Pesach, Matzah, Maror

AishDas’s motto is lifted from the motto of HaOlim, founded by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum which existed from the 1910s through the 1930s, ending with the decimation of European Jewry.
Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres” — Knowledge of G-d coming from an intimate relationship with Him, mercy toward others, and harmony of mind and emotion. The idea is an understanding of the three pillars upon which the world stands, described by Shim’on haTzadiq (Avos 1:2).

Torah is the study of Torah. It is the shaping of the mind and personality. In the ideal, the Torah one learned is inseparable from the rest of his thinking; so that even his choice of an end table for his living room is affected by his Torah self. The Alter of Slabodka once heard a student boast about having completed all of gemara. His retort, “It’s not how many times you go through sha”s, it’s how many times sha”s goes through you!” Tif’eres.

Avodah is service of G-d. It’s having a relationship with Him. Seeking His Will, and to express that Will in the world. The same biblical term for knowledge is used for marital intimacy. Da’as.

Gemillus Chasadim, supporting others through kindness and generosity, can not only be an activity. It must flow from empathy, from maternal-like care for another. Rachamim.

Shim’on haTzadiq is teaching us that the world stands on three things because all human activity centers around how he acts in three relationships: with G-d, with other people, and internally with himself. The Maharal (Derech haChaim ad loc) writes that this is in turn because man lives in three worlds: this one, in which he interacts with other people, the world of his mind, and heaven, which gives him a connection to G-d.

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.

Rabban Gamliel requires we mention and explain three things in order to fulfill the mitzvah of the seder: Pesach, Matzah, uMaror.

Pesach is described as “zevach pesach hu — it is a praise-offering of pesach.” There is no avodah clearer than that of the beis hamiqdash, and the pesach is in praise of our Creator, an expression of our awareness of His Grandeur. Da’as.

Rabban Gamliel says that matzah as something we eat because “lo hispiq betziqam — there wasn’t sufficient time for their dough to rise”. A lesson in zerizus: haste, alacrity and zeal. Matzah is also a lesson in anavah, modesty, not being “puffed up” like normal bread. It is “lecham oni — the bread of affliction”. And last, in its guide as “lechem oni, she’onim alav devarim harbei — ‘oni‘ because we answer ‘onim’ over it many things”, it teaches us to find these ideals in learning Torah. The perfection of one’s internal self. Tif’eres.

Last, we each maror because “vayimararu es chayeihem — they embittered their lives”. Maror is sharing the pain of another. Rachamim.

And so, Rabban Gamliel is not only requiring that we relate the mitzvos of the evening to the telling of the story of the exodus, but he is making that retelling an all-encompassing experience. The exodus gave us a mission to support the world on all three pillars, torah, avodah and gemillus chassadim.

But there is one difference… Pesach, matzah, maror are in a different order – avodah (relating to G-d), Torah (self-refinement), then Gemilus Chassadim (in how we relate to others). Describing a flow downward.

First we connect to the Source of all good, by eating the qorban Pesach which shows our trust in Him and an inviation to “eat off His table”, so to speak. Then we eliminate all of our selfishness, our ulterior motives and other goals that could get in the way, as we can find modeled in our matzah. We make ourselves into conduits of that good to His Creatures. And finally we feel the pain of others in the taste of our maror and share what we received from G-d to help them through their suffering.

And more than that, we find that it’s maror that gets dipped in charoses.  Charoses poses a paradox. On the one hand, the Rambam writes, “The charoses is amitzvah from the Sofrim, as a commemoration of the mortar that they worked in in Egypt.” (Laws of Chaomeitz and Matzah 7:11). Charoses represents mortar, slavery.

On the other hand, contemporary recipes for charoses are to make it sweet. Sephardic, Ashkenazic and Yemenite recipes have few ingredients in common, yet they all use a sweet mixture (see also Pesachim 115b, which warns against losing the bitterness of the maror under the sweetness of the charoses).

(The sweetness of charoses is discussed at more length in this earlier post.)

Charoses doesn’t represent the bitter servitude of Par’oh, but the sweet, voluntary yoke of heaven. We eat is with maror, which does represent the bitter slavery, and give it the appearance of that servitude to bring to mind the contrast. Charoses, like being a “servant of the Holy One” has a surface layer, an appearance of the mortar of slavery. But experientially, it’s very different. Or, as King David wrote, “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב יְהוָ֑ה, אַֽשְׁרֵ֥י הַ֝גֶּ֗בֶר יֶֽחֱסֶה־בּֽוֹ׃ — Taste and see that the Hashem is good; happy is the man who takes refuge in Him. ” (Tehillim 35:9, said in Shabbos and holiday Shacharis)

Maror gets charoses because the ultimate purpose of life is not our self-refinement or our cleaving to the Divine, but our utilizing them to aid those in need. In fact, neither of these can be defined without knowing what a person’s function is, and therefore how we measure refinement, and what it is G-d does for creation that we can contribute to ourselves. It is through giving G-d’s Good to others that we cleave to Him, reflect His Perfection, and achieve our own.

