Free Will and Environment

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

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

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

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

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

Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Destroying Synagogues

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

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

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

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

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

- Sanhedrin 72b

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

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

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

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

May we be spared such decisions in the future.

The Lishmah of Interpersonal Mitzvos

I recently noticed a paradox when it comes to mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (interpersonal mitzvos). What is the purpose of such mitzvos? To develop feelings of love and caring toward others; to expand our natural focus on ourselves to include others. Does the lishmah (lit: for itself) mean doing the mitzvah for the sake of doing a mitzvah? If it does, then we are not focusing on caring for other people, we are focusing on Hashem. On the other hand, if we define lishmah as being “for the purpose for which we were given the mitzvah (as best we can understand it)”, we would conclude that mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro “for itself” means doing it without thought to its being a mitzvah. As I said, a paradox.(Along these lines are the Chessed Projects many girl schools require. Obviously the point is that “from doing it not lishmah, one is brought to doing it lishmah.” But what is the school trying to encourage?)The paradox seems to be addressed by the Torah by giving two overarching principles that motivate chessed. The first is “ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha — and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The other is “vehalakhta bidrakhav — and you shall walk in His ways”, to which Chazal comment (Sifri ad loc, among many other places), “Just as He is described as Merciful, so too must you be merciful. Just as He is described as Kind, so must you too be kind. Etc….”

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

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

Terumah – The Legs of the Aron

In describing the design of the aron, the Torah says:

וְיָצַ֣קְתָּ לּ֗וֹ אַרְבַּע֙ טַבְּעֹ֣ת זָהָ֔ב וְנָ֣תַתָּ֔ה עַ֖ל אַרְבַּ֣ע פַּֽעֲמֹתָ֑יו וּשְׁתֵּ֣י טַבָּעֹ֗ת עַל־צַלְעוֹ֙ הָֽאֶחָ֔ת וּשְׁתֵּי֙ טַבָּעֹ֔ת עַל־צַלְע֖וֹ הַשֵּׁנִֽית׃

And you should cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four pa’amos; and two rings shall be on its one side, and two rings on its other side.

- Shemos 25:12

The word “pa’amosav” is difficult to translate. Rashi, following Unqelus, renders it “corners”. But the Ibn Ezra and Chiquni note that the word is never otherwise used to mean corners. They each cite

תִּרְמְסֶ֖נָּה רָ֑גֶל רַגְלֵ֥י עָנִ֖י פַּֽעֲמֵ֥י דַלִּֽים׃ -ישע’ כו:ו
צֶ֭דֶק לְפָנָ֣יו יְהַלֵּ֑ךְ וְיָשֵׂ֖ם לְדֶ֣רֶךְ פְּעָמָֽיו׃ –תה’ פה:יד
מַה־יָּפ֧וּ פְעָמַ֛יִךְ בַּנְּעָלִ֖ים בַּת־נָדִ֑יב חַמּוּקֵ֣י יְרֵכַ֔יִךְ כְּמ֣וֹ חֲלָאִ֔ים מַֽעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֥י אָמָּֽן׃ –שה״ש ז:ב

In these and many other cases, the word pa’am is used to mean leg. In Yeshaiah, it is paralleled with “regel“, in Tehillim, it is something with which one walks, and in Shir haShirim, it wears shoes.

On Friday night, Rav Aharon Cohen’s devar Torah was based on a seifer called Areshes Sefaseinu. He asks why the pasuq would use the word “pa’amosav” rather than the far more common “raglav”?

Angels are stationary, which is why the prophet describes them as “standing upon one regel“. See the idea in greater depth in this post on the travels of parashas Mas’ei. Regel connotes the ability to stand, stability. Tables have raglayim.

We see from the pasuq in Tehillim that the Ibn Ezra uses, “and he will place his feet on the path”, that pa’amos has a greater connotation of legs as a means of motion. This is more like the nature of people than of angels. People move, we progress. (I also discuss the difference in the essay “People and Angels“. And in this article for Mesukim MiDevash, I try to relate them to the placement of the instruments in the Mishkan.)

The aron‘s role in the Miskan parallels that of the soul in the body. Therefore, the Areshas Sefaseinu suggests, it has pa’amos, not raglayim.

I was thinking about the etymology of the words. Regel also connotes regilus, regularity, and hergel, habit. It is looking at the repetitious rhythm of walking. A pa’am is a time, a notable event.

What causes stagnation? When one looks only at the mechanics of the mitzvos, following them out of habit or culture. To grow as people, each performance must be done with
intent for forward motion, to concentrate on this particular encounter with G-d as an event.

Reason and the Tripartite Soul

This post will draw from ideas found in two earlier ones. So, I’ll open with a repetition of some points.

Reason (from Ru’ach Memalela):

By my own experience, conscious thought happens two ways: the internal monologue we call a “stream of consciousness”, and by setting up thought-experiments to run through. For example, there are two ways to think through the question “Does an elephant have hair?”

Streams of consciousness, hereafter seikhel (for reasons that will become evident later), are a common tool of an author’s trade because it’s thought in the form of words. A solution based on this mode of thought might run something like this: Elephants are mammals, all mammals have hair, and so unless elephants are the exception to the rule, they must have hair. Elephants are well known and discussed animals. Could they be an exception to the rule and I don’t know it? Nah, they must have hair.

On the other hand, when I someone, and realize he has red hair, I don’t simply pick up another fact about the person, I have the experience of seeing red hair. I can remember and reproduce the image of him and his red hair in my mind. The knowledge isn’t reducable to words, it involves qualia, attributes of internal experience. And when I imagine what he would look like with black hair, I manipulate an image, not simply reason with concepts reducible into the words of my seikhel. There is a shared feature to seeing and hearing something when it happened, remembering the event, and imagining what the event would be like. When I remember my son’s face, I do not simply remember facts about it translatable into my seikhel, the flow of words in my head. I actually recreate the experience of seeing it. When I remember last Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidrei, I reproduce the experience of hearing the Chazan sing it, the congregation singing along.

