Torah Lishmah and Nefesh haChaim

Nefesh haChaim, 1st edition

Nefesh haChaim
Cover Page, First Edition

Nefesh haChaim is a collection of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s writings organized posthumously by his son and successor, R’ Yitzchak. We can see this in the self-description in the title page of the early editions of the Nefesh haChaim which opens, “Yir’as Hashem – for Life! Notebooks of holy writings of the true genius who was famous for his Torah and righteousness, and whose deeds proclaim before him.” The choice of title of the book “Nefesh haChaim” is explained that it is “based on the quote in the Jerusalem [Talmud], Sheqalim pg 6 [2:1, vilna ed. 10b], ‘Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel repeated: we do not make monuments [nefashos] for the righteous, for their words are their memorials.’ And the memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Thus the title means “Rabbi Chaim’s Memorial”, in addition to “The Living Soul”.

Being that it’s a compilation of multiple texts, Nefesh haChaim can be a challenge to combine into a single picture of how Rav Chaim believed we are to serve Hashem. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein, in his essay Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy (in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern), notes how the questions in this regard are more clear than the answers.

I mentioned this in my previous post, and suggested my diagnosis of the underlying issue:

… [T]his phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

But to discuss a specific approach to this particular text…

Overall Structure

First, because each section is really a pamphlet, called by the both the author and the editor a “qunterus“, in its own right, its topic was also originally expected to stand on its own. The amount of significance given to Torah study in the pamphlet that became section 4 does not change the significance given to (e.g.) tefillah in section 2. Rav Yitzchaq’s placing them in an overarching structure only has limited value in understanding the meaning of section 2 as it was written.

The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation; how being in the image of E-lokim, G-d as Master of all the forces, means that we have the ability to change the world(s).

The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. Then there are some chapters that about the yeitzer hara and its strategies, and how acting without full commitment to lishmah, to doing a mitzvah for its own sake, will lead to lishmah and thus vanquishing the yeitzer hara.

But the yeshivos focus on — in fact, most exclusively learn only — section four. There he discusses the special nature of Torah, its work on the soul, and how Torah study is central to the task of self-refinement. Obviously for those of the Yeshiva Movement, this is going to be the central piece to their worldview.

Rabbi Norman Lamm (in his book Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake) identified the basic problem with the resulting structure. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein wrote his essay using Rabbi Lamm’s work as a foil. R’ Lamm took the yeshivish position, Rabbi Krumbein doesn’t so much provide a clear alternative reading, his goal is more to set out to prove that focusing on only the fourth sha’ar is incomplete, that we simply haven’t gotten to the full subtlety of Rav Chaim’s position.

But just looking at the overall structure myself, I think the section that is not like the others is the third one, actually. Section one explains how our actions in this world have metaphysical repercussions, and section two addresses prayer, and thus the power of human speech. Section four, is about human thought. But section three is about G-d, about the nature of tzimtzum and in what way is Hashem present in creation and what way is creation an independent entity.

The Introduction

The most logical place to find the author’s intent is his introduction. Here we can’t entirely do so, as Rav Chaim didn’t write one — Rav Yitzchak did. But since his father did leave him the essays and instructions for publication, this is still of some use. And besides, Rav Yitzchak Volozhiner’s own opinion is of sufficient import to be interested in his worldview.

In that introduction, Rav Yitzchak describes Rav Chaim Volozhiner with a long description of his love of Mussar. For example:

This is what he would constantly say to me: that no person was created for himself. Rather, [we were created] for helping others in any way he has the ability to do.

Rav Chaim “with the breadth of his understanding would carve and grave the ideas, the light matters and significant ones, and attach them to the way of the Torah, Avodah, and Yir’as Hashem”. This list of three items recurs in the introduction — Torah rarely appears alone. Also, as we noted above and explained in the introduction, the book was named for the concept of yir’as Hashem, not Talmud Torah.

Looking at the introduction, then, we would be hard pressed to find any description of the book as leading up to the fourth section, or giving Torah study primacy in the meaning of living. Actually, given his repeated instruction to his son, it would seem that such meaning would be found in mitzvos that aid others.

Section 3: Tzimtzum

As I opined in the opening section, it’s section three that really stands out. The other sections are anthropological; discussions of what it is to be a person and the abilities people have to impact creation. Section three, though, deals with Hashem’s relationship to creation, it’s theological.

I understand Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s position on tzimtzum differently than many readers. But then, this whole essay is my own take on a subject numerous others more informed than I am have disagreed about.

Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacial contraction), of other things existing. The Yosher Levav understood this literally. However, that’s very problematic as it implies that Hashem Himself changed. And  both Chasidus and the Gra consider that notion heretical. In the Tanya, the noun is still the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but the verb tzimtzum is only an illusion. In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, the  tzimtzum is real, but he modifies the noun — it is not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else, Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will). ((According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Gra speaks of the tzimtzum of the Or Ein Sof, but that is not the terminology used in Nefesh haChaim, the Leshem or Michtav meiEliyahu — all spiritual heirs of the Gra.) )

Much of the second half of section 3 describes tzimtzum in terms of distinguishing between miTzido, from Hashem’s “perspective”, and mitzideinu, from ours. And therefore it is logical that many understand R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position as being more like the Tanya’s than the Gra’s. But I believe his position actually sits in a middle ground, a synthesis that might even fully include his rebbe’s understanding.

In sec. 3 ch. 2 Rav Chaim explains that calling Hashem “haMaqom” is a rather limited metaphor. A literal maqom is a place or holder of an object without being the cause of its existence. However, if Hashem were to retract his Ratzon from anything, it would cease to exist; He is the Cause of existing. Thus the understanding that his position is like the Tanya’s.

But in chapter 4, Rav Chaim discusses the literal absence of Kevod Hashem, and the first appearance of the word tzimtzum, at the beginning of ch. 5, reads “…צמצם כביכול כבודו ית’ שיוכל להמצא ענין מציאות עולמות וכחות ובריות נבראים ומחודשים — He ‘constricted’, as it were, His Blessed Kavod that He could bring into existence the idea of existing worlds, forces/potentials, and creatures that are created and newly made.”

It seems to me that Nefesh haChaim is describing a literal tzimtzum of Hashem’s glory which then causes the illusion of an absence His Essence. Tzimtzum is something that actually occurred, but not to the Ein Sof — like the Gra, avoiding the problem of saying Hashem could change by making tzimtzum about a different noun. Rav Chaim does differ from the Gra about which noun; according to Rav Chaim, any absence of Hashem’s Ratzon, His Will, is part of the illusion. It’s His Kavod that is absent. Although I’m not sure how either the Vilna Gaon or Rav Chaim Volozhiner define “Ratzon” vs “Kavod“, so it is possible the difference is more in terminology than in substance. In any case, the point I want to emphasize to explain how I understand Nefesh haChaim and the concept of Torah lishmah is that Rav Chaim is giving us that duality: the real absence of Kevod Hashem (3:5) and the illusion of the absence of Hashem Himself (3:3).

The “Chapters”

According to Rabbi Krumbein’s analysis, much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4, so I will also visit them. The additions begin:

Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…

Rabbi Norman Lamm (pp 61-62)  explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.

However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:

First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.

Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.

But within the description I gave above, in which sections 1, 2 and 4 deal with action, speech and thought, respectively, the “chapters” found between three and four serve as a prelude to the last section. They address the yeitzer hara and how to refine thought and motivation, and are thus speaking of the same domain as the section on Torah.

