Shelach 5754

(Another version of this thought was included in Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Shelach, in the “Bemachashavah Techilah” column, pp 1-2. -micha)


Inherent Tension

Judaism sees man as a synthesis of two opposite concepts. On the one hand, man is a physical animal, on the other, he carries “the spark of the Divine.” As the Torah describes it:

Then G-d formed Man, dust of the ground and breathed into his countenance the breath of life.

- Bereishis 2:7

Each of his parts pulls man in its direction. The physical man shares many of the needs of a creatures. He feels hunger, has sexual urges, wants comfort, heat when he is cold. He longs to satisfy his nerve endings.

We should be clear that the physical is not inherently evil. Shabbos would not be complete without three meals. Simchas Yom Tov, the joy of the holiday, is defined by the Torah by eating — by the holiday meal and partaking the Yom Tov sacrifices.

The spiritual man craves G-d and spirituality. He wants to be more than mere animal. Just as the physical man is not inherently evil, the spiritual man is not inherently good. Cult members too are striving to speak to G-d, to experience Him. As the Pesach Hagadah states, “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers.” We take pride that they searched for G-d even though they reached the wrong conclusion.

While we are tempted to think of these two parts of our mind as complete opposites, they have one thing in common. They describe man as a creature, as a passive being pushed by the forces around it.

Every person is torn between these poles. We find ourselves pulled by the physical and the spiritual parts of our minds. The fact that there is a “self”, the one feeling this pulling, gives us a third piece to the human puzzle. There is a part of man that must do the deciding, that is endowed with the G-d given free will to choose his actions.

Since it is the “I” who is getting pulled by these two forces, the part involved with free-will must also be the seat of awareness. When we describe man as being “in the image of G-d”, we are describing this element of him. Aware, a decider of his fate, a creator.

Tzitzis as a Description Human Nature

R. SR Hirsch understands many aspects of this mitzvos to be osos, symbols Hashem uses to convey certain concepts and priorities to the core of each Jew. He finds the role and function of each of these components of the human condition alluded to in the mitzvah of tzitzis in two different ways: in the color of the strings in the tzitzis, and in their number. In “Collected Writings” (Volume III page. 126) Hirsch comments:

We find only three terms to encompass the colors of the spectrum: adom for red, yaroq for yellow and green, and tekheiles for blue and violet….

Red is the least refracted ray; it is the closest to the unbroken ray of light that is directly absorbed by matter. Red is light in its first fusion with the terrestrial element: adom, related to adamah [footstool, earth as man's footstool -- M.B.] Is this not again man, the image of G-d as reflected in physical, earthly matter: “vatichsareihu me’at mi’Elokim” (Tehillim. 8,6).

The next part of the spectrum is yellow-green: yaroq.

Blue-violet is at the end of the spectrum: techeiles.

The spectrum visible to our eye ends with the violet ray, techeiles, but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue expanse of the sky forms the end of the earth that is visible to us. And so techeiles is simply the bridge that leads thinking man from the visible, physical sphere of the terrestrial world, into the unseen sphere of heaven beyond….

Techeiles is the basic color of the sanctuary and of the High Priest’s vestments; the color blue-violet representing heaven and the things of heaven that were revealed to Israel… no other color was as appropriate as techeiles to signify G-d’s special relationship with Israel. A thread of techeiles color on our garments conferred upon all of us the insignia of our high-priestly calling, proclaiming all of us: “Anshei qodesh tihyun li — And you shall be holy men to Me” (Ex. 19, 6).

If we now turn our attention to the pisil techeiles on our tzitzith, we will not that it was precisely this thread of techeiles color that formed the krichos, the gidil, the thread wound around the other threads to make a cord. In other words, the vocation of the Jew, the Jewish awareness awakened by the Sanctuary, that power which is to prevail within us, must act to unite all our kindred forces within the bond of the Sanctuary of G-d’s law.

By wrapping a blue thread around the others we are demonstrating a fundamental principle. Physicality and mental exploration have great value, but only as tools. The end must be to strive to go beyond the spectrum, to reach to be closer to Hashem then we are today.

Elsewhere R. Hirsch explains the concepts symbolized by the numbers 6, 7, and 8. Dr. Isaac Levy includes this explanation in his English translation of Hirsch’s commentary to this week’s parshah (16:41):

The origin of this meaning is to be found in the work of the Creation. The visible material world created in six days received with the seventh day a day of remembrance of, and bond with its invisible L-rd and Creator, and thereby its completed consummation. Similarly the symbolism of the number seven in the Menora, in the Temple, in the Mussaf offerings, in the sprinklings of the blood on Yom Kippur, in the Festivals of Pessach and Succoth, in Sabbath, Schmita, Tumma etc. etc. The symbolism of the number eight: starting afresh on a higher level, an octave higher. The eighth day for Mila, Schmini Atzereth and Israel as the eighth of G-d’s Creations. With the creation of Israel G-d laid the groundwork for a fresh, higher mankind and a fresh higher world, for that shamayim chadashim and the `eretz chadashah for which Israel and its mission is to be the beginning and instrument (Is. LXV,17).

