Mother’s Day and Teshuvah Week

We don’t feel a need to observe Mother’s Day,
because the mitzvah of kibud av va’eim means that
every day is Mother’s Day.

- Rabbi Shpitzer, my 5th grade rebbe

This sentiment is far from uniquely Rabbi Shpitzer’s — but he was my first rebbe from the chareidi world, and so the first person to give me this explanation.

Twenty five years later, I finally had a comeback: Yeah, but teshuvah is also a mitzvah every day. Does that make Yom Kippur and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah redundant?

And yet teshuvah is qualitatively different on these 10 days than on the rest of the year.

… כְּשֵׁם שֶׁשּׁוֹקְלִין עֲווֹנוֹת אָדָם וְזָכִיּוֹתָיו בְּשָׁעַת מִיתָתוֹ, כָּךְ בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה שׁוֹקְלִין עֲווֹנוֹת כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִבָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם עִם זָכִיּוֹתָיו בְּיוֹם טוֹב שֶׁלְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה:  מִי שֶׁנִּמְצָא צַדִּיק, נֶחְתָּם לְחַיִּים; וּמִי שֶׁנִּמְצָא רָשָׁע, נֶחְתָּם לְמִיתָה.  וְהַבֵּינוֹנִי, תּוֹלִין לוֹ עַד יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים:  אִם עָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה, נֶחְתָּם לְחַיִּים; וְאִם לָאו, נֶחְתָּם לְמִיתָה.

… Just as they weigh the sins of a person and his merits and the time of his death, so to every year they weigh this since over every one who comes into the world with their merits on the holiday of Rosh haShanah. Whomever if found to be a tzadiq is sealed for life; whomever is found to be a rashah is sealed for death. And the one in the middle, the beinoni, they hang his [fate] until Yom Kippur. He he does teshuvah, he is sealed for life, and if not, he is sealed for death.

As we say in Mussaf on the Yamim Nora’im, “On Rosh haShanah they are written, and on Yom Kippur they are sealed.” The righteous and evil are judged and sentenced on Rosh haShanah. Everyone else is given a judgment, but they have something like an appeals process through Yom Kippur before their fate is sealed.

So our first problem is what makes teshuvah and the consequent judgment of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah unique?

Second problem: Why is a rasha, an evil person, deprived of the option of doing teshuvah the rest of the 10 days and improving their fate? Is Hashem rendering the sincere repentence of someone who was (formerly, after all) evil ineffective?

(We might ask the same of the tzadiq, the righteous person who then decides to spend the week sinning, but since we know there is Compassion mixed into the Divine Justice, the question is less compelling.)

On the other hand, when something goes wrong during the year, a person might also do teshuvah and change their fate.

What’s the difference between the teshuvah and the “chasimah“, the sealing of one’s fate, of the 10 days of teshuvah, and of the rest of the year? And if one’s fate is sealed by Yom Kippur, how can doing teshuvah during the year help any? Alternatively, if it does help, what to we mean when we say “and on Yom Kippur they are sealed”?

דתניא הכל נידונים בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם ביוה”כ דברי ר”מ ר’ יהודה אומר הכל נידונין בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם כל אחד ואחד בזמנו בפסח על התבואה בעצרת על פירות האילן בחג נידונין על המים ואדם נידון בר”ה וגזר דין שלו נחתם ביוה”כ ר’ יוסי אומר אדם נידון בכל יום שנאמר (איוב ז) ותפקדנו לבקרים רבי נתן אומר אדם נידון בכל שעה שנא’ (איוב ז) לרגעים תבחננו

… for it says in a beraisa: All are judged on Rosh haShanah, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur — this is the words of Rav Meir.

Rabbi Yehudah says: all are judged on Rosh haShanah and their fate is sealed in its time — on Pesach for grain, on Shavuos for fruit of the tree, on Sukkos we are judged for water. A person is judged on Rosh haShanah, and his sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Yosi says: a person is judged every day. As it says, “and He remembers him for the mornings.” (Iyov 7)

Rabbi Nasan says: a person is judged all the time, as it says, “for the moments he is tested.” (ibid)

- Berakhos 16a

(A page later the gemara gives in the name of Rav Kruspadai quoting Rav Yochanan the opinion repeated by the Rambam, above.)