Section Four

In sec 4 ch. 3, Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that  the “lishmah“, the “it’s own sake”, of Torah study is unique. (He has a longer description in Ruach haChahim on Avos 6:1,) Rav Elazar beRav Tzadoq says, “עשה דברים לשם פעלן ודבר בהן לשמן — do things for the sake of the One Who caused them, and speak about them for their own sake.” (Nedarim 51a) Rav Chaim cites the Rosh, who notes the difference in language: when it comes to mitzvos of action, we do them lesheim Pa’alan — for the sake of G-d; but when it comes to learning, we learn leshman — for their own sake.” And Rav Chaim points the reader back to something he wrote at the end of sha’ar 1, that the primary effect of the mitzvah is in the action itself, which is why kavanah (intent) is not an obligatory component of the mitzvah, but one that allows it to effect repairs in higher worlds than otherwise. But as he explained previously in ch. 2, the role of lishmah is different in kind for Torah, for immersion in and internalization of Torah is identification with Hashem’s Thought. One is not relating to Hashem-as-Maker of a world we’re trying to refine, but directly with Him. For the Torah’s sake is for the sake of becoming shaped by His Will. It is this that Rav Chaim identifies with communion with the A-limighty, rather than deveiqus, cleaving to Him. Chapters 4 – 7 discuss the relationship between yir’ah and Torah. To Rav Chaim, yir’ah is something you work on for a few minutes in preparation for learning. It is the silo that enables one to retain Torah. But the focus is on the Torah.

This is unlike the Chassidus, where deveiqus is seen as a personal relationship with G-d. And in the Tanya, yir’ah is the purpose of learning, rather than a prerequisite, and he recommends that one should pause occasionally during learning to remember G-d and insuring that the study is leading to yir’ah 

Rav Chaim seems to be asserting that “Torah lishmah” means that that learning is supposed to be an end in itself. But before R’ Chaim, this was FAR from consensus. A simple reading of either Talmud (TY Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b, TB Sanhedrin 99b) would conclude that Torah lishmah is learning in order to know how to observe, how to decide future questions, or to teach. And assuming the amoraim aren’t really arguing, any of these three motives is “lishmah”. The Yerushalmi goes as far as to say “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world].” The Meshekh Chokhmah (Devarim 28:61) explains that this is because it the goal were to get Torah into the soul, full stop, then that is more easily accomplished before birth, as an intellect unencumbered by a body. (I translated this comment in the Meshekh Chokhmah: part I, part II [where this point is made], part III.)

And a bigger problem with thinking that he means that Torah lishmah is an end to itself is that the introduction to the book tells us that Rav Chaim made a point of teaching his son that people were created for the sake of others. Refining my own knowledge doesn’t fit that worldview, unless it’s not actually the end in itself.

Conclusion

So, how do I understand Nefesh haChaim overall? With trepidation; after all I opened with the assertion that people far more knowledgable than I am only captured the aspects of Rav Chaim’s teachings that fit their abilities and perspectives. So, the following is merely yet another person’s incomplete picture.

I think the distinction between real tzimtzum of kevod Hashem and the apparent absence of G-d Himself parallels the the two types of lishmah, and the concept underlies Rav Yitzchaq’s decision of how to organize Nefesh haChaim.

Section 1 speaks of man’s ability to improve the world, that this is what it means to be in Hashem’s “image”.  Section 2 speaks about prayer, drawing G-dliness down into the world, and identifying the world and its problems with His Ends. (We do not pray for our health, we pray for the health that Hashem wishes He could give us.) Until sec. 3, we are dealing with things that are to be done lesheim Pa’alan. We are told in sec. 3 that the Maqom (the illusion of Hashem’s Kavod being absent) refers to Hashem causing existence — and thus Hashem as Pa’alan.

With sec. 3 we are taught there is a second facet, the actual tzimtzum. This allows us to start discussing the lishmah of Torah, which is also Rav Chaim’s conception of deveiqus: to internalize His Thought, His Will.

Then the “chapters” complete this shifting of gears. The lishmah of mitzvos enhances them, but the lishmah of Torah is part of its essence. And so before discussing the power of talmud Torah, Nefesh haChaim includes a description of how to fight the yeitzer hara and achieve lishmah. There is a positive feedback cycle  between performance and attitude — performance generates lishmah (“מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה — from doing it not lishmah, one comes to do it lishmah”, Sanhedrin 105b) and lishmah heightens performance.

By making Torah study the identification with Hashem’s Will, and making this lishmah part of its essence, Rav Chaim is defining  Torah study and the cognitive  acquisition of knowledge as value not for its intellectual accomplishment but for its ability to change the self. Nefesh haChaim describes learning a cognitive approach to middah modification. Which is why yir’ah, is a prerequisite to being able to acquire Torah. Cognitively getting facts doesn’t require yir’ah, but being changed by those facts does demand an awareness of the magnitude of what and Who one is confronting.

To Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Talmud Torah is the primary means  for fulfilling the advice of Rabban Gamliel III (the son of Rav Yehudah haNasi) in Avos 2:4, “עשה רצונו כרצונך — make His Will like your will”. It’s a cognitive approach to middah modification. All of the power to repair the world (sec. 1) through our actions and to draw Hashem’s shefa into it with speech (sec. 2) only has value if we first turn our wills into His Will (sec. 4), so that our attempts to perfect the world actually improve it.

And so, Rav Chaim isn’t entirely denying the traditional understanding of Torah lishmah. It is still meant as being for the sake of others, just as Hashem “Acts” on the behalf of others. And this other-focus is a central theme in how the author raised his son. But its lishmah is not for the sake of doing or the Doer, but for the sake of acquiring the Torah itself, the Will of the Creator (as explained in sec. 3), to be capable of repairing the world (sec. 1 & 2) in the future.

The Mussar Dispute

Rav Yisrael Salanter wrote to Volozhin, the flagship yeshiva of the yeshiva movement. He offered the Netziv his services as a mashgiach ruchani. The Netziv said that he was welcome to come, but if Rav Yisrael came, the Netziv would have to leave. Rav Yisrael Salanter was a brilliant talmudist and overqualified for the job, but the Netziv felt he couldn’t operate in the same institution as Mussar.

Rav Yisrael’s student, Rav Itzele Petersburger, similarly offered in 1881. R’ Nasan Kamentzky weaves together three versions of the story to create a single plausible narrative about how his offer was received (starts at about 87 min in on this recording).

Rav Nechamiah Goldberg tells that while Rav Izele was turned down, he did get permission to give a mussar shmuess. The thrust of that talk was based on the thought from our sages that Hashem created the yeitzer hara and He created an antidote — Torah. Rav Itzele explained that the Torah cures us of evil desires the way a segulah cures a sick person. The person must perform the act or recite the text exactly, and if the segulah is to say it 7 times, there will be absolutely no effect if he only says it six. Similarly, in order for Torah to fight the yeitzer hara, it most be studied perfectly lishmah, with pure motive and no distractions. Mussar, however, is like medicine.  Even if you do not follow instructions perfectly, it will still work. Not as well, but there is still improvement. Thus, unless you are already capable of perfect Torah study, Mussar is the appropriate solution to the problem of yeitzer hara. R’ Chaim Brisker, who also taught at Volozhin at the time, was sitting near the exit. As Rav Izele left the room after his talk, Rav Chaim told him, “So mussar is for someone who is sick, but we in Volozhin aren’t ill!”

R JB Solovetchik, in Ish haHalakhah, quotes Rav Itzele Petersburger using a different idea from our sages. There is no reason to believe he didn’t actually used both, or that they are quoting the same talk.  The gemara advises: If the yeitzer hara comes upon you, sent the yeitzer hatov after it. If that succeeds, good; if not, learn Torah. If that works, good; if not say, say qeri’as shema. If that works, good; if not, remember the day of death. So you see that the final, most effective way to win out over the yeitzer hara is qeri’as shema and remembering the day of death — Mussar, not Torah study! Rav Chaim Brisker (R’ Soloveitchik’s grandfather) replied that the study of Mussar is listed is a last choice because Mussar is like castor oil — for sick people it cures, but if you don’t need it — it’s sickening! A healthy person would not need to get bayond learning Torah to vanquish his inclination.