So that there are three elements in us. (a) our material sensuous bodies, like the rest of the created visible world = 6; (b) the breath of free will, invisible, coming from the Invisible One = 7; (c) the calling of Jew, coming from the historical choice of Israel = 8.

This too parallels the understanding of man that we have outlined. The six is physical, the seven represents free will, and the eight is man’s striving to be something more.

Tzitzis, worn so that “ye shall remember and do all My commandments”, is explained in this light.

These are the three elements out of which the tzitzis threads are woven. All these three elements are given to us, are woven into our being and are to be realized in completing our calling. But in these three energies two are to be the directing and ruling ones; the “six” in us is to subordinate itself to the seventh and eighth which are also given as part of us, and is to allow itself to be overcome, wound round, by the firm restraining bonds of duty…. Once the bodily sensuality has submitted itself to the bonds of duty through the Divine and Jewish elements, it becomes completely equal to its brother-energies, and like them, is to expand in free development within the limits of Jewish human duty.

The physical man finds expression, but only after he has been channeled and guided by G-d-like free-will and a drive to surpass nature. This is the essence of Hirsch’s vision of Torah im Derekh Eretz — Torah with the way of the world. Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth.

In Hirschian thought, the complete human masters the art of six and seven, the physical and the mental. Notice that Hirsch calls the seven divine, not the eight of the spiritual creature. It is the free-will that makes man like G-d, merely being a passive resident of heaven pales by comparison.

According to the Rambam, it is the eighth string which is the techeiles. In this way the tzitzis instructs each Jew that he has the tools to strive for some thing beyond mere human. He must take his physical resources and divine intellect and apply it to the spiritual realm.

© 1995 The AishDas Society

Tiqanta Shabbos

This week I’d like to discuss three seemingly unrelated questions about the words of the tephillah:

  1. The focus of Shabbos Mussaf davening is the paragraph that begins “Tiqanta Shabbos…” What most readily jumps to the eye about the tephilla is that the 22 words it opens with are an anagram of the Hebrew alphabet in reverse. (“Tiqanta” starts with a tav, “Shabbos” with a shin, “ratzisa” — a reish, and so on.)While many tephillos are written with an alphabetic motif, it is far more rare for the alphabet to be presented in the reverse. What concept were the authors trying to express with this sequence?
  2. Yeshayah quotes Hashem, saying: “I am the first and I am the last; and besides me there is no god. And who is like Me…” (44:6) This same sentiment is found a number of times in tephillah. The pasuq is associated in the siddur with the similar declaration of G-d’s unity of the Shema. For example, in the paragraphs following the “short Shema” of Birkhos haShachar, as well as in the berakhah of ge’ulah [redemption] after the morning recitation of Shema “Emes Atah Hu rishon, ve’Atah Hu acharon — It is true that You are The First, and You are The Last…”The Kuzari makes a point of explaining that by “The First” and “The Last” we don’t mean that G-d has a beginning or an end. But this begs the question. First and last are terms that refer to a sequence. Something can be the first of a list, or the last in a collection. What is the list here? Of what is Hashem first and last?
  3. The Torah has two terms for “because”: “ki” (which also has 6 other translations, according to Rashi) and “lema’an“. These words also come up frequently in tephillah. We don’t expect Hebrew, since it was written by G-d, to have superfluous words. The two words must differ by connotation. But what is that difference?

Cause and Purpose

Aristotle lists four kinds of causes (Physics II:3). For example, consider a coffee table:

  • Material cause: What is it made out of? Wood, nails, glue, stain, varnish…
  • Formal cause: What is the form and function, the essence? It provides a place to put things down near the couch that is easy to reach when sitting on it. It therefore has a top, legs raising it to the desired level, it’s strong enough to hold a mug (remember to use a coaster!) or reading material.

These first two categories correspond to Aristotilian notions of Substance and Form, chomer vetzurah. The nature of the object being caused. The next two relate more to time.

  • Efficient cause: What produced it? This is what we usually think of when we speak of causality. The table exists because a carpenter converted the wood etc… into a coffee table.
  • Final cause: For what purpose, telos? The carpenter needed an income. The homeowner needed something to break up the space in her living room, to hold those nice pictorial books to give the room just the right look.

He therefore has two separate studies of events — causality (efficient causes; hereafter simply “cause”, matching common usage) and teleology (final causes). He believed that every event has a cause, an event that preceded it that forced it to happen, and a telos, an following event that was the purpose for this one.

