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

Internalizing Torah Lends Confidence … NOT Smugness

Why is the Torah’s system called Halachah?
How does Halachah tread the fine line between confidence and conceit?

If you will “walk/go in” My statutes and are careful to fulfill my commandments…

— Vayikra 26:3

 What nation is so great, that they have Elokim so close to it, as HaShem our Elokim is at whatever time we call Him?

— Devarim 4:7

Rabi Tanhuma taught: Once there was a ship that set sail on the Great Sea.  All of the passengers were idolaters except for one Jewish youth. A furious storm ensued and the ship was tempest-tossed and in severe danger of sinking. Each and every one of the travelers grasped his icons or idols in hand and began reciting his prayers, but to no avail.  So they said to the Jewish youth “cry to the L-rd your G-d, for we have heard that when you [people] cry to Him; that He responds and that He is mighty. The youth immediately cried out [to HaShem] with all his heart, HaShem accepted his prayer and the storm calmed.  When the ship docked at a port on a unfamiliar island the other passenger told the Jewish youth “Here; take some of our money, go into the island and secure some provisions for us.” He said to them: “Aren’t I lodger and a stranger in these parts [the same as everyone else, how will I find my way around?] They responded “is there such a thing as a Jewish ‘stranger’ ? No!  Wherever you wander … your G-d is with you! behold; ‘that they have Elokim so close to it!‘ ”

— Talmud Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1, Midrash Devarim Rabbah 2:16

 “And he [Yaakov] come into contact with the Place” (Bereshis 28:11) Rav Huna said in the name of RavAmmi “Why do we euphemistically refer to HaShem as ‘The Place’? because HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.” As another pasuk indicates (Shemos 32:21): ‘Behold there is a place with Me i.e all space is under My domain’. And so we see that  HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.”

— Bereshis Rabbah 68:9

The all-encompassing system of Torah observance is known as Halachah; a conjugation of the Hebrew verb translated as “walking” or “going”. Arguably, this term derives from the opening pasuk of our Sidrah. “If you will walk/ go” in My statutes etc.”  The system of Torah statutes empowers those who study and observe it to move about and not static. Absent Torah knowledge one is left essentially paralyzed.  It’s often said that knowledge is power. In particular, Torah knowledge proffers the power to move.

The Ramchal offers this famous metaphor for the strategy and tactics of the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil:

For the yetzer hara literally blinds his eyes and he becomes as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before him which he fails to see. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Bava Metzia 83b), “You laid down darkness and it was night” (Psalms 104:20). This refers to this world [manipulated by the yetzer hara ]which is similar to the night.” … the darkness of night can cause two types of visual errors: it may conceal things completely such that one does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him so that a pillar appears to him as a man, or a man as a pillar. … The second error … is even worse than the first … inasmuch as it causes people to see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as if it were evil, and, because of this, [the wicked] strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find … empirical evidence supporting their evil theories and false ideas.” (Mesilas Yesharim 3)  If a wanderer finds himself lost in a forest that is either pitch black or, at twilight time, where beasts appear to be men and vice-versa then, in this type of dangerous situation, the wisest strategy is to hunker down and not move.

Shifting from the realm of the metaphoric to the sphere of the practical, this means that the greater ones Torah expertise is — the more luminous his “lighting” — the greater his agility and maneuverability in living his life becomes.  Many of us have desisted from making certain moves for fear that we might be breaking some Torah law unknown to us. So — on a very pragmatic level Torah knowledge and observance confers the power and the confidence to move about in ways that would have been avoided while shrouded in the shadows of Torah-ignorance. Thus Torah transforms “standers” into “walkers” and “goers”.

The Izhbitzer teaches that the meaning of the opening pasuk is Im b’Chukosai– if My statutes become chiseled into you; — part and parcel of you — then and only then … Teileichu-will you go; i.e. will you be empowered to move. Only when the Torah becomes engraved upon a person’s heart, if it becomes an intrinsic part of him can he then “go” and move. Otherwise shev v’ahl ta’aseh ahdiph-it’s better to sit and do nothing.

Internalizing the Torah essentially means inculcating the Divine Giver of the Torah as well. As our sages taught: Oraysa V’kudshah Brich Hu kulo Chad-the Torah and the Holy Blessed One are all One (Zohar I, 24A; II, 60A). With HaShem directing traffic kivyachol-as it were; he who has chiseled the Torahs statutes into himself possesses an internal moral compass and an ethical GPS kivyachol. As the Midrash indicates the nearly-shipwrecked philo-Semitic gentiles traveling with the Jewish youth expected him to be incapable of losing his way or making a misstep even in a literal, geographical sense.

The Izhbitzer reveals an even profounder level of the mobility of those who “walk in/with the Torahs statutes/ decrees.”

The possibility of one losing one’s way or entering terrain or seaways fraught with danger is predicated on the notion that there are, in fact, diverse locations with dissimilar characteristics; some that are out of harm’s way while others are perilous. But if this were all a mirage, if a man thought that he had journeyed a thousand miles but had in truth never left the room; then whatever dangers or missteps that he confronted along the way were, in truth, illusory. One who walks with HaShem is in THE Place.  HaShem is sometimes referred to as “the Place” because, as our sages taught, He transcends space.  He is not situated within a particular space, on the contrary all individual spaces and locations are situated within HaShem.

Mindful of this inner truth, the Talmud resolves a very thorny question:  We derive all 39 melachos-categories of the creative activities; prohibited on Shabbos, as well as the precise specifications of each prohibited category, from the Mishkan-the portable Tabernacle that was home to the Divine Indwelling during the forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness. The category known as stirah-deconstruction/ demolition; is derived from the breaking-down of the Mishkan’s structure into its component parts whenever the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish Nation; would break camp. Yet among the precise specifications for the prohibited category of stirah is that the one demolishing intends to build new construction on the site that he is now clearing:  “Rabbah asked Ulla, ‘Consider; all forms of melachah are derived from the Mishkan, yet there[in the case of the Mishkan]  it was deconstructing in order to rebuild elsewhere?’ Ulla answered ‘It was different there for since it is written: “By the Word of HaShem they camped and By the Word of HaShem they journeyed “(Bemidbar 9:23) it was like demolishing in order to rebuild on the same site.’ ”(Shabbos 31B). When one “travels” with HaShem no real change of location has occurred! In Halachah one can be a “traveler/ walker” with complete confidence. Still, the Izhbitzer cautions us not to allow confidence to outgrow healthy proportions and metastasize into arrogant smugness. In the pasukIf you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” the emphasis is on the word “if”.  Presuming that G-d walks with you, that G-d is on your side or, even, that you are on His; is always an uncertain, iffy proposition.  For even one who toes the halachic line may be contravening the depths of the Divine Will.

E.g. Debts are to be absolved during shmittah-the sabbatical year, and the Torah harshly criticizes potential lenders who withhold loans for fear of having to clear these loans. (cp Devarim 15:9) Yet the Mishnah still teaches (Shvi’is 10:8) that “If the borrower seeks to repay his debt during shmittah the lender should tell him ‘I absolve it’ but if the borrower persists and says ‘even so [I want to repay my debt]’ then the lender should accept payment from him. As the pasuk says ‘and this is the matter/ word of absolution.’ (Devarim15:2)” The very next Mishnah exclaims “the spirit of the sages is with all those borrowers who repay their loans on the seventh year.” (ibid:9).

