Judaism has numerous words for particular ideals; there is the tzadik, the chasid, the ba’al teshuvah, etc… But does it have a word for idealism itself – for the inherent value of a burning desire to pursue an ideal?

This question is quite important. If there is no word for idealism in lashon hakodesh, neither in biblical Hebrew nor rabbinic idiom, how can we argue that Judaism has such a value?

I think we can identify such a term. And our story starts with R’ Saadia Gaon’s analysis of laughter.


It happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road and heard the sound of the Roman masses from Pelitus, one hundred and twenty mil away. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They asked him, “Why do you laugh?” He said to them, “And you, why do you cry?”

They said to him, “These pagans, who bow to images and bring offerings to idolatry, dwell in security and tranquility, whereas we — the house [that is] the footstool of our God has been burned by fire. Shall we not cry?”

He said to them, “It is for that reason that I laugh. If this is how it is for those who violate His will, then all the more so for those who perform His will!

One time, they were ascending to Jerusalem. When they reached Har HaTzofim [the first point from which one can see the Temple Mount] they rent their garments. When they reached the Har HaBayis, they saw a fox leaving the [site of] the qodesh ha-qodashim [the innermost sanctum of the Temple]. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He responded, “Why do you cry?”

They said to him, “The site about which it is written: ‘The foreigner who approaches shall be put to death’ (Bamidbar 1) — now foxes walk there, and we shall not cry?”

He said to them, “Therefore I laugh. For it is written, ‘I called upon reliable witnesses — Uriyah the Kohen, and Zechariah ben Yevarecheihu’ (Yishayahu 8:2). What does Uriyah have to do with
Zechariah — Uriyah [lived] during the First Temple [period], whereas Zechariah [lived] during the Second Temple [era]! Rather, the verse hinges the prophecy of Zechariah on the prophecy of Uriyah. In [a prophecy of] Uriyah it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field,’ (Mikhah 3) and in [a prophecy of] Zechariah it is written, ‘There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem.’ (Zechariah 7) So long as Uriyah’s prophecy was unfulfilled, I feared lest Zechariah’s prophecy will not be fulfilled. Now that Uriyah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.”

They said to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us; Akiva, you have consoled us.”

Makkos 24a-25b

When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, his students went to visit him. He said to them, “There is great anger in the world” [referring to Hashem’s giving power to the Romans]. They started to cry, except Rabbi Akiva who laughed. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He answered them, “And why do you cry?” They said to him, “Is it possible that one sees the scroll of the Torah in pain, and we do not weep?”

He responded, “It is for that reason that I laughed. As long as I saw my rebbe, that his wine did not turn sour, his flax did not get smitten, his oil did not spoil, and honey did not crystallize, I could say that perhaps ch”v rebbe had received his world [now, not in the world-to-come]. But now that I see that rebbe suffers, I am happy.” [Rabbi Eliezer] said to [Rabbi Akiva], “Did I neglect any matter of the Torah [for which I now suffer]?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to him, “Our rebbe, you taught us, ‘For there is no righteous man on earth who does good without sinning.’ (Koheles 7:20)”

Sanhedrin 101a

There are three famous stories associated with the fall of the Temple in which R’ Akiva laughs: upon hearing Romans on the attack miles away, upon seeing foxes running in and out amongst the ruins on the Temple Mount, and when he witnessed R’ Eliezer’s martyrdom. And in all three cases the Sages ask why, how can he cry at such an apparently inappropriate time?

R’ Saadia Gaon defines laughter as the reaction people have to a sudden realization of an underlying truth. (It took me a while to craft that statement, even so, you may need to reread it once or twice.) Interestingly, Robert Lynch, an anthropologist recently studying the topic of humor by experimenting as a stand-up comic, reached a similar conclusion:

He recently conducted an experiment that proves this. He had volunteers listen to an edgy, stand-up comic named Bill Burr.

“He has a joke about why men make more money than women for doing the exact some job,” Lynch says. “The punchline is, ‘I’ll tell you why. In the unlikely case we are both on the Titanic and it starts to sink, you get to leave with the kids and I get to stay. So call it a dollar-an-hour surcharge.'”

Lynch also gave the volunteers a psychological test that measured their unconscious gender attitudes. What he found was that volunteers with traditional gender views — people who believed women ought to stay home, rather than go to work — laughed harder at that joke than volunteers with more progressive views.

“People’s implicit beliefs, unconscious beliefs and preferences, matched what they found funny,” Lynch says.

A joke, in other words, is like a little brain scan: When we laugh, we reveal what’s inside us.

Lynch thinks evolution may have hardwired a sense of humor into our species because laughter serves as a signal. When you and I laugh at the same joke, we signal to each other that we share the same values, the same beliefs. This may be why people all over the world want friends and romantic partners who share their sense of humor.

In another experiment, Lynch sought to understand the connection between laughter and the psychological trait of self-deception.

Self-deceivers are people who don’t see their own values, motives and beliefs clearly.

“I simply gave people a self-deception test and measured their facial expressions in response to a stand-up comedian,” he says. “And there was a very strong association between the two.”

Self-deceivers were less likely to laugh.

It made sense to Lynch: You laugh when a joke resonates with your inner values and beliefs. If you’re out of touch with your own values and beliefs — as self-deceivers are — you’re less likely to find jokes funny.

— NPR: “An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar…” by Shankar Vedantam, 6 Aug 2012

Humor is a sudden realization of truth, and so, when R’ Akiva suddenly saw a truth, he laughed.

R’ Saadia adds that “simchah” is the kind of happiness associated with laughter.

According to R’ SR Hirsch’s usual etymological rules (see also R’ Matisyahu Clark’s “Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew”), /s-m-ch/ would be a more intensive/active form of /s-m-h/. The latter, R’ Hirsch tells us, is the root from which we get “sheim” (to name). Understanding something is underlying reality does fit that relationship to naming it.

The mishnah tells us, “Eizehu ashir? Hasamei’ach bichelko.” (Who is wealthy? One who is samei’ach with his lot.) The ashir is happy with what he has because he knows why he has what he does, and why he doesn’t have what he doesn’t. He understands why this lot is distinctly his.

R’ Saadia Gaon continues by explaining that “yesharim” (straight ones) are those who see through to this inner truth, who head straight for it without taking detours or compromises. Which is why “Or zaru’ah latzadik, ulyishrei leiv simchah.” (A light is sown for the righteous, and simchah for the yesharim of heart.) mitzvos are the means: “Pekudei Hashem yesharim, misamchei leiv…” (The appointments of Hashem are yesharim, they bring simchah to the heart.) The yashar sees mitzvos as pekudim, appointments. Calling him to a higher role.

So I would like to suggest “yashar” as the term for idealism. R’ Saadia’s description seems to fit someone who goes straight for the fundamental truths, ideals, without compromising with “the needs of living in ‘the real world'”.

Ivdu es Hashem besimchah” (Serve Hashem in simchah) is to serve Him while keeping the ideal in focus. The person who is oveid besimchah is yashar. However, the person who is still struggling toward that ideal and isn’t there yet is also an idealist and also yashar – someone who is heading straight toward the goal. Being besimchah means having the ideal in sight. Being yashar means working toward that ideal – whether or not you have it fully in sight yet.


For three of the four occurrences of the alef-beis in megillas Eichah, the acrostics in chapters 2 through 4, the letter pei precedes ayin. Why?

Chazal relate this to the first calamity of Tish’a B’av, the meraglim (the spies sent by the exodus generation to Israel). They put their peh before their einayim, their mouths before their eyes. But the meraglim didn’t lie; they did describe what they actually saw. There really were giants and strong walled cities and abnormally huge fruit, etc…

What they lacked was simchah – knowledge of the underlying truth. Without that the meraglim reconstructed the evidence and reached a conclusion totally opposite from reality. They saw, but they were blind.

The Sifri writes (as quoted in Rashi on parashas Matos 30:2) that Moshe Rabbeinu alone was able to say “Zeh hadavar” (this is the idea), other prophets only had “Koh amar Hashem” (“like this”, not “this”, G-d said). Prophecy only comes when the person is besimchah; the ability to see “koh” is from a position of simchah.

Which brings us to parashas Devarim and megillas Eichah’s cry “Eichah?” (How can it be?) which the gemara relates back to G-d’s call to Adam, “Ayekoh?” (Where are you?) Hashem didn’t ask Adam for his only for his location, but also “Where is your ‘koh‘, your ‘like this’, the ideal you pursue? Without “zeh divar Hashem“, without even “koh amar Hashem” there can be no ish yashar. Only the eichah of those who refuse to see. The pei preceeds the ayin. The sin of the meraglim survived down to the generation of Yirmiyahu. Which is why Chazal worn us “when Av arrives, we reduce in simchah“. The events confuse us, it’s hard to feel G-d’s presence, and so the Shechinah too is in exile.


Venomar lifanav shir chadash al ge’ulaseinu vi’al pedus nafsheinu“. (And we will say before Him a new song, on our freedom and the redemption of our souls. Passover Haggadah)

Who says Hallel? Hallel is reserved for the revealed, the obvious, miracle. The daily hidden miracle doesn’t get Hallel – aren’t even allowed to get Hallel. One who says Hallel every day is a labeled a heretic. (Shabbos 118b) Hallel is said besimchah, when one can clearly see the fundamental truth. As it says in Tehillim, and included in Shacharis for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “Ranenu tzadikim Bashem, layesharim navah sehillah.” (Tzaddikim rejoice in G-d, for yesharim, tehillah” – from the same /h-l-l/ root as hallel – “is pleasant.” Which is then elaborated in Nusach Ashkenaz, “Befi yesharim tis-hallal…

Rashi on Taanis 15a comments that a yashar is on a higher plane than a tzadik. And the Netziv notes that Chazal call the book of Bereishis “Seifer haYesharim“. The value of pursuing the ideal is a core message of an entire book of the Torah! Our forefathers are praised as being yashar in particular. Which brings a totally new meaning to Hashem’s statement to Avraham: “because [only] from Yitzchak” – who is named for laugher! – “shall be called your offspring be called yours” (Bereishis 21:12).


This progression, from the “zeh hadavar” of parashas Matos to the “Eichah?” of Devarim and Tisha’ Be’av, leads us to this weekend – Tu Be’av and Shabbos Nachamu.

The haftorah opens “‘Nachamu nachamu ami’, yomar E-lokeichem.” (‘Be comforted, be comforted, My people’, your G-d will say. Yeshaiah 40:1) Nechamah is being reconciled with something that had happened because one understands it had a purpose. It is a part of “samei’ach bechelko“, understanding that there is a point to what one doesn’t have. Returning from the bewilderment of suffering and being able to look back upon it in context.

The navi goes on a bit later (40:3) to say, “A voice calls, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of Hashem; in the aravah, the desert, make yashar the path to our G-d.'” To take that nechamah, and use that regained understanding as motivation to be yashar in our avodas Hashem.

