Two Ideals

(Split off from last week’s post “Shavuos Reading” because I thought of a number of points I wanted to add.)

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the Naso 5770 issue of his weekly Parashah Sheet “Covenant and Conversation” discusses what appears to be a contradiction in the Rambam. In Hilkhos Dei’os 3:1, the Rambam writes:

שֶׁמֶּא יֹאמַר אָדָם, הוֹאִיל וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הֶן וּמוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם, אֶפְרֹשׁ מֵהֶן בְּיוֹתֵר וְאֶתְרַחַק לַצַּד הָאַחֲרוֹן, עַד שֶׁלֹּא יֹאכַל בָּשָׂר וְלֹא יִשְׁתֶּה יַיִן וְלֹא יִשָּׂא אִשָּׁה וְלֹא יֵשֵׁב בְּדִירָה נָאָה וְלֹא יִלְבֹּשׁ מַלְבּוּשׁ נָאֶה אֵלָא הַשָּׂק וְהַצֶּמֶר הַקָּשֶׁה וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן, כְּגוֹן כּוּמָרֵי אֱדוֹם–גַּם זוֹ דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הִיא, וְאָסוּר לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ.

Perhaps someone would say, “Since desire and honor and the like are the evil path, and take a person from the world, I shall separate from them a lot, and distance myself to the far extreme. So that I won’t eat meat, nor drink wine, nor marry, nor live in a nice home, nor wear nice clothing, just sack and rough wool and the like like the ecclesiatstical orders of Edom [ie the Catholics].” This too is an evil path, and one may not travel it.

And yet, in Nezirus 10:14 the Rambam writes:

הָאוֹמֵר הֲרֵינִי נָזִיר אִם אֶעֱשֶׂה כָּךְ וְכָּךְ, אוֹ אִם לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה, וְכַיּוֹצֶא בְּזֶה–הֲרֵי זֶה רָשָׁע, וּנְזִירוּת כְּזוֹ מִנִּדְרֵי רְשָׁעִים הִיא; אֲבָל הַנּוֹדֵר לַה’ דֶּרֶךְ קְדֻשָּׁה–הֲרֵי זֶה נָאֶה וּמְשֻׁבָּח, וַהֲרֵי נֶאֱמָר בּוֹ “נֵזֶר אֱלֹהָיו, עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ . . . קָדֹשׁ הוּא, לַה’” (במדבר ו,ז-ח); וּשְׁקָלוֹ הַכָּתוּב בַּנָּבִיא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וָאָקִים מִבְּנֵיכֶם לִנְבִיאִים, וּמִבַּחוּרֵיכֶם לִנְזִרִים” (עמוס ב,יא).

Someone who says, “Behold I am a nazir if I do such-and-such”, or, “… if I do not do …”, or the like — this person is wicked, and his nezirus is like the oaths of the wicked. However, someone who makes an oath to Hashem in a holy manner, this is pleasant and praiseworthy. And about him it says “…the diadem of G-d is upon him. [All the days of his nezirus he is] holy to G-d.” And the scripture equates him to a prophet as it says, “And I will establish from your descendants prophets, and from your firstborn, nezirim.”

What distinguishes the asceticism of the nazarite that the Rambam praises him so much, in contrast to his general attitude toward asceticism as described in Hilkhos Dei’os? Contrast this to Tosafos (Taanis 11) who say that the nazir‘s sin offering that he brings at the end of his nezirus is for forgoing the pleasures G-d provided in this world. And the Meshekh Chokhmah who says that it’s for the mitzvos he couldn’t do without those pleasures. Chief Rabbi Sacks answers this question in light of another conflict in the Rambam. I also commented on the Rambam’s invoking two different ideals in Hilkhos Dei’os — the chakham, who always seeks the Golden Mean; and the chassid, who goes beyond the mean with respect to certain middos, in particular: avoiding haughtiness or anger. I wrote:

The Rambam appears to be contradicting himself. In [Hilkhos Dei'os] 1:4, he advises “one should not get angry except over a big matter about which it is fitting to get angry.” But in [2:3] , anger is comparable to idolatry, and to be avoided in all circumstances! … A possible resolution that seemed more straightforward to me [than those I mentioned in that post offered by the Lechem Mishnah and Rav Moshe Feinstein] is suggested by the Rambam’s words (also from 1:4). Obviously, advice about how to be a good Jew carries more weight when informed by the Lechem Mishnah’s knowledge or Rav Moshe’s, but this is how one person naively read the Rambam’s approach(es) to anger:

Any man whose temperaments are intermediate is called wise. One who is particular with himself and moves away from the middle ways to either extreme is called pious. What does this mean? One who distances himself from pride by moving to its complete opposite of meekness is called pious, for this is a characteristic of piety. But if he distances himself only half-way and becomes humble he is called wise, for this is a characteristic of wisdom.

Maimonides is defining two possible paths: the Chakham (Wise), and the Chassid (Pious). Both laudable ideals. In the majority of chapter 1, he addresses the path he himself took, that of the Chakham — finding the middle. In chapter 2, when he discusses modesty he clearly describes the Chassid approach. It would seem the same would be true of his discussion of anger in chapter 2.

R’ Sacks generalizes this idea:

These are not just two types of person but two ways of understanding the moral life itself. Is the aim of the moral life to achieve personal perfection? Or is it to create gracious relationships and a decent, just, compassionate society? The intuitive answer of most people would be to say: both. That is what makes Maimonides so acute a thinker on this subject. He realises that you can’t have both – that they are in fact different enterprises. A saint may give all his money away to the poor. But what about the members of the saint’s own family? A saint may refuse to fight in battle. But what about the saint’s own country? A saint may forgive all crimes committed against him. But what about the rule of law, and justice? Saints are supremely virtuous people, considered as individuals. Yet you cannot build a society out of saints alone. Indeed, saints are not really interested in society. They have chosen a different, lonely, self-segregating path. I know no one who makes this point as clearly as Maimonides – not Plato, not Aristotle, not Descartes, not Kant.

