Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – Part 3

WITH THIS it is possible to get a feeling for the idea that is told in the Talmud in an amazing story about the holy man Nachum ish Gam Zu. One time he did not fulfill the mitzvah of charity as he felt he should. He decreed upon himself that his eyes go blind, his hands whither, and his feet be amputated. His decree was fulfilled. This is following the way of great leaders, who if they feel about themselves that they failed in the requirements of their duty, make a request to be relieved of those duties. So too this holy man conducted himself. Since he knew about himself that all his abilities aren’t his, and he is just appointed to utilize them, when he saw a flaw in fulfilling his duties he decreed that all his limbs be dismissed from their jobs.
וכן אפשר להרגיש בענין המסופר בגמ׳ תענית (דף כ״א.) מעשה נורא, באיש קדוש נחום איש גם זו שעל ידי שפעם אחת לא מלא חובתו במצות צדקה לפי הרגשתו, גזר על עצמו שיסומאו עיניו ויתגדמו ידיו ויתקטעו רגליו וכן נתקיימה גזירתו, והוא כפי הדרך הנהוג אצל השרים הגדולים שאם מרגיש בעצמו שלא מלא חובת משמרתו, הוא מגיש בקשה לפטרו ממשמרתו, כל זה נהג בעצמו איש קדוש זה אחרי שידע בעצמו שכל כוחותיו אינם שלו והוא רק כגזבר על זה, לכן אם רק קרה לו משגה בשמירת תפקיד הגזברות שלו, גזר על כל אבריו להתפטר מעבודתם,

Nachum ish Gimzo, meaning Nachum of the town of Gimzo, would accept everything that happened to him with equanimity, and with trust that everything happened according to G-d’s plan. When something occurred that would seem to most people to be tragic, he was known to say “Gam zu letovah – this too is for the best.” The other rabbis of the era therefore punned on his name and called him Nachum ish “Gam zu.”

Here is the story Rav Shimon is referring to, as told in the gemara (Taanis 21a; translation slightly adapted from the Soncino):

It was said of Nahum Ish Gamzo that he was blinded in both his eyes. His two hands were cut off. His two legs were amputated and his whole body was covered with boils and he was lying in a dilapidated house on a bed the feet of which were standing in bowls of water in order to prevent the ants from crawling on to him [since he was unable to drive them off his body himself]. His students sought to remove his bed [from the house] and afterward take out the utensils [from thence]. He said to them, “My sons, take out the utensils and afterward take out my bed for I assure you that as long as I am in the house, the house will not fall.” They took out the utensils and afterward took out his bed and the house [immediately] fell down.

His students said to him, “Rabbi, you are [clearly] a thoroughly righteous person [so] why has [all this suffering] happened to you?” He said to them, “I brought it on myself, for one time I was walking on the way to the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink and one with all kinds of finery. A poor man came and stood in my way and said to me, “Rabbi, sustain me [with something to eat].” I said to him, “Wait until I unload [something] from the donkey. I did not succeed to unload [something] from the donkey before he died [from hunger]. I went and fell upon his face and I said, ‘My eyes, which did not have pity upon your eyes, may they become blind. My hands, which did not have pity upon your hands, may they be cut off. My legs, which did not have pity on your legs, may they be amputated.’ And my conscience was not quiet until I said, ‘May my whole body be covered with boils’” They [his students] said to him, “Alas for us that we should see you like this.” He said to them, “Alas for me if you did not see me like this!”

The ending in the Jerusalem Talmud is even more shocking:

… Rabbi Aqiva visited him.

[R' Aqiva] said to [Nachum Ish Gamzu]: Woe to me that I see you like this!

He said to him: Woe to me that I do not see you like this!

[R' Aqiva] said to him: Why are you cursing me?

[Nachum ish Gamzu] said to him: Why do you belittle life’s challenges (yisurin)?

As per his character, Nachum Ish Gamzu saw his suffering as a positive thing; so much so that he did not hesitate to utter words that made it sound like he would wish it on someone else. He refers to yisurin, from the same root as mussar, corrective instruction. To enjoy the use of legs doesn’t mean to have them free of pain and illness, but to sanctify them to the service of others. That’s what legs are for.

As we saw, money is given to a person as part of the whole, so that it’s really the community’s money even while it is right for him to enjoy the lion’s share. He too is part of the community. And in his world, the “ani” (the “I”) extends outward from atzmi, his self. (Recall the citation of Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi lie? Ukesha’ni le’atzmi, mah ani? – and when my “ani” is for my self, what am I?) Rav Shimon uses this story of Nachum Ish Gamzu to show the same thing is true of a person’s etzem, his very bones.


