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.

Qedushas Beis HaKenesses

When a Jew talks during davening in a shul in America,
A shul in Netzarim is set aflame.
That’s the lesson I took from this Elul. The feelings generated from pictures of the fires and celebrations made me realize something. I care a lot more about the sanctity of a synagogue and all that it stands for than what I follow through in action.A thought, written minutes before I leave for Selichos: We have an opportunity to use those feelings as they are awoken by the news, to take the awe for Hashem that one can only feel as hurricane after hurricane washes away entire cities and leaves us no means of help but prayer.

For some shuls, thank G-d, speaking is not the issue. In some places, perhaps it’s that people trickle in 15 minutes or more late. In another, the davening runs as it should, but no one thinks of putting away the siddurim afterward; the sefarim collect on the tables in every-growing piles. Each of us can look at where we are and ask ourselves — what can I do constructively to address the loss of sanctity as synagogues burned to the ground amidst celebrations and looting?

So I ask you: Please don’t talk to me in shul. I’m weak, and easily distracted.

Qedushas Beis HaKenesses, part II

In an earlier entry, I suggested that we take the feelings generated by seeing the shuls of Azza ransacked, and use them to motivate our behavior in our own synagogues. Including (but not limited to) cutting down on the talking.I since learned of a program produced by the Orthodox Union for this past Shabbos with exactly the same thought in mind. Here’s a snippet:

In recent weeks we have been witness to devastating images of burning synagogues in Gaza, flooded synagogues in New Orleans — and perhaps soon, although we hope not, in the Houston area as well. This is surely cause for mourning, for the synagogue is the backbone of any Kehilla Kedosha, a holy Jewish community. This destruction is therefore emblematic of the loss of Torah and kedusha in the world.

In light of these tragic events, both in Gush Katif and in the American South, the Orthodox Union is calling on all of its member synagogues across the United States and Canada to participate in a Shabbat program for the purpose of giving increased emphasis to the holiness of our shuls. We ask you to institute a Ta’anit Dibbur – a period free of conversation – during the morning davening of the last Shabbat of the year 5765, Parshat Nitzavim, October 1, 2005.

So it’s too late to join them. It’s still a good and necessary idea, and not a bad thing to try for Shabbos Shuvah. Here’s their advice:

Levity is forbidden in synagogues and batei medrash. Levity includes, among other things, joking, laughing and idle conversation. (Orach Chayim 151)Idle conversation even includes discussion of secular subjects that is permitted elsewhere, such as business matters, not to mention generally forbidden talk, such as Lashon Hara, rechilus and quarrelsome speech. (Mishneh Brura ibid.)

During the Chazan’s repetition of Shmoneh Esray the congregation must remain silent, concentrate and answer “amen” after each bracha. If there are not at least nine individuals concentrating on the brachos, then they are considered brachos levatalah. Therefore, each person should conduct himself as if there will not be nine concentrating without him. (Orach Chayim 124)

Even reciting Tehilim or other prayers and learning Torah are forbidden during the Chazan’s repetition of Shmoneh Esray. (Mishneh Brura, ibid.; Derech Moshe as quoted in L’sefer Hagan, section 28)

Conversation is strictly forbidden during the Chazan’s repetition of Shmoneh Esray. If one speaks at this time, his sin is too great to bear, and he must be reprimanded. (Orach Chayim 124) We have witnessed the destruction of a number of synagogues due to this sin. (Mishneh Brura, ibid., quoting Eliyah Rabba)

Once Krias Hatorah has begun, it is forbidden to talk, even words of Torah. It is highly questionable whether one may even learn Torah silently instead of following the Torah reading. (Orach Chayim 146; Beur Halacha, ibid.)

It is forbidden to talk or learn during any other part of davening, even during the recitation of supplementary piyutim that one is not accustomed to say. (Orach Chayim 68)

Idle conversation is forbidden even when the congregation is not praying, i.e., before and after davening. (Derech Moshe Hanispach L’sefer Hagan section 29, quoting Rambam)

A person must make it clear to others that he does not talk in shul, and he should do so in a way that makes them want to act as he does. (Sefer Peleh Yoetz)

Follow these halachos no matter what those around you say or do. Cultivate your personal sense of Hashem’s constant presence and acknowledge the fact that when you enter a shul or bais medrash you are, quite literally, in immediate proximity to the Shechina. If you do not believe this, cannot take it seriously, or feel indifferent to it, recognize that you have a serious problem of fundamental faith that is necessarily infecting all of your Torah learning and observance. Pray to the Ribono Shel Olam for help and seek guidance from an authentic Torah personality.

Mima’amaqim

Shir haMa’alos: Mima’amaqim qarasikha Hashem
A song of ascents: From the depths, I call You, Hashem

– Tehillim 120:1
I’ve written a number of essays about tragedy from the perspective of philosophy and theory. But there are times when it simply isn’t the right approach.What do you say to someone who is in the middle of facing profound tragedy? A friend of mine recently lost his teenage daughter. You pay a shiv’ah call. What’s the right thing to say? Is there a right thing to say?Rav Nachum ish Gamzu would face every challenge and disappointment with “Gam zu letovah — this too is for the good.” Similarly Rabbi Aqiva, who studied under Rav Nachman ish Gamzu, said, “Everything the All-Merciful does, He does for the good.” Everything has a role in Hashem’s grand scheme. If it occurred, it has a good and positive outcome.

Very nice in theory. But how can a holocaust survivor, someone who lost his entire family, who saw children sent to the crematoria, possibly be asked to embrace this idea? How can parents bereft of their beloved daughter be told “everything has a plan, it’s really for the best” and not feel that the explanation is both emotionally cold and intellectually dishonest (as Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it)? Particularly since rare is the glimpse that we finite humans get into the infinite and Absolute Divine Wisdom.

We find the same phenomenon in the book of Iyov. The book opens telling the reader the reason for Iyov’s future woes. The Satan, the challenging angel, believes that Iyov has mastered the art of serving G-d from plenty, and needs to learn how to serve Him even in the face of poverty and adversity. Yet Iyov goes through one disaster after another, seeks their meaning, and never finds one. The book closes with Hashem telling him that the search is futile, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell, if you know the understanding!” (Iyov 38:3) Knowing the reason exists is a far cry from either being able to understand it or embrace it.

The word “aveilus” is translated “mourning”. Etymologically, though, it’s a form of the word “aval — but”. Aveilus is a time when none of the answers make sense; the aveil says, “I know that Hashem has his reasons, but …” When my wife and I lost our infant daughter, a recurring question in my mind was, “Yes, but why me?” Aveilus is a state where the gap between our knowledge and our hearts is acute and the chasm of pain impassable.

So what does someone do when they find themselves “walking in the valley of Deathshadow”? If it’s not the right time for explanations, what does one say?

