Idealism

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.

A

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.

B

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.

C

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).

D

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.

Welcome

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.