סליק לגבי’ ר”ע א”ל אי לי שאני רואה אותך כך א”ל אי לי שאני אין רואה אותך בכך.  א”ל מה את מקללני א”ל ומה את מבעט ביסורין.

A Physics Metaphor for Coming to Terms with Theodicy

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Aristotle believed that motion was caused by an intellect imparting impetus to an object, which then moved until the impetus ran out. Newton replaced this model of physics with his three laws, including:

Law I: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

Inertia and linear momentum. Newton replaced impetus, which has a finite lifespan, with the notion of momentum, and the conservation of momentum. If no external force acts on a closed system of objects, the momentum of the closed system remains constant.

But in practice, we living here on earth never see momentum conserved. A rolling ball doesn’t roll forever, to stay at a constant speed, you need to occasionally put your foot on the gas pedal. Thanks to air drag and other forms of friction, there is always a “force impressed” to reduce the momentum. In daily experience, Aristotle’s impetus matches what we see — but it is really Newton who was correct.

Similarly, we have metaphysical laws of Divine Justice and Mercy. But like the conservation of momentum, there are always other factors that occlude our seeing these laws in action. So at times Hashem poses yisurim, challenges in our lives, that don’t seem fair or merciful. And so “שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא — reward for mitzvos is lacking in this world.” (Qiddushin 39b)

But it doesn’t make the rule less true, it just means that we must be aware that at least in the governance of this world, there are other factors that occlude our view.

When a Paradox is not a Disproof

The central theme of religion is whether the values, ritual, and system of thought work. The issues of genesis, the flood, or the tower of Babel are tangential, and out the outskirts of the Torah as a “theory” of meaning and purpose in life.

It’s like studying modern physics. We currently have two systems: quantum mechanics (QM) which was born in the head of Max Planck and developed by numerous other people. Including Einstein. There is also relativity (which has two parts: special and general), which was pretty much entirely Einstein’s.

QM works well in the domain of the very small, relativity works well with the very large. (In between, Newton’s old system is a good enough approximation and people don’t bother with such things.) But they are based on contradictory assumptions. For example, relativity is  Background Independent. This means it isn’t about things that happen within space and time, but the nature of space and time is itself part of the theory. This is not true of QM. Figuring out quantum gravity — a theory of gravity that fits both QM and relativity, is a challenge. Filling this challenge are things like string and membrane theories, the Higgs Boson (the subject of the book “The God Particle”), and others.

Because each works so well so often in ways it was not designed to, that the typical physicist is sure some resolution of the two that will preserve nearly all of both theories is out there, waiting discovery. For that matter, we have chips of semiconductors designed using QM in our GPS systems carrying out computations that include compensating for the relativistic effects of the satellite being in motion relative to earth. So, even though the two theories are built on contradictory assumptions, scientists place trust (bitachon) in them. They have faith (emunah) that each will have to be tweaked only minorly to get them to fit, not a major overhaul.

For similar reasons, these science vs Bereishis questions don’t really bother me. Neither is really about what happened in the past; scientific theories makes claims about the past to explain what we observe astronomically and archeologically, the Torah tells us about our past to help us work toward our future. These areas of conflict really are side-topics in each discipline.

It might even be that the reason our generation finds these topics so pressing is a flaw in today’s zeitgeist. Science and technology have brought us so much since the Industrial Revolution that we perhaps forget that it’s not the only venue. As Rabbi Soloveitchik would put it, Cognitive Man is so successful “fill[ing] the earth and subdu[ing] it”, as per Hashem’s blessing of Adam in Bereishis 1, that we forget the Lonely Man of Faith. We feel a pressure to get our religion to play ball on science’s court, when in reality we are looking at the fringes of what religion is for. Truth must be consistent, but the problem isn’t a pressing one.

Each “theory” works so well so consistently in their own domains, I presume that some resolution will someday be found — much like a quantum mechanical understanding of gravity, an understanding of the small-scale workings of a phenomenon only significant in the large scale. One cannot ignore science in the pursuit of the Divine, but neither can one ignore the Torah; nothing is gained by wallpapering over one source of truth in favor of the other. I can live until then with the open questions.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – Part 2