The third version: When the Netziv found out the purpose of Rav Itzele’s visit, he expelled him from Volozhin. One detail found in Dov Katz’s Pulmus haMussar (The Mussar Dispute) that R’ Kamentzky did not retell is that students from the yeshiva bodily carried R’ Itzele Petersburger out of the building. Either this too could have been a different visit, or perhaps continues the story after the above conversation.

Where did this split come from? After all, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, was married to Rav Chaim Volzhiner’s granddaughter, Rav Yitzchaq Volzhiner’s daughter. He inherited the yeshiva from them. Clearly he represented a tradition from Rav Chaim Volozhiner. On the other hand, Rav Yisrael Salanter was publicizing the version of Judaism he learned from Rav Zundel Salanter, who in turn was a student of the very same Rav Chaim Volozhiner! How did their two traditions diverge, and what exactly was the original point of conflict?

One can say that what happened was that Rav Chaim’s successors in Volozhin took to heart the fourth section, and therefore they pulled Volozhin to ever more exclusively focus on total immersion intellectually in Torah. (Along the way, his rebbe‘s title changed from haGaon haChassid Rav Eliyahu miVilna to just the Vilna Gaon — mentioning his brilliance in Torah, but omitting his chassidus.)  The Yeshiva Movement reads Nefesh haChaim as having 3 sections discussing the value and power of the soul, and how to develop yir’ah so that one can understand the sanctifying aspect of immersion in Torah.

Meanwhile, R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s pupil, R’ Zundel Salanter, placed more emphasis on the lessons captured in the first three sections. And so, when he spotted young Yisrael Lipkin — the future Rav Yisrael Salanter, father of the Mussar Movement — spying on his private spiritual exercises in the woods, Rav Zundel yelled out to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) A call to work directly on one’s middos in order to live a life of yir’ah; not a reliance on metaphysical effects of immersion in talmudic dialectic. According to Mussar’s understanding, the book is about internalizing the Torah’s values. To achieve this, one must develop the soul and yir’ah and only then one’s Torah can be retained within one’s being.

(Please do not take either of the previous two paragraphs as caricatures, all-or-nothing contrasts.)

In the next post I hope to explore the text. But in the meantime, I want to note that this phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

The Magrefah and Yir’as Hashem

The gemara (Eirukhin 10b-11a) describes the magreifah, one of the musical instruments in the Beis haMiqdash, which in Biblical Hebrew is either the minnim or the ugav. Shemuel describes it as a box about 1 ammah square with a board extending from one side (for keys? to work bellows?), and 10 tubes coming out the top. Each pipe had 10 holes allowing for 100 sounds. A beraisa (meaning: before Shmuel, a first generation amora) says 1,000 sounds. In the Yerushalmi’s version (Sukkah 25a), Rav argues with Shemuel and one of them says (judging from the Bavli, I would conclude Rav) there were 100 pipes and that both say it could make 1,000 sounds, although the Yerushalmi calls them “minei zemer — distinct chords”. While this is often taken as hyperbole, I would note that 10 pipes, each of which having only one hole that can be covered to turn it off, would allow for 1,024 combinations. So 1,000 distinct chords coming from Rav’s 100 pipes  would be a gross understatement for 10 pipes with 10 holes each, not an exaggeration. Maybe around 1,000 are “zemer” rather than considered just noise.

There is another utensil used in the Beis haMiqdash called a magrefah; it is a shovel (Rashi ad loc) used to tend the coals. So I picture the pipes together, like a pipe organ’s, thus giving the instrument its name. Similarly, those who translate the coal-tending magrefah is a rake would probably assume the pipes fanned out, bagpipe-like.

Guesswork by the Church trying to reproduce the music of the Temple and therefore to copy the magrefah led to the pipe-organ. But it sounds more like some kind of combination of accordion (a box) and a bagpipe (multiple pipes). Although (unlike the pipe-organ) both have reeds, and there is no reason to believe the instrument had reeds rather than the purer tones (in the sense of fewer harmonics — think flute rather than oboe) of blowing air across the pipe itself.

In much of the music written for pipe-organ, long stretches contain a “pedal point”. Wikipedia’s explanation of a pedal point is that it

is sustained tone, typically in the bass, during which at least one foreign, i.e., dissonant harmony is sounded in the other parts. A pedal point sometimes functions as a “non-chord tone”…

Here’s their example of a pedal point in organ music

On the other hand, if we look at the size of the magrefah, the Oxford History of Music says there is a sculpture of bagpipes on a Hittite slab, dating to around 1,000 BCE. Nero y”sh played one, according to Suetonius. So that too is plausible, although it’s shape suggests more bellows than a bag. And like the pedal-point, the bagpipe has drones. To again rely on wiki for a definition of drone, it is

a pipe which is generally not fingered but rather produces a constant harmonizing note throughout play.

The prolonged deep note, because it doesn’t change, ends up fading out of conscious attention, unless you’re reading a post like this one and made to think about it. But it adds weight to what you’re hearing. The base vibrates in your bones and reinforces the feeling of full immersion in the music.

Like these successor instruments, the magrefa was likely played with a pedal point or drones, as otherwise the player had to work 10 different pipes and the air pumping system simultaneously. Aside from the archeological evidence that drones were part of bagpipe-like instruments of the era as well.

All of which is a prelude to the following metaphor…

First to quote Rav Avraham Elya Kaplanzt”l, in the title essay of Be’iqvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer; discussed at more length and compared to the Ramchal’s position here):

To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance… It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy… {It is clear from the original Hebrew that this is a reference to the rods that held the boards together to make the walls of the Tabernacle. -mi} [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

Yir’ah is the pedal-point of the shirah of life. As we say every  morning, “הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֹף וּמָחוֹל;    הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּמִנִּים וְעֻגָב — Praise Him with drum and machol, praise Him with minim and ugav!” (Tehillim 150:4; said in Pesuqei deZimra) The pedal-point of yir’ah does not get in the way of the joy of the music, but to add the necessary gravitas to the song that pushes us to feel its importance.

Ana Hashem

(This post comes with background music. If you listen to a capella singing during the omer, press play below now. “Ana Hashem”, sung by Nachum Stark, from “A Sefirah Kumzitz”.)

There is a story about an early Gerer chassid who went to the “Chiddushei haRim” (Rav Yitzchaq Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, 1799-1866) with a heavy problem. His business had been failing for a while, and now he was far behind on a number of bills, and facing the threat of debtor’s prison. The next day happened to be Rosh Chodesh, and the ChR advised the chassid that when he said Hallel the next day, he should say “Ana Hashem” with extra kavanah.

After the rebbe walked away, the man and his friend got into a heated argument about what exactly the advice was: One chassid insisted the rebbe meant “Ana Hashem hoshia na — Please, Hashem, save!” because the man needed to be saved from prison. The other was sure it was Ana Hashem hatzlikha na — Please, Hashem, provide success!” because the fundamental problem was that he needed more success in his business.

As they were debating, the Chiddushei haRim’s grandson, Yehudah Aryeh Leib — the future Sefas Emes, passed by. (The Chiddushei haRim raised his orphaned grandson and successor.) The boy interrupted. “Neither of you understand. The rebbe meant ‘Ana Hashem ki ani avdekha – Please Hashem, because I am Your servant’!”

אָֽנָּ֣ה ה֮׳ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֪י עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ אֲ‍ֽנִי־עַ֭בְדְּךָ בֶּן־אֲמָתֶ֑ךָ פִּ֝תַּ֗חְתָּ לְמוֹסֵרָֽי׃

Please, Hashem, because I am your servant,
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant;
You have opened my bonds.