Teleology is in disfavor today. Particularly in the era of Darwin, when life was seen to be the product of accident, the concept of telos was attacked, called a “fallacy” of the classical mind. For the Jew, however, there is no question. G-d created the universe, He did it for a purpose, and He insures that the purpose will be met. People have free will, and therefore act in order to place our plans into effect.
Everything has two reasons for happening: its cause and its purpose. This is provides us an answer to our last question. “Ki“, when used for because, introduces the cause. Therefor, in the Levitic song for Tuesday, we find “Let us greet Him with thanksgiving, with song let us shout for joy with Him. Ki — because G-d is a great L-rd…”

Lema’an” is associated with purpose. In the words of the Shema, “lema’an yirbu yemeichem, viymei bneichem — so that you will have many days, and your children have many days….”

Two Sequences
Aristotle was convinced the universe was infinitely old, and that it would last forever. Part of the reason for this belief is because of his concepts of “cause” and “telos”.

The cause of an event always happens before the event itself. For example, because the wind blew a leaf off the tree, it fell. First is the wind, then the falling. But every event has a cause. The wind too is an event, and it too has an earlier cause. We can keep on chasing earlier and earlier causes, and notice that the universe must have been older and older. This gives us a sequence of events, cause to effect, cause to effect…. In fact, Aristotle saw no end to this chain, and there for couldn’t believe the universe had a beginning.

The Rambam, in the Guide to The Perplexed (vol. 2, ch. 14), points out the flaw in this reasoning. He defines G-d as the First Cause.

We can now approach our second question. G-d is first of the sequence of causes. “Atah Hu rishon — You are The First [Cause].”

Aristotle has a similar argument that the universe could have no end. The purpose of an event, what the event should accomplish, comes after the event. The purpose for G-d providing wind to blow was that He wanted the rock to fall. Again, every purpose is also an event, and we have another sequence we can chase forever, in this case later and later in time.

This answers the second half of the question. G-d is The Last, The Culminating Purpose of all of creation. “All is called in My Name, and for My Glory I have Created it.” (Isa. 43:7)

The Day the is Completely Shabbos

In Birchas Hamazon, in the “harachaman” we add for Shabbos, the culmination of human history is called “Yom Shekulo Shabbos“, the day/time that is entirely Shabbos. Shabbos is called “mei’ein olam haba — the image of the World to Come”. This concept is also the subject of the Shemoneh Esrei for Shabbos Mincha.

Shabbos is not only testimony to creation, that Hashem is the First Cause. Shabbos is also intimately connected to, and preparation for, relating to G-d as the Culminating Purpose.

Rav Yaakov Emden connects the reverse alphabetical ordering of Tiqanta Shabbos with the concept of Mei’ein Olam Haba. We can suggest that this is the reason why. The sequence of letters in the alphabet are used to represent the sequence of events of history. The order of letters shows how we are viewing that sequence.

Normally, we can only see G-d’s hand in the world as First Cause. We look around and see “how great are your works, Hashem.” The alphabet of this world starts with alpha, the one-ness of G-d, and unfurls to the plurality of creation. Shabbos, however, we reverse the order — we start with the plurality of the universe, and end with the one-ness of G-d.

The zemirah says, “mei’ein olam haba, yom Shabbos menuchah — in the image of the World to Come, the day of Shabbos brings rest.” When we realize that everything that happens to us is for a purpose, everything is part of that pursuit of the Culminating Purpose, then we are at peace.

Parashas Lekh-Lekha 5756

Most young Yeshiva children come home sometime around Shavuos with the story of how Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world, but only the Jews accepted it.

The medrash, as told in the Yalqut Shim’oni, tells how first Hashem went to Edom and offered them the Torah. They asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replied, “Do not murder”. Edom declines because “our very substance is murder because our father, Eisav, was a murderer”.

Next, Hashem approaches Ammon and Moav. When they asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replies “You may not commit adultery”. They too reject the Torah, because, “our very substance is adultery because our father, Lot, was sexually immoral”.

The third example given in the Yalkut is the Ishmaelites. They too want to first know what is written in the Torah before accepting it. To them Hashem says, “Do not steal”. They answer, “our very substance is theft, because our father, Yishmael, was a thief”. In this way, each nation declined, until Hashem approached the Jews.

Hashem’s answer to each of the nations is strange. Why choose the one sin their forefather was known for? Especially since in each of these cases the sin is prohibited to all Benei Noach; they may not do any of these things even without getting the Torah.

By comparing this medrash to the opening pasuk in this week’s parshah, we can get a better understanding of the point of the story.

“Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your homeland, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you’.” (12:1) The first sentence recorded in the Torah of the Jewish mission on earth is a commandment for Avram to leave his home and his father.

