The Point of Decision

A rather well-known section of Michtav meiEliyahu (vol 1 pg 113) is the Qunterus haBechirah. In it, Rav Dessler compares the decision-making process to a battle. All the fighting occurs at the front lines; beyond them, everything belongs to one camp. With each victory, the line advances. So too with free will. At the point of decision, the nequdas habechirah, decisions require conscious thought and are the true expression of free will. Beyond the point, decisions are made quickly, often even preconsciously. For example, most people do not actively choose not to shoplift — it’s simply not done. Shoplifting is beyond their nequdas habechirah. And with each decision, the nequdah moves. The first time someone refuses to pay under the table and therefore has to add sales tax to his price, it may be difficult. The second time, easier. Eventually, it’s a given — cheating the government is simply not done.A person is judged by his decisions. Therefore, we do not know where anyone really stands. We do not know what is a battlefront in his intellectual life. For you, some act may be trivial. For him, the same act may be a serious victory, one that moved his bechirah point in a positive direction.I would like to take the liberty of recasting this idea in the terms we have been discussing in the past few entries. Rav Dessler wrote about the internal battle between good and evil, but the same is true of a slightly different axis, the battle between one’s mammalian instincts and the drive for follow a higher calling.I wrote about the need to identify with the latter, and to see his baser desires as external. So that when faced with a choice, it becomes “I want to do the right thing, but he…” The position of Adam hearing the snake. Adam only had an internal desire to do the will of G-d, so that his choice was determining the falsehood of the snake’s argument. Then we explained taharah as that separation between one’s will and his physical desires, and qedushah as the unity between that will and his higher calling.

A person therefore has a conscious self, a set of base, animalistic urges, and a higher calling. The power of the bechirah is the ability to change that self by associated more tightly or loosely with either set of urges. Someone who repeatedly caves to those more crass desires will develop habits (hergel) that prejudice their conscious, human selves. That is the adulteration we identified with tum’ah. It is also the motion of the nequdas habechirah in a destructive direction.

On a more positive note, challenges faced and passed become easier with each repetition. One can thereby dedicate oneself to G-dliness through that same mechanism of repetition and habit. The nequdah moves so that more and more of the self is on the side of the battlefront of the forces committed to Him, our very definition of qedushah.


Returning back to the theme raised in the week of parashas Bereishis, In the first part, I drew a progression from the medrash of the earth refusing to make the trees taste like the earth, to that of the moon arguing that the world could not have two rulers and getting reduced, to the eating of the eitz hada’as. The physical world was created as a tool for our reaching for our higher calling. In the first step, we’re introduced to the need for the world to have its own identity if it’s to maintain existence as a tool; thus, as R’ Kook put it, the means lack the sweetness of the spiritual ends. Once it has its own identity, there is now competition between the sun, which is blatantly manifest in the world, and the moon, Israel, and the entire notion of man’s higher calling. That competition creates the opportunity for evil. In the second part, I described how man permanently infused his actions with a mixture of motives, some good, some evil, when he ate from the eitz hada’as, a tree which did taste like its fruit, at twilight, the one time in which day and night, the rule of the sun and the rule of the moon, overlap. Finally, my prescription for getting away from this mixture, derived from a thought by Rabbi Bechhofer, is to leave the stance of Pinnochio, where he wanted to do wrong and his good inclination is an external voice, the cricket, to that of pre-sin Adam, who had a yetzer hatov, but the desire to do evil was the external snake.We see therefore the essential value of havdalah, separation.My father once told me that when he was young he was taught that making a decision involves two components: a push, and a pull. A push from the status quo, and a pull to the new state. The context was the decision to make aliyah. A certain threshold had to be met before someone would choose to make aliyah. The greater the push, the less happy one is with his current country, the less pull he must have to Israel. For the typical American Jew to make aliyah, where there is little to push him from his middle-class lifestyle, requires developing a great love for Israel, a great pull toward it.Separation too involves both the pull and the push. You can separate from something that interferes, or to that thing to which you are striving.