With this idea one can understand how charity has the effect of enriching the one who performs it, as the sages say on the verse “‘aseir ta’aseir – you shall surely tithe’ – tithe, so that you shall become rich – shetis’asheir” . Someone who is appointed over a small part of the national treasury who does a good job guarding at his appointment as appropriate will be next appointed to oversee a sum greater than that, if he is not promoted in some other way. If they find a flaw in his guard duty, no fine qualities to be found in him will help, and they will demote him to a smaller task. Similarly in the treasuries of heaven which are given to man. If he tithes appropriately, he satisfies his job of disbursement as he is supposed to conduct himself according to the Torah, giving to each as is appropriate according to the teachings of the Torah, then he will become wealthy and be appointed to disburse a greater treasure. And so on, upward and upward so that he can fulfill his lofty desire to do good for the masses through his stewardship of the treasury. In this way a man of reliable spirit does the will of his Maker.
ועל פי דעה זו יובן סגולת הצדקה שמעשרת את בעליה, כמו שדרשו חז״ל על הכתוב “‘עשר תעשר’ – עשר בשביל שתתעשר” (תענית דף ט.), שכמו שהממונה על אוצרות הממשלה באוצר קטן, אם ישמור תפקידו כראוי אז יתמנה להיות גזבר על אוצר גדול מזה, אף אם לא יצטיין במעלות אחרות, ולהיפך, אם יתגלה חסרון במשמרתו, לא יועילו לו כל מעלות שימצאו בו, ויורידוהו למשרה קטנה מזה, כל כך באוצרות שמים הנתנים לאדם, אם מעשר כראוי ממלא תפקיד הגזברות שלו כראוי ליטול לעצמו כפי דרכי התורה, ומחלק למי שראוי כל כך על פי הוראת התורה, אז יתעשר ויתמנה לגזברות על אוצר גדול מזה וכן הלאה למעלה למעלה, למען יתקיים רצון העליון בהטבת הכלל על ידי שמירת האוצר, ובזה איש נאמן רוח עושה רצון קונו יתברך.

In the previous portion, Rav Shimon advised us to see ourselves not as possessors, but as the part of the Jewish People that happens to be holding something on behalf of the whole. Here Rav Shimon explains a causal connection between giving to others and getting reward. Someone who shares Hashem’s bounty plays his role with what he is given, and thus it furthers Hashem’s goals to share with him even more. And even though a person only gives a percentage of his wealth, Hashem will still increase his entire wealth in order to increase that percentage.

This is why Rav Yochanan (Taanis 9a) homiletically explained “aseir ta’aser” (Devarim 22:41) ias “aseir bishvil shetis’asheir — tithe so that you will become rich.”  This isn’t merely testing G-d — that would be prohibited. It’s not even a promise of personal reward, offering a selfish reason to do the right thing. It is a fundamental expression of “im ein ani li, mi li — if I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Become rich, because the broader, fully developed “ani” of someone connect well beyond himself could use the wealth.

Malki-Tzedeq and Birkhas Avos

Compare these two snippets. I added color to highlight my point.

First, Bereishis 14:19-20. A massive regional war just completed, and Avraham joins the kings he fought with. Malki-Tzedeq the king of Shaleim (the future Jerusalem) and priest of the Kel Elyon (most high G-d) serves food and blesses him:

וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר: “בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.
וּבָרוּךְ אֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ”, וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל.

He blessed him and said:
“Blessed be Avraham to the Most High G-d, Owner of heaven and earth.
“And Blessed be the Most High G-d who delivered your enemies in your hands.”
And he gave him a tenth of all [the booty].

And now, Birkhas Avos, the first blessing of the Amidah:

אֵ-ל עֶלְיון. גּומֵל חֲסָדִים טובִים. וְקונֵה הַכּל. וְזוכֵר חַסְדֵּי אָבות. וּמֵבִיא גואֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַעַן שְׁמו בְּאַהֲבָה: מֶלֶךְ עוזֵר וּמושִׁיעַ וּמָגֵן: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם:

… Most High G-d, Supporter through good generosity, Owner of everything, Who remembers the generosity of the forefathers and brings the redeemer to their children’s children for the sake of His Reputation, with love.
King, Helper, Savior, and Protector.
Blessed are You Hashem, the Protector of Avraham.

And in case you find comparing “Qonei shamayim va’aretz” and “Qonei hakol” a stretch, note that on Friday night, in a shortened repetition of the Amidah, the Chazan does use “Qonei Shamayim va’aretz“. Chazal did consider them roughly identical; although it would be interesting to explore why they changed the expression from “heaven and earth” to “everything”.

To further this comparison, Malki-Tzedek’s titles for G-d — “Keil Elyon” and “Qoneih haKol” — are uniquely found in this story (here and in Avraham’s reply) and nowhere else in Tanakh. They also make very weak theological claims: “Keil Elyon” is true — Hashem is the Highest Power. But it can be asserted by a Canaanite who happens to believe that El is greater than his other deities. Similarly, as the Creator, of course Hashem owns what he created. But to only call Him “Owner” also includes people who don’t believe in creation. These phrases make sense for Malkhi-Tzedeq, who was trying to preach monotheism even before Avraham. (Our sages associate him with Sheim, Noach’s son.) They allow him to build a student base without confronting too many of their beliefs up-front. But they are odd expressions for us Jews to use in prayer — and in fact they do not appear elsewhere in the siddur, either.

