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?

Aspaqlaria

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.

Brisk and Telzh

At some point during my time in YU I chose not to follow the more popular “track”, leading to Rav Herschel Schachter shlit”a’s and lbchl”ch R’ YB Soloveitchik zt”l’s shiurim. Instead, I chose Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l’s shiur. A key element of that decision was my sense that something inherent in Brisker Derekh did not speak to me; Rav Dovid’s approach was that of his rebbe’s, Rav Shimon Shkop’s, variant of Telzher Derekh. While I don’t believe that then I could have articulated why that is all that clearly, I have given a good deal of thought to the matter since, and hope to do so now.First, what is Brisker Derekh? Perhaps a good place to start, not in the least because it is somewhat humorous and therefore memorable while still being pretty accurate, is with Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s essaycomparing how various darkhei limud would try to answer the question, “What makes tea sweet, is it the sugar or the spoon stirring?”The Brisker answer:

There are two (tzvei) dinim in sweetening tea: The cheftza (substance), i.e., the sugar; and the pe’ula (activity), i.e., the stirring with the spoon. Everyone knows that Lipton is the “Brisk” tea because it has a double (tzvei dinim) tea bag.

This is typical of Brisker Derekh which seeks distinctions, chaqiros. One therefore contrasts multiple cases, or multiple opinions in a single machloqes to see how they differ. The explanations involve ideas like cheftza vs. pe’ulah, or cheftza vs. gavra (is it that the object must have something done to it, or that a given person has a duty to do something?), or pe’ula vs. chalos (the time or location of the action vs. the time or location of the change of halachic state), etc… This allows the Brisker to fit the rulings under discussion into overarching halachic rules.

In a sense, the Brisker derekh is a scientific endeavor. In an experiment one compares the experimental set with the control set, trying to find two that only differ in one point so that the scientists can determine which point is the cause of the phenomenon. Then the phenomenon is fit into a larger pattern, to get a single formula that fits a wider variety of cases. Finding the chaqirah and using it to tie the case into a broader principle.

In contrast, here’s the Rav Shimon derived response:

It is the Hitztarfus (Fusion) of tea molecules and sugar molecules that makes the tea sweet.

Telzh was founded by R’ Eliezer Gordon, a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter. Telzh wasn’t a mussar yeshiva, although it had a strong mussar program. However, its approach was far more intellectual. Rather than the emotional Mussar Shmuess, the Telsher approach focused on Shiurei Da’as, classes on thought an attitude. This made it different enough not to be considered part of the movement.

(My own rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, was a strong believer in the use of the shmuess and emotion. For example, shmuessen usually included singing a song. I remember most semesters began with a shmuess and a song. Once we sang “Vetaheir libeinu” for over twenty minutes before the start of the zeman.)

Still, the mussar roots of Telzh meant that the notion that halakhah as a whole has a purpose was a given. As was the idea that the purpose is sheleimas ha’adam, completion of the self. Therefore, while Brisk sought the explanation of individual laws in terms of halachic principles, Telzh looked for the purposive explanation. Therefore while Brisk looked at multiple opinions of a single case, or multiple cases, Telzh focused on the singular. Even if looking at multiple opinions, it was to find what they shared in common, not to find contrast. What do these opinions say about what is essential about the meaning, purpose and role of the mitzvah?

Fundamental to Brisker philosophy is the idea that halakhah has no first principles. It can only be understood on its own terms. As R’ JB Soloveitchik describes in Halachic Man, it’s only through halakhah that man finds a balance between his religious neediness for redemption and his creative constructive self. (Ironically, a true halachic man would never explore the questions addressed by Halachic Man! R’ JB Soloveitchik’s loyalty to Brisk, while true in terms of derekh halimud, style of studying gemara, was compromised on the perspective level by his interest in philosophy.)

Brisker Derekh gave the post-haskalah observant Jew a mental experience that compared to the thrills of scientific study. Telzher Derekh gave him the excitement of philosophical study. As well as connecting his learning and mitzvah observance to his quest to be a better Jew.

