A Second Covenant

“To enter into a beris, a covenant, with Hashem your G-d, and in His oath, which Hashem makes with You today.” (Devarim 29:11) The Ramban comments that the beris mentioned here is a new one made in Arvos Mo’av, in addition to the one made at Har Sinai. (The Rav has some Torah on this as well.)I would like to suggest the following distinction between the two covenants:At Har Sinai, we were “ke’ish echad beleiv echad — like one man, with one heart”. We were unified because we chose to follow a common objective. Man joins the community — the connection is made outward from the individual.

Rashi comments on the dots over “lanu ulvaneinu in “The hidden are for Hashem our G-d, vehaniglos lanu ulvaneinu la’asos es kol divrei haTorah hazos — the revealed are for us and our children to do all the words of this Torah.” (29:28) He quotes the opinion of R’ Nechemiah that with these words we accepted areivus zeh lazeh. That lanu, written in the plural, falls the responsibility for the known sins of individuals. The community is responsible for its members, even those who choose not to follow its goals. As parashas Nitzavim opens, “Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem — You are standing here today, all of you.” The connection is made from the community in toward the member — and so membership is automatic, regardless of personal choice.

It is different but similar to a distinction The Rav makes between the am, and the eidah. The am is the community of fate (which would include all Jews) and the eidah (from the word eidus testimony, those who believe in and live according to the revelation in Sinai), the community of destiny. Man chooses to follow his destiny, fate is imposed upon him. Note the purpose of this second beris: “lema’an haqim osekha hayom Lo li’am, veHu yihyeh likha lEi-lokim — so that you will be established for Him a community of fate, and He will be for you a G-d.” (29:12)

Qedushas Beis HaKenesses

When a Jew talks during davening in a shul in America,
A shul in Netzarim is set aflame.
That’s the lesson I took from this Elul. The feelings generated from pictures of the fires and celebrations made me realize something. I care a lot more about the sanctity of a synagogue and all that it stands for than what I follow through in action.A thought, written minutes before I leave for Selichos: We have an opportunity to use those feelings as they are awoken by the news, to take the awe for Hashem that one can only feel as hurricane after hurricane washes away entire cities and leaves us no means of help but prayer.

For some shuls, thank G-d, speaking is not the issue. In some places, perhaps it’s that people trickle in 15 minutes or more late. In another, the davening runs as it should, but no one thinks of putting away the siddurim afterward; the sefarim collect on the tables in every-growing piles. Each of us can look at where we are and ask ourselves — what can I do constructively to address the loss of sanctity as synagogues burned to the ground amidst celebrations and looting?

So I ask you: Please don’t talk to me in shul. I’m weak, and easily distracted.

The Thermodynamics of History (revised)

(This is the second in what I hope will be a series of posts be”H about whether reward and punishment are caused by the actions they address, or meted out by Hashem more directly. The first can be found here. This post has been significantly revised and expanded since its original form.)When you drop a drop of ink into a cup of water, the ink spirals around in some chaotic pattern and eventually diffuses until the entire liquid is a uniform light blue. Even though each time you repeat the experiment the dance and spiral is different, something about it in the general is predictable. If you had different snapshots of the sequence that were significantly far enough apart in time, you could place them in historical order. Entropy always increases until it reaches the maximum. The system runs a certain way, reaching equilibrium.History also has a known final state — the Messianic Era. The colorless, pure potential of this world will be eventually assigned a meaning represented by the sky-blue of techeiles, of the vision of sapphire paving stones under the heavenly throne during the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 24:10). Even though people have free will, and therefore how the process unfolds is not fixed, the general parameters are known. And, like the ink in the water, it’s hard to understand the purpose of any particular dance or spiral in the process of history. But, we are tending toward an equilibrium.

And that means anything not in the equilibrium state will eventually cease to exist. At the end, there is no clear water. And, at the end, there is no evil. Evil must inherently destroy itself, or else there could be no guarantee of that Messianic equilibrium.

This guarantee is inherent in the definition of good and evil. In “Hashem and Morality“, I commented on the fact that the word “tov” (like the English word “good”) has two meanings: functional and moral. When we say “This is a good pen”, we are speaking functionally — the pen is very effective at doing what pens are supposed to do. Similarly, a “bad pen” is one that leaks, is dried out, or is otherwise not a good writing tool. In that essay, I suggested that one meaning derives from the other. Hashem defined moral good in terms of our function. “A good person” is not only a moral judgment, but also a functional one; someone who is doing “the good and the right” is performing his function in this world.