The thought I want to use to explain all of the above requires accepting the notion that a person’s free will is limited. That not only is a person limited by the laws of physics, but there are also choices that would never cross their minds. This is like the questions on the obligation to believe in Hashem, or the prohibition against coveting. Do we really have such fine tune control over our beliefs that we can force ourselves to find something plausible? Or over our desires that we can not only refrain from acting, but actually not even have the desire? Much of Mussar is built on the belief that yes, such change is possible, but not overnight. A prohibition against coveting is something someone would have to work on now in order to progressively fulfill it more and more often as the years progress.

One such model is given in Michtav meiEliyahu by Rav EE Dessler (REED), and I will write using that model. But in truth, one needn’t accept his entire notion, just the element that there are decisions beyond our control.

REED (Michtav meiEliyahu, vol. I pp 114) defines free will in a way that it only includes consciously made decisions. On any axis, there is only a small range of situations in which the side saying “yes” and the side saying “no” are similar enough in strength that the issue becomes a conscious, free willed, decision. This front where the yeitzer hatov and yeitzer hara battle is called the nequdas habechirah (NhB), the Decision Point. Items beyond the NhB are simply decided preconsciously — before the person is aware of his options, he already knows what he’s going to do. For most people, robbing a back is simply not on the menu of choices. Sadly for many people, being honest on their tax forms when it may cost them significant money is also not on the menu. Etc…

For each person on each issue, the nequdas habechira is mobile. With each good decision, the NhB moves over to make the next similar decision that much easier. The yeitzer hatov becomes more powerful with exercise.

Another background issue: The gemara reads the verse, “Ki bayom hazeh yakhapeir aleikhem… – for on this day, it shall be an atonement for you…” slightly differently than this naive translation, taking the “ba-” of “bayom” as “via”, “through the aegis of”, rather than “in”. Meaning, “By utilizing this day, He shall atone for you…” And so Rabbe concludes (Shavuos 13a) , “Itzumo shel yom mechaperes — the essence of the day [of Yom Kippur] atones.”

What does that mean? The wicked person isn’t getting atonement from the essence of Yom Kippur (even with a Beis haMiqdash and a se’ir hamishtaleiach) — his fate was already sealed on Rosh haShanah. And the guy who grabs a cheeseburger for his lunch that day? Yom Kippur works for him too?

(The whole notion that the day itself can atone despite the spiritual state of the person in question also rubs my prejudice against metaphysical mechanics the wrong way. It gives power to a spiritual force other than Divine Justice and Mercy, and thus obscures Hashem’s presence in the world for no purpose I can fathom.)

The sages therefore interpret R’ Yehudah’s thought by explaing that the essence of the day atones someone who internalizes that essence by repenting. Not as a force in-and-of-itself.

דִּרְשׁוּ ה’ בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ, קְרָאֻהוּ בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב.

“Seek G-d when He can be found,
call out to him, when He is near.

- Yeshaiah 55:6

The power of the 10 Days of Teshuvah inheres in their being an appointment. Having an appointment for reapproachment to G-d and to the ideal for which I was made makes change easier; it adds mobility to the Nequdas haBechirah. One can choose to make that appointment, to run with that motivation and the environment of the season, by embracing “the essence of the day”.

According to this, the difference between the everyday judgment of R’ Yossi and R’ Nassan and annual judgment is that when “Hashem can be found” through these two moving days on our calendar and the time between them, we can use the opportunity to move the battlefront or not. The difference is quantitative; it’s not a different kind of judgment, but a different kind of opporunity. And once we set out from this potentially moving period on a given course, changing that course is harder.

Why does the Rambam say the beinoni, the person in between righteous and evil, has to do teshuvah? Couldn’t he instead do a number of mitzvos, and thereby tilt the score toward merit that way? If he does so as a means of reapproachment, perhaps he could — but then that is teshuvah, not its alternative. A number of differen acharonim offer variants of the following answer: To miss the opportunity of teshuvahis itself a sin. Squandering all the excitement and motivation of wanting to start a new year fresh is a sin that slips the NhB further from G-d.

