Mixed Emotions

A long while ago I wrote (in “A use for every middah“):

The Rambam (Hilkhos Dei’os 1:4) describes the ideal balance of middos as being the shevil hazahav, the golden mean. He writes (tr. Immanuel O’Levy), “The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes.” Too much anger is cruel to others, too little, and one lacks the motivation to correct wrongs.

There are two ways to view being in the middle. The first is a more naive and natural reading of the Rambam, in that neither middah exceeds the middle mark, on some hypothetical scale, the person is in the middle. However, contradictory middos are not mutually exclusive. Someone could feel ambivalence, and be simultaneously happy and sad. There therefore isn’t really a single scale with a person at some point between the extremes. You need to specify the amount of each extreme, e.g. of taking enjoyment and asceticism, individually.

The shevil hazahav is therefore having equal quantities of each, and knowing which to use when. Finding tif’eres, harmony. A skilled carpenter is one who has mastered the use of both hammer and screwdriver, and knows which joins are best made with nails, and which with screws.

I believe this is the Rambam’s intent later in the pereq when he says:

1:6 We are commanded to go in these middle ways, the good and upright ways, as it is written, “And walk in His ways, et cetera”. As an explanation of this commandment, we have learnt that just as God shows mercy so also should we show mercy, that just as God is merciful so also should we be merciful, and that just as God is holy so also should we be holy. It was with this in mind that the first Prophets called the Almighty with the Attributes of: long-suffering, magnanimous, righteous, upright, faultless, mighty, strong, et cetera, in order to make it known that these are good and upright ways, and that one is obligated to accustom oneself to them, and to make one’s ways as similar to them as possible.

1:7 How should one regulate oneself with these temperaments so that one is directed by them? One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them, until such actions are easy for one to do and will not be troublesome for one, and until such temperaments are fixed in one’s soul. This way is known as the way of the Lord, for the reasons that the Creator has been called by them and that they are the intermediate characteristics which we are obligated to adopt. This is what Abraham taught his sons, as it is written, “For I know him, that he will command his children, et cetera”. One who goes in this way will bring upon himself good and blessings, as it is written, “…that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him” .

In the closing of the chapter, the Rambam defines the “middle way” as incorporating all the attributes with which Hashem is described. Which fits better the interpretation I suggested in 2005 than a more literal reading of the word “middle”.

This ambivalence was the topic of my earlier essay (“Compassion for Our Enemies“) about half-Hallel on the last days of Pesach. We celebrate the end of evil while also mourning the fact that “maasei Yadai tov’im beyam – the work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea” to accomplish that. Had the same goal been reached through the Mitzriyim repenting, the joy would have been complete. Instead, ambivalence.

A decade ago I suggested (“Of Arks and Rainbows“) that this ambivalence is a general feature of what we call a “yeshu’ah“. Why Noach wasn’t to look beyond the walls of the ark, and why even today we see a rainbow in mixed terms — a warning that we’re “tempting” G-d to flood the world again (had He not foresworn doing do) and as a reminder of His covenant with Noah. As well as why Lot and his family were not permitted to look back at the destruction of Sodom as they fled the city. When one didn’t fully merit being saved, the joy must be muted lest it overwhelm the sorrow. Balance must be kept between conflicting emotions.

I think this notion of mixed emotions and motivations enters halakhah as well.

The clearest case is when someone loses a family member thereby inheriting wealth. The beraisa (quoted on Berakhos 59a) rules that someone who lost a father must make two blessings:Dayan haEmes on the loss, and on the inheritance either Shehechiyanu (if one is an only child, and thus it is a private occasion) or Tov uMeitiv (if brothers inherit and thus the inheritance aspect is shared good news). Even in the face of losing a parent, one still has room for the conflicting emotion of the joy of sudden wealth.