Loosely along similar lines, Rav Chaim Brisker rejected the argument in favor of Radziner tekheiles because it was a scientific one, not halachic in basis. Halakhah is itself the primary basis, non-halachic argument is irrelevent.This distinction is also manifest in their approach to going beyond the letter of the law. The Brisker chumrah is one where the person is chosheish leshitas… — concerned for the position of so-and-so. The notion that while the baseline law is lenient, one may want to “cover all the basis” and satisfy all opinions. Entirely in terms of mechanics of law. In Telzh, a chumrah would be chosen based on the person’s plan for sheleimus, an awareness of what flaws they’re ready to address, and finding opinions that can be related to it.I was recently asked why someone would wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin if it wasn’t an expression of uncertainty that Rashi’s opinion was correct. That’s a Brisker position — chumros are about cheshash, uncertainty in ruling. In Telzher thought (and not uniquely Telzher), one might do so because they found a kavanah that better fits the order of parshios in Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, and wishes to experience that in addition to fulfilling what they know to be law. Contrast this with R’ JB Soloveitchik’s statement that “there is no ritual in Judaism”; he saw no reason in additional rituals, things like kavanos only have meaning for him if they were products of halachic imperative.

In short, Brisk asks “Vus?” (What?), Telzh asks “Fahr vus?” (Why?)Anyone who has been following this blog should be unsurprised by which one I felt spoke to me.

Different Parts of the Same Body

We can draw a theme from parashas Bamidbar through the beginning of Beha’alosekha.In Beha’alosekha, Moshe and Aharon count the Jewish People “according to their families, by their father’s household” (1:2), divided by sheivet. Sheivet is defined patrilineally. Membership in the Jewish People as a whole is matrilineal, though. Why? We also find this asymetry in a law mentioned later in that parashah — pidyon haben. While the father’s oldest child gets twice the inheritance of his other children, when it comes to the sanctity of the firstborn, and the need to redeem it, it’s the mother’s firstborn that is holy.We see a hint to the difference in a verse, “These are the children of Moshe and Aharon; the children of Aharon are…” The medrash explains that Aharon’s children are the children of Moshe, their mentor, as well. (Unlike Moshe’s own children, who did not follow their father as their mentor.) Fatherhood is captured by formal education. In fact, the mitzvah of chinukh, formal education, falls only on the father.

Mothers inherently teach, whether they wish to or not. They are the ones home, setting the tone that the children grow up within, the attitudes they absorb preconsciously. Deeper than formal education, the exchange of ideas, this is the exchange of culture, ideals, and values. In fact, a command to provide this education, which would necessitate formal and procedural “teaching” in order to fulfill this mitzvah, would get in the way of the true transmission of the instinctive culture.

The difference is summed up by Shelomo haMelekh: “Shema beni mussar avikha, ve’al titosh toras imekha — Listen, my son, to what your father gives over, and do not abandon your mother’s Torah.” It’s no coincidence that Chazal tell us “Do not read ‘toras imekha’ but ‘toras umaskha’ — the Torah of your nation.” Torah as orakh chaim, as the way the people live.

I analyze this aspect of things in more detail in Mesukim Midevash for Bamidbar. There are two aspects to Oral Torah which affects our understanding of the decline of generations in light of our progress to the messianic era, as well as explaining the need for mussar and the other derakhim that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries. I also wrote on this topic earlier, in an entry titled “The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks on the Hashkafic Road“.

But here I want to look at what it says about the nature of the shevatim. We all share common values, which is why Jewishness is matrilineal. Our roles, our assigned duties, are those of our sheivet, and since this can be formally taught, it’s patrilineal.

Parashas Naso continues this count down into the families of Leviim, and describing their duties.

In his Shabbos morning derashah, R’ Ron Yitzchak Eisenman (the rav of my shul), repeated an interesting point he found in a seifer titled Yalqut Shemu’el by R’ Shmuel Fine, a rav in Detroit in the 1930s. Among the coverings of the utensils of the Mishkan named when speaking of the duties of the Leviim to carry them form place to place were ones made of the leather of techashim. Tachash is the same kind of leather used in the top layer of the Mishkan’s roof. The word “tachash” is difficult to translate. Some, following a comment in Yechezqeil that Hashem made us shoes of tachash leather in the desert, identify it with an aquatic animal, since Bedouins use that to make their shoes. Others translate it as a “unicorn”. The Targum Unqelus defines it as “sasgona”, which the gemara (Shabbos 28a) tells us is an animal that rejoices (sas) in its many colors (gona). The Tankhuma (Terumah 6) says it has six (sheish – sas) colors. Chazal also say the tachash was created once, just for the Mishkan, which would fit the unicorn or the sasgona. (See Rabbi Nosson Slifkin’s Mysterious Creatures pp. 74-79 for a complete inquiry into the identity of the Tachash.)