On the surface, these Mishnayos seem counterintuitive and contra-halachic.  If the Torah refers to the sabbatical year as the shmittah-the absolution/ forgiving-of-debts year then it would seem that the releasing of loans is the very definition of such years. Then why should borrowers earn the sages favor by repaying their loans? We are compelled to dig beneath the surface and understand that the Torah contains depths of meaning beyond what is “written”, even within the oral tradition. Sometimes the halcahah, is like a baggy, loose-fitting cloak that conceals the true shape of what lies within [i.e. the Divine Will], rather than being a revealing, form-fitting, second-skin, leotard that conforms to the precise contours of that which/He Who is being clothed.

Regarding the mitzvah of shmittas kesafim-absolving loans during shvi’is; HaShem enlightened the sages to the Depths of His Will — that verbal forgiveness of the debt suffices and that actual absolution of the debt is not required.

But this is but a single example among the myriads of Mitzvos and Chukim of the Torah.  HaShem, kivyachol, is hedging His bets on us, His People.  He is, kivyachol, praying that we succeed in hewing to and completely fulfilling His Will. “If you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” because even if one observes every jot and tittle of the Shulchan Aruch-Code of Torah Law there is still no guarantee that he has conformed to the Will of HaShem on the profoundest levels, for what human being can plumb the Deepest Depths of the Divine Mind and Will?

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im
(the second of three)

Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im (the second)

If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

Why is contact with the dead prohibited to kohanim?
Why would Divine Providence create a kohen with a congenital mum-blemish; that disqualifies him from serving?
The Megadeph was apparently motivated by the holy yearning to “belong” to K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Why was he so severely punished?

[Still, in spite of the kohen being physically blemished] he may eat the bread [i.e. food sacrifices] of his G-d, both from the holy of holies, and from the holy. But he shall not come to the cloth partition, nor approach the altar, for he has a blemish …  

—Vayikra 21:22,23

 And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman had a quarrel with a man of Israel in the camp. And then the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, with a curse. The people brought him to Moshe[’s court]. And his mother’s name was Shlomis, the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.

—Vayikra 24:10,11

 the son of an Israelite woman…went out:  Where did he go out from? … He “went out” of Moshe’s court [with a] losing [verdict. How so?] He came into the encampment of the tribe of Dan [attempting] to pitch his own tent. So [a man of this tribe] said to him, “What right do you have to be here?” Said he, “I am of the descendants of Dan,” [claiming lineage through his mother] he said to him, “[But Torah says (Bemidbar 2:2): ‘The children of Israel shall encamp] each person near the flag-banner bearing his paternal family’s insignia,’” [thereby refuting his maternal claim]. He entered Moshe’s court [where his lawsuit against the tribesmen of Dan was tried], and he “came out” defeated. Then, he stood up and cursed. (Vayikra Rabbah 32:3)

—Rashi Ibid

 Rabi Eliezer son of Rabi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor … and was feeling … elated because he had studied much Torah . There he happened to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir”. He, however, did not return his welcome but instead said to him, “Empty one, how ugly you are! Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’’ The man replied: “I don’t know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How Ugly is the vessel which You have made’ “.

—Taanis 20 A-B

 As it was taught, Shimon HaAmsoni … interpreted every [word] es in the Torah; [but] as soon as he came to, “You shall fear [es] HaShem your Elokim” he abstained [from interpreting the word].  His disciples said to him, “Master, what is to happen with all the esin which you have interpreted?” [Stumped by how to interpret the current ‘es’ Shimon HaAmsoni renounced the legitimacy of all his prior es readings. He taught his students … ] “Just as I received reward for interpreting all these words so too will I receive reward for retracting them [my elucidations.]”

                                                                                                                                      —Pesachim 22B

In Parshas Emor the Izhbitzer concentrates a great deal on the issue of תרעומות כלפי מעלה tarumos k’lapee ma’alah–grievances against G-d. When comparing and contrasting the Izhbitzers understanding of the kohen ba’al mum–who is physically blemished or disabled; and the Megadeph-he who cursed; i.e. the defeated litigant in a lawsuit in Moshe Rabenu’s court who cursed G-d; we find that their diverse approaches to tarumos addresses a trait central to the core of Jewish identity.

When a kohen becomes tamei-ritually impure; more often than not the cause is his carelessness or other human error. Moreover, being tamei is a temporary condition. In cases of tumah-ritual impurity; there is no permanent loss of the privilege of serving HaShem in the Mikdash. While a kohen tamei may be miffed at losing his turn at serving in, or even entering, the Mikdash, relatively speaking it is easy for him to accept and come to terms with his disappointment and frustration. However, many of the physical blemishes or disabilities that render a kohen a ba’al mum are congenital birth-defects. A kohen ba’al mum places the responsibility for his permanent ineligibility to perform the Divine service in the Mikdash squarely on Hashems shoulders kivyachol-as it were.  After all, as in the case of the ugly man whom Rabi Eliezer verbally abused, the kohen a ba’al mum considers HaShem “the Craftsman who made me”. He is bewildered over why his Creator/ Craftsmen would have brought him thisclose to the Divine Mikdash service by having been born into the patrilineal Ahronic line yet, ultimately, excluded him and distanced him from Divine Mikdash service through “crafting” a “defective product”. In short, the kohen ba’al mum bears tarumos-heartfelt grievances; towards G-d.

The Izhbitzer understands the mitzvah addressed to the kohanim ba’alei mumim of eating of the korbanos– sacrificial offerings; as a way of appeasing them and addressing their tarumos. Their pnimiyus-their inner essence; even physically, is equivalent to all other kohanim. While the kohen ba’al mum may be blemished externally and superficially, his inner core lacks nothing.  More pointedly; his internal organs become another vehicle for intimacy with HaShem. HaShem is Just and determines precisely how many kohanim ba’alei mumim there must be and which particular souls will be implanted into these “defective” bodies. Through the mitzvah of eating of the korbanos the kohen ba’al mum achieves intimacy with the Divine and, while being kept at arm’s length, kivyachol, in terms of service in the Mikdash, comes to realize that this too is a fulfillment if HaShems Will. In achieving this consciousness the bitterness of his tarumos are sweetened; transformed into wistful, brokenhearted yearnings for the closeness achieved through service in the Mikdash.  In turn these yearnings engender the closeness and intimacy that HaShem has with the heartbroken “HaShem is close to the brokenhearted” (Tehillim 34:19 cp Zohar VaYesheiv page181A)

In contradistinction to the letting go of tarumos of the kohanim ba’alei mumim; the Megadeph allowed his tarumos to become his undoing. Per the Izhbitzer the inclusion of the narrative of the Megadeph in the Torah is only to serve as a cautionary tale of just how much we all need to rid ourselves of tarumos k’lapee ma’alah, even those rooted in the most noble of yearnings.

Read more If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

O Daddy … Where Art Thou?

Parshas Zachor-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

Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. When they encountered you [lit: cooled you off] on the way, you were tired and exhausted … they did not fear Elokim.

–Devarim 25:17,18

When they encountered: Heb. קָרְךָ, an expression denoting a chance occurrence (מִקְרֶה) … Yet another explanation: an expression denoting heat and cold (קוֹר). He “cooled you off” and made you [appear] lukewarm, after you were boiling hot, for the nations were afraid to fight you, [just as people are afraid to touch something boiling hot]. But Amalek came forward and started [waging war with you] and showed the way to others. This can be compared to a bathtub of boiling water into which no one could immerse himself. Along came a reckless man and jumped headlong into it! Although he scalded himself, he [succeeded in] making others think that it was cooler [than it really was]. [Tanchuma 9]

–Rashi ibid

Our Rabbis taught: [vis a vis parents] What is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘fear’ and what is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘honor’? ‘Fear’ means that he [the son] must not stand nor sit in his [the father’s] place, לא יסתור דבריו, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him. ‘Honor” means that he must feed and hydrate him, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.