- Tehillim 116:16 (and Hallel)

Rav Hirsch understands the root of “עבד” as an intensive form of “אבד”, just as the ayin is pronounced (by traditions that pronounce it at all) as a voiced version of the sound of an alef. “לאבד” is to lose, “לעבד” is for one’s will to be lost to that of another, to do what they desire and the servant’s will remains submerged.

But the term for “maidservant” is from a different root, she is an “אמה”. When the Torah describes Pharaoh’s daughter reaching out to save Moshe from the Nile, the Author writes, “… she saw the ark among the reeds, and sent her ammah to fetch it.” The normal reading is that she sent a handmaiden. But an ammah is also forearm (which is why it’s also a cubit, the length of a forearm). And so the gemara (Sotah 12b) records a dispute whether indeed a maidservant was sent or that Pharaoh’s daughter’s arm (ammah) stretched many ammos as she reached out to get the baby. (Perhaps the dispute being whether the essence of the story was her refusal to rely on someone else coming by, including a miracle, or whether it’s about our duty to run to the aid of others and let Hashem worry about whether we succeed.)

We see from this gemara that an ammah is a servant who is an extension of her mistress’s will. (I would contrast to shifchah, another term for a maidservant, but it’s both out of scope and I have no ideas.)

So, in this verse of Hallel we are describing ourselves as servants in terms of ignoring our own desires in favor of Hashem’s, but as children of servants whose own desires are an extension of Hashem’s Will.

Perhaps this is also the difference between the morning berakhos. Men say “shelo asani ishah — Who did not make me a woman” in gratitude for being obligated in more mitzvos than women. Women too can perform nearly all of these mitzvos voluntarily — as an amah whose own desire coincides with the mitzvah. But a man is thankful to be an eved, commanded to act despite our own desires.

Instead of that berakhah, the geonim instituted that women say “she’asani kiRtzono — Who made me according to His Will.” Because the typical woman (and who is ever really fully typical?) is more “according to His Will”, an ammah.

But it is submission to duty despite my own Will and my own desire that does the most to hone my soul. To perform a mitzvah I feel already deepens that feeling, but to perform one I don’t feel yet has the power to create an inculcate it. And so we conclude the pasuq, “pitachta lemoseirai – you opened my bonds”. David haMelekh, “David avdi — David My servant” as Hashem calls him (Tehillim 89:21), thanks G-d for being freed from his bonds. Being an eved itself brings one to becoming a “ben amasekha“.

Which brings us back to the opening.

Rabbi Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi advises (Avos 2:4):

הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו. בטל רצונך מפני רצונו, כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך.

He would say:

  • Make His Will like your will,
    so that He will do your will like His Will.
  • Annul your will before His Will,
    so that He would annul the will of others before your will.

To annul my will before Hashem’s is to become His eved. To make Retzono, His Will, into mine would be to make the leap from eved to ben amasekha. And at that point, when our retzonos are one, is when Rabbi Gamliel assures us that Hashem will do our mutual will. And so, this is King David’s justification when he asks, “Please Hashem!”

Esther’s Modesty – Adar’s Joy (Anavah and Anvanus)

Yoshiahu’s Downfall

The only qinah, elegy, that we recite on Tish’ah beAv that dates back to the days of Tanakh (other than the Book of Eichah itself) is Yirmiyahu’s qinah for King Yoshiahu. Yoshiahu was raised by one of the more idolatrous of our kings, Menasheh. Menasheh managed to so suppress Torah that Yoshiahu was taken by the scroll he found in the Beis HaMiqdash. Yoshiahu lead a rather successful religious revival. The gemara describes the generation as one that even in the children knew greater details of tum’ah and taharah than did the rabbis of the Talmud. Successful, but imperfect. There were still homes where idols were worshipped. They would be hidden, for example (an example referenced in the qinah), they would paint an image on the backs of their doors, so that if anyone would inspect the home, it would be hidden between the door and the wall. The style was to have a split door, 1/2 opens on each side. Therefore, they could even honestly say, whenever the doors were open and therefore the image split, that there was no idolatry in their home.

Yoshiahu was unaware of this. He thought the revival was complete. When Par’oh Necho wanted to lead an army through Israel on the way to a war, Yoshiahu wanted to rely on Hashem’s promise, “a sword will not enter your land.” Yirmiyahu warned him, that no, we didn’t merit that level of protection. Yoshiahu didn’t listen to him. Egypt still needed to travel, so since they were refused safe passage, they attacked. Yoshiahu was fatally wounded, and confessed his error to Yirmiyahu in his final breath.

Why? What blinded such a righteous king, a man Rav Hillel thought merited to be the messiah, to the message of the navi?

Interestingly, in the qinah, Yirmiyahu refers to the wicked of the generation as “leitzanim”, ridiculers. Not as wicked, sinners or idolaters. Again, why?

Leitzanus, ridicule, is a lack of yir’ah. It’s an inability to accept the significance of the truly important, of dealing with the feelings of awe and fear that that engenders. Leitzanus is therefore a symptom of ga’avah, egotism. When someone has an over estimation of his own importance, he has no room to acknowledge anything else as perhaps being more important, he can’t accept the insecurity fear engenders. A natural response would therefore be leitzanus, belittling it.

Ga’avah also demotivates one to improve himself. I’m so good, my flaws are minor ones. I am reluctant to suggest this, but perhaps Yoshiahu, living in a culture that overly promoted in egotism, was tinged with some of that flaw himself. Therefore, he was incapable of believing that his religious reawakening was imperfect.

Shaul’s Downfall

In the haftorah for parashas Zachor, King Sha’ul fails in his duty to kill Amaleiq. He does not destroy all of their livestock, and leaves the battle before killing the Amaleiqi king, Agag. The navi Shemu’el takes Sha’ul to task for this shortcoming. “And Shemu’el said, ‘Although you are little in your own sight, aren’t you the head of the tribes of Yisra’el? And Hashem anointed you king over Israel.’” (Shemu’el I 15:17) Sha’ul eventually admits his guilt. “And Sha’ul said to Shemu’el, ‘I have sinned; for I have violated Hashem’s commandment and thy words; because I feared the people and listened to their voice.” (v. 24) Sha’ul, rather than acting like a king and teaching the people to follow Hashem’s will, allowed himself to be lead by his subjects. What does Shemu’el identify as Sha’ul’s failing? Sha’ul didn’t realize his own self-worth, and therefore does not live up to his potential and role in life.

Esther’s Success

In the story of Purim, Esther faces the same dilemma. Mordechai calls upon her to use her position as queen to save the Jewish people. She balks, and Mordechai counter-argues. “For if you are absolutely silent at this time, then will relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows — im la’eis kazos higa’at lemalkhus, perhaps it was just for a moment as this you came to royalty?” (Esther 4:14)

There is a second link between Esther’s anavah and redemption in her repeating something in Mordechai’s name rather than get personal credit:

Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: … and (#48) saying something in the name of its speaker. Thus we have learned: One who says something in the name of its speaker brings ge’ulah to the world, as is stated (Esther 2:22), “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.”

- Beraisa, Avos 6:6

Unlike her ancestor, Sha’ul, or Yoshiahu, Esther rises to her calling. (Her first cousin, Mordechai, is described as a descendent of Kish, which the midrash presumes to be the same Kish as Sha’ul’s father.) What did Esther have that Sha’ul lacked?