Interestingly, the same division is found in the concepts of tum’ah and qedushah. When the Torah speaks of taharah, the lack of tum’ah, the proposition is “mi-“, from, e.g. “vetiharo min hatzora’as”. What is taharah? While many object to translating it as “spiritual purity”, the word is used to describe the pure gold of the menorah”, “zahav tahor”. Taharah is freeing the soul from a kind of adulteration, just as it’s gold that is free of impurities. As R’ SR Hirsch puts it, objects and events which cause the misconception that man is a physical being cause tum’ah. The tahor soul is one that is free from the habits and effects of living within an animal body. The ideal of taharah is Adam, for whom the drive to do evil was an external snake whose arguments he could assess objectively.

On the other hand, qedushah is about pull. The tzitz on the kohein gadol’s forehead read “qadesh Lashem”. Qedushah is being set aside for a given purpose. The wedding formula, “Hereby you are mequdeshes li…, committed to me…” uses the term without speaking of G-d or sanctity. But in usual usage, if the “le-” is not provided, it means creation’s Ultimate Purpose, “for My Honor, lekhvodi, I have created it”.

Whereas taharah is separation from the wood, qedushah is separating oneself for the fruit. Both forms of havdalah.

The two are not strictly opposites. It is possible for someone to be driven by opposing forces — both very engaged in his physicality and yet also very committed to serving G-d. It is the nature of the irbuvya, the complex mixture that makes up the human psyche that we aren’t always consistent. And so we find that tum’ah and qedushah can be ascribed to a single object. The me’aras hamachpeilah, where six of our seven forefathers are buried, is undeniably qodesh. However, there is a question, based on the architecture of how the mosque is built atop the original cave, whether a kohein may go there — because the burial place itself is tamei.

But still, taharah and qedushah are therefore related. The elimination of tum’ah is a mandatory precondition for working in qedushah. While they can in practice co-exist, they ought not. The tamei person may not eat sacred food. (That marital intimacy is also barred by tum’ah is a very powerful statement about its role in Judaism; it is treated as a sacred act.) First deal with that which is threatening to convince you that you’re just a higher form of mammal, then use your human gifts for what they were intended.


Shir haMa’alos: Mima’amaqim qarasikha Hashem
A song of ascents: From the depths, I call You, Hashem

- Tehillim 120:1
I’ve written a number of essays about tragedy from the perspective of philosophy and theory. But there are times when it simply isn’t the right approach.What do you say to someone who is in the middle of facing profound tragedy? A friend of mine recently lost his teenage daughter. You pay a shiv’ah call. What’s the right thing to say? Is there a right thing to say?Rav Nachum ish Gamzu would face every challenge and disappointment with “Gam zu letovah — this too is for the good.” Similarly Rabbi Aqiva, who studied under Rav Nachman ish Gamzu, said, “Everything the All-Merciful does, He does for the good.” Everything has a role in Hashem’s grand scheme. If it occurred, it has a good and positive outcome.

Very nice in theory. But how can a holocaust survivor, someone who lost his entire family, who saw children sent to the crematoria, possibly be asked to embrace this idea? How can parents bereft of their beloved daughter be told “everything has a plan, it’s really for the best” and not feel that the explanation is both emotionally cold and intellectually dishonest (as Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it)? Particularly since rare is the glimpse that we finite humans get into the infinite and Absolute Divine Wisdom.

We find the same phenomenon in the book of Iyov. The book opens telling the reader the reason for Iyov’s future woes. The Satan, the challenging angel, believes that Iyov has mastered the art of serving G-d from plenty, and needs to learn how to serve Him even in the face of poverty and adversity. Yet Iyov goes through one disaster after another, seeks their meaning, and never finds one. The book closes with Hashem telling him that the search is futile, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell, if you know the understanding!” (Iyov 38:3) Knowing the reason exists is a far cry from either being able to understand it or embrace it.

The word “aveilus” is translated “mourning”. Etymologically, though, it’s a form of the word “aval — but”. Aveilus is a time when none of the answers make sense; the aveil says, “I know that Hashem has his reasons, but …” When my wife and I lost our infant daughter, a recurring question in my mind was, “Yes, but why me?” Aveilus is a state where the gap between our knowledge and our hearts is acute and the chasm of pain impassable.

So what does someone do when they find themselves “walking in the valley of Deathshadow”? If it’s not the right time for explanations, what does one say?

The standard formula is “May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The message is that first, G-d is everywhere — He is with you in your pain. And second, you are not a single person suffering alone.

Shir hama’alos — What is the song of ascents, the means of lifting up from the pit of despair?