Avram didn’t say, “I can’t worship G-d because my very substance his idolatry, because my father, Terach, manufactures idols”. Hashem orders Avram to leave the culture that made him, to leave his father’s sphere of influence, and he does.

Avram’s reply was “And Avram went, just as G-d told him”. (12:4) If Hashem said he could change, rise above Ur Casdim to become fit for both the land of Israel and the father of the people of Israel, then he goes.

Is man a creature of fate or of destiny? Is his future foretold, etched in rock, unchangeable? Or can he rebuild himself into something greater than he was?

Clearly the Torah insists on the latter. The very key to accepting the Torah is to be committed to use its ideas and its mitzvos to improve and to grow.

This was the failing ascribed to the other nations in the medrash. They saw a given flaw in their national character as their substance, immutable. Hashem wasn’t asking them about a particular prohibition, but about their commitment to leave their “father’s house”. If they do not believe they can change, what purpose can getting the Torah serve them?

Of Arks and Rainbows

There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.

Pesach 5761: The Four Sons Confront Tragedy

The Haggadah tells us that the Torah addresses the question of telling the Passover story to our children by referring to four different kinds of children. One is wise, one is evil, one is uncomplicated, and the last doesn’t know to ask questions. Each son asks a question, even if the last does so in his silence. We can see from the question what they are looking to take from the seder experience.

I believe these four approaches follow through in how we react to tragedy as well. Given the dismal state of current events, perhaps this is worth some exploration.

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halachah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

This is the wise son’s reaction. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” The wise son is one who turns everything into a learning experience. His response to the seder is “What are the testimonial acts, the dictates, the laws, which Hashem our G-d commanded you?” How does G-d teach us to react to the events of Egypt and freedom? How am I supposed to react to tragedy?

When G-d presents tragedy to the wise son, they are called nisyonos — challenges or tests. Like the Akeidah, a learning experience for Abraham, to get him to fully realize his potential.

The second son, the wicked son, needs a wake up call. What the gemarah refers to as “yisurim”. In the weekday prayer “Tachanun” we ask G-d to forgive our sins “but not through yisurim or bad illness”.

The evil son of the Hagadah doesn’t respond to this wakeup call. He asks, — no, he says rhetorically, “What [good] is this job to you?” Our response is to blunt his teeth and point out that had he been there, he wouldn’t have been amongst those to merit the Exodus. We tell him that it’s not the tragedy that is leading him to rejecting G-d — it’s his rejection of G-d that lead him to the tragedy. I like to imagine he accepts this answer in the silence after the paragraph.

There is a second kind of yissurim, yissurim shel ahavah — tribulations of love. This is not where the person is being evil, but he’s not living up to his full potential. He too is in a rut, and G-d calls to him to break out of it and improve. G-d calls him to ahavah, to greater love and closeness to G-d.

This is the uncomplicated son, the one who believes with simple and pure faith. He asks “What is this?” and we answer with the Pesach story, with all that G-d did for us. Unlike the wise son, who wants to know all the laws of the day, all the nuances of how to react, the uncomplicated son is given motivation to cling to the A-lmighty.

Then there are times where the thing we want is a greater nisayon, a greater challenge, than the ones we don’t. And if we are not up to the challenge, if it’s a test that we couldn’t pass, G-d doesn’t make us face it.

There is a story told (Taanis 24b) of R’ Chanina ben Dosa, a man so holy that the Talmud tells numerous stories of miracles that occured to him. And yet one so poor that a heavenly Voice commented that the whole world was supported by R’ Chanina’s merit, but he himself lived off a small measure of carob from one Friday to the next.

Eventually his wife just couldn’t handle the abject poverty any longer. He agreed to her request that he pray for wealth. A heavenly hand came down and handed them a huge golden table leg. Certainly worth a fortune.

That night, R’ Chanina’s wife had a dream. They were in heaven, and all the other couples were sitting at three legged tables. Except for them. Their table only had two legs, it couldn’t stand.

Realizing that the third leg of their table was the gift they had received, she asked her husband to pray for it to be taken back. And it was.

R’ Chaim Vilozhiner associates the three legs of the table in this story with the mishnah (Avos 1:2) about the three pillars of the world: Torah, Divine service, and acts of charity. The Voice said, after all, that R’ Chanina supported the world.

The golden leg they received was the one of kindness. Until now, they had reason not to give more charity — they had nothing more to give. The story as R’ Chaim understands it (I wouldn’t say this about R’ Chanina ben Dosa on my own), suggests that R’ Chanina would have been unable to practice charity as he was worthy to had he had the opportunity.

So, R’ Chanina ben Dosa was poor.