But I think it also comes up in more subtle ways. The mishnah (Kesuvos 7:10) lists men who kofin osan, we compel them, to divorce their wives. The gemara (50a) explains, borrowing an idea from qorbanos:

… “יקריב אותו” – מלמד שכופין אותו, יכול בעל כרחו? תלמוד לומר: “לרצונו”, הא כיצד? כופין אותו עד שיאמר רוצה אני; ואמאי? הא בלביה לא ניחא ליה! אלא לאו משום דאמרינן דברים שבלב אינן דברים. ודילמא שאני התם, דאנן סהדי דניחא ליה בכפרה! אלא מסיפא: וכן אתה מוצא בגיטי נשים ושחרורי עבדים, כופין אותו עד שיאמר רוצה אני; ואמאי? הא בלביה לא ניחא ליה! אלא לאו משום דאמרינן דברים שבלב אינן דברים.

… “He shall offer it” — teaching that we compel him [to bring the qorban]. Could it be against his will? We learn from what it says “according to his will.” How is this? We compel him until he says “I want.” Why? In his heart it is not desirable for him! Rather, because we say “matters that are within the heart are not [legally significant] matters.”

Maybe it’s different over there [by offerings, than here by divorce] since we can presume that atonement is good for him. Only from the end:

And similarly you divorce through a write of divorce, or freeing slaves, you compel him until he says “I want.” Why? In his heart it is not desirable for him! Rather, because we say “matters that are within the heart are not [legally significant] matters.”

The Rambam (Geirushin 2:20) elaborates as to how such compulsion is still “according to his will”, despite what seems to be a self-evident paradox:

… ולמה לא בטל גט זה שהרי הוא אנוס בין ביד גוים בין ביד ישראל, שאין אומרין אנוס אלא למי שנלחץ ונדחק לעשות דבר שאינו מחוייב מן התורה לעשותו כגון מי שהוכה עד שמכר או נתן אבל מי שתקפו יצרו הרע לבטל מצוה או לעשות עבירה והוכה עד שעשה דבר שחייב לעשותו או עד שנתרחק מדבר שאסור לעשותו אין זה אנוס ממנו אלא הוא אנס עצמו בדעתו הרעה. לפיכך זה שאינו רוצה לגרש מאחר שהוא רוצה להיות מישראל רוצה הוא לעשות כל המצות ולהתרחק מן העבירות ויצרו הוא שתקפו וכיון שהוכה עד שתשש יצרו ואמר רוצה אני כבר גרש לרצונו….

And why isn’t the get invalidated, since it is compelled — whether by the power of non-Jews [acting at the behest of beis din] whether by that of Jews? Because we don’t say “compelled” except by someone who is pulled away and forced to do something which he is not obligated by the Torah to do. Such as someone who is beaten until he sells or gives something away. But someone whom his yeitzer hara grabs him to defy a mitzvah or to do a sin, and is hit until he does the thing he is obligated to do or is distanced from something he is prohibited to do, this is not “compelled”. Rather he compelled himself with his bad thought. Therefore, this person who doesn’t want to divorce, as a consequence of the fact that he wants to be of the Jewish community, he wants to do all the mitzvos and stay away from sins, and it is his yeitzer which grabbed him. Once he is beaten until his yeitzer subsides, and he says “I want”, he is divorcing according to his will.

The Rambam is noting that in such cases, the person actually has two conflicting desires. On the one hand, he wants to retain his wife. On the other, he wants to be a Jew, to do the right thing, and that includes the obligation to divorce her (in the situations in question). A valid divorce requires will. But I believe the Rambam is saying that it needn’t be his dominant will. As long as the desire is there, the divorce would be valid. Even if other, pettier, desires overwhelm this one.

So then why is the husband beaten? Because the requirement for desire is a legal one, which means that it can’t be unstated, left for only the person themselves to witness. Since the person isn’t acting from this will, we need some other external expression of it. The beating isn’t to enable our pretending the desire to divorce his wife is the one he is choosing to act upon. It is there to make the lesser desire physically manifest, and based upon that lesser desire the divorce is valid.

The Rambam’s explanation only makes more sense from within the presumption that the husband is subject to conflicting motivations.