“From the depths I call you, Hashem.” “Qarov Hashem lekhol qor’av, lekhol asher yiqra’uhu be’emes — Hashem is close to all who call Him, to anyone who truthfully calls Him.” (Ashrei; Tehillim 145:18) Calling out to Hashem from the depths of one soul and the depths of despair brings Him close.

At the very moment that one is grappling with “Why me, G-d?” one is calling out to Hashem with unadulterated honesty and the core of one’s being. The sufferer is seeking a personal relationship with the A-lmighty. A tragic period in our lives is a unique opportunity not to explain Hashem, but to come close to Him. Not seek explanations, but to be warmed by his embrace.

Adam and Pinocchio

(First, please see part I about the eitz hada’as, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The following is extrapolated from a thought in an essay by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer.)

Until Adam ate the fruit, he consisted of free will and internalized yeitzer hatov (inclination to do good). He had no yeitzer hara; the inclination to do evil was external to him. This idea is found in Bereishis Rabba, and discussed at length in Nefesh haChaim (1:6, note).

According to Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim (sec. 1 ch. 2), man always has choices to make — otherwise what is free will about? However, while for us the main challenge is good vs. evil, the challenge that faced Adam was not good vs evil, but truth vs falsehood.

Rabbi Dessler (Michtav meiEliyahu vol. 2 pg. 138) suggests that this is not a debate, but two aspects of the same truth. Since the desire to do evil was external, taking the form of the snake, it would have to present its argument to Adam. Adam’s only desire was to do good, so the snake’s argument would have to be a lie, presenting what it was promoting as though it were the greater good. Adam faced two conflicting stories about which path is better, and had to choose which was the truth.

In contrast to Adam, in the story of Pinocchio the main character is told that his lies are part of him, “as plain as the nose on his face”. But rather than a yeitzer hatov, the call to do good is externalized as a cricket. He is told to identify with the voice in his head suggesting wrong choices, but good choices are things someone else foisted on him. (Freud would be happy with this model: the id provides innate desires, but the superego provides rules imposed by parents and society. He didn’t believe in souls, and therefore had no reason to posit a higher calling as primary as man’s animal ones.) Pinocchio was set up to fail.

Our Sages say that a person is born with a yeitzer hara, but gains a yeitzer hatov only at his bar mitzvah. Perhaps they mean the following: Until adolescent rebellion, children choose good — but they do it because their parents, teacher, principal, etc… expects it of him. Jiminy Crickets telling them “you gotta”. Until the child is capable of rebellion, he doesn’t truly operate from the perspective of an internalized yeitzer hatov.

The key to making proper decisions is to identify oneself with one’s higher calling, to the extent that other desires are objectified, not part of the real me. To leave the Pinocchio stance and assume that of Adam. Not, “I want to play but he is pushing me to sit in school”, but “I want to help others, but he is suggesting I slow down and relax.”

The Origins of Imperfection

The first we hear of Hashem allowing things to go in something other than the ideal way is in the creation of plants.

There is a medrash (Breishis Rabba 5:9) that comments on a change in language in the middle describing of the creation of trees. Hashem orders the earth on the third day to bring forth “eitz peri oseh peri“, fruit trees that make fruit, yet the land actually produces only “eitz oseh peri“. Between the commandment and the fulfillment, something is lost. The medrash explains that originally the wood would have tasted like the fruit, so that it would truly be a “fruit tree”. Instead of the norm being that the wood of the tree would taste like the fruit, this is now the exception. With a couple of exceptions, one of them — note this for later — the esrog, the trees, or the angels entrusted to guard them, were afraid for their survival. If the wood tasted like the fruit, animals would eat the plant rather than the fruit, and they would die out. And so, the earth “disobeyed”.What does this medrash mean? Does the earth have free will, that it can choose to disobey G-d? Rav A.Y. Kook explains:

At the inception of creation it was intended that the tree have the same taste as the fruit. All the supportive actions that sustain any general worthwhile spiritual goal should by right be experienced in the soul with the same feeling of elation and delight as the goal itself is experienced when we envision it. But earthly existence, the instability of life, the weariness of the spirit when confined in a corporate frame brought it about that only the fruition of the final step, which embodies the primary ideal, is experienced in its pleasure and splendor. The trees that bear the fruit, with all their necessity for the growth of the fruit have, however, become coarse matter and have lost their taste. This is the failing of the “earth” because of which it was cursed when Adam was also cursed for his sin.

