The Baal Teshuvah and the Tzadiq

I commented on Gratitude:

What does “todah” mean? As it stands, it means “thanks”. The same root conjugated as “vidui” means to “confess”. Last, when the mishnah wants to stress that something is outside of a dispute, “hakol modim” — “all agree”. What do thanks, confession and agreement have in common?

When I thank someone, I acknowledge his actions had an impact on me. When I confess, I am admitting that my actions had an impact on him. And when we are modim, we realize that an idea isn’t mine or yours, but ours. The point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness.

Yehudah was named for hoda’ah with more of a connotation of gratitude:

תַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתֹּאמֶר “הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת ה׳”; עַל כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ “יְהוּדָה”; וַתַּעֲמֹד מִלֶּדֶת.

And [Leah] became pregnant again, and said “This time I will thank [odeh] Hashem”; therefore she called his name “Yehudah”; and she finished birthing children.

-Bereishis 29:35

And yet, Yehudah may be most noted for his readiness to do teshuvah and confess his mistakes — the vidui sense of the root for which he was named. Tamar held out his signet ring, cords and staff, and identified Yehudah to himself as the one who had gotten her pregnant, while still keeping his guilt a secret from others. Yehudah, however, confesses his guilt — and her innocence — in public.

וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר “צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי! כִּי עַל כֵּן לֹא נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי, וְלֹא יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּה.”

And Yehudah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than me! Because I didn’t give her to Sheilah my son, and I did not allow anyone else to know here.”

-Bereishis 38:26

The gemara [Makkos 11b] merits this example as teaching Reuvein the art of confession. A merit that Moshe hints at in his blessing in veZos haBerakhah (33:6-7), ” יְחִי רְאוּבֵן וְאַל יָמֹת, וִיהִי מְתָיו מִסְפָּר. וְזֹאת לִיהוּדָה…. — Let Re’uvein live and not perish, that his number not become few. And this is for Yehudah…” Phrasing the opening of Yehudah’s blessing so that it can also be heard as referring back — “and this” Re’uvein’s blessing “is for Yehudah…”

Yehudah’s path in Torah observance, for which his tribe is named, the Kingdom of Judea (Malkhus Yehudah) was named, and for which we today are called “Jews” is as much about the centrality of gratitude as the importance of confession

The story of Yehudah and Tamar (ch. 38) is adjacent to that of Yosef’s servitude in Potiphar’s home, and his resisting Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to seduce him (ch. 39). This placement invites us to compare and/or contrast the two stories. Yehudah succumbs to temptation, but confesses and repents, becomes an exemplar of a ba’al teshuvah. Yosef is tested and stands up to the challenge, and the Zohar states (1:194b) it is for this that Chazal call him “Yosef haTzadiq“.

Both rise to royalty. Yosef, in the house of Par’oh, and in his eventual descendent, the mashiach beis Yoseif who is destined to lead the war against Gog uMagog, and fall in battle. But it is Yehudah from whom the Jewish People’s true royal house descends, and from whom the mashiach who brings world peace will be born. Perhaps it is an example of Rav Avahu’s famous words (Berakhos 34b):

דאמר רבי אבהו: מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין – צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין, שנאמר: (ישעיהו נז:יט) “שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב” — “לָרָחוֹק” ברישא, והדר “לַקָּרוֹב”.

… As Rabi Avahu said, “In the place where baalei teshuvah stand — the fully righteous cannot stand. As it says “Peace, peace, to those who are afar, and those who are near.” (Yeshaiah 57:19). “To those who are afar” — initially, and after, “to those who are near.”

Yehudah’s progeny are not only given a position Yosef’s family is not as suited to fill, but it is the matter of war vs peace that distinguishes the two mashiachs — as per the pasuq Rav Avahu quotes — “Peace, peace, to those who start out afar, and come near!”

Desire and Will

A gett must be given willingly, and for the past 1,100 years (among Ashkenazim, eventually reaching Sepharadim as well) received willingly as well. However, when a husband is obligated to dissolve the marriage, beis din is authorized to compel him using excommunication, economic sanctions, prison and even corporeal punishment as necessary. Today in Israel, the batei din for divorce are empowered to imprison people for this reason, and in a few more extreme cases, even to have the husband put in solitary confinement until he authorizes a gett for his wife.

Is this really willingly?

The Rambam explains it as follows (Hilkhos Geirushin 2:20):

מי שהדין נותן שכופין אותו לגרש את אשתו, ולא רצה לגרש – בית דין של ישראל בכל מקום ובכל זמן, מכין אותו עד שיאמר, רוצה אני; ויכתוב הגט, והוא גט כשר. וכן אם הכוהו גויים ואמרו לו, עשה מה שישראל אומרין לך, ולחצו אותו ישראל ביד הגויים, עד שגירש – הרי זה כשר; ואם הגויים מעצמן אנסוהו עד שכתב – הואיל והדין נותן שיכתוב, הרי זה גט פסול.