The standard formula is “May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The message is that first, G-d is everywhere — He is with you in your pain. And second, you are not a single person suffering alone.

Shir hama’alos — What is the song of ascents, the means of lifting up from the pit of despair?

“From the depths I call you, Hashem.” “Qarov Hashem lekhol qor’av, lekhol asher yiqra’uhu be’emes — Hashem is close to all who call Him, to anyone who truthfully calls Him.” (Ashrei; Tehillim 145:18) Calling out to Hashem from the depths of one soul and the depths of despair brings Him close.

At the very moment that one is grappling with “Why me, G-d?” one is calling out to Hashem with unadulterated honesty and the core of one’s being. The sufferer is seeking a personal relationship with the A-lmighty. A tragic period in our lives is a unique opportunity not to explain Hashem, but to come close to Him. Not seek explanations, but to be warmed by his embrace.

Anavah (Redux)

In responding to my first attempt to define “anavah” (on “Der Alter“) RYGB wrote, “According to RSRH, anavah is derived from anah, to respond. Perhaps an anav is one who feels an acharayus to answer for everything he does.”In preparing a devar Torah for my son’s bar mitzvah, I thought of a different spin on the idea.When we’re conversing with someone, what are we doing while they are talking? Do we spend the whole time searching for launching points for what we want to say? Or, do we actually listen to appreciate to what they are trying to relate? The former stance is that of ga’avah, of the hubris of believing that what we have to say and contribute is primary; certainly my insight is brighter, my chiddush (novellum) more inspiring, and my perspective more valuable. When when the anav speaks, he responds.

Dr. Alan Morinis, when defining anavah, points to the gemara (Berachos 6b) which states, “Anyone who sets a particular place for himself to daven, the G-d of Avraham stands in his aid, and when he dies, people say of him, ‘this was an anav, this was a chasid, this is a student of Avraham our father'”.

Perhaps the idea is that the ba’al ga’avah believes that the best world is one with the most him in it. Whereas anav knows he fits in a larger scheme of things. Therefore, rather than trying to impose his view, he perfects the world by seeing how he is supposed to fit, what his place is.

Ma’avir al Midosav

Whoever is “ma’avir al midosav”, ma’avirin lo, they pass over his sins for him. As it says, ‘… forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression’ (Mikha 7:18). To whom does He forgive iniquity? To the one who remits transgression.- Rosh Hashanah 17a

With such a promise, we would surely be motivated to master this middah, “ma’avir al midosav”! But what exactly does it mean?

The first definition will look at is provided by Rashi (ad loc). It’s one who does not mete out judgment to those who mistreat him. If so, this middah is not only critical to improving our personal fate, but a key factor in causing — and therefore ending — the current exile.

Rav Yochanan said: “Yerushalaim was only destroyed because they judged by Torah law.” What, should they have practiced trial by torture? Rather say: That they upheld their judgments by Torah law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law.

– Bava Metzia 30b

They tell a story about a chassid who was quite wealthy. Every year he would give his rebbe a share of his income, and every year was more prosperous than the last. One year he came to see the rebbe, and found out that his rebbe wasn’t in. His rebbe had gon to see his own rebbe, the Chozeh of Lublin.

This was an education for the chassid. “My rebbe too has a rebbe? Then why should I be giving my money to this rebbe? Shouldn’t I instead give the money to the Chozeh? Wouldn’t that be the greater berakhah?” And so he did.

Very quickly, the chassid’s fortunes turned for the worse. The chassid was quite perplexed, being quite certain of his reasoning, so he went to ask of the Chozeh of Lublin for advice and an explanation.

The Chozeh answered, “As long as you weren’t exacting about whom you gave your tzedaqah too, Hashem wasn’t too exacting about whether or not you deserved the money he gave you. Once you started taking careful score about who got the money, Hashem began examining your actions carefully as well.”

This points out the obvious justice in our first quote. It’s measure-for-measure, being repaid in kind, for someone who forgives others to be forgiven by G-d. Rav Dessler (Michtav meiEliyahu vol V pg 70) writes that in addition to this, there is a second reason why heaven “passes over his sins”. Someone who is ma’avir al midosav connects himself to the community. He therefore is judged as part of that community, which is always more meritorious than having to stand on his own.

Rav Dessler continues by contrasting ma’avir al midosav with situations when we are called upon to act in a manner that is at the opposite extreme. We are obligated to hate evil. However, Tosafos write (Pesachim 113b “shera’ah”) that one still may not reach a point of “sin’ah gemurah” (complete hatred). Complete hatred would engender hatred in return, and he is presumably not permitted to hate you!

Another example, Pinechas, when he saw a leader of Shim’on acting immorally with a Midianite princess, is called a qana’i, an extremist, “beqan’o es qin’asi — when he avenged My vengeAnce”. Since he did so, he got a berakhah of shalom. However, the word is spelled with a broken vav; the complete letters spell only “shaleim”, whole. In the short run, his actions were shaleim, whole, performed for the right reasons. In the long term, this will bring shalom, but in the short term, there is no peace without someone being willing to be ma’avir al midosav.

This is directly connected to a point raised in an earlier entry on “Rights and Duties” (updated version 11/25/2009). American law is based on the Lockian notion that the purpose of law is to protect rights. Halakhah, while it occasionally directly implies the existence of rights (e.g. when speaking of “stealing sleep” or “stealing knowledge”), is based on a language of issur (prohibition) or chiyuv (obligation). Often, the pragmatic law is identical; the thief violates the law whether we phrase it as his abrogating his neighbor’s right to property, or as his violating the prohibition against theft. However, there is a difference in attitude:

Rights are about protecting “my own” from being encroached upon by others. Rather than looking at what I’m supposed to do, the system is set up to encourage me to make sure I got mine. From which the current culture of entitlement, and the insane abuse of tort law, are a minor step — “Do I still got mine?” to “How can I get mine?” The culture is set up to encourage such a progression.

But doesn’t a duty-based law carry its own dangers? If I am to only worry about the other getting theirs, but to be ma’avir al midosai, to forego my rights and not always demand justice when it comes to myself, aren’t I inviting myself to be abused? Does the Torah really expect up to be a nation of doormats, allowing ourselves to be stepped upon and mistreated?

Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [as chazan on a fast day enacted because of a drought] and recited twenty-four berakhos and was not answered. Rabbi Aqiva went [as chazan] after him and said, “Avinu malkeinu — our Father, our King, we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King – for Your sake have compassion for us!” and it started raining. “The rabbis started speaking negatively [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, “It is not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than that one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one is ma’avir al midosav and this one is not ma’avir al midosav.”