This is the “koach hadimyon“, “the ability to make likenesses”. It is usually translated as “imagination”, but this translation is anachronistic — the word “imagination” changed meaning since first coined by Aristotilians (such as the Rambam). Dimyon is the laboratory of my thought experiments.

Solving the elephant problem through dimyon, you can remember elephants you saw, or saw pictures of. The detail may be blurry, so you may have to manipulate the picture a bit. Finally, a version of the picture which has a tuft of hair at the tail, maybe (if your memory is good) some downy hair around the eyes and ears, strikes you as the most familiar, the most real. And again you could reach the conclusion that elephants have hair.

Note that both require being aware of one’s thoughts: there is no stream of consciousness without a “listener” hearing the thoughts. There is no dimyon without an observer (and listener) watching the theater. This is a kind of self-awareness essential for the idea of “free will” to be meaningful. Free will is the ability to choose one’s actions and reactions, which is impossible if one can not perceive which thoughts to choose among.

And therefore, the ru’ach, the seat of will, must be self-aware. Conscious thought comes from the awareness of our thoughts, including our awareness of that awareness itself, and so on in an infinite regress. Free will comes from being able to monitor one’s thoughts and edit them based on judging what one monitors.

Notice what we are saying. Since free will and thought are inseperable concepts. The fact that we can think consciously is the key to free will. And therefore intelligence is something the soul does. (A conclusion taken for granted in the Rambam’s “Shemoneh Peraqim”, among many other examples.) There is no mind-soul duality. The mind is something the ru’ach does.

The Tripartite Soul:

The concept that the ru’ach is the seat of will, thought, conscious self-awareness, in other words, mind, takes on far greater significance when we look at the definition of “ru’ach” that we established in the “Bilvavi” (part 1, part 2) and “Castle in the Air” posts.

[T]he Maharal (Derekh haChaim, Avos 1:2) gives broad significance to this mishnah. The three pillars upon which the world stands as being are three classes of relationship that a person is capable of: with Hashem (avodah – service [of G-d]), with other people (gemilus chassadim - supporting others through kindnesses) and with oneself (Torah). In Mussar, these are described as the three categories of mitzvos: bein adam laMaqom, bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam lenafsho, respectively.

Each relationship is enabled by a different world in which a person lives. As the Maharal writes:

Therefore, the g-dly Tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.

After that he says “on avodah“…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him – by serving Him…. With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.

You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

Combining that with the Vilna Gaon in his Peirush al Kama agados, we found that he places the world of the mind, ego and its consequentent desire for autonomy and power in the ru’ach.

“There are three watches each night. In the first, the donkey brays. During the second, the dogs bark “hav, hav“. At the third, the infant nurses from his mother’s breast, and a woman converses with her husband.” (Bava Metzi’a 83b)

The commentators explain that this [text] is about three souls of a person: Nara”n. Nefesh has in it the lust for things of the body, which is why these things are called [by the expression] “a wide nefesh“. The ruach contains honor and jealousy, as it says “a tall ruach”, “an overpowering ruach”. Apparently, ruach is the jealousy that dries one out, as it says (Mishlei 14), “The dryness of bones is jealousy, and all honor and its traits are suspended by the vanities of the world.”

The first watch is the beginning of childhood. Man is drawn to desire because of childhood and freedom. As it is said, “Things done in his youth are much vanity in his old age.” As Rashi wrote about sexual desire, and so it is for all desires. This is the braying donkey [chamor] it is a creature of its flesh’s desires, in all things physical [chomer].”

In the middle: Man goes and chases honor and wealth, like dogs that bark “hav hav” [which in Aramaic means: “Give me, give me”].

In the third watch, when he sees that his demise approaches, he returns in teshuvah, and that is when the neshamah sparks up. That is when the baby nurses from his mother’s breasts, as it says (Mishlei 5) “Her breasts will nurse you at any time that you love her.” And a woman talks with her husband as it says (Hoshea 2), “And I will return to my first husband”, for he returns to Hashem. Because Torah brings one to action, as it says in the prayer Hashiveinu [in the Amidah], “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close to Your worship.”

First Principles from Our Senses

Intellect takes ideas and builds, interpolates and extrapolates from them. At some point though, there is an initial set of ideas, what Aristotle called the problem of first principles.

Some information reaches us indirectly. A source of information provides information that proved to be correct in the past, and I learn to rely on it. Hopefully I make that decision accurately and without bias. But all such information has to reach humanity before it is communicated.

Some comes directly from our senses. (When I drop something, it falls.) In other words, they reach me via the nefesh.

The Is-Ought Problem

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature III part I, sec 1

There is no way to get from the universe of “is” to the universe of “ought”. Science can say nothing about values, meaning, and anything else in the domain of religion.

First Principles from Shamayim

However, there is a third aspect to the self, the neshamah — its presence in heaven, its connection to a Higher Ideal. It’s another source of first principles of a different sort than those discussed by science. The nefesh, then reasons using data collected from both the nefesh and the neshamah, as well as by watching itself.

Without acknowledging that data the intellect can’t get anywhere in religious discussion. It has no grist for its mill, no source for postulates related to ethics, morality or meaning. There is nothing to build conclusions from.

Related to Ought is purpose. Without being able to measure an act in relation to a desired end, there is no “ought”. Thus, the while the laws one will perceive looking with one’s nefeshare those of cause, chaining the event to prior ones, the laws of the neshamah of those of purpose and thus pointing into the future.

Science and religion do not and can not collide because they are discussions on different sides of the Is-Ought / Cause-Purpose divides, involving data reaching us from different worlds.


And yet, they both reach the same ru’ach and go into building a single world there. Facts are “cold” and “dry”. It is experience, including dimyon, which is most tied to emotion. Thus, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” If the koach hadimyon exclusively embraces the sensory input of the nefesh, then this becomes the dominant theme in that world. Fortunately, the same is true if someone spends their life speculating on the neshamah‘s impressions of purpose and values, higher planes of reality and moral laws.

