Modeh Ani

WARNING: Recording sound quality is poor!
Attached is an audio shiur on the subject of Modeh Ani.The topics covered:
  • The meaning of the words and problems with the naive translation
  • Two roles for prayer
  • Yehudah and Modeh — connectedness
  • Hakaras haTov — thankfulness and the nature of chesed

Al Netilas Yadayim

The audio recording (b”H, much clearer than my first attempt at recording a shiur) attached is from the “Tefillah: Beyond the Words” class, a discussion of the berakhah of “Al Netilas Yadayim“.

  • The class starts with a discussion of berakhos in general:
    • Various opinions of the meaning of the word “barukh”,
    • the structure,
    • three conceptions of how to make a berakahah.
  • Approaches to doing mitzvos:
    • To obtain holiness
    • to fulfill the commandment of G-d
    • Perspectives on the reason for morning hand-washing, and how it relates to holiness.

Asher Yatzer

This week’s shiur began with a continuation of last week‘s discussion of qedushah (as in “asher qidishanu vemitzvosav”) and taharah (“al netilas yadayim”).The discussion of qedushah’s “separation for” and taharah’s “separation from” was used to flow into discussing the various vectors of human personality — with a detour into the Beis haMiqdash. (That parallel between man and miqdash actually comes up later in the shiur.) These three vectors can be seen as addressing the next triad of berakhos: Asher Yatzar, E-lokai Neshamah and Birkhos haTorah. (Other reasons for the structure were also given.)The rest of the shiur was a textual study of Asher Yatzar in light of the themes that recur in the various rishonim — often the same theme is associated by different rishonim to different parts of the text. Themes of birth, the wisdom of creation as a whole, Torah and human wisdom, maintenance of health vs being cured, and the wonderous fact that an intangible soul can be associated with a body. The major issues were:
  • Is the berakhah one of praise? If so, why do we sayor one of action?
  • What is the chokhmah being referred to in “who formed man with/of chokhmah”?
  • How do chalulim differ from neqavim, that the berakhah lists both? Does Hashem create holes, or does He allow them to exist by creating around them?
  • Why do we say “before Your throne of honor”, rather than “before You”?
  • Why do we speak of opening and closing holes in particular?
  • What’s the debate over wnether one should say “afilu sha’ah echas” (even one moment/hour)?
  • If the closing of a berakhah must always address one theme, how do “afilu sha’ah achas”, “rofei khol basar” and “umafli la’asos”?

With berakhos for the best of health and an enjoyable Shavu’os!

E-lokai Neshamah

This week’s class was on E-lokai Neshamah. Some of the topics discussed:
  • Different opinions about why the berakhah doesn’t begin with the word “barukh”
  • The berakhah’s possible connection to Hamapil said before going to bed or Asher Yatzar
  • Is the berakhah primarily about waking up, or the resurrection?
  • Who is the “me” saying “the soul which You put within me”? Aren’t I my soul — how can it be placed within “me”?
  • More on the “anatomy” of the soul
  • The connection between the soul and the body
  • Different opinions on the nature and role of the resurrection.

Birchos haTorah

This week’s shiur (audio recording) concludes a series on aspects of the soul. With Asher Yatzar we looked at man’s ability to exist in and relate to the physical world. This is followed by E-lokai Neshamah, and our connection to heaven and man’s higher calling. Now we look at the universe we hold within our heads, our ability to change and grow, and become better at existence on all three planes.

Some topics:

  • Who is holier: people or angels? Who is loftier?
  • Being and becoming
  • Hislamdus — self awareness, life as a learning experience
  • The ruach
  • On empty cups: cleaving to G-d and self improvement
  • The importance of saying birkhos haTorah
  • How many berakhos are there (is ha’Arev its own berakhah), and what kinds of learning require the berakhos?
  • Is the berakhos on learning Torah, or on the Torah lifestyle as a whole?
  • Meaning of the words and phrases.
  • The progression from learning, “sweetening”, remembering, carrying to future generations, and getting protection by being the Torah’s guarantor.
  • Torah as a means of growth — a tool for “becoming”.

Nishmas. part I

This week’s shiur skips to Nishmas, under the assumption that davening in shul runs too quickly for slow and careful recitation, and it would be more practical to skip to around the point where we switch Chazanim and assume a more contemplative pace.Just some of the discussed subjects:

  • Who wrote Nishmas? The Peter connection and what it says about the content of Nishmas.
  • Why do we speak of Nishmas kol chai, veru’ach kol basar, but say nothing about the nefesh? (see previous three weeks’ shiurim for discussion of these three aspects of the soul.)
  • The symbology of Shabbos, tefillin and tzitzis according to the Maharal and R’ Samson Raphael Hirch.
  • The moral duty to praise Hashem, and the mention of those things for which we must say Birkhos haGomeil. Being saved in and of itself vs being saved by reexperiencing an aspect of yetzi’as Mitzrayim.
  • The need to thank Hashem for giving us challenges in measures that we can handle, and moreso, from which to grow.
  • The impossibility of expressing His praise and therefore of the need to praise Hashem implicitly through action and ontologically, since we embodying His Wisdom.