Mesechtes Ta’nis ends with a quote from R’ Shim’on ben Gamliel, that there are no holidays in the Jewish calendar greater than Yom Kippur and Tu Be’Av. Note that one is a return to Hashem from something we did, the other returning to Him after the incomprehensibility of what He did.

On Tu Be’Av, when we recover simchah after the Three Weeks, was when women tried to find a husband. And each told their prospectives not to put the peh before the ayin but to look for the woman’s real qualities. “Charisma is a lie, and beauty is vain, a woman who has awe for G-d – she shall be praised (tis-halal).” (Mishlei 31:30) “Give her of the fruits of her labors; and they, the things she makes, will praise here – viyhaleluha, again the notion of hallel! – in the gates.” (ibid 31) “Go out and see, daughters of Tzion, the king Shelomo in his crown which his mother crowned him, on the day of his wedding; on the day of the simchah of his heart.” The Talmud asks, “What is the day of the simchah of his heart? The day the Beis Hamikdash was built.”

Be comforted, everything we have been through and are still going through is so that that day can again come!

Yiyasheir kochachem!

Of Arks and Rainbows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Love, part I

Rav SR Hirsch relates the word ahavah (love) /ahb/ to the roots /hbh/ meaning “offer” and /hbb/, “bring forth”. To love is to give.In his Kunterus haChesed, Rav Dessler writes a truth fundamental to Mussar. We think of giving as an expression of love, but moreso giving is the cause of love. There’s a famous story of Rav Yisrael Salanter that makes this point.

One time Rav Yisrael was riding by train from Kovno to Vilna. He was sitting in a smoking car, smoking a cigar. (This was the 19th century, smoking wasn’t known to be a dangerous vice.) A young fellow boarded and sat near him. The man complained, yelling at him about the smell of the cigar and the thickness of the smoke. Bystanders tried to quiet him, pointing out that if he didn’t want the smoke, the man could move to a non-smoking car. Rav Yisrael Salanter put out the cigar, and opened the window to clear the air. A minute later, the man slammed the window closed, screaming at Rav Yisrael for letting the cold air in. Rav Yisrael apologized to the young man, and turned his attention to a seifer.

When they reached Vilna, crowds of people had come to the train to greet the elderly sage, the great Rav Yisrael Salanter. The man was mortified when he realized who it was he had offended through the entire train ride. He went to the home where Rav Yisrael was staying to beg forgivenes. Rav Yisrael was gracious in granting it. A trip, after all, can make you edgy. He asked the man why he came to Vilna. It turns out he was looking for a letter from a rav to help him get started as a shocheit. Rav Yisrael made a connection for the man, contacting his son-in-law, Rav Elya Lazer, asking him to give the man the test.

He failed it, badly. For the next several weeks, Rav Yisrael taught him the laws himself, and arranged teachers and tutors for the more hands-on skills of shechitah. After retaking the test, he earned Rav Elya Lazer’s letter of approbation. Then, Rav Yisrael Salanter continued to help, contacting communities until he could find the man a job.

The shocheit was ready to leave Vilna. He came to Rav Yisrael with a question. He could understand how Rav Yisrael, the founder of a movement that teaches a focus on middos, was able to forive him. But why did you then commit your next few weeks to helping me so much?

Rav Yisrael explained. It’s easy to say “I’m sorry.” However, how do you know that deep down you really forgive the person, that you’re not bearing a deep-seated grudge? Deep down in his heart, Rav Yisrael was not so sure. Therefore he had to help the aspiring When you help another person, you develop a love for them.

This idea is akin to one Rav Shimon Shkop makes in the introduction to Shaarei Yosher. The Torah says, “You shall love your friend as yourself.” Notice the Torah’s ideal is not the impossible goal of destroying one’s love of self. This is why Hillel states in the negative, “That which you hate, do not do to others.”

It is easy to provide for one physical needs — it’s driven by strong personal desire. Slightly loftier than that is caring for our emotional or even spiritual beings. We also freely give to our children, who we intuitively see as extensions of our selves. Similarly, we give to our immediate family. Someone truly generous extends their sense of “self” to include their entire community, the Jewish People, or even the world.

This is the meaning Rav Shim’on gives Hilel’s enigmatic mishnah: If I am not for me, who is for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? If I am not for my greater self, my entire “me and mine” which in the ideal includes all of humanity, who will be? And when I am for atzmi, my inner core self (etzem is both “core” and “bone”) with no bridges beyond myself, what am I?

According to Rav Shimon, the key to giving is not negating the self, but the exact reverse — extending the notion of self to realize our unity with others. Love, a sense of unity, is intimately tied to giving. By giving we create a love for others because giving is an expression of our realization of that unity for others.

In part II, I hope to discuss the avos, Avraham, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov, as archetypes of distinctly different expressions of love.

Love, part II

If we look at the portrayal of the avos, both in their relationships with Hashem and with their families, I believe you find three distinct models for loving relationships.

Avraham is noted by Chazal for being a baal chessed, for being generous, giving. As we saw in part I, this is in imitation of G-d. The purpose of creation (to the extent that we can know the mind of G-d) is to provide Hashem a recipient to whom to give. I would like to suggest that for Avraham, love was not primarily expressed by giving to the beloved, but by giving of oneself to further the beloved’s goals. This is also how Chazal portray the relationship between Avraham and Sarah. “‘And the soul[s] which they made in Charan’ — he brought the men close [to G-d], she brought the women.” A couple sharing a common dream. This kind of love is described in words Antoine Saint-Expaury places in the mouth of “The Little Prince”, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

However, the word ahavah only appears once in the naarative of Avraham’s life. “Take your son, your only one, asher ahavta, whom you love, Yitzchaq” to the aqeidah. The word itself first appears in a relationship to Yitzchaq. And in fact, when we get to Yitzchaq the word appears often. When he takes Rivqah into his home, “… and he took Rivkah, and she was for him a wife, vaye’ehaveha, and he loved her…” In their relationship to their sons, “Vaye’ehav Yitzchaq, and Yitchaq loved Eisav, for he hunted with his mouth, veRivqa oheves, and Rivqah loves Yaaqov.” (BTW, note the change in tense: Yitzchaq loved Eisav, but Rivqah loves Yaaqov.) At giving the berakhah, Yitzchaq asks Eisav to bring him sweets “ka’asher ahavti, the way I love”, and Rivqah tells Yaaqov that she will make Yitzchaq those sweets “ka’asher aheiv, the way he loves.”

Yitzchaq’s love was more straightforward. It was giving to the beloved. That’s why it warrants explicit use of the term ahavah rather than letting it remain implied. Avimelekh knew that Yitzchaq and Rivqah were spouses when he saw him “metzacheiq es Rivqah ishto”, making her laugh or perhaps otherwise acting intimately. (Not sexually, as this was in public.) The word-playused in the Torah, “Yitzchaq” and the more rare usage of “metzacheiq”, gives us a sense that this behavior is inherent to what it is to be a Yitzchaq.

When Rivqah arrived at Avraham’s home, Yitzchaq was returning from prayer. He went “lasu’ach basadeh, to talk in the field”. The word “lasu’ach” is not the usual one for prayer. The mishnah uses the root to caution us “Al tarbeh sichah im ha’ishah, don’t overly engage in sichah with women.” Sichah has a connotation of flirting; Yitzchaq’s prayer was one of flirting with G-d.

When we get to Yaaqov, we find a synthesis of the two. Yaaqov’s avodas Yashem is identified with “titen emes leYaaqov, give truth to Yaaqov”, “veYaaqov ish tam yosheiv ohalim, and Yaaqov was a pure/whole man, who dwelled in tents” and chazal add: in tents of study. Yaaqov worshipped G-d by studying what was known so far of His Torah, by trying to understand him. This love through understanding the other is also what we find at the end of his life, when Yaaqov blesses each son according to that son’s personal strengths and weaknesses. This focus on the essence of the individual might be how Yaaqov succeeded keeping all of his sons within the proto-Jewish fold, while Avraham and Yitzchaq only were able to succeed with one of their sons.

Yaaqov’s love is unconditional. It’s getting beyond the beloved’s behavior to the essence of the beloved underneath. Loving someone just for who they are. This directly bores through the barrier between “me” and “him” (again, see part I), even that of the barrier the beloved himself put up. You therefore naturally give to the other the way you provide for yourself. And, by knowing what the person truly stands for and aspires to, perhaps better than the beloved does himself, you share in their dreams and work together toward them.

Psychology and Mussar

The story so far from the previous two entries:
Contemporary western society puts its trust in science to the extent that things outside its domain are assumed to have a lesser reality. The current stance toward morality is therefore one of uncertainty, which is paraded as the virtues of tolerance and relativism. It also means that instead of lauding free will as the ability to choose to be good, the west values it as an end in itself. There is no common moral code, since morality is perceived as only “true for” a given person, not absolutely real the way gravity is. This then translates into America’s oft-copied rights-based legal system, one in which the law’s only goal is protecting rights, rather than one based on duties to serve a higher goal.This disbelief in an absolute moral standard also shapes the self-help and psychology industries. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM IV is a guide to diagnosing mental illness. Its definition of illness is that which interferes with the person’s function. IOW, the goal of psychology is to help a person gain the internal freedom to be what they desire to be. Not to align those desires to some particular, more productive goal.The following is from my notes taken of R’ Ephraim Becker’s lecture at the Mussar Kallah in Houston (2-May-04).

Self-help addresses (1) loss of productivity; and (2) personal pain. In Torah (including Mussar) we’d call these yisurim (trevails). But Mussar wouldn’t want you to attack yisurim. Yisurim are triggers, part of the solution. They aren’t the things that need changing, they are causes to get up and change something. Mussar adds to self-help the notion of duty. One doesn’t try to eliminate yisurim, but their causes — which reside in flaws in our ability to carry out our mission.

Self-help, tries to eliminate the bumps in life’s paths, eliminate the restrictions of one’s autonomy. Mussar, being about growth as a Jew, sees them as tools.

One presumes that the person is his own best moral guidepost, and therefore the unwanted in one’s life is certainly appropriate to eliminate. The other is based on the idea that the Torah describes for us an absolute objective morality. It’s our job to study that terrain and live by ever-improving maps of it as we learn more over time. Problems in our lives wake us up to inconsistencies in that map.

Miriam Adahan’s EMETT is “Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”. Its goal is not to find the Torah’s definition of the emotional ideal. It’s to help someone with a Torah-based lifestyle find “emotional maturity”. The goal is defined by the zeitgeist, as are nearly all of her tools (despite the words “established through Torah” in the acronym). Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Twersky’s variant of the 12-Step approach is self-help, not Mussar.

I don’t see this as an inherently negative goal. The self-help movement is to my mind a positive thing. But it’s not Mussar. In both cases of the Orthodox writers I named, they believe in the Torah ideal, that there is an absolute goal to which one should be working. However, they keep it distinct from their psychological advice. (With the exception of citing traditional Jewish texts to make their points.) The approach is more that one first strives through self-help and psychology to be a fully productive being, then one applies that increased productivity to being a good and happy Jew.