There is only one experience that makes the Decision Point more mobile than these 10 days. When one army flees the battlefront, the other side can make very rapid progress. This is the situation when the soul leaves the body, leaving bodily urges, the nefesh, and this world’s distractions from our true goals behind. Thus, the Rambam’s comparison between Rosh haShanah and the day of death. Whether one is positioned to use that moment constructively makes  it one’s most telling Day of Judgment

This addresses our first problem — what makes the teshuvah and judgment of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah unique. It’s the unique opportunity that comes from feeling Hashem’s presence when the year is new and full of possibility. But what about our second problem, why the rasha is not given a chance to do teshuvah?

The notion of limited free will, that a person can only change themselves incrementally, means that there are people for whom the necessary teshuvah for what they have done is simply beyond their NhQ. Before they even reach the point of choosing to do teshuvah, they already preconsciously decided not to. The option couldn’t be taken seriously. And while the NhQ does move, there is a limit to how far the person can get in just 10 days.

Such a person is a rasha in the sense of someone who not only does evil, but internalized the evil, they themselves have that evil.

I therefore want to flip our question on its head: It’s not that a rasha‘s teshuvah would be ineffective; it’s that a rasha is someone for whom sufficient teshuvah is impossible, at least within the time frame.

And the converse of our Decision-Point based definition of rasha is that a tzadiq is someone in the enviable opposite position. Of course he regrets what he did and wouldn’t do it again! He internalized that tzidqus; not only does he do tzedeq (justice), he is a tzadiq.

Which would leave the remaining ground for the beinoni — someone whose teshuvah is within the range of his possible choices during the 10 yemei teshuvah, but not the only choice. They could merit either life or ch”v death within the decisions that could reach their free will during those 10 days.

To Be or Not To Be

ת”ר: שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה. הללו אומרים, “נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא, יותר משנברא.” והללו אומרים, “נוח לו לאדם שנברא, יותר משלא נברא.” נמנו וגמרו, “נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא, יותר משנברא.” עכשיו שנברא, יפשפש במעשיו. ואמרי לה: ימשמש במעשיו.

Our Rabbis repeated:

For two and a half years, Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were divided. These were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created more than if he were created.” And these were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person that he is created more than if he were not created.”

They counted votes and concluded, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created, more than if he were created.” Now that he was created, yefashpeish bemaasav. And others says it: yemashmeish bema’asav.

יפשפש מעשיו – שעשה כבר ויבדוק עבירות שבידו ויתודה וישוב:
ימשמש במעשיו – כגון אם בא מצוה לידו יחשב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ולא יניח לעשותה בשביל ההפסד שהרי שכרה עתיד לבוא ואם באת לידו עבירה יחשב שכרו שמשתכר בה עכשיו כנגד הפסדה העתיד ליפרע ממנו:

Yefashpeish bema’asav: that which he already did, check the sins that are in his control, confess, and do teshuvah.
Yemashmeish bema’asav: such as if a mitzvah reached his control, he should consider the loss the mitzvah would incur against its reward, and not rest from doing it because of that loss for the reward in the future to come. And if an aveirah comes under his control, he should think of the reward he gains from it now against the future loss, to separate from it.

- Eiruvin 13b, Rashi ad loc

The idiom yefashpeish bema’asav comes from a word meaning “to enter” or “to permeate. According to Rashi, it entails going through one’s past, and finding what things in one’s life requires teshuvah  — and following up on those things in particular.

Yemashmeish bema’asav, literally to touch and feel his actions, is about convincing oneself, going forward, to do the right thing.

(The above was largely taken from an earlier post about how to take a lesson from tragedy.)

How do we understand “noach lo le’adam shelo nivra“, this pessimistic message that we would be better off not existing? Particularly in light of the mitzvos of piryah verivyah (procreating; c.f. Bereishis 1:23) and lasheves yatzerah ([the world] was created to be inhabited; Yeshayah 45:18). The dictum”derakheha darkhei no’am — its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3:17) tells us that if having more children is a mitzvah, it is no’am, pleasanter for those children to exist than not.

Rabbeinu Bachya (on Bereishis 6:6) asks a similar question based on “vayar E-lokim es kol asher asah vehineih tov me’od — and G-d saw everything He did, and it was very good” when Adam was made, in contrast to the words He says later at the flood, “And Hashem ‘regretted’ that He created man.” The Ikkarim (3:2) simply says “ki tov” excludes humanity. I’m not sure how that fits the verse, though.