Therefore it’s not only that the system is designed to lead to a particular end-state which lacks evil, and therefore we know that the forces of history must prune it away. Rather, evil is — by definition — that which isn’t part of Hashem’s ideal state for man. We are warned not to do it, we are told it has the label “ra” (evil), because choosing it will be part of is that which is destined to be pruned away. The labeling of an act as “ra” or “cheit” (sin), is akin to hanging up a sign warning of a cliff; Hashem is warning us to avoid that which causes suffering. Because they run counter to both our design and our future end-state, one is joining that which will be destroyed — and therefore are ra, shattering, breaking, activities.

This is, perhaps, what Hashem means in Devarim (30:19), when He says, “… I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, so that you shall choose life…” The commandments and prohibitions are simply a list of what happens to cause blessing, because it fits the plan, as well as the reverse.

From this perspective (one which we will be”H discuss further in those future entries on this subject), not only isn’t punishment seen as meted out, it’s logically prior, not the consequence, of evil.

Midrashei Halakhah

There are two kinds of medrash (which should technically be called “midrash” to be grammatically correct). Midrashei Aggada are non-halakhic statements, those of mussar, Jewish thought, Qabbalah, and the like. The thought is usually connected to the text through details added to the narrative, or other stories intended as metaphor (whether in addition to being historical or not).I want to discuss here Midrashei Halakhah, which derive laws from the text. Most often, through the rules of derashah. Hillel made a science of derashah, and reduced it to 7 rules. R’ Yishma’el and R’ Aqiva, broke down those rules into subcategories. Because of the differences in approach, R’ Yishma’el’s exposition yeilded 13 laws, R’ Aqiva’s, 19.
Derashah could be understood in 2 ways: Either as applied to the semantics, the meaning of the clauses of the verses, or as applied to the syntax — that particular words have coded meaning.R’ Yishma’el’s school believed the former. “The Torah is written in human idiom”. Therefore, derashos apply to the meaning of clauses, not individual word choice — if it’s normal idiom or metaphoric description. This also lead R’ Yishmael to view derashah as a means of getting what the Torah is telling us, such as “shomei’ah ani” (I hear).R’ Aqiva learned “mounds of halakhos from the tags and serrifs on the letters”. He understood derashah to be about the text itself. Doubled words (e.g. “aseir ta’aseir — you shall tithe” is also taken to mean “aseir bishvil sheti’asheir — tithe so that you may become wealthy”), or the presence of limiting or inclusive keywords (akh – except; raq – only) are grounds for derashah. R’ Aqiva’s language is more one of finding truths, “yachol”, it could be that… Being less related to the plain meaning of the verse, he understands a suggested derashah as less compelling than R’ Yishma’el would.

By their day, these rules of derashah were descriptive only. While Hillel and Shammai may have had the power to make new derashos (there is debate on this point), R’s Aqiva and Yishma’el generation certainly didn’t beyond qal vachomer (deriving from the less obvious case to the more).

Also, none of this necessarily means they invented the rules of derashah or even disagreed over fundamentals. The debate between the two schools of medrash were not over the creation of new laws of derashah. For that matter, it is clear that Hillel’s laws were known to the previous heads of the Sanhedrin, the Benei Beseira. The discussion is over taxonomy; how to understand derashah as being the product of a few clear rules. They could well have simply divided the existing derashos into existing categories, and categorized differently. In fact, we find R’ Yishma’el using ribui umi’ut (a principle of R’ Aqiva’s list) and R’ Aqiva using kelal uperat.