If not for the Anvanus of Zechariah ben Avqulos…

To explain that, I would like to introduce one more story. In the progression of events that lead to the downfall of the second Beis haMiqdash, Nero Caesar presented a healthy calf to offer to the Beis haMiqdash as a test of their loyalty, but Bar Qamtza made some kind of blemish in it that invalidated it as an offering. The Rabbis wanted to offer it anyway, since the risk to life outweighs the halakhah. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, saying that people would think that it means that blemished animals may be offered. Then they wanted to kill Bar Qamtza, so that he could not report back to the Romans. Again, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, as he thought it would teach people that the punishment for damaging an offering was death. Nero heard that his offering was refused, was convinced that the Jews were in rebellion, and after checking some portents, decided to attack. The gemara interrupts the story to give us Rabban Gamliel’s assessment, “Because of the anvanus of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos our Temple was destroyed, our sanctuary burnt, and we were exiled from the land.”

There is a fundamental difference between anvanus and anavah, the laudable trait of modesty. Anavah is an awareness of our true worth and potential. It’s modesty that comes from knowing how much more one is capable of accomplishing. Anvanus, on the other hand, is crippling. It’s a lack of self-esteem, so that one does not rise to the challenge. Sha’ul was “little in [his] own sight,” he shared Rav Zechariah ben Avqulus’s anvanus and failed to accomplish the whole mission of his reign.

Pesachiah is Mordechai

The Mishnah (Sheqalim 5:1) lists those appointed for special duties in the Beis haMiqdash, naming the appointees. (The Yerushalmi opens with a dispute as to whether these were the appointees at the time this mishnah was first composed, or exemplary holders of each job.) Among them:

 …פתחיה על הקינין. “פתחיה” זהו מרדכי. ולמה נקרא שמו “פתחיה”? שהיה פותח דברים, ודורשן, ויודע בשבעים לשון.

Pesachiah [was the appointee] over the birds [sold to those who needed tahor birds for their offering].

“Pesachiah” is Mordechai. And why was his name called “Pesachiah”? Because he opened [pasach] words [of Torah], expounded upon them, and knew [all] seventy languages.

The Yerushalmi (21b in the vilna ed.) elaborates:

Come and see how great the potential of this person is, that he could open words [of Torah] and expound upon them!

The Yerushalmi continues by discussing the mishnah’s praise that he spoke 70 languages, which, while remarkable, was far from unique – every Sanhedrin had to have such people. (And all members had to be able to understand, if not speak them.)

The gemara gives three examples of women who came to procure birds, explained why they were bringing sacrifices, and were misunderstood by all but Mordechai / Pesachiah. One said they were for “עינתי”, which they thought meant “my wellspring”, a reference to zivah bleeding (zivah, unlike regular niddah, requires a bird-offering afterward), and Mordechai realized she meant “my eye” — she wanted to thank G-d after being healed from an eye condition. Another said “ימתי”, which they similarly understood as “my sea”, and Mordechai explained she too was thankful, that she was saved from the sea. The third said “זיבתי”, which certainly sounds like “my zivah”, and Mordechai again realized she was actually saying “ze’evasi” — that she was saved from a wolf.

What was unique about Mordechai was not just the technical ability to speak many languages. It was the human ability to understand others. Mordechai realized that women would not go to the Beis haMiqdash and speak so crassly as it seemed, in public no less. He understood his listener.

Perhaps this skill of Mordechai’s is also an instance of modesty leading to redemption. There linguistic similarity between anavah (modesty) and la’anos (to answer). It is all too easy to spend the time someone is speaking to me planning my “brilliant” reply. An anav listens, and truly answers. Mordechai heard the person, not just their words.

*The Chida (Mar′is ha′Ayin Sheqalim ch. 41) provides an interesting gematria to buttress this idea. Each letter in the name Pesachyah (פתחיה), relates to the corresponding letter in the name Mordechai (מרדכי). Each of the first three letters is double in value to that in Mordechai:

פ 80 = 2 x   40מ
ת400 = 2 x 200ר
ח   8 = 2 x    4ד

(Each of the last two is half the value:

י10 x 2 = 20כ
ה 5 x 2 = 10י

(The root verb of the name is doubled (פתח to מרד) because Mordechai expanded himself by opening the words of Torah in a way the people were ready to receive. This required the humility and readiness to really listen implied in the last two letters – the humility that took the “כי”, the “because” behind life’s events, and revealed a name of G-d – “י־ה”.)

Defense Mechanisms

This lack of self-esteem is actually very related to ga’avah (egotism). Ga’avah is a defense mechanism for someone who feels a constant need to prove to himself and the world that he really does have value. It’s the insecure who have a need lie to themselves, magnifying their accomplishments, minimizing their imperfections. The need to constantly prove one’s importance would also explain the divisiveness and lack of tolerance of the flaws and errors of others by the masses of his generation.

Perhaps, therefore, one can suggest a common cause for the pathologies given in the elegy for Yoshiahu. Yoshiahu was one of a generation that was digging itself out of the depths. If they never shook off that self-image, then perhaps they too shared the “modesty of Rav Zecharia ben Avqulus”. This in turn led to ga’avah which fueled an inability to change on the part of those who hid their icons by ridiculing the efforts to spread change, as well as the inability of Yoshiahu to admit he might not have been successful. Leitzanus and ga’avah are both mechanisms for dealing with unhealthy anvanus.

Sha’ul also falls to ga’avah. Like many anvanim sought his validation from others, and so Sha’ul bowed to the will of the people, to prove to them he is worthy. Anvanus does not lead to anavah, in fact, his quest for approval he is lead to ga’avah, bragging.

Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos tried to escape his anvanah through yet another tactic, the game of “Yes, But”. If the situation is unsolvable, then one can’t be blamed for failing. In this “game”, one person proposes solutions “Why don’t we…”, to which the anvan responds, “Yes, but…” “Why don’t we offer the sacrifice even though it’s blemished, since risk to life overrides the prohibition?” “Yes, but then people will think it’s permissible in all circumstances.” “Why don’t we kill Bar Qamtza, and save the Jewish People?” “Yes, but then people would think it is permissible in all circumstances.” Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulus is so sure he is incapable of solving the problem, the problem grows to insolvable size.

Rav Zechariah ben Avqulus’s actions lead to Tish’ah be’Av. “Mishenichnas Av mema’atim besimchah — when the month of Av enters, we reduce in joy.” Anvanus leads to a diminution of joy.

Healthy Anvanus

We can also find positive examples of human anvanus. “And so, when Hashem’s aron was brought to the city of David, Michal bas Sha’ul looked out the window and saw king David leaping and dancing before Hashem; and she was ashamed of him in her heart.”

To Michal’s eye, it was not fitting for the king to leap and dance in public. David, on the other hand, didn’t overestimate his worth. Rather than “Who am I to do…?” he said “Who am I that I should not?”!

It is noteworthy that Michal is described as “Sha’ul’s daughter” when she mis-assesses the value of his actions. She thought she learned from her father’s error that anvanus is a mistake. But it isn’t always.

Yehoshua’ distinguished himself from among Moshe’s students by being the one to arrange the seating for the classes. (Bamidbar Rabba 21:14) He did not decide that since he was the next to lead, and the leader of our army, that such things were beneath him.

Rabbi Yochanan said: Everywhere that you find Hashem’s Gevurah [Might], you find His Anvanus. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Navi, and a third time in Kesuvim.

It is written in the Torah, “For Hashem your G-d is G-d over all forces [E-lokei haElokim]” and it says right after it, “… Who executes the justice of orphans and widows.” (Devarim 10:17-18)

It is repeated in the Navi: “So says the High and Uplifted, Dwelling Eternally and Holy One” and it says right after it “…Who dwells with the afflicted and those of depressed spirit.” (Yeshaiah 57:15)

It is a third time in Kesuvim, as it says “Praise the One who rides on the heavens, Whose name is ‘Kah’” and it says right after it “… the Father of orphans and the Judge for widows”. (Tehillim 68:5)

I defined anavah as awareness of everyone one could be but aren’t. That is a “good thing”, in that it motivates person to constantly strive to improve. In contrast to the anvan, who thinks they are incapable and therefore refuse to act. A person can be an anav or an anvan. But neither make sense when speaking of Hashem. He is neither less than His Potential nor does Hashem underestimate His Worth. We are not speaking of a literal self-image, nor a motivator.