He notes that the same answer could be invoked to explain his contradictory attitude toward nezirim. Society must be based on wisdom, on chakhamim. A society of nazirim wouldn’t work. However, the nazir pursues the ideal of the chassid, which is a holy choice for those called to it. Since that earlier post, I found what may be Rambam’s source in Chazal that these two conflicting ideals exist:

תני תנא קמיה דרבא בר רב הונא: ההורג נחשים ועקרבים בשבת אין רוח חסידים נוחה הימנו. אמר לו: ואותן חסידים – אין רוח חכמים נוחה מהם.

A beraisa was repeated before Rava bar Rav Huna: Someone who kills snakes or scorpions on Shabbos, the spirit of chassidim are not content with him. He said to him: And those chassidim, the spirit of chakhamim are not content with them.

Shabbos 121b

Thus we see a concept of two different balances between conflicting priorities (here, between risk and shemiras Shabbos) — the chassid and the chakham. The Chassid hyperprotects Shabbos in ways the Chakham finds incorrect. You might recall that last Chanukah I was fascinated by the Chassidim haRishonim. The usage of chassidim in the gemara might be related to the Chassidim haRishonim and their initial refusal to fight with the Makabiim on Shabbos (Makkabiim I 2:39), although they did later join (v. 43). These chassidim too, placed Shabbos ahead of risk to life. I suggested then that perhaps at least on of the zugos, Yosi b Yoezer ish Tzereidah was a member, as he is called “chassid shebikehunah” (Chagiga 2:7) and is crucified about the same time as the slaughter of the Chassidim haRishonim discussed in the Seifer haMakkabiim. In other words, I’m suggesting that these Chassidim were not only applauded by Chazal for how they prayed, but even were considered chaveirim, members of the same community as the tannaim. The fact that the same term, chassid, is used for those who prayed 9 hours a day is consistent with assuming that many years later the Rambam identifies the asceticism of the nazir with Chassidus.

Shavuos Reading

I just wanted to share some of what I came across this Shavuos…


1- From YU’s “Shavuos-to-Go”, R’ Mordechai Torczyner writes about the connection between Shavuos and chessed. Often cited is the idea that Rus, a book about chessed, is read on Shavuos to highlight this connection. R’ Torczyner opens with a different point of connection:

[A] midrash describing the scene atop Har Sinai places the credit not with Moshe, but with Avraham:

At that moment the ministering angels sought to harm Moshe. God shaped Moshe’s face to appear like that of Avraham, and God said to the angels, “Are you not embarrassed before him? Is this not the one to whom you descended and in whose home you ate?” God then turned to Moshe and said, “The Torah was given to you only in the merit of Avraham.

But what I found particularly intriguing is that he builds the connection from the following observation:

Adam and Chavah were charged with working in their garden and protecting it, and they would have been the sole beneficiaries of their work; every plant they grew, nearly every fruit they cultivated, was theirs to eat. (Bereishis 2) Only in one case were they told to labor benevolently without expectation of reward: The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would receive their care, but provide no benefit. All work for that tree would be purely chesed shel emet, kindness without any anticipation of reciprocity. This was their own opportunity to engage in עולם חסד יבנה, bringing into reality a world founded on kindness. Instead, though, the first human beings took that fruit for themselves.

The sin of the tree of knowledge was a flaw in chessed, in acting for the other with no intent to get benefit from it. I would suggest that this notion of chessed was in fact the very da’as the tree was supposed to impart.

And it’s not until we get to Avraham, who not only performs chessed but commits to transmitting it down the generations that Hashem finds a nation worth of the Torah. This is the reason why humanity required 26 generations between the giving of derekh eretz and the Torah.


2- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the Naso 5770 issue of his weekly Parashah Sheet “Covenant and Conversation” carries two essays.

I will comment on the longer essay in a forthcoming blog entry. (Shorter version used to appear here.)

In a short thought on the last page (taken from “To Heal a Fractured World” pp 252-253), Rabbi Sacks discusses the nature of heroism. I found this interesting because the question of whether heroism is a Jewish value is still open for me. What does “chazaq ve’ematz” really mean? R’ Jonathan Sacks quotes Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity:

I once had occasion to observe in connection with Wordsworth that in the Rabbinical literature there is no touch of the heroic idea. The Rabbis, in speaking of virtue, never mention the virtue of courage, which Aristotle regarded as basic to the heroic character. The indifference of the rabbis to the idea of courage is the more remarkable in that they knew that many of their number would die for their faith.


3- Another favorite topic often visited in these pages is the subject of Jewish Values — the notion that there are demands the Torah makes of us beyond those of halakhah. Whether we view these as obligations of being (“be Holy, for I Am holy”) rather than halakhah‘s obligations of doing; or as obligations that are simply too subjective to be codified, each person capable of a different level of reaching beyond the letter of the law in different areas; or as the Ramban describes the obligation “and you shall do the honest and the good” — that there are just too many human interactions for a specific halakhah to cover each and every possible decision.