I think therefore it’s clear that the Amidah is making reference to Malki-Tzedeq’s blessing. And moreso, a blessing of “אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ. אֱ-להֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלהֵי יַעֲקב — G-d as we perceive Him, G-d as perceived by Avraham, by Yitzchaq, and by Yaaqov” uses terms from a less developed perception of Deity, language of Malki-Tzedeq who attempts to be a priest between idolators and the Creator without confronting his “congregation”.

I am not sure what to make oft this — it’s counterintuitive. Perhaps the point is just that — to identify the lofty conception of G-d the avos discovered with the concept their contemporaries grappled for when they looked at creation. That the G-d of revelation is the G-d of nature.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – part 1

Similarly it is appropriate to think about all the gifts of heaven “from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” (Bereishis 27:38) that they are given to the Jewish people as a whole. Their allotment to individuals is only in their role as caretakers until they divide it to those who need it, to each according to what is worthy for him, and to take for himself what is worthy for himself.
וכן ראוי להתבונן על כל מתנות שמים מטל שמים ומשמני הארץ שהם נתונים לכלל ישראל כולו, והתחלקותם להיחידים הוא רק בתור גזברות, על מנת שיחלקם לנצרכים, לכל אחד כחלק הראוי לו, וליטול לעצמו כפי חלקו הראוי לו.

When I quoted this portion to someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, the words “to each according to what is worthy for him, and to take for himself what is worthy for himself” triggered memories of Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Critique of the Gotha Program, ch. 1) But we can’t escape the fact that giving to those is need isn’t called “charity” in Hebrew, but “tzedaqah — justice.”

However, had we stopped at Rav Shimon’s discussion of the centrality of self-interest, and how ethics can be based on an informed self-interest, his position would have sounded like something out of Ayn Rand. Compare Rabbi Aqiva’s statement that if there is only enough water for one, you are not obligated to give it up or share to save another with these words Rand puts in the mouth of John Galt, “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Thus, all else being equal, items should go to those that need them. Recall, though, that Rav Shimon’s model isn’t a black-and-white, in the “ani” (my sense of “I’) or outside of it. “The poor of my city come first” — there are ever decreasing gradations of connection. So all else isn’t always equal.

Rav Shimon doesn’t expect someone to “live for the sake of another man”, but rather for the sake of the greater whole of which both of us are part. Nor does he expect me to give according to the needs of another, but rather to lose that feeling that he is “another” to begin with.

It is interesting to compare these words to those of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Horeb par. 565, emphasis added):

G-d, to Whom you owe everything you possess, imposes upon you the duty not to consider it as given to you alone, but also to allow your brother who is poorer than you to make use of it, and to lend him money to enable him to rise out of his distress, to earn a livelihood and gain his independence at your side.”

Judaism is founded on the notion of beris, covenant. G-d forms covenants with Adam, Noach, Abram (and Abraham)… and the Torah itself is a beris. This is the topic of a prior post. To summarize, with an emphasis on the connnectionist aspect:

In the US, law is based on rights. Rights-based law trains the citizen to focus on insuring that no one else wrongs them. The line between people is protected by making sure no violator enters a victim’s space. But that has the danger of being abused as society slides into a culture of entitlement.

The historically common alternative is a contract-based law, people are given obligations to each other. Each side gives up something in order to get something from the other party that they value more. The line between people is protected by making sure no potential violator leaves his own space. People have obligations and restrictions that serve the other.

In a covenant, both sides come together to create something new. There are obligations and restrictions, as well. Not in deference to the other, but as my role toward that creation. The focus is thus not on protecting a line between people, but on people working together across those lines. Which would explain the value Rava ascribes to the middah of maavir al midosav (see the previous post). This is “keshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani –When I am for myself alone, what am I?”

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – Conclusion

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am [not] for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts
ולדעתי מרומז ענין זה במאמרו של הלל ע״ה שהיה אומר “אם [אין] אני לי מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני?” היינו שראוי לכל אדם להתאמץ לדאוג תמיד בעד עצמו, אבל עם זה יתאמץ להבין שאני לעצמי מד, אני, שאם יצמצם את ה״אני״ שלו בחוג צר כפי מראית עין, אז ״אני״ זה מה הוא, הבל הוא ובאין נחשב, אבל אם תהיה הרגשתו מאומתת, שכללות הבריאה הוא האדם הגדול והוא ג״כ כאבר קטן בגוף הגדול הזה, אז רם ונשא גם ערכו הוא, שבמכונה גדולה גם מסמר היותר קטן אם רק משמש כלום להמכונה, הוא דבר חשוב מאד, שהכלל בגוי מפרטים ואין בכלל אלא מה שבפרט,

Rav Shimon’s take on this famous mishnah is striking.