Why the Middle Matzah?

So, I was asked in the middle of the second seder: Why do we break the middle matzah for Yachatz? Is there some significance to it being the middle matzah?

Here was my off-the-cuff answer, I wonder if it has any truth:

This thought leverages ideas I developed in two earlier posts Bilvavi part I, and part II. Then, I was exploring the question why so much of the Torah describes the Mishkan, which existed for such a short part of Jewish History. To summarize what I wrote then:

There are three aspects of the soul that comprise a person’s individuality: nefeshruach and neshamah. These ideas are developed in numerous ways, the following is that of the Vilna Gaon in his “Peirush al Kama Agados”, and leverages the Maharal’s understanding of the three pillars R’ Shimon haTzadiq identifies in Avos 1:2.

Nefesh: This is man’s connection to the physical world. Through it, we share that world with other people, and work together to address our needs. It is thus holds both the drive for physical comfort and pleasure as well as the ability to relate to other people.

Neshamah: A person’s presence in heaven, his connection to a higher calling, sanctity, and the A-lmighty Himself. If that calling is harnessed to serve some baser instinct, one is left with idolatry. On the other hand, as we say upon waking up in the morning, “My G-d, the neshamah which you placed within me is pure” — the neshamah itself is an image of the Divine, never sullied.

Ruach: People carry entire worlds in the space between their ears. In there they have models of what is going on outside of them, they plan and imagine outcomes and concepts. The ru’ach is the will that chooses between the conflicting callings and therefore also the egotism that is driven to see that desire be done.

Three aspects, each living in a different world, and enabling a different kind of relationship.

And similarly, the gemara in Yuma 72a (and explained by Rashi ad loc) identifies three crowns given at Sinai. Each is a perfection of one of these relationships, and each is represented by one of the crowned utensils in the Mishkan: The shulchan, the table with its showbread, sport the crown of kingship, organizing the interpersonal and showing the communal need to provide for everyone. The crown of Torah is “worn” by the aron, containing the luchos and with the manuscript of the Torah between its carrying rods. The golden mizbeich, upon which the incense was burned to provide its intangible offering had the crown of priesthood, of connection with the Divine.

The Mishkan and Beis haMiqdosh had three more, uncrowned, vessels. Outside was the kiyor (washing vessel), which was used to wash the dirt of this world off the kohein’s feet. Next to it, also outside the sanctuary building was  the larger Brass Mizbei’ach where most of the Avodah was performed. The menorah, like the aron, represents wisdom. “For a mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah its light.” (More detail in the posts specifically on this topic.) The uncrowned utensils represents navigating the challenges and opportunities of the three domains, while the crowned ones represent the ideal relationship each domain enables.

Notice that in both sets of three, the symbol of the nefesh is placed in a holier location than the other two. The shulchan and the golden mizbeiach are in the outer room, the aron — in the Holy of Holies. The kiyor and large mizbeiach are outdoors, the menorah — inside. Even though the neshamah is our presence in heaven, our spirituality, it is the ruach where our holiness truly resides. The neshamah is a recipient of holiness; the ruach, the will and power to consciously decide, which creates holiness in true imitation of G-d.

Perhaps we can say something similar in understanding the three matzvos. In is the ruach, torn between our spiritual and animal callings which is broken. Perhaps we can view the crack where the middle matzah is broken is where the two collide; Rav Dessler’s “battlefront” between conflicting desires which force the need for conscious deliberated. This is where free will truly resides. Hopefully, a person moves this front such that more and more good is beyond it, requiring no struggle to be performed.

And so we break the matzah into two uneven pieces, and use the bigger one for the afiqoman. Because our service should be with the middle matzah, that which makes us in the “image of the Divine”, and with the purest of our intentions, which we hope is the larger “half” of our selves.

An Altar of Earth

We just looked at the section on the mizbeiach as being more about the role of the religious rite in a life of Torah. We don’t offer qorbanos — or daven, or shake lulav and esrog or… —  to rertreat from the world and find solace with G-d, but as part of our engagement with the world, a life-long process of self-refinement.