The Yalqut Shemu’el asks why the animal used must be one that is sas, rejoices, in his colors. The sasgona is not only a single creature of diverse colors; it takes joy in its diversity! This is a key ingredient to building the Mishkan and in fact of building any qehillah. We shouldn’t merely tolerate Jews of other stripes, we should rejoice in their existence. Yahadus is stronger because we have Modern Orthodox Jews who take that Judaism to the streets, Yeshivish ones who are constantly raising the bar on the standards of Torah study, the chassidim who breathed life into America’s kashrus industry, the Zionists who secured for us a homeland and the anti-Zionists who insure we don’t worship it as an end in itself. Within the four amos of halakhah we need multiple expressions.

The tachash is not only identified with the sasgona, but also the unicorn. A kosher animal that had one horn, one qeren. “Keren” also means pride or power. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei “The sprout of David should sprout soon, and he will lift his qeren for your redemption.” The tachash is not simply a plurality, it’s a union of disparate parts, a synergy to make one greater force, one inseparable being.

We must learn to look at other forms of Torah observance as “different parts of the same body”. Not to be tolerated despite their differences, but loved because of them. All come from the same toras imekha, the same basic worldview, values and aspirations. We differ, as did the shevarim, in mussar avikha, in the formal layer of education after that, where we learn our roles and where we fit in that greater mission.

This was the message Hashem gave Aharon in the beginning of parashas Beha’alosekha. Chazal write that when the heads of the shevatim brought their qorbanos (listed at the end of Naso), Aharon, whose role included being the head of Levi, was pained at not being able to participate. Hashem comforted him by pointing to the story of Chanukah. The chanukas habayis, the consecration of the Beis haMiqdash, by Aharon’s descendents the Chashmona’im, was greater than the offerings of the nesi’im. Why?

Each of the nesi’im brought what was physically the same offering. However, each offering was distinct in intent. The Ramban itemizes the allusions each nasi could find in the same offering that relate to his particular tribe, to his particular ancestor. The offerings were colored by mussar avikha, by each sheivet’s particularist role.

Aharon is then told, “When you cause the menorah [flames] to go up, toward the face of the menorah its lamps should burn.” The menorah has one central trunk, from which emerge six branches. The flame atop each branch must point toward the middle. Each branch is a different wisdom, a different skill-set. They all emerge from the same basic Torah, from the mother-taught values that define our Jewishness. It is Aharon’s job to remind us that they also must be channeled back toward that central core.

We all work toward a common goal. Knowing that each of us are unique, bringing unique thoughts and abilities, unique perspective and educational background, leads us not only to realize the full value of our own part in the greater whole (no man is “just another brick in the wall”) but to treasure the contributions of others because they are so different than our own, and bringing something to the whole that we can’t.

Modern Orthodoxy, Chareidism, and Mussar

Thinking about it, I don’t think the whole Torah uMadah (TuM) vs. Torah im Derekh Eretz (TIDE) vs. “Torah Only” distinctions which have become the borders between our communities are really compatible with Mussar. To simplify, let’s phrase the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Chareidim as basically whether (1) chol is an opportunity whose risks must be mitigated or (2) it is a set of risks that ought to be avoided and only then we can look to see what opportunities remain of what’s left. (TIDE and TuM then differ as to what the opportunity is, what one stands to gain from chol, and therefore what kinds of chol are more significant.)Both are relatively remedial ways of addressing personal challenge. Methods usable for setting communal policy or for someone who doesn’t really know himself. However, in a community of people who strive to know themselves and judge each situation accordingly, there is no need to rely on such blanket statements.