Rav Yehudah Amital wrote on this subject, and it was included in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s “Virtual Beis Medrash” mailing for Shavuos. A teaser:

The Gemara in Makkot (23b-24a) states:

Rabbi Simla’i expounded: Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were told to Moshe…

David came and condensed them to eleven…

Yeshayahu came and condensed them to six…

Mikha came and condensed them to three…=

Even though Rabbi Simla’i opened with a reference to the 613 mitzvot, some of the things mentioned in connection with David, Yeshayahu, and Mikha – such as “walking humbly with God” and “shutting one’s eyes from seeing evil” – are not included among the six hundred and thirteen commandments! The verses cited here deal not only with mitzvot, but also with values – values that are an integral part of the Torah. Mikha reduced the 613 mitzvot to three values, and these values have binding force just like mitzvot.

Rabbi Chayyim Vital develops a parallel idea regarding character traits (Sha’ar Kedusha I:2):

The good and bad traits depend on this soul; they are the seat, foundation, and root of the rational soul, upon which depend the 613 mitzvot… It is for this reason that the character traits are not included among the 613 mitzvot. They serve, however, as the primary preparation for the 613 mitzvot… because the rational soul is not strong enough to fulfill the 613 mitzvot through the 613 organs of the body, but only through the fundamental soul that is connected to the body itself… Hence, one must be more careful about bad traits than about fulfilling the positive or negative precepts. For when a person has good traits, he will easily fulfill all the mitzvot.

The Torah does not relate to positive character traits as commandments, but nevertheless Rabbi Chayyim Vital sees them as being even more basic and fundamental than observance of the mitzvot.


4- Returning to YU’s Shavous to Go, in last year’s edition Rabbi David Horwitz touches on many of the themes R’ Amital discusses.

He too looks at the dispute between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai as to which principle is more primary to the Torah:

Love your neighbor as yourself: R. Akiba states, this is a great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai states: This is the book of the descendants of Adam (Genesis 5:1): This is even a greater principle.

– Sifra, on Sefer Va-Yiqra 19:8

Among R’ Horwitz’s observations:

Ben Azzai comes to teach that the ground of Jewish interpersonal ethics is not merely a social contract between disparate individuals but is rooted in the fact that every human being was created in the image of God. Hence, the end of Genesis 5:1 is the crucial key. That is the point of the Torah stating “This is the book of the descendants of Adam”. It is precisely the fatherhood of God that is the ground of our duty to embrace the brother hood of man. Hence, even if one has broken the social contract and harmed someone else, one dare not retaliate. Every human being is created in the image of God, and no one may ever forget it.

He then also casts this dispute in terms of Kant’s Categorical Imperative in a manner I found interesting, but unconvincing.

An imperative is called hypothetical when it indicates which means must be supplied in order that the something further, the end, is realized. Thus, if one acts nicely towards someone else because one wants some reciprocity, e.g., some favors from that person, one is only acting in terms of a hypothetical imperative. The categorical imperative, on the other hand, is a category based upon the concept of duty, and is not based upon what end or result one might receive from a particular action. Any act of goodness based upon the hypothetical imperative is only conditional and cannot form the basis for a system of ethics. Only the categorical imperative can be the ground of unconditional goodness (Cassirer, pp. 244-45). Only the categorical imperative is worthy to be the foundation of morality.

Armed with these categories, we can now return to the debate between R. Akiba and ben Azzai. Ben Azzai disputes R. Akiba’s citation because in his view, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and Hillel’s notion of “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man,”  expresses only the hypothetical imperative, and not the categorical imperative. And the hypothetical imperative will not take care of the case in which one is harmed by others, and feels that it is indeed a legitimate source of pleasure to retaliate. Alternately, the  hypothetical imperative will not take care of the case in which one personally does not consider an act that others consider harmful to be, in fact, harmful. Ben Azzai, when responding with “This is the book of the descendants of Adam” responds by asserting that Jewish ethics is grounded upon a categorical imperative. And that itself is based upon the verse that concludes “In the likeness of God made He him”.

The Categorical Imperative, in its first formulation, states:

Act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

This too requires knowing how universal is “universal”. Suppose someone is a skilled shoemaker. Should they not become shoemakers because we wouldn’t want a world of only shoemakers? Perhaps the Kantian response is that each person should take the profession for which they are most fit. Abstracting away this person’s particular skill at shoemaking.

Similarly, the question of whether someone’s desire for revenge or personal taste about what is harmful is not necessarily a hypothetical imperative. It could also be a single situation’s application of something that is always, categorically, true.

I therefore don’t this as a core feature of the dispute between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai. As I see it:

Rabbi Aqiva’s verse has the disadvantage of being particularist, and not speaking to the need to show respect and love for people who aren’t our brothers  in Judaism.

However, Ben Azzai’s verse has the disadvantage of turning chessed into a derived value. By making the love we show others derivative of our love and awe for their Creator, we risk turning them into objects of mitzvah performance (like tefillin) rather than fully connecting to them as people.

Yom Yerushalayim

“זְכֹ֤ר ה’֨ ׀ לִבְנֵ֬י אֱד֗וֹם אֵת֮ י֤וֹם יְֽרוּשָׁ֫לִָ֥ם– Hashem, remind the children of Edom of the Day of Jerusalem…”

It seems odd to me, but this is the oldest source for the idiom which the Chief Rabbinate of Israel took as the name of the holiday. But what is Yom Yerushalayim?

The name of the city is a portmanteau of two words: Yeru, and Shaleim.

Yeru” derives from the Aqeidah, when Avraham finally offers the ram, and declares the future Temple Mount to be “Har Hashem Yir’eh — Mount ‘Hashem Will See’”, which, the chumash continues, is then called “Har Hashem Yeira’eh – Mount ‘Hashem will be Seen’” (Bereishis 22:14). Yeru is a place where Avraham encountered G-d, where He experienced hashgachah peraris, Divine Supervision.

