The Magrefah and Yir’as Hashem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of which is a prelude to the following metaphor…

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

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

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

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

Ana Hashem

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Tehillim 116:16 (and Hallel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to the opening.

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

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

He would say:

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

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

Raba Got Up and Slaughtered Rav Zeira

Rava’s position in the gemara is famous:

רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Rava obligated people to drink on Purim until he would not know between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordachai”.

- Megillah 7b

This is the law as recorded in the Shulchan Arukh (O”Ch 695:2) , although his other work, the Beis Yoseif, does explore other opinions. Those who can’t believe that it could possibly be Jewish to get that drunk offer other explanations. E.g. the Rambam’s position is that one should drink until they fall asleep, at which time they are unaware of the distinction between Haman and Mordachai. The Mei’iri maintains the literal meaning, but warns that the obligation not to make a fool of oneself and of the Torah overrides this obligation; it only applies to people who can maintain self-control.  The Rama (O”Ch ad loc) writes that the obligation is simply to drink more than usual.

Another possibility which sets the required amount of drink quite low is offered by the Marahil, who notes that in gematrai, “arur Haman” and “barukh Mordachai” are equal, both come to 502. The Maharil suggests that the obligation is to get too drunk to do the math.

Along similar lines, I would point out that the distinction that is to get blurred isn’t between Haman and Mordachai, but between cursing Haman and blessing Mordachai. Between knowing when to attack evil and when to build good. Which is pretty hard to know even when sober!

But what happens in all these explanations to the words of the gemara?

What is often omitted is the rest of the discussion of this obligation. The gemara continues:

רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי איבסום קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא

Raba and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim meal together. They got drunk. Raba got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, [Raba] begged for [Divine] Mercy, and [Rabbi Zeira] came to life.

A year later, [Rabba] said to him, “Come, master, and we will make a Purim meal together.”

He said to him, “Not every time will we experience a miracle.”

A cautionary tale, Rava’s is not the final word on the subject.

There are some hints that more is going on here. Rabba’s name means “large” or “great”. “Zeira” is Aramaic for “young” (c.f. Hebrew “tza’ir“) or “small”.

Rav Elyakim Getzel Levitan, the Maggid of Brisk, (cited in Kehilas Yitzchak by R Yitzchok Reitbard, in Pirchei Nisan to Parashas Mikeitz) cites a number of sources to show the personalities of these two amora’im. (R’ Levitan says that Chavos Yair 152 speaks about this. I didn’t have a chance to look it up, and I wanted to post this before Purim. Kehilas Yitzchak directs us to Hagahos R’ Shaul Katzenelenbogen, Berachos 30b, which is printed in the Vilna Shas. it’s worth looking up.)

Shabbos 30b says that Rabbah would begin every shiur with a milsa dibedichusa, a humorous and entertaining thought. As for R’ Zeira, Niddah 23a has R Yirmiyah trying to cheer him up, and Sanhedrin 59b has R Avahu calling him by the name of a bird with a mournful dispoition.

In addition to the sources provided by the Maggid of Brisk, there is also a story in which Rabbah makes a man (presumably a golem) and sends it as a gift to R’  Zeira (Sanhedrin 65b). When Rabbi Zeira spoke to it and it wouldn’t answer, R’ Zeira realized it was made by a sage and told it to return to dust. In another gemara (Berakhos 57a), we are told that Rabbi Zeira moved to Israel from Bavel after being told in a dream that his sins were forgiven. First he took efforts to forget the Babylonian mode of study. Then R’ Zeira went in such haste, “to obtain a blessing denied Moshe and Aharon”, he crossed the Jordan by foot without taking the time to change out of his clothes!

To generalize, then, the gemara draws Rabba as a cheerful teacher who tried to share his joy of life with his students, as well as with R’ Zeira. Rabbi Zeira, at least at the time Rabbah knew him in Bavel, as a sad person (perhaps he lived in the shadow of belief that he was an undeserving sinner).