The current TuM/TIDE sociological groups do not include a TuM/TIDE plus tiqun hamiddos (repairing one’s personality traits. Probably because they are founded on the thought of R’ YB Soloveitchik, from Brisk (“you don’t need any more Mussar than you get from the Shulchan Arukh”), and R’ SR Hirsch, respectively. Modern Orthodoxy sadly collapses into Orthodoxy-Lite for so many of those who affiliate with that community because there is no such introspection. Without that self-awareness, the dangerous gets embraced long enough for the risks to blind the victim to themselves before anyone even thinks to ask the question of mitigating them.

Alternatively, I could say to a yeshivish person that what they need is a different kind of yeshivish, one in which tiqun hamidos tools are used to know when and how to protect oneself from today’s degenerating society without missing out on its opportunities. That the currently pursued alternative, retreating into fortresses, is a position for the weak. And weakening the masses engenders the need for further retreat ad infinitum. But the resulting “yeshivish” would be something that is too new to simply fit within the current movement’s umbrella.

And in fact, both this new Modern Orthodoxy and new Yeshivish would be identical.

The solution, in my humble opinion, is orthogonal to that whole axis. (Or perhaps I’m just one of the “newly converted” who just got a shiny new hammer and sees everying as nails…)

Vetaheir Libeinu

We say in the Amidah for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “Vetaheir libeinu le’avekha be’emes”, usually translated simply as “And purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”"Vetaheir libeinu” provides an interesting contrast to “veyacheid levaveinu li’ahavah ulyir’ah es shemekha — and unify our hearts to love and be in awe of Your name”, said in the last berakhah before the morning recitation of Shema. Libeinu stands distinct from levaveinu, the same two-veis “levav” that we find in Shema, “And you shall love Hashem your G-d bekhol levavekha, with all your heart.” There, Chazal interpret the word as “beshnei yitzrekha — with both your inclinations”. In “veyacheid levaveinu” we speak of unifying the warring urges of a complex heart, which notably has one veis for each inclination, “levav”. Here we ask for surcease from that complexity, that Hashem render the single-veis “leiv” tahor, pure of other inclinations. (While many question the accuracy of “tahor” as being defined “pure”, “zahav tahor” does mean “pure gold”.)

“Le’avdiacha”. Rav SR Hirsch explains the root /ayin-beis-dalet/ as a more intensive form of /aleph-beis-dalet/, to be lost (just as an ayin is like an alef, but is supposed to be voiced). To lose one’s goals to another’s', working entirely for another person. Here we speak of taharah from inappropriate goals so that one can work entirely toward the aims Hashem spelled out for us.

I would think that a Ba’al Mussar would focus on “vetaheir libeinu”, while the Chassid would read them as secondary to the next — le’avdikha. True to the fork in the hashkafic road between Litta’s focus on sheleimus, wholeness and completion, and Chassidus’s focus on deveiqus, cleaving to G-d.

Bi’emes — in/through truth: At first I took this to be an adverb for le’avdekha. However, I want to draw attention back to the first thing I skipped in this quote, the opening letter, “vav — vetaheir”. It begins with a prefix meaning “and”. This makes our phrase part of a list, along with, “qadsheinu bemitzvosekha, vesein chelqeinu beSorasekha, sab’einu mituvekha, vesamcheinu biyshu’asekha”. In all of those cases, the noun at the end of the phrase is the means by which we ask for the thing described by the rest of the phrase; for example “Sanctify us through your mitzvos”. (The mem in “mituvekha” deserves comment. Another time.) So, here too, emes would be the means, not a modifier for le’vadekha.

Taking the phrase all together: We are asking for Hashem to give us emes, by which we will get the taharas haleiv necessary to answer only one calling — His.

Kehunah and Unity

Back on Chanukah I wrote:

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel [mentioned in the poem "Ma'oz Tzur"], were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

One possible reaction to assimilation is to build up the fortress walls. We can hope to stave off negative influences by reducing out exposure to the outside world. The idea that we need to stay distinct is not necessarily one that isn’t heard, but perhaps one that we are overly stressing.

I think this too is a message of the soreg. Yes, there is a separation between Jew and non-Jew, but it is only waist high and woven of slats with far more space than wood. The “walls of my fortress” are a reminder, not a solid barrier.