Similarly, the person who is medically needy because that keeps him close to G-d. The person who, had he been healthy, would have been more distracted by the physical opportunities afforded him.

This is the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Unlike the wise son, who asks “How shall I respond?” or the son of uncomplicated, pure and simple faith, who asks “G-d, G-d, why have you forsaken me?” (Tehillim 22:1) this son isn’t asking anything. He isn’t capable of grappling with this issue — be it a tragedy, or be it the Exodus.

“You shall start for him.” Our response must be to help them grow.

Of course, these four sons are archetypes. Real people are wise on some issues, determined to be wrong about others. We have a simple straight to the point perspectives on yet other things, and there are those issues we aren’t prepared or ready to face. But it is only through growth that we can reach our goals as individuals and as a people.

© 2001,2002 The AishDas Society


We recently concluded Mesukim MiDevash, a weekly collection of divrei Torah on the subjects of machshavah, mussar, and the meaning of various teflillos. If you’re curious about what I was thinking about before starting this blog, many of the articles there are mine. Before that, mainly around seven years ago, I wrote the Aspaqlaria column you find in this directory. Most of those articles appeared in Yitz Weis’s Toras Aish.My current forum for sharing these kinds of thoughts is through public speaking. However, I wanted to spark a broader dialogue on the fundamental issues of our lives, so I started this blog. Feel free to comment, correct, and challenge the ideas in these “pages”. It is important to think about and grapple with these issues, even though many of them resist a full resolution. The intent behind this blog is to start the ball rolling, not to present prepared and simple answers to an inherently complex subjects.As I see it, the most fundamental things lacking from contemporary expressions of traditional Judaism are the philosophical underpinnings that give that observance context and structure, and the proper focus on tikun hamidos — realizing that the purpose of mitzvos is to enoble the self, and the goal of enobling oneself is to better one’s observance, to become a better eved Hashem.


I’m sure a reasonable number of readers are wondering just what is an Aspaqlaria anyway, and why would someone choose it as the name of a blog?

The gemara contrasts Moshe’s prophecy as being as though he saw through an “aspqalaria hame’irah”, while those of other prophets was as through an “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah”. Similarly levels of wisdom between the earlier generations and the later are likened to the “aspqalaria hame’irah” and “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah”. Last, the gemara uses this contrast to describe different levels of experiencing the Divine Presence amongst the deceased in heaven.

The Arukh defines “aspaqlaria” as lapis specularis, a relatively transparent mineral used in ancient times for windows. It’s a loan word whose root is the same as the English “spectacles” or “spectator” — to see.

According to Rashi (Sukkah 45b) the “me’irah” here refers to a mirror. However, that could be a lens that is as clear as a mirror, or a mirror itself.

The rishonim on Keilim 30:2 (the Bartenura, Tif’eres Yisrael and Tosafos Yom Tov) define the aspaqlaria to be a mirror, and “hame’irah” would be “well lit”. A translation of “mei’rah” that is appropriate if it means “window” as well. A clear view vs. a murky view.

In Yaaqov’s dream, a ladder ascended from the ground to heaven. In Or Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the ladder was Yaaqov’s own soul. As R’ Chaim Vilozhiner writes in Nefesh haChaim (1:6 and elsewhere), of all of creation, only man is a combination of all the forces; man alone connects the worlds.An idea found in Seifer haYetzirah which thereby influences Jewish Thought from R’ Saadia Gaon’s rationist philosophy (Emunos veDei’os sec.6) to the Zohar is that the self is composed of three elements/aspects/attributes of the soul: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. (Another topic that deserves much future treatment.)

As the Vilna Gaon describes them (Peirush al Kamah Agados, Koenigsburg ed. 11a), the nefesh is man’s connection to the world around him, a product of his soul dwelling in a brain, subject to hormonal tides, etc… The ru’ach is man’s will, his self-awareness, the ability to live in the world of the mind. The neshamah is man’s existance in the spiritual realm, our presence in heaven, higher realities and higher goals.

The hedonist identifies with the pursuit of physical pleasures. His ru’ach is adulterated with habits of the nefesh, so that he only sees himself as a an animal being subject to the rules of nature.

There is no reason why one could not bring the neshamah into conscious awareness. Someone could drop the barrier between what he experiences on a spiritual level and his awareness.

One way of understanding the navi is just that. And this was the model I had in mind when speaking of the aspaqlaria as a mirror. The navi, by being able to see his full self, can see beyond the physical world and the world of his mind, can see the activities of angels.

(Another element of this shift in awareness is a shift from living in a reality dictated by physical law to one dominated by moral law. Rav Dessler uses this idea to explain a notion of the Maharal’s about the nature of miracles. See my Machashavah Techilah column for parashas Beshalach.)