When we speak of Hashem’s Anvanus as opposed to His Gevurah, we can only be describing how His actions appear to us. Anvanus therefore means His willingness to do things even when it may not befit appearances of Honor, to perform acts of kindness even when the kindness does not fit our mental image of honor and authority. Gevurah is that authority, when power leads to away from activities of narrower scope.

When a person thinks of Might, he thinks of someone who moves amongst kings, not someone who helps the downtrodden, the orphan, the widow, the depressed. This kind of anvanus, being willing to help rather than think it beneath our station, is a Divine example we are to emulate. As a necessary prerequisite for chessed (lovingkindness) to those needier than us, it is presented in the gemara a balance to the strict towing-the-line of gevurah.

Anavah, the Path to Happiness

Anvanus therefore requires a fine line. Too much, and one believes every worthy act is above their abilities, too little, and they are all beneath his station. Anavah, an awareness of both one’s abilities and of how much more one can tap them, gives us a means to find that balance.

Purim, on the other hand, arose from Esther’s true, healthy, anavah. Esther started down the road of “Yes But”, but Mordechai’s words shocked her into the realization that “le’eis hazos higa’at lamalkhus”, that her royal station demanded action from her at this time. She did not rest on her laurels, but was motivated by knowing how much more she was capable of accomplishing. Anavah culminates in the victory of Purim. “Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimchah — when the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.”

What is Frumkeit?

The word “frum” has become a near-synonym for Orthodox. How this came to be is noteworthy.

“Frum” descends from the German “fromm“, meaning pious or devout. In pre-war Yiddish, usage appears to have varied widely. On the one hand, those who named their daughters “Fruma” clearly thought being frum as complementary. On the other, there was an idiom, or as Rav Aharon Kotler often put it, “Frum iz a galech; ehrlich iz a Yid – the town priest is ‘pious’, a Jew is refined.” I also heard the first part from Bergers of that same generation, “frum iz a galech“.  Admittedly, both data points from Lithuanian Iddish.

How did the word “frum”, then, ever catch on in the Yeshiva world, a community that aspires for continuity with the yeshivos of Lithuania? How did a word go from being a scornful description of the wrong kind of religiosity to a self-label?

I think that’s it’s for the same reason why kids who are eating at McDonald’s are branded “at risk”, but those who are chronic liars are not. The first group are “at risk” in the sense of their risk of leaving the community and no longer staying exposed to our values — and thus losing the likelihood of returning. Which means we’re defining ourselves by how we differ from non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews — not by what’s most important.

To some extent, when we use it as a self-identification, we are still thinking of frum in its original, ritual centric, meaning. A frum Jew is one who belongs to our community, and thus is following Orach Chaim, Even haEzer and Yoreh Dei’ah. And as implied by my comparison, this is an important threshold — it’s the line between someone who wishes to remain influenced by our teachings and culture, and those who do not. But it does not accurately reflect priorities. “Ehrlich is a yid.”

It is the original derogatory usage which is clearly the starting point for Rav Shelmo Wolbe’s essay on Frumkeit, in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. R’ Wolbe takes the informal usage of yore and gives it a robust, specific, technical meaning. In his hands, the word “frumkeit” refers to an etiology for a specific kind of cul-de-sac on the path of religious growth. Rav Wolbe opens:

וְאָמַר “סֹלּוּ! סֹלּוּ! פַּנּוּ-דָרֶךְ! הָרִימוּ מִכְשׁוֹל מִדֶּרֶךְ עַמִּי.”

And He will say, “Build it up! Build it up! Clear the way! Lift the stumbling-block out of the way of My people.

- Yeshaiah 57:14

On the narrow path to Truth in serving G‑d there is a major impediment which is called “frumkeit” (religiosity) – a term which has no clear and exact translation. “Frumkeit is the natural urge and instinct to become attached to the Creator. This instinct is also found amongst animals. Dovid said, “The lion cubs roar for their prey and ask G‑d for their food” (Tehilim 104:21). “He gives to the beast his food and to the young ravens who call to Him” (Tehilim 247:9). There is no necessity why these verses should be understood as metaphors [and therefore they will be read according to their literal meaning]. Animals have an instinctive feeling that there is someone who is concerned that they have food and this is the same instinct that works in man – but obviously at a higher level. This natural frumkeit helps us in serving G‑d. Without this natural assistance, serving G‑d would be much more difficult.

As you may have noticed following this blog, I am a strong advocate for a thoughtful and passionate approach to religious observance. As the name says, a fusion of passionate aish with the rigor of das’s law-based rite forming a new thing, a new word, “AishDas“. But in my discussion of thoughtful Judaism, I have always presumed the antonym of thoughtless Judaism, observance based on habit, on culture. Putting on tefillin merely because “that’s what is done.”

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

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Rav Wolbe explains:

However this frumkeit, as in all instinctive urges that occur in man, is inherently egoistic and self-centered. Therefore frumkeit pushes man to do only that which is good for himself. Activities between people and actions which are done without ulterior motivations are not derived from frumkeit. One who bases his service of G-d entirely on frumkeit remains self-centered. Even if a person places many pious restrictions on himself – he will never become a kind person and he will never reach the level of being pure motivated. This is why it is necessary that we base our service of G-d on commonsense (da’as). (Study Sotah 22b lists 7 types of activities which it labels as foolish piety. Each one of them is a manifestation of frumkeit without commonsense). Commonsense has to direct our service of G-d. From the moment we desert commonsense and act only according to frumkeit, our Divine service becomes corrupted. This is true even for a person on the level of a Torah scholar.

Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

A while back I posted about something I called the paradox of performing mitzvos bein adam lachaveiros lishmah — doing interpersonal mitzvos for the sake of the mitzvah:

What is the purpose of such mitzvos? To develop feelings of love and caring toward others; to expand our natural focus on ourselves to include others. Does the lishmah (lit: for itself) mean doing the mitzvah for the sake of doing a mitzvah? If it does, then we are not focusing on caring for other people, we are focusing on Hashem. On the other hand, if we define lishmah as being “for the purpose for which we were given the mitzvah (as best we can understand it)”, we would conclude that mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro “for itself” means doing it without thought to its being a mitzvah. As I said, a paradox.

Rav Wolbe quotes the Alter of Slabodka’s treatment of this question:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha komakhaand you shall love your peers like yourself.” That you should love your peer the way you love yourself. You do not love yourself because it is a mitzvah, rather, a plain love. And that is how you should love your peer.

To which Rav Wolbe notes, “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.

One must approach a mitzvah with a drive to see the deed done, rather than the self-interested drive to be the one doing it. This is “mimaaqim qarasikha Hashem — from the depths I call out to you, Hashem.” I reach for G-d not while instinctively grasping for loftiness, focusing on how can I make me more lofty, but when I subdue myself for the sake of the deed. To honor Shabbos out of a sense of honor, to give to the poor because one feels such love and empathy that nothing else would be thinkable.

This is why mussar is primarily a study of da’as, of wisdom and thoughtfulness.

