Recognizing Your Friend in the Dark

Rav Hutner, in the Pachad Yitzchaq for Purim, addresses the famous medrash (on Mishlei 9) which says that after moshiach comes, all the holidays will cease except Purim. This is derived from the verse (Esther 9:28) “the memory of Purim will never cease from among their descendants.”

The notion that all the holidays in the Torah are not permanent is halachically and hashkafically problematic, so I am reluctant to take this literally. But in either case the primary point is to identify the lesson the medrash is teaching.

Rav Hutner gives a metaphor of two students who were given the job of recognizing their friend in the dark. One is given a flashlight. His job is easy and immediate — shine the light on them and see. The other is given no tools. He learns to listen to voices, to recognize footsteps. At the end of the experiment, though, who learned more? When dawn comes, the first student is exactly where he was the day before. However, the second student now know more about his friend.

Pesach is the flashlight. It’s easy to see G-d’s role in the explicit miracles of leaving Egypt. But in the light of the messianic era, what does Pesach add? Purim teaches us to see Hashem even in the mundane. Purim adds to our relationship with the Creator in a manner that dissimilar and goes beyond.

To add my 2 cents (gild the lily?)…

The difference between the miraculous and the mundane is one of perspective. I’ve written about this before, based on the Maharal’s introduction to Gevuros Hashem, and Rav Dessler’s further development of the notion. In short, most of what we call reality primarily reflects the patterns we place on what’s out there. As the medrash says about the plague of blood, something can be both blood and water, depending on the observer. (See “Rav Dessler on Perception and Reality” for details; actually a good percentage of this blog is related.)

I approached the same idea from a different direction when discussing the miracles of R’ Chanina ben Dosa (Mesukim miDevash, Bo):

[T]here is a famous story of Rav Chanina ben Dosa, a miracle-working tanna who was so poor that he lived off a [qav of] carob from Shabbos to Shabbos. [Carob grew untended, and was available for free.] One week his daughter filled the Shabbos lights with vinegar rather than oil. She was distressed by this mistake, perhaps because of their inability to afford wasted oil or vinegar. Rav Chanina answered her, “He Who made oil burn can make vinegar burn.” And the vinegar burned. Rav Chanina witnessed miracles because they would not violate his free will. He saw the supernatural burning of vinegar no more proof of G-d’s existence than he saw everyday within nature. (Taanis 25a)

The next week I followed up with:

Last week, we explored the story of Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter who accidentally poured vinegar into the Shabbos lamp instead of oil. R’ Chanina ben Dosa told her to light the vinegar. “He who commanded oil to burn could command vinegar to burn.” Last week we explained his statement in erms of free will; the vinegar burning would not prejudice R’ Chanina toward greater faith in Hashem any more than oil burning would.

The Maharal gives us another explanation. Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable.

Purim is not simply about the possibility of miracles; it’s about being in a world where the natural is as visibly the “Hand” of G-d as the miraculous. To enter a world where oil and vinegar are equally flammable.

That is recognizing His Voice and Step in the darkness.

R’ Hutner concludes:

We see that there exist two types of light. The first is, ” G-d is my light,” and the second is, “Though I sit in darkness, G-d is my light” (Micah 7:8) The special quality of Purim is its ability to bring to the fore the light which breaks through the darkness. Just as that unique light which guides man through darkness has a unique advantage, even surpassing the normal light of the sun, so, too, the pearls of knowledge which shine through the “not knowing” of the ad delo yada of Purim, are especially precious.

Simchah and Oneg

Simchah is related to wanting and having, because Ben Zoma defines the wealthy person as “sameiach bechelqo — happy with his lot”.

The Tanya speaks about how each aspect of the soul lives in tension between “ratzon - desire/will” and ta’anug. Thus we see that “oneg” too is related to wanting and having.

However, the mitzvah on Yom Tov is deemed simchas Yom Tov, whereas for Shabbos we speak of oneg Shabbos.
Simchah has codified requirements: for men, meat (some rishonim say that deOraisa it’s only the meat of the shelamim sacrice, but all agree that including derabbanan, it also calls for meat in general) and wine, for women, new clothing and jewelry, for children, sweets. The two differ.

