure and decent degrees of happiness.

Perhaps if we were even more focused on living a Torah life of purpose and meaning, it would lead to more demonstrable contentment and happiness. If the non-observant could observe the clear advantage of Torah in three of the four human dimensions, they would to want to find out more.

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

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

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

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

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

— Rambam: Laws of Torah Study 3:1, 2

 

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

— Eruvin 22A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Spiritual Exceptionalism

When it comes to social media, they say that Facebook is for the people you used to know, Linked In is for the people you currently know, and Twitter is for the people you want to know. Facebook has served the “used to know” function for me and I have reconnected to many whom I grew up with in my old neighborhood.

One of the people I’ve reconnected with. and shared a number of restaurant meals. is a close friend from elementary school. He’s an extremely intelligent, well read, AP History teacher. He describes his political leanings as Scandinavian Socialist, which he says would classify him as a left-wing loony in this country. In any case, when we get together we discuss all the hot topics and I find our meetings enjoyable, informative, and challenging.

At a recent dinner we were discussing, American Exceptionalism, the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Wikipedia has a good write up on American Exceptionalism which you might want to skim. My friend said that he has no problem with American Exceptionalism in theory, but that the role is often misused for unfair political or economic gain.

The conversation turned to Judaism and our “chosen” status. He asked why couldn’t Judaism just be one of many possible spiritual paths. I told him that Judaism has no problem recognizing the validity of other spiritual paths. However, we believe that with the Torah G-d granted the Jews a spiritual exceptionalism, with the giving of the Torah, and when we live up to our spiritual mission as described in the Torah, we will be recognized as a nation of spiritual leaders. I defined spirituality as developing a connection and awareness to G-d, the creator and master of the universe.

In addition to the Torah sources, I told him I believed in Jewish Spiritual Exceptionalism because I have met a number of Torah Observant people who are highly developed spiritually. I also pointed out that it’s logical that Judaism’s focus on G-d, through the learning of Torah and observance of Mitzvos in every sphere of life, would lead to the development of spiritually exceptional people.

The non-observant people I have communicated with online and off believe in a spiritual dimension. In fact, my friend above lamented the fact that he had not developed his spiritual side. Our Torah observance provides us with the potential to be spiritually execeptional as individuals and as a nation. We ally need to collectively and continually work on improving our connection to G-d through the improvement of our learning of Torah and observance of mitzvos.

At its root, Torah observance is not about happiness, it’s not about intellectualism, it’s not about a connected community, it’s not about a healthy lifestyle. Fundamentally, Torah observance is the means by which we create our connection to G-d and fulfill our spiritually exceptional role. Perhaps this is what we need to embrace and share with others.

12 Fundamental Spiritual Rules

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato felt that it was very important that a Jew should have an understanding of the fundamental spiritual rules under which the world operates so he wrote the sefer, Derech Hashem. I wanted to share a few of the spiritual rules and hopefully people will be motivated to learn either English version of the sefer.

Derech Hashem is divided into four sections:
1. Fundamentals of Creation
2. Divine Province
3. The Soul and Prophecy
4. Serving G-d

Here are some of the fundamental spiritual rules from each section:

Fundamentals of Creation
– Hashem created the world to bestow goodness on man, who is composed of a physical body and non-physical soul.
– The ultimate goodness is coming closer to Hashem by doing mitzvos that strengthen our spiritual side and avoiding sin which distance us.
– The influences, forces and melachim of the spiritual realm direct what occurs in the physical realm, but man’s free will choices effect the spiritual realm.

Divine Province
– Hashem created and oversees all things for the ultimate purpose of individual man, and humanity as a whole, to coming closer to Him.
– All the qualities in this world, such as wealth and poverty, gratifications and sufferings,… serve as a challenge for man in pursuit of this goal of attaining closeness to Hashem.
– At this point of history, the goal of fulfilling humanities ultimate purpose is dependent on the mitzvos and aveiros of the Jewish People.