One was “Rabba – Great” the other “Rabbi Zeira — the smaller rabbi”.

Perhaps a reference to the ideas of Gadlus haMochin and Qatnus haMochin. (Hat tip to Dr Alan Morinis for introducing me to these concepts. Any mis-presentation, though, would be due to my trying to understand the ideas while coming from a fundamentally different upbringing. As you shall see, my presentation draws from my YU-based upbringing, and is therefore not necessarily loyal to the more chassidic worldview from which is comes.)

Gadlus haMochin, literally: Greatness of Mind, is the entire mindset that breeds self-confidence, security. In Modern Orthodox parlance, it is Adam I — the last element in Bereishis ch. 1′s description of creation, ready and confident that he can recreate the world and conquer it. Qatnus haMochin is more Adam II. The Adam of chapter 2 is lonely and seeks companionship, reaches out in need to the A-lmighty. Gadlus haMochin strives to understand G-d, Qatnus haMochin is the intimate experience of Him that comes so readily in times of trouble. Gadlus serves through ahavah and yir’as haRomemus (love of G-d and awe of His Greatness), qatnus through yir’as ha’onesh and yir’as hacheit (fear of punishment or fear of the failing of the sin itself). Returning to Rav Soloveichik’s language — advance and retreat. “Yes I can!” and “Yeah, but…”

Rabba served G-d through gadlus hamochin, constantly looking at the joyous possibilities. Rabbi Zeira, at least in Bavel, served through qatnus, through caution, taking each step as though looking for possible land-mines. (Perhaps this is why Rabbi Zeira took efforts to forget his former mode of thought as part of his aliyah to Israel.)

Think of the worse curse we can think for someone. In the weekday Amidah we curse those who slander and work against the community. Who thereby endanger other Jews. (Actually, the earlier version was against apostates;
but many historians believe that in both cases the reference was to the early Christians who were willing to endanger the rest of us in order to endear themselves to the Romans. Not that it helped keep them from being fed to the lions.)

So here we are, cursing turncoats and apostates, and what’s the horrible fate we foresee G-d meting out to them? “And for the informers, let there be no hope.”

There is a famous notion in the gemara “nichnas yayin, yatza sod — wine enters, secrets (or: the foundations) go out” (Eiruvin 65a). Rabba drank wine, and out came his fundamental cheerfulness. Rabbi Zeira drank wine, and he got enmired in hopelessness.

Rav Zeira imbibed wine, and out came his fundamental pessimism. He lost hope. He was slain.

Taanis 22a tells the story of how Rav Beroqa of Benei Chuza’a (perhaps: from among the seers) would go to the market of Lapat and meet Eliyahu haNavi. One time he asked the prophet if anyone in the market was deserving of the World To Come. The prophet said no. (Rabbi Aqiva Eiger understands this gemara to mean that none were deserving before going through the trials and atonement of death.)

In the course of other encounters, Eliyahu pointed out a jailer who kept the men and women separate, and would dress as a non-Jew to get information back to the Jewish people. (Note the contrast to the aforementioned turncoats.)

The story ends with Eliyahu pointing to two brothers who happened just then to pass by. Rav Beroqa approached the men and asked what they did for a living. They explained they they were jesters, their job was to cheer up unhappy people and to heal disagreements between people.

There is a time for Qatnus haMochin, for caution, for “yeah-but”, for facing our troubles and seeking Hashem’s support — but not Purim. The happiness that comes from hope, from focusing on opportunity, is an essential element of the day. The smoothing over of past grievances, the unity and happiness of mishloach manos. What is Purim about if not the story of redemption from invisible and unexpected places?

And so, a person is obligated to drink on Purim, but only if he is Rabba, where wine will bring out the joys of potential. Rav Zeira should follow the Rama’s advise, and spend the afternoon napping, in a vacation from his worries. Barukh Mordachai and Arur Haman.