Perhaps we can explain this in light of my previous entry which suggested that

… I think ben Zoma’s notion of my lot in life is the path Hashem placed before me to travel. Not where I stand now physically, socially, psychologically or spiritually. Not even where G-d is leading me. My lot is the trip along the way. The whole roller coaster ride, the peaks and the dips. … The job for which G-d created me as I am, when I live and where I live, with the people I know, the responsibilities I face, and the challenges He throws at me, solely because this is something His great plan required that required his having a Micha Berger to do it.

But in light of an Avodah discussion, I noticed that my notion also implies a possible distinction between simchah and oneg. The Tanya defines oneg as the satisfaction of a desire, the achievement of something one willed to accomplish. If simchah is satisfaction with one’s general life as a process, oneg is enjoyment of where I stand at the current point.

Rabbi Nachman Cohen, my principal as a Junior in High School, once defined Shabbos for us as “Shabbos is the island in time which is the eternal present.” Taking a break in the process to assess where one is going. Thus the greater cessation from melakhah, creative activities on Shabbos than on Yom Tov. (And even greater on Yom Kippur, where stopping to assess is even more critical.) It makes no sense to hurry up the ladder to get to the top of the wall only to afterwards realize the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall! Someone who looks back on their life with regret that they traded their role as parent to be a “success” at their career simply never kept Shabbos. And they never found oneg. Enjoyment of the accomplishments of the moment. Pausing.

All of this would imply that simchah requires more indoctrination than oneg. It is easier to take joy in what’s before you than in the more abstract concept of the path your life takes — including both triumphs and challenges. This would justify why halakhah defines exercises with which to express / internalize simchas Yom Tov in a way that it does not for Shabbos.

Perhaps this too can be explained in light of a point R’ JB Soloveitchik draws from Qabbalah. In Qabbalah there are two concepts: is’arusa delesata — the awakening [of holiness] from below, and is’arusa dele’eilah — the awakening from above. Shabbos happens every 7th day, G-d set it in motion, He is reaching down to us. It is is’arusa del’eila. Yamim Tovim depend on beis din setting the months. Thus, they are is’arusa delesata, from us up to Hashem. This is why the berakhah in the Amidah for Yom Tov is meqadeish Yisrael vehazmanim – who Sanctifies Israel and the [special] times”. The times’ holiness comes from Israel’s. For Shabbos, we simply say “meqadeish haShabbos“, no dependency on Israel.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains this idea using the metaphor of visiting. On Shabbos, we come to visit the A-lmighty. Is’arusa dele’eila — He invites us. On Yom Tov, we invite Hashem to join us. Shabbos involves oneg because when you’re the guest, the Host provides things as per your desires. When you are the host, things are patterned around the Guest’s instructions — the more structured simchah.

I think this ties in. On Shabbos, Hashem invites us to take time to be “in the moment” to check the ladder rather than climb it. Thus, the mitzvah is oneg, happiness with the moment, and the more tangible kind of enjoyment. We are His guests, enjoying what He provides us. Thus, “sheishes yamim ta’avod — strive for six days”, and then take the time for oneg — to acknowledge what needs were satisfied. On Yom Tov, the focus is on His “happiness” (so to speak), and thus is about our role in His greater plan. It’s simchah.

Brisk and Mussar

This post is a continuation of my previous post on the nature of Mussar, and on an earlier post contrasting Brisker and Rav Shim’on Shkop’s derekh (as I saw Rav Dovid Lifshitz’s variant thereon).

In the earlier post I wrote:

Fundamental to Brisker philosophy is the idea that halakhah has no first principles. It can only be understood on its own terms. As R’ JB Soloveitchik describes in Halachic Man, it’s only through halakhah that man finds a balance between his religious neediness for redemption and his creative constructive self. (Ironically, a true halachic man would never explore the questions addressed by Halachic Man! R’ JB Soloveitchik’s loyalty to Brisk, while true in terms of derekh halimud, style of studying gemara, was compromised on the perspective level by his interest in philosophy.)