ולמה לא בטיל גט זה – שהרי הוא אנוס, בין ביד גויים בין ביד ישראל: שאין אומרין אנוס, אלא למי שנלחץ ונדחק לעשות דבר שאינו חייב מן התורה לעשותו, כגון מי שהוכה עד שמכר, או נתן; אבל מי שתקפו יצרו הרע לבטל מצוה, או לעשות עבירה, והוכה עד שעשה דבר שחייב לעשותו, או עד שנתרחק מדבר שאסור לעשותו – אין זה אנוס ממנו, אלא הוא אנס עצמו בדעתו הרעה.

לפיכך מי שאינו רוצה לגרש – מאחר שהוא רוצה להיות מישראל, רוצה הוא לעשות כל המצוות ולהתרחק מן העבירות; ויצרו הוא שתקפו. וכיון שהוכה עד שתשש יצרו ואמר, רוצה אני – כבר גירש לרצונו.

לא היה הדין נותן שכופין אותו לגרש, וטעו בית דין של ישראל, או שהיו הדיוטות, ואנסוהו עד שגירש – הרי זה גט פסול: הואיל וישראל אנסוהו, יגמור ויגרש. ואם הגויים אנסוהו לגרש שלא כדין, אינו גט; אף על פי שאמר בגויים, רוצה אני, ואמר לישראל, וכתבו וחתמו – הואיל ואין הדין מחייבו להוציא והגויים אנסוהו, אינו גט.

Someone who by law must give [a gett], we force him to divorce his wife. And if he doesn’t wish to divorce [her], a beis din of Jews [i.e. not a secular court] anywhere and at any time [in history] beat him until he says “rotzeh ani — I want”. Then you write a gett and the gett is valid…. And why is this gett not nullified, for it is compelled… We only say “compelled” about someone who is forced to do something that he is not obligated by the Torah to do. Such as someone who is beaten until he sells or gives [something]. But someone whose yeitzer hara overtakes him to ignore a mitzvah or do an avreirah, and is beaten until he does that which he is obligated to do, or aandones something that is prohibited to do — this is not compulsion…

Therefore, someone who does not wish to divorce, since he wants to be among Israel, he wants to do all the mitzvos and avoid the aveiros and it’s his yeitzer [hara] which overtakes him. And since he was hit until he silences his yeitzer and says “rotzeh ani”, he divorced accorsding to his ratzon.

The husband wants to do the right thing, because every Jew on some level wants to do the right thing. The problem is, he has other wants which — on their own or together — distract him from that. Since he won’t act on that desire on his own, it isn’t actionable in court. The compulsion isn’t to create a desire — that’s already there — it’s to get him to express it to the judges so that there is grounds to act on it. (Human courts, unlike the heavenly one, aren’t capable of reading minds.)

The failure to give the gett is similar in dynamic to (although far more extreme than) the person who has a desire to diet, but lacks the will to actually follow through and lose the weight.

The word ratzon has two meanings, much the way the word “want” does: there is the desire to do something, which — like in this case of the reluctant divorce — may be counterbalanced by other desires. Then there is will, the coordination of many desires until it becomes a goal that the person actually works toward.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (Bishvilei haRefu’ahvol. 5, Sivan 5742 [1982], pp. 57-90) has this description of how to coordinate middos and desires. (I have a translation of the entire section of the article in question, here.)

Middos and Intellect

What is this process of alienation? There isn’t any power in the soul which is specifically evil (Naftali Wessley, Sefer haMidos part I, ch. 4). Every power has some place in the World of Yedidus. Even egotism and anger are necessary sometimes. When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary. However, in order to build the World of Yedidus, there has to be coordination of all the forces together, so that they work together in cooperation and a proper distribution of their duties.

The ruling power, which sets each of the other powers in their proper place, is the intellect, which is therefore the central power of yedidus in a person. (C.f. Kuzari, Rav Yehudah HaLeivi, 3:2 onward.) Without the rule of the intellect, there is no World of Yedidus. When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its boundaries and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control — this power alienates itself from the other powers and rebels against the intellect. This is where zarus begins, and that power thereby changes to become “evil.” This process is depicted in the Talmud quoted above with the example of anger. Elsewhere the Talmud depicts the same process of alienation with regard to sexual lust (which the Gemara describes as “[Rav said:] someone who intentionally stimulates himself [should be excommunicated. And why is it prohibited? Because he incites the evil inclination against himself.]” – Niddah 13b)

Free Will

Here we reach the question of free will. We explained that there is no power in a person that is specifically evil. We are able to use our powers to build the World of Yedidus, through the coordination of those powers by the intellect. The excessive use of one power or a rebellion against the intellect cause the destruction of the World of Yedidus. This choice is in the person’s hands, whether to choose yedidus or alienation. Indeed, he can choose.[1]

In the Talmud we find an example of this (Shabbos 156a): “A person born under the sign of Mars will be a person who sheds blood — a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer [for meat] or a mohel.” A person cannot change the basic attribute, in this example — the inclination to shed blood. But this attribute can be used for good, and the spectrum of possibilities is broad: he could be a doctor, a slaughterer or a mohel. Only the thief who won’t flinch from murder uses his attribute in a manner of alienation. Here we have an example of an extreme inclination, and there is still nothing that compels a person to be evil because of it. He has the choice to use it for more beneficial ends.

For the sake of completeness, we will give a historical example from our Sages on this topic (Yalkut Shim’oni, Samuel I, 16:124):

When Samuel saw that David was “red,” he grew fearful. “This one will shed blood like Esau!” The Holy One said to him, “With beautiful eyes” — Esau killed by his own decision, but this one kills by the decision of the Sanhedrin!