Let me leave you with this litmus test for which approach to take:

If you find yourself reaching for a drink to celebrate Purim, drink, it’s a mitzvah!
But if you find yourself celebrating Purim because it’s a license to drink, don’t!

(For the curious: In Ben Asher, the mesoretic text considered more authoritative, the name is written “מָרְדֳּכַ֗י”, with a chataf qamatz under the dalet. For that reason I transliterated it “Mordachai”, with an “a” after the “d”, not the more common “Mordechai”. In any case, the first vowel is a qamatz qatan, closer to the long /ō/ sound of a cholam than the usual qamatz.)

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

Yoshiahu’s Downfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaul’s Downfall

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

Esther’s Success

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

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

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

- Beraisa, Avos 6:6

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

If not for the Anvanus of Zechariah ben Avqulos…

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

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

Pesachiah is Mordechai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Each of the last two is half the value:

י10 x 2 = 20כ
ה 5 x 2 = 10י

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

Defense Mechanisms

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

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

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

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

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

Healthy Anvanus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anavah, the Path to Happiness

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

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

What is Frumkeit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Yeshaiah 57:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tools and Goals

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

Torah and mitzvos, these are our goals

Serving Hashem to strengthen our souls…

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

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

Continue reading

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

Compassion for Our Enemies

Updated 1/8/2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward a Torah Definition of “Ethics”

A short thought, maybe a conversation starter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

Rav Wolbe’s World part II: Middos

This is the second part of a translation of Rav Shlomo Wolbezt”l‘s contribution to Bishvilei haRefu’ah [In the Paths of Medicine], volume 5, Sivan 5742, “Psychiatria veDat” [Psychiatry and Religion], section beis (pp 60-70). In this section, the Mashgiach prepares the background for the discussion by laying out his basic worldview, his view of the purpose of Torah and life, from a very Mussar-based perspective.
In part one we saw the Mashgiach’s idea that the world of Torah is a World of Yedidus [Affection / Dearness]. Halakhah is a tool to create an emotional bond between us and G-d, a bond between us and other people, and an internal bond and wholeness. Our generation is characterized by fear playing a central role in our lives, and this ill is a consequence of the lack of emotional connection which is manifest in a lack of trust and faith in G-d, and the distrustful way we interact with other people in general.
Now we continue at the three stars subdividing section beis, on page 65. Rav Wolbe now continues with a description of how we are to bring this world about.
Without harnessing Middos (inclinations, attitudes and character predispositions) to build yedidus, we tend to descend to the opposite extreme, cruelty. Free will does not go so far as to include the ability to create or destroy any of the soul’s powers, including one’s middos. Much of the battle within the soul and mind occurs without our awareness, among the physical desires and tendencies of our subconscious, and the spiritual longings of what Rav Wolbe calls our “super-conscious”. The Torah does not call on us to suppress or repress any of these powers, but to learn to use each in its appropriate time and constructively.
The following translation, section headings and footnotes are my own.

Alienation and Cruelty

The World of Yedidus is not an idealized world without any opposing forces. Forces of alienation stand in its way and constantly threaten to harm or even destroy it. The World of Yedidus is a unified world, built upon great closeness between a person and their Creator and between people and their peers. But there is a force within a person that does not want this closeness — estrangement that grows step by step until all connection to others is lost, and until it is the worst of all middos: akh-zariyus [pure alienation, an unpacking of the word akhzariyus, cruelty], that is to say, absolute alienation. The akh-zar person is happy to gloat over his peer, gets pleasure from his pain. The final step of alienation is that the person is a zar (a stranger) to himself and even akh-zari (cruel) to himself. (See at length in Wolbe, Bein Sheishes leAsor, Jerusalem 1976, the essay “Olam haYedidus” on p. 15 ff.)

