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] .

Question:
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]

One Person

As far as we can tell, Bar Qamtza comes off as something of a jerk. He is personally offended, so he actually joins with the enemy to take down his own people. A bit of a problem with anger and vengefulness. So it’s quite likely that the host actually had sound reason from previous interactions not to want him around, why the sages didn’t empathize with him.

The gemara gives us numerous reasons for why the Second Beis haMiqdash was destroyed.

Important tangent: R’ Jack Love notes a pattern. There are numerous explanations of why Nadav and Avihu deserved death, what sin(s) lead to tzara’as, why the First Beis haMiqdash fell, the second, etc… He suggests that this in itself is the lesson. We grapple with why bad things happen, we look for meaning, but even Chazal don’t reach consensus, do not suggest they have the reason for the tragic.

But of all the reasons the gemara gives, the one that captured the Jewish People’s attention was the idea that it was our sin’as chinam, our pointless hatred of each other, that led Hashem to end the Second Commonwealth. Perhaps because we realize that of the issues raised, it’s the one that we need the most work on.

But how does the gemara illustrate this point? Not by spelling out the animosity between this group and that group. But with the fact that we were able to give offense to a single, likely unsavory, individual and not even care. We held a debate over whether to offer an animal with a blemished lip or eye. How would the story have ended had the debate been over which sage would go to apologize?

Achdus

My dear brothers and sisters,

One thing that struck me is how heavily Hashem pointed out to us the concept of achdus, of unity, in how this tragedy unfolded.

First, note the communities each of the boys come from: Eyal YifrachHy”d spoke his Hebrew with a Yemenite accent, Gil-ad ShaarHy”d was a Sepharadi whose family was from Morocco, Naftali FraenkelHy”d was an Ashkenazi, the child of Anglos. Three boys, each returned from different centers of the diaspora.

Second, what were these three young men doing? Would anyone here in the US advise their teens to hitchhike? But no, Israel is in general different. After all, you could always count on your sisters and brothers to share an empty seat to help you get to where you’re going. The fact that “taking a tremp” is part of Israeli life is beautiful evidence of our underlying unity.

As was our common hope. And our common mourning. In how many communities, aside from the Jews, do people across the globe stop their lives because three young men they never met had their taken?

I have no problem with our heated disagreements over ideas. And among legitimate ideologies I consider such debate healthy. For individuals, we need a variety of approaches to Torah to aid a variety of personalities. On the national level,  a healthy body needs a variety of organs. And if we are going to be passionate about our beliefs, argument is going to ensue. Even if unproductive, the debate is a sign of health compared to dispassionate silence.

And of course it is nearly impossible to run a country or a community without disagreements over priorities in how we spend our resources, over proper tactics for reaching our aims, and sometimes even over those goals themselves.

But when we make these disagreements personal, it’s frightening.

After all, Hashem wants our unity. And since we do unite in times of trouble, He has a quick way of getting that unity if we’re not going to do it ourselves. I am not saying this is the reason for the current tragedy, or even a reason for the current tragedy. But it is something glaring that can be learned from it, a lesson we cannot afford to ignore.

Now that we are united, we cannot risk letting it go.

המקום ינחם אתנו, אבלי ציון וירושלים, ולא תוסיפו לדאבה עוד!

Torah Lishmah and Nefesh haChaim

Nefesh haChaim, 1st edition

Nefesh haChaim
Cover Page, First Edition

Nefesh haChaim is a collection of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s writings organized posthumously by his son and successor, R’ Yitzchak. We can see this in the self-description in the title page of the early editions of the Nefesh haChaim which opens, “Yir’as Hashem – for Life! Notebooks of holy writings of the true genius who was famous for his Torah and righteousness, and whose deeds proclaim before him.” The choice of title of the book “Nefesh haChaim” is explained that it is “based on the quote in the Jerusalem [Talmud], Sheqalim pg 6 [2:1, vilna ed. 10b], ‘Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel repeated: we do not make monuments [nefashos] for the righteous, for their words are their memorials.’ And the memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Thus the title means “Rabbi Chaim’s Memorial”, in addition to “The Living Soul”.