One last example, the convert who has ulterior motives. Lekhat-chilah, if we could step in before the fact, we would not accept such a convert. A precondition to conversion is qabbalas ol mitzvos, accepting the yoke of mitzvos. But afterward, is the conversion valid or not? Did the convert truly accept ol mitzvos, or not? The Rambam says we wait and see, and judge from their actual observance (Issurei Bi’ah 13:14). (At the time of the conversion; someone who initially observance and later reverts to non-observance is a valid convert, a Jew who is sinning.) Having another motive — e.g. someone who wants to marry a Jew and be accepted by their family — does not rule out also having a proper one. However, it is much harder to know, for those of us who must determine her status for our own observance of halakhah.

In Slabodka it was taught that eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge made such mixtures inevitable. Not just that conflicting emotions and motivations can coexist, but that they always coexist. Thus, the tree is not that of the knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil, but of good-and-evil, be’irbuvyah — in constant mixture.  Every good deed is performed with at least some small adulteration of another motivation, and (fortunately) so too every sin. I explored this thought too in an earlier blog entry (“The origins of imperfection“). Now I want to note how this concept enables our understanding of other matters.

To conclude with a story I told then:

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”

His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?

The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.

 

Another’s Gashmiyus is my Ruchnius

יענעמס גשמיות איז בא מיר רוחניות.

Another’s physical needs/wants are for me, spiritual.

I first heard this sentiment from R’ Shaul Margoliszt”l, the Chassidishe rav of the shul of my childhood, The Lubavitcher Rebbezt”l describes it as an old Chassidic saying (Igros vol. 13, 27 Iyyar 5716). I think the earliest source is Rav Yisrael Salanter, as quoted in the list of epigrams of Rav Yirael’s in R’ Dov Katz’s Tenu’as haMussar vol. 1. Similarly, this quote from the same chapter:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.

It’s a pretty notion as it stands. I used to be one of those people who would answer someone’s “Have an easy fast!” with “Have a meaningful one!” But my attraction to this greeting waned (when not dealing with my children, whose spiritual development is my business) when I realized it was distracting from what to me should be the more fundamental calling — their physical discomfort of fasting.

It ties into a basic notion (one that I made a category of this blog), that there is a use for every middah (UFEM). In the entry that opened this topic I wrote:

When the Brisker Rav taught this idea, a student challenged him with some middos that seem the antithesis of Jewish worship.

Apiqursus (heresy). How can it be used positively? As we’ve been saying — for me and mine, I can have bitachon (trust [in the A-lmighty]) that everything that happens is as it should be. On another’s account, one needs to be an “apiqoreis” and not rely on Hashem’s help.

Krumkeit (warped reasoning). The person who thinks farkumkt has the ability to fulfill “dan likaf zekhus”, judging others favorably, no matter how open-and-shut the story seems to the rest of us. Somehow, we only employ it for self-justification, and hold others to a higher standard.

The notion that his stomach is a fundamental priority for me ties in to this kind of “apiqursus“.

Someone emailed me the following story, from an article by R’ Yakov Horowitz for Mishpachah Magazine (© 2008):

Rabbi Moshe Weinbergershlit”a, the dynamic Rav of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, tells a remarkable story that he personally heard from Rabbi Binyamin Liftonz”l, who served as a rebbi in the Yeshiva of Central Queens for decades.

When Reb Binyomin was in his late teens, his parents decided to send him to the famed Yeshiva in Grodno, headed by the legendary gaon, HaRav Shimon Shkopzt”l. As it was common practice for all applicants to recite a ‘shtikel Torah’ to Reb Shimon upon arrival, Binyomin’s parents hired a rebbi to properly prepare their son for his farher.

Binyomin endured many days of grueling travel to get to the Yeshiva. When he finally arrived late one evening, exhausted and famished, he was startled to be greeted by Reb Shimon. Binyomin introduced himself and said that he was prepared to recite his ‘shtikel Torah’ to the Rosh Yeshiva. Reb Shimon informed Binyomin that before he recited his Torah portion, he would like to ask Binyomin two questions.