–Kiddushin 31B

The relationship between the Jewish people and HaShem, and even between individual Jews and HaShem, is multifaceted.  Two familiar facets are those of our being subjects in G-ds Kingdom and of our being His children.  On every public fast day, most recently on Taanis Esther, we beseeched Avinu Malkenu– our Father/ our King.  To our detriment, true kings are very hard to find in contemporary society and, as such, we lack one of the primary role models for our relationship with HaShem.

Thankfully, at least fathers are ubiquitous and our relationships with our fathers can serve as ready metaphors from which we can draw relevant lessons in how to relate to HaShem.  And while, for many of us, the child-father relationship falls short of the ideal, if not being utterly dysfunctional, at least we have concrete, black on white parameters for what the ideal relationship ought to be as set down in Shas and in Shulchan Aruch in Hichos kibud av v’eim-the laws of honoring and being in awe of parents.

We are not permitted it to be soser the words/ matters of our fathers’.  This word, soser, is conventionally translated as “contradict.” But Rav Laibeleh Eiger reveals another layer of meaning in this word that impacts our understanding of the eternal war that we wage against Amalek:

Moshe Rabeinu was instructed to deliver this message at his first meeting with the Egyptian pharaoh as HaShem’s ambassador and as His agent to redeem His people from slavery: “this is what HaShem says: ‘Israel is My son — my firstborn. I’ve told you to send My son away [out of Egypt] to serve Me. If you refuse to let him leave I will ultimately kill your own firstborn son.’”(Shemos 4:22,23) As a result of the Exodus from Egypt HaShems Paternal relationship with the K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, became manifest and obvious for all the world to see.  Moreover, it revealed the fact that HaShem was a very involved Parent; a “helicopter Dadkivyachol -if you will, who was very concerned about his son’s welfare and insinuated himself directly into the sons affairs in order to relieve the sons suffering and to liberate him.

After the Exodus from Egypt K’lal Yisrael was cognizant of the special relationship that they enjoyed with HaShem.  However, around the time of their being attacked by Amalek, perceptions began to change.  For the nations of the world who were awestruck by the plagues of Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn and the utter destruction of the Egyptian military at the Sea of Reeds, it was not merely that the bloom was off the rose; it was that K’lal Yisrael had lost their air of invincibility.  Although Amalek had gotten its collective nose bloodied and had been “weakened” by Yehoshua; in launching their unprovoked attack on K’lal Yisrael they had blazed a trail and set the precedent for all future attacks, wars, ethnic-cleansings and genocides perpetrated by all future Jew-haters.

But, more significantly, doubts began creeping into the collective consciousness of K’lal Yisrael.  The Jews themselves internalized the implied message of Amalek’s attack. “If this could happen” the reasoning went “perhaps we are not really the apple of HaShem’s eye, maybe we are not so much different from the balance of humanity.  Who can still claim with confidence that we are His son and that He is our Father?” While the facts on the ground such as the manna bread from heaven and the miraculous cloud pillar should have eased these anxieties, nagging doubts remained.  They reasoned that HaShem must have some “hidden” agenda, something that is characterized by hester Panim-a concealment of the Divine Countenance.

Even before encountering Amalek the seeds of doubt had been planted in the national consciousness.  When K’lal Yisrael arrived at Rephidim there was no water readily available for them to drink.  Although Moshe Rabeinu worked the miracle producing the nomadic wellspring that would travel with K’lal Yisrael throughout their sojourn in the wilderness until death of Miriam; the upshot of that particular episode was this: “Moshe named the place Testing-and-Argument because the people had argued and had tested HaShem. They had asked ‘is HaShem within us or not?’” (Shemos 17:7).

Chaza”l provide a biting, acerbic characterization of  K’lal Yisrael’s ambivalence and under-confidence. “This can be compared to a man who carried his son on his shoulders and set out on the road. Whenever his son saw something, he would say, ‘Father, take it and give it to me,’ and he [the father] would do so. They met a man, and the son said to the man, ‘Have you seen my father?’ So his father said to the boy, “You don’t know where I am?” He threw him [his son] down off him, and a dog came and bit him [the son]. (Midrash Tanchuma, Yisro 3; Shemos Rabbah 26:2).  The boy in question never doubted whether or not he had a father.  He merely asked “do you see him … because I can’t!” The boy thinks that his father is out of sight — concealed.

The episode of Rephidim is the immediate preamble to the preemptive, unprovoked, initial attack of Amalek.  Amalek’s “chilling effect” did not merely cool down K’lal Yisrael in the court of public opinion but in their own self-perception and in their perception of HaShem as well.  While they still believed that they had a heavenly Father in the abstract, they were no longer able to “see” Him.  His administration of their affairs was now being orchestrated long-distance from behind a curtain, as it were.

In Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue, there are many words synonymous with a contradiction; listor-to demolish/deconstruct, l’chalek-to argue/separate, l’hakchish-to deny/thin-out, l’hitnaged-to oppose.  Yet the verb that our sages chose to impart the lesson of not contradicting ones father is the verb in that is etymologically related to hiddenness and concealment; לא יסתור דבריו.  Rav Laibeleh Eiger maintains that one of the subtextual messages of this halachah is that a son is prohibited from characterizing his father’s words/deeds as being covert and clandestine.  The prohibition can be translated “he should not hide his father’s words/matters.” On a national level as a result of the chilling effect of Amalek’s onslaught, this is precisely the prohibition that K’lal Yisrael contravened in their relationship with their Father in heaven.

Rav Laibeleh teaches that part and parcel of our mitzvos to remember and to wage war against Amalek is to fight and suppress our own internal Amalek; the self-sabotaging a voice within our individual and collective psyches that mitigates and that dilutes the unique son-Father relationship that we enjoy with HaShem.  We need to scrap and claw to move beyond an abstract philosophical recognition of HaShems Administration of our affairs.  Knowing that we have a Father in heaven is insufficient.  We must fight the good fight to achieve a visceral awareness that we are riding on His shoulders and that He is always carrying us.  We need to develop the vision to see that our merciful father is directly and intimately dealing with us;  His firstborn son.  As the prophet thunders “O Why Yaakov do you say, and speak, O Israel: ‘My way is hidden from HaShem, and my justice is passed over by my G-d’”? (Yeshaya 40:27)

We must always remember and never forget that while our King may be remote and inaccessible and may be conducting a clandestine foreign policy or waging a covert military operation our Father is loving, merciful, intimate and directly involved in our affairs. Parshas Zachor would be a great time to start remembering this and, while listening to Megillas Esther is something that we do with our ears, in order to truly vanquish Amalek we needed to sharpen our eyes to abide by the halachah of  לא יסתור דבריו, do right by our Father in heaven and do our own personal Megillas Hester-revealing of the concealment.

~adapted from Toras Emes Zachor/ Tetzaveh 5628/1868 D”H Amru

Turning Ourselves Upside Down and Inside Out

Ki Sisa 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 turned away and began descending the mountain with the two Luchos HaEdus-Tablets of Testimony, in his hand. They were written on both sides with the writing visible from either side.  The Tablets were made by HaShem and written with HaShems script engraved upon the Tablets.

-Shemos 32:15,16

Rav Chisda said: “the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously” and, he added, “what was written on the Luchos could be read from ‘the inside and from the outside’ [i.e. from the front and from the rear] for example נבוב/בובן =nevuv/ buvan; רהב/ בהר =rahav/ behar; סרו/ ורס=saru/v’ras.

-Shabbos 104A

The writing pierced the entire Tablet. Hence a miracle was required so that the entirely circular letters of [the closing] mem and samach could be read accurately [without the circle in the middle falling out.]