Being that it’s a compilation of multiple texts, Nefesh haChaim can be a challenge to combine into a single picture of how Rav Chaim believed we are to serve Hashem. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein, in his essay Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy (in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern), notes how the questions in this regard are more clear than the answers.

I mentioned this in my previous post, and suggested my diagnosis of the underlying issue:

… [T]his phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

But to discuss a specific approach to this particular text…

Overall Structure

First, because each section is really a pamphlet, called by the both the author and the editor a “qunterus“, in its own right, its topic was also originally expected to stand on its own. The amount of significance given to Torah study in the pamphlet that became section 4 does not change the significance given to (e.g.) tefillah in section 2. Rav Yitzchaq’s placing them in an overarching structure only has limited value in understanding the meaning of section 2 as it was written.

The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation; how being in the image of E-lokim, G-d as Master of all the forces, means that we have the ability to change the world(s).

The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. Then there are some chapters that about the yeitzer hara and its strategies, and how acting without full commitment to lishmah, to doing a mitzvah for its own sake, will lead to lishmah and thus vanquishing the yeitzer hara.

But the yeshivos focus on — in fact, most exclusively learn only — section four. There he discusses the special nature of Torah, its work on the soul, and how Torah study is central to the task of self-refinement. Obviously for those of the Yeshiva Movement, this is going to be the central piece to their worldview.

Rabbi Norman Lamm (in his book Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake) identified the basic problem with the resulting structure. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein wrote his essay using Rabbi Lamm’s work as a foil. R’ Lamm took the yeshivish position, Rabbi Krumbein doesn’t so much provide a clear alternative reading, his goal is more to set out to prove that focusing on only the fourth sha’ar is incomplete, that we simply haven’t gotten to the full subtlety of Rav Chaim’s position.

But just looking at the overall structure myself, I think the section that is not like the others is the third one, actually. Section one explains how our actions in this world have metaphysical repercussions, and section two addresses prayer, and thus the power of human speech. Section four, is about human thought. But section three is about G-d, about the nature of tzimtzum and in what way is Hashem present in creation and what way is creation an independent entity.

The Introduction

The most logical place to find the author’s intent is his introduction. Here we can’t entirely do so, as Rav Chaim didn’t write one — Rav Yitzchak did. But since his father did leave him the essays and instructions for publication, this is still of some use. And besides, Rav Yitzchak Volozhiner’s own opinion is of sufficient import to be interested in his worldview.

In that introduction, Rav Yitzchak describes Rav Chaim Volozhiner with a long description of his love of Mussar. For example:

This is what he would constantly say to me: that no person was created for himself. Rather, [we were created] for helping others in any way he has the ability to do.

Rav Chaim “with the breadth of his understanding would carve and grave the ideas, the light matters and significant ones, and attach them to the way of the Torah, Avodah, and Yir’as Hashem”. This list of three items recurs in the introduction — Torah rarely appears alone. Also, as we noted above and explained in the introduction, the book was named for the concept of yir’as Hashem, not Talmud Torah.

Looking at the introduction, then, we would be hard pressed to find any description of the book as leading up to the fourth section, or giving Torah study primacy in the meaning of living. Actually, given his repeated instruction to his son, it would seem that such meaning would be found in mitzvos that aid others.

Section 3: Tzimtzum

As I opined in the opening section, it’s section three that really stands out. The other sections are anthropological; discussions of what it is to be a person and the abilities people have to impact creation. Section three, though, deals with Hashem’s relationship to creation, it’s theological.

I understand Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s position on tzimtzum differently than many readers. But then, this whole essay is my own take on a subject numerous others more informed than I am have disagreed about.

Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacial contraction), of other things existing. The Yosher Levav understood this literally. However, that’s very problematic as it implies that Hashem Himself changed. And  both Chasidus and the Gra consider that notion heretical. In the Tanya, the noun is still the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but the verb tzimtzum is only an illusion. In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, the  tzimtzum is real, but he modifies the noun — it is not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else, Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will). ((According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Gra speaks of the tzimtzum of the Or Ein Sof, but that is not the terminology used in Nefesh haChaim, the Leshem or Michtav meiEliyahu — all spiritual heirs of the Gra.) )

Much of the second half of section 3 describes tzimtzum in terms of distinguishing between miTzido, from Hashem’s “perspective”, and mitzideinu, from ours. And therefore it is logical that many understand R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position as being more like the Tanya’s than the Gra’s. But I believe his position actually sits in a middle ground, a synthesis that might even fully include his rebbe’s understanding.