Right near the place of the Aqeidah, Malkitzedeq (who tradition identifies with Sheim the son of Noach) was reigning as king of Shaleim. “Shaleim” means whole, both in the sense of lacking missing parts, and in the parts working together smoothly.

According to R’ Aryeh Kaplan, King David unified these two places into one city. (“Jerusalem, the Eye of the Universe”, pg. 46) But whether unified by him or earlier, the Psalmist does describe it as “ke’ir shechubrah lo yachdav“, taken literally: “a city which is connected for Him together.” (122:3) The City of David is a place of unity, where Yeru and Shaleim connect.

Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l often spoke about the connection between shaleim as wholeness, and that of another conjugation, “shalom“, peace. Shalom is not simply a cessation of violence. That wouldn’t be an expression of sheleimus, wholeness. Rather, shalom is a time when all the nations “will come together in a single union to do Your will with a leivav shaleim, a whole heart.” Sheleimus within each heart being expressed as sheleimus within humanity as a whole.

שָׁלוֹם רָב, לְאֹהֲבֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ;    וְאֵין-לָמוֹ מִכְשׁוֹל.

Shalom rav is granted those who love Your Torah, and they have no obstacles.

- Tehillim119:165

What is shalom rav? To quote an earlier post:

Shalom rav is the unity and wholeness of self that eliminates all obstacles from the path of the lover of Torah.

The rule with respect to tzara’as is “אין אדם רואה נגעי עצמו – a person [a kohein, since no one else is empowered to determine tzara'as] does not inspect his own afflictions”. This has become a rabbinical aphorism, “people don’t see their own faults”, which is probably the motivation of the law of tzara’as.

Rav Dovid elaborates on the impact of this truism. Because I can not make a realistic assessment of my own shortcomings, I can not succeed without participating in a healthy community. Thus, there can be no pursuit of sheleimus without shalom and no shalom without sheleimus! One is simply another manifestation of the other.

וַיּ֨וֹשַׁע יְהוָ֜ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֛וּא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יִם וַיַּ֤רְא יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם מֵ֖ת עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיָּֽם׃ וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה וַֽיַּאֲמִ֨ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ׃ אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל…

Hashem saved, on that day, Israel from the control of the Egyptians, and Israel saw (vayar) Egypt dead on the shore of the sea. And Israel saw (vayar) the “Great Hand” that Hashem did in Egypt, and the nation feared/was in awe of Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant. Then Moshe and the Israelites were singing…

Shemos 14:30-15:1

Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan, in the title essay of BeIqvos haYir’ah, writes (translation R’ YG Bechhofer):

Only if he sees (re’iyah) will he fear (yirah), and only if he fears will he repent… And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness (“yir’as haromemus”) – that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here – “The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel.” From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one’s responsibility [the bundle of his life's meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall…). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength (“oz”) – an inner, bold, uplifting, strength (“Hashem oz li’amo yiten) and a strength that leads to peace (“shalom”) and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed (“Hashem yivareich es amo ba’shalom”). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: “Reishis chochma yir’as Hashem.” A fear that is vision. “And remember” – “And see” – “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid…”

Har Hashem Yeira’eh is not only the centerpiece of where Hashem’s presence can most readily be seen. It is also the source of yir’as Shamayim, the fear and awe of the One in heaven that leads to inner-strength, to wholeness, to peace, and to break out in song to Him, “in a single union to do [His] Will with a heart that is shaleim.”

Yerushalayim is where re’iyah can create shalom rav.

The call to remind Edom doesn’t end with a cry for Divine Justice. Although it is that. But it may also be seen as a call for them to remember the eventual Yom Yerushalaim, a day in which they join the union to serve G-d wholeheartedly. A day when we not only hold sovereignty over Jerusalem, not only rebuild the Beis haMiqdash, but one in which it serves as a centerpiece, a place where one experiences Hashem’s over-awing presence, and is moved to work together to serve Him.

“For from Tzion shall the Torah come, and the Word of Hashem from Yerushalaim.”
Bimheira beyameinu, amein!


PS: The JPS translation takes “Yom Yerushalaim” to be a date in the past, a day for which Edom should be judged. However, at the destruction of the first beis hamiqdash, Edom had no part in ransacking Yerushalayim. Nor were the Romans identified with Edom until the amoraim! It therefore seemingly refers to the day Yerushalayim will be reestablished, and thus their evil at the time depicted in the Tehillim is reverted. That includes both the eventual meting out of justice and the reestablishment of all the Jerusalem stands for, all they tried to destroy.

Building Anew

65 years before was the holocaust — one third of our people killed.

When we left Egypt, we were led through the desert by a pillar of fire by day, and a pillar of smoke by night. When we made camp, the pillar moved to the Qodesh haQadashim in the Mishkan, the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle.

Now, a Divine statement, a very different pillar of smoke again arose from the Holy of Holies

The survivors, old and few, remembered a world long gone.

Many refused to eat meat or sing — how can we eat meat when G-d’s “table” goes empty? How can we sing after the levites and Chassidim were silenced?

Many were turned off, many couldn’t see how to be Jewish in the new world.
Others started building again.

But I’m not talking about now — I’m talking of 1875 years ago. The year was 135 CE – 65 years after the destruction of the Temple and the Sacking of Jerusalem. Aqiva lived through a Holocaust, and it cost him his faith. And then he met the right woman, saw the effects of water on the rock, and became one of the builders. As Rabbi Yehoshua (Bereishis Rabba 64:10) told the ascetics to return to their meat and their song  — life must go on.

It took him decades, but by now Rabbi Aqiva had students — 24,00 of them. An entire educational system.