We find in the Talmud (Shabbos 105b):

One who tears clothing in his fury, who breaks his vessels in his fury, or who scatters his money in his fury should be in your eyes like an idolator. Because such is the job of the evil inclination: today it says to him “do this” and tomorrow it says to him “do that”, until eventually it tells him “worship idols!” — and he goes and worships. Rav Avin said, “Where is the scripture (Where is this written in Tanakh)? ‘Do not have within you a zar (foreign) god’ — What is a foreign god who is within a person’s body? This says it is the evil inclination.”

This text outlines evil as a force of alienation. The Talmud here portrays the process of alienation which begins with a person’s alienation from himself through anger, and from there he reaches alienation from G-d — idolatry. It is not for naught that pagan gods are called by the term “avodah zarah” (foreign worship), to point to the source of the phenomenon in the power of zarus (alienation / foreignness).

Middos and Intellect

What is this process of alienation? There isn’t any power in the soul which is specifically evil (Naftali Wessley, Sefer haMidos part I, ch. 4). Every power has some place in the World of Yedidus. Even egotism and anger are necessary sometimes. When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary. However, in order to build the World of Yedidus, there has to be coordination of all the forces together, so that they work together in cooperation and a proper distribution of their duties.

The ruling power, which sets each of the other powers in their proper place, is the intellect, which is therefore the central power of yedidus in a person. (Cf. Kuzari, Rav Yehudah HaLeivi, 3:2 onward.) Without the rule of the intellect, there is no World of Yedidus. When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its boundaries and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control — this power alienates itself from the other powers and rebels against the intellect. This is where zarus begins, and that power thereby changes to become “evil.” This process is depicted in the Talmud quoted above with the example of anger. Elsewhere the Talmud depicts the same process of alienation with regard to sexual lust (which the Gemara describes as “[Rav said:] someone who intentionally stimulates himself [should be excommunicated. And why is it prohibited? Because he incites the evil inclination against himself.]” — Niddah 13b)

Free Will

Here we reach the question of free will. We explained that there is no power in a person that is specifically evil. We are able to use our powers to build the World of Yedidus, through the coordination of those powers by the intellect. The excessive use of one power or a rebellion against the intellect cause the destruction of the World of Yedidus. This choice is in the person’s hands, whether to choose yedidus or alienation. Indeed, he can choose.1

In the Talmud we find an example of this (Shabbos 156a): “A person born under the sign of Mars will be a person who sheds blood — a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer [for meat] or a mohel.” A person cannot change the basic attribute, in this example — the inclination to shed blood. But this attribute can be used for good, and the spectrum of possibilities is broad: he could be a doctor, a slaughterer or a mohel. Only the thief who won’t flinch from murder uses his attribute in a manner of alienation. Here we have an example of an extreme inclination, and there is still nothing that compels a person to be evil because of it. He has the choice to use it for more beneficial ends.

For the sake of completeness, we will give a historical example from our Sages on this topic (Yalkut Shimoni, Samuel I, 16:124):

When Samuel saw that David was “red”, he grew fearful. “This one will shed blood like Esau!” The Holy One said to him, “With beautiful eyes” — Esau killed by his own decision, but this one kills by the decision of the Sanhedrin!

In any case, there is a limit to choice; the basic inclination cannot be changed! In the above example, someone born with the inclination to shed blood cannot uproot this inclination. The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or to destroy it.2

Torah and Middos

Here the Torah comes to the aid of the intellect, to strengthen the person to choose good. The Torah of Israel wages an all-out war against all the forces of alienation. Therefore, first of all, “The intent of the Torah is to extend the intellect to all the desires of the soul, and to assert its power over them” (Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar Perishus, ch. 2). The intent is not to to suppress desires, but to put each force in its proper place. For that is the way of Torah in all its mitzvos. Torah has three pillars: “On three things the world stands — on Torah, on worship and on supporting kindness” — taught Shim’on haTzaddik (Avos 1:2). Learning Torah completes the person himself. Worshipping God — whether in the Beis haMikdash or with his prayer — connects us with the Holy One. Supporting through acts of kindness is yedidus toward the other. These are the parts of Torah.3