This notion relates directly to the Maharal’s notion of miracles. (In particular, as explained by R’ Dessler.) From my essay in Mesukim MiDevash  (parshas Beshalach, pp 1-2):

The Maharal … writes that rather than being an exception to the rule, nissim follow their own rules. Indeed, miracles occur all the time, but on their own plane of reality. This is why Yehoshua requests “shemesh beGiv’on dom – the sun should stand still in Giv’on.” (Yehoshua 10:13) The sun stopped for the Jews in Giv’on, who were on a plane where miracles operate, but not for anyone else. Literally two different realities were simultaneously experienced. Not two different perceptions of the same event, but two conflicting things were real, depending upon which world one occupied.

Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable…. Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this principle. Mekubalim speak of four olamos, each of a higher level than the previous: asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), beri’ah (creation) and atzilus (emanation)….

People have two sources of information that they consider absolute. The first is their senses – sight, sound, and so on. The senses bring us information about the physical world. [The soul] brings us concepts like truth, freedom and oppression. Someone mired in the desires of the senses lives in the physical world. He focuses his attention on it, just as everyone focuses on that which is important to them. “Every tailor notices and looks at the clothing of the people in the street; and similarly every shoemaker, shoes…” The man of the senses therefore perceives it as more objective and more absolute than the world of the self…. This is olam ha’asiyah.

However, one can rise above that to the olam ha’yetzirah. This is not merely another level, but another world with its own laws, laws that do not conflict with free will. Those who focus on this world have no question that free will exists. To them, it is the ideals of this world that are more objective and absolute, and the senses, more subjective. Rav Dessler explains that this is how nissim can impact one person’s senses and not another’s. Yetzirah is the Maharal’s plane of nissim, and as the Maharal noted different people will perceive the miraculous differently, or not at all. And so the sea split in olam hayetzirah, but not in olam ha’asiyah.

According to Rav Dessler, someone who truly sees the world in terms of justice and kindness, freedom or oppression, to the extent that those laws are more objective and more absolute than gravity, conservation of energy, or electromagnetic force, then those laws actually do drive their reality. Such a person would live in a world of neis rather than teva.

Consciousness is self-awareness. Not just an awareness of oneself, including one’s spiritual nature, but awareness of one’s awareness — the ru’ach. Even how we perceive the other worlds is a product of the ru’ach. We therefore aren’t really judging the world as it objectively exists as much as the world as reflected in the koach hadimyon, within the circle of an awareness that watches itself. And thus different people can experience different realities depending upon which postulates they internalize.

Someone who lives in the neshamah‘s world of Ought will experience miracles — things happen as they Ought to satisfy Hashem’s goals of Justice and Mercy. Someone who can only see the laws of physics will only experience nature. Most of us lie somewhere in between — unfortunately tending to the more physical side. We can see miracles when we are inclined to look for them, but they the exception.


A basic difference between man and angels is that “angels only have one foot”, as described by the prophets and the classical rabbis. “Angels stand, people walk.”It’s a very existential thought. In the case of a table, the essence precedes its existence. If you know enough about the wood, the blueprint, the construction, etc… the table can be fully known before it even exists. In contrast, with people existence precedes essence. Who and what I am now is a newer evolution than the fact that I exist at all.

This is a key part of free will, the power to choose in which direction to evolve. As Rav Dessler writes about the flow of time, every moment is the realization of light or occlusion in one’s soul. Human change, in fact time as we know it, is a product of having bechirah.

Angels, for all their holiness, are static. An angel can be “Refa’el” (G-d’s healing), or “Gavriel” (G-d’s Might). A word, a static thought, can capture who they are and who they will be. At the end of their all night battle, Jacob asks the angel, “What is your name?” Until then, the angel is called in the Torah “the man”. Jacob thought it was a person he encountered on his trip. When he realized it could an angel, and therefore fully apprehended by a word, he asked “What is your name?”

Angels serve G-d, but not from free will. The have service of the neshamah, presence in heaven, but not creative beings in the image of G-d. Without the tension of both body and soul and choices to be made, one is ironically further from G-dliness. Both nefesh and neshamah are creatures; they are source of impressions about which we reason. The ru’ach selects which impressions we accept as important, and it creates. It builds s world, a Temple Within, from those first principles. After all, it is the ru’ach memalela which is in the image of the Creator. We praise Hashem every morning that “the neshamah that You have placed within me, it is pure”. However, we have the ability to rise above the purity of angels, those other denizens of the heavens. We can apply the moral callings to make our own synthesis of the nefesh‘s Is with the neshamah‘s Ought.

Last, this explains why in each triad of utentsils of the mishkan, it is the one corresponding to the ru’ach that is placed in a position one step above the others. (See this earlier post for an explanation of the correspondence. It, in turn is a part II, so you may need to start with part I.)

Among the uncrowned utensils, denoting the three universes in which we live, the kiyor (washing vessel) and mizbei’ach (altar) are outside in the courtyard, but the menorah (representing the 7 wisdoms) is within the Mishkan itself. And while the shulchan (table of showbread) and mizbei’ach hazahav (golden incense altar) were in the Mishkan, representing interpersonal relationships and our relationship with Hashem, respectively, it is the aron (ark) with its embodiment of tif’eres (harmony), of perfection of the relationship within our selves, that is in the Qodesh haQadashim (Holy of Holies).

A quick cheat sheet (which I expect will move to future entries as it grows; new row in bold):

Relationship:other peopleoneselfHashem
Ultimate Denial:murdersexual immoralityidolatry
Crowned utensil:shulchanmizbei’ach hazahavaron
World:physicalmentalheaven / meaning
Life stage:braying donkey –
begging dognursing infant /
conversing with husband
Plain utensil:kiyormizbei’achmenorah


Twelve Step Programs

I received the following email:

Micha, is there a problem going to 12 step programs (either for one’s self, or for/with a friend)?
Does the “higher power’ stuff smack of AZ [avodah zara] in any way?