R’ Gil Student recently cited sources to make this point (quoted at length for those who get these posts by email rather than chasing web links):

1. R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the great-grandfather of Boston’s and YU’s R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik) explains that commandments were not given based on their corresponding historical events, e.g. eating matzah on the night of the 15th of Nissan based on the Exodus. Rather matzah is a “chok” (unexplained commandment) and God arranged history to play out so as to correspond to the commandment. While history can give us hints about the commandment’s true meaning, it is never its true source. (Beis Ha-Levi Al Ha-Torah, Bo sv. de-kevar p. 9d/18) I can’t find it now but I seem to recall the Beis Ha-Levi using this to explain why Lot was eating matzah on Pesach (Rashi, Gen. 19:3) even though there was no historical reason to do so. The commandment of matzah is the reason that history followed the course to necessitate it.

2. In a similar vein, there are some commandments whose reasons seem to be to maintain the world, such as the prohibitions of murder and theft and the obligation to give charity. However, R. Chaim Soloveitchik (the son of the Beis Ha-Levi) is quoted as having said that this is not the reason for these commandments. God theoretically could have created a world in which charity was destructive and murder productive. However, God looked to the Torah and created a world that corresponds to the commandments. The reasons offered by various sages for the commandments are not true reasons because human intellect cannot fathom those reasons. Rather they are personal meanings — human benefits — that we can subjectively find in the commandments. (Haggadah Shel Pesach Mi-Beis Levi, sv. she-anu och’lim pp. 182-183)

3. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quotes his grandfather, R. Chaim, as rejecting all attempts to explain why God created the world (e.g. because it is the nature of the good to do good) and asserting that it was simply God’s will to do so. Those types of explanations imply that there is a lacking in God, which is impossible. Therefore, the only possible explanation is that it was His will and there is nothing further to investigate. (Halakhic Man, pp. 52-53)

These approaches greatly minimize the effort of the vast philosophical and ta’amei ha-mitzvos literature, that search for reasons for the world and the commandments. One can only find benefits of the commandments and not reasons for them (cf. R. Hershel Schachter, Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav, pp. 68-69). They also seem to argue against a concept of “natural law” that is proposed by many medieval authorities and championed by the Mussar proponents. However, an argument could be made that there is an artificial natural law that God intentionally implanted into the world.

(R’ Student then continues by contrasting the Brisker position with that of the Rambam. They eschew philosophy and invoke the limitations of human knowledge. The Rambam was perhaps our most noted philosopher. And yet the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is a key tool of the Brisker derekh.)

To these examples, let me add a recollection of mine of a shiur by R’ JB Soloveitchik in which he explains that even “lo sirtzakh — do not murder” can not be fully understood, and requires simple obedience to Hashem’s command. After all, is there any objective way to define life? Does murder include abortion? Euthenasia? “Pulling the plug”? Refraining to put it back in when the plug is pulled for regular maintenance? Heart death? Brain death? What about a milkhemes reshus, when the king makes war for the sake of expanding territory?

Similarly, RJBS tells a story of his father. When Rav Moshe Soloveitchik was a rav in Washington Heights, the shofar blower was a Lubavitcher chassid. The shofar blower was preparing for his duty one Rosh haShanah, in a state of heightened emotion, in tears because of the awesome job ahead. Rav Moshe’s attitude: Do you cry before eating matzah at the seider? This is a mitzvah and that’s a mitzvah. No different. (RJBS then continued by citing the Rambam to prove that shofar is a kind of prayer, and thus requires attention to its message that isn’t necessary with most other mitzvos.)

Even RJBS, who I claim (as quoted above) defied the notion of Halachic Man by being concerned to formulate the notion itself, limits his exploration of the meaning of mitzvos to post-facto lessons to be drawn from the experience of the act. Rav Herschel Schachter isn’t quoted as using this term, but RJBS used to call these explorations “halachic hermeneutics”, which illustrates his belief that they weren’t fundamental understandings of the mitzvos.

My conclusion (although not uniquely my idea) in the post on contrasting styles of limmud:

In short, Brisk asks “Vus?” (What?), Telzh asks “Fahr vus?” (Why?) Anyone who has been following this blog should be unsurprised by which one I felt spoke to me.

Brisk doesn’t simply refrain from asking “fahr vus?”, they stress the extent to which it’s unanswerable.