We saw Rav Shimon pose a dialectic — on the one hand life is all about emulating Hashem’s middah of bestowing Good on others; on the other, in order to be active individuals (as He is), we need a healthy self-interest. This section is the synthesis. Self-interest can become the root of giving to others once we realize that our notion of “ani” only begins with my body and soul, and in reality reflects my being part of all of creation. Bestowing good therefore comes not from denying my self, but on my natural inclination to do good to myself. (Which sounds obscure until you think about parenting, and doing things for your children.)

In his eyes, the first two questions in the mishnah are the same dialectic. The first question, “If I am not for myself (li), who will be for me (li)?” refers to the need for self-interest. The second, “But when I am for me alone (le’atzmi), who am I?” speaks of the higher calling one has to invest in the whole. Note also Hillel’s shift in language, which supports Rav Shimon’s interpretation. In the first question, “for myself” is called “li“. Then he switches to le’atzmi” (which I translated “for myself alone”) is from the word “etzem“, bone, core, to describe the narrow “ani” of the courser individual.

This concept of Rav Shimon Shkop’s casts a new light on a number of middos:

Anavah: Anavah (humility) can be understood as stemming from a root related to anah, to answer. (R’ YG Bechhofer suggested this to me once.) An anav doesn’t make the world about himself, he understands that there is a bigger picture of which he is a part.

This could be why anavah, redemption, and making sure to repeat an idea in the name of the one who said it (Beraisa Avos 6:6) are interrelated. The anav has no problem sharing credit, doesn’t need to be the savior. Anavah brings redemption through the elimination of the “ani” which focuses only narrowly on the self.

The anav‘s self worth comes from knowing he is critical to the operation of the engine, even if that role is to be its littlest screw (as Rav Shimon) put it. The the engine won’t run without that screw either — it’s of no less value than the more-discussed parts like the spark plugs or pistons.

The anav therefore knows he has the same value as the “engine” as a whole which depends upon him.

Tzeni’us: Tzeni’us (modesty) is actually being happier being the screw. The anav gets value from his part within the whole, the tzanu’ah doesn’t want to lose his connection to others by having the limelight. As the Shunamit said to Elisha, “besoch ami anochi yoshaves — I dwell among my people.” (gemara holds up for us to follow. (Berakhos 49b)

Rachamim: similarly, the middah usually rendered mercy (most common), empathy (my preference), sympathy, or compassion, is also given a connectionist name. Rachamim is from the word rechem, womb, referring to the relationship between mother and unborn child.

Hodaah this word for thankfulness is from the same root as vidui (confession) and the rabbinic Hebrew usage of “modim” — to agree. (See my earlier entry, Gratitude, in particular section V.) What all three meanings have in common is that they focus on the I-Thou relationship: thankfulness is acknowledging I received from another, vidui is admitting I gave someone else a pain or problem, and to agree is to acknoeldge a shared position, one in which neither side is particularly giving to another.

The other two possibilities — my giving to you and you wronging me — are forms of connection that don’t require my dwelling upon. But they are in themselves the next two middos I believe are recast by Rav Shimon’s perspective.

Chesed: Lovingkindness is the dropping of barriers between myself and the other. Thus, there can be chesed which is good, as in the “chasadim tovim — good instances of chesed” we praise Hashem for sustaining us with when we say the first berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei. But there is also a lack of appropriate barriers, chesed that is not good.

Maavir al Midosav: Allowing his limits to be crossed. This is the person willing to forgo being slighted if it means someone else gains far more than his loss. “Rava said: Whomever is maavir al midosav, they [the heavenly court] passes [ma'avirin] over all his sins for him.” – Shabbos 17b. See my post on this middah.

With the conclusion of this section, I want to share some other ways in which connectionism / holism play into Rav Shimon Shkop’s general worldview.


I posted on the central difference between Brisker Derekh, the mode of analyzing halakhah developed by Rav Chaim Brisker, and his student, Rav Shimon Shkop’s, derekh. Rav Chaim analyzes halakhah on the level of “what”, of the law in legal terms. Rav Shimon added the level of “why”, grounding the analysis in philosophy, the psychology of those commanded, and the world around us.