There are two comments by Rashi on this section that each offer a pair of perspectives on the question they address:

כי מן השמים דברתי: וכתוב אחד אומר “וירד ה’ על הר סיני” בא הכתוב השלישי והכריע ביניהם (דברים ד) מן השמים השמיעך את קולו ליסרך ועל הארץ הראך את אשו הגדולה כבודו בשמים ואשו וגבורתו על הארץ (מכילתא) ד”א הרכין שמים ושמי השמים והציען על ההר וכן הוא אומר (תהלים יח) ויט שמים וירד

From the heavens I spoke to you: And one verse says “Hashem ‘descended’ onto Mount Sinai”. A third verse comes and decides between them — “from heaven He let you hear his ‘voice, and upon the earth he showed you His great fire in heaven and his fire and might on the earth”. (Mekhilta)

Another thought: He stretched out the heavens and the heavens of heavens, and extended them onto the mountain. And so it says “He extended the heaven and ‘descended’.”

How do we picture the revelation at Sinai? Did Hashem “come down to earth” or did we get a glimpse of heaven? The Mekhilta suggests the latter. But Rashi also offers a second opinion — that heavens were stretched down until heaven and earth coincided at Sinai.

מזבח אדמה: מחובר באדמה שלא יבננו על גבי עמודים או על גבי כיפים (נ”א בסיס) (מכילתא) ד”א שהיה ממלא את חלל מזבח הנחשת אדמה בשעת חנייתן

An altar of earth: Attached to the earth. That you should not build it upon pillars or domes [another variant: or atop a foundation]. (Mekhilta)

Another thought: That you filled the hollow of the bronze altar [of the Mishkan] at the times they camped.

Two understandings of what an “altar of earth” would mean: either an altar that must be on or attached to the earth, or a reference to the earth that filled the mizbeiach of the Mishkan.

It is possible the two comments are two reflections of the same dispute. Note that both offer one opinion by the Mekhilta and then a second interpretation. For this to be true, we would have to view the concept of mizbeiach as a recreation of Sinai. Which would explain why this mitzvah in particular is explained in relation to the three pillars upon which the world stands. The mizbeiach is not only the place of worship, it is also the reconnection to the revelation of how to perfect the three classes of relationships in our lives.

The Mekhilta views Sinai as a glimpse of heaven from down here on earth. And so the altar of earth is one placed firmly on the ground. The gap between heaven and earth must be clear — as is the wondrousness of being able to experience Hashem across it.

In Rashi’s other opinion, heaven and earth met at Sinai. Therefore the recreation of it at the altar is when we take Hashem’s altar and fill it with earth.

Parashas Naso opens with a discussion of oaths and vows. The Torah writes, “A man, when he makes a neider LaShem [oath to HaShem], or gives a shevu’ah [vow] to prohibit something al nafsho [on his living soul].” (30:3)

It is a fundamental principle of Torah study that not a single word is wasted. So, while this pasuq appears repetitious, it isn’t. There must be some subtle distinction between a neider to Hashem and a shevu’ah on one’s nefesh.

The gemara (Nedarim 2b) describes a neider as “when he prohibits an object to himself.” It changes the state of the object, or in Brisker jargon, the cheftza. A shevu’ah, however, is “when he prohibits himself from an object” (ibid). Here, it is the gavra, the individual, who is affected.

For example, if a person were to say, “This thing shall be a qorban for me,” it would be a neider. With his words, he is sanctifying the object, and thereby prohibiting it to everyone. On the other hand, if he were to say, “I will not eat this thing,” he made a shevu’ah. He changed himself, by giving himself a new prohibition. To the rest of the world, the animal may be eaten.

As I already mentioned, the distinction between gavra and cheftza is used frequently in Brisker lomdus. For example, is the gavra exempt from sitting in a sukkah in the rain (or any other circumstance one wouldn’t stay at home through) , or is the cheftza of the booth not technically a sukkah when it’s not in a condition that you would live in? The difference would be whether one accomplishes anything by sitting in a sukkah the first night of Sukkos. If the rain exempts the gavra, then one is fulfilling a non-obligatory mitzvah. A beraskhah would be appropriate, and someone who doesn’t want to miss out on the mitzvah may wait up until midnight in case the rain stops, and sit in the rain for qiddush and hamotzi if it does not. Whereas, if the rain turns the cheftza into a non-sukkah, then the act of sitting in the rain is empty.

With this dialectic between bringing heaven down to earth vs. elevating this world up to heaven, we can get a philosophical perspective on the gavra-cheftza divide. A neider, or any other obligation on the gavra, takes the angle of improving the self. Admittedly not bringing heaven here, but still — improving the one charged with following Hashem’s Torah and Moral Law in this world. The Sinai revelation as “from heaven I spoke to you“. When we speak of obligations on the chefza we talk about changing the world, elevating it. An altar made of the earth, Mt. Sinai as unifying earth and heaven.

Why the Altar?

(Rewritten from last year’s version.)