Mussar is truly a synthesis — fully religion and fully psychology. It’s not psychology as a precursor to being able to live a religious life, but shaping oneself into an eved Hashem. Mussar is the approach to Judaism in which the self-improvement is a defining feature of the Judaism. Inseparable. One is improving oneself not simply in order to be able to reach the spiritual goal, but because that very goal is to constantly “shteig” (Yiddish: climb) as they’d say in Slabodko.

(Because of this relationship, it’s possible for Mussar to use self-help techniques — and still pursuing a distinctly different goal. R’ Leffin of Satanov can adapt Benjamin Franklin’s diaries to produce Cheshbon Hanefesh, and perhaps Rav Dessler’s notes on tolerance are based on a Reader’s Digest version of “How to Win Friends and Influence people” by Dale Carnegie. But they were put into drastically different use. Not merely “how to win friends” but how to embody gemillus chassidim (supporting kindness) and mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (mitzvos between a person and his peer). Even the very title, giving it a value in aiding you produce (“winning friends” “influencing people”) rather than a moral goal, speaks volumes about the difference between self-help and mussar.

Psychology is internal work. Without an anchor in an external value system, its goals tend toward the narcissistic. Mussar is entirely about living in step with the true moral terrain of creation. Therefore, while it too is internal work, it doesn’t end there. The shteiging is to improve relationships that bridge outward from you by improving the one thing in your control – yourself.

Very existentialist. The ideal is to be striving for the ideal. The constant process of becoming, rather than to statically be.

The Fire Within the Bush

“Dirshu Hashem behimatz’o — seek G-d when He can be found, qara’uhu bihyoso qarov — call Him when He is near.””Shuvu eilai, veashuva aleikhem — Return to Me and I will return to you.”Contrasting images. The first is one of G-d initiating the repentance process, and man responding after Hashem has first made Himself available. The second is G-d’s cry for us to initiate, and then He will respond. A relationship is cyclic, feeding back upon itself. There is no clear initial point; each step gradually deepens the bond.

In Unsaneh Toqef, we find the following as part of the description of what the high holidays are like in heaven. “And a great shofar will be blown, and a small still voice will be heard, and the angels will be atremble, and panic and fear will grip them, and they will cry ‘Here is the day of judgment!'” The “small still voice”, the “qol demamah daqah” is a quote from Melachim I, from a lesson Hashem teaches Eliyahu hanavi. First the prophet is buffeted by a powerful wind, and G-d says, “I Am not in the wind”, then he hears a loud crash, “I Am not in the crash”, then a fire, and G-d says that He is neither there. Then “a small thin voice”. What sets the angels in panic? Not the great and mighty shofar, but the response within the human soul. What forces them to proclaim the day of judgment? Not the clarion call announcing that now is “He can be found”, but the person seeking Him, returning to G-d so that He will return to them.

Moshe rabbeinu’s first recorded prophecy, his sight of the burning bush, has a similar lesson.

2: And Hashem’s angel appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, here! the bush burned with fire bo’eir ba’eish, and the bush was not consumed.3: And Moshe said, “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, madu’ah lo yiv’ar haseneh — why the bush does not burn.”

4: And when Hashem saw that he turned to look, Hashem called him out of the midst of the bush, and said: “Moshe, Moshe!” And he said: “Here I am.”

In pasuq 2, a mal’akh appears to Moshe, and the bush is bo’eir ba’eish. However, Moshe turns aside from that vision. He turned to see that lo yiv’ar hanseh — no, it’s not really burning. There is a fire within the bush, only at the core. The mal’akh speaks mitoch, from within the bush. The truer revelation that Moshe rabbeinu saw beyond the angel was one if tzimtzum, Divine Constriction. When Moshe realizes this, the nevu’ah is elevated from a prophet’s speech to an angel to Moshe’s unique ability to speak “face to ‘Face'” with G-d. Moshe merited this nevu’ah because he was “anav mikol adam — more modest than any other man.” His anivus is a reflection and imitation of that very tzimtzum, which is how Moshe alone would turn to take another look.

The mal’akh appeared in the big, the flashy. The first glance made it seem that the whole bush was aflame. It’s like the shofar gadol blowing, announcing Hashem’s presence. The angel declared behimatz’o — here and now Hashem could be found. But Moshe’s response one to the qol demamah dakah, he saw Hashem limiting his presence to allow for a response, to demand derashah — seeking Him out. Realizing that you must respond, that you aren’t simply entitled, that is anivus. And therefore Moshe connected to the A-lmighty in a way no one else did before or since.

Free Will and Environment

I noticed a result of combining two previous divrei Torah. Before reading the following, see Bemachashavah Techilah for parshiyos Bo and Beshalach. In the first, I explore the question of Hashem making it impossible for Par’oh to change his mind. Isn’t that a violation of Par’oh’s free will? I elaborate on the Sefornu’s answer that in truth, Par’oh’s witnessing miracles was a supernatural intervention that would have influenced his decision. Hashem’s preventing Par’oh from remaking his decisions based on that evidence actually preserved his free will from such supernatural intervention. This is why the Torah’s shift from saying that Par’oh immobilized his own heart to saying that Hashem did it was with makas shechin (boils), the plague that made his magicians “unable to stand before Par’oh”. At that point he no longer had a balance between miracle and magic, and miracle could unduly influence him.On parashas Beshalach I presented the Maharal’s view, that miracles in fact could occur all the time — if we were on the level to observe them. And so for Yehushua and the Jewish people, the sun stood still; but for the rest of the world, nature ran its course. Rav Dessler explains this idea further. Someone who lives a more physical lifestyle sees the laws of physics as absolute. And the higher law, involving notions of justice, oppression, right, wrong, etc… seems more relative. However, to someone who lives his life focusing on the higher plane, the laws of nature seem relative, and the higher law becomes absolute. That’s how the same liquid could be water and blood simultaneously; physical reality became a relative thing. To Rav Dessler, this is an extension of the idea that when a shoemaker walks down the street, he sees a see of shoes; when a tailor walks down the same steet, he all he sees is clothing. People see what they’re attuned to see — even nature vs. miracle.

However, I noticed since writing those divrei Torah that in fact the plagues were a reversal of this order. The righteous experienced nature, to them water remained water, but the baser community, the Egyptians, experienced its miraculous transformation into blood. This observation is not made by Rav Dessler, and this is not Rav Dessler’s resolution of the question of Par’ohs free will. But it would seem to me that perhaps this is why the plagues in particular would be a violation of free will.

Psychologists debate the roles of nature vs. nurture in forming human nature. But by focusing on this debate, one is looking at the initial formation of personality, how a person is shaped before they take the reins of their own life. People have free will; they have the power to shape themselves.

Often people have little control over the world around them and what happens to them. In fact, the primary choice people have is how they choose to react internally to a situation, the choice of how they perceive what’s happening.

Usually, the only person who witnesses a miracle is seeing the world though his own perspective. The miracle only proves the perspective he himself brings to the world. “In the path that a person wants to go, that’s the way they take him.” This wasn’t true of the makkos. But this is not only true of most miracles; this is true of all the events we witness in our own lives. Our lives may be determined by our environment, but what elements of our environment come to the forefront and which remain in the background lies within our choice.

Hispa’alus, or: Yismach Moshe

One of the critical tools of Tenu’as haMussar is hispa’alus, “learning ‘with lips aflame.'” Literally, the word is the reflexive of “to work”, in other words “to work on oneself.” Hispa’alus is such a useful practice it even became part of their davening, tefillah behispa’alus.What is hispa’alus? The Alter of Kelm describes a four-step process:

  1. Intense and single-minded concentration on a single thought. One phrase, sentence or paragraph, repeated out loud and with a tune, to help keep away extraneous thoughts.A beginner should start with five minutes and work his way upward.
  2. That much focus on a single thought creates an emotional response. As does the use of melody and chanting.The Alter of Novorodok focuses on this emotional component. In his version of hispa’alus, the melody and volume are more critical.
  3. Through the extended concentration, one can find a chiddush a new insight into the thought.As many corporate managers learn, if you want your employees to “buy into” a new project, you hold a brainstorming session. By getting each person to contribute ideas to the project, they get a sense of possession. The project becomes “theirs”.

    Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.

  4. Last, the person deepens the insight into profundity on Torah, one’s own nature, and the interaction of the two. How the Torah speaks to my condition, and how the uniqueness of who I am and how I see things speaks to the Torah.

How does this become a style of prayer? Obviously, saying every line of the siddur with five minutes of concentration apiece (and that’s just when you’re starting out!) is impossible, both humanly, and because of the finite time of the day. Instead, certain parts of tefillah call for this kind of attention: the first berakhah of the Amidah, the first line or paragraph of Shema, maybe the verses in Qorbanos about bitachon (trust in G-d) which the siddur rells us to repeat three times each, whichever tefillos speak to you and where you’re up to in life. In adapting hispa’alus to contemporary prayer in a contemporary synagogue, perhaps Kelm’s style of hispa’alus that is quieter then Novorodok’s passioned cry would be more useful.Perhaps it’s best to explain by inviting you to experience it. I ask you to try the following next Shabbos morning, and write about your experiences on the “comment” section for this post.

The middle blessing of the Shabbos Amidah begins:

Yismach Mosheh — Moses will be happy
bematnas chelqo — with the giving of his portion,
ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant
qaraso lo — You have called to him.

The line looks simple enough, however riches lie underneath, with a little concentration. Rather than spell out what they are, and my opinion on what they mean, I am going to list some questions to think about and give you a chance to find your own chiddushim, your own relationship to the text.

Why does it say “yismach” in the future tense? Wasn’t Moshe’s happiness at the time?

“Yismach” is from the word “simchah”. Think of some of the other words for happiness: sason, gilah, etc… How do they differ in usage? What does the choice of “yismach” here indicate?

“Bematnas” with the giving of his portion. What does it mean that Moshe is happy with the giving of his portion, his lot in life, rather than referring to the happy is caused by the portion itself? The mishnah says “Who is wealthy? One who is samai’ach bechalqo — happy with his lot.” Nearly the same phrase, but without “bematnas”. The lot itself. Am I to be happy with my lot, or with the giving of it?

“Ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant…” Rashi says the word “ki” has 7 meanings, “because” is only one of them. The others are: rather, when, that, perhaps, if, reason. Why did they choose a potentially ambiguous word? What happens to the meaning of the phrase if we try some of these other translations?

“Eved ne’eman.” What does it mean to be an “eved Hashem”, servant of G-d. What’s the added point of being “ne’eman”, a reliable servant in particular?

“Karasa lo” — You called to him. Why not “qarasa oso”, that Hashem called him, why “to him”?

Why does being a servant make Moshe happier with his lot? Or, in light of the above questions, why does being called to as a reliable servant make him happy — and the kind of happiness we call simchah — with the giving of his lot? And is “because” and “why” the only connection implied?