The Maharal gives an answer to our original question based on the number 2-1/2 given as the length of the dispute in years before they sat down to vote. He says that there are 5 aspects to the person (nefesh, its vehicle [the body?], ruach, neshamah, and its vehicle). This is 5-fold nature is why eirukhin are all in multiples of 5. The answer to the question of whether it’s better to have been created depends on which perspective one is answering it from — the loftier half of man, or his more base side.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner, kedarko beqodesh (as is his wont), develops the Maharal’s approach further (Pachad Yitzchaq Rosh haShanah #7). Why is it “hakol biydei Shamayim chutz miyir’as Shamayim — everything is in the control of [the One in] heaven except for fear/awe of heaven“. If operating out of ahavas H’ (love of G-d) is superior, why is free will described as revolving around yir’ah?

Rav Hutner answers that yir’ah expresses the frightening aspect of bechirah — the possibility of making the wrong decision. The lover wants to step in for the Beloved, he embraces bechirah. The yarei would instinctively not want bechirah. From a position of yir’ah, noach lo le’adam shelo nivra. However, a person can rise above that to ahavah and find nachas in being a baal bechirah.

This duality is also found in the Iqarim’s answer (4:29), which says that “noach lo shenivra” (better to exist) is from the perspective that the nefesh (the most bodily aspect of the soul) is koach hayulani (the potential of pure substance without form), and thus has the ability to reach lofty heights. Whereas the notion that “noach lo shelo nivra” (better not to exist) is from the perspective that it is “etzem ruchani qayam mitzad atzmo — the spiritual being existing in and of itself” and it would be better off “shelo nimtzeis beguf ha’enoshi — not to be found in a human body”. The body is better off being part of a person, since it is shifted from being just matter into being the substance the soul can work with and elevates. Whereas the spiritual side is pulled out of its heavenly perspective by the body, so it would be happier had the person not been created. And this is the central them, according to the Iqarim of the somber book of Qoheles.

When the nefesh was placed in a body, though, that’s when it became a baal bechirah, a being with free will.. That’s when the mal’akhim wanted to worship Adam (Bereishis Rabba). So that even from the perspective of the nefesh as a spiritual being, it may be worse for the nefesh, but the whole is better off.

To frame my overall conclusion… As Rabbi JB Soloveitchik would say (in true neo-Kantian stule), it’s an unresolvable dialectic. Nonetheless, both “noach lo shelo nivra” and “vehinei tov me’od” are true.

The Alter of Slabodka offers this bit of advice to his students. At all times a person should keep in one of his pockets a note that reads “Bishvili nivra ha’olam — For me the world was created” (Sanhedrin 37a), while in the other pocket he should keep one that reads “Va’anokhi afar va’eifer — But I am dust and ashes” (Bereishis 18:27).

Bishvili nivra ha’olam speaks to the world as I experience it. That was customized just for me. And it contains all of my potential. However, with regard to the shared universe, all that exists is how much of that potential I actualized. “va’anokhi afar va’eifer“. The Alter recommends that one have a pair of dialectical views about one’s self-worth. The first speaks of one’s potential, being in the Image of Hashem. The other, of what one has actually accomplished.

It sounds similar to what the Iqarim was saying. On the one hand, by being created I can become more than what my soul was originally. On the other, compared to the ideal I could have reached, how I am in reality, dragged down by the weight of physicality, is not worth having been created.

I would suggest a different punctuation. The resolution continues through to include the advice. And the gemara focuses on this advice to the extent of giving us both subtly different versions. So I would like to suggest that the conclusion of the vote, that it would have been better not to have been created, only holds for the vast majority, who do not inspect their past deeds and pay more attention to the cost-benefit analysist of future ones. And so by default it would be better not to have been created. However, if one were to examine their actions, existence is a boon.

To extrapolate in this direction from the Iqarim’s, Maharal’s, and Alter of Slabodka’s thoughts… Life is an opportunity to climb the mountain of one’s potential. Someone who keeps an eye on the mountain top, aiming for implementing as much of one’s potential as possible, who identifies with the soul as an existence in itself rather than living a humdrum daily existence, who reaches beyond the first 2-1/2 of the human condition inspect and evaluated his deeds. For him the world was created. Such a person and only such a person is better off having been born.