– Ta’anis 25b

Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael #28) elaborates. If being a ma’avir al midosav is so important, wouldn’t that mean that Rabbi Aqiva greater than Rabbi Eliezer after all? Rather, there are two equally valid approaches to serving Hashem. Rabbi Aqiva, being from Beis Hillel, was ma’avir al midosav. Rabbi Eliezer was a member of Beis Shammai (Tosafos Shabbos 130b), and therefore stood upon strict justice (Shabbos 31a). Both approaches are equally valid, and until the ruling that we are to follow Beis Hillel, both Rabbi Aqiva’s approach and Rabbi Eliezer’s were equal paths to holiness. However, at a time when we can’t stand under the scrutiny of justice, it’s Rabbi Aqiva’s approach that is more appropriate.

This is akin to what we already saw in the words of Rav Dessler — there is a time for qana’us and a time to be ma’avir al midosav. Knowing when to use each is knowing whether it is time to seek shalom in the short-term, or to work for longer-term goals.

Until now, we’ve looked at the subject based upon Rashi’s definition, that the issue is knowing when not demanding strict justice is the greater good. However, this definition is different than one found in the actual gemara. The gemara (Yuma 23a) says it’s someone who forgives others when he is slighted.

With this definition, it’s not about an antonym to strict justice, but an antonym to neqamah, revenge. “The path of tzadiqim: They are shamed, but do not shame, listen to their insult and do not reply, and are content [even] in their struggles. About them the verse says, ‘And His beloved are like the emergence of the sun in its strength.’ (Shofetim 5:31)” (Shabbos 88b)

Another difference is that justice is objective, whereas being slighted is subjective, depending upon the sensitivities of the person. The Chokhmas Manoach brings this perspective to our gemara about the difference — and yet equal value — of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Aqiva. Rabbi Aqiva was more of the ma’avir al midosav because he was raised non-observant. He overcame his more natural middos — ma’avir al midosav in a literal sense.

How do we explain Rashi’s willingness to give a different translation to that of the gemara? Perhaps they are not so much defining ma’avir al midosav as giving examples of the behavior of someone who mastered this middah rather than the middah itself. In other words, if we view ma’avir al midosav as an attitude, we cannot see it directly in others, and therefore we look at how the person acts. The actual definition, therefore, would be a character trait that would motivate not demanding exact justice and standing on one’s rights and also motivate forgiving slights to one’s honor. We also know from Rav Dessler that this trait is one that mirrors its reward, getting forgiven for one’s sins, and that it unites one with the community. Last, as per the Chokhmas Manoach, it requires assuming a perspective other than the one that comes naturally.

What’s the difference between a rights-based morality and a duty-based one? The rights-based morality teaches one to guard their own “domain”, whereas duties force one to constantly guard everyone else’s. Such a person is lead to be ma’avir al midosav, because he is constantly focusing his decisions on what others stand to lose or gain.

A ma’avir al midosav, then, is someone who is able to assume the perspective of another. He is capable of forgiving slights when he can see the perspective of the person who made them. He would choose to sacrifice his inch, even if it’s coming to him by law, to avoid the cost of a foot to the other party. The ma’avir al midosav is not the one who seeks compromise or self-sacrifice, but rather one who seeks the win-win scenario, one that maximizes the gain for all.

Rabbi Dessler collected some advice for someone starting to develop this middah. As he cautions, his advice isn’t quite mastery of the middah for its own sake, but it does provide the habits from one can build. There are 10 such actions, perhaps suitable as a basis for a va’ad on the subject. See the page image, or (if necessary) my English translation.

Ma’avir al Midosav — the pragmatics

In the previous entry, I tried to discuss the importance of being ma’avir al midosav, and some various approaches to defining this critical but rarely discussed middah. Although I did link to Rav Dessler’s list of possible first-steps to fulfilling this middah, I neglected to explicitly give suggestions for building this middah that someone could actually start doing today.Here’s some suggestions:
1- If you drive in highway traffic daily, you often have to deal with merging lanes. To be ma’avir al midosav is to realize that the other person has as much of a right to get ahead of you as you do of him. Accept upon yourself that at least once a day, you’ll yield to the other party. (This suggestion was made by someone in a room full of New York City drivers.)
2- If, on the other hand, you commute by public transportation, you have a similar situation when boarding or disembarking. Even if people respect the line, there are often times when it is a judgment call as to which one of you actually got on the line first. When getting off a train or bus, there is certainly no natural ordering. Will it make any measurable difference in your schedule if you allowed a person or two ahead of you?

Of Rav Dessler’s suggestions, the following may be easy first-steps. The others strike me more as being good for a second or third qabbalah (exercise), as the middah improves.

3- One conversation a day (perhaps choose your first conversation with your spouse after the children are asleep), make sure to allow the other person to speak about themselves rather than trying to dominate the conversation about “something similar happened to me…”

4- With one person, perhaps an employee, take care not to correct them harshly, but to stress the constructive aspect of your criticism.

5- Each day, find an interaction with another person in which that person showed an ability you lack. Everyone has their way in which they are superior to someone else. Realizing that helps us value others.

If others have their own suggestions, kindly share them in the Comments section.

Yahrzeit and Simchah

This Shabbos is the first yahrzeit of the children
Aryeh Lev ben Avraham, a”h
Noach Simcha ben Avraham, a”h
Adira Emunah bat Avraham, a”h
Natan Yekutiel ben Avraham, a”h
You may recall the story; four children, were killed when a fire struck their home in Teaneck. Firemen were at the home a mere four hours before, but declared the house safe without ever taking a thermal camera out of the truck.
Ari Seidenfeld, the oldest niftar at age 15, went to high school with my son, and in fact had invited him for Shabbos a short while earlier. The other niftarim were Noah 6, Adira 5, and Natan, a pre-kindergardener with Downs. Another sister called my home the next day from her hospital bed. How do you help your child know what to say to someone who just lost four siblings and at the time didn’t know if her mother would live? I am the “grown-up”, and I had absolutely no idea…

Their mother has asked that people dedicate some of their learning this Shabbos in their memory.

I would add that we should add some more learning as thanks to HQBH for sparing us from such things. Every day that all those many many little things that combine to keep us safe that any one could go wrong ch”v but don’t is an amazing berakhah.

On a related subject, recently Jay Lapidus, a lurker on Avodah and an e-friend to many Jewish list participants, lost his 15 yr old son. (A google search not only found Jay’s blog, Zichron Avi, and Avi’s HS, but numerous software shops, his “davening buddy” and other teens who miss him.) Avi died of acute onset diabetes. Note the word “onset”. This was not a child with a history of diabetes, or any reason to believe his fate would be any different than that of most teenagers. One moment everything is okay, and then keheref ayin — as with the blink of an eye…

And a few days later, I got a scary letter from the local tax department. BH we quickly identified and addresses the error… But at the moment that my wife and I thought we owed the state a 5 digit sum of money we didn’t own, I said to her, “Well, it’s only money. It’s not like we lost our 15 year…” Sentence never finished. I had just realized that our daughter Kayli would have been 15 now. We did in fact lose someone who would have been our 15 year old. Funny how easy it is to simply slip into life as usual.