The Torah is also meticulous about subtle instances of alienation: “When you see your enemy’s donkey collapsing under its load, you refrain from removing it? You should surely remove it with him!” (Shemos 23:4-5) Ignoring damages to one’s peers is also alienation — “you may not hide!” (Devarim 22:3-4)

Subconscious and Super-Conscious

There is one last question for us to discuss: Does the Torah recognize the [existence of a] subconscious? The answer is in the affirmative. In the Tanakh we find that “Hashem [Tzevakos is a righteous judge] who examines the kidneys and heart” (Yirmiyahu 11:20). And the Talmud establishes, “the kidneys advise, the heart understands” (Berakhos 61a). The heart is the seat of the conscious, the kidneys — an idiom for the subconscious.

However, the subconscious known to Torah scholars is not that of Freud, which is created by the suppression of desires or unpleasant experiences. It is also not the unconscious of Jung, who believes in archetypes which reside in a collective unconscious. We must turn to the words of the Gra, “the Vilna Gaon”: “All of a person’s ways follow the original desire; the original desire as it initially arises is correct in his eyes.” (Commentary on Mishlei 16:1-2) As if to say, the desire is formed in such depths that our conscious has no dominion over them. The “I”4 that is known to us is only a very small part of the essence of a person. Hidden desire directs our ways — they are the “advising kidneys” in the idiom of Tanakh and our Sages, which we don’t directly feel in our activities. For the sake of brevity, we will have to refrain here from bringing examples from the Torah about how this “original desire” acts. Suffice it here to say that the hidden desire has the ability to strive for things of the body or the spirit.

From the Torah’s perspective, we would have to speak of a subconscious and also of a super-conscious. There are lofty desires which originate in the godly soul within us. They push us to ethical elevation and closeness to God, and they bring us to more lofty emotions. This spiritual original desire is appropriately called “super-conscious”, and we must leave the term “subconscious” for original desires that draw one to satisfy physical indulgences. The desires of our super-conscious are certainly no less strong than the desires of the subconscious. This understanding of super — and subconscious does not invalidate the mechanisms of repression. We already saw above that it was already known to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter 60 years before Freud. But the Torah understanding does contradict Freud in a sharp way in that he only finds the Libido in the subconscious, and in dreams which are the window into the subconscious, only sexual matters. (Cf. [Victor] Frankl’s writings, Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde, Stuttgart 1959, and Der Unbewusste Gott — Psychotherapie und Religion.)


Excursus: Jewish Mysticism

This is the right point to dwell briefly on Jewish Mysticism. Judaism does not recognize that which we call unio mystica.5 A creature could never be entirely unified with his Creator. A person can greatly purify himself through the power of his Torah and worship; he can lower and abnegate himself before his Creator until he feels God’s closeness to him, but he remains constantly aware of the great distance that is between creature and His Creator. Non-Jewish sources which speak of a unio mystica apparently refer to specific ecstatic states from within which they feel as though they are in union with God. Jewish mystical enlightenment.6 entirely negates the possibility of actual unity. However, there is a section of the Torah called “the esoteric Torah” which Kabbalah deals with. It is part of the Oral Torah like the Talmud. However, whereas there is an obligation on every Jew to learn Talmud, only “people of stature” involve themselves in “Kabbalah.” Until our generation there were Kabbalists who developed deep insights in the area of Kabbalah. We will briefly follow their means of innovation.

The Torah’s system has two axes: The horizontal axis are the practical mitzvos which obligate every Jewish individual — they create the World of Yedidus of the entire nation. The vertical axis — these are the ways of ascent of each person according to their ability. These ways of ascent are primarily built upon the service of the heart, like love for, yirah (awe-fear) of, attachment to [God], etc… The more a person delves into the depths of Torah, the more he feels the subtle nuances of holiness. These sublime powers we discussed aid a person in this. The more deeply he delves into Torah, the more these powers are strengthened within him. With this he can reach the point where in the purity of his heart and clarity of his mind he could grasp very deep knowledge of Godliness, the world, and humanity.