In any case, there is a limit to choice; the basic inclination cannot be changed! In the above example, someone born with the inclination to shed blood cannot uproot this inclination. The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or to destroy it.[2]

Torah and Middos

Here the Torah comes to the aid of the intellect, to strengthen the person to choose good….

I would liken Rav Wolbe’s message to an orchestra. The intellect is the conductor, whose job it is to make sure that each instrument comes in at the right time and with the right tempo. Over in the back we can see temper, playing the tympani, on the left,  empathy is on the first violin and sadness is over there on the left, among the oboes and bassoons. Joy is behind them on the trumpets. Each middah has its role, and through the intellect they are coordinated into a harmonious whole.   One can make beautiful music with just one violin, but in a symphony it combines with all the other instruments to make something far richer.

The intellect is the conductor, the Torah — his sheet music. (Sadly, it is possible to have the sheet music, and never pick up the baton.) And while the Torah tells us what music should be played, the conductor has room within that for his own interpretation.

It take intellect and a measure of self-mastery to turn a set of conflicting desires into a will, a bunch of musicians playing their own tunes into a symphonic orchestra.

One desire among many can be acted upon or not, but when the soul is coordinated in the pursuit of a spiritual goal, one can see the true measure of human will.


Rabbi R Yitzchak Eisenman recently wrote a “Short Vortessay that asked:

Many of us recall with horror the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School which occurred almost two years ago….

What ever happened to Sandy Hook Elementary School?
Is there a memorial somewhere in the school?
Are children still learning the ‘three R’s’ there?

No, there are no children learning at Sandy Hook; indeed, the building no longer exists.

Construction crews completely demolish former Sandy Hook Elementary School, 01/02/14 02:30 PM-By Michele Richinick MSNBC…


Compare this fact with what happened at the Shul in Har Nof where a week ago today we awoke to the news of the horrific massacre.

Mispallelim Return to Har Nof Shul to Daven Shacharis 24 Hours After Massacre, Wednesday November 19, 2014 6:40am,


Why the difference?
Why the need to return to the Shul the next day while in Sandy Hook there was a need to “completely demolish” the building?


Perhaps the reason is simple.
Often when terrible things occur, the ‘normative’ human reaction is to repress and even erase the incident from the collective consciousness of the public.
Who wants to face and deal with horrific and evil acts?

Our mesorah teaches us not only to never forget the past, no matter how unpleasant it is; indeed, quite the opposite, we are implored to embrace the memory of the tragedy.
Only by dealing with the tragedy head-on can we attempt to learn some of the lessons from the horror and attempt to rectify ourselves and the situation for the future.


We do not erase buildings as if they never existed.
We do not raze the sights of mayhem and murder; we embrace them as vehicles and as reminders for constant improvement and for our own spiritual betterment.


We also state unequivocally that evil and its pumps can and never will deter us from doing what we know is correct.
The Har Nof Shul is not only a place not to be avoided, it is a place to be embraced; a place of where holiness resides even more so now than before and it is a privilege to be able to daven and learn there.


The Rambam instructs us to learn from all and Chazal have taught us “Chochma (wisdom) B’GoyimTaamin” (You should believe that there is wisdom among the nations of the world).


There is no doubt that one can apply this instruction of our sages to the wisdom of the Spanish Philosopher George Santayana (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952) who so insightfully stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

To me, the question reminded me of the explanation Rabbi Ephraim Becher once gave at a Mussar Kallah to the question new students of Mussar often ask: What is the difference between Mussar and Self Help?

Self Help is working on becoming the person you wish you were. Mussar is working on becoming the person the Torah tells us Hashem made you to be.

And Rabbi Becker said one of the fundamental pragmatic differences that arise from this distinction. We do not want impediments, problems, difficulties in our lives. So Self Help teaches someone how to avoid them, how to put them behind you. They may repeat the urban legend about how the Chinese word for “challenge” — 危机 wēijī — is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”. But that’s only for when you’re in the maelstrom, or when one is unavoidable. (Wēijī means something more like danger + crisis-point. While “opportunity does involve the root “jī”, it is a specific kind of jī, jīhuì 机会.) The general approach is to teach you how to avoid those crisis.

In contrast, in the rabbinic lexicon such problems are called yisurim, growth exercises. (There is a collection of primary sources about yisurim here, on the more authoritative Aspaklaria.) The Torah does not teach us to only accept life’s challenges when unavoidable. We aspire to embrace yisurim — except in the rare case we could find another route to the same growth. And so on Yom Kippur, after confessing, we ask Hashem “ומה שחטאתי לפניך] מחק\מרק ברחמיך הרבים, אבל לא על ידי יסורים וחליים רעים] — and that which I sinned [before You] erase in Your great Mercy, but not through the means of yisurim or terrible diseases.”