The Soul and Prophecy
– Man’s physical body is connected to the spiritual world through five levels of soul.
– In addition to his senses, man can receive information about the world through his souls and the processes of dreams, divine inspiration and prophecy.
– Many prophets received information about the world through dream-state prophecy, Moshe’s prophecy was of an entirely different nature, and through his clear waking-state prophecy, the Torah was transmitted to him from Hashem.

Serving G-d
– Man serves G-d and achieves his purpose in the world through the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvos.
– Torah study plays a very large role in bringing man to perfection and the highest positive spiritual influences in the world come about through this study.
– Other areas of serving G-d are the emotionally centered mitzvos such as love and fear of Hashem and the thought, speech and action mitzvos which are classified as continuous (e.g. Belief in Hashem), daily (e.g. Saying Shema), periodic (e.g. Shabbos) and circumstantial (e.g. Mezuzah).

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

Must You Blog Thirty Days Before Pesach about Pesach?

Rabbi Welcher gave a shiur last week about “Thirty Days Before the Chag” and three ways that Gemora is understood. Go download it and give it a listen when you have the chance.

Pesach is the holiday which requires the most preparation, has the most mitzvos, and affords us the opportunity to make significant spiritual strides. Like most valuable things in life it requires preparation and right now we’re at the 21 days mark and counting.

Spiritual growth requires effort, but if we put in the effort, the connection and growth will come. The main thing that prevents us from making smart efforts is the world of distraction that we live in. Even if we can’t overcome all the distractions, we can choose to gather some moments and invest them in learning and preparing for Pesach.

Amazon has a great selection of Haggadahs, that can be delivered to your door this week. Why not pick one up and start your Pesach spiritual preparation today.

Shabbos … the Great Unifying Principle

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

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

-Shemos 35:1,2

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

-Shemos 35:10-12

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

– Yeshyaya 43:7

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

-Brachos 55A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thinking Inside THE Box(es)

Terumah 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

HaShem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel and have them lift an offering up to Me. Take My offering from anyone whose heart stirs them to give.

-Shemos 25:1

Make an Ark of Shittim-Acacia wood 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ cubits wide and 1 ½ cubits high.  Envelop it with a layer of pure gold; it should be covered on the inside and the outside, and make a gold lip all around its top. 

-Shemos 25:10,11

Betzalel (the chief artisan constructing the Tabernacle) built three Arks; two of gold and one of Acacia wood.  All had four walls and a floor but no roof (i.e. the “Arks” were boxes, open on top).  He inserted the wooden one within the exterior golden one and the interior golden one within the wooden one.  He then coated the upper lip with gold. As such (the Acacia wood Ark) was covered on the inside and the outside. 

-Rashi ibid

None of the furnishings of the tabernacle were made exclusively of gold other than the Menorah. (but I’m puzzled) Once a golden Ark was made, why was a wooden one necessary? 

-Ibn Ezra ibid

Several peculiarities distinguished the Aron HaBris–the Ark of the Covenant from the other structures and furnishings of the Mishkan-tabernacle. The specs for its dimensions were in half, rather than in full, ahmos-cubits. Unlike the Menorah it was not made of solid gold but unlike the other wooden Mishkan structures and furnishings coated with metal, it was composed of three substantial inlaid boxes, akin to Russian nesting dolls, rather than plated with a paint-thin coating of gold or copper.