In fact, that “everything can change in a moment” stuck my father sheyichyeh too. That night he went to bed. Life went on as usual. A couple of hours after going to sleep, the phone rings, my father heard the first words out of my mouth… before I even got to the point, just hearing my tone of voice… and he knew that his entire world had turned over. Keheref ayin.

This is Adar, a time of simchah. This entry is inappropriate (aside from being a break from my usual tone), and yet I feel compelled to share what’s on my mind. So let me conclude more on note for the season.

Hashem’s willingness to show His Mercy exceeds His other traits (as we see them). If this is how tragedy can strike, four children alive, vibrant, playing, one day, gone the next, picture what we mean by “Yeshu’as Hashem keheref ayin — the salvation of G-d will be like the blink of an eye!”

And simchah… What is simchah? “Eizhu ashir? Hasamei’ach bechelqo — Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot.” But too often we take life as usual for granted. Everything goes on. So much of that cheileq “just works”, despite the fact that our lives are far more complex than those programs I write that always have some known bugs. Bechemlah — with Divine compassion as we say in Modeh Ani. Truly, rabba emunasekha! Hashem is both ne’eman, reliable, and has emunah, faith in us.

So yes, certainly, learn in memory those who died too young. And then, learn some more in gratitude for all those many more who didn’t. That tragedies like theirs are the very rare exception, and how blessed is “life as usual”.

Rav Breuer: ‘Glatt Kosher — Glatt Yoshor’

The essay below, written by Rav Dr. Yosef Breuer, Zt”l, originally appeared in volume XI 1949/50 of the Mitteilungen. It was reproduced on pages 238 to 239 in Rav Breuer: His Life and Legacy. (With thanks to R’ Yitzchok Levine for putting the text on line.)

Glatt Kosher — Glatt Yoshor

The conscientious and minute observance of the laws of Kashruth belong to the sacred obligations to which we are to live up if our Jewish houses are to rise in purity before God and His Torah. Supplying our families with totally reliable foods is one of the major tasks a Kehilla has to fulfill.We may note with satisfaction that the supervision of our meat products from the time of Shechita until they reach the customer meets all the requirements of total Kashruth. This enables our Rabbinate to assume full personal responsibility for the reliability of our Kashruth.The concept “Glatt Kosher” refers to certain situations when an animal is rejected because of an existing “Sha’aloh” generally involving the lung — even if the halachic decision would be favorable. Just as all ethical strivings should extend beyond the prescribed boundaries — “lif’nim mi’shuras haDin” — so the practice should be adopted to declare only such meat as kosher that has not been involved in any kind of “Sha’aloh” (comp. Chulin 37b). Such practice would indeed deserve the title of “Glatt Kosher.”

A further comment: “Kosher” is intimately related to “Yoshor.” God’s Torah not only demands the observance of Kashruth and the sanctification of our physical enjoyment; it also insists on the sanctification of our social relationships. This requires the strict application of the tenets of justice and righteousness which avoid even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life.

God’s Torah not only demands of us to love our neighbor in that we concern ourselves with his welfare and property, but it insists further on a conduct of uncompromising straightness (“Yoshor”) which is inspired not only by the letter of the law but is guided by the ethical principle of honesty which, then, would deserve the honorable title of “Yeshurun.”

“He fears God who walks in uprightness” (Mishle 14:2).

We would welcome a campaign to link a drive for “Glatt Kosher” with an equally intensive one for “Glatt Yoshor.” This objective is given hopeful expression by the Prophet Zephaniah (3:13):

“The remnants of Israel will not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth.”

My Life as a Pendulum

Usually, when we think of the pendulum as a metaphor, it’s of a process that goes too far in one direction, then too far in the other, until eventually it reaches equilibrium at the mean. I’m thinking of a different perspective.Think of the soul, not as some point within you, but as a line. The lowest region, the nefesh, is within the body, animating it, responding to its desires, living in a world dominated by objects and laws of physics. Immediately above it, the soul lives in a world where the laws of those of justice and mercy, oppression, freedom, etc… And so on up the level of existence until one reaches the yechidah, the soul’s connection to G-d Himself.Thus, at its highest point, the soul is connected to the Absolute, the Unmovable.

Many science museums have a large Foucault Pendulum. This pendulum is typically strung from a point on the ceiling, and the weight barely touches the surface of a sand stable on the floor. Over time, a trail in the sand develops, showing you where the pendulum has been.

Obviously, the pattern is primarily repetitive, back and forth.

However, the line that swinging draws rotates over time. In reality, the pendulum doesn’t rotate. It is fixed, absolute, staying on the same plane. It is the world that is changing, rotating beneath it. A pendulum suspended at the South Pole in the winter of 2001 described a path whose endpoints made a full circle each (sidereal) day. In other lattitudes, the rate of rotation is slower (by the sine of the latitude). But it’s always such that the plane in which the pendulum swings is constant.

His students asked Rabbi Zakai, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, I never urinated within a distance of four amos from where I prayed, I never gave another person a nickname, and I never failed to recite kiddush; I had an elderly mother, and once she sold her hat in order to obtain the means to bring me wine for kiddush.” …
His students asked Rabbi Elazar bar Shamua’, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, I never made a shortcut out of the beis medrash; I never tread on the heads of the sacred people; and I never lifted my hands [to bless the people as a kohein] without making the blessing first.”
His students asked Rabbi Pereidah, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, no one ever preceded me into the beis medrash; I never blessed ahead of a kohein; and I never ate from an animal after the gifts [to the kohanim] were given.” …
His students asked Rabbi Nechunia ben haQanah, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, I never obtained honor for myself through my colleague’s disgrace; a colleague’s curse never went into my bed with me [I forgave the one who cursed me first]; I was open with my money.” …
Rabbi Aqiva asked Rabbi Nechunia haGadol, “For what [were you granted] long life?” … He said to him, “In all my days, I never accepted gifts; I never stood for my rights; I was open with my money.”
Rebbe asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Qorchah [Qorchah, the bald, refers to Rabbi Aqiva from the previous paragraph], “For what [were you granted] long life?” … He said to him, “In all my days, I never looked at the image of an evil person.”

Notice that all these rabbis gave multiple answers, and one one of them coincided. One theme does shine through, “miyamai — in all my days”. Consistency. What’s the key to long life? Finding one’s approach to serving Hashem, and sticking to it, day in day out.

The pendulum.

This is not simple repetitiveness; the consistency must adapt itself as the world we find ourselves in changes. It is sacred commitment to our mission, and thereby maintaining the connection to the Absolute Immobile Source.

The Devastating Power of Leitznus

President Ford a”h‘s passing brought something into sharp focus for me.