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand chavrusos of students, from Gavat to Antiperes, and all of them died in one period because they did not demonstrate respect toward each other. The world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the south ([of Israel] and taught them: R. Meir; R. Yehuda; R. Yose; R. Shimon; and R. Elazar ben Shamoah; – and they reestablished Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: they [the 24,000 students] all died from Peisach to Atzeres (Shavuos).

- Yevamos 62b

An entire movement, stretching the length of Israel. The best and the brightest of our people. The next generation of leaders. The foundation of a new world.

We can imagine how it happened: One day, a little before Pesach, one of these students develops a small caugh. Then another and another.

And by the 2nd day of Pesach, when the omer began, they started dying. One by one, then in twos and threes.

Until all 24,000 were gone.

In just 32 days.

As Bereishis Rabba tells us: Hashem boneh olamot umacharivan. And we imitate G-d; when the world is destroyed, we build again.

I found the following in R’ Aharon Rakeffet Rothkoff’s collection of talks by R’ JB Soloveitchik that reflect his view of life, Torah and the Jewish People titled “The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik“:

12.04 Recreating the Destroyed World

Related by the Rav in his annual Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, Yeshiva University, January 6, 1957. (Yiddish).

The Midrash relates that God created and destroyed many worlds before He allowed this world to remain in existence [Midrash Rab-bah to Genesis 3:9]. Some of the earlier worlds were even more beautiful than the present one, but the Creator eliminated them. He then went ahead and created this world, which has endured.

What are the rabbis teaching us? What does it mean that God created and destroyed worlds? After all, He could have made this world to begin with, so why did God experiment with the earlier creations?

This Midrash conveys a very important concept to us. A person must know how to continue building and creating in life, even if his previous efforts are demolished. He cannot lose hope and must not give up. He must go ahead and build again. Perhaps the new world created will not be as beautiful as the earlier one; nevertheless, he must continue to rebuild. God was able to say about His final world: “Behold, it was very good” [Genesis 1:31]. That is, that the final, permanent world is very good, even though some of the earlier ones may have been even more beautiful. They are gone, and we must maximize what we have now.

Today, we must judge the Torah world we are reconstructing after the Holocaust as “very good,” even though earlier ones may have been more beautiful. I am very proud of the Maimonides Day School in Boston. Many times I test the students on the Humash and Rashi that they are studying. I am impressed by their knowledge and inspired by their achievements. Then I ask myself why I am so excited by such small accomplishments. After all, I saw the giants of European Torah Jewry before the Holocaust. I discussed talmudic topics with my grandfather, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. I visited with Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski [1863-1940] in Vilna [Rabbi Grodzinski was the author of three volumes of responsa literature entitled Ahiezer]. I debated with Reb Shimon Shkop 11860-1940; Rabbi Shkop was the leading Lithuanian rosh ha-yeshiva in that period] concerning the explanation of certain talmudic passages. I spent entire nights with Reb Baruch Ber Leibowitz of Kaminetz [1866-1939; Rabbi Leibowitz was the closest student of Reb Chaim Soloveitchik] attempting to comprehend difficult rulings in the Code of Maimonides. Why am I so impressed that American youngsters can master a little Humash with Rashi, the rudiments of Torah study?

This is the message of the re-creation of destroyed worlds. A Jew has to know how to emulate God, and, like God, to continue to create even after his former world has been eradicated. True, what I have in Boston may not be as beautiful as the European Torah world before the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it is the world we now have. We have to continue to build it and not look back. We must not be cynical, and we should direct our attention and efforts to the future. We must look ahead!

G-d builds words and destroys them, and builds them anew. And we too must turn from the ashes and build anew.

Rabbi Aqiva headed south to find whom he could from the ruins. He found 5 new students: Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, Rabbi Yose Ben Chalafta, Rabbi Nechemiah, Rav Meir, and Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai.

All of our tradition today comes from these 5 students. These are names we find throughout the mishnah, beraisa and Tosefta. Rav Meir wrote most of the mishnas, and the project was completed by R’ Yehudah haNasi, his student. “Stam mishnah keRav Meir a plain mishnah [with no attribution] follow Rabbi Meir”. And from Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai we get the Zohar, the entire chain of mystical tradition.

What 24,000 could not do, 5 accomplished.

Why did the Beis haMiqdash, the Temple, fall? Sin’at Chinam, baseless — or perhaps better, “pointless” — hatred.

Rabbi Aqiva personally focused on this issue. “Amar Rabbi Aqiva: ‘Ve’ahava lerei’akha kamokha’ — zeh kelal gadol baTorah. Rabbi Aqiva said: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself — this is a great principle of the Torah.”

Why did Rabbi Aqiva’s students fall to an epidemic? As we saw in Yevamos, “shelo nahagu kavod zeh bazeh — they did not demonstrate respect toward each other.”

What? Did they miss their teacher’s “great principle of the Torah”?

They had respect for each other. Notice how the Talmud describes it — these were 24,000 students, they were 12,000 chavrusos; the unity was there. Notice also the gemara doesn’t speak of a lack of kavod, it says “lo nahagu — they didn’t practice” it. These are not throw-away words. The gemara is telling us that the respect was there, but there wasn’t a visible demonstration of the esteem they held for the other.

They had kavod. They didn’t express it.

A small element of the original mistake.

So tiny of a flaw over which to die.

Yet enough of a problem that they couldn’t serve as the foundation for the new.

I heard the following story from Rav Meir Levin:

Many years earlier in Shanghai. Reb Leib was engaged by the Amshinover Rebbe to teach one of his children…. the Rebbe discussed with Reb Leib the concept that in spiritual growth there are two approaches: one can take  Derech HaNamuch and Derech haGevoah. The first approach is to work from the bottom up, painstakingly one step at a time. The second allows a person to jump many levels a t a time.