It makes a lot of sense that the first mitzvos the Torah teaches after the Aseres haDiberos would be the interpersonal mitzvos of parashas Mishpatim. And many rabbis have given sermons on this point. The only problem is — they aren’t. There is this brief interlude between the description of the national revelation and Mishpatim (20:18-22):

יח וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם. יט לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם. כ מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת-עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלָמֶיךָ, אֶת-צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת-בְּקָרֶךָ, בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת-שְׁמִי, אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ. כא וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי, לֹא תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית: כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ. כב וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת עַל-מִזְבְּחִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ, עָלָיו.

18 Hashem said to Moshe, this is what you should tell Benei Yisrael:

You saw that from the heavens I spoke with you. 19 Do not make alongside me gods of gold, and gods of silver do not make for yourselves. 20 An altar of dirt you should make for me, and sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and peace offerings, your flocks and your cattle — in any place where I will make a memorial to My reputation, I will come to you and bless you.

21 And if you make for me an altar of stones, do not make them hewn, for you have lifted your sword against it and profaned it.

22 And do not go up upon steps on my altar, so that should shall not reveal your nakedness upon it.

Why is it the altar, and why specifically these mitzvos related to the altar, that warrant first mention after the Aseres haDiberos?

Aside from the obligation of how to build the altar itself, three other laws are relayed in this description of the mizbeiach:

  1. Do not make with Me gods of gold and gods of silver
  2. … [D]o not make them hewn, for you have lifted your sword against it and profaned it.
  3. And do not go up upon steps on my altar, so that should shall not reveal your nakedness…

Notice that these are references to the three sins that we are obligated “yeihareig ve’al ya’avor – one must be martyred rather than violate” – avodah zarah, shefichas damim vegilui arayos – idolatry, bloodshed and sexual immorality [literally: revealing nakedness]. Each of these mitzvos takes an ax to one of the pillars upon which the world stands. As I posted a number of years ago:

The three pillars upon which the world stands as described by Shim’on haTzadiq (Avos 1:2) are Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. The Maharal (Derech haChaim ad loc) writes that this is in turn because man lives in three worlds: this one, in which he interacts with other people, the world of his mind, and heaven, which gives him a connection to G-d.

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.

There are three relationships around which the Torah is structured: self-refinement, closeness to G-d, and loving-kindness toward other people. The altar here is being described in those cosmic terms, requiring attention to purity on all three levels.

Immediately after the singular event of their national revelation from G-d, Hashem continues by emphasizing that the religious experience does not stand alone. It is not an escape from “daily reality”, but part of a life-long process of self-refinement. A prelude to the interpersonal laws of parashas Mishpatim.

Narcissistic Spirituality

I was at a Mussar conference once, and Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin asked me about the programming. He asked, roughly, “When did Mussar shift from being about giving to others to being about working on my own middos?” In general, this kind of self-focus is an error that is all too easy in many spiritual paths.

Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov (Spain, appx. 1390-1440) in his derashos on parashas Devarim, compares three statements by tannaim who each consider a different pasuq of the Torah as conveying the Torah’s central theme. (Quoted in Yedei Moshe in the Vilna edition Midrash Rabbah, and by R’ MM Kasher in Torah Sheleimah.)

The Sifra (a/k/a Toras Kohanim) par’ Qedoshim 4:12 writes:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” — Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great principle of the Torah.”

Ben Azzai says, “‘Zeh sefer toledos adam’ — this is an even greater principle.”

Ben Azzai’s “great principle” is Bereishis 5:1-2:

This is the book of the generations of man.  On the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him.  Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and he named them “Adam” on the day they were created.

The Yerushalmi describes the same dispute, albeit in the opposite order, in Nedarim 9:4 (vilna ed. 30b). But the version of the medrash R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov comments upon is a third quote. Ben Zoma cites “Shema Yisrael“, which I doubt would surprise any of us.

According to Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, each are emphasizing a different ideal.

  • Ben Zoma – Shema Yisrael: One’s relationship with the Almighty
  • Rabbi Aqiva – Ve’ahavta lerei’akha: One relationship with other people
  • Ben Azzai – Toledos Adam: Self-refinement, self-perfection — one’s relationship with oneself. Understanding one’s “image” of the Divine and thereby refraining from all sin.

(I should tangentially point out that this is not the only way to understand the contrast between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai. There is a large literature on the subject. E.g. see this shiur by R’ Binyamin Zimmerman, distributed by Yeshivat Har Etzion, “Gush”. While you’re there, you may notice he extensively quotes from my translation of the introduction to Shaarei Yosher.)

This is akin to a recurring theme on this blog, the triad the Maharal identifies with “Torah, Avodah uGemillus Chassadim” and Dr Nathan Birnbaum, with “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres”. My own description: Hashem places us in three worlds, and each world has the opportunity of enabling a class of relationships, and each has its challenges of becoming an end in itself.