Or, as is often quoted from another tradition:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

- Socrates, Apology 38a

Narcissistic Spirituality

I was at a Mussar conference once, and Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin asked me about the programming. He asked, roughly, “When did Mussar shift from being about giving to others to being about working on my own middos?” In general, this kind of self-focus is an error that is all too easy in many spiritual paths.

Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov (Spain, appx. 1390-1440) in his derashos on parashas Devarim, compares three statements by tannaim who each consider a different pasuq of the Torah as conveying the Torah’s central theme. (Quoted in Yedei Moshe in the Vilna edition Midrash Rabbah, and by R’ MM Kasher in Torah Sheleimah.)

The Sifra (a/k/a Toras Kohanim) par’ Qedoshim 4:12 writes:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” — Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great principle of the Torah.”

Ben Azzai says, “‘Zeh sefer toledos adam’ — this is an even greater principle.”

Ben Azzai’s “great principle” is Bereishis 5:1-2:

This is the book of the generations of man.  On the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him.  Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and he named them “Adam” on the day they were created.

The Yerushalmi describes the same dispute, albeit in the opposite order, in Nedarim 9:4 (vilna ed. 30b). But the version of the medrash R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov comments upon is a third quote. Ben Zoma cites “Shema Yisrael“, which I doubt would surprise any of us.

According to Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, each are emphasizing a different ideal.

  • Ben Zoma – Shema Yisrael: One’s relationship with the Almighty
  • Rabbi Aqiva – Ve’ahavta lerei’akha: One relationship with other people
  • Ben Azzai – Toledos Adam: Self-refinement, self-perfection — one’s relationship with oneself. Understanding one’s “image” of the Divine and thereby refraining from all sin.

(I should tangentially point out that this is not the only way to understand the contrast between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai. There is a large literature on the subject. E.g. see this shiur by R’ Binyamin Zimmerman, distributed by Yeshivat Har Etzion, “Gush”. While you’re there, you may notice he extensively quotes from my translation of the introduction to Shaarei Yosher.)

This is akin to a recurring theme on this blog, the triad the Maharal identifies with “Torah, Avodah uGemillus Chassadim” and Dr Nathan Birnbaum, with “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres”. My own description: Hashem places us in three worlds, and each world has the opportunity of enabling a class of relationships, and each has its challenges of becoming an end in itself.

We live in the physical world, where we can interact with other people. In the ideal, this is dominated by empathy (rachamim) and expressed in lovingkindness (gemillus chassadim. However, we can fall into the traps of hedonism, epicureanism, and turning other desires of the flesh into life goals.

Hashem also placed us in heaven, where we can relate to Him through service (avodah) coming from a personal knowledge (da’as) of the Creator. But dreams of heaven also lead us to idolatry and paganism — using spirituality and metaphysics in “magickal” ways, trying to make our lives better without making ourselves any better.

Last, because of the tension between the two, we are forced to make conscious decisions. A world emerges within our own minds, containing our experiences — including the experience of thinking (metacognizance). The role of Torah is to perfect that world into a place of harmonious splendor (tif’eres). But having dreams and aspirations also opens the door to frustration and anger when they are thwarted, and overassessment of their importance — egotism.

Among the baalei mussar, this idea is expressed in a tripartite division of the mitzvos: bein adam lachaveiro (between a person and his peers), bein adam laMaqom (between man and the Omnipresent), and bein adam le’azamo (between man and himself). However, this addition of a third category is novel; usually bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam laMaqom, are described as being the sum of all the Torah. Five commandments of one (including honoring one’s parents as Hashem’s partners in one’s personal creation), five commandments of the other.

Although, related to the theme of this post, bein adam le’atzmo isn’t an end in itself. Healing oneself, perfecting oneself, is not meaningful as an end in itself. So, now someone is more perfect — a more perfect what? He is closer to the Image of the Divine, but what it is G-d does or Is that we are supposed to be an image of? I can live with the idea that since all of bein adam le’atzmo is a means to bein adam laMaqom and bein adam lachaveiro, one can equally choose to look at those mitzvos separately or not, depending on one’s purpose. But still, it’s nice to find sources that predate Rav Yisrael Salanter for the three-way-division perspective.