He then wanted to share my reply, which flattered me into thinking others might be interested in my thoughts on the subject. Here was my reply (slightly enhanced):

No, the “Higher Power stuff” is pretty strict monotheism. The question is joining with people to whom it means something trinitarianism. But R’ Sholom Elyashiv looked into it and permitted, even permitting participating in meetings that use the Lord’s Prayer – and joining them in the prayer! (As it says nothing specifically Christian.) I was told this by a rebbe-chaveir who is a JACS rabbi and whose testimony I trust. But I have no idea the details of the she’eilah, ow the question was posed. E.g. how much risk to life factored into the decision? Would Rav Elyashiv have said the same thing about joining Overeaters Anonymous when the person isn’t near heart-failure type morbid obesity? I don’t know, and personally I would want the question re-asked with that context set forth before accepting the existing pesaq in a case that minor.

My own philosophical problems aren’t about monotheism, it’s founded on Christian notions of needing someone else to save you. (This hearkens back to AA’s origins in the Oxford Group, an evangelical movement, and its six steps.) This stands in stark contrast to the Jewish model of redemption. 12-Step is shot through with this notion of needing to be saved, even down to relying on a sponsor, on perpetually in recovery and never recovered (which itself is setting stakes to low IMHO for pragmatic reasons), etc…

In Yahadus, man owns his own redemption. We daven for help, but we don’t expect the Almighty to do the job for us.  Some relevant dicta:

  • Hakol biYdei Shamayim chutz miYir’as Shamayim – all is in the control of [the One in] heaven, except for the fear/awe of heaven.
  • Bederekh she’adam rotzeh leileikh sham molikhin oso – in the way a person goes, so they take him.
  • Ein davar omeid lifnei haratzon – nothing stands before the will [to do something]. (This is actually phantom maamar chazal, probably an acharonic rephrasing of the previous. Still , it’s a popular quote among numerous acharonim.)
  • Im ein ani li, mi li? – if I am not for myself, who will be for me?

IOW, steps 2 & 3 are within Yahadus (as I understand our religion):

  • We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

#2 clearly so — an addiction is something where by definition we need help, something Rav Dessler would say is beyond our “bekhirah point“. #3, is a little iffy, it depends what “turn our will” means.

But step 7 is really a problem for me:

  • We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Teshuvah is our job, not His. He bedavka wants people who define ourselves, just as He is Autonomous. Otherwise, Hashem would have just made perfect mal’akhim and been done with it.

However, AA allows for some pretty far stretching of the “Higher Power” concept. E.g. the Big Book has an entire chapter on how Agnostics and Atheists can define it.

So, what if a Jew were to decide that the Higher Power that “could remove all the defects of character” didn’t refer to HQBH, but to the beris He struck with us? I think that would address my problem with the basic Christian overtone of the program. It means accepting that the problem isn’t one I can resolve outside of working together with my Creator together in partnership. It’s not relinquishing ownership of my teshuvah to the One in heaven, and yet it’s not trying to go it by relying on my own strength.

If we say that 12-Step programs taken naively defy Hilell’s “im ein ani li, mi li?” this alternative centers on the next clause, “ukeshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani – but when I rely on myself [alone], what am I?”

What are we?

My son Shuby and I go to shul for Shacharis weekday mornings, ever since Shuby started putting on tefillin. Shuby has Downs, so I wind the tefillin for him, help him with the berakhos, etc… We had a conversation that morning, which started with him declaring me “the boss of the tefillin.” When I explained that tefillin weren’t something I came up with, that it was Hashem’s idea, he asked me why Hashem told us to put on tefillin. I started thinking of a formulation he could understand, and it was difficult.

At Shuby’s bar mitzvah, I retold the story made famous by R’ Paysach Krohn, of boys who let a child with special needs, Shaya, join them in a baseball game. You can even find copies of the story on non-Jewish sites. Artscroll made that chapter of R’ Krohn’s book available on their web site, here. The story is set as something retold by Shaya’s father at a dinner for Shaya’s school, Chush. Some snippets:

… After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything that Hashem does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is Hashem’s perfection?” The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by his piercing query.
“I believe,” the father answered, “that when Hashem brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child.”
… One Sunday afternoon, Shaya and his father came to Darchei Torah as his classmates were playing baseball. The game was in progress and as Shaya and his father made their way towards the ballfield, Shaya said, “Do you think you could get me into the game?”
…The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said, “We are losing by six runs and the game is already in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”

Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran towards him, turned him towards the direction of third base and shouted “Shaya, run to third!”
As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, “Shaya, run home! Shaya, run home!”
Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit the “grand slam” and won the game for his team.
“That day,” said the father who now had tears rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of perfection. They showed that it is not only those who are talented that should be recognized, but also those who have less talent. They too are human beings, they too have feelings and emotions, they too are people, they too want to feel important.”

While clearly people in and out of our community find the story inspiring, and this idea that “they too are people, they too want to feel important” is worth repeating, my first exposure to it left me depressed, feeling sorry for this father and his son.

I lack the intellectual capacity of the Vilna Gaon, I lack the memory of R’ Sacks (a rabbi in town with edietic memory), the capacity for compassion of the person who chooses a social worker’s salary in order to help others, etc…

We are all limited.