Here is how the OU remembers Mr. Gerald R. Ford:

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish Umbrella organization mourns the death of former President Gerald R. Ford. Mr. Ford, our country’s 38th president, took office amid tremendous internal divisions domestically and complex, dangerous challenges internationally.
With grace of personality, humility of character and nobility of spirit, Gerald Ford led our nation through those turbulent times, making difficult, and sometimes, intensely unpopular decisions that history would prove correct.
For the Jewish people, he remained a stalwart friend, demonstrated by his successful efforts to bring a cease fire between Egypt and Israel and committing the Soviet Union to the Helsinki human rights accords, a pact that helped Jewish prisoners of conscience. Gerald Ford’s leadership through the Middle East crises of the period remained guided by his principled support of Israel:

America must and will pursue friendship with all nations. But, this will never be done at the expense of America’s commitment to Israel. A strong Israel is essential to a stable peace in the Middle East…My commitment to the security and future of Israel is based upon basic morality as well as enlightened self-interest. Our role in supporting Israel honors our own heritage.

We join with all in offering our prayers and sympathies to former First Lady Betty Ford and President Ford’s family.

Here’s what I remember of his presidency:

The President of the United States
President Gerald R. Ford…..Chevy Chase


My fellow Americans.. ladies and gentlemen.. members of the press.. and my immediate family. First, may I thank you all for being here. And I am in my immediate family. [repeats his script] First, may I thank you all for being here. And I am in my immediate family. Thank you all for being here, and I am truly honored to be asked by you to open the “Saturday Night” show with Harvey Cosell.
[Ford chuckles, as he pours water into one of the glasses then proceeds to sip from the empty glass]
I do have — [confused by the empty glass, he puts it down] I do have two major announcements. [awkward pause] To make. Whoop! [suddenly falls to the fall behind the podium ] Uh-oh! [stands back on his feet] No problem. No problem, no problem. Okay.
My first announcement is one I think you’ve all been waiting for. [lowers his head and accidentally bangs it on the podium] Whoop! No problem! Nope! Okay! No problem! Sorry, no problem.
[Ford again reaches over to pour water into one of the glasses, then picks up the empty pitcher and sips from it instead. He is again confused by this action, and thus returns the pitcher to the table.]
[yelling] I know a fellow who is going to enter the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Florida, and every other primary! And I know he is going to win! And if he has any other competition, right up to the end of 1976 – thank you! Hey. [he again falls behind the podium] Uh-oh! [picks himself up again] No problem! No problem! [continues his speech] And if I don’t win, I will continue to run in the primaries, even if there are none!

A couple of minutes of well placed barbs can undo memories of untold hours and months of presidency.

That’s the power of leitzanus. Leitzanus is more dangerous than kefirah (heresy). Exposing oneself to opposing viewpoints can hone one’s opinions. After all, as long as it’s on the level of the mind, one can choose to reject an opinion, to shelve open questions for later, etc… Ridicule and sarcasm go beneath that, changing one’s attitude on the emotional level. There is little defense.

This is the flipside of one of the points I made in the “Faith and Proof” entries on this blog. There I argued that while there is an obligation to develop one’s philosophical understanding of how G-d runs the universe and our role in it, proof doesn’t work well as a basis of religion. People need to experience a religion, to found it on the strength of relying on only a single postulate, that what I felt that Shabbos was real. Only then can that stance be deepened and filled in with detail through philosophical explorations. Proofs only convince those ready to be convinced, and therefore the opening of the mind to the idea or the willingness to believe a question has a yet unfound answer are the greater challenge.

Emotions lead us to decide which questions are insurmountable, and which ones we can shelve for later. Leitzanus can therefore lead the mind to places it never otherwise would have agreed to go.

(It is for this reason I have a very strict policy about which blogs can be pointed to on emails to the Areivim discussion group. Pointing to a challenging or non-Jewish idea is not as hazardous as pointing people to someone’s forum for venting about everything and he doesn’t like in our community.)

Universalism

(Updated 12-Oct-2007: Added kaf zechus.)

In today’s world, with the Orthodox community as tiny as it is, dealing with high costs of education and our own needs, our chessed tends to be focused on the helping others within our own communities.

Another factor promoting our insularity is our need to self-define in order to survive. We are more likely to focus on those mitzvos that are uniquely preserved by Orthodox Judaism. Mitzvos championed by non-Orthodox Jews tend to get shorter shrift. This impacts fundamental things like the amount of time spent teaching boys Tanakh or diqduq (Hebrew grammar).

Such need for survival, both to focus on building internally and on defining ourself, is not to be belittled. One can easily argue that any topic it pulls attention from is not any worse off if the community were to ch”v disintegrate and there were no one’s attention to veer. In fact, this seems to be the position of the Mishnah Berurah (694:3, laws of the Purim obligation of matanos la’evyonim, gifts to the poor). He writes that if someone gives a perutah (a minimal coin) to a gentile for reasons other than darkhei shalom, it is theft from the poor (presumably meaning the Jewish poor). One could argue the same reasoning is true of time and energy, not only money. The question is defining “darkhei shalom“, and asking if anyone would give charity to non-Jews for other reasons.

But I would argue that the same thing happened to our calling to help others beyond the eiruv. That in an age where “Tikkun Olam” has been hijacked to refer to left-wing political activism, we are artificially playing down the centrality of extending a hand to those not in our little community — whether it’s the local soup kitchen or protesting the killing in Darfur.

1- As Dr. David Luchens quoted in his eulogy for Rav Aharon Soloveichik:

“It is not just that Rav Aharon is the only Rosh Yeshiva that speaks about Biafra”, his lifelong friend Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, once explained. “It’s that he is the only Rosh Yeshiva who ever heard of Biafra.”

So I decided to collect some thoughts about the centrality of a universalist outlook by launching an Avodah discussion.
On Avodah, and before that in the Jewish Press, R. Harry Maryles, a student of Rav Aharon’s, explains his rebbe’s position:

Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, zt”l, wrote in his book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, the concept of kavod habriyos, the dignity of Man, is a halachic imperative that constitutes the basis of human rights, and the basis of all civilized jurisprudence.

As the Rambam says in Hilchos Sanhedrin (24:8-10), these rights apply even to pagans. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” Why should the Torah repeat the word tzedek? Rabbenu Bachaye interprets it to mean that the same standard of righteousness should be applied toward all non-Jews.

As an example of this attitude, Rabbi Soloveichik related the following story from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia):

Shimon Ben Shetach worked in the flax business. His students advised him to give up that business and buy a donkey which would provide a better income. Shimon Ben Shetach agreed. So his students went to a pagan Arab and bought a donkey for him. After the purchase they discovered a large diamond tied to it. They brought the animal and the jewel to their rebbe who thereupon asked them, “Did the Arab know that there was a diamond tied to the donkey?” They answered, “No.” Shimon Ben Shetach told his students to immediately go back and return the diamond. But the students knew the laws regarding returning lost objects to idolaters. They knew that they were not required by halacha to do so. Why, they asked their rebbe, did he ask them to return it? He answered, Do you think that I am a barbarian? I am more interested in hearing the exclamation, “Blessed be the God of the Jews” from pagans than I am in earning a living.