The Value of Money

There is an often-cited dispute between Rabbi Yishma’el and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

ת”ר ואספת דגנך (דברים יא:יד) מה ת”ל לפי שנא’ (יהושע א:ח) לא ימוש ספר התורה הזה מפיך יכול דברים ככתבן ת”ל ואספת דגנך הנהג בהן מנהג דרך ארץ דברי ר’. ישמעאל ר”ש בן יוחי אומר אפשר אדם חורש בשעת חרישה וזורע בשעת זריעה וקוצר בשעת קצירה ודש בשעת דישה וזורה בשעת הרוח תורה מה תהא עליה אלא בזמן שישראל עושין רצונו של מקום מלאכתן נעשית ע”י אחרים שנא’ (ישעיהו סא:ה) ועמדו זרים ורעו צאנכם וגו’ ובזמן שאין ישראל עושין רצונו של מקום מלאכתן נעשית ע”י עצמן שנא’ (דברים יא:יד) ואספת דגנך ולא עוד אלא שמלאכת אחרים נעשית על ידן שנא’ (דברים כח:מח) ועבדת את אויביך וגו’ אמר אביי הרבה עשו כרבי ישמעאל ועלתה בידן כר’ שמעון בן יוחי ולא עלתה בידן

The Rabbis repeated: “And you shall gather your grain” (Devarim 11:16) What does this come to tell us?

Because it says “Do not let this Torah book be absent from your mouth” (Yehoshua 1:8) Could it be that these words are to be understood literally [i.e., that one must study Torah perpetually]? No, since the Torah writes ‘And you will harvest your grain…’ (in other words) practice the way of the world (i.e., earn a living) alongside (the words of Torah) – these are the words of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: Could a man plow when it’s plowing time, plant when it’s planting time, harvest when it’s harvest time, thresh when it’s threshing season and winnow while there’s wind? What would become of the Torah? Rather, at a time when the Jews do God’s Will, their labor will be done by others, as it says (Yeshaya 61:5): ‘And strangers will rise and shepherd your flocks…’ But at a time when Israel does not do God’s will, they will [need to] do their labor themselves, as it says (Devarim 11:14): ‘And you will harvest your grain’. And that is not all: they will be forced to do others’ labor as well, as it says (Devarim 28:48): ‘And you will serve your enemies…’

Abaya said: Many have acted like Rabbi Yishmael and it worked; like Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and it did not work.

I think I just encountered a Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 8:8, vilna 43b-44a) that might shed light on why Rabbi Shim’on was so reluctant to endorse working for a living. This is his opinion of human psychology when it comes to money:

תני רבי חייה במחתרת אין לו דמים חוץ למחתרת יש לו דמים תני ר”ש בן יוחי אפילו חוץ למחתרת אין לו דמים לפי שממונו של אדם חביב עליו כנפשו.

Rav Chiyah repeated: [If a burglar is killed while still] in a tunnel [to rob someone and possibly attack the people within and kill them], he has no blood [i.e. the killer is not held guilty of murder. If it is outside the tunnel [and the threat he poses to life subsided], he does have blood.
Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai repeated: Even outside the tunnel he has no blood [a person isn't guilty for killing him], because a person’s money is as dear to him as his living soul.

So, in Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai’s eyes, money is so all consuming it is up there with threat to life, and a person could not be blamed for killing a potential burglar.

With that opinion of how much wealth can distract someone, is it surprising Rabbi Shim’on assumes that having a job would naturally lead to total neglect of the Torah?

Tools and Goals

The chorus of a song we used to sing in my day, decades ago, in NCSY began:

Torah and mitzvos, these are our goals

Serving Hashem to strengthen our souls…

If we truly thought Torah and mitzvos are our goals, then we wouldn’t be looking beyond them to suggest we “serv[e] Hashem to…” something.1 The lyrics initially sound true in an obvious way, but actually each line describes a slightly different worldview, and the clash between them raises fundamental questions about how we should be viewing our life work:

Is observance the ends, the purpose, of our lives, or is it the means and the goal lies beyond it? And if they are the means, do we need to consciously frame the purpose of our lives, or should we just concern ourselves with following the halakhah, and rest assured that the goal will take care of itself?

Continue reading

  1. I don’t intend to critique a song written for a teens to sing at Shabbatonim by nit-picking over details of word choices as though I thought the song was intended to be a philosophical treatise. I do realize the primary goal was rhyming scheme and singability, not precision. I am just using these lines illustratively. []

Compassion for Our Enemies

Updated 1/8/2014.

We have a minhag to pour out 16 drops of wine, once at each mention of a makah that befell the Egyptians. The earliest mention of this custom is in the Maharil (according to R’ Joseph Tabory, on Avodah), who says the reason is that we are promised “any distress which I placed upon the Egyptians I will not place upon you”. As the cup of wine represents Jewish redemption, thus the drops are us asking Hashem to spare us these troubles and send them to our enemies. It is also documented in numerous places that those who remove the wine with their index finger are commemorating the Egyptian mages’ description of the plagues, “it is the ‘Finger’ of G-d”.

The most common reason we pass around, however, is that we’re diminishing our joy out of compassion for the suffering of other human beings, even the Egyptians. This reason is relatively new, but it is found in such authoritative locations as the hagaddah of R’ SZ Aurbach and appears as a “yeish lomar” (it could be said) in that of R Elyashiv (pg 106, “dam va’eish“).

So the question arose on both Avodah and soc.culture.jewish.moderated whether the value of compassion for our enemies is authentically Jewish, and more relevant for those who saw the references to these hagados, the origin and history of it.

The search seems to center on the question of why we say Chatzi Hallel (an incomplete Hallel; hereafter CH) on the 7th day of Pesach.

The gemara (Eirukhin 10b) gives the reason that from the second day onward, the qorban for that day was the same as the one before. The days of Pesach lack a newness that those of Sukkos have, and therefore there is CH on all but the first day of Pesach, but full Hallel on every day of Sukkos.

The Pesiqta deRav Kahane (Mandelbaum Edition, siman 29, 189a) gives us a different reason. It tells the story of the angels singing/reciting poetry at the crossing of the Red Sea, which was on the 7th day of Pesach, and Hashem stopping them saying “Ma’asei ‘Yadai’ tov’im bayam, va’atem omerim shirah — the work of My ‘Hands’ is drowning in the sea, and you say shirah?”

The Jews, on the other hand, sang “Az Yashir” unimpeded. It would seem to me therefore that we were allowed to rejoice, but there is a limit or a sadness mixed into that joy.

This is midrash is quoted by the Midrash Harninu and the Yalqut Shim’oni (the Perishah points you to Parashas Emor, remez 566).

The Midrash Harninu or the Shibolei haLeqet (our only source for the Midrash Harninu) associate this midrash with “binfol“. This is despite the fact that the pasuq of “binfol” would literally mean not rejoicing at all, and here it’s being used to argue for ambivalence — merging the joy of the neis with the sorrow of what was necessary to be done to the Mitzriyim.

The Beis Yoseif (O”Ch 490:4, “Kol“) cited the gemara, then quotes the Shibolei haLeqet as a second reason.

שבלי הלקט (סי’ קעד סט:) כתב בשם מדרש הרנינו פרשת סוכה שהטעם שאין גומרין ההלל כל ימי הפסח הוא לפי שנטבעו המצריים וכתיב (משלי כד יז) בנפול אויבך אל תשמח.

And in the Shibolei haLeqet it is written in the name of the Midrash Harninu that the reason why we do not finish Hallel on all the days of Pesach[, only on the first] is because the Egyptians drowned. As it says “Binfol oyivkha, al tismakh” (Mishlei 24:17).

The topic of CH was discussed in a column in Jewish Action by R’ Ari Z Zivitofsky. Here are some of the sources he identified.

The Taz gives this diminution of joy as the reason for CH on the 7th day (OC 490:3), as does the Chavos Ya’ir (225).

The Kaf haChaim (O”Ch 685:29) brings down the Yafeh haLeiv (3:3) use this midrash to establish the idea that we mourn the downfall of our enemy in order to explain why there is no berakhah on Parashas Zakhor (remembering the requirement to destroy Amaleiq).