And most important, what does this say of my worship and my happiness?

Look! “Treasures buried in the sand”, repeated with minimal or no thought every week holds worlds of meaning about ourselves and how we should relate to G-d. Through hispa’alus we can not only find them, but use them to enrich ourselves.

As I wrote, I invite you to explore this line of the siddur yourself. See what hispa’alus can bring to your middos and your prayers. And, if you’re comfortable, share your experience with the other readers. (Recall that you can always post anonymously.)

Tefillin Mirrors

When I started wearing tefillin, few people used a small hand mirror to see whether or not it was properly centered. I recall men using the shiny metal area indicating where to push on a door, the window in a door to a darkened stairwell, and other awkward solutions. Compared to that, the current ubiquity of mirrors, whether in the tefillin bag or even glued to the bottom of the tefillin box is a G-d-send. But for most of Jewish history, mirrors were not cheap to come by. So what did the Ribbono shel olam expect us to do?
We lived for millenia before the heter iska allowed someone to give someone else money in a mechanism that allowed him to make money on the deal. The current interest free gema”ch is laudable, but we no longer feel the sense of brotherhood of “achikha ha’evyon” (your impoverished brother) that the Torah speaks of receiving your loan. Not to the extent that someone could buy a home off gema”ch money. Jewish society decayed, and workarounds had to be provided to minimize the impact of that decay.

Without the mirror, the only way to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin correctly is through areivus, each person in the minyan taking responsibility for each other’s tefillin. Tefillin actually underscored the unity of the minyan, and the brotherhood of all Jews. But Jewish society decayed, and workarounds had to be provided to minimize the impact of that decay. The mirror is a better solution than trying to catch your reflection in a doorknob.

But now that we have mirrors, all we can see is ourselves.

A use for every middah

The Semak (mitzvah 8 ) writes that we should be careful with other people’s kavod (honor), but not our own.The Orekhos Tzaddiqim (“sha’ar haAhavah”) similarly writes that you should try to give others hana’ah (enjoyment), but try not to take hana’ah from others. (I don’t quite understand this. Perhaps the author is distinguishing “taking” from “receiving what’s freely given”.)And so, many middos that seem negative have positive uses, when we apply them to others. This duality is typified by a saying by R’ Yisrael Salanter:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.

(Along these lines, I used to be one of those people who would wish others “Have a meaningful fast” instead of the usual “Have an easy fast”. After all, isn’t the point of a fast to experince a small measure of distress to motivate seeking meaning? But when learning this line, I thought perhaps there’s a good reason for the tradition.)

When the Brisker Rav taught this idea, a student challenged him with some middos that seem the antithesis of Jewish worship.

Apiqursus (heresy). How can it be used positively? As we’ve been saying — for me and mine, I can have bitochon (trust [in the A-lmighty]) that everything that happens is as it should be. On another’s account, one needs to be an “apiqoreis” and not rely on Hashem’s help.

Krumkeit (warped reasoning). The person who thinks farkumkt has the ability to fulfill “dan likaf zekhus”, judging others favorably, no matter how open-and-shut the story seems to the rest of us. Somehow, we only employ it for self-justification, and hold others to a higher standard.

And in fact, every middah has its positive use. This is why the Torah says (Devarim 6:5, in “Shema”) that you should love Hashem “with all your heart” and chazal explain “with both of your inclinations”. The major “trick” in middos improvement is not the elimination or creation of a middah, but learning how and when it should be applied.

This explains why they’re called “middos“. “Tiqun hamiddos“, improving one’s character, is more literally translated “fixing the measures”. The work is on their dimensions.

The Rambam (Hilkhos Dei’os 1:4) describes the ideal balance of middos as being the shevil hazahav, the golden mean. He writes (tr. Immanuel O’Levy), “The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes.” Too much anger is cruel to others, too little, and one lacks the motivation to correct wrongs.

There are two ways to view being in the middle. The first is a more naive and natural reading of the Rambam, in that neither middah exceeds the middle mark, on some hypothetical scale, the person is in the middle. However, contradictory middos are not mutually exclusive. Someone could feel ambivalence, and be simultaneously happy and sad. There therefore isn’t really a single scale with a person at some point between the extremes. You need to specify the amount of each extreme, e.g. of taking enjoyment and asceticism, individually.

The shevil hazahav is therefore having equal quantities of each, and knowing which to use when. Finding tif’eres, harmony. A skilled carpenter is one who has mastered the use of both hammer and screwdriver, and knows which joins are best made with nails, and which with screws.

“Bekhol levavekha — with all your heart”. Every middah can be used to express our love for Hashem. Each in its proper place.

A Use for Every Middah, part II: Two Dictionaries

Among the ideas I touched on in “A use for every middah” was that oftentimes the use is when dealing with others.It’s okay to be an “apiqoreis” and worry about Hashem not providing, when it comes to providing for others.At ne’ilas hachag last night, I heard R’ Yitzchak Wolpin (Rosh Yeshiva of Slonim, Boro Park) repeat a thought from his rebbe, R’ Shraga Feival Mendlowitz zt”l, that jogged the following thought.R’ Medlowitz asked a question about the laws of marriage. If someone gets married “On the condition that I am a chakham“, we ask him some questions and if he answers them like a wise man, the marriage holds. If he says, “on the condition that I am a gibor“, we check his stength. “That I am an ashir“, we compare his net worth with the norms.

But isn’t there a mishnah in Avos? “Who is wise? Someone who learns from anyone.” Why do we check the person’s knowledge and intellect? Shouldn’t we check if the person does indeed take lessons from everyone he encounters? Similarly, “Who is strong? One who conquers his inclination.” Shouldn’t a puny person, the proverbial “90 pound weakling”, but who has truly gained control over his yeitzer satisfy the condition of being a gibor? For that matter, shouldn’t a powerful man who falls pray to every desire not satisfy the condition? “Who is rich? Someone who is happy with his lot.” And yet, the man with much wealth but always hungry for more would be married “on the condition that I am an ashir“, not the poor man who is happy. Why?

R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz explains: We all need to have two dictionaries. The words we use in common discourse, and the words we use for ourselves. When looking at ourselves, it is fair to say “I am rich; what more do I need?” But conditionals are based on common language. When speaking to others, “rich” refers to wealth, not contentment.

Perhaps we can extend this. When thinking and speaking of others, we shouldn’t be satisfied that another is happy with what he has. That’s good for personal development, not for addressing the needs of others. We need two dictionaries: one for the world inside ourselves, one for the one in which we interact with other people.

Related to this idea is a quote from Rav Yisrael Salanter that I recently added to my email signature generation system:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.


In Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzato) writes of three kinds of yir’ah (fear / awe / awareness of magnitude).

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively.

R’ Shlomo Wolbe zt”l writes that today, we’ve lost that motivating quality. Punishment invokes more thoughts of rebellion than of compliance. He therefore bans corporal punishment of children, and also plays down the role of yir’as ha’onesh a generation raised on democracy, rights, and personal freedoms.

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven

This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it’s fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself]).

Which would mean that it’s fair to assume this is the kind of yir’as shamayim is the one R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan described in Be’ikvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer).

…But one who has not traversed the actual pathway of illumination [that of the prophets and the sages],he who stands opposite the rays of light, at some distance, possesses little understanding of this term [yir’ah]. It would be better had he never known this term, and was now learning it for the first time. But this is his problem: He knows it, but does not know it properly. He possesses a dangerous translation of the entire concept, and cannot avoid its negative ramifications. For example, when we mention yir’ah to this person he can only translate it thus: Bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels. And he does not know that this translation is heretical for the one who knows what yir’ah is and what it means, the source from which it flows, and from whence it comes… There are times that demand tears and eulogies… It is necessary then to stoop like rushes and take up sackcloth and ashes. Times come upon the world when our sins require these. Such, however, is not Yir’as Hashem, not it and not even part of it. It is not yir’ah’s essence, but only preparation for it…Yir’ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. 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.

A Swedish wise man, when once discussing sanctity, said: “The sanctity of an individual proves that he who possesses it has a direct relationship with the strongest source of existence.” In my opinion, in the conception of Judaism this is a definition of yir’ah (but sanctity – kedusha – is loftier still, we have a different idea of it, but this is not the place to define it). What is yir’ah? It is the broad jump over the vast gap between myself and my Creator… It is a mitzvah to separate – to separate from smallness! Fly over barriers! And from there quest Him, for there you will find Him…

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Note that as the Ramchal progresses, the translation for yir’ah as “fear” becomes steadily less compelling, and that of awe, or acting with awareness of the magnitude of what one is engaging in, seem more appropriate. And actually, awareness of magnitude brings more weight to the event. It’s the difference between the joy of dancing at a siyum and that of dancing at a daughter’s wedding. Because the wedding is so momentous, the joy is that much more intense. To return to R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan’s metaphor, the depth of my love for my son adds to the joy of dancing with him. Without the yir’ah, the awareness of what a big thing it is to put one’s son atop one’s shoulders, the joy wouldn’t be there.

I don’t think that the more primary definition of “yir’ah” could possibly be “fear”. The Torah writes “Your mother and your father tirah — you should feel yir’ah.” Living in fear of one’s parents is unhealthy, and obviously not the Torah’s intent. Rather, I believe that “yir’ah”‘s primary meaning is that of the awareness, and from notion of awareness one can speak of awareness of the magnitude of possible upcoming bad consequences and gets the derived meaning of “fear”.

Later in the essay, R’ AE Kaplan writes:

Indeed, this is the direct relationship. Indeed, this is the true vision that we call yir’ah… And this, therefore, is the reason that we dwell so much on fear of punishment (“yir’as ha’onesh”). This is also vision – seeing things as they really are… One who refuses to see his future shortchanges only himself. Only if he sees (re’iyah) will he fear (yir’ah), and only if he fears will he repent… And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness (“yir’as haromemus”) – that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here – “The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel.” From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one’s responsibility [the bundle of his life’s meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall…). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength (“oz”) – an inner, bold, uplifting, strength (“Hashem oz li’amo yiten…”) and a strength that leads to peace (“shalom”) and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed (“… Hashem yivareich es amo ba’shalom”). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: “Reishis chochma yir’as Hashem.” A fear that is vision. “And remember” – “And see” – “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid…

Even yir’as ha’onesh has an important role. One who avoids it is avoiding dealing with things as they truly are. Facing reality, allowing oneself to experience (re’iyah) G-d’s interaction in our lives — both positive and not so — leads to being overawed by Him (yir’ah, i.e. “yir’as Shamayim veyir’as hacheit”). That is the yir’ah we are being asked to develop alongside ahavah in our relationship with Hashem. True yir’as shamayim, rather than being about quaking in one’s boots, debilitated, leads one to joy, song and action. And in fact, adds to the ahavah, the Love of G-d. By facing a glimmer of the Greatness of the Beloved, we come to treasure that love, and love Him all the more. “Az yashir — And then he will sing…”

A History of Mussar, part I

The Dawn of Mussar
Why is Avraham our first forefather?
It can’t be his independent discovery of Hashem as Creator and Lawgiver, as Sheim and Ever already established such a tradition. In fact, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov each went to the school established by Sheim and Ever rather than relying on their parental tradition!The difference is that Noach and his children built an ark and saved themselves. They did not reach out to others. Avraham and Sarah, on the other hand, trekked to Kenaan with “the souls they made in Charan”. As we see in the story of his feeding the three “men”, Avraham ran to do chessed. A child of Avraham is identified in mishnah Avos (5:19) as one who has “a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul”. The legacy of Avraham is one of mussar. Not just a notion of Divine Law, but of morality, ethics, and personal growth. Note the idiom: they made souls in Charan.And in fact the commentators ask why the Torah doesn’t begin a third of the way into Shemos, when Hashem gives us the first mitzvah, to establish the month by the new moon. Numerous answers are given (including the well-known one cited by the first Rashi on the Torah). One of the answers Chazal offer is that Bereishis exists to give us examples of how to behave (and how not to). In fact, they call it “Seifer haYasharim”, the Book of the Upright, and the forefathers, “yesharim”. Bereishis is a mussar text; from G-d giving us existence and clothing Adam and Chavah through till the burial of Yaaqov.