We are charged to be G-d’s “mamlekhes kohanim vegoy qadosh — a country of priests and a holy nation.” We need to balance the separation implied by the concept of qedushah with our role as kohanim, a priesthood providing religious leadership. We can not be priests if we do not stay to our special calling, but our special calling is self-indulgent if we do not use it to serve others. “Ki miTzion teitzei Sorah — because from Zion the Torah shall come forth.” By wallling ourselves in we not only protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from teaching others.

I recently realize this dovetails well with an idea I posted about back in 2005 (this is only one part of a number of arguments for the beauty of and need for a plurality of Orthodoxies):

We must learn to look at other forms of Torah observance as “different parts of the same body”. Not to be tolerated despite their differences, but loved because of them. All come from the same toras imekha [and thus Jewish identity is matrilineal], the same basic worldview, values and aspirations. We differ, as did the shevatim, in mussar avikha [which is why sheivet membership is patrilineal], in the formal layer of education after that, where we learn our roles and where we fit in that greater mission.

This was the message Hashem gave Aharon in the beginning of parashas Beha’alosekha. Chazal write that when the heads of the shevatim brought their qorbanos (listed at the end of Naso), Aharon, whose role included being the head of Levi, was pained at not being able to participate. Hashem comforted him by pointing to the story of Chanukah. The chanukas habayis, the consecration of the Beis haMiqdash, by Aharon’s descendants the Chashmona’im, was greater than the offerings of the nesi’im. Why?

Each of the nesi’im brought what was physically the same offering. However, each offering was distinct in intent. The Ramban itemizes the allusions each nasi could find in the same offering that relate to his particular tribe, to his particular ancestor. The offerings were colored by mussar avikha, by each sheivet’s particularist role.

Aharon is then told, “When you cause the menorah [flames] to go up, toward the face of the menorah its lamps should burn.” The menorah has one central trunk, from which emerge six branches. The flame atop each branch must point toward the middle. Each branch is a different wisdom, a different skill-set. They all emerge from the same basic Torah, from the mother-taught values that define our Jewishness. It is Aharon’s job to remind us that they also must be channeled back toward that central core.

We all work toward a common goal. Knowing that each of us are unique, bringing unique thoughts and abilities, unique perspective and educational background, leads us not only to realize the full value of our own part in the greater whole (no man is “just another brick in the wall”) but to treasure the contributions of others because they are so different than our own, and bringing something to the whole that we can’t.

It struck me this morning that there is a common theme in the two.

Just as the shevatim had different roles in the same central goal, the various nations each have a role in humanity’s goal. That list of roles will always include the job of reminding the whole that they are a single whole that is supposed to work together for a common noble end. Whether it’s Aharon and the Chashmonaim reminding the Jewish people, or the Jewish people having the (unpopular) job of being the world’s reminder. That is called kehunah.

Balancing Community and Authenticity

This post, like the one I blogged last week, reflects a conversation with R’ Rich Wolpoe and R’ Ben Hecht on NishmaBlog and email, on the topic of R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo’s “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity“. That issue appears to be closely tied to the role of communal pesaq, and why do we need some kind of unity in practice, anyway. Comments on that blog entry also revolve around the role of communal acceptance of a particular pesaq and how that creates authority.

How do we balance that communal nature of a halachic community, of being a Chosen People, with the individual’s personal perspective and unique nature? And how does that balance express itself how halachic rulings should be made and followed?


When speaking to people about getting started in Mussar, one of the more asked questions is how all this middah work differs from a self-help program. Through repetition, I have a pretty standardized answer.

Both Mussar and Self Help involve a definition of the ideal, becoming cognizant of the real, and finding a path from the real to the ideal. Where things differ is in who defines the ideal. In Self Help, the focus is on actualizing the person you wish to be. Thus there is a focus on personal choice, doing your own thing, and autonomy.

In Mussar, it’s to become the person Hashem created you to be. For that matter, the same could be said of the Yeshiva Movement, and the ideal Jew as described in Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh haChaim. The split within Lithuania was about the amount of conscious effort one must place in the task of refining oneself. Rav Yisrael Salanter taught that one must actively pursue middah work. The Yeshiva Movement as it evolved in Volozhin and its daughter schools taught that Torah in-and-of-itself will effect this change, and one need only set out to study Torah, with the traditional focus on talmud and halakhah to become the people Hashem created us to be.