Returning to R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, he is saying that each side of this triad was made a “kelal gadol” by one of these tannaim. Someone can follow the Torah by viewing the central mission it lays out for us in one of these terms.

Chassidus sets out man’s goal in life as deveiqus, cleaving to G-d. Their “kelal gadol” is Shema. The yeshiva world obviously revolves around Torah, and as the Nefesh haChaim (cheileq 4) puts it, Torah is immersed into like a miqvah leaving an indelible change on the person. “Zeh seifer toledos ha’adam – this is the book of the origins of man.”

Mussar is more complicated… It shares the yeshiva world’s notion of self-refinement. But it defines self-refinement in terms of one’s yir’as Shamayim (which in Novhardok becomes about bitachon, trusting in Him) and in terms of generosity to others. That is the ideal person, what one is refining oneself to become. With that background, we can rephrase R/Dr Levin’s question as asking why we stopped looking at what kind of outward connections to G-d and to other people the person of perfect middos is capable of making, and focused only on the middos themselves.

It’s a kind of spiritual narcissism; religion becomes all about me.

Related is R’ Wolbe’s conceptualization of frumkeit in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. To quote part of my analysis in an earlier blog entry:

Rav Wolbe notes a different alternative to thoughtfulness — instinct. To Rav Wolbe, frumkeit is an instinctive drive to be close to the Creator. It is not even specific to humans; the frumkeit instinct is what King David refers to when he writes, “כְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף, וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵ-ל אָכְלָם — lion cubs roar at their prey, and request from G-d their food.” (Tehillim 104:21) And, “נוֹתֵן לִבְהֵמָה לַחְמָהּ, לִבְנֵי עֹרֵב אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאוּ — He gives the animal its food, to the ravens’ offspring who cry.” (147:9)

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

Frumkeit is a narcissistic version of pursuing deveiqus. It’s not that G-d is One, it’s that I have to be the holy person who declares that unity. It’s not even really being driven to do the mitvah for the sake of the mitzvah, it’s for the sake of me having the mitzvah under my belt.

So, it is possible working from any of these Great Principles to end up with a self-focus religiosity. One overwhelmed by anokhius (literally: Me-ness). I could become more interested in my being holy than in Hashem’s Will being done, and be upset that someone else played the role I dreamed of for myself in the revival of Mussar. Or one can turn one’s Shabbos guest into a lulav or tefillin — an object for doing a mitzvah, rather than a friend to be loved the way I love myself.

But in contrast, the path of bein adam le’atzmo, is accutely prone to this problem. Ben Azzai’s “book of the generations of man” requires constant reminders that the perfect man must be perfect for some function. Too much talk of middah work without enough Qunterus haChesed (the translation in Strive for Truth calls it “Discourse on Lovingkindness”) leads to self-absorbtion.

It’s a danger of the Western zeitgeist that it’s too easy to make a religion out of independence and autonomy. And I fear the same decay into such “narcissism” has taken hold in the typical Beis Yaakov education in the past decade.

As recently as ten years ago, girls in these schools were being taught in very clear terms that their central mitzvah is chessed. In fact, the Beis Yaakov school system was the only active contemporary movement that followed R’ Aqiva’a (as understood by RSTiST) kelal gadol of ve’ahavta lerei’akha. (Or for that matter, Hillel’s.) High School girls are routinely expected to dedicate a number of hours per semester performing acts of chessed. Chesed then underpins their future lives as wives and mothers — roles that require much giving to people who too often take them for granted.

However, increasingly, the Beis Yaakov system is making tzeni’us, modesty in behavior and clothing, an expression of self-respect, their central message for the girls in their school. Emphasizing an admittedly critical middah, particularly in a world where we “worship” whomever has the spotlight. Where we seek self-validation through the accolades of others. Tzeni’us means giving with no expectation of receiving, even receiving attention or “ego-stroking”, in return. But we have gone from teaching a life of chessed, giving to others, to focusing on a middah, and we’re attenuating the message of what that middah is for, what is it the tzenu’ah woman is more capable of accomplishing that gives tzeni’us its value.

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