But there is a second distinction… Rav Chaim would explain an apparent contradiction by finding “the chiluq“, the distinction between two cases that we initially thought ought to be the same, or the distinction between the viewpoints in two sides of a dispute. Rav Shimon also invokes hitztarfus, fusion or connectedness.

Rarely does an event only have one cause. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that it takes one cause to create an obligation or prohibition rather than a combination of them. From the Greeks until the 20th century, science focused on explaining things by explaining their parts. In the mid-20th century started the development of studying how things are connected. It turns out that networks of many sorts share the same math, whether we’re talking real communities, Facebook ones, links between web pages, neurons, etc… This is the notion of emergent properties, studying features that come from how parts are combined rather than being attributable to the parts themselves.

So the emphasis here on trying to become a critical part of the engine, to be indispensable in the interaction of parts while preferably avoiding standing out from the whole, fits Rav Shimon’s general worldview in other ways.



I took this holistic – connectionist approach even further in an early essay on this blog.

Another difference can be seen by contrasting the style of Aristotle with that of Rav Yehudah haNasi. Aristotle catalogues. He divides a subject into subtopics, and those subtopics even further, until one is down to the individual fact. Greek thought was focused on reductionism. To understand a phenomenon, break it down into smaller pieces, and try to understand each piece. This is typical of the Yefetic perspective….

As opposed to the way Rav Yehudah haNasi redacted the first mishnah. The beginning of the mishnah could have said that the time for evening shema is from sunset until 1/3 the night. But instead it uses referents involving kehunah, taharah and ashmores. This is not to confuse the issue, but because from the Semitic perspective the key to understanding one mitzvah is from its connections to everything else.

Yefes is reductionist, believing the world can be understood as the sum of its smallest pieces. Sheim is holistic, looking at the interconnections between those pieces, and the pieces only gaining meaning from the relationships in which they partake.

This is not only true statically, but also over the course of time. We get used to identifying “the cause” of something. Why did he hurt his foot? Because a can fell on it. Why did the can fall? Because someone else accidentally kicked it. And so on… However, it’s equally true that he hurt his foot because even though he usually wears iron toed hiking boot, he chose not to wear them that that day.

I would instead suggest that every event is like “the perfect storm”, every one has combinations of factors that come to a head at the same point….

Des Cartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.” A true skeptic can’t be sure of much. Even “1 + 1 = 2″ might be a delusion caused by insanity or a malevelent deity. The only thing one can be sure of is that there is an “I” doing the thinking, being sure. He then tried to prove the existence of other things, including G-d, with just this one given.

But even the Cogito is subject to this distinction. Are we individuals who interact, or only defined as individuals by the set of interactions we have with others? Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-”, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

Even the “I” is not reductionist, but defined by its connections.

From this relation-based orientation comes a second distinction, a basically different approach to logic. The West never formalized the notion of reality having gray areas…

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh”, the Jewish People are a unit.

Since the Babylonian exile, the remaining Children of Israel, the descendents of the Kingdom of Judea, have been called “Jews”, from “Yehudah”.

What does “todah” mean? As it stands, it means “thanks”. The same root conjugated as “vidui” means to “confess”. Last, when the mishnah wants to stress that something is outside of a dispute, “hakol modim” — “all agree”. What do thanks, confession and agreement have in common?

When I thank someone, I acknowledge his actions had an impact on me. When I confess, I am admitting that my actions had an impact on him. And when we are modim, we realize that an idea isn’t mine or yours, but ours. The point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness. I wrote a few years ago:

Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

We are called Yehudim because only the descendants of the Kingdom of Judea returned after the Babylonian Exile, and of those tribes, Yehudah’s perspective dominated. We are Jews because, as Leah said upon naming her son, “Hapa’am odeh es Hashem — this time, I will thank G-d”. To be a Jew is to be a thanker, to acknowledge the connection.

Note that this implies a strong connection between Yom Kippur as a day of vidui, and Sukkos, the holiday of hoda’ah and consequent simchah

This is why the bareisa in Avos says that whomever says something in the name of the person who originally said it brings redemption to the world. By standing as part rather than being a whole.

Thus Rav Shimon’s notion of the greater “ani” is what being a Jew and Judaism are all about.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – part 4

And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.
ועוד יש בזה מעלות של איש השלם ראוי להשריש בנפשו להרגיש שכל העולמות כולם הוא ה״אני״ שלו, והוא בעצמו רק כאבר קטן בתוך הבריאה כולה, ואז גם רגש אהבת עצמו עוזר לו לאהוב את כל עם ישראל, ואת כל הבריאה כולה.