Binyomin froze in fear, as he had only prepared himself to recite a portion of gemara, not to be subjected to a full-blown ‘farher! His fear dissipated when Rav Shkop asked him, “When was your last hot meal?” and “When was the last time that you slept in a bed?”

When Binyomin informed the Rosh Yeshiva that he had not properly eaten or slept since he began travelling, Reb Shimon took him home, personally cooked supper for him, and attended to his needs, until he was sleeping comfortably in Reb Shimon’s house.

Reb Binyomin told Rabbi Weinberger that he had forgotten a great deal of the Torah that he learned in Reb Shimon’s shiurim, but he never forgot the two questions that the Rosh Yeshiva asked him that night. He also told Rav Weinberger that throughout the terrible war years, it was the warm memory of Reb Shimon’s devotion to his needs that sustained his faith in Hashem and his will to remain alive.

Rav Dovid LifshitzWhen I read this story it made me feel truly privileged to have experienced what it means to be part of this tradition. For two years I sat in the shi’ur of Rav Dovid Lifshitzzt”l, the Suvalker Rav, a student of Rav Shimon’s. And Rav Dovid’s notion of a test was similar to his rebbe’s.

YU required written finals. I think Rav Dovid once told me that he wouldn’t have given them otherwise. In any case, the morning of the final, rebbe would ask us two questions that echo Rav Shimon’s “fahrher“:

First, he would want to know who had eight hours of sleep the previous night.

Second, he would ask who had breakfast that morning.

Rav Dovid’s primary concern was for the welfare of his talmidim who were often overextended during final week. How can he worry about how we would test when he wasn’t yet sure we were fully equipped to succeed at our learning?

Those who didn’t get a full night’s sleep were sent back to bed. Those who skipped breakfast were given $5 and sent to the cafeteria. (At least, those who addmitted to it. Few people would raise their hands the second time around, and I know for sure at least some of us were just avoiding taking rebbe‘s money…)

To Rav Shimon and Rav Dovid, a talmid‘s gashmius was truly their ruchnius.

But I realized this morning there is another layer to this concept.

Why is there a gashmius to begin with?

Because the Creator wanted to provide us with a venue where we can interact with other people. Where things aren’t perfect, and we must step in and take partnership with Him in completing their creation. A place where we can be givers, not just recipients.

In other words, the sole reason for this world is so that my ruach, my soul-as-will (ruach also means wind — the unseen power that moves the seen) can step in and provide for others their physical needs. This is why we were created such that sexual intimacy is of the greatest bonding forces. A the Torah says “Therefore man will leave his father and mother and bond with his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Bereishis 2:24) This is why we associate sharing a celebration with sharing a meal (such as the qorban Todah, for giving thanks, which was of a size too large for any one person to eat).

Another’s gashmius is thus the reason for my soul being extended into this world. Beyond simply calling it a religious duty, it truly is my ruchnius.

A Use for Every Middah, part II: Two Dictionaries

Among the ideas I touched on in “A use for every middah” was that oftentimes the use is when dealing with others.It’s okay to be an “apiqoreis” and worry about Hashem not providing, when it comes to providing for others.At ne’ilas hachag last night, I heard R’ Yitzchak Wolpin (Rosh Yeshiva of Slonim, Boro Park) repeat a thought from his rebbe, R’ Shraga Feival Mendlowitz zt”l, that jogged the following thought.R’ Medlowitz asked a question about the laws of marriage. If someone gets married “On the condition that I am a chakham“, we ask him some questions and if he answers them like a wise man, the marriage holds. If he says, “on the condition that I am a gibor“, we check his stength. “That I am an ashir“, we compare his net worth with the norms.