But the default is to accept them as guidance from the Almighty. While the following words do not help us understand the death of righteous people, perhaps this quote from Hallel (Tehillim 118:17-23) can help us relate to our own crisis of surviving them:

לֹא אָמוּת כִּי אֶחְיֶה וַאֲסַפֵּר מַעֲשֵׂי יָ-הּ.
יַסֹּר יִסְּרַנִּי יָּ-הּ וְלַמָּוֶת לֹא נְתָנָנִי.
פִּתְחוּ לִי שַׁעֲרֵי צֶדֶק אָבֹא בָם אוֹדֶה יָהּ.
זֶה הַשַּׁעַר לַה׳ צַדִּיקִים יָבֹאוּ בוֹ.
אוֹדְךָ כִּי עֲנִיתָנִי וַתְּהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה.
אֶבֶן מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים הָיְתָה לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה.
מֵאֵת ה׳ הָיְתָה זֹּאת הִיא נִפְלָאת בְּעֵינֵינוּ.

I shall not die, for I will live and speak of the Acts of G-d.
G-d will surely try me with yisurim, but he hasn’t given me over to death.
They [the yisurim] open for me the gates of righteousness, I shall enter them, I shall praise G-d!
This is the gate to Hashem, the righteous will enter it.
I will thank you for you answered me, and it was a salvation.
The stone which the builders derided became the cornerstone.
This is from Hashem, it is amazing in our eyes!

There is no glory in suffering, until we utilize the yisurim to enter the gates (c.f. Rashi vv. 18-19), to carve our “stone” to be better fit to serve His Temple. We praise Hashem for only answering us after we pass through the gate and the stone is accepted into His service.

We do not put the event behind us and move on, we sanctify our response to it and move up!

Tzadiq ben Rasha

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

And Yitzchaq pleaded with Hashem opposite his wife, for she was sterile, and Hashem responded to his pleas, and Rivqa became pregnant.

-Bereishis 25:21

“לנכח אשתו” – זה עומד בזוית זו ומתפלל וזו עומדת בזוית זו ומתפללת (יבמות סד.)
“ויעתר לו” – לו ולא לה שאין דומה תפלת צדיק בן צדיק לתפלת צדיק בן רשע לפיכך לו ולא לה

“Opposite his wife” — he stood in one corner and prayed, and she stood in another corner and prayed. (Yevamos 64a)

“And [Hashem] responded to him” — his and not hers. For there is no comparison between the prayer of a tzadiq ben tzadiq (a righteous person the child of a righteous person) to the prayer of a tzadiq ben rasha (a righteous person the child of someone evil). Therefore [the verse tells us] “his” [were responded to] and not “hers”.

- Rashi ad loc

If it were not for our tradition, a natural translation would have been that Yitzchaq prayed on behalf of his wife. However, Chazal tell us that “nokhach” here should be taken as “opposite” — they were praying in opposite corners of the room. Which then raises the question of why Hashem only responded to Yitzchaq and not Rivqa. And they answer that his is because the son of Avraham’s tefillos, those of a tzadiq ben tzadiq are incomparable to those of Rivqa’s, the daughter of Besu’el, the rasha.

And the simple take on this idea would be simply fiduciary — Yitzchaq has more merits in his spiritual “bank account” than Rivqa because he has an inheritence from Avraham. That makes his prayers incomparably superior, and that is why Hashem responded to him rather than Rivqa.

There is a problem with any implication that reward or punishment can be inherited, that one person gains or suffers for the deeds of another — even a parent. It lacks justice. We grapple with this problem in the 13 Middos haRachamim, “נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים … פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים — He preserves lovingkindness for thousands [of generations]…. He remembers this sins of the parents on the children, on the grandchildren, and on the great-grandchildren.” And yet Yechezqeil (18:4) asserts “הֵן כָּל הַנְּפָשׁוֹת לִי הֵנָּה כְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָב וּכְנֶפֶשׁ הַבֵּן לִי הֵנָּה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַחֹטֵאת הִיא תָמוּת — Behold all the souls are Mine, like the soul of the parents and the should of the child; it is the soul who sins that dies.” Children do not die for the sins of the parents. Chazal’s resolution is in accord with the words of the 10 Diberos (Shemos 20:4-5), “פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי. וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְו‍ֹתָי — I remember the sin of the parents on the children, the grandchildren, and on the great-grandchildren to those who hate Me. I act with Lovingkindness to thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and keep My mitzvos.” The descendants who get punished for the sins of their parents are those who continue on with those sins.

The (or at least “a”) point of it all is that even though the tinoq shenishba, the child kidnapped and raised by his captors, or anyone who sins as a product of their upbringing, isn’t fully culpable for their sin, Hashem will still punish them as necessary for their own improvement. It isn’t that the punishment is inherited from their parents acts, but that the broken attitude that needs correction could be passed down.

So it’s not speaking of punishment for the tzadiq ben rasha. 

It may be easier to analyze Yitzchaq in contrast to a different tzadiq ben rasha. There is far more material analyzing Avraham’s spiritual development than Rivqa’s. But Avraham, Terach the idol-maker’s son, is also a self-made person who grew despite his upbringing, rather than because of it.

Rav Elazar (Pesachim 88a) contrasts the way in which each of the forefathers encountered G-d. When Avraham encounters Moriah, he calls it “Har Hashem Yeira’eh — the Mountain Where Hashem Will be Seen” (Bereishis 22). Yitzchaq goes “lasuach basadeh — to pray in the field”, an entirely different perception of Moriah. Yaaqov later calls the name of the place “Beis E-l — the house of G-d”, yet a third way of seeing Moriah; Yaaqov encounters G-d in a home.