We live in the physical world, where we can interact with other people. In the ideal, this is dominated by empathy (rachamim) and expressed in lovingkindness (gemillus chassadim. However, we can fall into the traps of hedonism, epicureanism, and turning other desires of the flesh into life goals.

Hashem also placed us in heaven, where we can relate to Him through service (avodah) coming from a personal knowledge (da’as) of the Creator. But dreams of heaven also lead us to idolatry and paganism — using spirituality and metaphysics in “magickal” ways, trying to make our lives better without making ourselves any better.

Last, because of the tension between the two, we are forced to make conscious decisions. A world emerges within our own minds, containing our experiences — including the experience of thinking (metacognizance). The role of Torah is to perfect that world into a place of harmonious splendor (tif’eres). But having dreams and aspirations also opens the door to frustration and anger when they are thwarted, and overassessment of their importance — egotism.

Among the baalei mussar, this idea is expressed in a tripartite division of the mitzvos: bein adam lachaveiro (between a person and his peers), bein adam laMaqom (between man and the Omnipresent), and bein adam le’azamo (between man and himself). However, this addition of a third category is novel; usually bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam laMaqom, are described as being the sum of all the Torah. Five commandments of one (including honoring one’s parents as Hashem’s partners in one’s personal creation), five commandments of the other.

Although, related to the theme of this post, bein adam le’atzmo isn’t an end in itself. Healing oneself, perfecting oneself, is not meaningful as an end in itself. So, now someone is more perfect — a more perfect what? He is closer to the Image of the Divine, but what it is G-d does or Is that we are supposed to be an image of? I can live with the idea that since all of bein adam le’atzmo is a means to bein adam laMaqom and bein adam lachaveiro, one can equally choose to look at those mitzvos separately or not, depending on one’s purpose. But still, it’s nice to find sources that predate Rav Yisrael Salanter for the three-way-division perspective.

Returning to R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, he is saying that each side of this triad was made a “kelal gadol” by one of these tannaim. Someone can follow the Torah by viewing the central mission it lays out for us in one of these terms.

Chassidus sets out man’s goal in life as deveiqus, cleaving to G-d. Their “kelal gadol” is Shema. The yeshiva world obviously revolves around Torah, and as the Nefesh haChaim (cheileq 4) puts it, Torah is immersed into like a miqvah leaving an indelible change on the person. “Zeh seifer toledos ha’adam – this is the book of the origins of man.”

Mussar is more complicated… It shares the yeshiva world’s notion of self-refinement. But it defines self-refinement in terms of one’s yir’as Shamayim (which in Novhardok becomes about bitachon, trusting in Him) and in terms of generosity to others. That is the ideal person, what one is refining oneself to become. With that background, we can rephrase R/Dr Levin’s question as asking why we stopped looking at what kind of outward connections to G-d and to other people the person of perfect middos is capable of making, and focused only on the middos themselves.

It’s a kind of spiritual narcissism; religion becomes all about me.

Related is R’ Wolbe’s conceptualization of frumkeit in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. To quote part of my analysis in an earlier blog entry:

Rav Wolbe notes a different alternative to thoughtfulness — instinct. To Rav Wolbe, frumkeit is an instinctive drive to be close to the Creator. It is not even specific to humans; the frumkeit instinct is what King David refers to when he writes, “כְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף, וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵ-ל אָכְלָם — lion cubs roar at their prey, and request from G-d their food.” (Tehillim 104:21) And, “נוֹתֵן לִבְהֵמָה לַחְמָהּ, לִבְנֵי עֹרֵב אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאוּ — He gives the animal its food, to the ravens’ offspring who cry.” (147:9)

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

Frumkeit is a narcissistic version of pursuing deveiqus. It’s not that G-d is One, it’s that I have to be the holy person who declares that unity. It’s not even really being driven to do the mitvah for the sake of the mitzvah, it’s for the sake of me having the mitzvah under my belt.

So, it is possible working from any of these Great Principles to end up with a self-focus religiosity. One overwhelmed by anokhius (literally: Me-ness). I could become more interested in my being holy than in Hashem’s Will being done, and be upset that someone else played the role I dreamed of for myself in the revival of Mussar. Or one can turn one’s Shabbos guest into a lulav or tefillin — an object for doing a mitzvah, rather than a friend to be loved the way I love myself.

But in contrast, the path of bein adam le’atzmo, is accutely prone to this problem. Ben Azzai’s “book of the generations of man” requires constant reminders that the perfect man must be perfect for some function. Too much talk of middah work without enough Qunterus haChesed (the translation in Strive for Truth calls it “Discourse on Lovingkindness”) leads to self-absorbtion.

It’s a danger of the Western zeitgeist that it’s too easy to make a religion out of independence and autonomy. And I fear the same decay into such “narcissism” has taken hold in the typical Beis Yaakov education in the past decade.