“Derekh eretz qodmah laTorah.” Avraham and Sarah founded our nation because they had the derekh eretz, that basic mussar perspective, which is a precondition for Torah.


And in fact the entire Tanakh is a mussar text.

Why does it say “ayin tachas ayin“, “an eye instead of an eye”, with no explicit mention that the Torah in fact requires financial payment, not blinding the eye of the attacker? The person who committed the act can’t think that injuring another is a light thing. In truth, the person deserves to lose his eye, but the law is tempered with practicality and mercy. Note that when these other considerations conflict, the message is in the simple words of the Torah. Halachah is found in the derashah on the text.

Similarly in the rest of Tanakh. Yeshaiah condemns those who oppress the poor, the widow and the orphan, and then think they can buy G-d off with qorbanos. Yirmiyahu helps the masses take lesson from the exile and destruction of the first Beis haMiqdash. Proper behavior and attitude is the predominent theme in all of Tanakh.

Shelomo haMelech

But, of all the books of Tanakh, two are clearly mussar texts even according to people with no agenda to look for the mussar in the book.

In Mishlei, Shelomo spells out attitudes, mostly in the positive, things the student should follow. Qoheles, however, is primarily a lament of years wasted pursuing warped values.

Mishlei adds something critical to mussar. It’s written as meshalim, metaphors. Each verse can be studied at length on its own, mined for more wisdom. Mishlei is designed for learning with hispa’alus. Of the books of Tanakh, it’s Mishlei (primarily with Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary, the Gra’s also to some extent), that is studied as a primary mussar text.


Of the books of the mishnah, Avos is the one dedicated to mussar topics. Gemara is organized along practical halachic lines; even those mesechtos which focused on laws not applicable in Bavel are omitted. To find mussar in the gemara, one has to look for it strewn amongst the aggadita all across the work. It’s not that the mussar is missing. Rather, since halakhah is the organizing principle, there is no one place where it’s all gathered.

To give a sense of how central mussar is to chazal’s worldview, look at the name of the mesechta: Pirqei Avos. Usually this is translated “Chapters of the Fathers”. But in truth it’s only the first chapter and a little into the second that quotes particularly early sources. The Bartenura translates the word “avos” in the title in the same sense as “avos melakhah”, the 39 categories of work on Shabbos from which the rest are implied and derived. Pirqei Avos lists the categories and underlying principles behind the rest of the Torah.

A truly mussar perspective.

Philosophy and Qabbalah

Rav Saadia Gaon did not write a well-known mussar work. However, in Emunos veDei’os, his philosophical treatise, he does give his position on the role of mussar. According to Rav Saadia Gaon, having a proper personality make-up, the pursuit of wholeness, is a primary value and the mission for which we were given mitzvos.

A century later, Jews were forced from Bavel, and the centers of Judaism shifted to Europe. Among the first of the rishonim is Rabbeinu Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pasuqa (11 cent. Spain) the author of Chovos haLavos. He begins his work with a philosophical proof of the unity of G-d, and ends with a love of G-d. Unlike Rav Saadia Gaon’s focus on wholeness, Rabbeinu Bachya sees mussar as a means of becoming the kind of person who can have a relationship with Hashem.

Rabbeinu Bachya is not telling one to “simply” pray ecstatically and with song, and have a relationship with the creator. This is not proto-chassidus, but a forerunner of the mussar movement. In Chovos haLvavos the attention is on how to change oneself so that these expressions of a relationship are natural and authentic.

The Rambam wrote two of the more fundamental mussar works: Shemoneh Peraqim, a philosophical work about the nature of the soul and the human condition, and within his Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Dei’os, the Laws of Attitudes. The Rambam took a position closer to Rav Saadia Gaon’s. However, he adds to points. First, he gives a specific definition to this proper character in terms of balance, of the Golden Mean. Second he sees the purpose of wholeness itself to be to be like G-d.

Both Rabbeinu Bachya and the Rambam describe a “derekh Hashem”. To Rabbeinu Bachya it’s a path to G-d. Chovos halVavos begins and ends with the pursuit of G-d. To the Rambam, the “derekh Hashem” is the path He takes. The Rambam sees the purpose of character improvement is the pursuit of G-dliness.

Rabbeinu Yonah Gerdondi (of Gerona) was on the opposite side of the fence from the Rambam, and in fact was at the forefront of condemning the Rambam’s work, and instrumental in having them burnt. Soon after, when the Christians learned from example and decided to put the talmud to the fire, Rabbeinu Yonah realized his collasal blunder. In terms of mussar history, it’s most accurate to remember Rabbeinu Yonah as the one who did teshuvah for burning the Rambam’s works. The story has it that he wrote Shaarei Teshuvah, a step-by-step guide to teshuvah — and therefore for self improvement in general — as part of that teshuvah process. I do not know the primary source for drawing that connection, other than the attractiveness of the idea. He is also the author of a commentary on Chumash and the aforementioned commentary on Mishlei.

Rav Moshe Cordovero, one of the Qabbalists of Tzefas and a student of Rav Yosef Caro primarily wrote books of qabbalah. But among his works is Tomer Devorah, on mussar. Tomer Devorah quite interestingly takes a similar approach to the Rambam’s, despite being on the other side of the philosophy-qabbalah divide. The Rama”c structures the books according to the 13 attributes of Divine Mercy, and teaches what each one means, and most significantly, how to go about emulating them.

Meanwhile, Chassidei Ashkenaz saw the goal of mussar in a third light. To them, the means to closeness to G-d and wholeness were not the pursuit of either, but the elimination of the extraneous that can get in the way. Their self-improvement pursuits focused on destroying bad midos.

I think the most interesting thing to note about mussar during the rishonim is that mussar was a given that ran even deeper than the hashakafic debates of the period.
(Continue to Part II.)

A History of Mussar, part II

The Ramchal and the Gra
The Ramchal lived in the early 18th century, primarily in Italy, but he moved to Akko shortly before his passing. He was primarily a qabbalist, although he also wrote Derekh Hashem, a philosophical work that does not overtly rely on his qabbalah. In Derekh Hashem the Ramchal describes the purpose of our time in this world is to prepare ourselves to properly receive the joy of His Presence in the next. And this structure shows in his mussar work, Mesilas Yesharim.Mesilas Yesharim is patterned after a beraisa by Rav Pinchas ben Ya’ir. Each middah listed in the beraisa becomes multiple chapters on its definition (including subcategories) and acquisition. It starts with zehirus (watchfulness) and zerizus (alacrity) and progresses upward to holiness. Like Rabbeinu Bachya, the Ramchal gives us a philosophically based path to G-d.The Vilna Gaon also lived in the 18th century, but in Lithuania. His position was quite firmly that of mussar as a path to self-perfection. Yes, the perfect person had a healthy relationship to Hashem, but that was part of wholeness, not the primary goal. This was in contrast to the nascent Chassidic movement, which was teaching people that one should relate to Hashem and let the self-perfection come as a consequence of that.
The Vilna Gaon’s students collected his thoughts and published them. In particular interest to the history of mussar are the commentary/ies on Mishlei and Even Sheleimah. Interestingly, the title of the first chapter is an echo of the approach of Chassidei Ashkenaz, “The Root of Avodah: Breaking the Middos”. And yet, we see as we read on, that the primary tool for breaking the negative middos is given as building the opposing middah. In fact, despite the great contrast on the subject of philosophy and qabbalah (the Gra himself voices discomfort with the Rambam’s Aristotilianism), his position is closest to that of the Rambam.

From the Gaon to Rav Yisrael Salanter

Rav Chaim Vilozhiner, a student of the Vilna Gaon, was the founder of the yeshiva movement. He started the first modern Yeshiva in Vilozhiner, and his work “Nefesh haChaim”, particularly sec. IV, provides the movement’s philosophical underpinnings.

In the yeshiva movement, his words about Torah leading to self-perfection were taken more mystically. By knowing the Divine Truth, one naturally is brought closer to Divine Perfection.

And yet, his work could be — and was — taken a second way. Rav Zundel of Salant took his teacher’s words quite differently, and in a manner consonant with the Vilna Gaon’s, R’ Chaim’s rebbe’s approach. Torah study is that which brings one closer to perfection. If one is learning Torah and not growing as a person, then the Torah being studied isn’t really Torah.

Rav Zundel understood life’s mission in terms of three duties: those between man and the Omnipresent, those between man and fellow man, and those between man and his soul. Man’s duty is self-perfection, but it’s not a narcissistic pursuit. Following the Vilna Gaon’s approach (and R’ Saadia Gaon and the Rambam before him), the goal of mussar is to improve oneself. But the definition of a better self is one who is better at relating to G-d and other people.

Rav Zundel didn’t set out to become a teacher. He was content simply living his own life, as a common man striving for holiness. However, one youth named Yisrael Lipkin, a gemara student of R’ Zvi Hirsch Broide, followed him around, trying to learn from his example. One time, Rav Zundel was in the woods contemplating where he stood in life when R’ Yisrael’s motions interrupted him. R’ Zundel called 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!”) Rav Yisrael later wrote that that moment changed his life.

The Birth of the Mussar Movement

Rav Yisrael Salanter took a very different lifestyle than Rav Zundel. He saw a Judaism that was struggling to survive the Haskahalah on one side, and one that lost contact with the basic notion of menchlachkeit on the other. He saw the needs of society too acute to allow him a quiet life of personal sanctity.

It is impossible to know which or how many of the stories about Rav Yisrael are true. However, one can learn from the kinds of stories what values his students saw were important, what he taught them to value. Rav Yisrael’s mussar taught a balance between ritual mitzvos and interpersonal ones. Yes, one must be meticulous in matzah, but stringencies beyond the minimal needs of the law can not be placed ahead of concern for the widows who made their money baking it. Balance of our relationships with G-d, men, and ourselves.