Early in Shacharis, assuming you come early enough to say it, is the prayer about accepting a willingness to commit one’s life to Hashem’s service, “Le’olam yehei adam yarei Shamayim — Always a person should be a fearer of [the One in] heaven”, or alternatively, “Always be (1) a mentch, (2) a fearer of [the One in] heaven…” But I want to reflect on a later section…

מָה אֲנַחְנוּ מֶה חַיֵּינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּנוּ מַה צִּדְקֵנוּ מַה יְשְׁעֵנוּ מַה כּחֵנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵנוּ. מַה נּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ הֲלא כָל הַגִּבּורִים כְּאַיִן לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלא הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע וּנְבונִים כִּבְלִי הַשכֵּל כִּי רב מַעֲשיהֶם תּהוּ וִימֵי חַיֵּיהֶם הֶבֶל לְפָנֶיךָ. וּמותַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכּל הָבֶל: אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ עַמְּךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶךָ

… What are we? What are our lives? What is our charity? What is our righteousness? What is our strength / potential? What is our heroism? What can we say before You, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers? Are not all the heroes like nothing before You, and famous people like they never were, and the wise as though without knowledge, and the smart without inspiration? For their many actions are naught, the days of their lives vanity before You, and the advantage of people over people is nothing, for all is vanity. However, we are Your nation, the people of Your covenant…

Compared to the Almighty, we are all infinitesimal.

Our job is to climb the ladder, not be on a given rung. And that’s just as true of Shaya as it is of the most brilliant among us. I feel sorry for Shaya’s father, who had an easier time seeing the perfection in the other boys in the game than seeing the value inherent in his son. He introduced the story, by saying “that when Hashem brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child.” But this is very wrong: No person’s worth is contingent on someone else’s!

Shaya or Shuby aren’t playing life by different rules than the rest of us. My difficulties explaining the purpose of tefillin to Shuby are no different in kind than my limitations understanding their true purpose. That I may reach the same limited comprehension as most others who ask the question is only a statement of quantity — qualitatively it’s the same.

The most transcendental quality of man is our very ability to transcend. Our lives may not compare to much in the face of G-d, if it were not that He entered with us (and Noachides as well) into a covenant, the means to continually go beyond today’s limitations.

A person is not a better sculptor because of the quality of his materials. It is all about how we progress, not where we progress from.

After all, Rachmana liba bai — Hashem wants our heart. And who can say “vetaheir libeinu” or veyachad levaveinu“, that we should have pure and united hearts to serve the Ribbono shel olam, better than the boy who runs up to greet me when I get home from work, bouncing with joy he just can’t contain? Or who fidgets with excitement when mom brings home something for him — even if it’s just a new pair of socks? Who better captured the wholeheartedness we find in Rivqa, when she gets so lost in meeting Yitzchaq he falls off her camel? Or of Yitzchaq, as he stood there praying?

Shuby double-checks with me every night before going to bed, by making three diagonal strokes with his finger across his arm, while saying “Tomorrow we…” I may comprehend a bigger negligible sliver of why Hashem commanded us to wear them. He excitedly anticipates going to shul and putting on tefillin.

That is a perfection I can only aspire to.

What’s the rush?

דְּבַשׁ מָצָאתָ אֱכֹל דַּיֶּךָּ פֶּן תִּשְׂבָּעֶנּוּ וַהֲקֵאתוֹ.

If you find honey, eat just enough; lest you get full and vomit it.

– Mishlei 25:16

(In the days of the geonim and earlier rishonim it was customary to start a derashah with a verse from Mishlei and then use its explanation to conclude with an explanation of something from the parashah. I’m happy to have once found a way to work within that structure.)

Mishlei is a collection of metaphors, as the name of the book itself is “The Parables of [Shelomo ben David, king of Israel.]” (1:1) In this vein, the Vilna Gaon explains our opening verse based on the notion that “devash” here is meant as an acronym of “de’iah, binah, seikhel — theoretical knowledge, reason, applying the knowledge”, to use the translations he gives in the introduction to the work.

Sidenote: This is the same triad found in Nusach Ashkenaz’s version of birkhas Da’as (the fourth berakhah of the Amidah, “Atah chonein…”)  but with a different conjugation: “dei’ah, binah, haskeil.” Perhaps because asking Hashem for help turning what we know into practice would be asking for Him to violate free will, so we instead ask to provide us with more skill at doing so, rather than help in the actual doing.

But intellect and spirituality are good things, so what would it mean to say “if you gain knowledge and the wherewithall to use it, apply just enough; lest you get full and vomit it”?

In Aesop’s “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs”, he writes (tr. Harvard Classics 1909 ed.):

ONE day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find, —nothing.


In “real life” we have to balance our production with our capacity to produce. If we are overly short-sighted in our pursuit of immediate gains and accomplishments, we can kill the goose, and end up accomplishing less in our lives overall.

In the context of religious worship, this is the need to both perform mitzvos, and to develop within our selves the abilities necessary to do future mitzvos (including rest as needed), and the middos to make the right choices when opportunities arrive. As R’ Shimon writes (tr. mine):

וכמובן בכל הקדשות שהוא התיחדות למטרה נכבדה, והנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל, אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו.

And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him.

And similarly the Gra says that Shelomo haMelekh is warning us not to try to exceed our grasp. That by trying for more da’as, binah and haskeil then one is ready for, one can end up burning out. (Sorry for what will be in retrospect a poor turn of phrase; check back when you get to the end of this post.)

Many of us have encountered the baal teshuvah who tries to take on too much too soon, and after a short while gives up on the whole enterprise. Or have ourselves set overly high expectations during the High Holidays, and all the resolutions unravel in the days (or day) after Yom Kippur — leaving us with no change.

Now to turn to the parashah… When one looks at Chazal and rishonim explaining the magnitude of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, to find why it was so grievous as to warrant their death, one finds numerous different suggestions. As I wrote last 10 Av in the post “No Answers“:

Eight different answers…, each made with the claim that it’s the sole reason for the destruction of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Jack Love, a rebbe-chaveir, would point to this very variety of answers, or of identification of the specific sin committed by Nadav and Avihu to warrant their death, or what Moshe did wrong when he struck the rock. The gemara is making a statement. This kind of question has no final answer. The gemara grapples with the problem, but doesn’t claim to have a final answer.