But isn’t there a mishnah in Avos? “Who is wise? Someone who learns from anyone.” Why do we check the person’s knowledge and intellect? Shouldn’t we check if the person does indeed take lessons from everyone he encounters? Similarly, “Who is strong? One who conquers his inclination.” Shouldn’t a puny person, the proverbial “90 pound weakling”, but who has truly gained control over his yeitzer satisfy the condition of being a gibor? For that matter, shouldn’t a powerful man who falls pray to every desire not satisfy the condition? “Who is rich? Someone who is happy with his lot.” And yet, the man with much wealth but always hungry for more would be married “on the condition that I am an ashir“, not the poor man who is happy. Why?

R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz explains: We all need to have two dictionaries. The words we use in common discourse, and the words we use for ourselves. When looking at ourselves, it is fair to say “I am rich; what more do I need?” But conditionals are based on common language. When speaking to others, “rich” refers to wealth, not contentment.

Perhaps we can extend this. When thinking and speaking of others, we shouldn’t be satisfied that another is happy with what he has. That’s good for personal development, not for addressing the needs of others. We need two dictionaries: one for the world inside ourselves, one for the one in which we interact with other people.

Related to this idea is a quote from Rav Yisrael Salanter that I recently added to my email signature generation system:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.

A use for every middah

The Semak (mitzvah 8 ) writes that we should be careful with other people’s kavod (honor), but not our own.The Orekhos Tzaddiqim (“sha’ar haAhavah”) similarly writes that you should try to give others hana’ah (enjoyment), but try not to take hana’ah from others. (I don’t quite understand this. Perhaps the author is distinguishing “taking” from “receiving what’s freely given”.)And so, many middos that seem negative have positive uses, when we apply them to others. This duality is typified by a saying by R’ Yisrael Salanter:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.

(Along these lines, I used to be one of those people who would wish others “Have a meaningful fast” instead of the usual “Have an easy fast”. After all, isn’t the point of a fast to experince a small measure of distress to motivate seeking meaning? But when learning this line, I thought perhaps there’s a good reason for the tradition.)

When the Brisker Rav taught this idea, a student challenged him with some middos that seem the antithesis of Jewish worship.

Apiqursus (heresy). How can it be used positively? As we’ve been saying — for me and mine, I can have bitochon (trust [in the A-lmighty]) that everything that happens is as it should be. On another’s account, one needs to be an “apiqoreis” and not rely on Hashem’s help.

Krumkeit (warped reasoning). The person who thinks farkumkt has the ability to fulfill “dan likaf zekhus”, judging others favorably, no matter how open-and-shut the story seems to the rest of us. Somehow, we only employ it for self-justification, and hold others to a higher standard.

And in fact, every middah has its positive use. This is why the Torah says (Devarim 6:5, in “Shema”) that you should love Hashem “with all your heart” and chazal explain “with both of your inclinations”. The major “trick” in middos improvement is not the elimination or creation of a middah, but learning how and when it should be applied.

This explains why they’re called “middos“. “Tiqun hamiddos“, improving one’s character, is more literally translated “fixing the measures”. The work is on their dimensions.

The Rambam (Hilkhos Dei’os 1:4) describes the ideal balance of middos as being the shevil hazahav, the golden mean. He writes (tr. Immanuel O’Levy), “The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes.” Too much anger is cruel to others, too little, and one lacks the motivation to correct wrongs.

There are two ways to view being in the middle. The first is a more naive and natural reading of the Rambam, in that neither middah exceeds the middle mark, on some hypothetical scale, the person is in the middle. However, contradictory middos are not mutually exclusive. Someone could feel ambivalence, and be simultaneously happy and sad. There therefore isn’t really a single scale with a person at some point between the extremes. You need to specify the amount of each extreme, e.g. of taking enjoyment and asceticism, individually.

The shevil hazahav is therefore having equal quantities of each, and knowing which to use when. Finding tif’eres, harmony. A skilled carpenter is one who has mastered the use of both hammer and screwdriver, and knows which joins are best made with nails, and which with screws.

“Bekhol levavekha — with all your heart”. Every middah can be used to express our love for Hashem. Each in its proper place.

Of Arks and Rainbows

There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.