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!

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.

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.

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.

Yir’ah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…But one who has not traversed the actual pathway of illumination [that of the prophets and the sages],he who stands opposite the rays of light, at some distance, possesses little understanding of this term [yir'ah]. It would be better had he never known this term, and was now learning it for the first time. But this is his problem: He knows it, but does not know it properly. He possesses a dangerous translation of the entire concept, and cannot avoid its negative ramifications. For example, when we mention yir’ah to this person he can only translate it thus: Bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels. And he does not know that this translation is heretical for the one who knows what yir’ah is and what it means, the source from which it flows, and from whence it comes… There are times that demand tears and eulogies… It is necessary then to stoop like rushes and take up sackcloth and ashes. Times come upon the world when our sins require these. Such, however, is not Yir’as Hashem, not it and not even part of it. It is not yir’ah’s essence, but only preparation for it…Yir’ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance… It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the essay, R’ AE Kaplan writes:

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

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

Charitzus – Decisiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this is the meaning of the famous quote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict Resolution

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

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

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

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

Defining Anavah

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

Is anavah really “humility”?

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

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

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

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

Menuchas haNefesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is Shabbos. That is lehani’ach tefillin.

So how do we achieve it?

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

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

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

Which brings us to tactic #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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