As recently as ten years ago, girls in these schools were being taught in very clear terms that their central mitzvah is chessed. In fact, the Beis Yaakov school system was the only active contemporary movement that followed R’ Aqiva’a (as understood by RSTiST) kelal gadol of ve’ahavta lerei’akha. (Or for that matter, Hillel’s.) High School girls are routinely expected to dedicate a number of hours per semester performing acts of chessed. Chesed then underpins their future lives as wives and mothers — roles that require much giving to people who too often take them for granted.

However, increasingly, the Beis Yaakov system is making tzeni’us, modesty in behavior and clothing, an expression of self-respect, their central message for the girls in their school. Emphasizing an admittedly critical middah, particularly in a world where we “worship” whomever has the spotlight. Where we seek self-validation through the accolades of others. Tzeni’us means giving with no expectation of receiving, even receiving attention or “ego-stroking”, in return. But we have gone from teaching a life of chessed, giving to others, to focusing on a middah, and we’re attenuating the message of what that middah is for, what is it the tzenu’ah woman is more capable of accomplishing that gives tzeni’us its value.


Hoshin Plan

At one point in my career I was working at a bank that took on a large initiative to formalize its processes. Everything done within the bank had to follow procedures, with the requisite paperwork completed, and every procedure had to conform to a standard called “Six Sigma“.

Part of Six Sigma is an idea called Hoshin Kanri, or in something a little closer to English, a Hoshin Plan. “Hoshin” is a Japanese word that means “shining metal”, “compass”, or “to show the direction”.

In a Hoshin Plan, upper management comes up with measurable goals for the firm. Each division head takes those goals that his division could help reach, and translates its items into smaller goals for his division. His group heads to the same to his goals, team heads… etc…

This way, the individual programmer can be shown how his program, which people much above him in the hierarchy may never hear of, fits the team’s goal, the group’s goal, and so on all the way up to the firm’s goals which must reflect its Mission Statement.

Also, Hoshin Planning is an iterative process, at the end of the year, one can review the firm’s goals against its accomplishments, and make more informed decisions about the goals to set for the next year.

Picture if one Elul we did this for our Avodas Hashem… Picture being able to tie why you’re going to the store to what it is you plan on accomplishing in your life’s avodah. I think it would be very powerful in making all of life, even recreation or side interests, holy.

A second advantage would be added a year later. Elul calls upon us to do a special cheshbon hanefesh (spiritual accounting) to see what areas require teshuvah. But against a Spiritual Hoshin Plan, one has a tool for taking that introspection and inspection of the past, and apply it towards how one lives in the future. Perhaps one mis-estimated their abilities in some area, or overestimated a challenge in their lives. They thought their avodas Hashem would require attention on the point, but now they can set goals that better reflect who they are and the life Hashem actually gives them.

Enough hand-waving theory. I think an example would be illustrative.

I personally would pick the following quote from Rav Shimon Shkop as my Mission Statement:

[O]ur greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways.

Subdividing this into three target ideals:

1. Torah – internalizing His Will
2. Avodah – connection to G-d
3. Gemillus Chassadim – being a conduit of Hashem’s Good into the lives of those I touch.

Subdividing again:

1. Internalizing His Will

1.1. Daily learning
1.2. Daily Mussar work
1.3. Regular in depth learning

Notice at this point I can start filling in actual tangible projects that I can meet by year’s end. What daily learning will I start the year with? Should I raise the bar by year end or aim my year’s growth elsewhere? And if so, what should the year-end goal be?

Hopefully, by month end when this “Spiritual Hoshin Plan” is done, I can pause in the middle of the workday and be able to say for myself that I’m putting up with this irate trader on the phone so that I can pay for tuition (goal or some-such), I can develop my personal creativity (as per 1.2… as being in the image of the Creator is something I view as a Mussar goal), etc.. And thereby give sanctity to an otherwise mundane (and stressfull) activity.

Da’as Rachamim Tif’eres

You might have noticed on the AishDas home page the motto “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres” and wondered what it meant. It was something lifted from Dr Nathan Birnbaum’s organization “HaOlim”.

(Note to the skimmer: Please do me the favor of at least skipping down to the conclusion of this post. You’ll get the final explanation, without the sources.)

I recently found his explanation of the terms in a Hebrew magazine produced for Lubavitch schools in the early 1970s, and traced it as far back as a journal called Yavneh, year 3, issue 156-157, pp 8-9 published in Levov (Lemberg) for Kisleiv-Teiveis 5691 (late 1930 CE).

The three words are usually translated: da’as – knowledge, rachamim – compassion, tif’eres – harmony and splendor.

My translation:

Dr Nathan Birnbaum

Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres

Even one who says that he doesn’t believe in G-d — feels Him. The loss of faith comes only from stupidity, foolishness or stubbornness.