So then why ask the question, if we know it’s unanswerable?

Knowing there is no conclusive answer to finding the cause, and they would never even succeed to find a cause, they still needed to struggle with the question of causes in order to find motivations to change. And by framing the problem in terms of that sin, they inspire their students to repair it.

In that spirit, I would like to take a lesson by combining some of the statements Rashi quotes from the medrash as well as an idea from the Seforno on the sin of Nadav and Avihu.

Let’s assume that the opinion that says that it was Nadav and Avihu about whom Hashem said “biqrovai aqadeish — through those close to Me I will be stanctified” (Vayiqra 10:3) is consistent with the one that says that at Har Sinai Nadav said to Avihu, “When these elders [Moshe and Aharon] die, you and I will lead the generation.” It would mean that they had the purest motives in wanting to lead. Not out of a desire for personal importance, but out of an awareness that they are indeed close to Him and thus — in their opinion — make good leaders.

But they were impatient. And when bringing the qetores they decided how it should be done on their own rather than asking Moshe Rabbeinu. Without explicit permission (which is the point of today’s semichah), it is prohibited for a student to rule on a halachic matter when in the same region — even when the student reaches the same answer.

Another way in which they jumped the gun is the opinion that the qetores was in error because it was the kohein gadol‘s job. Not only did they presume on Moshe Rabbeinu’s role before their apprenticeship under him was complete, they did the same with Aharon’s.

An improper qetores caused the death of many kohanim gedolim during the second Beis haMiqdash. The Yerushalmi (Yuma 1:5, vilna daf 7b) contrasts those who punished with death by omitting one of the ingredients of the qetores with those who die by entering the holy of holies without adding a smoke-generating agent to the qetores or lights it outside. “That is a punishment… and that is a warning.” In the latter case, the death isn’t as much a punishment as the consequence of exposure to Hashem’s Presence without the obscuring cloud. Trying to get more spirituality than one is ready for.

The elders were criticized for drinking and celebrating at Mount Sinai (Shemos 24:11). Nadav and Avihu repeat this mistake now — the gemara suggests that their sin here was in serving while inebriated. The pursuit of true spirituality takes years of development, but using drink and parties to create a shallower but immediate experience is a common shortcut.

The Ramchal writes (Mesilas Yesharim ch. 4):

לשלמי הדעת, תהיה להם ההערה במה שיתברר להם כי רק השלימות הוא הדבר הראוי שיחמד מהם ולא זולת זה, ושאין רע גדול מחסרון השלמות וההרחקה ממנו. כי הנה אחר שיתבאר זה אצלם ויתבאר להם כמו כן היות האמצעים אליו המעשים הטובים והמדות הטובות, ודאי הוא שלא יתרצו מעולם להמעיט מאלה האמצעים או להקל בהם.

To those who are complete in knowledge [or, as per the Gra: abstract knowledge in particular?], will have the insight that will clarify for them that only Wholeness and nothing else is worthy of their desire and that there is no worse evil than the lack of and removal from perfection.

And yet a little later he writes:

וזה כי זה פשוט אצל כל בעל דעת, שאין המדריגות מתחלקות בעולם האמיתי שהוא העולם הבא, אלא לפי המעשים.

And this is simple to anyone with any knowledge that there only distinction in levels in the World of Truth which is the World to Come is according to actions.

Is it in the completion, or in the deed? I believe the reason for the Ramchal’s wording is exactly the lesson that Nadav and Avihu lacked. They were “those closest to Me” not because they were on a higher plane than Moshe and Aharon, but because they were processing the most. And similarly, someone born with a calmer disposition isn’t more whole who has more of a temper if that anger is still less than what he was born with. Wholeness is according to one’s actions, how much one has developed Himself, and not on an absoute standard. Thus a person’s actions, which anyone with intellect could prize, really is the wholeness that the more complete person values.

Nadav and Avihu, like the Boesian kohanim gedolim, exposed themselves to more of G-d than they had prepared themselves for. And so they died as a punishment — they remained biqrovai (those close to Me), but as a consequence.

In a generation slated to spend 40 years in the desert in a process that would get us ready for Eretz Yisrael, they couldn’t have leadership who wanted holiness now, rather than valuing the process. Nadav and Avihu could not be Moshe’s and Aharon’s successors.

Ana Hashem

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Tehillim 116:16 (and Hallel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to the opening.

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

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

He would say:

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

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

Torah Lishmah and Nefesh haChaim

Nefesh haChaim, 1st edition

Nefesh haChaim
Cover Page, First Edition

Nefesh haChaim is a collection of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s writings organized posthumously by his son and successor, R’ Yitzchak. We can see this in the self-description in the title page of the early editions of the Nefesh haChaim which opens, “Yir’as Hashem – for Life! Notebooks of holy writings of the true genius who was famous for his Torah and righteousness, and whose deeds proclaim before him.” The choice of title of the book “Nefesh haChaim” is explained that it is “based on the quote in the Jerusalem [Talmud], Sheqalim pg 6 [2:1, vilna ed. 10b], ‘Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel repeated: we do not make monuments [nefashos] for the righteous, for their words are their memorials.’ And the memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Thus the title means “Rabbi Chaim’s Memorial”, in addition to “The Living Soul”.

Being that it’s a compilation of multiple texts, Nefesh haChaim can be a challenge to combine into a single picture of how Rav Chaim believed we are to serve Hashem. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein, in his essay Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy (in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern), notes how the questions in this regard are more clear than the answers.

I mentioned this in my previous post, and suggested my diagnosis of the underlying issue:

… [T]his phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

But to discuss a specific approach to this particular text…

Overall Structure

First, because each section is really a pamphlet, called by the both the author and the editor a “qunterus“, in its own right, its topic was also originally expected to stand on its own. The amount of significance given to Torah study in the pamphlet that became section 4 does not change the significance given to (e.g.) tefillah in section 2. Rav Yitzchaq’s placing them in an overarching structure only has limited value in understanding the meaning of section 2 as it was written.