2- Jason Moser offered two contemporary citations. The first is Orthodox Forum. Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law. Northvale, N.J: Jason Aronson, 1997. In particular, chapter 2, “Tikkun Olam: Jewish obligations to non-Jewish society” by Rabbi J. David Bleich.

Second is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s work “To Heal a Fractured World”, chapter 9 – Responsibility for Society, pp. 113-129. Quoting Rabbi Sachs:

There are certain questions that are note asked within a particular culture, simply because the circumstances that give rise to it never occurred. Throughout history, Jews took it as axiomatic that they were responsible for one another. The question they did not ask was: to what extent are we responsible for the wider society and the world?…
The question was not asked because it never arose. For eighteen centuries of Diaspora history, Jews had no civil rights. They had no vote. Until the nineteenth century, they were not admitted to universities, the professions, parliaments, local government or offices of state. Even after emancipation, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they entered the public domain as citizens rather than as Jews. Public culture was either Christian or secular, and there was no point of entry for, or interest in, a Jewish voice.
[Emphasis in the original.]

3- Rabbi Sacks provides this quote from Rav Kook (also in Jason Moser’s email to Avodah):

“The love for people must be alive in the heart and soul, a love for all people and a love for all nations, expressing itself in a desire for their spiritual and material advancement … One cannot reach the exalted position of being able to recite the verse from the morning prayer, ‘Praise the Lord, invoke His name, declare His works among the nations’ (1 Chron. 16:8), without experiencing the deep, inner love stirring one to a solicitousness for all nations, to improve their material state and to promote their happiness.”

‘The Moral Principles’ (Middot ha-Rayah). English version in “The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems”, translated Ben Zion Bokser, London 1979 p.136

4- Moshe Yehudah Gluck offered this quote from the Ramchal’s introduction to Mesillas Yesharim:

The general rule for this (Halichah B’drachav – MYG) is that a person should act in all his ways based on uprightness and forethought (Hayosher V’hamussar – MYG). Chazal generalized it as, “Anything which is harmonious both to its performer and to the observer.” This means that one goes to the n-th degree of doing good, which is that its result is the strengthening of Torah and repairing relationships between nations.

5- Doron Beckerman quoted Rabbeinu Yonah on the obligation to pray for the well-being of the government:

Rabbi Chaninah Segan HaKohanim says, pray for the welfare of the monarchy, for were it not for trepidation of it, a man would swallow his fellow alive.

This statement is meant to express the idea that a person should daven for peace in the entire world and to feel pain when others suffer; and this is the way of the Tzaddikim, as David a”h, said (Tehillim 35:13) “And I, when they take ill, my clothes are sackcloth, I afflict my soul with fasting”.

For a person should not make his supplications and requests solely for his own needs, rather he should daven for all human beings that they be in a peaceful environment, and when there is peace of the monarchy, there is peace in the world.

– Rabbeinu Yonah, commentary on Avos 2:3

On to my own Avodah contribution…

6- There are a number of things we are told to do for non-Jews “mipenei darkhei shalom — because of the ways of peace”. Usually this is assumed to mean we do them in order to preserve peace for our neighbors. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains otherwise. As we just saw in the Ramchal, we are enjoined understand this concept of “vehalakhta biderakhav — going in His ways.”

Returning to the Mishnah Berurah, it turns out he is saying that giving charity to non-Jews for reasons other than trying to imitate the Creator is not only a poor form of charity, but also theft from Jewish causes. His statement is more like “it would be theft were it not darkhei shalom” than a statement that the norm is theft. This eliminates his ruling as a consideration for whether the Torah promotes universalism. The universalist viewpoint is recommending the charity specifically as a form of imitatio Dei.

7- Along similar lines, in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher, Rav Shimon Shkop writes about the enigmatic lines of Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi li? Ukeshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani? — If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?

Rav Shimon explains that the key to chessed is not self-lessness, but an extension of the notion of self. It is easy to do things for one’s one bodily comfort. Somewhat holier, to take care of one’s higher needs. One’s family is “me and mine”, so helping them is also quite easy. One step more outward would be to help one’s friends. People with a wider definition of “li“, for me and mine, would be committed to one’s neighbors and community. And so on, wider and wider. The greatest ba’al chessed is one with the broadest notion of self, including as many people as possible.

This is what Rav Shimon defines as truly being in the image of G-d, of “be[ing] holy just as I Am Holy.” It is akin to Rav Aharon’s idea. To imitate G-d is to shower chessed universally.

8- Universality is a primary feature of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz, Torah combined with a cultured nobility. Derekh eretz isn’t merely to be taken in, it is also to contribute back to the greater culture. “Yaft Elokim leYefes, veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim — Hashem gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” (Breishis 9:27) Sheim’s task is to be the voice of G-d in the greater culture. The moral voice in the mosaic of civilization. This is a theme Rav SR Hirsch develops further looking at the messianic prophecies of our becoming “a light for the nations” and “For from Tziyon the Torah will come forth…”

By being silent on issues like Darfur, we are missing our Semitic calling.

9- R’ Yitzchak Blau on Ki miTzion Teitzei Torah (starting at 25:25) ( 25:25) points out that the Tif’eres Yisrael explains three mishnayos in Avos in universal terms.

a- Hillel asks us to try to be mitalmidav shel Aharon (one who is from among the students of Aaron), which in part means being someone who is “oheiv es haberi’os — literally: loves the creatures” (Avos 1:12). Beri’os is a pretty universal term for humanity, not confusable for a limitation to other Jews.

b- Lest you think this attitude is specific to Hillel, the Tif’eres Yisrael also learns this lesson from Shammai’s words: “havei meqabeil es kol ha’adam beseiver panim yafos — receive all people with a pleasant expression on one’s face” (Avos 1:15).

Is this “ha’adam” universal? The Tif’eres Yisrael cites a Tosafos to show that while “adam” sometimes means “everyone in our conversation”, “ha’adam” is always about all of humanity. R’ Blau likens it to an announcement in shul “Everyone can vote for shul president”. Obviously “everyone” is limited by context. This is how Tosafos explain the gemara, “‘adam ki yamus ba’ohel’ – atem keruyim adam.

However, Tosafos point out, this is not true of “ha’adam“. And therefore the TY concludes that this mishnah obligates you to show that warmth to Jew and non-Jew.