In sec. 3 ch. 2 Rav Chaim explains that calling Hashem “haMaqom” is a rather limited metaphor. A literal maqom is a place or holder of an object without being the cause of its existence. However, if Hashem were to retract his Ratzon from anything, it would cease to exist; He is the Cause of existing. Thus the understanding that his position is like the Tanya’s.

But in chapter 4, Rav Chaim discusses the literal absence of Kevod Hashem, and the first appearance of the word tzimtzum, at the beginning of ch. 5, reads “…צמצם כביכול כבודו ית’ שיוכל להמצא ענין מציאות עולמות וכחות ובריות נבראים ומחודשים — He ‘constricted’, as it were, His Blessed Kavod that He could bring into existence the idea of existing worlds, forces/potentials, and creatures that are created and newly made.”

It seems to me that Nefesh haChaim is describing a literal tzimtzum of Hashem’s glory which then causes the illusion of an absence His Essence. Tzimtzum is something that actually occurred, but not to the Ein Sof — like the Gra, avoiding the problem of saying Hashem could change by making tzimtzum about a different noun. Rav Chaim does differ from the Gra about which noun; according to Rav Chaim, any absence of Hashem’s Ratzon, His Will, is part of the illusion. It’s His Kavod that is absent. Although I’m not sure how either the Vilna Gaon or Rav Chaim Volozhiner define “Ratzon” vs “Kavod“, so it is possible the difference is more in terminology than in substance. In any case, the point I want to emphasize to explain how I understand Nefesh haChaim and the concept of Torah lishmah is that Rav Chaim is giving us that duality: the real absence of Kevod Hashem (3:5) and the illusion of the absence of Hashem Himself (3:3).

The “Chapters”

According to Rabbi Krumbein’s analysis, much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4, so I will also visit them. The additions begin:

Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…

Rabbi Norman Lamm (pp 61-62)  explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.

However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:

First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.

Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.

But within the description I gave above, in which sections 1, 2 and 4 deal with action, speech and thought, respectively, the “chapters” found between three and four serve as a prelude to the last section. They address the yeitzer hara and how to refine thought and motivation, and are thus speaking of the same domain as the section on Torah.

Section Four

In sec 4 ch. 3, Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that  the “lishmah“, the “it’s own sake”, of Torah study is unique. (He has a longer description in Ruach haChahim on Avos 6:1,) Rav Elazar beRav Tzadoq says, “עשה דברים לשם פעלן ודבר בהן לשמן — do things for the sake of the One Who caused them, and speak about them for their own sake.” (Nedarim 51a) Rav Chaim cites the Rosh, who notes the difference in language: when it comes to mitzvos of action, we do them lesheim Pa’alan — for the sake of G-d; but when it comes to learning, we learn leshman — for their own sake.” And Rav Chaim points the reader back to something he wrote at the end of sha’ar 1, that the primary effect of the mitzvah is in the action itself, which is why kavanah (intent) is not an obligatory component of the mitzvah, but one that allows it to effect repairs in higher worlds than otherwise. But as he explained previously in ch. 2, the role of lishmah is different in kind for Torah, for immersion in and internalization of Torah is identification with Hashem’s Thought. One is not relating to Hashem-as-Maker of a world we’re trying to refine, but directly with Him. For the Torah’s sake is for the sake of becoming shaped by His Will. It is this that Rav Chaim identifies with communion with the A-limighty, rather than deveiqus, cleaving to Him. Chapters 4 – 7 discuss the relationship between yir’ah and Torah. To Rav Chaim, yir’ah is something you work on for a few minutes in preparation for learning. It is the silo that enables one to retain Torah. But the focus is on the Torah.