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s first major innovation is recognizing the role of the unconscious. (In that, he anticipated psychotherapy by decades.) We know right and wrong far more exactly than we actually choose to do what’s right. There is a huge gap between mind and heart. The role of mussar is to internalize truths that are minds may already know. This internalization requires emotional involvement and constant repetition; it’s a slow but steady process.

This active process was a second innovation of Rav Yisrael’s . He taught the need to actively work on self-improvement, and developed tools for doing so. He defined mussar in terms of knowing where you are, knowing where you ought to be, and tools for bridging that gap.

Rav Yisrael didn’t write any books. However, R’ Itzeler Blazer (“Petersburger”) collected many of his letters into a seifer titled Or Yisrael. In particular, R’ Yisrael’s famous Igeres haMussar (Hebrew and English; newer English translation by Rabbi Zvi Miller) became its 10th chapter.

Rav Yisrael also was a driving force behind the republishing of Cheshbon haNefesh, by R’ Mendel. R’ Leffin was himself a maskil, and the methodology in the book appears to be the invention of Benjamin Franklin, found in his autiobigraphy. Rav Yisrael was fully willing to employ any methodology, regardless of its source. As the Rambam wrote, “Accept the truth from whomever says it.”

One also sees this in the contrast between Mesilas Yesharim and the middos Rav Yisrael had them include in this edition of Cheshbon haNefesh. Following his lineage from the Vilna Gaon, Rav Yisrael’s list of middos are ones of honesty, cleanliness, silence, patience — a greater focus on perfection as a person than on a path upward to G-d.

Part of this was the realization of the need for a mussar community. At the heart of that community would be the beis hamussar, a place dedicated to mussar and introspection, separate from the shul and beis medrash. Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t set out to start a movement, but to revitalize the general misnagdic community through people more actively pursuing its basic notion of seeking wholeness.

Rav Yisrael started in Vilna and Kovno in Lithuania. He also went to Prussia and Paris to try teaching Jewish communities that had already drifted further from Judaism. He felt it would be easier to reach Jews for whom the Haskalah already ran its course than trying to “capture horses as they are charging downhill.” But he didn’t see the success establishing institutions that he did in Lithuania.

The First Generation Students

Of Rav Yisrael’s many students, 3 really set themselves apart in their further impact in the Mussar Movement.

Rav Itzeleh Petersburger was rav in St. Petersberg until he returned by R’ Yisrael’s invitation to run the kollel. As already noted, he was the one who collected Rav Yisrael’s writings into Or Yisrael. He and Rav Naftali Amsterdam brought mussar’s influence beyond the limits of the movement.

In the meantime there were also other institutions that — while not mussar in giving as central of a rule for behavior or attitude changing practices, drew heavily from its inspiration. In the Mir and Telhz mussar ideals were aspired to through a less proactice, cognitive approach. Rather than a mussar shmuess, in Telzh they had shiurei da’as (thought classes).

Rav Simcha Zisl Ziv established the first truly successful musar yeshiva in Kelm, where he was known simply as Der Alter. The Alter of Kelm’s approach could be briefly sketched as being about uncluttering the mind and engaging in objective self analysis. Kelm stressed the need for a lifetime of steady work, rather than focusing on quick or flashy results.

Novorodok and Slabodka

Of the Alter of Kelm’s students, two went on to found their own schools of throught within mussar.

Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novorodok, taught a focus on bitachon, a need for G-d in your life, closeness to G-d. But he did not understand this in the Ramchal’s terms; it was not a concept of mussar that defined the ideal man in terms of that closeness. Rather, he taught of the need to “storm the castle”. The only way to fight passion with passion, the only way to replace inappropriate passion is to fill one’s life with passion for the A-lmighty.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel founded Slabodka on the notion of gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man. Slabodka students were easily recognizable by their meticulous attention to dress; a student should carry an air of nobility. In the Alter of Slabodka’s approach, the student is motivated to improve by being shown his full potential. Anavah, modesty, comes from knowing one’s distance from that potential, knowing how much more he can accomplish. Therefore, rather than immobilizing people with a belief that they’re incompetent, it motivates and inspires. Whereas Novorodok fought passion with passion, Slabodka fought passion with intellect and self-respect.


Which brings us to today. Or, more precisely, to last Pesach, the 17th of Nissan, when R’ Shelomo Wolbe, one of the last remaining students of Slabodka, passed away. Rav Wolbe, “The Mashgiach”, ran a beis mussar in Yerushalaim, but was better known for the numerous yeshivos in which he gave shmuessen.

Rav Wolbe focused on the positive. His book on parenting is titled “Planting and Building in Childrearing”. The key is to build the child’s positive middos, rather than focus on pruning the inappropriate ones. Work on building patience rather than attacking anger. Track our successes in each middah, not our failures.

Where does that leave us? The goals of mussar stay on the same one or two themes: be it the school of Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbeinu Yonah and the Ramchal or that of Rav Saadia Gaon, the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon. However, the tools changed to meet the needs of the generation. I described Rav Wolbe’s approach because it might sound most correct to us, but his is the voice of our period.

Mussar is the awareness of where we are, of where we ought to be, and the means to cross that gap. We today need far more of all three. We lack the quiet and time to look into ourselves. And while Jewish learning (in the observant community) is at an all time high, our awareness of the greater picture, of the picture that should emerge from all those individual laws, is not. And we have a culture in which people who engage in hispa’alus or accepts upon themselves qabbalos, or any of the other mussar practices are looked upon as odd. We might have the das, the attempt to comply to ritual. But we desperately need the aish, the passion we can get from mussar. We can’t simply drop the torch now.

Charitzus – Decisiveness

The Cheshbon haNefesh opens his discussion of charitzus (decisiveness) by contrasting the human condition to that of a bird. If a bird is caught in a trap once or twice, it will reflexively avoid things that look like traps. The key term is “reflexively”. There is no conscious decision process. Everything very Pavlovian. A dog, he continues, operates similarly. A dog is capable of more complicated deductive thought. However, it’s still driven by stimulus-response, with no free will between them.Human beings are unique in that we have the ability to rise above the Pavlovian level. An experimenter can evoke a Pavlovian response from a human subject. We may have animal natures, since we live within primate bodies, but we are not limited to that. We can make purposive decisions. We’re free willed, in the image of G-d.

The key to being fully human, then, is to be able to concentrate on that decision-making ability, to focus on what we’re doing to the world rather than what the world is doing to us.

Charitzus: To make decisions rapidly enough to be of use yet not simply respond without thought — and then to stick to the decision to see it through to the end. The art of utilizing one’s Image of G-d to be a creative being.

In a lunchtime va’ad that I participate in (in Midtown Manhattan; contact me for more details), we identified four key areas that interfere with our ability to be decisive.

1- Not Having Clear Priorities
Most decisions are difficult because they involve conflicting goals. Different choices would implement differing things, each of which are desirable. We’re forced to rank our outcomes to know which we actually prefer. But that’s only possible if we have a clear sense of our priorities.

This in turn has two parts:
A- Internalizing the right values: We can learn what are priorities are supposed to be by learning Torah. But to really internalize them, one needs to learn mussar behispa’alus, passionately.

B- Knowing one’s own role: As we saw in “Different Parts of the Same Body“, the Jewish people have one set of values, but each person brings different skills and personality to those values and therefore has a unique role to play that he alone can fill.

Mussar and self-help overlap in addressing this issue. In “Psyschology and Mussar” I suggest the following distinction. “One presumes that the person is his own best moral guidepost, and therefore the unwanted in one’s life is certainly appropriate to eliminate. The other is based on the idea that the Torah describes for us an absolute objective morality. It’s our job to study that terrain and live by ever-improving maps of it as we learn more over time.” I therefore think it’s appropriate to suggest an exercise offered by Stephen Covey in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Covey (pp 97-97) points out that we choose actions based on their goals. Therefore we should “Begin with the End in Mind”.

In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building, you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see the faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.

As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.

As you take a seat and wait for the services to begin, you look at the program in your hand. There are to be four speakers. The first is from your family, immediate and also extended – children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from your church or some community organization where you’ve been involved in service.

Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?

This exercise in what you want to accomplish will clarify your priorities. Everything you do should be measured in terms of what role in plays in at least one of those goals.

But again, in order to be mussar, one needs to work within that greater structure of Torah. Knowing what you want to accomplish, what role you see yourself filling, within the Torah’s more general mission.

2- Uncertainty of One’s Motivations
Everything we do, we do for a mixture of motives. So, we never really know if we’re really acting for proper motives, or because our assessment of what it right is colored by ulterior ones (negi’os). This why keeping a cheshbon hanefesh is critical. With it, we get practice in watching ourselves and learn to see patterns in our behavior.

3- Doubt About Proper Tactic
This is a real problem. We can know what we want and ought to happen, but not know which choice is most likely to make it come about. The only productive response is to rely on bitachon, trusting G-d.

Life is like a game of backgammon more than a game of Chess. Even with perfect knowledge and strategy, we can only maximize our odds of success, not guarantee it. Sometimes “mentch tracht und G-tt lacht — man tries, and G-d laughs.” (Or: Man proposes, G-d disposes. Or: “The best laid plans of mice and men….”) Whatever we do, even with no real decisions to be made, we can only try our best and rely on Hashem for success. Fortunately, we are only judged on how hard we try.

4- “Getting Distracted by Shiny Objects”
The Cheshbon haNefesh offers an interesting insight about our habit to change our minds. Here we have a constructive use for stubbornness! By doggedly sticking with a plan, we can raise the threshhold necessary to cause us to abandon it. We need to be stubborn enough to bring the process of second-guessing a decision close the bekhirah point, the point Rav Dessler describes as the battlefront where conscious decisions are made. Then we know we changed our minds for solid rational reasons, rather than as a response to a new stimulus.

So, how does one fulfill their potential, to fully be free-willed, creative beings? In short: Know your priorities, know yourself, have the confidence in the Creator and oneself to proceed with whatever is the most likely to work, and do not be distracted.

Perhaps this is the meaning of the famous quote:

Rav Yehudah ben Teima said, “Be as bold as a tiger, and light as an eagle, run like a dear and mighty like a lion, to do the Will of your Father in heaven.” (Avos 5:4)

This mishnah is so central to our service that it’s quoted as the first halakhah in the Shulchan Arukh!

The boldness of the tiger is necessary to overcome our doubts about outcome.

The eagle sees its destination well in advance. It knows its goal, and rapidly proceeds to them.

“As a hart longs for streams of water, so does my soul longs for You, G-d.” (Tehillim 42:2) Unlike the swiftness of the eagle, which can see where it’s going and passes through empty skies, the dear stays the course because nothing it passes can distract it from its longing.

Last, the lion is mighty, a gibor. But “Who is a gibor? One who conquers his inclination.” (Ben Zoma, Avos 4:1) From the lion one learns to master misdirection from their ulterior motives.