R’ Aharon Kotler (Mishnas R’ Aharon vol III pg 3) says that the gemara‘s reason for CH (that the qorbanos are the same as for the previous day) is meant to address only chol hamo’ed, and our medrash is the primary reason for the 7th day of Pesach.

Which exhausted what I found on CH and R’ Zivitofsky’s column.

Back on Avodah, R’ Jacob Farkas found the Meshekh Chokhmah (Shemos 12:16uveyom“), who uses “binfol” and our medrash as an argument for disassociating Purim and Chanukah from their military victories. We celbrate our salvation, not their downfall. He also cites R’ Shelomo Alkabetz (Manos haLeivi 9:20 “Vayikhtov Mordekha“) who writes that because “HQVH does not rejoice in the downfall of the evil”, we too should not rejoice at their downfall — imitatio dei. We therefore celebrate Purim only for our deliverance.

R’ Dov Kay points us to the Netziv’s into to HaEimeq Davar, Bereishis. He defines “Seifer haYesharim” as the book about those who showed concern even for the wicked, that this quality is what defines being yashar. He holds up Avraham’s atittude toward the people of Sedom as an example for us to follow.

So, regardless of whether this is the reason for CH on Pesach day 7 or for spilling wine at the seider, or just a lesson one can learn post-facto from one or both of these, I think we have succeeded in well establishing the Jewishness of the idea that we have compassion for the death of even evil people.

(In an earlier devar Torah I suggest that this mixture of emotions is a necessary element before an event is called a “yeshu’ah” in Tanakh. That it is in common between Noach getting saved, and why the rainbow is a mixed message, why Lot’s wife was punished for turning back when she was saved, and our case of the mal’akhim at Yam Suf, who had no right to sing praises since people had died and it wasn’t they who were saved.)

Similarly, this recognition of the role of ambivalence is found in the halakhah that someone who is left a large inheritence must say both the berakhah of “Dayan emes“, mourning the death, and “hatov vehameitiv” on becoming wealthy.

Here, the balance must be struck between two verses: “binfol oyivkha al tismakh — when your enemy falls do not rejoice” (Mishlei 24:17) and “ba’avod reshaim rinah — with the destruction of evil there are shouts of happiness” (11:10). The Zohar writes that the happiness is only when the destruction is to cure the evil, and therefore comes with their atonement. When they die because they are oyevim, enemies, who need to be eliminated to save the good rather than in the right time for their own sake, there is no joy. The gemara‘s resolutions (Sanherin 39b) is that while Hashem does not rejoice, He does call upon others to rejoice. However the Maharsha relates this back to the story of “the work of My “Hands’ is drowning…” The others rejoice at being the beneficiary of G-d’s good, even while recognizing the loss necessary for us to be saved from the wicked.

Interesting is one of the gemara’s prooftexts, found also in the Yerushalmi parallel at 4:9, 23b, is from a battle in Hodu Lashem, ki le’olam chasdo — Sing to Hashem, for His lovingkindness is eternal.” Rav Yochanan notes that two words are missing compared to the version in Hallel, “ki tov — for He is Good”. Because we do not consider the death of the wicked good. It is important to note that this is about the death of non-Jews, of longstanding enemies of the Jewish people since the Exodus! In the Yerushalmi, this is held in contrast to “ba’avod resha’im rinah — one should rejoice at the loss of the wicked” to yield a different resolution than the Maharsha’s understanding of the Bavli. The loss of the wicked through teshuvah would have been a source of joy, their downfall through death is to be mourned.

One can’t say (deapite the idea’s popularity in some circles), it’s an assimilated liberal or Christian value that was brought in through liberal Judaisms, or promoted by kiruv workers who want a more palatable Judaism to sell.

So why doesn’t “mi shemeracheim al ha’achzarim… — one who is merciful to the cruel will in the end be cruel to the merciful” apply? Perhaps it is because we aren’t talking about ignoring the very real need for their destruction. Unlike Sha’ul, who inappropriately saved Agag, we are not saying the Mitzriyim should have been spared. Rather, that it’s sad that things had come to this.

Someone who r”l needs to have a leg amputated should have it removed. He’ll mourn its loss and the loss of everything he could have done with it, but will still give his okay for its removal. “Mi shemeracheim” is the doctor who lets the patient die because he had pity on the leg.

Toward a Torah Definition of “Ethics”

A short thought, maybe a conversation starter…

There is a paradoxic obligation: it is prohibited to conform in all ways only to the letter of the law. One must stay well within it (lifnim mishuras hadin; or using the contrasting English metaphor: “beyond the letter of the law”) both in ways that prevent violation through error, habit or negligence and in ways that implement the law’s ideals.

So, to give an example from Bava Metzi’ah 83a:

רבה בר בר חנן תברו ליה הנהו שקולאי חביתא דחמרא. שקל לגלימייהו. אתו, אמרו לרב. אמר ליה, “הב להו גלימייהו.” אמר ליה, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — “למען תלך בדרך טובים.’ (משלי ב)” יהיב להו גלימייהו, אמרו ליה, “עניי אנן, וטרחינן כולה יומא, וכפינן, ולית לן מידי!” אמר ליה, “זיל הב אגרייהו.” א”ל, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — ‘וארחות צדיקים תשמור’ (משלי ב)”:

Rabbah bar bar Chanan had some porters who broke his barrel of wine. He grabbed their cloaks. They went and told Rav. Rav said to [Rabbah] “Give them their cloaks.” He said to [Rav], “Is this the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘so that you will walk in the ways of the good’ (Mishlei 2:20)”. He gave them their cloaks. They said to him, “We are poor, and we labored all day, and now we are exhausted, and we don’t have anything!” [Rav] said to Raba, “Go give them their wages.” He said to [Rav], “Is that the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘and the way of the righteous you shall observe’ (ibid)”.

(In the parallel Yerushalmi [6:6 27a-b], the employer is R’ Nechemiah, who hires a single person to carry a pot [qadar]. R’ Nechemiah seizes his shirt, and the question comes before R Yosi bar Chanina.)

We also have the prohibition that is paradoxically phrased by the Ramban as banning being a “naval birshus haTorah — disgusting with the permission of the Torah.” Such as someone whose life revolves around the quest the next glatt kosher mehadrin min hamehadrin gourmet meal. Since it’s a prohibition implied by “Qedoshim tihyu — be holy”, you don’t really have the Torah’s permission. But there is no express specific halakhah. Usually I put a bracketed “[otherwise]” when translating this Ramban.

But that prohibition can be seen specifically in terms of a person’s relationship to their own souls, or to the Creator. Later in parashas Qedoshim the Torah lists interpersonal mitzvos and caps the specific duties with “ve’asisa hayashar vehatov – and you will do the upright and the good.” The Ramban explains that this is because the full scale of human interaction cannot be spelled out in a specific list of laws, so the generality is given.

The Rambam would refer to these mitzvos — the obligation to become holy, upright and good (as opposed to acting those ways) as hilkhos Dei’os.

\Start with the natural ethic, as described by Hillel — “that which you loathe do not do to your peers, that is the whole Torah”. But many of the things we think we or others would loathe, we would reassess if we had more complete insight into the human condition and foresight to know what would be best in the longest run. Realizing that, we continue Hillel’s words, “Now go learn!” further the ethic as implied by halakhah and described in aggadita.

I would therefore suggest that a definiton of Ethics compatible with the Torah’s worldview would be going lifnim mishuras hadin in a manner aimed at furthering the ethics of the Torah. The Torah’s ethics are in line with the ethics Hashem planted in our soul, but reflect His knowledge of situations and people, giving us more to rely on than our own understanding of the context.

Your thoughts?