The Aron HaBris was the vessel for the Luchos HaBris–the tablets of the covenant and so it serves as a powerful allegory for human bearers of the Torah, talmidei chachamim-Torah sages and, in a larger sense, Klal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Chazal drew a metaphorical lesson from the design and structure of the Aron HaBris: Rava said (the fact that the inner and outer boxes of the Ark were composed of the identical substance [gold] teaches us that) “any talmid chacham-Torah sage, whose interior is inconsistent with his exterior (i.e. who is insincere or hypocritical, who lacks yiras Shamayim-the awe of Heaven) is no talmid chacham at all.”(Yoma 72B)

Based on this homiletic precedent the Izhbitzer School provides many insightful interpretations about the design and structure of the Aron:

The Izhbitzer taught that in order to acquire Torah a person must view himself as incomplete without the Torah that, as was the case with the measurements of the Aron, that they’re only “halfway” to completion and fulfillment. On the other hand, if one only has an intellectual curiosity about Torah similar to an academic interest in other disciplines HaShem will not allow him to become a receptacle for the Torah.  If a person feels as though he can live without Torah, he may study and contemplate it for years, but he will never truly absorb it.

The Izhbitzer’s younger son, the Biskovitzer Rebbe, explains that the reason for the three individual inlaid boxes was to demonstrate the Torahs intrinsically hidden nature.  It is not merely that the true meaning of the Torah’s narratives, mitzvos and teachings often eludes us; the proverbial “riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” but that there are three barriers that must be transcended and pierced in order to perform the mitzvos fully. The following impediments prevent people from committing themselves single-mindedly to the service of HaShem and, thereby, transforming themselves into abodes for His Divine Indwelling:

1.  So many millennia have come and gone and so many “end times” have been predicted without the long-awaited dawning of the messianic era-kalu kol hakitzin.  The dispiriting sense of hopelessness in Mashiach ever actually arriving cools our ardor for the mitzvos.

2.  The leadenness of our natures steers us towards undemanding, path-of-least-resistance, mitzvas anashim melumadah-rote performance of the mitzvos.  Bringing a sense of awe, wonder and freshness to the performance of mitzvos time after time is very challenging when we’ve been trained to do the mitzvos from our earliest youth.

3.  The burden of our past sins weighs us down.  We feel humiliated before HaShem and utterly convinced that our relationship with Him has been irrevocably broken.

The Biskovitzer explains that the midrash (Shemos Rabbah 33:3) interprets the pasuk “I am asleep but my heart is awake” as an allusion to these three barriers. “I” may be insensate to the end of days, but “my heart” — the Holy Blessed One, is awake, maintaining and stoking the very last embers of longing for the messianic era within me.  “I” am deadened to the vitality of the mitzvos by my robotic, by-rote performance but “my heart” — the merit and legacy of my forefathers, who were trailblazers and who were forever breaking new ground, is awake.  “I” am anesthetized and alienated by the ether of guilt wafting malodorously from the incident of the golden calf, but “my heart” — HaShem, my Merciful Father, refusing to give up on even the most wayward of sons, is awake.  The Holy Blessed One called for me to build the Mishkan.  If the alienation caused by sin was truly irrevocable would HaShem ever have invited me to participate in the building of an abode for His Divine Indwelling?

He cryptically concludes that, of the three boxes, it is davka the wooden one that symbolizes the impediment of sin-engendered guilt feelings and especially, on a national level, the guilt engendered by the incident of the golden calf. Puzzling, because the Midrash Tanchumah that he cites (Parshas Vayakhel 8) says the Aron was made of Shittim wood to atone for the sin committed at Shittim. This is an apparent reference to the sin of licentiousness with the Moabites that occurred at Shittim and not referring to the sin of idolatry of the golden calf (that occurred at the foot of Sinai).

[A more direct reference might have been the Midrash Tanchumah from our own parshah (Terumah:10) that states; HaShem told Moshe “they committed a folly (shtus) and angered Me with the calf; let the Acacia wood-atzei Shittim come and gain atonement for their folly.”  The problem with the latter citation is that the Acacia wood in question is that of the mizbayach-altar and not of the aron.]

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, asserts that the essential aron was the one that was made of wood.  Unlike inert-mineral gold, wood came from a living, thriving, flourishing tree.  The Torah itself is referred to as “the tree of life.”  The atzei Shittim box in the center represents the ardent, almost libidinous, yearnings for Torah-chamidu d’Oraysa that are the necessary prerequisite for the acquisition of the Torah’s wisdom (cp Rambam Isurei Biah 22:21).  While the sincere awe of heaven, represented by the interior and exterior golden boxes, contains, defines and sublimates the unbridled, wild infatuation represented by the wood.