After Shabbos, Reb Leib related this to the Mashgiach who, soon after, asked his young talmid to accompany him to the Sassoon Building. The Sassoon building was a beautiful edifice, a skyscraper that was built on one of the most prime pieces of real estate in downtown Shanghai. But the building was sinking into the ground! It seems that many years earlier this plot of land had been the garbage dump and someone has purchased it, covered it and as Shanghai grew in size, sold it a prime property. Mr. Sassoon bought the tract and -unsuspecting- built one of the most beautiful buildings in the city on it. The Mashgiach’s point was well understood: outwardly, one’s spiritual accomplishments can appear great and exalted, but if he doesn’t clean out the garbage – if a solid foundation is not developed one step at the time – then eventually it will collapse.

– Reb Chatzkel: Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, Guardian of Torah and Mussar, Artscroll, p. 338

The next generation of leaders could not have a flaw in how they related to each other. Without precision in the foundation, the building won’t stand.

Today again the survivors of the Holocaust who were born in the old world and could teach it to use are fewer and fewer. And yet we must have the audacity to try to revive part of that world. The Torah and passion in service of Hashem that we can’t seem to recapture in the new world. Observance and education, yes. In greater numbers than our pre-war ancestors. But (as R’ Soloveitchik would put it), the “erev Shabbos Jew” who spends his Friday in eager anticipation of Shabbos? That we are far less successful in producing.

What lessons can we take from the story of Rabbi Aqiva’s students?

1- “Every generation in which the Beis haMiqdash was not rebuilt, it is as though it was destroyed.” We must not only love each other latently, expressed in times of tragedy, but a daily practice of nahagu kavod zeh bazeh – demonstrating our respect for other Jews even when we’re in bitter disagreement with them. Respect, and stated respect.

Frankly, of the items in this list, I think this is not our biggest shortcoming.

2- Taharah - Purity. If we are to building something lasting, we must pay attention to the perfection of its foundations. A slight deviation from the vertical at the beginning will grow to a large error as the structure grows taller.

3- Simchah uBitachon – Happiness and Trust

Why, of all the tannaim of the era, it fell to Rabbi Aqiva to rebuild the world of Torah?

It happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road and heard the sound of the Roman masses from Pelitus, one hundred and twenty mil away. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They asked him, “Why do you laugh?” He said to them, “And you, why do you cry?”

They said to him, “These pagans, who bow to images and bring offerings to idolatry, dwell in security and tranquility, whereas we — the house [that is] the footstool of our God has been burned by fire. Shall we not cry?”

He said to them, “It is for that reason that I laugh. If this is how it is for those who violate His will, then all the more so for those who perform His will!

One time, they were ascending to Jerusalem. When they reached Har HaTzofim [the first point from which one can see the Temple Mount] they rent their garments. When they reached the Har HaBayis, they saw a fox leaving the [site of] the qodesh ha-qodashim [the innermost sanctum of the Temple]. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He responded, “Why do you cry?”

They said to him, “The site about which it is written: ‘The foreigner who approaches shall be put to death’ (Bamidbar 1) — now foxes walk there, and we shall not cry?”

He said to them, “Therefore I laugh. For it is written, ‘I called upon reliable witnesses — Uriyah the Kohen, and Zechariah ben Yevarecheihu’ (Yishayahu 8:2). What does Uriyah have to do with

Zechariah — Uriyah [lived] during the First Temple [period], whereas Zechariah [lived] during the Second Temple [era]! Rather, the verse hinges the prophecy of Zechariah on the prophecy of Uriyah. In [a prophecy of] Uriyah it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field,’ (Mikhah 3) and in [a prophecy of] Zechariah it is written, ‘There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem.’ (Zechariah 7) So long as Uriyah’s prophecy was unfulfilled, I feared lest Zechariah’s prophecy will not be fulfilled. Now that Uriyah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.”

They said to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us; Akiva, you have consoled us.”

- Makkos 24a-25b

When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, his students went to visit him. He said to them, “There is great anger in the world” [referring to Hashem's giving power to the Romans]. They started to cry, except Rabbi Akiva who laughed. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He answered them, “And why do you cry?” They said to him, “Is it possible that one sees the scroll of the Torah in pain, and we do not weep?”

He responded, “It is for that reason that I laughed. As long as I saw my rebbe, that his wine did not turn sour, his flax did not get smitten, his oil did not spoil, and honey did not crystallize, I could say that perhaps ch”v rebbe had received his world [now, not in the world-to-come]. But now that I see that rebbe suffers, I am happy.” [Rabbi Eliezer] said to [Rabbi Akiva], “Did I neglect any matter of the Torah [for which I now suffer]?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to him, “Our rebbe, you taught us, ‘For there is no righteous man on earth who does good without sinning.’ (Koheles 7:20)”

-Sanhedrin 101a

Rabbi Aqiva was able to see the seed of the new laying among the remains of the old. Where the others only saw tragedy, Rabbi Aqiva was able to find the hopeful beginnings of a new future.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik said, we must not get so busy mourning the past that we forget to look hopefully at the future.

4- Ometz – Persistance

When Moshe died, a world too ended. We are told 3,000 laws were forgotten, and had to be reestablished by Osniel ben Qenaz. But Hashem destroys worlds only to build new ones. Without Moshe, Hashem next appoints Yehoshua – to rebuild.