We so far saw the level 0 individual, who sees himself as little more than an animal, more clever than others but driven by the same basic needs, the level 1 individual who is aware of his own spirituality and his connection to G-d, and the level 2.0 individual who includes in his notion of “ani” (“I”) his connection to and interdependency on others.

We started with the person who connects in this way to just one other, then one’s immediate family, one’s friends, and so on — level 2.0 to 2.1, 2.2, …. But this gradual progression doesn’t reach the next level until the person so realizes that they exist as part of the Jewish People, the human species and the universe as a whole.

Perhaps this is what was unique about Moshe Rabbeinu — he could understand the “Mind” of the Creator in a way the rest of us can’t because he fully saw himself as part of the totality of Creation, entirely a piece within His Great Plan. And thus, the one who was anav mikol adam (more modest than all other people) was the consummate eved Hashem (servant of G-d) and the conduit for the transmission of His Will, the Torah, to humanity.

Earlier (Ch 1 “Mission”, sec 2 in this series) we saw this quote:

(ויקרא יט) “ואהבת לרעך כמוך.”  רבי עקיבה אומר זהו כלל גדול בתורה.  בן עזאי אומר (בראשית ה) “זה ספר תולדות אדם” — זה כלל גדול מזה.

“And you shall love your friends as yourself [I am Hashem].” (Vayiqra 19). Rabbi Aqiva said, “This is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azai said, “‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5) — this is a greater principle than that.”

-Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4 (vilna 30b)

R’ Aqiva and Ben Azzai argue over which verse is the one foundation. Rabbi Aqiva suggests one that applies only to people who qualify as “friends” (perhaps Jews, perhaps only observant Jews, perhaps also non-Jews who observe the 7 laws of Noah). Ben Azzzai instead says the entire Torah is founded on a verse that emphasized the fraternal bonds of all humanity — we are all children of Adam and Eve.

To fully reach Rav Shimon’s notion of the purest soul, one needs to have a universalist attitude, to have an “ani” that includes all people. Particularlism and ahavas Yisrael (Love of Jews) becomes part of that — the Jewish people are part of my extension to the whole. Just as a big part of my bestowing good on humanity as a whole is through the role given to me as a Jew.

This concept of ever broader circles of connection that the person includes as “I” is not the same as Universal Love. There is still a ranking. “A poor person who is his relative has priority to other poor. And the poor of his city are ahead of the poor of another city.” When lending money, halakhah obligates lending to family first, then neighbors, then Jews, then non-Jews (Qitzur Shulchan Arukh [QSA] 179:1), and when selling land, while priority is given to adjacent neighbors who would gain by having a single large plot, second in priority is again relatives, then friends, then neighbors, than citizens of one’s city, etc… (QSA 62:18)

This interplay between universalism and particularism appears repeatedly in tefillah. The first berakhah before Shema is all about how Hashem is perpetually creating, He is the source of both light and dark, good and evil — a description of His relationship to all of creation. Then, we get more personal and in the second berakhah bless G-d “Who loves His nation Israel.” We open the core of our prayers by starting with the universal and narrowing focus.

Aleinu, at the conclusion of tefillah, we do the reverse: we start focused on the Jewish People, “It is upon us to praise the Master…” Then, in the second paragraph, we pray for when that work reaches all of humanity, “to repair the world as a Kingdom of Shakai… As it says in Your Torah, ‘Hashem will rule forever’.”

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – part 3

… And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel
…ולמעלה מזה מי שמכניס לה״אני״ שלו בני ביתו ומשפחתו, והאיש ההולך על פי דרכי התורה, ה״אני״ שלו כולל את כל עם ישראל, שבאמת כל איש ישראל הוא רק כאבר מגוף האומה הישראלית.

We saw last time the first two gradations of soul:
Level 0: The person who thinks their “ani” is only their body.
Level 1: The person who thinks of themselves as body plus soul.

Going beyond this, we get to level 2, at which the gradations become a spectrum rather than discrete (and so I switched to floating-point numbering):

Level 2.0: The person who connects to another, and thus their “ani” extends beyond their individuality.

Typically this first person is through marriage: “עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ, וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד –Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Bereishis 2:25) The unity with a spouse.

Then one can find unity with his children (G-d willing they are granted any) or other family. It is easy to stand up to defend one’s children, to see the nuclear family as “me and mine”. The soul reaches progressively higher levels of refinement as he broadens that definition. Once a person reaches the level of connecting to another, it becomes a gradual process of including more and more.

This is the synthesis I promised a couple of installments back.

The first two sections that I divided the introduction into focused on how: G-d created us to have someone to whom to be Good, imitating Hashem means therefore being good to others and being in His Image means refining oneself to be more able to do so in the future, and that “qedushah” (holiness) is the extent to which one is committed to that goal. (With the side effect of requiring drawing away from other goals.)