Elsewhere the Lubliner Kohen notes that during the creation of Heaven and earth, the darkness preceded the light.  He postulates that every personal or national advancement towards greater spirituality and “the light” must be preceded by, and grow out of, a darkness.  It was not simply that the Shittim wood of the Aron atoned for the sin of the calf it was that the dark sin of the calf was an indispensable precondition that engendered the light of the Aron and, as the epicenter of its sanctity, the entire Mishkan!

The sin of the calf was motivated by Klal Yisrael’s desire for a palpable sensory-perceivable Elohim that would lead them.  While directed towards the calf this desire was something dark and sinister.  But the radiance and illumination of the Mishkan — a place where HaShem’s Indwelling was palpable, and the only site where all “seekers of HaShem” went to find what they sought (Shemos 33:7), followed and grew out of the darkness of the calf. Through the atzei Shittim, the shadowy “shtus” of the calf became part and parcel of the Aron’s and Mishkan’s radiance.

 ~adapted from: Mei HashiloachII Terumah D”H Kol Middos
Neos Deshe Terumah D”H  v’Ahsu (the first)
Pri Tzadik Terumah inyan 8 page 152
Resisei Laylah inyan 24 pp3031

REVISED 5:30 PM EST 1.30.14

The Chanukah Growth Project

Chanukah is a great opportunity for spiritual growth. So it’s a great time to unveil the Spiritual Growth project which can transform our service to Hashem. It involves things we already do and it won’t take more that 1-2 minutes extra a day.

Premises:
The goal of mitzvos is to develop a deeper connection to Hashem.
If we perform mitzvos with more attention they will have a bigger impact on our connection.

Process
Track your progress for 8 days in the following    1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8
1) Say one Birchos HaMitzvot with Kavanna
2) Say one Shema with Kavanna
3) Start one Shomoneh Esrai with Kavanna
4) Say one Birchos Hanehenin with Kavanna

1) Say one Birchos HaMitzvot with kavanna before washing, tzitzis or tefillin.
Have in mind:
a) Hashem is the One who commanded this mitzvos
b) You are the one who was commanded
c) With this act that you are about to perform you are fulfilling this command

Baruch Atah Hashem – Hashem, the Master of all (who always was, is, and will be), is the Ultimate Source of all blessing
Elokeinu Melech HaOlam – Hashem is the source of all powers in this world, and He is the Ultimate Authority of the World
Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvosav – Hashem separated, elevated and sanctified us by obligating us with His commandments
V’tzivanu Al – And He particularly commanded us with the mitzvos I am about to perform regarding…

2) Say one Shema in the morning or evening with kavanna.
Have in mind:
a) You are going to perform the Mitzvos of reciting the Shema
b) You are going to perform the Mitzvos of accepting Hashem as the Ultimate Authority over you
c) Think about the first 2 commandments of “I am Hashem your G-d,” and “You shall have no other gods.”

Sh’ma Yisrael – listen, hear and understand, individual Jews and the Jewish People
Hashem – Master of all (who always was, is, and will be), upon Whom all existence is dependent
Elokeinu – Is the source of all powers and the Ultimate Authority of the world
Hashem – Master of all guides the world to its ultimate purpose
Echad – Everything comes from Hashem, and some day this will be recognized by all and we will reach our ultimate purpose

3) Start one Shomoneh Esrai with kavanna.
Have in mind:
a) You are standing before Hashem and are about to begin your prayer to Him
b) Hashem is the Source and Authority over everything in the world
c) You are small in comparison to Hashem

4) Say on Birchos Hanehenin, before food or drink with kavanna.
Have in mind:
a) Hashem is the creator of what you are about to eat
b) You are thankful to Him for creating and providing this food for you