Where then is the humanity? In the need for us to choose and learn these natures. In the animal kingdom, the animal is simply the way G-d made them. We can learn from their example and make ourselves.

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…)

Conflict Resolution

The first miracle disproving the claims of Korach and his followers was when the earth opened up and swallowed them, and fire came and killed the 250 men who tried to offer incense instead of the kohanim. (Bamidbar 16:31-35) Now one would think that’s pretty definitive, and things would end there. However, how did the masses react? “The whole congregation of Benei Yisrael complained about Mosheh and about Aharon, saying: ‘You have killed the nation of Hashem!'” (17:6) Mosheh and Aharon retreat to the Ohel Mo’eid, upon which the cloud demonstrating Hashem’s Presence descended. A plague ensues. And still, the matter isn’t over. Aharon’s role as kohein is demonstrated by his taking ketores and creating a border beyond which the plague can not past. And still the matter isn’t ended.Finally, each sheivet’s leader takes a stick, writes his name on it, and they are placed together in the Ohel Mo’ed. Only Aharon’s stick buds, flowers, and grows almonds. And finally, the masses accept Hashem’s judgment. What’s the difference between the earth opening up and the plague on one hand, and the flowering staff on the other?

One striking difference is that the first miracles aimed at vanquishing evil. However, that didn’t resolve the confrontation, not only one instead embraced and built upon the good.

The same is true in internal conflict. When addressing a destructive emotion or habit, one can gain a measure of success battling the midah directly. However, in that way the war is never won; it just continues battle after battle. Instead one has to build upon the more positive midah whose weakness lead to the existence of the negative. Rather than attacking a low frustration threshold, build patience; instead of trying to whittle away one’s stinginess, build generosity. The difference is largely one of attitude, but we can create permanent change only by building, not destroying. Particularly in our generation, one that responds more to carrots than sticks.

And it is also true when developing our children’s’ personalities as parents. As R’ Shelomo Wolbe titled his book “Zeri’ah uBinyan beChinukh — Planting and Building in Education.”

Defining Anavah

(Copied from a “Der Alter” post of mine, but Der Alter seems defunct. I copied the time-stamp from there. -mi 1/16/2008)

Is anavah really “humility”?

The basic problem of understanding the difference between the Rambam Hil Dei’os ch 1 and ch 2 is not anavah, but ka’as (anger). With ka’as he explicitly invokes the middle path in ch. 1, and yet calls on you to eliminate anger entirely in ch. 2. But the Rambam makes a distinction at the end of ch. 1. He’s describing two different ideals: the chokhom (wise person) is one who seeks the mean. The chassid (pious person) is one who goes beyond that to reduce his own “space”. We could extend that resolution to anavah too. (This is discussed at length, here.)

Personally, though, I prefer a different approach to anavah. I believe that anavah is the middle path. The extremes are ga’avah and shefeilus (lowliness). That’s why the Rambam’s pursuit of the middle path includes total anavah.

So then what’s anavah? Der Alter told his students that they should always carry around two cards, one in each pocket. On one you write “Bishvili nivrah ha’olam — the world was created for my sake.” On the other, “va’anochi afar va’eifer — but I am dust and ashes”. The first speaks of one’s potential, being in the Image of Hashem. The other, of what one has actually accomplished.

I would propose that anavah is a kind of mean between ga’avah and shefeilus by being a combination of both; a keen awareness of the gap between who you are and who you could be. Therefore, unlike shefeilus which says “Who am I to try anything?”, anavah is a powerful motivator. (See also anavah vs what I called “anvanus” in a discussion of 9 beAv and Purim.)

Did you cry?

This morning (Shabbos parashas Mas’ei) we read about the borders of Israel (ch. 34:1-12). We read that the southwest corner of Israel is to be Nachal Mitzrayim, Wadi el-Arish (R’ Saadia Gaon) or the Pelusium arm of the Nile (Rashi).Regardless of what you think about the correctness of pulling out of Azza, whether you feel it’s monumental insanity or as necessary as amputating a leg, the idea of Jews losing homes in our own land must be painful.

So how did you react when you heard these words during leining (assuming you understood them, of course)? Was the contrast painful? Did you cry?

How could there have been a dry eye in shul this morning? Are we really that disconnected from our fellow Jews, or is it that we are so uninvolved in Yahadus that we aren’t moved by the ideas it passes it projects upon us?

Chazal tell us “Mishenichnas Av mim’atim besimchah — when Av enters, we reduce in joy.” Today was not only parashas Mas’ei, it was also Rosh Chodesh Av. A day when we were to reduce our simchah.

Rav Saadia Gaon identifies simchah as the kind of happiness that comes from being connected with the underlying truth. (This idea is explored at far greater length in an essay I wrote for Mesukim MiDevash.) This is why Ben Zoma says in Avos, “Who is wealthy? One who samei’ach with his lot.” Someone who understands the reason for what they have, and that Hashem has an equally valid reason for what they lack. Therefore, they feel no lack.

Aveilus is a state of “aval — but”. We can have all the reasons and explanations, but when living through tragedy they simply don’t connect. We can only stand back and ask “Why me? How could this happen to me?” “Why would Hashem destroy His Beis haMiqdash and scatter His people?” “Why the Holocaust?” The question exists to be grappled with, not explained away. As The Rav writes in his essay “Qol Dodi Dofeiq”, the Jewish question about tragedy is not “Why?” Any explanation of the holocaust would be either intellectually dishonest or emotionally vacuous. The Jew asks “How am I to respond?”

What most of us witnessed in shul today was a lack of connection between our hearts and Judaism’s ideals. How can we experience aveilus, the jarring disjoin between our beliefs and our experience, the reduction of simchah that the season calls upon us even without current events if we do not being from a position of simchah?

Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d

Parashas Mas’ei opens with a description of Benei Yisra’el’s trip through the desert, and lists the forty-two stops made along the way. An oft-quoted Zohar identifies the stops in the desert with each of the letters in Hashem’s forty-two letter name. What’s the particular significance of the journeys and stops in Sinai that give them such cosmic significance?Jean-Paul Sartre, when asked to summarize the existentialist movement in philosophy, gave the following dictum: Existence precedes essence. What that means may be most easily explained by contrasting people to tables. With a table, you can study the plans for the table, the wood and other materials from which it will be built, and with a little math and science know everything there is to know about the table. The essence of the table precedes its actual existence. With human beings, it’s the reverse. I’ve existed since (at least) my birth. But who I am, my essence, is not what I was or even knowable back then. With human beings, our existence comes before our essence.Another existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, characterized his religion in a way we can apply to ours. The ideal is not to be a good Jew, but becoming one.

The same point was made earlier by the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker asked his Chassidim, “If you see two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung and one on the tenth, which is higher?” The chassidim, probably knowing it was a leading question, answered the obvious, “The one on the tenth rung.” “No,” the rebbe replied, “he might be descending the ladder. It is the one who is climbing upward.”

When we stand for Shemoneh Esrei we do so with our feet together to emulate the angels. “Veragleihem regel yisharah – and their legs are one straight leg [each].” (Yechezqeil 1:7) Angels stand on a single leg, a pedestal, stationary. As Zechariah (3:7) repeats Hashem’s message to Yehoshua Kohein Gadol, “then I will give you to walk (mehalkhim) among these that stand still (ha’omedim).” People are mehalkhim, goers; angels, omedim, standing still.

Angels might be on a higher rung on the ladder, but since only people have the power to ascend it, we have the potential to be loftier.

This is because we have free will, the ability to make and remake ourselves. The power of teshuvah.

In short, life is a journey, not a destination.

And so, Mas’ei benei Yisrael, the journey and growth in the desert, was to imbue the Jewish people with the essence of being a nation of kohanim. Therefore, it truly is His Name, a representation of Hashem’s Presence in this world.

Did you cry? II

(This isn’t my usual style or topic for this blog. But as it approaches the deadline, sitting here on Tish’ah beAv afternoon, it would be inhuman not to feel a need to share my thoughts on the subject.)The haftorah for Devarim also must awaken thoughts of current events. “Your country is laid waste, your cities are burned by fire, your land — strangers devour it in your presence, and it is laid waste, as overturned to strangers.” (Yeshaiah 1:7)Perhaps then we should look further at the haftorah, take to heart the message the navi find the navi relays.

In pasuq 10, Hashem calls the Jewish people followers of the inhospitable and cruel people of Sodom and Amora. He then continues (11-17) by rejecting our service of Him when we ignore the basics of interpersonal mitzvos. “What purpose do your offerings have to Me? … So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My ‘Eyes’ from you. Yes, even while you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” One is reminded of the mafioso, who assauges his conscience by giving major donations to the church from his ill-gotten money.

The Jewish People experienced something unique last week. Hundreds of thousands of Jews overflowed the Kotel Plaza and much of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, the area outside the Ashpah Gate… Quite likely the largest gathering at the maqom hamiqdash since the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash. A wide variety of people, all stripes of the observant community, davening together.

And yet, is this the best we can do? Can we celebrate the unity of some small fraction of our people? I didn’t merit being anywhere near the Kotel that night. I was at the far end of an internet broadcast. But the descriptions I get from those who were consistently contain one distressing element.

Kelal Yisrael wasn’t at the kotel. It wasn’t Jews of all stripes, it was all stripes of observant Jews. One person emailed me about the rainbow of people present. But in truth, it was only Orange, maybe some “yellow” and “red”, if I can extend the rainbow metaphor. (Ironically, I mean the people who understand techeiles, not the Blues.) The majority of Kelal Yisrael thinks a prayer rally at the kotel is quaint and pointless, even in these troubled and troubling times.

We need to remember that. We’re one people. Yes, we should celebrate that the glass is “half full”. But not let ourselves get so carried away with it that we speak as though we’re unaware that it’s half empty.

Achdus: Not just a good idea, the only way out of this eimeq habakhah (valley of tears).

We aren’t at a moment of particular unity. In fact, the divide between the Blues and the Oranges (and the yellows and reds, who also showed at the Kotel) is one of the deepest splits in our history. Talk of civil war arises occasionally.

It scares me. The health of a relationship is sometimes tested by times of stress and tragedy. If a couple, G-d forbid, loses a child, it usually pushes them closer together. Surviving a struggle together; relying on each other. However, if the marriage is less healthy, it can push them apart in a cycle of blame and increasing anger. What does it say about us if that is the dynamic we’re following?

But both sides are pursuing what they believe to be noble. Both sides are concerned for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. One must be wrong, but that doesn’t make him evil. And yet, demonization and personal attacks are the tools of both sides.

Sin’as chiham — when we take a disagreement of ideas and make it personal.

I am really concerned about the focus on looking for who is guilty. I think I noticed because I am not as certain as the “theoreticians” that Sharon is an idiot or willing to sell out so many of his people for personal gain. But every single mail I’ve gotten from Israel has had some mention of which Jews are at fault for getting us to this point.