The two series of medrashei halakhah are:

R’ Aqiva’s schoolR’ Yishma’el’s school
ShemosMekhilta deRabbi Shim’on bar YochaiMekhilta (a/k/a Mekhilta deRabbi Yeshima’el).
VayiqraSifra (a/k/a Toras Kohanim and Sifra deVei Rav)Sifrei (lost sometime during the late geonim or early rishonim)
BamidbarSifrei Zutah (“Small Sifrei”)Sifrei (the remaining portion)
DevarimSifreiMekhilta Devarim (largely lost; some portions were recovered from citations including some only found in the Cairo genizah)

The texts seem to have been redacted in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The traditional publication of the medrashei halakhah includes four books, mixing the two schools: Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifrei (on Bamidbar) and Sifrei (on Devarim). In fact, the two Sifrei’s often get published as a single volume, despite the difference in style that makes their different origin obvious (once you know to look for it).

A more complete publication would have all seven books, typically published in the order: Mekhilta, Mehilta deR’ Shim’on bar Yochai, Sifra, Sifrei (Bamidbar), Sifrei Zuta, Sifrei (Devarim), Mekhilta Devarim.

The word “mekhilta” is Aramaic, and means “measure” or “rule”. The words “sifra” and “sifrei” are conjugations of the root /spr/, meaning “book” or “writing a book”. Sometimes the word “sifrei” is used to refer to all 4 books.

After Rabbi Yehudah haNasi compiled the Mishnah, organizing halakhah by topic rather than verse, the notion of composing Medrashei Halakhah fell out of use. However, as he was from R’ Aqiva’s school (a student of R’ Aqiva’s student, R’ Meir), that school ended up making greater impact on the final law.

The Marksman

I wanted to share the following thought sent in today’s email from Rabbi Zvi Miller of The Salant Foundation. The Salant Foundation emails a mussar thought and a suggestion for implementing it daily (when permissable, of course).

I do not fully understand how the Ben Ish Chai’s thesis works, but it provides a good think-piece. I’ll therefore hold my opinion for a later post, to let the reader reach his own conclusions.


L’zecher nishmas Rav Yochanon Motel ben Rav Ephraim ands Moras Esther Leah bas Rav Yehudah Yoseph B”H


Mussar – The Wisdom of Personal Growth


Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai received the Torah from Hillel and Shammai; He said: If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because you were created for that purpose. (Avos 2:9)

A man was walking alone through the forest. Suddenly, he heard a loud roar, and came face to face with an angry lion. His heart filled with fear and he was sure his time had come. He had no weapon in his hand except for a simple walking stick. After a few seconds, he pulled himself together and tried to think of a plan. He picked up his stick as if it were a bow and arrow and raised it towards the lion – hoping this pose would effectively scare away the lion.

Unbeknownst to him, a marksman was perched on a high tree behind him, and his skillful hands grasped a bow and arrow. When the man on the ground pretended to shoot an arrow, the marksman shot a real arrow that pierced the heart of the lion. When the lion fell lifeless to the ground, the man was overjoyed, thinking that his walking stick had magical powers. He began kissing his walking stick and praising it aloud.

At that point the marksman called out to him from high up in the tree, “Don’t be foolish! Your stick has neither arrows nor powers. I took mercy on you, and shot the arrow that killed the lion from up here in this tree.”

Likewise, when a person performs a Mitzvah, he has no power to affect a spiritual rectification. Rather, he only presumes that he is elevating himself, but in truth, all the sanctity and spirituality of the Mitzvah is bestowed to him by HaShem, Who oversees everything from Heaven.

The same idea is true concerning Torah study. Even though Torah study is manifest through the faculty of speech, which is more spiritually oriented than a totally physical act, nevertheless, the rectification of Torah study is a gift that comes from HaKodesh Baruch Hu. Is it possible for any person to elevate himself above his own bodily powers?

Therefore, Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai says, “If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself”, meaning do not take credit for the wisdom and holiness that came upon you as a result of your Torah study. Rather, realize that the spiritually, wisdom, and sanctity that you found as a result of your Torah study is a gift that HaShem has bestowed upon you.”

Implement: As you study Torah, envision that HaShem is blessing you with holiness and wisdom.