-Rashi ibid

The words of Torah engraved upon the Luchos-tablets, penetrated the stones all the way through, from the front of the stones to their backs.  To illustrate this point, Rav Chisda mentions three words and their dyslexic inversions. Both Rashi and Tosafos ad locum are puzzled by the words that the he chose to use as examples.

Rashi simply states that these words did not actually appear in the tablets; that Rav Chisda chose words at random. Rashi further maintains that we learn nothing more from these examples than that the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously. Per Rashi, Rav Chisda seems to be repeating himself.  Tosafos is more explicit and asks why would Rav Chisda do such a thing when he could have illustrated the same point using words that actually do appear in the aseres hadibros-Decalogue.

Additionally there is a margin gloss on that page of the Gemara that changes the sequence of one of the pairs of words; from rahav/ behar to behar /rahav, presumably because in the other two pairs of words the familiar, meaningful word appears first followed by the inverted, and apparently nonsensical, gibberish word.

The Izhbitzer teaches that Rav Chisda was describing two distinct miraculous, gravity-defying properties of the Torah; the ability to keep things that ought to be moving and falling stationary and the ability to effect drastic movement on things that otherwise would petrify and stay frozen in their places. The former being the stone “donut holes” in perfectly chiseled circles and the latter being the midos-character traits, of set-in-their-ways human beings.

None of the words that Rav Chisda uses to illustrate the latter point are gibberish, nor were they chosen at random.  The Izhbitzer presents a close study of the root etymology of these words to reveal that they are polar opposites and not mere word jumbles arbitrarily spelled backwards.  The inverted spellings serve as a metaphor for the words antithetical meanings. Think of an easy-to-remember lexicon of antonyms where every words antonym was merely the same letters arranged in the opposite order e. g. if the antonym of “cold” was not “hot” but “dloc” or if the antonym of “bottom” was not “top” but “mottob”.

The words that Rav Chisda chose describe midos that are antithetical to one another.  Taking issue with margin gloss the Izhbitzer asserts that the Gemara’s text stand as is, for in each illustrative example the first word describes a negative, antisocial midah-character trait, while the second defines it’s positive polar-opposite midah.

The outer, copper mizbayach-altar of the Mishkan was constructed by filling in a copper plated acacia wood shell with soil or sand.  The Torah calls this construction method nevuv luchos-a hollow structure made out of boards (Shemos 27:8).  This is the precedent for the word nevuv describing something hollow.  When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to an empty-headed ignoramus, void of any Torah content.  Whereas the word buvan is etymologically related to the word binah, the word that defines the cognitive faculty for understanding and deductive reasoning.  Torah has the power to transform minds and spirits that are vacuum-like voids into minds and spirits filled to overflowing with meaningful, intelligent content and wisdom.

The Zohar (parshas Terumah 170B) teaches that the “prince”/guardian angel of Mitzrayim-the Egyptians, was named  Rahav.  In Jewish lore the ancient Egyptians were infamous for their licentiousness and unbridled passion.  This is the precedent for the word “rahav” describing something sensual and lusty. When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to a ba’al ta’avah-someone overly drawn to, and even obsessed with, the temporal pleasures of the here-and-now world. Whereas the word behar-“in the mountain” connotes both being elevated from the earth and its mundane concerns and materialistic pleasures and being in an atmosphere that is less humid and drier than the air in lower elevations, in particular, in valleys.  Dry mountain air is symbolic of a dispassionate, sober and abstinent sensibility. Torah has the power to transform minds plagued by untoward thoughts and spirits drawn to immorality into drier, cooler minds and spirits that aspire to the noble, the lofty and the otherworldly.

The word saru (generically translated as: ”they strayed ”) refers, in particular, to one who has ossified and hardened because of anger and bitterness; as in “the king of Israel went to his house (סר)surly and  (וזעף) disgruntled, and came to Samaria.” (Melachim I 20:43) Or as we find the Gemara admonishing as us against verbally abusing a disenfranchised minority because “their hardened anger is terrible.” (Bava Metzia 59B)  The word v’ras is etymologically related to the root ras which connotes softness and fluidity. E.g. “so long as one would be memareis –shake or stir, the blood of the Passover sacrifice … [in order that it retain fluidity and not harden and coagulate.”] (Mishnah Pesachim 61A) Or as in laros es hasoles– and 1/3 of a hin of oil, to moisten the fine flour. (Yechezkel 46:14) Torah can help spirits hardened by rage and bitterness, regain gentleness, suppleness and goodwill.

According to The Izhbitzer’s interpretation both the word choices and the sequence in Rav Chisda’s second statement were very specific.  All three word pairings convey the concept that the Torah is more than a guide to self-improvement; it is transformative and empowers those who study it and observe its mitzvos to achieve a 180° turnaround and makeover.

ADDENDUM AS OF 12:20 AM EST 2.14.14

This concept is echoed by other Chasidic masters in their commentaries to Avos and Tehillim.

He (Rabi Yaakov) would also say: A שעה אחת sha’ah achas– single hour, of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than the entire life of the World to Come. 

-Pirkei Avos 4:22

 … and HaShem turned towards-vayisha, the offering of Hevel. But to Kayin and towards his offering, He did not turn-lo sha’ah and Kayin became very furious and depressed.

-Bereshis 4:4,5

He [HaShem] has distanced our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.

-Tehillim 103:12

The Kozhnitzer Maggid provides a novel translation of the word sha’ah.  Based on the pesukim describing the HaShems acceptance of Hevels offering His rejection of Kayins offering the Maggid translates the word to mean — turning. I.e. A sha’ah achas– a single transformative “turn”; of repentance and good deeds in this world — an epiphany, a consciousness altering revolution, that turns someone completely around; upside down and inside out, that kind of teshuvah — THAT is what’s greater than the entire life of the World to Come.

The pasuk in Tehillim begs the question; just how far is east from west?  Is it the vastness that intervenes between California and Eastern Europe?  Is it the expanse of continents and oceans that separate New York and China?  Or, perhaps, is it a short as the relatively minor distance between an address on west 57th street and east 57th street on Manhattan Island?  The Rebbe Reb Avraham the second of Slonim explains that the distance between east and west is minute.  If one is standing facing the east, rotates on his heels, and does a 180° about-face, he has “traveled” as far as the east is from the west. One needn’t journey far in order to be distanced from his transgressions.  What one must do, however, is to make a U-turn.

As one great and influential 20th century rosh yeshivah put it “teshuvah is nisht dehr taitch besser tsu verren … nohr anderish tzu verren-teshuvah is not ‘becoming better’ but ‘becoming different’” It is not about self-improvement but about total transformation.  This is the message and the power of the Torah words that were engraved all the way through the Luchos.

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Ki Sisa D”H Vayifen

and from MiMayaanos HaNetzach Pirkei Avos 4:22

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 

Facebook, Transparency and the Next World

Like everybody and his old chum from 10th grade biology, I’m on Facebook. Thanks to Facebook, reconnecting with people from the past has never been easier. Type in the name of someone you knew at any phase of your life – elementary school, summer camp, your first job out of college – and quite likely, you’ll find a picture of that very person, all grown up with a whole life story to tell you. So when I saw the prompt about reconnecting with old friends, I decided not to address the issue per se, but to present what I call “my Facebook moshol.”

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that joining Facebook has made me reflect on my past and my present, who I used to be and who I’ve become. Sometimes recalling the past is just pure fun and nostalgia. Sometimes, the memories are more mixed. When I try and imagine myself from the point of view of people I haven’t seen in years and who might remember me in less than flattering ways, Facebook is not so pleasant. And therefore, I want to put forth the theory – and I mean no sacrilege – that Facebook is a foretaste of the Next World.