If a person believed in Hashem, even in an emotionally cold way, there is no doubt that he also has da’as, although this is the lowest level of da’as.

On the higher levels, a person is illuminated, warmed, and is shaken by the Shechinah. He feels the closeness of Hashem anyway, in the furthest reaches of eternity — he has a path to his G-d, and he quakes in submission before Him and in love for Him.


The stream of Love that flows from under the Throne of Glory works not only in a direct manner, but also in an indirect way; in particular Hashem yisbarakh made man to rule with his physical love. The love of G-d readies man and adapts him to sacrifice all the urges of his heart for the sake of lofty things and moving ideals, and all his senses and feelings are pulled and drawn after what is high and uplifted, pure and holy…


The love of G-d purifies the heart. Makes the spirit [ru'ach] pleasant and refines the soul [nefesh]. In it man feels strength and joy, pleasure and entertainment, magical melodies. Love illuminates the face, brings happiness to the heart, and is a crown of grace to its possessor.


The feeling of love is the strongest of the feelings of the nefesh. Before it, the other feelings and motivations in a person bow and are nullified. In particular the love that is for G-d, it has an overpowering strength and it rule is great over all the forces of the nefesh. “רְשָׁפֶיהָ רִשְׁפֵּי אֵשׁ שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה — [your heart's] flashes are flashes of fire, the Divine Flame.” (Shir haShirim 8:6)


How frightening is the emptiness one that can be felt in life, and how sweet is the light that appears on a person from the day he begins to feel in his heart G-d’s Love!

In G-d’s Love there is more power present and more sublime than any other inclination. G-d’s Love gives some embellishment of port, value and merit to life.

The essential reason of human suffering in the world, it is an overabundance of feelings and of love for oneself, and a person must put a stop to it. Man was not created for his pleasure or his own ends, but to love G-d. He must get habituated to love G-d in truth and entirely, and every time and every moment, and then he will not know evil; then he will know why he was alive, all the accursed questions won’t cry out to him any more, and he will not feel within his nefesh ruptures, contradictions and opposition, darkness and gloom. He will understand then, that his life is like an impotent city against the love and the light. The nefesh of man is taken from the storehouse of list and love, and upon a person is the obligation not to separate it from this… — — —

The person should please see the final purpose of the creation of the world, the love toward all creatures and in particular toward a person. Whomever doesn’t feel for his friends loss. even someone who helps him but his heart isn’t with him, or he damages the honor of the one he is helping – a person like this doesn’t know what rachamim is. If they say that some person disburses a log of money to tzedaqah — and indeed that is the truth of the matter — we have no greater proof than this that he is a master of rachamim.

On a higher level of rachamim one finds a person whose heart is full of warmth and generosity for all other people, even those who do not love him.


To give form to the substance and master it. Formation and mastery is the Might of the Creator in a direct way. Formation and mastery by another undermines the essence of Formation and Mastery [by G-d]. But the design of the substance is also made by the Creator in an indirect manner — through a person. [Hashem] gave [humanity] the senses for the purpose of tif’eres, the power to know from tif’eres, to be informed about it and to strengthen it.

(translated to Hebrew: Alexander Shmuel Halpern [editor, Yavneh])

There is another source that summarizes Dr Birnbaum’s understanding of these concepts, his 1927 presentation to the Agudah (reprinted in in L’Or HaNetzach, p. 439, translation by R’ YG Bechhofer for an article in the Jewish Observer):

It is the greatest demand placed by Judaism itself on the Jewish people: “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation.” If Charedim seek to be true activists, then they must consider how they will fulfill this lofty demand that Judaism makes. They must place this demand at the center of their activism.

I know that many – and not necessarily the most base among us – respond to such demands with a smile on their lips. They perceive this as exaggerated temimus, as a naivete that refuses to recognize the nature of humanity and its inescapable frailties. In truth, even I am far from believing that all human beings possess an equal capacity and ambition for a life of Mussar

What I think, what I hope to achieve, what I demand from Charedi activists who recall G-d’s ancient charge to the Jewish people, is a society that attains a lofty character, so that each member of the society ascends discernibly, whether to a great or small degree, even if that individual does not end as the outstanding Ba’al Middos

How can the ideal of sanctity and character refinement become the new driving force within Am Yisroel? It seems to me, without doubt, that this ideal can only serve as a driving force if we can find suitable individuals to accept upon themselves to enunciate and declare this ideal in all its breadth and depth. They must do so incessantly, without slavishness, with the full weight of the idea. Furthermore, there must arise a small force of pioneers in self sanctification to serve as an example and role model for Am Yisroel

[Organized Orthodoxy] is obliged to come together and create societal tools that will teach:

  1. How to deepen our awareness of Hashem out of love for Him [Da'as].
  2. How to dedicate ourselves to love our fellow human beings [Rachamim].
  3. How to pursue modesty [hatznei'a leches] as a manifestation of the glory of our Hashem [Tiferes]

We must admit that cold intellectualism has penetrated our relationship with Hashem. Following through with that metaphor, Ha’Olim cannot remain at ease with this frigidity. They must toil until within their societies, within each of their groupings and within each of their members there arise divine hislahavus and inner spiritual feeling.