So let me clear that up, just as I did on another forum about a month ago.

It’s my fault. Mine, and every other allegedly committed Jew who didn’t settle Israel, who didn’t make retaining Gush Katif as much of a no brainer as retaining Maale Adumim. It’s that simple. I’m the bad guy; the one who isn’t living up to even his own definition of “right”. So make peace with that secularist in your office building, invite him for a Shabbos meal — and I invite the two of you to vilify me over some chulent. At least then there would be peace in the land!

Don’t take it out on Haaretz, Meretz or the rest of the Blues. They are at least trying their best to live up to their ideals and do what they think is best for their people and land. I can not say the same. Why are we demonizing each other? Why must Haaretz be a collection of dishonest reporters who only count who was there before the rally really began? Why must we assume that Ariel Sharon’s only interest is in keeping his scandals out of the paper? (Was that also Bibi’s excuse?) And why must we assume that when one of “our” r”l emotionally disturbed goes on a shooting spree, it must be some conspiracy and really “their” fault? Everything doesn’t have to get reduced to the question of which Jews one should get angry at.

People are disagreeing over ideas, and somehow it has to be turned into “they are evil”, “they are wronging us”. A discussion of davening at the Kotel has to turn into vilifying the IDF. They are wrong, not wronging. They are assimilated products of the west, not Nazis.

Can’t you see, the reason why Blue and Orange are at loggerheads is not because they’re different, but because of their similarities? Israelis are a passionate people. No one else would move there, and therefore few else will raise children there. The Blues are our misguided children who inherited our kashyus oref, our stubbornness.

Ironically, Hashem sends us a poignant and blatant “knife in the heart”. One needn’t be a prophet to hear the message of His destroying Jewish homes on the very day He let them destroy His. We haven’t learned the lessons of the 9 days — and we use his reminder as an excuse to increase the sin’as chinam?! Rachmanah litzlan, are we really that stupid? How much power do we rob from our tefillos by missing Yeshaiah’s message, by not first addressing our feelings toward our fellow Jews?

Yes, they’re wrong. And yes, we must not cater to moral relativism. Democracy isn’t a higher value than Judaism. Period. So cry for souls that are striving for aliyah, but are mislead by a map pointing in the wrong direction. They aren’t the bad guys. None of the kinos mention the Zealots burning the grain stores in an attempt to force their fellow Jews to fight a rebellion against Roman occupation. Instead, the kinos consistently focus on what we did wrong to warrant a lack of His protection.

Perhaps this is exactly why the rashei yeshiva and rabbis who supported the tefillah rally in Yerushalayim did not similarly back other rallies. Which should people be saying during the 3 weeks and 9 days: “We won’t let Sharon do this to us, he has no mandate!” Or: “We have no one on whom to rely, but our Father in heaven!”

Menuchas haNefesh

Picture being in a box. A large box, plenty of room to walk around, but very much with a “boxy” feel. There is a pervasive smell of tar; the box itself is wood sealed with tar. There’s a constant background smell of animals and food as well. Your rocking, floating on the water. The lighting is poor, barely present, and what’s there tends to be slivers of color — light coming through a small crystal. And you’re constantly busy, caring for all those animals. Running from one to the next. Now picture living that for a year. Finally, you’re free!The description in the Torah for the end of the mabul (flood) heavily uses conjugations of the word “menuchah”. The protagonist’s name — Noach. The ark comes to rest on the mountain — “vatanch hateivah”. The dove seeks “mano’ach” — a resting place. The language calls our attention to the event as an archetype of menuchah.However, that’s the calm after the storm. (Quite literally.) How does one achieve menuchah during the storm?

Also, the trope mark “munach” is used in the beginning of a phrase, it’s a preparatory note. Implied in that choice of name is that they found the word “menuchah” implying not only an end, but a preparation of the thing to come.

The berakhah on tefillin is “… Who commanded us lehani’ach tefillin — to rest tefillin”. Tefillin can only be worn while we are in the proper frame of mind. (Which is why today, when shorter attention spans on the norm, we wear it for the minimum time necessary.) Menuchah connotes a reflective pause.

This is also implied by what it is “menuchas hanefesh” asks us to put to rest. The “nefesh”. There are many words in Judaism for soul (just as there are many words in Innuit Eskimo languages for snow, allegedly). Neshamah implies lofty spirituality. Ru’ach connotes one’s will. Nefesh, though, is something we share with animals. One can’t consume blood for “the blood is of the nefesh”. Nefesh is our more primitive, mammalian, selves.

And one can’t really explore the meaning of menuchah in Judaism without looking as Shabbos. The most common text used for Qiddush on Shabbos morning is composed of two paragraphs. One ends “… and on the seventh day He rested — vayinafash“. From the word nefesh. The second, “… for on six days Hashem made the heaven and the earth, the sea and everything within them, vayanach — and He rested — on the seventh day.” Menuchas hanefesh, stepping back from the storms of life to get an opportunity to reflect, defines Shabbos. The nefesh might be a raft tossed about by the waves, but I, I can be steady.

I therefore suggested that menuchas hanefesh does not mean not feeling anger, stress, or the other things that break our calm. If nothing else, such a definition would make the problem too large to tackle. Rather, it’s to be able to find the point of quiet and watch the emotion. The anger is there, the stress is there, but not overwhelming our ability to think.

That is Shabbos. That is lehani’ach tefillin.

So how do we achieve it?

1- A hispa’alus, taken from Hallel:
“Shuvi nafshi limnuchaychi — Return my soul to my rest
Ki Hashem gamal alaychi — for G-d provides support upon me.”

Also, looking at the quote, one can glean tactics for achieving menuchas hanefesh. The practices already introduced — visualization (see opening) and quote-based hispa’alus — are themselves tactics.

Note some of the implications:
Shuvi – return: I have been there before.

Which brings us to tactic #2:

2- If one pays attention to moments of calm, one can capture the feeling and more readily reproduce it. I’m not talking about intellectualizing the process. Just that through awareness, one can recall the feeling on a gut

Nafshi — my nefesh. Who is the “I” who has a nefesh? I need not be the storms of my soul.

This is actually quite difficult. At the moment of being overwhelmed, how does one decide not to be overwhelmed? There’s a Catch-22 (or bootstrapping problem)in requiring a balanced mind in order to work on balancing one’s mind.

3- Limnuchaychi — to my rest. I own it.

Shabbos observance (or breaking for minchah, mid-day; the name isn’t quite derived from “menuchah” but if one dismisses the notion of coincidence…) gives one experiences of calm to return to.

4- Ki Hashem gamal alaychi — For Hashem provides support upon me.

Bitachon, trust that Hashem has a purpose, will allow me not to needlessly fight that which shouldn’t be fought. Yes, things that need resisting are challenges I must face. But too often we’re stressed about things we can’t control — solely because we don’t realize these scenarios serve their purpose as well.

5- Realize that every storm does have an end. And that menuchah after the storm is when we can prepare for the next one (and there will be a “next one”) — thereby preventing that overwhelming feeling when it hits.

On Destroying Synagogues

The Israeli Government wanted to have the army destroy the synagogues of Azza, to spare us the shame, the Palestinian triumphalism and the chillul Hashem (not that the government would necessarily use that term) that greeted me upon checking the news this morning.However, the unanimous decision of Israel’s rabbis was that it is prohibited for a Jew to tear down a synagogue. Rav She’ar Yashuv haKohein Kook, with the support of R’ Eliashiv, went to Israel’s Supreme Court to plead the case:

Destruction of one synagogue is possible only after a new one has already been built. Even then, the destruction is allowed only when the community is interested in expanding the existing synagogue. But in the case of the Gaza expulsion, communities will either cease to exist as separate entities or will be greatly decreased in number.
There is no precedent for allowing Jews to destroy synagogues after the expulsion of the community.

As this is not a news blog, the question I wanted to raise was the flaw in the government’s thinking. Isn’t it a chilul Hashem to allow our enemies a party over the destruction of a beis medrash or beis keneses?

After all, at Masada and at York (1190) people comitted mass suicide rather than hand the enemy a victory. And in York, two of the people who died were Tosafists — the act had halachic sanction by the era’s highest authorities! If the motivation justifies death, surely it justifies the destruction of synagogues. Life, after all, is more sacred than buildings.

There was an evil man named Sheva ben Bichri … and he said, “I have no allegiance to David HaMelech” [i.e., he led a rebellion against King David]. Yoav’s men chased after him and they came to a town and laid siege to it. Yoav announced to the townspeople, “Sheva ben Bichri has raised his hand against David HaMelech. Send him out of your town, for he alone is the one that is guilty, and I will then withdraw my forces from the siege.” A woman responded to Yoav, “Behold, here is his head which I am throwing to you next to the walls of the city.”

– Sanhedrin 72b

It is prohibited to turn over one person so that all may save their lives. It is similarly prohibited for a group of women to turn over one of their number to rapists so that they spare the rest. There is a dispute whether the precedent of Sheva ben Bichri means that it is only when they name a particular person that turning him over is permitted (R’ Yochanan), or even then it’s only permitted when the person is also the one actually guilty (Reish Laqish). The Rambam (Yesodei haTorah 5:5) and Rama (YD 157) rule that the person named must be guilty of the death penalty in order to permit turning him over.

But in any other case, a group cannot choose one of their own number in order to save them all. Why? Wouldn’t the unlucky chosen person be a victim in either case? The problem is in making oneself the instrument of evil. It is better to witness greater evil than to be an actor in a smaller one. It’s one thing to commit suicide. It’s another to save oneself through murder — even the murder of someone slated for death.

And that’s the perspective on religion that the government lacks. When too many people think of religion, they think of houses of worship, of prayer, of retreat and respite from “the real world”. However, Yahadus is based on the notion of sanctifying one’s life, not saving oneself from it.

Their original plan would have saved the synagogue at the expense of G-d’s true sanctuary in this world, the Jewish soul.

May we be spared such decisions in the future.

The Lishmah of Interpersonal Mitzvos

I recently noticed a paradox when it comes to mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (interpersonal mitzvos). 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.(Along these lines are the Chessed Projects many girl schools require. Obviously the point is that “from doing it not lishmah, one is brought to doing it lishmah.” But what is the school trying to encourage?)The paradox seems to be addressed by the Torah by giving two overarching principles that motivate chessed. The first is “ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha — and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The other is “vehalakhta bidrakhav — and you shall walk in His ways”, to which Chazal comment (Sifri ad loc, among many other places), “Just as He is described as Merciful, so too must you be merciful. Just as He is described as Kind, so must you too be kind. Etc….”

(Note that the Sifri does not actually call G-d “kind” or “merciful”. The Sifri clearly is ascribing the attributes to our perception of Hashem, not to Hashem Himself. See “The Attributes of G-d“.)

Ve’ahavta obligates us to act out of love for the other. Vehalakhta, out of love for and obedience to G-d. Which one is fulfilling in a given act, which could mean both as well, could very well depend on the intent of the person.