I would add to this the observation that the same could be said of another obligation formulated identically: “Havei dan es kol ha’adam lekaf zekhus — judge all people toward the [balance scale] plate of righteousness” (Avos 1:6), i.e. when in doubt about someone else, assume the best.

c- While “adam” may be ambiguous, it’s not ambiguous when used in contrast to “Yisrael.” And so, the Tif’eres Yisrael reads the following mishnah:

[R’ Aqiva] used to say, “Beloved is man, for he was created in the “Image” [of G-d]. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of G-d, as it is said, ‘For in the image of G-d He made man.’ (Bereishis 9:6)

Beloved are Israel, or they were called children of the Omnipresent. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to them that they were called children of the Omnipresent, as it is said, ‘You are children of Hashem your G-d.’ (Devarim 14:1)

Beloved are Israel, for to them was given the instrument by which the world was created[, the Torah]. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to them that they had the instrument through which the world was created, as it is said, ‘For I give you good doctrine; do not forsake my Torah.’ (Proverbs 4:2)

Therefore, the mishnah is saying that all human beings are chavivin because they are created betzelem, and the Jews are noted for having extra gift — being selected to represent Hashem among peoples, and getting the Torah. But every person is previous. Regardless of color, abilities or appearance. (This Tif’eres Yisrael is worth seeing, particularly the Boaz, as he waxes quite poetic about people who advanced mankind.)

We should realize that we are the mamlekhes kohanim, a kingdom of humanity’s priests. If we do not appreciate how the world is behaving, it’s our job as their clergy to take responsibility for the religious failings of our flock. We must struggle to survive as an am levadad yishkon, a nation that will dwell alone, so that we have a particularist identity as the world’s kohanim. But our mission and concerns must be universal.

This balance is seen in the berakhos before Shema, (among many other tefillos). The berakhah of Yotzeir Or is universal, about Hashem as the Creator of everything, once and continually bringing reality into existence. “Hakol yodukha — all shall know You.” Ma’ariv Aravim in the evening is similarly universal, “‘Hashem Tzevakos’ shemo — His name is ‘G-d of All Forces”. But then we have Ahavas Olam and Ahavah Rabba, describing the special love Hashem has for Jews in particular, the recipients of His Torah. To reach that universal goal, we have immediate needs to look to our own.

And may we soon merit that day when “They will all come together in a single union, to do Your will wholeheartedly.”

The Five Hardest Words

At Mussar Kallah V, R’ Ephraim Becker said something that really resonated with me.

Of all the phrases in English that one could say — and mean what one says — which five words are hardest?

R’ Becker offered the sentences: “I’m fine. How are you?”

To say “I’m fine” and really mean it, one must have bitachon, belief that the A-lmighty is in control, and therefore that everything that happens in one’s life happens for a good purpose.

Whenever things are going well, R’ Becker said, a strange bird called a “Yeahbut” flies into the room. My wife made me a special dinner? The Yeahbut flies in, “Yeahbut usually I get home well after dinner time, and need to reheat a cold meal.” There is always some reason why the good isn’t perfect. Even the perfect vacation must end. The yacht one always dreamed of is great until someone you know comes by with a bigger yacht.

The only way to be truly content, to be “happy with what one’s lot”, is if one has bitachon. This imbues what we have with purpose, and what we don’t have — we also know that too is for a good reason. See this thought for Shabbas Nachamu for more on the connection between spirituality and happiness.

To really ask “How are you?” you have to care about the answer, and really want to know how the other person is.

Therefore, “I’m fine. How are you?” can only really be said by someone with a strong and healthy relationship with his Creator and with other people.

Five words that contain the core of the entire Torah…

Be a Jew Through and Through

Another guest entry. The following was originally submitted to (but not picked up by) Hamodia. Rav Hirsch’s quoted words are clearly the predecessor of R’ Breuer’s talk on “Glatt Yoshor“, which was also posted to this blog from an email by R’ Dr Levine.

-micha

Be A Jew Through and Through!
Dr. Yitzchok Levine
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, NJ 07030
[email protected]

A number of years ago we had a student from Stevens as our guest for the last days of Pesach. He came from a non-religious home and had become observant. At one point he confided in me, “My father once told me that every time he had business dealings with an observant Jew he felt that he was being cheated.” To put it mildly I was taken aback by what he had said.

I explained to him that what his father told him was clearly a broad generalization that could not be the truth about how all observant Jews behaved in their business dealings. I also pointed out that the Torah requires us to deal honestly and fairly with all people – Jew and Gentile.

Nonetheless, what he said has remained with me, and even now I find such a statement disturbing. Sadly, there are some “frum” Jews whose dealings with others are not in accordance with what Yiddishkeit demands from its adherents.

Recently I came across something from the writings of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch that deals with this topic. In his essay “Tammuz I” found in the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Volume I, pages 279 – 281, Rav Hirsch points out that one of the five tragedies that took place on the Seventeenth of Tammuz was that “The tablets [Luchos] were broken when Moshe descended from the mountain.” He then goes on to point out

“And the tables were written on both their sides, , on the one side and on the other were they written.” (Exodus 32, 15.)

The word from Sinai must not grip us only superficially and one-sidedly. It must penetrate us through and through, it must set its stamp indelibly on every part of our being, and whichever way we are turned the writing of God must everywhere be visible on us clearly and legibly. See the Divine tables of testimony! On them there was no above and below, no front and back. The writing pierced right through them, and yet they could be read on both sides. This must be a model for you. Be a Jew through and through. Whichever way you are turned, be a Jew. Do not engrave the Divine writing only on one side, one part, one aspect of your being, so that you will appear a Jew and a missioner of the Divine name and the Divine will only when regarded from one side and one aspect, but when you turn your back and enter into other relationships you will appear as anything but a Jew, a missioner for anything but the name and the will of God; or at any rate you will not be so completely a Jew, you will not be so clearly stamped as a missioner of God’s will. Be a Jew through and through on all sides and in all aspects. And do not esteem one side as facing more directly towards the Godhead. Do not imagine that you have received the stamp of the Divine word with more emphasis on this one side, and that you can allow the other side to be content with the after-effects of this stamp and with the mere traces of this imprint. Do not think that people as they look on one side can discern that the force of the Divine word has penetrated to the other, when you speak of what you call the main sides and the main periods and the main items and the main articles of your Judaism. In relation to God there is no reverse side and no opposite side; everything is turned to God and must be taken equally seriously, on every side the stamp of the Divine will is to be placed with the same force and care and directness. Let yourself be penetrated through and through from all sides with the Divine word!

We have recently observed the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and are now in the midst of the Three Weeks. It should be a time of introspection for all of us, given the calamities that we have experienced during this sad period. Perhaps each of us should now commit to striving to be a Jew through and through in all that we do.

Something Else to Throw into the Bonfire

Saul Mashbaum wrote the following back during the “should we burn the wigs?” period a few years ago. I think it’s still quite apropos, a reminder of our priorities.