Most of what I know about the Next World, I learned from Rabbi B. Shafier of The Shmuz, specifically his three-part lecture “Life 101,” which is the basis for his new book, The Shmuz on Life. The only things we take to the Next World are our neshomas and our deeds. Our deeds become, as it were, the clothing for our neshomas. Our mitzvos will shine on us like jewelry, but our aveiros will look like rags. And worse, they’ll have holes in them that will expose what we’d prefer to keep covered. For those, we’ll suffer eternal shame. In the Next World, we’ll experience both the honor of Heaven and the shame of Hell at the very same time.

So what does that have to do with Facebook? The neshoma of everyone you’ve ever known will be there, as visible as a profile picture – except there’s no privacy option, no choice not to upload. We’ll all be there, and we’ll all see each other. It’s the ultimate transparency.

But even transparency has mitigating factors. In the words of computer culture expert David Weinberger, “An age of transparency must be an age of forgiveness.” If I can see your sins and you can see mine, we can sympathize with each other for being such imperfect human beings. And since I want my sins erased, how can I begrudge you the same?

But the most important mitigation comes from seeing our lives in broader context. In this world, we get a little of that with the passage of time, but in the Next World, we’ll be able to see much, much more. Yes, the good, the bad, and the ugly will be part of the picture, but so will Hashem’s intentions for us, our spiritual purpose, why x circumstance was not negative, but necessary. I suppose in this sense, my Facebook moshol falls short, but even still, I heard in the name of the Chofetz Chaim that every technological innovation hints to some parallel spiritual experience, and this age of reconnection and transparency might be a taste of those aspects of the World to Come.

Originally Published Feb 7, 2011

Righteous Indignation—the Root of Prayer and Salvation

Shemos-An installment in the series

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

Blessed is Elokim, who has not removed my prayer, or His loving-kindness from me.

-Tehillim 66:20

The Izhbitzer taught that before the Divine Will to liberate is at hand a person remains blind, deaf and dumb to his own need for deliverance. The person cannot see his deficiencies and has no idea as to what he is lacking. However, once there is a Divine Will to liberate, It allows the one in need of deliverance to see the root cause of his deficiencies and proffers him the capacity to pray and cry-out for salvation.  Next, the one in need of deliverance begins to bluster and create a prayerful ruckus to HaShem. Then, HaShem shines his chessed– loving-kindness and the actual salvation transpires.

This is what the psalmist, King Dovid, meant when he wrote said “ … who has not removed my prayer, nor His loving-kindness from me.”  Even though the prayer is “mine” it is HaShem who implants the desire to utter it in my heart, He could remove it — but He chooses not to.

A long time then passed and the king of Egypt died. The children-of-Israel groaned (due to) [from] their slavery and they cried out; and their supplications ascended to G-d from [amidst] the slavery.

-Shemos 2:23

If one wanted to create a timeline charting the Geulah-salvation from Galus Mitzrayim-the Egyptian exile, the split second of this collective national groan would be the starting point of the timeline.  Before that moment they had no impetus, no drive to pray and call out to G-d. When the Divine Will decreed that the time for Geulah had come, HaShem stimulated their desire to be extricated from Galus and the will to pray for this salvation.  For the naissance of every salvation is the desire for salvation.

The Izhbitzer’s elder son, the Bais Yaakov, develops this concept further: The period of nocturnal darkness that is most intense and most concealing is the one directly preceding the dawning of the light. Our sages refer to this as קדרותא דצפרא–the starless morning gloom, and use it as a metaphor for the intensification of Jewish suffering. “A man and his young son were wandering on the seemingly interminable road and the boy began despairing of ever returning to civilization. ‘Father’ he asked ‘Where is the city?’ The man responded ‘Son, when we pass a graveyard that will be the sure sign that a city is not far off.‘  Similarly the prophet told K’lal Yisrael–the Jewish People ‘If you are swamped by travails you will be redeemed immediately — HaShem will respond on the day of your suffering’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 20:580)

When the new king ramped up the sadistic slave-labor he had overplayed his hand.  Somehow, the human capacity for adaptation to trying circumstances had allowed K’lal Yisrael to endure the slavery up until that point. They had grown inured and insensitive to the agonies and the indignities that their taskmasters heaped upon them.  But when the oppression intensified they finally sensed their own innate freedom and free men cannot tolerate being enslaved. They felt the pain and suffering of their slavery and began to sniff the sweet aroma of liberation. When it hurts, one groans and screams; ויזעקו   –“and they cried out.”

It wasn’t so much that the liberation was a response to the crying out, as the crying out was a reaction to the liberation process that had begun internally. By implementing the Geulah from the inside out it was, in fact, HaShem who gave them the drive to cry out.  This is the meaning of the pasuk “HaShem, You have heard the yearning of the humble: You will prime their heart, Your Ear will be attentive” (Tehillim10:17).  Once the human heart is primed for prayer that is the sure sign that the Divine Ear has already been attentive to the distress and taken the initial steps towards ending it. HaShem develops Geulah gradually until it is actualized. It begins with the end of endurance of Galus and the capacity to feel the pain, progresses to hope and the conviction that HaShem can help, flowers into crying out in prayer and culminates in the actual Geulah.

The Bais Yaakov adds an etymological insight: two nearly synonymous words in lashon kodesh-the holy tongue mean “to cry out”, זעקה-zeakah (beginning with the letter zayin) andצעקה  –tzeakah (beginning with the letter tzadee). Tzeakah is the verb employed when things are hopeless and the path to salvation is completely obscured. As that pasuk says “This case is identical to a man rising up against his neighbor and murdering him. After all, she was assaulted in the field, even if the betrothed girl had cried out (צעקה beginning with a tzadee) there would have been no one to come to her aid and save her (literally: she would have had no savior.)” (Devarim 22:26, 27)

Whereas zeakah is the verb employed when things are no longer hopeless and the salvation begins to become palpable. This type of “crying out” takes place when, sensing the possibility of salvation, one begins marshalling and concentrating all of his faculties towards the achievement of this goal, evoking a corresponding Divine response.  At its root the verb zeakah means to coalesce and band together as in וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-עֲמָשָׂא, הַזְעֶק-לִי אֶת-אִישׁ-יְהוּדָה שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וְאַתָּה, פֹּה עֲמֹד “And the king said to Amasha: muster the men of Judah together for me within three days, and you be present here.”  It is this latter verb that connotes hope and faith in the salvation, which our pasuk uses to describe the crying-out; וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ – The children-of-Israel groaned due to their slavery and they cried out.

The first of the four famous expressions of Geulah (Shemos 6:6) is typically translated as “and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” But the first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chidushei haRi”m  reads it in a way that resonates with the Izhbitzer’s  fixing the split second of this collective national groan as the starting point of the Geulah from Galus Mitzrayim. The Ri”m renders the first expression of Geulah as “and I will extricate you from your patience (savlanus), from your capacity to bear it [Galus Mitzrayim] anymore” for the redemptive process cannot begin as long as the exile can be tolerated.  Only after the Bnei Yisrael can no longer bear it and are disgusted by it, can the Galus be liquidated.  Getting in touch with their inner freeman, they must first grow furiously offended about the affront to their dignity — the insult, more than the injury, of slavery.

Hashem doesn’t take the slaves out of slavery until he takes the slavery out of the slaves.

