Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 1

Shaarei Yosher was written by Rav Shim’on Shkop (1860-October 22, 1939), and the body of the text deals with the principles by which doubt is resolved in court cases and in legislation, and the principles by which halakhah is set.

We will be dealing, however, with the first part of the introduction. The introduction opens with an explanation of the meaning of life and man’s purpose of existence, and then segues from there to a quite usual thanking his benefactors and others who made the work possible. One of his accomplishments is to place their contribution to the work within the context of life as a whole.

“An uninvestigated life is not worth living”, as Socrates said. But a life that is well understood, yet for which one did not define goals, is also of little value. One can find oneself chasing a life’s dream only to realize afterward that all that effort did not accomplish what one is striving for. Before climbing a ladder to get to the top of a building, it pays to check if the ladder climbs the right building. In the ideal, every decision we make each day should be tied back to some larger goal, which in turn fits within an even larger goal, so that every act is meaningful in terms of one’s “Mission Statement”. In that way, every act has meaning.

So, every person should be seeking to define for themselves that “Mission Statement”.

There are many ways that the goal of life is defined within the various streams of Jewish Tradition. One might say they are all aspects of the same basic idea, different descriptions of the same thing. However, the choice of which points one chooses to give more attention will impact one’s day-to-day decision.

Here we will explore Rav Shim’on’s. He opens:

Blessed shall be the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us,
יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו

Note that the initials of the opening four words are Y-HV-H, the Tetragrammaton. A number of texts begin similarly, such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and the Ramchal’s Mesilas Yesharim.

The original Hebrew reads: Yisbarakh HaBorei VeYis`alah HaYotzeir. To translate precisely but less readably, “The One Who creates ex nihilo will cause Himself to be blessed, and the One Who gives Form will cause Himself to be exalted.”

This line is more worthy of contemplation than of my simply suggesting a possible interpretation:

  • These words are conjugated in the reflexive. What does it mean that we are saying these are things G-d will do for Himself? And if He will be causing His Own blessing and exultation, what is He waiting for before doing so?
  • Also, why does Rav Shimon pair G-d’s ability to makes something from nothing with the notion of blessing, whereas G-d as the One Who gives those things form and function, using the same term Hebrew uses for a potter, with His being exalted and “uplifted” or “raised” in some way?

Notice that Rav Shimon draws our attention to being betzelem E-lokim, in the “image” of G-d and associates this with eternal life. In order to merit permanence, one must be in the image of the Permanent, and the only things we make that can persist until the end of history are those that fit Hashem’s Plan for the end of history.

In this, Shaarei Yosher follows standard Litvisher thinking, that we are placed in this world to hone our tzelem E-lokim, to perfect ourselves and be whole. (In contrast to Chassidus, for example, which focuses on cleaving to G-d.  For an introduction to this topic, see Aspaqlaria for Lekh Lekha 5757), and for a more complete set of meanderings, see the Forks in the Hashkafic Road category of this blog.)

But what is the tzelem E-lokim? How do we define wholeness and perfection? Effectively, all we have said so far is that our task in life is to become as good as possible at accomplishing His Goals, and to internalize them to make them ours. “הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו — He [Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] would say: Make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will.” (Avos 2:4)

We haven’t really found our Mission Statement until we understand how G-d expects us to understand and further His Goals. Then we can make ourselves and our actions in His “Image”.

That’s the question for the next shiur.

Modeh Ani (redux)

A while back I blogged a recording of a shiur I gave on Modeh Ani. The sound quality on the recording was too poor for the shiur to be made out by most listeners. I recently emailed a group a piece on Modeh Ani that makes, in abbreviated form, many of the points I made in that shiur. So, here it is.`

One opening thought about the prayer as a whole: I see in this prayer two things: The obvious one, that we need to acknowledge the One Who enabled us to wake up this morning. The second, that waking up in the morning is itself a previous gift, worthy of thanking G-d for.

The prayer “Modah Ani” became a custom roughly 400-500 years ago, judging from the time of its first mention in print (Sefer haMinhagim). There is an older prayer, a berakhah, with the same theme. It was composed as one of pair, which is why it did not need to begin with the phrase “Barukh Atah Hashem“. One of the pair is said upon going to bed, the other when waking up. But its use shifted to being part of Shacharis, recombined with a blessing for health and for the commandment and gift of the Torah, and moved away from being said upon waking up.

Besides, it opens with G-d’s name, meaning none of it would be said by an observant Jew until after hand-washing. Modeh Ani does not contain the name of G-d, although a second line which is either its post-washing continuation or a second prayer does. (More about that, later.)