The Rambam’s understanding of that mishnah could be either; the Tif’eres Yisra’el’s understanding is that he says it’s a mirror, the Tosafos Yom Tov understands the Rambam to translate “aspaqlaria” as “lens”. Rabbi Bulman zt”l documents the linguistic and scientific roots of the disagreement.

The difference in the metaphor is profound. Is the means to prophecy and wisdom a lens to help us see a higher realm, or a mirror that helps us better see ourselves?

This touches on two topics I’ve written about before: First the hashkafic fork, as R’ YG Bechhofer put it, between the chassid’s focus on deveikus, on cleaving to G-d, and the misnageid’s notion of the primacy of temimus, self perfection. See also my Machshavah Techilah column for Lekh-Likha which finds this dichotomy in Hashem’s injuction to Avraham that he “his-haleikh lefanai veheyei samim — walk himself before Me, and be whole.”

Second, there is a debate between the Ramban and the Abarbanel’s unserstanding of the Rambam as to the nature of prophecy. According to the Ramban, the prophetic experience is the transmission of a truth to the prophet using a dreamlike metaphor as a medium. The Abarbanel explains the Rambam as saying that the prophet peceives events actually occuring in higher realms, which his mind then clothes in the familiar when trying to make sense of it. This goes to the root of what was the “Man” in the chariot in Yechezqeil’s vision. According to the Rambam, it had to be a created thing. According to the Ramban, the Man was a metaphor standing in for Hashem Yisbarakh. Again, this was discussed in a Machshavah Techilah column, this one for Mishpatim.

In Yaaqov’s dream, a ladder ascended from the ground to heaven. In Or Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the ladder was Yaaqov’s own soul. As R’ Chaim Vilozhiner writes in Nefesh haChaim (1:6 and elsewhere), of all of creation, only man is a combination of all the forces; man alone connects the worlds.An idea found in Seifer haYetzirah which thereby influences Jewish Thought from R’ Saadia Gaon’s rationist philosophy (Emunos veDei’os sec.6) to the Zohar is that the self is composed of three elements/aspects/attributes of the soul: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. (Another topic that deserves much future treatment.)

As the Vilna Gaon describes them (Peirush al Kamah Agados, Koenigsburg ed. 11a), the nefesh is man’s connection to the world around him, a product of his soul dwelling in a brain, subject to hormonal tides, etc… The ru’ach is man’s will, his self-awareness, the ability to live in the world of the mind. The neshamah is man’s existance in the spiritual realm, our presence in heaven, higher realities and higher goals.

The hedonist identifies with the pursuit of physical pleasures. His ru’ach is adulterated with habits of the nefesh, so that he only sees himself as a an animal being subject to the rules of nature.

There is no reason why one could not bring the neshamah into conscious awareness. Someone could drop the barrier between what he experiences on a spiritual level and his awareness.

One way of understanding the navi is just that. And this was the model I had in mind when speaking of the aspaqlaria as a mirror. The navi, by being able to see his full self, can see beyond the physical world and the world of his mind, can see the activities of angels.

These topics are only being touched upon. They ought get a more full treatment in their own entries.

The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks in the Hashkafic Road

In a famous article in Tradition titled “Rupture and Reconstruction“, Dr Haym Soloveitchik describes a change in how we relate to Judaism from pre-war Europe to post-war US and Israel. The rupture in Jewish life caused by the Holocaust forced a reconstruction process. Pre-war religion was largely mimetic, i.e. based upon what people do and how they respond. A transmission of the tradition by culture. In order to reconstruct, we turned to texts, to halachic codes and other formalizations.This fits with a saying of Chazal. “‘Listen, my child, to mussar avicha — the tradition of your father, and do not neglect toras imekha — the Torah of your mother.’ Do not read ‘imekha — your mother’ but ‘umasekha — your nation’.” Mandatory formal education is an obligation of the father, mussar avikha. The Torah learned by absorbtion, at the mother’s knee, by breathing the culture of our nation, is toras imekha / umasekha.I find this characterization ironic, given the identity of the author. His greatgrandfather and namesake, R’ Chaim Brisker, was famously textualist in his approach to halakhah despite living pre-war. Nor was Brisk the first: the Vilna Gaon often ruled based on theoretical argument in contradiction to mimetic tradition. Chassidus could not have emerged if people weren’t looking at the traditions and looking for a new justification for them.

And this isn’t simply true pragmatically. Philosophically as well, we started looking for movements to justify our lifestyle. The aforementioned Chassidus, Hisnagdus, Mussar, Hirschian neo-Orthodoxy were all trying to provide a basis rather than relying on Tradition, as Tevya the Milkman would have.