This is the direct opposite of ecstasy, where through the nullification of consciousness one sees visions of secret worlds. On the contrary, the conscious is in operation at the time of comprehension, and the Kabbalist feels with total certainty that he is grasping the truth. A superlative example of this is the Gra from Vilna, about whom those close to him were known to say that they sent him [angels] from heaven to reveal to him lofty secrets. He refused to accept these revelations, because his mind was only at rest with ideas that he himself established with his study (introduction by Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner to the Gra’s commentary on Sifra deTzeneiu’sa, p. 4).

Therefore the person of Torah can reach purity of thought and sacred behavior until he merits sublime understanding and truths that reach the depths of creation. But this is the exclusive realm of the Torah of Israel. Psychiatry cannot bring one to these kinds of spiritual states, and also one cannot benefit from the ideas which are revealed in them.

  1. I believe this is why it was so important for Rabbi Wolbe to assert in the prior installment that everything has its role in creation, buttressing it with an entire digression about even insanity serving its purpose. As he quoted, “Despise no one and disdain nothing, for there is no person who does not have his moment and there is nothing that does not have its place” (Avos 4:3). Every inclination and power of the soul has its role. Therefore the Torah does not compel us to suppress any of them, rather it teaches us how to find its purpose within the ultimate goal of a World of Yedidus. []
  2. Maimonides famously describes the proper tuning for each inclination to be the Middle Measure (Code, Laws of Dei’os 1:2). The Orchos Tzadikim (introduction) likens it to a recipe or a meal; some ingredients, such as the meat, is desired in large quantities, others, like salt, in far smaller ones. We saw this kind of description in the previous essay, when Rabbi Wolbe writes, “When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its limits and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control…”

    However, it is notable that his primary focus in both that section and the current one is not so much the quantity or intensity of each inclination, but coordinating when and how each is used. As when he writes, “When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary.” Or as we find here, “The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or destroy it.” []

  3. Note that these are also the three forms of relationship that Rav Wolbe earlier said characterize the World of Yedidus.

    There is an interesting comparison here between Rabbi Wolbe’s model and those of two earlier figures of the 20th century.

    Rabbi Shimon Shkop (introduction to Shaarei Yosher) also speaks of the goal of the Torah in terms of the person who is connected to others:

    The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people… And there are higher levels of this in a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and (even) all of creation.

    However, Rabbi Shkop’s notion is more radical; his perspective is outright humanistic. Spirituality is only the second step in a progression towards connecting to all of humanity. He opens by telling us, that God “planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator…”

    Similarly, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum’s Ha-Olim Society carried a three-part motto of “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres” to parallel Shimon haTzaddik’s three pillars. Translating, it called for “knowledge (of God), compassion (toward others), and a splendorous harmony (within).” And yet, he too gave his vision a very humanistic hue (Yavneh, year 3, issue 156-157 — Kisleiv-Teiveis 5691, published in Lemberg, p. 8-9). He describes Hashem’s Good as flowing from under the Throne of Glory and our job to aid its bestowal on ourselves and others. This requires being close to Him and thus connected to the Source, compassionate and thereby connected to others, and to form and master ourselves to become conduits through which that Good can flow.

    Whereas R’ Wolbe makes each kind of relationship — God, others and self — equally primary, both of these earlier thinkers speak of the value of relating to God and being whole in ourselves as deriving (at least in part, although possibly in total) from their being necessary to properly assist others. []

  4. Perhaps: “Ego” in the Freudian sense. []
  5. The Latin is in the original: a mystical union between the practitioner and God. []
  6. Behirus means mystical enlightenment, in contrast with Haskalah. []