From proving that this separation must be a side-effect of a person’s qedushah rather than qedushah itself (since it cannot characterize Hashem’s holiness), Rav Shimon moves on to a discusion of the need to have self-interest as part of one’s service of G-d.

With this notion of extending one’s “ani“, we see how a focus on providing Hashem’s Good to others and self-interest do not contradict “as two warring co-wives.” Rather, it is one’s vested interest in the extended self — the ever-widening circle of those you touch and who touch you — that becomes the very motivation for giving.

Notice where the soul is placed in this progression. Connecting to one’s spirituality is lower in ranking than aiding others. First is the person who connected to G-d. Then comes the person who uses that connection to bestow His Good upon them.

The Meshekh Chokhmah (pg 403, top of 2nd col) discusses the priority of Torah learning in relation to the other mitzvos in these terms. The Y-mi Berakhos says that one interrupts learning to build a sukkah or set up a lulav. Rashi (Mes’ Sukkah) says that someone who is going somewhere to teach is exempt from sukkah and lulav. Don’t these two conflict? Learning itself is outranked by the preparation for these two mitzvos, but merely preparation to teach Torah outranks the mitzvos themselves?!

The Meshekh Chokhmah gives what he calls a “taam mufla” (an amazing reason). Learning just to learn is something he could have done before being born. The value in learning is when someone learns al menas la’asos (in order to do).

This is the essence of Moshe’s answer to the angels at Har Sinai. The angels complained to G-d how He could give the Torah to mere flesh and blood rather than them. Moshe answers, “It says ‘kabeid es avikha‘ (honor your father [and mother]), do you have parents?”

The ability to do a mitzvah, even the preparation for a mitzvah, is the whole justification of being born and placing that intellect that can hold Torah into a body that can act.

However, that’s not true for teaching. Therefore, the preparation to teach Torah, traveling to the class outranks mitzvos even as the mere preparation steps for those very same mitzvos outrank learning.

The contrast to Nefesh haChaim (cheleq IV) and its formulation of the ideal of Torah lishmah (studying Torah for its own sake) appears to me to be drastic. There, R’ Chaim Volozhiner portrays the ideal as absorbing and internalizing Hashem’s Wisdom, and thus Torah study is the ultimate mitzvah. The Meshekh Chokhmah’s idea is more along the same lines as Shaarei Yosher — giving Hashem’s Good (including Torah) to others is the highest priority, and the purpose for which we learn and do mitzvos between man and the Omnipresent.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – part 2

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. …
האיש הגס והשפל כל ״אני׳׳ שלו מצומצם רק בחמרו וגופו, למעלה ממנו מי שמרגיש ש״אני״ שלו הוא מורכב מגוף ונפש, …

How do people differ qualitatively? By the breadth of their notion of “ani” (“I”). Rav Shimon might mean “ani” as a reference to the same etymology from which Freud took his term “Ego”, I don’t know.

In his ranking of gradations of soul, we just saw Rav Shimon’s first two levels:

Level 0: The person who thinks r”l that they are only a body. They are totally unaware of their spiritual side, and in fact, just think they are clever animals.  The driving force in their lives are creature comforts: food sex, comfortable clothing, rest, etc…

Level 1: The person who is aware of their own soul. This person addresses both bodily needs and spiritual ones. But, their attention to spirituality is all for the self.

There is a machloqes, a dispute among the rabbis, as to how to view man. One side, found often among books of Mussar, views a person as a soul who inhabits a body (Ramchal, Derekh Hashem), or perhaps controls it as a rider upon a donkey (Rav Scherr’s introduction to the reprinting of Cheshbon haNefesh). This then becomes a key symbol in the Gra’s interpretation system — when one finds a chamor / donkey in a narrative, it is generally a symbol for chomer / physicality. Avraham at the Aqeidah or the mashiach come in riding on a donkey as a way to hint to us their mastery over their own physicality.

The other stream of thought includes the body in the definition of person. Man as a fusion of body and soul. Such as when the gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) compares a sinner to a blind man and a lame man who conspire together to steal fruit. Each claims innocence, so the judge puts one atop the other and judges them as a unit. So too, the gemara explains, in order to be judged for our sins, Hashem will bodily resurrect the sinner to reconstruct the person as they were then.

Rav Shimon’s topic is slightly different. The “ani” of a person is a matter of self-definition, not whether that self-definition refers to one entity (just the person), or many (the person’s “me and mine”). As we will see later, the above dispute might be more in terms of what the introduction idenfies with “atzmi“, not “ani“.