In distinction to Dr Soloveitchik’s thesis, I would instead speak of two ruptures. The first was the Haskalah, and with it the fall of mimeticism. However, the response to this in the 19th century was primarily to find new derakhim to give depth and meaning to our lives. (This is even true for Brisk’s hashkafah that halachah stands on its own, and hashkafah is to be played down, and the Hungarian approach of banning change. Asserting that structure must come from halakhah, or that one must manually preserve that which was hitherto part of the Jewish preconscious, are themselves textualist, formal changes.)

The Alter of Novorodok, in the first essay of Madreigas haAdam, speaks of various eras in human history. From the tanna’im until the haskalah was the period of the yeshiva. With the haskalah, the ir, the city, went out of sync with the yeshiva. Therefore there was a new need for Mussar, for the conscious inculcation of those values and reactions that until then would have been transmitted unsconsciously. In our terms, toras umasekha no longer tracked mussar avikha. It now had to relayed textually and formally, in the manner of mussar avikha.

It was therefore after the haskalah that the Ashkenazi world faced a fork in the hashkafic road, between sheleimus (self-completion, walking in G-d’s image) and deveiqus (cleaving to G-d, walking to Him).

The shift after the Holocaust was, in my opinion, the loss of direction. Rather than trying to fill in the gap with a formal philosophy or a program for tikkun hamidos and/or deveiqus, we’re just in a vacuum. We’re not just textualists, we’re focused almost exclusively on halachic texts. Aggadita is limited to nice truisms that can be repeated at the Shabbos table. And ironically that gives us fewer tools for halachic resolution. How does one decide which pesaq is right amongst those justified by the sources without focusing on a pre-halachic definition of “right”? And so we “play safe” or invoke the rules of doubt. A 19th century Chassid had a priority system by which his poseiq could decide which issues warrant chumrah, which qulah.

Uncoinicidentally, it was after WWII that Rav Dessler said we need to pursue a fusion of the two paths. That our generation is too poor to select Mussar or Chassidus (being the movements that extended sheleimus and deveiqus to their maxima) exclusively, that we need all the tools at our disposal.

Other Tines on the Fork

The hashkafic fork in the road that I’ve been referring to repeatedly has two approaches: sheleimus / temimus, the perfection of the self, and deveikus, cleaving to G-d. If you’d like, derekh Hashem as following the path G-d takes, and derekh Hashem as taking the path to G-d.Within Chassidus, one finds Chabad, acheiving deveikus through wisdom, insight and knowledge, and other forms of chassidus which focus more experientially. As Lubavitch calls them, Gachas chassidim. This is after the next three sefiros after Chabad: gevurah (strength and restraint), chessed (kindness and giving), and tife’eres (the splendor of their harmony.Within the sheleimus camp there are numerous approaches: Hirsch’s synthesis of Torah and derekh eretz, i.e. working within the world and advancing society in Torah ways, being a pefect Mensch-Israel; Mussar’s perfection of personality; the Yeshiva world’s perfection of mind through knowing G-d’s Torah, etc…

Other possibilities exist and similarly could have become movements.

The Ramchal’s position is a fusion of the two. In Derekh Hashem he writes that the ultimate reward is G-d Himself, and therefore man’s goal is one of deveikus. However, since G-d Himself is a Creator, to experience G-d Himself we need the experience of being creative beings, to earn our reward. Thus, Hashem created two worlds, this one in which we perfect ourselves, temimus, and the world to come in which we experience deveikus.

However, the Ramchal’s definition of temimus is entirely shaped by the fact that the point of that temimus is to be a being capable of as much deveikus as possible. Which is why he writes Mesilas Yesharim as structured around R’ Pinchas ben Ya’ir’s ladder to ru’ach haqodesh. His temimus is about a totally different set of midos than those in Cheshbon haNefesh or Orechos Tzadiqim. It’s a path that’s fully defined by both tines of the fork.

This might be why the Ramchal’s philosophy is so popular today, being most like the “default position” most Orthodox-from-birth Jews pick up in their childhood.

A fourth option is common in some Orthodox academic circles. Note that Hashem doesn’t enter into a beris with us as individuals; the covenant is between G-d and the Jewish people. Therefore the role of mitzvos is not personal wholeness or personal closeness to G-d, but our part within the role of the Jewish people in the world.

This approach has the advantage of only requiring that mitzvos make sense as norms, not for each individual to which they apply. Gender differences don’t have to fit every man and every woman, but can be explained in terms of the value to the Jewish People of having this standard, given propensities amongst men and women as a whole.

Last, if we look at the second mishnah in Avos, we find three pillars: Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. Or, as the Maharal puts it (Derech haChaim ad loc): perfection of one’s relationship with oneself within the world that is our minds (Torah), perfection of our relationship with G-d within Shamayim (Avodah), and perfection of our relationship to others who we encounted in the physical world (Chessed).