Adapted from:

Mei Hashiloach II Shemos D”H Vayeanchu
Bais Yaakov Shemos inyan29 D”H Vayeanchu page 29 (15A)
and inyan 30 D”H Vayeanchu page 30 (15B)

Originally posted Dec 2014

Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

What is the significance of HaShem making promises to an unconscious , sleeping Yaakov?
Why did HaShem allow Yitzchak to be duped by Rivkah and Yaakov to be deceived by Leah?
Why does our mystical tradition refer to Rachel as the “revealed world” and to Leah as “the hidden world?

Yitzchak summoned Yaakov, bestowed a blessing on him and commanded him “Do not marry a Canaanite girl”.

— Bereishis 28:1

Yaakov left Beersheba and headed toward Charan … taking some stones he placed them about his head and lay down to sleep there … Suddenly [he observed] HaShem Standing  over him … [HaShem said] I am with you. I will Safeguard you howsoever you go.

— Bereishis 28:10,11,13,15

HaShem Elokim said “it is not good for man to be alone. I will Make him a challenging helper.”

— Bereishis 12:18

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a Bas Kol-Echo of the Divine Voice; emanates and proclaims, The daughter of A is destined for B.’”

— Sotah 2A

House and riches are the legacy of fathers; but a sensible wife is from HaShem.

— Mishlei 19:14

We see from all segments of the tripartite Torah that the match between a woman and a man is from HaShem[‘s Divine Providence.]

— Moed Katan 18B

There are those who must go after their mates and others whose mates come to them. Yitzchak’s mate came to him, as it is written “(He raised his eyes) and beheld camels coming [transporting his bride Rivkah.] (Bereishis 24:63)” Yaakov went after his mate, as it is written “Yaakov left Beersheba … (Bereishis 28:10) “

— Bereishis Rabbah 68:3

Yaakov loved Rachel and said [to Lavan] “I will work for seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.” … In the evening he [Lavan] took his daughter Leah to Yaakov who consummated the marriage with her … In the morning discovering that she was Leah [not Rachel] he said to Lavan  “How could you do this to me? Didn’t I labor with you for Rachel[‘s hand in marriage]? Why did you cheat me?

— Bereishis 29: 18, 23,25

A reasonable argument can be made that THE greatest enigma in all of Jewish thought is the conundrum of Yediah u’bechirah-HaShem’s perfect infallible Foreknowledge vs. human free-will. But spinning off of this supreme enigma there are many sub-riddles and mysteries e.g. the particular Providential involvement that our sages ascribe to one’s destined marriage partner. Another example are narratives, both scriptural and personal, of “all’s well that ends well.” There are times when what we think, say or do seems to be thoughtless, ethically neutral or even contrary to the Divine Will. However when later chapters of these biographies are written by the Divine Author, with the passage of time and with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, we realize that, in truth, what we thought, said or did carried a positive ethical charge and was consistent with the Divine Will.

Our sages divide the Providential involvement in matching men with their destined marriage partners into two broad categories:  those who must go after their mates and those whose mates come to them.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, explains that when the Divine Will ordained the creation of woman as a helper to man that, this help too, would manifest itself in two different ways: There are times when a man is proactive in the pursuit of a woman and chooses a mate based on what his rationale, and the rationale of his heart, dictate. He marries a woman in whom heperceives the qualities that will aid him in his life’s work and mission. Such men are among those “who must go after their mates.”

Then there are men whose mates are not at all in accordance with what would naturally be assumed or expected. They come to their husbands without the latter having invested any intellectual, spiritual or emotional capital in determining whether or not they would “make sense” as a married couple. HaShem sends this woman to this man in ways that are counterintuitive and that, at first, seem to thwart both the Divine Will and hinder or delay the achievement of the husband’s goals.

Read more Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

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

The Simple Path Starts With Why

Judaism is simple. Jews are complex.

What do I mean by this statement?

Gd created a beautiful world. The plan was straightforward. He places us in a world in order to benefit and give of His goodness. Period.

So you ask, what happened? Why is there so much suffering, war, illness and tragedy.

And I respond.

We have become detached from Gd’s original kavana (intent). It’s that simple, my friends. Hashem laid out a clear and simple path for us to follow. It contains 613 pieces of advice on what you need to do in order to live a perfect life full of meaning and purpose.

Why then do so many Jews feel disconnected and confused? How have we have become so detached from His original kavana? Why is living a Jewish life so complicated?

I have just completed reading Simon Sinek’s book on leadership “Start with Why”. Although Sinek’s target audience is clearly the business world, the principles he lays down have a far broader reach. Let me explain.

Sinek developed what he calls “The Golden Circle” that contains three concentric circles. The inner circle is WHY? The middle circle is HOW? The outer circle is WHAT? He explains that all businesses are quite clear on what they do. Fewer business have an effective and efficient process for determining HOW they do WHAT they do, while a handful of business know WHY they do WHAT they do.

What differentiates highly successful businesses from those that are mediocre is there starting point. If you begin with the WHAT you do before you have developed a process for HOW you will do it before you have clearly defined WHY , then you are heading down a path where mediocrity at best and bankruptcy at worse are the more likely outcomes.

If, however, you start from the inside out, then you create a very different reality. When we have a clearly defined WHY, you are clear WHY you or your business exists? Your WHY will naturally give birth to HOW should you run your business, it will be clear which best practices and processes are fully aligned with your WHY. And then that HOW determines WHAT exactly you need to do to give expression to your WHY

The model is simple and brilliant.

When it comes to Judaism most Jews are familiar with WHAT they need to do. We know there is a Torah that contains mitzvot that we need to adhere to. Fewer Jews know HOW to keep those mitzvot, while an even smaller number understand WHY. This, in my humble opinion, is the tragedy of Jewish Education today.

In Jewish Day Schools we teach our children what to do and offer them guidance in how to do it properly but it is less common to find educators who inspire their students with the WHY. How many of our students or their teachers know the WHY of Judaism? And perhaps herein lies the reason for their disconnect. When my WHY is unclear, my WHAT lacks meaning and purpose.

As Jews, our WHY is defined by the Giver of good, by Gd himself. Our WHY is to connect with Gd – uldovcha bo. We are even given the WHAT in the form of the Torah. The Torah is an instructional manual on WHAT we need to do to fulfill the WHY. The HOW is left to our domain. HOW we choose to infuse and express our emotional connection to Gd is our unique purpose. As long as your HOW does not conflict with the WHAT, and the purpose of Halacha is to set the rules of engagement, then you have complete freedom to connect with Gd through the unlimited expression of your energies, talents, skills and gifts in the world. The more you express your HOW, in alignment with the WHAT, in order to achieve the WHY, the happier, more fulfilled and more connected you feel.

Judaism is experiential. Volumes about Gd can be written and hours of lectures can be presented but until one actually experiences the connection with the Divine it all remains theoretical. So while the WHAT (experience) is critical, it is far more uplifting when the WHY is at the fore of the conscious experience.

We invest a huge amount of time and energy attempting to discover and calculate our purpose. Why am I here? Should I be a plumber or a teacher? What am I meant to be doing with my life?

The answer, dear friends, to all these questions, lies in our ability to follow the simple path laid out before us by our Creator. Simply stated

To connect to Hashem,
by fulfilling His will
as described in the Torah
in my unique way.

Rabbi Goldman writes at hitoreri.com

If You Could Be Supergirl

The new CBS drama “Supergirl” premiered last night to surprisingly positive reviews. (No, I didn’t watch it.) Critics liked the return to an all-American, disarmingly optimistic protagonist after the recent rash of moody, brooding, self-doubting superheros who spend one moment saving the world and the next wallowing in their own personal angst.