Baruch Atah Hashem – Hashem, the Master of all (who always was, is, and will be), is the Ultimate Source of all blessing
Elokeinu Melech HaOlam – Hashem is the source of all powers in this world, and He is the Ultimate Authority of the World
Shehakol Nihyah Bidvaro – everything was created through His word and power

In a brocha, we can focus on:
1) Hashem is the sole source of existence
2) Hashem created everything in existence
3) Hashem continual supervises everything in existence
4) Hashem is the absolute authority over everything in existence

A Burial Highlights Our Collective Spiritual Sensitivity

Divisions have always been a factor among the Jews, and our times are no different, but at our core we’re all children of Abraham, partners in the covenant, possessing spiritual sensitivity, and destined to help the world unite and collectively connect to Hashem. An event last week brought this message home.

Through Facebook, I keep in touch with friends with whom I grew up. Our neighborhood synagogue was Conservative, but many people intermarried, although they have not lost an awareness of their Jewish heritage. Last week, a friend’s mother passed away and they asked me to officiate at the funeral. The oldest son recently had a conversation with the mother about whether she preferred a cremation or a burial. I’ve seen this before, and Rabbis have told me that the main reason that they consider cremation is because it is less expensive and because they were never taught the reasons behind Jewish laws and customs. When the spiritual concepts behind a proper Jewish burial are explained, many will pay the extra money to provide this for their parents.

At the advice of my Rav, my focus was to provide a proper burial for the mother, which primarily included a Tahara, a pine box casket, and the actual burial performed by the immediate family and myself. I emphasized the tremendous final act of loving-kindness they were performing and that struck a very deep spiritual and emotional chord.

In the eulogy, I spoke very briefly about the body, the soul and its immortality. I pointed out how the strong loving-kindness traits of the mother shaped her soul, and paralleled the primary spiritual traits of Sarah and Abraham. Every word was true and they clearly saw the spiritual connection between them, their mother and all the Jewish people. And this message can be made clear to almost all Jews that I know, observant or not, since they are spiritually sensitive and full of loving-kindness.

The collective soul of the Jewish People is the second highest of the five levels of the soul. Every Jew is a part of that collective soul and we immeasurably improve as individuals and as a people when we sensitize each other to our spiritual traits, specifically loving-kindness. In the merit of the loving-kindness of the deceased and her family, may we internalize this message a little more and help each other grow spiritually and connect to Hashem.

The Real Response to the Pew Report – Spiritual Proactivity

A FFB friend emailed me recently because he was very disheartened by the Pew Report and the potential loss of so many thousands of Jews. He wanted to know how I thought Kiruv played into the picture. I told him I thought that Kiruv has been very successful with the 60,000 – 100,000 families that have become observant. In fact many of us who read Beyond BT have been beneficiaries of that success. However I don’t think that our existing mindset will be successful at reaching out to the millions of Jews who are far from Torah and mitzvos. Let me explain why.

The primary role of the Jewish people is to be the spiritual leaders of the world. We’re here to lead the entire world towards connecting the physical world to Hashem. We lead by example. When the world sees clear evidence of the Jewish people’s connection to Hashem, we will assume our primary role as spiritual leaders.

However the vast majority of Jewish people have little spiritual connection to Hashem. How can we lead the world, if we as a people are not spiritually connected. It seems clear that Jews that are spiritually connected need to lead in connecting the Jews as a nation to Hashem. The problem is that even Jews who are regularly observing mitzvos are not achieving high levels of connection.

Let’s look at ourselves. We keep Shabbos, daven, learn, say 100 brachos a day, and observe many mitzvos, but can we honestly say that we and our peers are really connected. That fact becomes clear when you talk to a truly connected person. We’re doing the mitzvos, we’re fully observant, but we’re not achieving great results. It’s scary, but it’s true.