I’m setting aside Yaaqov for the moment, as he doesn’t relate to this particular contrast. See my post of 2006, “Parshas Vayeitzei: Mountain, Field, House” for a discussion of all three. Here I will just look at the mountain vs the field, and omit the home, the model of the synthesis.

Avraham, the tzadiq ben rasha, meets the Creator atop a mountain. Every step of the way is a climb, rising above his past. He starts with “lekh lekha — leave for yourself your homeland, your birthplace, your father’s home.” It’s a life of yisurim, 10 tests, each one a growth experience, an ascent.

In contrast, Yitzchaq’s biography in the Torah is quite short. And much of it is Yitzchaq following in his father’s footsteps. Returning to Gerar, re-digging the old wells. The tzadiq ben tzadiq doesn’t struggle to leave the past, his task is to nurture the legacy he was given. To water the plants of the field, care for them, so that they grow.

Notice that Chazal do not say that the tzadiq ben tzadiq‘s prayer is more likely to be answered “yes” because he is incomparably greater. There is no discussion of quantity. Just that they are incomparable.

I would suggest that the difference is the value of a “yes” or a “no” answer in each kind of life. Rivqa’s life is that of climbing a mountain; the skill a tzadiq ben rasha develops most is to fight and grow through adversity. When Rivqa makes a request of G-d, there is more value to her getting a “no” than there would be for Yitzchaq. Yitzchaq has zekhus avos, a seedling inherited from his father that he must tend to. Challenges are more likely to stifle that work. Thus a “yes” is more likely to be the correct response to the tzadiq ben tzadiq.

The difference isn’t “simply” fiduciary — that Hashem owes Avraham’s son. Nor is it “only” causal, that Avraham put forces into play that aid Yitzchaq. It is purposive; each person getting the life best suited to their life’s mission.

My Dream Synagogue

Here are things my dream Growth Oriented Shul would provide that normal shuls today do not:

  • Qiddush after leining, before mussaf, combined with a devar Torah or text learning. Our attention spans have shrunk. Rather than fight it, and ending up with people who come late, talk, walk out for Kiddush Club, we build the service around this limitation. It requires hitting the history books and finding out how the yeshivos in Lithuania did it when they broke for morning seder between leining and mussaf – there is ample halachic precedent.
  • Short vort before Barekhu on the meaning of the words of the upcoming davening. Have a new kavanah for some part of the siddur each week!
  • Chessed programming — something that involves some subset of the membership hands-on (not fundraising) in an at least weekly basis. Shuls provide both Torah and Avodah, why not be a full Judaism Center and provide opportunities for Gemilus Chassadim too? At least if the shul sponsors something, there is a different atmosphere about what a shul and Yahadus are.
  • Mussar Ve’adim — one for each gender, although given the Ahavas Yisrael Project‘s presence in Passaic, the men’s va’ad would be more critical. The idea isn’t just to have a chaburah in a mussar sefer, but to have a group that actually works together on their middos. (AishDas set up a few groups that meet weekly going through the ve’adim and doing the exercises in Alei Shur vol II.)
  • Along similar lines as the ve’adim — a Teshuvah Workshop with a wider audience every Elul. Speakers giving actual techniques for change. Rather than being all motivated and well intended, if we’re having a good year, on Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, but not having a strategy to actually get anywhere. (And then we wonder why our list of things to fix is the same year after year…)
  • The membership agreement would include an ethics and dina demalkhusa clauses. In the “Shomerei Shabbos” type shuls of 70 years ago, those who were fighting upstream to retain their Shabbos observance created a supporting atmosphere by creating synagogues in in which only shomerei Shabbos could retain full membership in the shul. We need something similar to shore up what’s weak in today’s observance.

    This is largely unenforceable, as we’re not going to have accountants check people’s books. But it combines with the chessed programming and the ve’adim. I realize both of those programs would in the real world be limited in population; but to the majority of the membership, they make a statement. There is secondary involvement — helping out once, donating money, just reading about it in the shul email — that make an impact on everyone, they set a culture. As would knowing this is in the by-laws / membership agreement.

The Time of Our Joy

Why is Sukkos called in our tefillos “zeman simchaseinu – the time of our joy“, or the Torah tell us at this holiday in particular “vehayisa akh sameich – you should only be happy” ? Why is simchah associated more with Sukkos than with Pesach or Shavu’os? If anything, I would have thought the reverse: we still have the peoplehood granted us on Pesach, and we still delve in the Torah given on Shavu’os. But the mun is gone, the cloud of glory that protected us have dissipated, Hashem’s guiding pillar of fire and smoke no longer shows us the way — nothing we commemorate on Sukkos is still in our hands. Yes, we can still get food, shelter and guidance from the natural means He gave us — but the same was true before the desert! Chag haAsif, Sukkos in its role as the holiday of gratitude, is also “Zeman Simchaseinu — our period of [greatest] joy” because only through being grateful can we handle being recipients with simchah.