In my previous entry to this one, I gave the following as one defining element of Mussar:

A rebbe-chaveir of mine, R’ Dr Ephraim Becker, describes mussar (in the third sense of the previous triad) as a three part thing:
– There is the real, knowing where one stands
– There is the ideal, knowing where the Creator wants us to be
– There is the process of getting from the real to the ideal

And I wrote:

It is this notion of process, of climbing — literally “shteigin” — that is of value within nearly all derakhim, all paths, all approaches to the Torah. And thus lower case “m”, not specifically the Mussar Movement. The different derakhim define the ideal by stressing different aspects of it. Which will in turn suggests different paths, thus the name “derakhim“. But using tools to become the kind of person who can follow that path, to consciously pursue that derekh’s perspective on the end-goal, makes sense according to any derekh.

I wrote “of value within nearly all derakhim” because I thought of two possible exceptions: Breslov and related forms of Chassidus are so experientially oriented, that they refrain from overanalyzing things. By plotting a path one interferes with the natural emotional experience of having a relationship with the A-lmighty. The second exception was Brisk.

As we just saw, Brisk has as a fundamental assumption that one can not know the ideal. Therefore they can not define the process in terms of that ideal either. A Brisker doesn’t look to go beyond the letter of halakhah for aggadic reasons, neither in finding supportive exercises (Mussar practices or Chassidic hanhagos) nor in his choice of stringencies. A Brisker Chumrah (stringency) is a term used for trying to cover all the bases, all the opinions in the textual halachic process.

There is therefore little utility in Brisker thought for consciously planning a process. If you focus on how much we can not understand of the motivation of mitzvos rather than how much we can, you’re planning a trip without knowing where you’re going! To a Brisker, the process begins and ends with submission to halakhah. It is guaranteed to achieve the unknowable goal.

This was the mindset in Volozhin when R’ Yitzchaq Blaser (“Rav Itzeler Petersburger”, a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter and compiler of Rav Yisrael’s letters into Or Yisrael) visited. The students literally carried him out of the beis medrash. “A page gemara is the best Mussar seifer.” A position to which he would agree, actually, despite looking in that page for Mussar lessons rather than assuming its goals would mystically emerge from a straight focus on halakhah.

This is quite different than the position of earlier rashei yeshiva of Volozhin, such as its founder, R’ Chaim Volozhiner, whose seifer Nefesh haChaim is entirely about the function of mitzvos. It is also in distinction to R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s rebbe, the Gra, who not only writes about the reasons for mitzvos, he also taught that observance was a tool for reaching the goal, not a guarantee. In Even Sheleimah ch. 2, the Gra explains the use of water as a metaphor for Torah. Learning Torah is like watering a garden. If you have beautiful plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. If you water weeds, all you get is more weeds.

Sadly, I think the Vilna Goan’s metaphor is born out. We live in an era where few seek to understand the ideal at any depth greater than what they absorbed in the early grades. There are few attempts at a systemic study of aggadita, or how to tie that to one’s observance of mitzvos and lifestyle. Aggadita’s role has been reduced to nice vertlach on the parashah or a thought of Chazal with not grand picture, no grounding, no attempt to define a target to which one should aim their lives.

I think that is the same social force that brought Brisk to the fore — it’s a style of learning that not only allows one to neglect such studies, but actually invites such elision. (Symptomatic: Making a siyum on a volume of gemara without making any attempt to comprehend large sections of narrative within it.)

And unfortunately we see weeds in our garden. Well watered weeds. Talmidei chakhamim who make a splash in the national media for tax fraud. Schools founded and funded on embezzled money. Someone who prepared and teaches daf yomi who sold treif chickens for years. And even among the masses, an entire “under the table” economy designed to violate “dina demalkhusa dina” (the law of the land is the law), which undebatably applies to taxation. Disdain for Jews of other stripes. Etc… we all know the communal problems, no need to wallow in them any further.

I’m not blaming Brisker Derekh for these ills. I am actually saying the causality is in reverse: We want answers about what to do next, with no eye toward the forest for all the trees. That kind of culture will cause people to gravitate toward a modality of learning which doesn’t try to explain the tree’s relation to the forest. But also, I think that if we’re to cure the problem, advocating other modalities in our children may be part of the solution.

Let every page of gemara studied remind our youth that we not only must follow halakhah, we must do so for the sake of building and being idealists.