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’.”