Perhaps “Supergirl” is a step back toward lost innocence, and maybe a step forward toward a future when traditionalists don’t have to apologize for their commitment to traditional values.

We can only hope, and contemplate these thoughts on heroism, which were originally published in 2008 on Aish.com.

If You Could Be Superman

The question caught me off guard, which doesn’t happen often after 15 years in the classroom. “If you could have any superpower,” asked Aliza, the ‘reporter’ for the school newspaper, “which would you choose?”

I pondered my choices. Super strength? Invisibility? Mind control? X-ray vision? I wouldn’t like becoming a green mutant like the Incredible Hulk, but swinging on webbed ropes like Spiderman might be cool.

The question is more than a variation on the genie-in-the-bottle scenario. Three wishes make narrowing the field of possibilities much easier, and focus on what you want to have, as opposed to who you want to be.

Ironically, it was two Jews who brought the whole genre of superheroes into the collective consciousness of popular culture. In 1933 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, responded to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany by reinventing their comic character, Superman, as a defender of truth, justice, and the American way. The only time they couldn’t work on their project was Thursday nights, when their “drawing board” was confiscated by Joe’s mother, who used it to knead the dough for her Shabbos challah.

Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, and the Green Lantern were all created by Jews as well. For the not-yet assimilated Jew trying to find his place in gentile society, the invincible alter ego of the mild-mannered misfit was the perfect symbol of cultural ambivalence.

Jewish tradition has its share of larger than life heroes. Samson defeated the Philistines with superhuman strength. Jacob’s son Naftali possessed supernatural speed. The biblical prophets predicted the future and performed countless miracles, including at least two incidents of resurrecting the dead. The kabbalistic literature includes credible accounts of sages possessing knowledge of other’s secret thoughts or personal histories.

A proper understanding of these narratives requires an appreciation that the personalities in the Bible are not cartoon characters. Moses was infinitely greater than Charlton Heston could ever make him out to be, and the memory of Samson is poorly served by his common portrayal as a World Wrestling Federation caricature. The biblical heroes of Judaism were real people who, through extraordinary dedication and self-sacrifice, achieved extraordinary things.

The Responsibilities Of Power

Nevertheless, there is a critical point in common between the heroes of Jewish tradition and the heroes of comic book fantasy: all recognized that their unique talents and abilities obligated them in service beyond individual self-interest. As Cliff Robertson says to Tobey Maguire in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility”.

crossing-the-red-seaThe heroes of the Bible did not seek greatness. Moses tried to argue his way out of the yoke of national leadership. The prophet Jeremiah protested that he was too young and inexperienced to rebuke his fellow Jews. Samson’s divine mission was prophesied before his birth. Yet each of them rose to the responsibility imposed upon him by the power with which he was endowed by his Creator.

Consider the structure of the Jew’s daily prayer, composed by the sages to include every possible category of request. We ask for knowledge, so that we can know the difference between right and wrong. We ask for forgiveness, repentance, redemption from our problems, health, guidance, and for the arrival of the messianic era. In short, we ask for the Almighty to bestow upon us the resources we need to help bring His plan for creation closer to its fulfillment.

None of which requires superpower.

The Real Heroes

So what should one ask of his Creator? It is with this request that the devout Jew begins his day: Bring us not into the hands of careless sin or wanton transgression, nor into the hands of trials or disgrace; let us not fall under the dominion of the inclination to do evil, and distance us from wicked men and every wicked companion. We do not ask for super power to defeat our enemies, but for the inner strength and the divine protection to rule over ourselves.

The attraction of superhuman power and the mystique of superheroes springs forth from a romantic adventurism that renders ordinary life unsatisfying by comparison. We find our lives mundane and therefore long for the excitement of fantasy. We discard the value of the everyday and seek to live vicariously through the imagined and the unattainable.

It is noteworthy, therefore, that Biblical Hebrew contains no word for either romance or adventure. These are concepts of the modern world, both of them betraying the modern world’s dissatisfaction with reality.

So what superpower would I ask for? I still can’t say. And when I asked a group of my students, not one would commit to an answer. Perhaps our reticence comes from our innate appreciation that we are already supermen by virtue of the soul that resides within us. How else to explain the courage that compels human beings to battle daily against ignorance, prejudice, laziness, impatience, dishonesty, and deceit. To conquer those enemies, day after day and year after year, and to return to the fight when they have conquered us — this is the measure of true heroism.

We don’t need super powers to become extraordinary. Striving to fulfill the potential with which we were endowed by our Creator makes us the greatest hero of all.

Take a look at Rabbi Goldson’s latest book: Proverbial Beauty: Learn to Love Life.

Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

Do animals have rights?
Why was meat-consumption forbidden to Adam but permitted to Noach?
If permitting meat was a reward for Noach saving the other species during the great deluge why is fish-consumption permitted?

… fill up the land and subjugate it. Have dominance over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky and over every living animal that creeps on the land. And Elokim said “I have given you all seedbearing greenery on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seedbearing fruit — it will [all] be yours — for your consumption. And for all beasts of the earth, and for all birds of the sky and for everything that creeps on the land —that contains a living soul — all plant vegetation will be food.” It was so.

— Bereishis 1:28-30

There shall be fear and dread of you instilled in  all of the wild beasts of the earth and in all the birds of the sky, and in in all that creep on the land and in all fish of the sea, I have placed them in your hands. Every living thing that moves will be to you as food. Like plant vegetation I have now given you everything.

— Bereishis 9:2,3

Rav Yehudah, quoting Rav, said “Animal flesh (meat) was not permitted to the first Man [nor to subsequent human beings until Noach emerged from the ark] as a food. For it is written [when Elokim spoke to Adam, the first Man] ‘I have given you all seedbearing greenery … it will [all] be yours — for your consumption and for all beasts of the earth.’ But NOT ‘the beasts of the earth’ for you[r consumption. But when the sons of Noach came [out of the ark] He permitted it [meat consumption] to them, as it says ‘Like plant vegetation I have now given you everything.’

 — Sanhedrin 59B

All the rivers run into the sea

— Koheles 1:7

Hillel would say: … “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die!”

— Avos 2:4

Once, Rabi Pinchas ben Yair was on his way to [perform the great mitzvah of] redeeming captives, and came to the river Ginnai. “O Ginnai” he said, “part your waters for me, so that I may pass through you”. It replied “You are about to do the will of your Maker; I, too, am [presently] doing the will of my Maker [by flowing naturally]. You may or may not accomplish your purpose; I am sure of accomplishing mine.”

— Chulin 7A

HaShem has made all things for His own purpose i.e. to praise Him.

— Mishlei 164 and Yalkut Shimoni ibid

Elokim saw the world and it was ruined.  All flesh had perverted its way on earth.

— Bereishis 6:12

 Even domesticated animals, wild animals, and birds would mate with those who were not of their own species.

— Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Noach 12

 

All creatures of the creation were brought into being with their full stature and capacities, their full assent, and their full beauty, as it says, “And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the of their legions” [tzeva’am]( Bereishis2:1). Do not read the word as tzeva’am, but tzivyonam [their beauty].

— Rosh Hashanah 11A

Many great commentaries and thinkers have weighed in on whether or not meat-consumption was permitted to the first ten generations of humankind and if, indeed, it was not, why was it permitted to Noach, his sons and to all subsequent generations of humankind?