So let’s stop blaming this group, or these community deficiencies, or whoever is the scapegoat of the day or week. Let’s each look inside and take charge of our own spirituality. The purpose of the mitzvos is to connect us to Hashem, let’s focus on connecting as we do our mitzvos, pray, learn Torah and say our 100 brachos a day.

If we become spiritual proactive, and deepen our connection to Hashem through our Torah and mitzvos, the Pew Report will have served its real spiritual purpose.

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

Many veteran Chozrim B’Tshuva grapple with the problem of “plateauing”. The epiphanies and ecstasies of our journeys beginnings become ever-fading memories nearly lost in the mists of time. We yearn for those tempestuous days when every Torah thought was revolutionary and every insight was likely to generate a paradigm shift wherein one conceptual world view is replaced by another. Such insights fast-tracked our spiritual growth, empowered us to make major lifestyle changes and fueled our passion for Torah, Jewish community and our integration into K’lalYisrael. As months turned into years and decades we found ourselves confronted with the same sort of enthusiasm killing rote-Mitzvah-performance and been-there-done-that Torah study that dogged our FFB brethren. Now as we gray about the temples we’ve “arrived” as solid/stolid, well-established members of the Torah middle class. Yet in quiet desperation we ache for some miraculous elixir that will jump-start our growth and ascent.

The Izhbitzer Rebbe, HaGaon Rav Mordechai Yoseph Lainer OBM was the scion of a great Rabbinic dynasty and a leading disciple of the Chasidic schools of Przysucha (P’shischa) and Kotzk. In time he formed his own school. As a Rebbe-Chasidic Master in his own right he groomed and mentored such towering intellects and soaring spirits as Rav Leibeleh Eiger, Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin, his sons the Bais Yaakov and Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer and his grandson the Radzyner-Rav Gershon Henoch, the Ba’al HaT’cheles zecher kulom l’vracha.

Chasidic folklore has it that when Rav Mordechai Yoseph first visited Przysucha the Rebbe Reb Binim challenged him to…“see who’s taller”. Standing back to back, the strapping Rebbe towered over his diminutive neophyte disciple. Still, the Rebbe Reb Binim graciously conceded “Now I’m the taller one. But you’re still young. With the passage of time you shall grow” clearly implying that, ultimately, Rav Mordechai Yosephs level would exceed his own. That the student would grow taller than the mentor.

It was the Rebbe Reb Binim who first nicknamed Rav Mordechai Yoseph the Mei HaShiloach – “The Waters of the Shiloah”. This refers to the Silwan Brook that, by tradition, flowed slowly and deliberately through the Bais HaMikdash Courtyard. This flattering moniker is the Hebrew cognate of “still waters run deep”. The Rebbe Reb Binim said of Rav Mordechai Yoseph “He is like the waters of the Shiloah which flow unhurriedly and reach the deepest depths.”

The Rebbe Reb Binims assessment of the Izhbitzer was both apt and prescient. His Torah insights, and those of the school that he formed, eschew superficiality. While firmly anchored in Torah and Chasidic tradition the Torah of the Izhbitzer school is ground-breaking and, often, radical. An Izhbitzer insight turns everything we knew, all of our conventional Torah wisdom, on its ear. Not by overturning the apple cart but by digging more deeply and, as in the game of Boggle™, by shifting our vantage point. By turns genuine, profound, authentic and revolutionary the Divrei Torah of the Izhbitzer school have the power to help those of us who have flat-lined spiritually rediscover our red-blooded beating hearts and those of us on autopilot along the broad, well-traveled Torah information super-highway blaze new trails and ascend the roads less traveled.

This series, concentrating on the Parsha or the Jewish calendar, will attempt to draw still waters that run deep from Rav Mordechai Yosephs wellsprings for imbibing by the English speaking public. It is hoped that the refreshing Mei HaShiloach will serve (Mishlei 25:25) “As cold waters to a faint soul, so is good news from a far country” to recapture our youthful ardor to ascend for life.