Modeh Ani: The word “modeh“, a term of thanks, comes from the same root as “vidui”, confession, and is used in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew to mean agreement. What do these concepts have in common? In all three cases we are declaring our attachment to the other. In confession, we are addressing how that connection enabled us to harm the other. And in agreement, the two parties share an idea rather than each claiming sole ownership. (This idea is discussed in more detail here, in particular section V.)

Modeh in the sense of thanks, then, is an awareness that I do not stand alone. That my existance is founded not only on my efforts, but on those of others. Including, in this case, the Creator.

Modeh ani lefanekha: I thank before You…

Rather than thanking G-d, we place our thanks before Him. What’s that about?

In rabbinic descriptions of the prophetic vision of Ma’aseh haMerkavah, G-d’s Throne (not that we believe He actually is in human form or has a literal throne, but prophecy involves metaphor), the souls of those not yet born are kept in a chest before His Throne.

Perhaps this is being referred to when we speak of thanking before Him for the return of that soul.

On other mornings, it feels to me simply as an acknowledgement of the distance between my still half-asleep self and the Almighty. I cannot thank Him, I am not mentally prepared yet. So I place my thanks before Him, for G-d to carry the rest of the way.

Melekh Chai veQayam: the King Who is “Alive” and “Eternal”…

Continuing this thought… We call G-d here by a reference, rather than a name as we haven’t yet washed out hands. (As I said at the top.)

We try to avoid saying any one of G-d’s names before this purification. I refer you back to what I said about the implied distance in our placing our thanks before Him. This is a difficult prayer: on the one hand, it is most appropriate to thank G-d for waking up when actually waking up. On the other, it takes time to be fully alert and mentally ready. Jewish tradition has a washing ritual to rid ourselves of any spiritual impurities our wandering hands may have touched over the night. It serves as a time to get our brains out of whatever they were in while we were unconscious, and into a more appropriate mode for prayer. So, to strike this balance, we pray to G-d now, but do so while acknowledging that we aren’t really ready, that there is a distance that we aren’t daring to breach. Instead of the familiarity of a name, we use titles and descriptions of Divine Grandeur.

I place Eternal in quotes because “qayam” means permanent, eternal in the sense of taking up infinite time. G-d, however, is simply outside of the stream of time altogether. It’s not that He spans all of time, but that time simply has no meaning in a discussion of G-d’s existence. (Kind of like asking where “1 + 1 = 2″ is.)

And yet He is “Alive” in the sense of being the Cause of an animated, changing, and ever-improving (progressing) existence.

Shehechazarta bi nishmasi bechemlah: for You have returned my soul within me with compassion…

This phrase is problematic. Who is the “me”? I here am speaking as though I were a body, and thus thanking G-d for the soul He placed within me. However, I am the soul, placed within the body! Shouldn’t we say something more like “for You have returned me to my body with compassion”?

There are two modalities (at least) of Jewish Prayer. One is the formal prayer of prewritten words. In them we say the things we ought to be thinking, to learn from them and internalize the priorities we ought to have. To relate to G-d by becoming the kind of person who is more related to G-d. In the other, the prewritten words are less essential, more of a scaffolding, if there are all. It is the child crying out her needs to the Parent, sharing with G-d our joys and trevails, our happiness and our burdens.

One signal for which of those modes a given prayer is in is whether it is written in the singular or the plural. The attitude we are to internalize places us as members of the community first. Therefore, such prayers are in the plural, “Heal us Hashem our G-d and we shall be healed”. (More on this distinction, here.)

This prayer isn’t like that. “Modeh aniI thank”. In the singular, speaking only of myself. It’s an expression of my relationship to G-d not in the ideal, but as it actually is. Not with the abstract knowledge of being a soul placed within a body, but within our illusion and confusion that we are that body.

Rabba emunasekha — great is Your faithfulness

This closing is based on a pasuq, Eikhah 3:23:

כב חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא תָמְנוּ כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו.
כג חֲדָשִׁים לַבְּקָרִים רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

22 The kindnesses of G-d — for they have no end, for His Compassion does not end
23 They are new every morning, rabba emunasekha — great is Your Faithfulness

What is the faithfulness here?

Some commentaries take the verse to refer to our belief in the resurrection. We trust that G-d will someday resurrect the dead, confidence built from how He wakes us every morning.

Others see it referring to the daily miracles, the ones we take for granted and for some silly reason think of as “natural”. And then get upset when the gift isn’t given in full measure, rather than grateful for the times it does. Meaning: Getting sick is not really a reason to petition G-d with “Why me?” That takes health for granted, as something coming to us, a right of which the sick are deprived. Health is a precious gift. The daily sunrise is a previous gift, even if we don’t expect it to end for the foreseeable future.