[Based on Moshol V’nimshol of the Ben Eish Chai, 3]

The Lishmah of Interpersonal Mitzvos

I recently noticed a paradox when it comes to mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (interpersonal mitzvos). What is the purpose of such mitzvos? To develop feelings of love and caring toward others; to expand our natural focus on ourselves to include others. Does the lishmah (lit: for itself) mean doing the mitzvah for the sake of doing a mitzvah? If it does, then we are not focusing on caring for other people, we are focusing on Hashem. On the other hand, if we define lishmah as being “for the purpose for which we were given the mitzvah (as best we can understand it)”, we would conclude that mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro “for itself” means doing it without thought to its being a mitzvah. As I said, a paradox.(Along these lines are the Chessed Projects many girl schools require. Obviously the point is that “from doing it not lishmah, one is brought to doing it lishmah.” But what is the school trying to encourage?)The paradox seems to be addressed by the Torah by giving two overarching principles that motivate chessed. The first is “ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha — and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The other is “vehalakhta bidrakhav — and you shall walk in His ways”, to which Chazal comment (Sifri ad loc, among many other places), “Just as He is described as Merciful, so too must you be merciful. Just as He is described as Kind, so must you too be kind. Etc….”

(Note that the Sifri does not actually call G-d “kind” or “merciful”. The Sifri clearly is ascribing the attributes to our perception of Hashem, not to Hashem Himself. See “The Attributes of G-d“.)

Ve’ahavta obligates us to act out of love for the other. Vehalakhta, out of love for and obedience to G-d. Which one is fulfilling in a given act, which could mean both as well, could very well depend on the intent of the person.

On Destroying Synagogues

The Israeli Government wanted to have the army destroy the synagogues of Azza, to spare us the shame, the Palestinian triumphalism and the chillul Hashem (not that the government would necessarily use that term) that greeted me upon checking the news this morning.However, the unanimous decision of Israel’s rabbis was that it is prohibited for a Jew to tear down a synagogue. Rav She’ar Yashuv haKohein Kook, with the support of R’ Eliashiv, went to Israel’s Supreme Court to plead the case:

Destruction of one synagogue is possible only after a new one has already been built. Even then, the destruction is allowed only when the community is interested in expanding the existing synagogue. But in the case of the Gaza expulsion, communities will either cease to exist as separate entities or will be greatly decreased in number.
There is no precedent for allowing Jews to destroy synagogues after the expulsion of the community.

As this is not a news blog, the question I wanted to raise was the flaw in the government’s thinking. Isn’t it a chilul Hashem to allow our enemies a party over the destruction of a beis medrash or beis keneses?

After all, at Masada and at York (1190) people comitted mass suicide rather than hand the enemy a victory. And in York, two of the people who died were Tosafists — the act had halachic sanction by the era’s highest authorities! If the motivation justifies death, surely it justifies the destruction of synagogues. Life, after all, is more sacred than buildings.

There was an evil man named Sheva ben Bichri … and he said, “I have no allegiance to David HaMelech” [i.e., he led a rebellion against King David]. Yoav’s men chased after him and they came to a town and laid siege to it. Yoav announced to the townspeople, “Sheva ben Bichri has raised his hand against David HaMelech. Send him out of your town, for he alone is the one that is guilty, and I will then withdraw my forces from the siege.” A woman responded to Yoav, “Behold, here is his head which I am throwing to you next to the walls of the city.”

- Sanhedrin 72b

It is prohibited to turn over one person so that all may save their lives. It is similarly prohibited for a group of women to turn over one of their number to rapists so that they spare the rest. There is a dispute whether the precedent of Sheva ben Bichri means that it is only when they name a particular person that turning him over is permitted (R’ Yochanan), or even then it’s only permitted when the person is also the one actually guilty (Reish Laqish). The Rambam (Yesodei haTorah 5:5) and Rama (YD 157) rule that the person named must be guilty of the death penalty in order to permit turning him over.

But in any other case, a group cannot choose one of their own number in order to save them all. Why? Wouldn’t the unlucky chosen person be a victim in either case? The problem is in making oneself the instrument of evil. It is better to witness greater evil than to be an actor in a smaller one. It’s one thing to commit suicide. It’s another to save oneself through murder — even the murder of someone slated for death.

And that’s the perspective on religion that the government lacks. When too many people think of religion, they think of houses of worship, of prayer, of retreat and respite from “the real world”. However, Yahadus is based on the notion of sanctifying one’s life, not saving oneself from it.

Their original plan would have saved the synagogue at the expense of G-d’s true sanctuary in this world, the Jewish soul.

May we be spared such decisions in the future.