Hashem’s charge to Yehoshua at the beginning of the book:

ו: חֲזַ֖ק וֶֽאֱמָ֑ץ כִּ֣י אַתָּ֗ה תַּנְחִיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֶת־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתִּי לַֽאֲבוֹתָ֖ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶֽם׃

6 Be strong and of good courage; for you will cause this nation to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.

ז רַק֩ חֲזַ֨ק וֶֽאֱמַ֜ץ מְאֹ֗ד לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַֽעֲשׂוֹת֙ כְּכָל־הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוְּךָ֙ מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֔י אַל־תָּס֥וּר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔יל בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃

7 Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all of the Torah which Moshe My servant commanded you; do not veer from it to the right nor to the left, so that you would achieve wherever you go.

ח לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵפֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֨עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַֽעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכָל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃

8 This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you will contemplate it day and night, so that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will succeed in your ways, and then you will achieve.

ט הֲל֤וֹא צִוִּיתִ֨יךָ֙ חֲזַ֣ק וֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ אַֽל־תַּעֲרֹ֖ץ וְאַל־תֵּחָ֑ת כִּ֤י עִמְּךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃  {פ}

9 Have not I commanded you to be strong and of good courage? Do not be afraid and not not get discouraged; for Hashem your G-d is with you wherever you go. {P}

Chazaq ve’ematz” has a clear central role in Yehoshua’s success at his mission — Hashem uses the expression three times in His berakhah when Yehoshua takes leadership.

So, what do the words mean?

I think we can take a lead from the parallelism in pasuq 9: “חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ, אַל-תַּעֲרֹץ וְאַל-תֵּחָת – be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid and not not get discouraged…” Fear is something we experience when dealing with the unknown, the new. Discouragement sets in after someone tries an activity, and success is evading them. The verse would therefore suggest that chizuq is the strength to get something started whereas ometz is the ability to stick with it after the newness and the initial excitement fade. (For more on this middah, and its identification with one of the Mesilas Yesharim’s subtypes of Zerizus, see here.)

Rabbi Aqiva did not give up with the loss of 24,000 students. He didn’t look hopelessly at the mere five who gathered around him. He did not get discouraged. Ometz.

Lag baOmer marks the end of mourning the tragic premature loss of 24,000 students, and the celebration of a complete and productive life of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai. Between Rabbi Aqiva’s failed attempt to rebuild the world; and his successful one. What can be accomplished with Kavod, Taharah, Bitachon and Ometz.

We can rebuild a world anew.

Backgammon

The following is probably fiction, but is certainly possible.

Picture a salt truck in February 2008, running down a Manhattan street, its mechanism scattering salt behind it. One particular piece of salt is sprayed out of the back of the truck, balances on a pebble embedded in the asphalt for a moment…

… and falls to the left. There it enters a weak spot in the street, a crack where water accumulates. The salt and its effect on freezing water accelerates the growth of that crack.On May 1st 2010, a Nissan Pathfinder bounced over the crack. Something fell out of place in the crudely made incendiary device in the back of the truck. The effects were scary, but no one was harmed.

… and the salt falls to the right. The SUV doesn’t get jarred, and the device remains functional. In this world — Explosion, fireball. Possibly hundreds of lives ended or people maimed. The number of people whose fate would have permanently altered for the worse would have been large.

We are very lucky.

– New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, May 1, 2010 CE (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal)

While chatting with someone after a va’ad, I mentioned that I find it helpful to think of the dilemma of how Providence and Free Will fit together by thinking about the difference between chess and backgammon.

In chess, the players have full control of all the events on the board. The player who plays a stronger game and avoids mistakes will inevitably win.

In backgammon, there is an element of chance — the moves are not entirely under the payers’ control. And yet still, the better player is far more likely to win. And if it’s a full tournament, so that no one die roll is all that important, the better player will certainly win.

Similarly, G-d can work out the outcome He wants even without asserting full control over the events.

It could have been my mythical grain of salt. But if not, it was something else. Every event is the product of a large number of causes, pieces that fit together and combine to make it happen. Free will determines some of them, G-d’s unwillingness to let us see Him tweak nature fixes others, but many of them seem to just come down to what Mayor Bloomberg thinks is “chance”.


This is a distinct issue to how we respond to these glimpses of the Divine. Here’s another relatively recent event, as told in BeChadrei Chareidim and translated by the author of the Dreaming of Moshiach blog:

The Great Miracle of the Volcano Shutdown

A universal crisis, millions of people stranded, billions of dollars lost, and one volcanic eruption in Iceland causes chaos across the European continent. Within all these tumult, one Jew merits a smile of loveliness from the Creator of the World, as if whispering to him – my son, the whole world was not created except for you כל העולם לא נברא אלא בשבילי.

The story begins with a young Yeshiva student, an 18 year old Yerushalmi, that came down with a fulminate hepatic failure and was mortally ill.

With little hope of receiving a liver transplant in Israel, Rav Firer sought to send the boy emergency to Brussels, the world center of liver transplants. The only problem however, is that Brussels under no circumstances transplants non-EU patients in order to save the scanty supply of livers for Europeans. Nevertheless, it was decided to send him to Brussels despite the full knowledge of negligible chance of receiving a liver.

The young Yeshiva student had no choice but to include his name to the long waiting list for a liver transplant. In the meantime, he tried to maintain his learning despite the illness, consciously aware that it will takes weeks, months, and even years till he will be able to be given a new liver. Many patients were on the waiting list, and his name was somewhere on the bottom… And when his turn does finally arrive, it must completely match his blood type and other medical criteria. If it’s not a perfect match, he will need to continue waiting … for a miracle.

However, רבות מחשבות בלב איש ועצת ה’ היא תקום Many thoughts in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of HaShem shall stand. HaShem had a different plan for this young Yeshiva student and HaShem’s loyal servants produced avalanches of hot ash, rock and gas on Europe, causing Europe to completely shut down its skies into a no-fly zone. No one can leave and no one can enter; a self-imposed siege in the euro zone skies. It is during this time that a young religious Yerushalmi man in the capital of Belgium is sitting in the yeshiva learning Torah.