We concluded at the beginning of haKeil, and should pick up at that point.

Nishmas, part II

This week’s shiur picks up from “HaKel besa’atzumos uzekha”, the point where the Chazan begins on Yamim Tovim.Some of the key topics raised:
  • The impossibility of understanding Hashem, and the resulting consequence of tending to describe Him in conflicting dialectics. Immanence — Hashem is everywhere; Trancendence — Hashem is in shamayim. The impersonal G-d of nature, and the G-d of miracles. Etc…
  • How are we permitted to praise Hashem in just four words?
  • Gevurah and nitzchon (eternal in time). Man’s ability to bring nitzachon to Hashem’s will because Hashem’s gevurah gives “room” for us to act. The creative partnership in history and in halakhah.
  • What is means to be a Melekh (king) as opposed to a Mosheil (dictator). What is Hashem’s “Throne”?
  • Idealism and happiness: The concepts of simkhah, yesharim, tehillah (hallel), avodas Hashem (serving Hashem), aveilus and even humor according to Rav Saadia Gaon.
We then started discussing Barekhu, discussing the source for needing a minyan for devarim shebiqdushah (declarations of His sanctity, including Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah.

Yotzeir Or, part I

(I was on vacation and so there was no shiur last week.)This week’s shiur picks up with Borkhu and the question of what makes it, or any other prayer (including at least Qaddish and Qedushuah) a davar shebiqdushah (a declaration of holiness).The majority of the shiur was dedicated to opening of the berakhah of Yotzeir Or. We discussed the structure and topics of the berakhos that surround Shema and their relationship to Shema itself, some of the basic thrust of this particular berakhah, and the history behind its opening sentence. The opening of the berakhah was explained in relationship to the pasuq which it paraphrases, a message Hashem gave the prophet Yeshaiah to record for King Cyrus of Persia to eventually receive.

The bulk of the shiur was a discussion of evil, the nature of evil — both as the tragedy in people lives and the evil people do, the question of what defines evil (one Jewish resolution to Plato’s Euthyphro’s Dilemma), and finally four different ways in which tragedy forces us to respond. (The last point is expressed also in my essay “The Four Sons Confront Tragedy“, relating these responses to the responses each of the four sons of the Hagaddah have to the seider.)

Yotzeir Or, part II

In this second of three parts on the berakhah of Yotzeir Or we continued our look at the problem of evil. (The shiur was given during the Three Weeks.) The previous shiur focused on tragedy, the evil that we experience. This week we look at the interplay of the sun, and what it symbolizes, and the moon, and its symbology, and how the story of creation includes a naarative of how evil became a component of human nature.We also looked at the first half of the berakhah, the themes of creation flowing throught the letters of the Torah, of the future state when everyone will acknowledge that flow of creation (mentioned in the Shabbos version of the berakhah), the notion of being unique in quantity (ke’erqekha) vs unique in quality (ve’ein zulasekha).Next shiur we will be”H conclude the berakhah, as well as the series of classes until after the yamim tovim.

Yotzeir Or, part III

See the previous discussions of Yotzeir Or here (part I) and here (part II).

This week we concluded our discussion of the berakhah of Yotzeir Or, as well as the shiur’s run until after the yamim tovim.

Some highlights:

  • The process of creation is continual, and thus the berakhah is about the end of evil more than evil itself. There will always be more opportunities tomorrow even if all is bleak today.
  • The structure of the berakhah.
  • The angels’ Qedushah, and man’s role in it.
  • Creation continuing through today and into the future. Things continue to exist through His Will.
  • Does this concept necessarily mean that individual Divine Providence (hashgachah peratis) need apply to every event?
  • Various opinions on the subject of Providence, and a modern take on the idea.
  • A tiny review of the 10 shiur series, taking some points from each shiur and tying them into a single picture.

Birkhas Ahavah

The Tefillah: Beyond the Words shiur resumed this week, picking up where we left off, with birkhas Ahavah.Some of the topics discussed:

  • Two dimensions for discussing a middah: “Ahavah Rabba” and “Ahavas Olam”
  • How those dimensions are reflected in the structure of the berakhah as a whole
  • What is love?
  • The avos: Three models for how to express love
  • The progression from ahavah (love) to chemlah (pity) to chein (unearned giving)
  • The Torah as chuqei chaim (the law for living)
  • What do we mean by qiyum hamitvah?