And thus we thank G-d not just that He allows us to wake up, but that He does so so reliably that it takes this ritual to help us remember He is there doing it!

A third thought is that we’re referring to G-d’s faith in us! G-d returned my soul to me yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. He gave me so many opportunities, and I wasted so many of them. And even though I wasn’t as good as I could have been yesterday, G-d gives me another chance today. Truly, “Great is Your Faith”!

The Ninth of Av 5761

Elad Fogel, age 4

his big brother Yoav, 11


We say, “משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה — when Adar comes in, we increase in joy.” But this year, like too many years, Adar brought with it events that more fit our saying for this month. “משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה — when Av comes in, we decrease in joy.”

baby Hadas

Bruria and her husband, Rabbi Meir, had two sons who both died Friday afternoon, just before Shabbos. Bruria refrained from telling her husband of the tragedy during Shabbos, a time when one cannot hold a funeral or to mourn openly. Since there was nothing he could do, why should Rav Meir be told now, and his Shabbos ruined? After Shabbos, she opened with a halachic question: If one person borrows two jewels from another and then the original owner requests that the return of the jewels, what is the borrower to do? Rav Meir replied, obviously, that one is obligated to return them. Beruria then took her husband to where their two dead sons lay and said, “God has requested that we return the loan of our two jewels.” (Medrash on Mishlei 31:10)

Leiby Kletzky, almost 9

כָּלוּ בַדְּמָעוֹת עֵינַי
חֳמַרְמְרוּ מֵעַי
נִשְׁפַּךְ לָאָרֶץ כְּבֵדִי,
עַל שֶׁבֶר בַּת-עַמִּי;
בֵּעָטֵף עוֹלֵל וְיוֹנֵק,
בִּרְחֹבוֹת קִרְיָה.

My eyes have run out of tears,
my innard burn,
my liver is poured upon the earth,
for the shattering of the daughter of my people;
because the young children and the sucklings are missing
from the broad places of the city.

- Eikhah 2:11

The Ninth of Av, 3830

The Destruction of Jerusalem, David Roberts (1850)

The second half of parashas Naso is quite repetitious. The head of each tribe brought a gift for the consecration of the Mishkan. Each gift was the same, but aside from some slight but intriguing grammatical differences, all twelve are recorded in the same words. Seemingly repeatedly.

The Ramban (on 7:1) explains that each korban was in fact unique. Even though the items offered were identical, the intent behind the korban was specific to that nasi’s tribe’s talents and history. To Nachshon, the leader of Yehudah, the silver platter was for its gematria (ke’aras kesef), 930, equaling the words “Adam haRishon”, and it weighed 130 shekel to equal the number of his children. But to Nesan’el ben Tzu’ar of Yissachar, the seemingly same offering was about Torah study. The platter refers to bread, the ke’aros that hold up the showbread on the table within the Mishkan. The bread, in turn, was a symbol for Torah in his eyes. Etc…

These gifts are then followed by Hashem’s instruction to Aharon to light the menorah, and how to do so. “When you make the lamps go up, toward the face of the menorah its lamps shall shine.” All the branches bore lamps, and the wicks of each lamp leaned toward the central trunk of the menorah. The branch comes from the central core and points back to the central core. That unity is the role given to Aharon, whose students “love peace and pursue peace, love people and bring them close to Torah.”

Similarly, we as a people come from a common source and work toward a common goal. Even though each has their own branch, their own community, their own perspective. As long as all 12 tribes are following the same Torah, we are enhanced by our diversity and our differing ways of looking at things.

A sword in a scabbard that belonged to a Roman soldier which was discovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority (AFP/HO/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

A healthy person is not one who doesn’t care about the difference between his lungs and his kidneys. But someone who understands the importance of each unique part of the whole, and works toward the health and survival of each organ operating in its own way.

We must realize that unity does not come from erasing our real differences. Not all diversity is divisive.

As we once again face Tish’ah beAv and the consequences of our infighting, we must learn to turn away from judging the other by how much their perspective “interferes” with their serving Hashem the same way we do, and value each of the many ways we developed to follow and observe his Torah and the beauty of those who pursue them.

Teaching Mussar

I recently commented on a post on Cross-Currents by R. Jonathan Rosenblum (RJR), an article that originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on July 30th 2011, titled “Dr. Middos is not Just for Kids“. A good article, worth reading, a discussion of the centrality of middos to the entire Torah. Despite the subject line, RJR concludes, “I would like to hear from parents and educators about interesting materials and initiatives in middos development to be shared with other parents and educators.