Menuchas haNefesh

Picture being in a box. A large box, plenty of room to walk around, but very much with a “boxy” feel. There is a pervasive smell of tar; the box itself is wood sealed with tar. There’s a constant background smell of animals and food as well. Your rocking, floating on the water. The lighting is poor, barely present, and what’s there tends to be slivers of color — light coming through a small crystal. And you’re constantly busy, caring for all those animals. Running from one to the next. Now picture living that for a year. Finally, you’re free!The description in the Torah for the end of the mabul (flood) heavily uses conjugations of the word “menuchah”. The protagonist’s name — Noach. The ark comes to rest on the mountain — “vatanch hateivah”. The dove seeks “mano’ach” — a resting place. The language calls our attention to the event as an archetype of menuchah.However, that’s the calm after the storm. (Quite literally.) How does one achieve menuchah during the storm?

Also, the trope mark “munach” is used in the beginning of a phrase, it’s a preparatory note. Implied in that choice of name is that they found the word “menuchah” implying not only an end, but a preparation of the thing to come.

The berakhah on tefillin is “… Who commanded us lehani’ach tefillin — to rest tefillin”. Tefillin can only be worn while we are in the proper frame of mind. (Which is why today, when shorter attention spans on the norm, we wear it for the minimum time necessary.) Menuchah connotes a reflective pause.

This is also implied by what it is “menuchas hanefesh” asks us to put to rest. The “nefesh”. There are many words in Judaism for soul (just as there are many words in Innuit Eskimo languages for snow, allegedly). Neshamah implies lofty spirituality. Ru’ach connotes one’s will. Nefesh, though, is something we share with animals. One can’t consume blood for “the blood is of the nefesh”. Nefesh is our more primitive, mammalian, selves.

And one can’t really explore the meaning of menuchah in Judaism without looking as Shabbos. The most common text used for Qiddush on Shabbos morning is composed of two paragraphs. One ends “… and on the seventh day He rested — vayinafash“. From the word nefesh. The second, “… for on six days Hashem made the heaven and the earth, the sea and everything within them, vayanach — and He rested — on the seventh day.” Menuchas hanefesh, stepping back from the storms of life to get an opportunity to reflect, defines Shabbos. The nefesh might be a raft tossed about by the waves, but I, I can be steady.

I therefore suggested that menuchas hanefesh does not mean not feeling anger, stress, or the other things that break our calm. If nothing else, such a definition would make the problem too large to tackle. Rather, it’s to be able to find the point of quiet and watch the emotion. The anger is there, the stress is there, but not overwhelming our ability to think.

That is Shabbos. That is lehani’ach tefillin.

So how do we achieve it?

1- A hispa’alus, taken from Hallel:
“Shuvi nafshi limnuchaychi — Return my soul to my rest
Ki Hashem gamal alaychi — for G-d provides support upon me.”

Also, looking at the quote, one can glean tactics for achieving menuchas hanefesh. The practices already introduced — visualization (see opening) and quote-based hispa’alus — are themselves tactics.

Note some of the implications:
Shuvi – return: I have been there before.

Which brings us to tactic #2:

2- If one pays attention to moments of calm, one can capture the feeling and more readily reproduce it. I’m not talking about intellectualizing the process. Just that through awareness, one can recall the feeling on a gut

Nafshi — my nefesh. Who is the “I” who has a nefesh? I need not be the storms of my soul.

This is actually quite difficult. At the moment of being overwhelmed, how does one decide not to be overwhelmed? There’s a Catch-22 (or bootstrapping problem)in requiring a balanced mind in order to work on balancing one’s mind.

3- Limnuchaychi — to my rest. I own it.

Shabbos observance (or breaking for minchah, mid-day; the name isn’t quite derived from “menuchah” but if one dismisses the notion of coincidence…) gives one experiences of calm to return to.

4- Ki Hashem gamal alaychi — For Hashem provides support upon me.

Bitachon, trust that Hashem has a purpose, will allow me not to needlessly fight that which shouldn’t be fought. Yes, things that need resisting are challenges I must face. But too often we’re stressed about things we can’t control — solely because we don’t realize these scenarios serve their purpose as well.

5- Realize that every storm does have an end. And that menuchah after the storm is when we can prepare for the next one (and there will be a “next one”) — thereby preventing that overwhelming feeling when it hits.