Rav Shimon Shkop writes in his introduction:

In this way one can explain that which is said, “Moses will be joyous with the giving of his portion, because You called him a reliable servant.” [Shabbos Morning Amidah] There is no joy in receiving a bit of wisdom unless he is a reliable servant who possesses nothing, that it is all his Master and Lord’s. Only then there is complete joy in acquiring wisdom. Without this [attitude] it is possible that there is no happiness in acquiring wisdom, for it through it he is capable of reaching heresy.ועל דרך זה יש לבאר האמור “ישמח משה במתנת חלקו כי עבד נאמן קראת לו”, היינו שאין לשמוח במתנת חלק החכמה, רק אם הוא עבד נאמן שחושב שהכל אינו שלו ורק לרבו ואדונו, אז שמחה שלמה בקנין החכמה, ולולא זאת אפשר שאין שמחה בקנין החכמה שעל ידי זה ח״ו יוכל להגיע לידי כפירה ח״ו,

We say in the Shabbos morning Amidah, “ישמח משה במתנת חלקו כי עבד נאמן קראת לו” which I translated here as “Moses will be joyous with the giving of his portion, because You called him a reliable servant.” There are two interesting elements with the grammar of this line.

While the siddur reminds us of Ben Zoma’s words in the mishnah:

… איזה הוא עשיר? השמח בחלקו. שנאמר “יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל, אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ.” (תהילים קכח,ב)

… Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot. As it says, “When you eat the labor of your hands, you are enriched and it is good for you.” (Tehillim 128:2)

there is a critical difference. Ben Zoma speaks of happiness “בחלקו — with his lot”, but the siddur talks of Moshe’s happiness “במתנת חלקו — with the giving of his lot”. People generally are happier with things they made themselves, which is even implied in Ben Zoma’s proof-text, which speaks of “the labor of your hands”. Moshe could have been happy with his portion without this second level, being happy with the fact that it was given. Moshe Rabbeinu could have emphasized his own role in the reception of what Hashem was even willing to call “Toras Moshe avdi — the Torah of Moses My servant”, but he did not.

And this is what we actually received on Sukkos. We may be living in houses, just as we did before the Exodus. And we may be receiving food and protection, just as we did before the Exodus. But now we experienced the fact that they were given. When we commit to work in partnership with Him, we can acknowledge that what we get is also from partnertship with Him. We connect with Hashem and others through reception, rather than being belittled by it.

Q&A: Whither Sarcasm?

The following is the inaugural article (October 2014 issue) in a new column in Yashar: the Newsletter of The Mussar Institute.

(Unlike Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, I wrote most of my piece before being told of the space limit. I lament not knowing what else R’ Feldman would have said had he known they would carry something longer. On the other hand, the point of a good shmuess is to have one solid take-away point. Not what I did.)

Inquiring Hearts and Minds:
Whither Sarcasm?

Each month, Yashar will send a question to one or two Mussar teachers on an idea, practice, text, middah, or other Mussar-related challenge that someone is confronting. Email your question to [email protected] .

I’m working on not being sarcastic. It’s so ingrained in our culture, as a form of humor. Whole careers are made on it. One doesn’t want to be known as “too serious,” yet sarcasm can be so hurtful. Do you have suggestions?

Jakov FeldmanResponse No. 1, from Rabbi Yaakov Feldman:
First off, there is no trait that is inherently wrongful. After all, what trait is more annoying than chutzpah—audacity, cheek? And yet Rebbe Nachman of Breslov encourages “Holy Chutzpah” — righteous bravery and pious out-and-out good intentions. So sarcasm can be a good thing, too. In fact, a rabbi was once asked how atheism could ever be considered good and he offered that when a poor person comes to you, don’t wait for God to feed him, as any believing person is sure will happen; act like an atheist and feed him on your own. Besides, I only wish many more people had been sarcastic about Hitler in his time!

That having been said, sarcasm can hurt innocent people, which is apparently your take on it, too, so we will address that. The solution comes to this, to my mind, and I will base it on what I once heard a vegetarian remark about why he will not eat animal meat. He said, “I just refuse to eat anything with a face,” meaning to say that he will not eat anything that is as expressive and distinctive as himself. So keep in mind that what is often wrongful about sarcasm is that it is rooted in reducing a good person to a faceless blob and wanting to “devour” him or her for something or another. Look full-face at people and see them as just as humanly foolish as yourself and you are likely to hold back.

Micha BergerResponse No. 2, from Rabbi Micha Berger:
The problems with sarcasm are SO fundamental, Tehillim (Psalms) opens with it. The very first verse reads: “אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב — Enriched is the person who has not gone by the advice of evil people, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor stayed in the hangouts of the sarcastic.” (tr. mine, if “hangouts” wasn’t a giveaway.) Evil, sinful, sarcastic — great company!

Sarcasm, being snide, scorn … what is called in Hebrew leitzanut, comes with a great emotional payoff. I can dismiss something or someone in a way that short-circuits rational thought by hitting the gut directly, by having enough humor for us to want to believe it. And once I can convince myself I am greater than those around me, it takes the heat off all those things that bother me about things I myself do. As it says in Mishlei (Proverbs 9:8), “Do not give constructive criticism to the sarcastic, lest they hate you; give it to the wise, and they will love you.” A cynic cannot accept constructive criticism; not wanting to feel that pressure to improve is a driving force behind leitzanut. As the Ramchal writes in Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just, Ch.5), “Like a greased shield which wards off arrows and drops them to the ground, not letting them reach the bearer’s body, so too is sarcasm in the face of critique and rebuke. For with one bit of sarcasm or laughter a person can throw off the lot of awakenings and impressions ….” Sarcasm can undo our Mussar work.