The deveikus approach seems to say that one can make Avodah primary, and from that everything else will follow. The temimus approach makes Torah (as the Maharal explains it) primary, and a perfect self naturally will be one that serves Hashem and is generous to others. However, what about a chessed centered Judaism? It sounds to be Hillel’s message, when he says to the prospective convert that all of the Torah is “that which is disturbing to you, do not do to others — the rest is commentary.”

When I noted the lack of such a movement on Avodah, Rn Chana Luntz suggested that perhaps the Beis Yaakov movement is founded on this principle. It seems so.

Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah

A basic problem when approaching Jewish philosophy is the appropriateness of studying it altogether. As Prof. Sholom Carmy wrote on Avodah:

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.
Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

Focusing on the Philosopher’s G-d makes it difficult to see the Personal G-d. On the other hand, without theology, our picture of G-d is blurry, and often wrong.

So the question is, what is the appropriate balance between the two?

I found a variety of opinions:

1- The Rambam seems to belittle emunah peshutah. Yedi’ah is the key to olam haba. The hoi palloi may have to settle for the vague approximation of emunah peshutah, but the philosopher’s machshavah amuqah is superior.

2- The Baal haTanya invokes a mystical resolution. The conflict is a function of pursuing machshavah amuqah from a source other than the Yechidah Kelalis. (The one sage each generation who is like “Moshe in his generation”.) Through the unity of the national soul’s yechidah, a single view of G-d emerges even at both planes of existance.

3- At the other extreme, Rav Nachman miBreslov discouraged the study of theology, placing all value on having a relationship with HaQadosh barukh Hu. The philosopher’s G-d, while logically sound, is cold, transcendent and incomprehensible — very unconducive to this natural parent-child style relationship which is at the center of his definition of “deveiqus” and man’s tafqid.

4- The Brisker approach is to avoid the whole subject. As Rav Moshe Feinstein put it, it’s a hashkafah of not studying hashkafah. It differs from Rav Nachman’s position not so much in that they feel it’s wrong, but that it’s pointless. The ikkar is learning halakhah and man’s duty in this world.

R’ YB Soloveitchik puts forth this position in his essary Qol Dodi Dofeiq: The Jewish question [of tragedy] is not “Why?” but “How am I supposed to respond?” Rabbi Soloveitchik simply wasn’t curious about theological questions. His philosophy has an existentialist agenda. It doesn’t deal with questions of how G-d is or how He runs the world, but rather he presents a detailed analysis of the human condition and the world as we see it. Because our dilemma is part of the human condition, he discusses it as a dialectic. Rabbi Soloveitchik has no problem with the idea that we simultaneously embrace conflicting truths. However, he leaves little record of his own personal confrontation with the tension of this particular dialectic. I believe it’s his Brisker heritage.

The problem with positions 3 and 4 is that they do not have the support of either the scholastic rishonim (eg: Rav Saadia Ga’on, the Rambam, R’ Albo), the antischolastic rishonim (eg: R’ Yehudah haLevi), the kabbalistically inclined (eg: the Ramban), nor the Ramchal, the Besh”t, the Gra, R’ Chaim Vilozhiner… Their nature is that only an explicit discussion of our particular problem would turn up antecedents. One can’t argue from silence that some rishon agreed with them because perhaps he simply chose to commit his time to publishing in other areas.

5- When thinking about this further I realized that I assumed a different stance when writing AishDas’s charter. I think it warrants mention because I believe it’s the position of the Mussar Movement. It reflects the approach I see utilized by Rav Dessler in Michtav MeiEliyahu.

R’ Lopian defines mussar as dealing with the space of an amah — getting ideas from the mind to the heart. We often think things that don’t reflect how we feel and many of the forces that influence our decision-making. Akin to RYBS’s dialectic, we embrace different ideas and motives in different modes of our consciousness.

As for our contradiction, the question is one of finding unity between mind and its ability to understand and explain, to philosophize about G-d and His governance of the universe, and the heart and how we feel and react toward Him.

Emunah, bitachon, ahavas Hashem, yir’as Hashem, etc… are middos. They are not acquired directly through study, but through the tools of tiqun hamidos. (With the observation that constant return to a subject operates on both levels.) There is a reason why the kiruv movement is built on the experience of a Shabbos, and not some ultimate proof of G-d. (Aish haTorah’s “Discovery” program, the only counter-example that came to mind, is intended to be a hook, to pique people’s interest to get them to that Shabbos, not kiruv itself.)

Rather than seeing this as a dilemma, I saw it as a need. We can embrace both because each involves a very different component of self. And since avodah must be bekhol nafshekha, we actually MUST study both machshavah and mussar. Meaningful avodas Hashem must require involvement of both mind and heart.