This is unlike the Chassidus, where deveiqus is seen as a personal relationship with G-d. And in the Tanya, yir’ah is the purpose of learning, rather than a prerequisite, and he recommends that one should pause occasionally during learning to remember G-d and insuring that the study is leading to yir’ah 

Rav Chaim seems to be asserting that “Torah lishmah” means that that learning is supposed to be an end in itself. But before R’ Chaim, this was FAR from consensus. A simple reading of either Talmud (TY Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b, TB Sanhedrin 99b) would conclude that Torah lishmah is learning in order to know how to observe, how to decide future questions, or to teach. And assuming the amoraim aren’t really arguing, any of these three motives is “lishmah”. The Yerushalmi goes as far as to say “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world].” The Meshekh Chokhmah (Devarim 28:61) explains that this is because it the goal were to get Torah into the soul, full stop, then that is more easily accomplished before birth, as an intellect unencumbered by a body. (I translated this comment in the Meshekh Chokhmah: part I, part II [where this point is made], part III.)

And a bigger problem with thinking that he means that Torah lishmah is an end to itself is that the introduction to the book tells us that Rav Chaim made a point of teaching his son that people were created for the sake of others. Refining my own knowledge doesn’t fit that worldview, unless it’s not actually the end in itself.

Conclusion

So, how do I understand Nefesh haChaim overall? With trepidation; after all I opened with the assertion that people far more knowledgable than I am only captured the aspects of Rav Chaim’s teachings that fit their abilities and perspectives. So, the following is merely yet another person’s incomplete picture.

I think the distinction between real tzimtzum of kevod Hashem and the apparent absence of G-d Himself parallels the the two types of lishmah, and the concept underlies Rav Yitzchaq’s decision of how to organize Nefesh haChaim.

Section 1 speaks of man’s ability to improve the world, that this is what it means to be in Hashem’s “image”.  Section 2 speaks about prayer, drawing G-dliness down into the world, and identifying the world and its problems with His Ends. (We do not pray for our health, we pray for the health that Hashem wishes He could give us.) Until sec. 3, we are dealing with things that are to be done lesheim Pa’alan. We are told in sec. 3 that the Maqom (the illusion of Hashem’s Kavod being absent) refers to Hashem causing existence — and thus Hashem as Pa’alan.

With sec. 3 we are taught there is a second facet, the actual tzimtzum. This allows us to start discussing the lishmah of Torah, which is also Rav Chaim’s conception of deveiqus: to internalize His Thought, His Will.

Then the “chapters” complete this shifting of gears. The lishmah of mitzvos enhances them, but the lishmah of Torah is part of its essence. And so before discussing the power of talmud Torah, Nefesh haChaim includes a description of how to fight the yeitzer hara and achieve lishmah. There is a positive feedback cycle  between performance and attitude — performance generates lishmah (“מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה — from doing it not lishmah, one comes to do it lishmah”, Sanhedrin 105b) and lishmah heightens performance.

By making Torah study the identification with Hashem’s Will, and making this lishmah part of its essence, Rav Chaim is defining  Torah study and the cognitive  acquisition of knowledge as value not for its intellectual accomplishment but for its ability to change the self. Nefesh haChaim describes learning a cognitive approach to middah modification. Which is why yir’ah, is a prerequisite to being able to acquire Torah. Cognitively getting facts doesn’t require yir’ah, but being changed by those facts does demand an awareness of the magnitude of what and Who one is confronting.

To Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Talmud Torah is the primary means  for fulfilling the advice of Rabban Gamliel III (the son of Rav Yehudah haNasi) in Avos 2:4, “עשה רצונו כרצונך — make His Will like your will”. It’s a cognitive approach to middah modification. All of the power to repair the world (sec. 1) through our actions and to draw Hashem’s shefa into it with speech (sec. 2) only has value if we first turn our wills into His Will (sec. 4), so that our attempts to perfect the world actually improve it.

And so, Rav Chaim isn’t entirely denying the traditional understanding of Torah lishmah. It is still meant as being for the sake of others, just as Hashem “Acts” on the behalf of others. And this other-focus is a central theme in how the author raised his son. But its lishmah is not for the sake of doing or the Doer, but for the sake of acquiring the Torah itself, the Will of the Creator (as explained in sec. 3), to be capable of repairing the world (sec. 1 & 2) in the future.