There were two people on safari, when suddenly they saw a lion. One of them starts running. The other looks hopelessly, “What’s the point? You’ll never outrun that lion!” “Well, I don’t have to outrun the lion; I only have to outrun you!”

Being the best you can be does not work that way.

Sarcasm is a means of “winning” at being good. It means we see goodness as a competitive sport.

So, perhaps the trick to overcoming it is to take a more cooperative approach to how we relate to other people. A belief that “a rising tide lifts all ships.” My neighbor doing something benevolent is not the other team making points, but an example I might learn from. I do not need to put down the work of others or the ideals they are aspiring to: good is not a zero-sum game!

Practice: Try finding three things each day you see other people doing that you would want to emulate. Any time you see someone doing something right that you could learn from, whether live, on the news, something you read — anything but fiction — suppress the urge to minimize the accomplishment or the ideal they were working toward. Instead, make a mental note. And when you open your daily journal, write about how you might be able to learn from their examples.

Newsletter Home
Through a Mussar Lens: TMI in Transition – by Sandra Leif Garrett
Inquiring Hearts and Minds: Whither Sarcasm?
Kallah XII: Creating Space for Transition – by Nina Piken Yarus
At Sukkot, Harvesting the Best in Ourselves – by Julie August

Copyright 2014 © The Mussar Institute

And with what? With a Shofar – II

אמר רבי יהודה משום רבי עקיבא … אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: … ואמרו לפני בראש השנה מלכיות זכרונות ושופרות. מלכיות: כדי שתמליכוני עליכם. זכרונות: כדי שיעלה זכרוניכם לפני לטובה. ובמה? בשופר.

Rabbi Yehudah said an idea from Rabbi Aqiva …: The Holy One, blessed be He said, “… say before Me on Rosh haShanah, Malkhios, Zikhoronosand Shoferos.
Malkhios: so that you shall make Me King over you;
Zikhoronos: so that your memories shall come before Me;
“And with what? With a shofar.”

- Rosh haShanah 16a

Hashem as King is an important concept. But it can’t remain a concept. Similarly, it is important to realize that He Remembers us when we were young, when we entered into a covenant with Him, before we buried our potential under a pile of missed opportunities and other mistake

But the ideas cannot remain ideas, concepts held only in the head. People make decisions all the time knowing we made the wrong choice, but unable to resist temptation. As we quote every day in Aleinu, “וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ — and you will know today, and you will respond to your heart.” (Devarim 4:39) There are things we know already and yet still have to work to get fully in our hearts.

When the Jewish People at Mount Sinai proclaimed “נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע — we will do and we will listen”, a voice from heaven demanded to know who revealed to us the angels’ great secret. (Shabbos 88a) What brings an idea the one ammah from head to heart is to do, and then to listen to what the experience tells us.

Rabbi Aqiva teaches us the same thing: We contemplate Malkhios, we discuss Zikhronos. But through what do we make Hasme our King, and bring ourselves before HQBH? Through the non-verbal experience of the shofar.

Related posts:

  • And with what? With a Shofar“: Rav Dovid Lifshitz’s shmuess on the same gemara.
  • Emunah Peshutah vs. Machashavah“: How do we maintain a personal, first-hand relationship with G-d while still having a well-developed theology (which will inevitably emphasis the distance between uns)? Also on the gap between intellect and emotion.

A Mishpat for the G-d of Yaaqov

תִּקְעוּ בַחֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹפָר, בַּכֵּסֶה לְיוֹם חַגֵּנוּ. כִּי חֹק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא, מִשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקֹב.

Blow the shofar at the new moon, at the fullness for our holiday. For it is a choq [a trans-rational statute] for Yisrael, a mishpat [just law] of the G-d of Yaaqov.

– Tehillim 81:4-5

The Malbim (ad loc) writes (tr. Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner):

We do not analyze the reason for this mitzvah of blowing shofar; for Israel it is a choq, without any reason other than a decree from G-d. But it is a mishpat for the G-d of Jacob; Gd knows its reason, and for Him it is mishpat, not choq.

When seeing the Malbim, two questions leaped to mind:

1- The poetic doubling of Tehillim often involves the use of synonyms. But why is the name of the Jewish People who cannot understand the law of shofar “Yisrael”, but the ones who are associated with the G-d who could understand it called “Yaaqov”?

2- Why is this point made specifically with regard to shofar? Since no mitzvah is arbitrary, every choq is meta-rational, not irrational; they all must have meaning and purpose, even if incomprehensible to the human mind. Isn’t this statement that for Hashem it is a mishpat more about the nature of choq than about shofar in particular?

It seems Tehillim is being intentionally ambiguous when it says “hu — it is a choq…” What of the prior verse is the “it” — the blowing of the shofer, or “our holiday“? Since this is poetry, the answer would well be both. There is some indication that this verse refers to both Shofar and the holiday from its two appearances in the Mussaf for Rosh haShanah. Yes, the full quote, verses 4 & 5 are among the 10 citations from Tanakh used to buttress Shofaros. But pasuq 5 appears alone in the text of Zikhronos as well. “This day is the beginning of Your Deeds, a memorial of the first day. For it is a choq for Israel, a mishpat for the G-d of Yaaqov.” Our prayers actually utilize both possible references of the pronoun.