To that contrast, let me add a third alternative (in addition to self-help and Mussar): In Chassidus, the ideal is to cleave to G-d. There is a definition of an ideal person, although not phrased in terms of personal refinement but rather in how he relates to the Almighty. And so we can say that in both in the Vilna Gaon’s legacy and in that of the Baal Shem Tov, Judaism is defined in terms of personal becoming — whether it a process of becoming ever more shaleim (whole) or davuq (attached [to the Creator]), respectively.

And for that matter, Rav Hirsch’s approach to the purpose of mitzvos is as symbols and actions that inculcate lessons — and therefore also phrased as a personal transformation.

Given this focus, where then does national membership belong? Shouldn’t we each just follow those halachic positions that best express our own, personal, religiosity? R’ Cardozo’s playing down the role of codification is all about using the fluidity that would enable to better find meaningful religious experience. And yet I objected entirely because I assigned an importance to conformity, and in particular to the extent that we’re taught that accepted precedent is binding and closes the door on practicing the alternative. Why?

If we were discussing self-help this question would be valid. If self refinement were to be the person I defined as ideal, then such limitations would have not place.

However, an ideal of sheleimus and deveiqus defines an ideal in which each individual’s meaning is found as part of the whole. In playing a role in a larger community. Someone who tries to live as a metaphoric island can not be whole.


In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s essay “Community”, the Rav defines a basic dialectic in how people relate to the community: On the one hand, the purpose of the collective is to work together for the good of its members. The whole social contract philosophy of government is based on that perspective. On the other hand, the individual’s higher calling is to aid the the community.

Kelal Yisrael is a corporate entity of which the Rambam in Seifer haMitzvos can discuss mitzvos that apply between two Jews in terms of “haqatzeh el haqatzeh”, what “one end” does to “another end”. But Israel is also a set of Jews, a number of individuals.

The Rav argued that beris Noach and beris avos were covenants made between G-d and individuals, Noach and the forefathers respectively. Whereas beris Sinai created a corporate entity — the Jewish People. And from this he draws distinctions between stories in Bereishis and how we observe Torah today.

Personally, I would have made the personal covenent vs. national covenent distinction later, between the two berisim Hashem makes with us in the desert — at Sinai, and “the words of the beris … aside from the beris which He made with them in Horeb” (Devarim 28:69) at the plains of Moav. It is in describing this latter covenent that was given shortly before crossing the Jordan into Israel in which Hashem relays most of the nation-building laws of the Torah.

Rabbi Hecht beautifully described the national character of Torah as:

… [W]hat we may term the model of the symphony which advocates for the a collective of individuals who are actualizing their individuality but in a collective manner so that the result is greater than the sum of the parts…

The Ramban (among numerous others) likens the Jews to organs in a body. It’s like the symphony model. Not uniformity in action, but unity though each playing a different part toward the same combined action.

Or, putting it in the covenental terms — the beris at the plains of Moav had to come after a generation of people raised in a mileu of the beris Sinai. However, beris Sinai couldn’t be complete without it. Until the details spelled out in Devarim, given at Arvos Moav, there was only an incomplete definition of the entity the individual is to try to be an effective part of. At Sinai we were given the tools to learn how to play music, if we chose to pick them up. But at Arvos Moav the musicians were given the score to which the orchestra will be playing.

Does this deny the idea we saw in common in all those schools of thought that place the centrality of halakhah in how it shapes the person following it? Not at all! The goal is to be the best musician you can, to choose the instrument best suited to your proclivities and abilities and master it.

By giving us free will, Hashem offers us autonomy in two ways — first, we could choose to violate the beris. We have bechirah whether or not to fulfill the terms of the covenant. But even within conforming, we can choose our intrument. And a point somewhere in between these two extremes, by choosing how much we invest in studying music we have some input into whether that role in the symphony is first violin, or part of the chorus. Between the skills with which we were blessed, how and if we choose to develop them, we have some autonomy in our choice of role to play in the orchestra.