Sundry approaches maintain that early man was too exalted to be a carnivore (Abarbanel, Rav Kook) or that early man was too debased to be a carnivore (Keli Yakar).  Some argue that the pragmatic nutritional concerns of the weaker, postdiluvian human bodies combined with a simultaneous dwindling in the capacity of botanic life to provide nourishment necessitated a switch to a meat-supplemented / based diet (Malbim, Tzeror Hamor).  One school of thought maintains that the dispersion of mankind across the globe to far-flung habitats lacking reliable plant-food supplies rendered vegetarian/ vegan diets a recipe for starvation (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman). Still others assert that mankind had “earned” the right to become carnivorous due to Noachs righteousness and/ or herculean efforts in saving and feeding all of the animal species (Ramban, Meshech Chochmah et al). This last approach begs the questions of why fish, which survived the mabul-great deluge; without Noachs intervention, are permitted for human consumption?

What all the widely divergent opinions do seem to agree upon is a human-centric line of reasoning. All concur that the solution to the riddle of why Adam and his descendants were prohibited from eating meat — while Noach and his descendants were not — inheres in some way or another in qualitative differences that occurred in those doing the eating; not in those being eaten.  The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, develops an approach that is, at least partially, animal-centric. However, to understand it we first need to appreciate the relative advantages in being human or in being animal.

Read more Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Why are the demographic categories of the Jewish people divided into two distinct pesukim?
What is the underlying dynamic of the conversion process?

Today you are all standing before HaShem your Elokim — your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcement people, every man of Yisrael.  Your young children, your women, and the righteous converts in your camp  — even the lumberjacks and the water-carriers.

— Devarim 29:9,10

Yisrael-the Jewish People; and Oraysa-the Torah; are one.

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said,”The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, “Behold, HaShem Elokim says ‘days are coming and I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem.’” (Ahmos 8:11).  And it is said, “And they will roam from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it.” (Ibid 12). … Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: Heaven forefend that the Torah should ever be forgotten in Yisrael, for it is written, “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” (Devarim 31:21) Then how do I interpret, “they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it”? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.

— Shabbos 138B-139A

There is a one nation scattered abroad and divided among the nations in all the provinces of your highness’ kingdom …  

— Esther 3:8

Rabi Yohsi of the Galilee said “ There is no ‘elder’ other than one who has acquired Torah wisdom”

— Kiddushin 32B

In both the written and oral Torah a rich and diverse metaphorical imagery exists to describe the relationship between K’lal Yisrael– the Jewish People; and Torah. Torah is alternatively described as our sister, our bride, our legacy, our primary topic of conversation, our obsession, our “tree-of-life” lifeline — and more. The relationship is layered and complex and every metaphor illustrates a different facet of K’lal Yisraels rapport with the Torah.

Yet there is one teaching of our sages that seems to go beyond describing a multifaceted relationship between two disparate entities and, instead, portrays the fusion of K’lal Yisrael and Torah into a single being. Torah is not something that we enjoy a relationship with, Torah is our alter-ego … our secret identity.  Accordingly there are direct corollaries between what happens in the life of K’lal Yisrael and in the texture of the Torah.

To use a somewhat coarse allegory to correspond to the subtle abstraction being allegorized; one could not stab Mr. Hyde in the heart and express surprise at the news of Dr. Kekyll’s death nor could one feed a starving Dr. Jekyll and be disappointed that Mr. Hyde had survived the famine. As they share an identity what happens to one must happen to the other.

The Maharal of Prague utilizes the truism of the shared identity of K’lal Yisrael and Torah to explain the Gemara in Shabbos 138-9: “how do I interpret, ‘they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it’? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.” On the one hand, just as Klal Yisrael, while battered and beaten in a seemingly interminable exile, is ultimately indestructible, so is the Torah.  A Torah forgotten is a Torah annihilated and destroyed.  But on the other hand, explains the Maharal, just as Klal Yisrael is a the one nation or, more precisely, the nation of oneness, scattered abroad and divided among the nations so too is the Torah , the truly integrated discipline, disorganized and scattered unlike any other field of study.  The Torah cannot remain intact and integrated as its alter-ego, Klal Yisrael, suffers dispersion and disintegration as a result of galus.

Another classic application of this truism is provided by the Izhbitzer at the beginning of our Sidra.

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Falling In or Standing Out?

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

—Devarim 26:13,14

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

—Ibid 15

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

—Bereishis 18:16

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

—Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Ki Sisa 14

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

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 16A

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

—Tehillim 143:2

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

—Mishlei 20:9

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

Gemara Rosh Hashanah 18A

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

—Rambams commentary to Mishnah ibid

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

—Taanis 8B

The pauper speaks pleadingly; but the affluent respond impudently.

—Mishlei 18:23

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

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

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

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

Read more Falling In or Standing Out?

Understanding Why We Believe in the Divinity of Torah

Rambam Mishna Torah – Yesodei Ha Torah – Chapter 8

Halacha 1

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders.

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following:….”

Thus, [Deuteronomy 5:4] relates: “Face to face, God spoke to you,” and [Deuteronomy 5:3] states: “God did not make this covenant with our fathers, [but with us, who are all here alive today].”

How is it known that the [revelation] at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses’ prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? [Exodus 19:9] states: “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, [so that] they will believe in you forever.” It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts.

Halacha 2

Thus, those to whom [Moses] was sent witnessed [his appointment] as a prophet, and it was not necessary to perform another wonder for them. He and they were witnesses, like two witnesses who observed the same event together. Each one serves as a witness to his colleague that he is telling the truth, and neither has to bring any other proof to his collegue.

Similarly, all Israel were witnesses to [the appointment of] Moses, our teacher, at the [revelation] at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them.

This concept [is alluded to in the interchange between God and Moses at the revelation of the burning bush]. At the beginning of his prophecy, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him the signs [and wonders] to perform in Egypt and told him [Exodus 3:18], “And they will listen to your voice.”

Moses, our teacher, knew that one who believes [in another person] because of signs has apprehension in his heart; he has doubts and suspicions. Therefore, he sought to be released from the mission, saying: “They will not believe me” [Exodus 4:1], until the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that these wonders [were intended only as a temporary measure,] until they left Egypt. After they would leave, they would stand on this mountain and all doubts which they had about him would be removed.

[God told him:] Here, I will give you a sign so that they will know that I truly sent you from the outset, and thus, no doubts will remain in their hearts. This is what is meant by [Exodus 3:12]: “This will be your sign that I sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.”

Thus, we do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses, our teacher, because of the wonder [he performs] alone, as if to say: If he performs a wonder we will listen to everything he says. Rather, [we believe him] because it is a mitzvah which we were commanded by Moses who said: If he performs a wonder, listen to him.

Just as we are commanded to render a [legal] judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses, even though we do not know if they are testifying truthfully or falsely, similarly, it is a mitzvah to listen to this prophet even though we do not know whether the wonder is true or performed by magic or sorcery.

Translation from Chabad.

Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence

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

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

— Shemos 16:19,20

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

— Rashi ibid citing Mechilta

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

— Shemos 16:24

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

— Shemos 17:1

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

— Shemos 17:7

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

— Mishlei 3:1,8

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

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

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

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

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

Read more Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence

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

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

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

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

—  Shemos 10:22,23

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

— Yeshaya 60:1-3

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

— Yeshaya Ibid:19

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

—  Tehillim 139:12

HaShem will plague Egypt, plaguing and healing …

— Yeshaya 19:22

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

— Zohar commenting on the above pasuk

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

—  Michah 7:15

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

—  Haggadah shel Pesach

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

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

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

— Bereishis 37:21,22

Don’t spill the blood of an innocent man

— Targum Yonasan ben Uziel ibid

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

— Bereishis 42:22

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

— Bereishis 37:26

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

— Tehillim 10:4

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

— Sanhedrin 6B

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

— Koheles 9:14,15

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

— Nedarim 32B

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

— Nazir 23B

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

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

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

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

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