I would suggest that King David chose to discuss the theology of choq with respect to the shofar of Rosh haShanah is because the general point that our incomprehensible choq is Hashem’s rational mishpat is an important one for Rosh haShanah.

We are judged and the curriculum Hashem presents us with during the following year, the triumphs and the lessons we are to accumulate from the year’s challenges, are decided. We know that, and yet it’s hard to see when looking at the particular events of the year. Even without taking into account course changes we make during the year which may lead to an early re-assessment on Hashem’s part.

Remembering that nothing Hashem does is irrational is an important part of accepting Him as King on Rosh haShanah. My fate for the year might not make sense to me, but I have to understand that that’s only to me, with the limitations that come with my humanity. But there is a meta-rationality, a very logical reason for every facet of the King’s judgment, even if on a level I cannot hope to understand.

According to the Chazon Ish, this is true bitachon, trust in G-d. He rejects the prescriptive notion of bitachon of many mussarists, that define it as trusting in Him as a way to get desirable results. Rather, bitachon is descriptive, the belief that everything, every tragedy and difficulty in life (as well as the happy things) are part of a bigger plan. It all has a point and value.

Yaakov is born predestined to supplant his brother. When he learns that his berakhah was given to another (Bereishis 27:6) Esav complains to Yitzchaq, “הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב, וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם — Did you not correctly call his name ‘Yaaqov’, and he supplanted me (vaya’aqveini) now twice!” This is the name Yaaqov, the fate that someday right will win out over might.

He gets the name Yisrael, however, after spending the night fighting the angel. According to one opinion, the same Esav’s angel. In this battle, he gets complemented, he is told that the mission was advanced, but in terms of visibility — all we see is that the angel wins. Yisrael leaves limping, the angel returns to heaven unharmed. Yisrael doesn’t passively get brought to his fate, he has a destiny he has to work toward. And therefore life will necessary lack things that we must get for ourselves, contain challenges we must overcome, and force us to be shaped by tragedy.

“Blow the shofar at the new moon, at the fullness for our holiday. For it” — the message of this holiday — “is a choq [a trans-rational statute] for Yisrael, a mishpat of the G-d of Yaaqov!”

Kallah XII: Finding Joy in Everyday Transitions

An intensive exploration into living life more skillfully

forest_path_smWhat if you could …

  • find joy in everyday transitions?
  • get beyond judging the good and bad of transitions?
  • bring order to the chaos of change?
  • direct your growth with greater intention?
  • live all of life with an enthusiastic heart?

You can learn all this and more by joining a warm, supportive community for deepening your Mussar journey at our Annual Mussar Kallah, November 13–16, 2014.

The Teachers
Faculty will include Alan Morinis, Avi Fertig, Micha Berger [me], Chaim Safren, Efrat Zarren-Zohar, and Cyndee Levy. Read about our teachers.

Expand your mind, nourish your soul. Join the growing Mussar community in learning and celebration.

The Annual Mussar Kallah
The annual Mussar Kallah is a true retreat. The Mussar masters emphasized the need for personal spiritual practice and for that we will lead sessions to teach and practice meditation, contemplation and visualization. But they also stressed the importance of learning and action, and so the contemplative sessions will be interspersed with sessions focused on the middah [soul-trait] of nosei b’ol im chaveiro [bearing the burden with your friend] and rachamim [compassion] as well as chevruta and group interaction. This Kallah will provide comprehensive tools to introduce and guide you in the Mussar ways to cultivate the soul in the context of community, inwardly and outwardly.Sessions will be experiential, include text study and offer practical lessons that can be taken home to enhance and deepen your spiritual life and practice of Mussar.

“I am so grateful I was able to attend this wonderful weekend. I am now doing ten blessings with my son every morning when I drive him to high school.”

What level of knowledge do i need to have?
The Mussar Kallah Retreat Is open and suitable only for people who have already had some exposure to Mussar, whether through courses of The Mussar Institute or other forms of Mussar learning and practice. One does not need to be an expert, however. Every speaker will focus on issues that affect ordinary people in everyday life, because that is precisely what Mussar is meant to do.

“I enjoyed the high degree of interactive practice through the weekend.”
When and Where
The Kallah will begin with dinner on Thursday, November 13 and end before noon on Sunday, November 16. As in recent years, the Kallah will be held at the Illinois Beach Resort on the shores of Lake Michigan outside Chicago.
Registration fee: $499 until September 12, 2014. After September 12, the registration fee is $559. Includes all programs and glatt kosher meals and snacks from Thursday night dinner through Sunday breakfast.
Accommodations are not included. Hotel rooms must be booked directly with the Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center by calling 847-625-7300. We have a special rate of $104.50 per night for up to 4 people in a room. Book your room by October 1 to ensure the special rate and availability.
“This was an inspiring, life-changing experience for me. I am so grateful to have met so many wonderful people and learned so much from them all.”
Register now!

For questions or to discuss your participation in this retreat, email [email protected]