SOMETHING ELSE TO THROW INTO THE BONFIRE

Sources close to several major poskim have claimed that they have declared a new chovat biur. “After examining the situation carefully, we have come to the conclusion that all Jews have an obligation to eradicate all sinat chinam in their possession” said the poskim “This obligation is more stringent than that of sheitels: it applies to all forms of sinat chinamvadai, safek, chashash, and taarovet sinat chinam – whatever its source. The obligation is incumbent on every Jew – men and women alike – at all times and in all places.”

Shortly after this announcement was made known, bonfires appeared in Jewish neighborhoods everywhere as masses of Jews rushed to respond to the gdolim‘s call. The crush was such that many had to wait hours on line for the opportunity to cast their sinat chinam into the flames.

Here and there tears could be seen in the eyes of the participants. “I hate to say it, but I’m really going to miss my sinat chinam” someone told our reporter. “It’s been part of me for so long, I can’t imagine being without it. But if the gdolim say it’s got to go, it’s got to go.”

Our reporter in the metivta d’rakea says that the famous tzaddik, R. Levi MiBerdichev, has already made an appearance before the Heavenly Court in response to this dramatic development. “Mi keamcha Yisrael“, said the ohev Yisrael with tears in his eyes. “Your holy people have gladly cast off a precious and intimate part of themselves for the sake of Your Divine Name. Surely You will have mercy on Your people.”

Halevai shenitzke l’kach.

Saving One’s Own First

On Areivim, we’re discussing how history remembers or should remember Rudolf Kasztner. Yad Vashem is trying to rehabilitate his memory. Here is some of the metzi’us behind the question, from The Star:

Kasztner … headed the Relief and Rescue Committee, a small Jewish group that negotiated with Nazi officials to rescue Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods and military equipment.

In June 1944, the “Kasztner Train,” with 1,684 Jews, departed Budapest for neutral Switzerland. His negotiations also diverted 20,000 Hungarian Jews to an Austrian labour camp instead of a planned transfer to extermination camps, according to Yad Vashem.

But detractors accused Kasztner of colluding with the Nazis to spare his well-connected and wealthy Jewish friends, while hundreds of thousands of others were shipped to death camps.

The Israeli government sued Grunwald for libel on Kasztner’s behalf in a trial that lasted two years and riveted the nation. The court acquitted Grunwald of libel, concluding that Kasztner “sold his soul to the German Satan.”

Kasztner insisted his dealings with top Nazi officials, including Kurt Becher, an envoy of SS commander Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann, who organized the extermination of the Jews, were necessary to save lives.

Kasztner was demonized by the Israeli public. A year after he was killed, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling in the libel case, clearing his name.

One last note:

Kasztner himself didn’t board his famous train to freedom, instead staying behind and negotiating the further release of Jews, risking his own life.

So Kasztner saved his people at the possible expense of others, but it wasn’t self-motivated. To discuss the question in general:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel is the “bible” of a school of psychology called Logotherapy. The majority of the book is his recollections of life in the camps and his observations of the people there.

In it he claims that the Holocaust cost us our most idealistic people; that anyone who survived had to have the ability to place saving themselves and their own ahead of others.

Speaking halachically, if the same number of people are going to live either way, is it appropriate to try to save your own? In other words, is Frankel right in calling such people less moral or idealistic? Or did he inadvertently reflect a Christian ethic rather than a Jewish one?

In the introduction to Maqdishei H’ by R’ Tzevi Hirsch Meisels he tells the following heart-wrenching story. A man came, r”l, because his son, his only child, was among 1,400 children on a train which according to rumor was headed for the crematoria. He had the opportunity to bribe his son’s way out. Should he risk it; is he permitted to?

RADK refused to provide a ruling. How can anyone take on a question so great without being able to collect his thoughts, without access to his library? The story continues (as translated by R’ Yoel Schwartz). The father replies:

“Rabbi, I have done my duty as the Torah requires me to do. I brought my question before the rabbi. There is no other rabbi here. If His Honor, the rabbi, cannot answer that it is permitted for me to redeem my child, that is a sign that he is not completely sure that the halacha permits [it]. If it were permissible without any doubts, certainly you would tell me so. To me this means that according to the halacha it is forbidden to me. I accept this with love and joy, and I shall not do anything to redeem him, because that is what the Torah commanded…”

All my pleadings to him not to put the responsibility on me were to no avail. He only repeated what he had said, with heartrending weeping. He fulfilled his words, and did not redeem his son. That whole day, Rosh Hashana, he walked and spoke to himself joyfully, saying that he merited to sacrifice his only son to God, since even though it was in his power to redeem him, he would not, seeing that the Torah did not permit him to do such a thing. This would be considered by the Holy One, Blessed is He, like the Binding of our Father Isaac, which also had taken place on Rosh Hashana.

Speaking on a more philosophical plane, it’s certainly the implication of the Shaarei Yosher’s definition of chessed that it would be appropriate to save someone closer to you at the expense of someone with whom you’re less connected. Chessed is motivated by enlarging one’s “I” to include ever more people. Self interest is described by Rav Shimon Shkop as a positive thing, one to be leveraged in this way to create chessed (loving-kindness), not abnegated. A few paragraphs, just to motivate reading the whole thing. Note that his quote of R’ Aqiva is a halachic one — chayekha qodemin (your life comes first).

HOWEVER, what of a person who decides to submerge his nature, to reach a high level so that he has no thought or inclination in his soul for his own good, only a desire for the good of others? In this way he would have his desire reach the sanctity of the Creator, as His Desire in all of the creation and management of the world is only for the good of the created, and not for Himself at all. At first glance one might say that if a person reached this level, he would reach the epitome of being whole. But this is why our Sages of blessed memory teach us in this Midrash that it is not so. We cannot try to be similar to His Holiness in this respect. His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created.

But what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.

In this, Rav Shimon Shkop would seem to indicate that Frankel’s comment draws more from Christianity’s influence on Western Civilization than Jewish values. After all, Christianity phrases its ethic in the positive sense, “Do unto others…” And so, they would not reach Rav Shimon’s conclusion that when all else is equal, it is fitting to place one’s own good first.

There are also grounds for asserting that in the very foundation of the creation of Adam, the Creator planted in him a very great measure of propensity to love himself. The sages of truth describe the purpose of all the work in this language, “The Infinite wanted to bestow complete good, that there wouldn’t even be the embarrassment of receiving.” This discussion reveals how far the power of loving oneself goes, that “a person is more content with one qav [a unit of measure] of his own making than [he would be of] two qavin that are given to him” — even if from the Hand of the Holy One! — if the present is unearned.

From here it should be self-evident that love of oneself is desired by the Holy One, even though “the wise shall walk because of it and the foolish will stumble over it.”…