The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation; how being in the image of E-lokim, G-d as Master of all the forces, means that we have the ability to change the world(s).

The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. Then there are some chapters that about the yeitzer hara and its strategies, and how acting without full commitment to lishmah, to doing a mitzvah for its own sake, will lead to lishmah and thus vanquishing the yeitzer hara.

But the yeshivos focus on — in fact, most exclusively learn only — section four. There he discusses the special nature of Torah, its work on the soul, and how Torah study is central to the task of self-refinement. Obviously for those of the Yeshiva Movement, this is going to be the central piece to their worldview.

Rabbi Norman Lamm (in his book Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake) identified the basic problem with the resulting structure. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein wrote his essay using Rabbi Lamm’s work as a foil. R’ Lamm took the yeshivish position, Rabbi Krumbein doesn’t so much provide a clear alternative reading, his goal is more to set out to prove that focusing on only the fourth sha’ar is incomplete, that we simply haven’t gotten to the full subtlety of Rav Chaim’s position.

But just looking at the overall structure myself, I think the section that is not like the others is the third one, actually. Section one explains how our actions in this world have metaphysical repercussions, and section two addresses prayer, and thus the power of human speech. Section four, is about human thought. But section three is about G-d, about the nature of tzimtzum and in what way is Hashem present in creation and what way is creation an independent entity.

The Introduction

The most logical place to find the author’s intent is his introduction. Here we can’t entirely do so, as Rav Chaim didn’t write one — Rav Yitzchak did. But since his father did leave him the essays and instructions for publication, this is still of some use. And besides, Rav Yitzchak Volozhiner’s own opinion is of sufficient import to be interested in his worldview.

In that introduction, Rav Yitzchak describes Rav Chaim Volozhiner with a long description of his love of Mussar. For example:

This is what he would constantly say to me: that no person was created for himself. Rather, [we were created] for helping others in any way he has the ability to do.

Rav Chaim “with the breadth of his understanding would carve and grave the ideas, the light matters and significant ones, and attach them to the way of the Torah, Avodah, and Yir’as Hashem”. This list of three items recurs in the introduction — Torah rarely appears alone. Also, as we noted above and explained in the introduction, the book was named for the concept of yir’as Hashem, not Talmud Torah.

Looking at the introduction, then, we would be hard pressed to find any description of the book as leading up to the fourth section, or giving Torah study primacy in the meaning of living. Actually, given his repeated instruction to his son, it would seem that such meaning would be found in mitzvos that aid others.

Section 3: Tzimtzum

As I opined in the opening section, it’s section three that really stands out. The other sections are anthropological; discussions of what it is to be a person and the abilities people have to impact creation. Section three, though, deals with Hashem’s relationship to creation, it’s theological.

I understand Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s position on tzimtzum differently than many readers. But then, this whole essay is my own take on a subject numerous others more informed than I am have disagreed about.

Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacial contraction), of other things existing. The Yosher Levav understood this literally. However, that’s very problematic as it implies that Hashem Himself changed. And  both Chasidus and the Gra consider that notion heretical. In the Tanya, the noun is still the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but the verb tzimtzum is only an illusion. In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, the  tzimtzum is real, but he modifies the noun — it is not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else, Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will). ((According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Gra speaks of the tzimtzum of the Or Ein Sof, but that is not the terminology used in Nefesh haChaim, the Leshem or Michtav meiEliyahu — all spiritual heirs of the Gra.) )

Much of the second half of section 3 describes tzimtzum in terms of distinguishing between miTzido, from Hashem’s “perspective”, and mitzideinu, from ours. And therefore it is logical that many understand R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position as being more like the Tanya’s than the Gra’s. But I believe his position actually sits in a middle ground, a synthesis that might even fully include his rebbe’s understanding.

In sec. 3 ch. 2 Rav Chaim explains that calling Hashem “haMaqom” is a rather limited metaphor. A literal maqom is a place or holder of an object without being the cause of its existence. However, if Hashem were to retract his Ratzon from anything, it would cease to exist; He is the Cause of existing. Thus the understanding that his position is like the Tanya’s.

But in chapter 4, Rav Chaim discusses the literal absence of Kevod Hashem, and the first appearance of the word tzimtzum, at the beginning of ch. 5, reads “…צמצם כביכול כבודו ית’ שיוכל להמצא ענין מציאות עולמות וכחות ובריות נבראים ומחודשים — He ‘constricted’, as it were, His Blessed Kavod that He could bring into existence the idea of existing worlds, forces/potentials, and creatures that are created and newly made.”

It seems to me that Nefesh haChaim is describing a literal tzimtzum of Hashem’s glory which then causes the illusion of an absence His Essence. Tzimtzum is something that actually occurred, but not to the Ein Sof — like the Gra, avoiding the problem of saying Hashem could change by making tzimtzum about a different noun. Rav Chaim does differ from the Gra about which noun; according to Rav Chaim, any absence of Hashem’s Ratzon, His Will, is part of the illusion. It’s His Kavod that is absent. Although I’m not sure how either the Vilna Gaon or Rav Chaim Volozhiner define “Ratzon” vs “Kavod“, so it is possible the difference is more in terminology than in substance. In any case, the point I want to emphasize to explain how I understand Nefesh haChaim and the concept of Torah lishmah is that Rav Chaim is giving us that duality: the real absence of Kevod Hashem (3:5) and the illusion of the absence of Hashem Himself (3:3).

The “Chapters”

According to Rabbi Krumbein’s analysis, much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4, so I will also visit them. The additions begin:

Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…

Rabbi Norman Lamm (pp 61-62)  explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.

However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:

First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.

Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.

But within the description I gave above, in which sections 1, 2 and 4 deal with action, speech and thought, respectively, the “chapters” found between three and four serve as a prelude to the last section. They address the yeitzer hara and how to refine thought and motivation, and are thus speaking of the same domain as the section on Torah.