The truth is, we have numerous middos curricula produced by organizations like the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, or shared among Torah uMesorah schools. And we have had them for decades — at least since my childhood. But as far as I can tell it is not self-evident they actually impart much.

And, as RJR laments:

Too often developing good middos is treated as something primarily of concern for young children. Much creative energy, for instance, has been devoted over the years to producing excellent children’s tapes on the subject. But while middos development ideally starts early in life, it is far from child’s play. Certainly, the Ramchal and later the ba’alei mussar did not see it that way. The fullest middos development requires an intimate knowledge of the human psyche and all the stratagems of the yetzer.

Yet too often today, middos development gets pushed towards the bottom of a crowded curriculum. If a yeshiva describes itself as placing a strong emphasis on middos development, our initial reaction is likely to be that it is not for “top” boys. Some of the most innovative materials I’ve seen for inculcating middos have been developed for use in the state school system in Israel. That is fantastic. But the subject is not only relevant for introducing Torah ideas to non-observant students, who do not learn Gemara.

I would also argue that stopping so young is a consequence of the nature of these curricula. At younger ages, we can tell stories to get children to confront fundamental truths like: anger is bad, egotism is bad, generosity is good, trust in G-d is good, etc…  But as that child approaches Middle School ages, this kind of lesson can come across as trite, as teaching the self-evidence. And at those ages and into adulthood, we deal more with questions of when various values conflict, and when are those allegedly “bad” middos actually appropriate. “For everything there is a time, and a season for every goal…”

Second is the entire concept of “Middos Curriculum”. Middos need to be inculcated, not taught. As R’ Elya Lopian zt”l, “Mussar is the art of moving something an ammah [cubit] — from the head to the heart.” Getting the ideas to the head is the far easier part.

In addition, by looking at curricula and imparting mussar the way we do halakhah, it is difficult to avoid  making it a set of required actions rather than actual character development.  This is what happens in most yeshivos that have a period for Mussar Seder. Aside from that period usually being 15 minutes that are poorly attended immediately after breakfast, the topic is typically the Laws of Lashon Hara from one of the Chafeitz Chaim’s works. Behavior, not attitude. This feeds into an attitude of doing these mitzvos the way one does the more ritual ones, reducing the other person to a cheftzah shel mitzvah, an objects used as a mitzvah. As I heard it put by a single who is tired of being invited to Shabbos meals where “I get to be their tefillin“. We teach people the mitzvah welcoming guests, so they need a guest, but they don’t relate to the person on a human level. My son with Downs tires of teens who come by to entertain him on Shabbos. As some point he realizes that teen views him as a chessedproject rather than a real friend.

Perhaps parenting tools are therefore more important than school ones. (And as Bob Miller noted in his comment on RJR’s article, “Even though yeshivos should place a proper emphasis on middos, are all essential functions of the home to be delegated now to schools? Is there such a thing as too much outsourcing of parenting?” What is parenting about if not imparting values, middos, and character?

So if we agree that a curriculum is not an effective way to impart middos, am I saying there is no role for a school?

First, there is something important about middos that is an educational project. As the first chapter in the Vilna Gaon’s Even Sheleimah is titled, “”Explaining all the ways of breaking the evil middos in general, for that is the root of the entire service of Hashem.” This is an idea, and therefore more amenable to an academic curriculum than character, but it has the potential to color the student’s entire outlook to Judaism and life. And hopefully motivate more adults to continue pursuing middos refinement through adulthood.

We could also try an entirely different approach to teaching the middos themselves. Instead of relaying assessments of each middah, We could instead interevene one step earlier and impart a middos orientation. Say there is an incident in class. Picture the effect of a teacher reframing the issue to be one of middos. “Oh, Shloime won’t share the ball? How did that make you feel? Which middos caused that feeling?” And separately, with Shloime, “Shloimele… Which middahcame out when Duvidl asked for the ball?” “Why that one?” “Do you think it was the right choice?” (And it might have been, David may be a greedy kid…) “Which middah should you have responded with instead?”I am proposing that future middos programming for schools be aimed at get children used to being aware of their middos and how they interact. Then they can be aware of when they are applying or misapplying those values they were taught about. Combined with teaching them the centrality of middos work to being Torah observant, and we are giving them the motivation to improve their middos themselves.

Similarly, the best advice I could give those potential role models, including the one writing this blog entry, is to keep a cheshbon hanefesh, a journal or some other record of their actions and reactions throughout the day. That too habituates us in being more aware of our decisions. Only once aware can we actually apply the truths we learned from teachers, rabbeim and books when the actual decision is before us.