During the course of the shut down airspace above Europe, a person dies in the hospital in the capital of Belgium, a person whom agreed to donate his liver to anyone that might need it. Astonishingly, a liver that is perfectly parametric for our young Yeshiva student.

Health authority of Belgium began searching the liver transplant waiting list but ‘unfortunately’, not even one patient was able to fly into Belgium for the very needed healthy liver transplant due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

As they advanced further on the waiting list, they reached the young Yeshiva student. However it was not offered to the boy due to his lack of citizenship. As the clock closed in on the deadline for time in which the the liver’s lifespan for transplanting, the precious healthy liver cannot be wasted and must be swiftly replaced with a diseased liver, no one else was able to arrive in Belgium for the transplant except this young Yerushalmi.

With the clear Divine Intervention, this budding talmid chacham received the liver and is now recovering from surgery.

The enormity of this miracle was even greater after the successful liver transplant. The doctors said that the young yeshiva student’s liver was very deteriorated and diseased and it was a matter of days his liver would stop functioning completely. The doctors unanimously believe that if this young man had to continue waiting for the liver transplant, he would have been long dead.

The problem here is one of perspective. It is exciting to be the one who won the lottery. But as an outsider, I know that someone is bound to win, and can’t be amazed that one particular person I hadn’t heard of before won rather than another.

“[N]ot even one patient was able to fly into Belgium for the very needed healthy liver transplant due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.” How tragic! But that story is ignored. As are the thousands of other tragedies, some as great, some lesser: Someone who needed to get from point A to point B for an unrelated medical issue, to obtain money for medicine or a shidduch, or the businessman who didn’t get back from vacation in time to make a big deal, or…

There are numerous such stories. It’s hard for me to dwell in the glory of how Providence played out for this recipient without assuming an equal burden and question why those who suffered did. And if I’m willing to live with the question and say that Yad Hashem is an unknowable mystery when it comes to those who suffered, then how can I suddenly claim to know and understand these cases when I appreciate and am thankful for the outcome?

A number of years back a man was shopping at the hardware store at the end of Machaneh Yehudah, when he dropped a screw. He bent over to pick up the screw — and the window blew in above him. A bombing. Part of the Intifadeh. His rav told him to bench gomel, to thank the A-lmighty for his salvation, but the man, a Holocaust survivor, simply couldn’t bring himself to do so. Not after seeing the carnage when he stood up. That too is a failure of perspective (although an understandable reaction), but of the reverse sort; after all he was the “lottery winner”.

R’ Yosef-Gavriel Bechhoffer forwarded (with his agreement to its sentiment) an anonymous comment that adds that this ideological flaw (or the one he specifies in his variant on the above observation, to be more correct) is not just abstract, it has day-to-day consequences. He writes:

I happen to think we in our generation, and especially from an educational standpoint our young people, are more in need of examples of tziduk hadin and moving forward in life despite disappointment, loss and suffering, than we are in need of further gushes of chicken soup for our already entitlement-ridden souls. Because this genre has become so ubiquitous, and we are encouraging people to identify (as if they could!) “hashgacha pratis” in their lives, I fear we are weakening rather than strengthening the kind of emuna needed to make it through the real lives most of us lead, the ones in which people die, illness hurts, and hopes are dashed, at least sometimes. I find these kinds of stories dangerous, not only because they promote magical thinking and reinforce theological beliefs of dubious basis in authoritative Jewish sources, but because they reinforce some sort of fantasy that we can ignore the gemara about kesheim shemevarchin al hatov etc. When young people raised on this intellectual diet of gruel actually encounter challenges in life, will they have the keilim, and the examples, to integrate them into their mindset and avodas Hashem? Will they conclude, consciously or unconsciously, that they are unworthy because miracles didn’t happen for them? Will they feel cheated out of the hashgacha protis they have
been guaranteed and end up angry at their religion r”l?

I don’t know, I just feel sometimes we in the frum community live in a haze of wishful thinking we have allowed and sometimes even encouraged. I don’t mean to be a downer but to say, let’s recognize and fix our problems rather than distracting ourselves from them. For every heartwarming story circulated I’d like to see at least one story that calls us to action, and I mean action to take responsibility for our dysfunctionalities. If only the energy put into the campaign to save Shalom Rubashkin from being overly punished for his crimes could be equally put into a campaign to rid ourselves of corruption and fraud and teach the importance of transparency, integrity, and accountability. I am seriously considering contacting the guy who started the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and encouraging him to start a new prong of
the movement aimed towards Emes and Yashrus.

(I would have replaced that last line with something about getting broader backing for the AishDas Society, but otherwise I agree.)


The point I’m trying to make is a subtle but important one — the difference between seeing the Hand of G-d in an event, and believing one can second-guess His Motivation for it. This is easier to remember when the results are tragic, since we have no motivating desire to assume Hashem is cruel. But if we can not understand the tragic, we can’t claim to understand happier outcomes either.

And so, when we crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians drowned, the angels wanted to sing praise to the A-lmighty. Hashem stops them, saying “the works of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you are singing songs?” However, the Jews themselves did sing Hashem’s praises, we repeat the song daily as “Az Yashir“.

A difference in perspective. The angels’ song would be claiming to understand why G-d saved the Jews, and ignoring their ignorance of why He did not extend Compassion and Patience to the Egyptians.  For us the recipients of His largess, however, gratitude is appropriate. Gratitude doesn’t require knowing why, or claiming to understand His Plan.