Section Four

In sec 4 ch. 3, Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that  the “lishmah“, the “it’s own sake”, of Torah study is unique. (He has a longer description in Ruach haChahim on Avos 6:1,) Rav Elazar beRav Tzadoq says, “עשה דברים לשם פעלן ודבר בהן לשמן — do things for the sake of the One Who caused them, and speak about them for their own sake.” (Nedarim 51a) Rav Chaim cites the Rosh, who notes the difference in language: when it comes to mitzvos of action, we do them lesheim Pa’alan — for the sake of G-d; but when it comes to learning, we learn leshman — for their own sake.” And Rav Chaim points the reader back to something he wrote at the end of sha’ar 1, that the primary effect of the mitzvah is in the action itself, which is why kavanah (intent) is not an obligatory component of the mitzvah, but one that allows it to effect repairs in higher worlds than otherwise. But as he explained previously in ch. 2, the role of lishmah is different in kind for Torah, for immersion in and internalization of Torah is identification with Hashem’s Thought. One is not relating to Hashem-as-Maker of a world we’re trying to refine, but directly with Him. For the Torah’s sake is for the sake of becoming shaped by His Will. It is this that Rav Chaim identifies with communion with the A-limighty, rather than deveiqus, cleaving to Him. Chapters 4 – 7 discuss the relationship between yir’ah and Torah. To Rav Chaim, yir’ah is something you work on for a few minutes in preparation for learning. It is the silo that enables one to retain Torah. But the focus is on the Torah.

This is unlike the Chassidus, where deveiqus is seen as a personal relationship with G-d. And in the Tanya, yir’ah is the purpose of learning, rather than a prerequisite, and he recommends that one should pause occasionally during learning to remember G-d and insuring that the study is leading to yir’ah 

Rav Chaim seems to be asserting that “Torah lishmah” means that that learning is supposed to be an end in itself. But before R’ Chaim, this was FAR from consensus. A simple reading of either Talmud (TY Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b, TB Sanhedrin 99b) would conclude that Torah lishmah is learning in order to know how to observe, how to decide future questions, or to teach. And assuming the amoraim aren’t really arguing, any of these three motives is “lishmah”. The Yerushalmi goes as far as to say “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world].” The Meshekh Chokhmah (Devarim 28:61) explains that this is because it the goal were to get Torah into the soul, full stop, then that is more easily accomplished before birth, as an intellect unencumbered by a body. (I translated this comment in the Meshekh Chokhmah: part I, part II [where this point is made], part III.)

And a bigger problem with thinking that he means that Torah lishmah is an end to itself is that the introduction to the book tells us that Rav Chaim made a point of teaching his son that people were created for the sake of others. Refining my own knowledge doesn’t fit that worldview, unless it’s not actually the end in itself.


So, how do I understand Nefesh haChaim overall? With trepidation; after all I opened with the assertion that people far more knowledgable than I am only captured the aspects of Rav Chaim’s teachings that fit their abilities and perspectives. So, the following is merely yet another person’s incomplete picture.

I think the distinction between real tzimtzum of kevod Hashem and the apparent absence of G-d Himself parallels the the two types of lishmah, and the concept underlies Rav Yitzchaq’s decision of how to organize Nefesh haChaim.

Section 1 speaks of man’s ability to improve the world, that this is what it means to be in Hashem’s “image”.  Section 2 speaks about prayer, drawing G-dliness down into the world, and identifying the world and its problems with His Ends. (We do not pray for our health, we pray for the health that Hashem wishes He could give us.) Until sec. 3, we are dealing with things that are to be done lesheim Pa’alan. We are told in sec. 3 that the Maqom (the illusion of Hashem’s Kavod being absent) refers to Hashem causing existence — and thus Hashem as Pa’alan.

With sec. 3 we are taught there is a second facet, the actual tzimtzum. This allows us to start discussing the lishmah of Torah, which is also Rav Chaim’s conception of deveiqus: to internalize His Thought, His Will.

Then the “chapters” complete this shifting of gears. The lishmah of mitzvos enhances them, but the lishmah of Torah is part of its essence. And so before discussing the power of talmud Torah, Nefesh haChaim includes a description of how to fight the yeitzer hara and achieve lishmah. There is a positive feedback cycle  between performance and attitude — performance generates lishmah (“מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה — from doing it not lishmah, one comes to do it lishmah”, Sanhedrin 105b) and lishmah heightens performance.

By making Torah study the identification with Hashem’s Will, and making this lishmah part of its essence, Rav Chaim is defining  Torah study and the cognitive  acquisition of knowledge as value not for its intellectual accomplishment but for its ability to change the self. Nefesh haChaim describes learning a cognitive approach to middah modification. Which is why yir’ah, is a prerequisite to being able to acquire Torah. Cognitively getting facts doesn’t require yir’ah, but being changed by those facts does demand an awareness of the magnitude of what and Who one is confronting.

To Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Talmud Torah is the primary means  for fulfilling the advice of Rabban Gamliel III (the son of Rav Yehudah haNasi) in Avos 2:4, “עשה רצונו כרצונך — make His Will like your will”. It’s a cognitive approach to middah modification. All of the power to repair the world (sec. 1) through our actions and to draw Hashem’s shefa into it with speech (sec. 2) only has value if we first turn our wills into His Will (sec. 4), so that our attempts to perfect the world actually improve it.

And so, Rav Chaim isn’t entirely denying the traditional understanding of Torah lishmah. It is still meant as being for the sake of others, just as Hashem “Acts” on the behalf of others. And this other-focus is a central theme in how the author raised his son. But its lishmah is not for the sake of doing or the Doer, but for the sake of acquiring the Torah itself, the Will of the Creator (as explained in sec. 3), to be capable of repairing the world (sec. 1 & 2) in the future.