Orot haTeshuva 6:7
Translation by B. Z. Bokser, The Lights of Penitence in “Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,” published by Paulist Press in the “Classics of Western Spirituality” series.

According to Rav Kook, the medrash gives the reason why the holiness of our goal is not felt in our day-to-day life. Our physical framework is limited and needs support. It requires our attention. The trees didn’t embody the ideal because they were afraid for their survival. In truth, the mundane only exists to be the means to an end, but because of the needs of survival, it takes on its own reality.

The second step occurs on day four, with Hashem’s creation of the moon. See Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Pinechas for more detail, but here’s the relevent portion of the idea.

In Parshas Bereishis (1:16) the Torah reads: “And G-d made the two large luminaries — the large luminary to rule the day and the small luminary to rule the night — and the stars.”

The gemara (Chulin 60b) points out an inconsistency in the pasuq. R. Shimon ben Pazi asks why the Torah first describes the sun and moon as “the two large luminaries”, but then it calls the sun “the large luminary” and the moon is called the small one. The gemara answers with a story. Originally the sun and moon were the same size. But the moon complained to Hashem, “Can there exist two kings sharing the same crown?” How can both the sun and the moon share the glory? G-d replies, “Go and make yourself smaller.” This pains the moon, and Hashem subsequently offers three consolations. When that fails, Hashem says that we are to bring a qorban to atone for His sin. (Again, see the devar Torah in MmD.)

The Maharsha explains that the story is about the Jewish people and our goals vs the world at large and theirs. The Jews are compared to the moon (see, for example Qidush Levanah). Edom, the dominant power, is the sun. Why do we live in a world that seems to be dominated by Edom’s principal, that might makes right? Why isn’t holiness the dominant idea, and right make might?

This then is the second step. One day 3, the notion of needing to be concerned about the “real world” entered creation, which made it take on a life of its own, hiding its true nature of being merely the means toward holiness. Now, this second thing became a competing power. The moon sees a power struggle between itself, the pursuit of holiness, and the might of the sun.

The gemara (Succah 35a) explains, “‘P’ri eitz hadar’ — that its fruit tastes like the tree.” A defining feature of the esrog is that it did not participate in the rebellion of day three. Based on this, Medrash Rabba (15:6) identifies the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the eitz hada’as, with the esrog. (Although Berachos 40a records a dispute as to whether the “fruit” was wheat, a grape, or a fig, there the dispute is more pragmatic. Wheat is the archetypal food, and requires much human intervention to eat, unlike other fruit. Grapes are associated with wine, and therefore with change of mental state. And since Adam and Chavah subsequently made clothing out of fig leaves, it would seem logical to assume they were next to a fig tree when they ate from the eitz hada’as.)

They ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night overlap. The sun and moon, might and holiness, vie for rule.

The eating of the fruit, therefore, has much to do with the blending of real and ideal, and internalizing it. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”

His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?

The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.

Irbuvia. A constant mixture of emotions. No good deed lacks some selfish side-motivation, no matter how small. Which is why many shuls require appeals to publicly announce donations in order to raise enough money to operate. The question is how to clear out that confusion. To choose the holy and the ideal rather than be moved by a mixture of good and evil.

To be continued, be”H…

I would like to leave you with the next paragraph from Orot haTeshuvah:

But every defect is destined to be mended. Thus we are assured that the day will come when creation will return to its original state, when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit. The “earth” will repent of its sin, and the way of the practical life will no longer obstruct the delight of the ideal, which is sustained by appropriate intermediate steps on its way toward realization, and will stimulate its emergence from potentiality to actuality.

The power of speech

I had an epiphany during leining this past Shabbos (parashas Bereishis). Such things are notoriously difficult to convey, but I’ll try anyway.Usually, shmuessin on the subject of shemiras halashon revolve around showing how much power is in speech, how speach is a real “thing”, and has a challos (impact) the world.I realized something, though: It’s the exact reverse! It’s not merely that speech is a real thing, the point is that every real thing is in truth “just” speech! All of creation is “And E-lokim was saying….” Our words have power because words are the more primary ontology, they are more real than, and the source of, objects.