Shema Yisrael

In this week’s shiur we concluded Birkhas Ahavah and started Shema with the origin of “Kel Melekh Ne’eman” and some thoughts on its first sentence.
Some of the topics discussed:

  • Veha’eir eineinu beSorasekhaTif’eres, fully integrating our Torah knowledge to shape our entire selves.
  • Vedabeiq libeinu vs Veyacheid levaveinu — Two approaches to serving G-d (another reference to the “Fork in the Hashkafic Road“), two ways “velo neivosh le’olam va’ed” (not to be embarassed ever).
  • Vesolicheinu qomemiyus le’artzeinu — coming upright to our land. Redemption includes the opportunity to live peacefully and with self-respect.
  • The value of our being a lashon, a group of people united by the Hebrew language.
  • Birkhas Ahava‘s connection to Shema.
  • Should we say “amein” after our own birkhas ahavah? “Kel Melekh Ne’eman” as an amein.
  • Other explanations for saying “Kel Melekh Ne’eman
  • The significance of saying Shema Yisrael, that the two words aren’t merely a preface.
  • The unity of Hashem and Elokeinu — what each name connotes, and how do they really describe a Single Indivisible Deity


In this shiur, we look at the rest of the first paragraph of Shema. Some of the issues discussed are:

  • Why do we say “Barukh sheim“?
  • How can a person choose to fulfill the commandment to love Hashem? Can you choose an emotion?
  • What does it mean to serve Hashem with our whole hearts? Two approaches to the idea of serving Hashem with the yeitzer hara (evil inclination).
  • The progression outward of our ahavah, to levavekha (your heart), to nafshekha (your living soul), to me’odekha (all your resources), and its parallel in the subsequent mitzvos.
  • Looking at the mitzvos in the paragraph as a tool for unifying religion and the “real world”. Religion as sanctifying life rather than a retreat from it.

Vehayah im Shamoa

We entered Shema last week by following the detailed look at the text started with Birchas Ahavah, Kel Melekh Ne’eman and the rich first sentence of Shema.

This week we looked at the second paragraph of Shema, and started by noting similarities and contrasts with the first one. This invited us to take a step back to look at the structure of Shema as a whole, and the role and progression of each section of it.

Another point discussed at more length: How does the first sentence and paragraph of Shema constitute qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim (accepting the kingship of [the One in] Heaven) when there is no mention of the word Melekh in them? We looked at Rav Hutner’s take on the contrast between qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim on Rosh haShanah, one of the days of yir’ah (awe/fear) and Shema which speaks in terms of ahavah, and the meaning of accepting Hashem as King.

I also gave out a sheet, perhaps to keep in your siddur or tallis bag, which lays out some structural points in tables. The original MS word version requires solid hebrew support, so it’s available in PDF (Adobe Acrobat) as well.

Parashas Tzitzis

This week’s shiur rounds out our discussion of Shema with the third paragraph. In the first paragraph we accept Hashem as King, and that evolves to the theme of Vehayah im Shomo’ah, accepting the King’s commandments. Beliefs motivate action. In parashas tzitzis we look at how mitzvos reciprocate by shaping our minds.

The meaning of parashas tzitzis is studied by comparing it to the other phrasing of the same mitzvahgedilim ta’aseh lekha —you shall make cords for yourself on the four corners of your kesus (covering).” How do gedilim differ from tzitzis? Why is one on your beged and the other on your kesus? Why four corners? Why eight ends (four strings, folded over)? How does all this connect to the notions of not straying after our eyes and hearts, or with remembering the Exodus? How can we actually feel what it means to remember yetzi’as Mitzrayim?

Finding the Means to Return to Your Ideal You

Many thanks to Jon Baker for recording my talk before selichos at the Yavneh Minyan last motza’ei Shabbos.

The material:

  • An audio recording is here.
  • And here is the handout. The first two pages were the topic of the opening of the talk, about the Rambam’s two kinds of vidui. The second sheet contains quotes from Mesilas Yesharim discussing the value of keeping a cheshbon hanefesh (an account-ledger of the soul).

He also took some pictures, so for those who are wondering what I look like (and my parents, who are like most parents and enjoy pictures of their children; you’ll notice I point out four of my children, below):

Some scenes of the audience, but I am only naming the people I know:

Middle row (L to R): Zack, Rafi and Aishey Berger
Back row, right: Gavi Berger (behind Rafi you can see my mother’s shoulder)

You can partially see my father at the right end of the window.

The happy bearded fellow is Saul Guberman, a member of AishDas’s e-vaad and one of Areivim’s moderators