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.