To achieve aliya in Da’as Hashem there float before my eyes [the following ideas]:

  1. Torah study in a more profound manner: Every “Oleh” is required to expand and deepen his knowledge of Torah and Chochmas Yisroel. Before all else, if he does not possess basic knowledge, he must acquire it upon entering the society. The society must constantly supervise its members to ensure that they are fulfilling this obligation. It must provide the opportunity to learn and grow through shiurim that it will conduct within its circle. The society shall campaign among its members, their children and their students to convince them to embark upon a term of study in a yeshiva or under a renowned talmid chacham for one to three years.
  2. Festive gatherings of Charedim, for spiritual purposes (such as the introduction of the Eastern European Shalosh Seudos, etc.).
  3. Special instruction in the history and development of Hislahavus and Dveykus in Israel and its practice.
  4. Great emphasis must be placed upon a stipulation that every Oleh to refrain from any excesses or immodesty in speech, clothing, deed and from any competitive sport or gambling.
  5. The development of a pure esthetic that will free the architecture of our Shuls and the nature of our music from the influence of other religions…

To achieve aliya in bein adam l’chaveiro I consider:

  1. Instruction in the issues of bein adam l’chaveiro and guidance in expanded practical applications. Both modern and classic texts should be employed, with a particular stress on current situations. To develop a greater sense of belonging to Orthodox society as a whole.
  2. The obligation of every Oleh to engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh at least once a week, to ascertain if, and to what extent, he has fulfilled mitzvos and refrained from aveiros according to the instruction and guidance provided to him.
  3. An outright ban on certain material pursuits.
  4. Substantive and apolitical common counsel to resolve Jewish societal problems in the spirit of Torah and Mesorah. Even if the manner in which we display the public image of our lives does not currently convey our glory as the Chosen Nation, even if we are uncertain how to properly become the glory [pe'er] of the world, Ha’Olim cannot allow the status quo to continue. They must attempt to rectify as much as possible.

To achieve aliya in the manners of creating public lives, I depict to myself:

  1. Instruction in issues concerning glory [Tiferes]and its correlation to religion and Mussar [and] practical guidance in the application of these principles to the creation of appropriate public lives.
  2. The development of an independent Jewish social structure following Judaism and Mussar.
  3. The development of arts, especially architecture, music and poetry, rooted in the spirit of true Jewish Mesorah, and the establishment of competitions in these areas.
  4. The previously mentioned (in the section on Da’as Hashem) ban on excesses.

As a means of ascent in all three aforementioned areas I consider:

Involvement in the education of young men and young women according to the demands of Ha’Olim – an involvement that will become especially substantial when it will be possible to arrange such education among large groups of Ha’Olim or in their respective communities…

There is no room to doubt the importance of Ha’Olim to the entirety of Agudas Yisroel… Not only will they carry the pressure of Yahadus in to the world of treason thereto; more so, they, through their Avodah in the ideals of Mussar and Middos (a labor unto itself) can be a special force for the Agudah, if only the Agudah realizes how to take advantage of this opportunity.

For although the Agudah’s strngths are mostly organizational and political, it cannot derive its life force from those strengths… It must focus on those inherent strengths of Yahadus itself, its eternal ideas and ancient yearnings as well. In the final analysis, stength of will is contingent on those ideas and yearnings…

Please do not allow your hearts to persuade you that all there is here is the foundation of yet another redundant new society. That which we will found here is a Kiddush Hashem that will and unite the driving forces of Chassidus, of the Mussar Movement, of the Talmudic Masters and of the ambition for loftier Derech Eretz… This will be a Kiddush Hashem to an extent never before attempted. A Kiddush Hashem that will be the first step toward the blossoming of the ancient Torah, a debt that we owe Hashem in return for the chesed He has granted us in choosing our nation. It is the first step toward fulfilling the task, for which Hashem has chosen us.


It would seem from these sources that Dr Birnbaum’s ideal is something like what follows. At least, if it was not his intent for HaOlim, it explains what I meant by the motto when I chose it for AishDas.

Da’as: Knowing G-d. Not knowing about Him in some philosophical way, but knowing Hashem the way one knows a Parent and a Beloved. I do not think it’s coincidental that Dr Nathan Birnbaum chose the word “da’as“, with its implications of experiential knowledge and intimacy. “And Adam knew Chavah his wife, and she conceived…” (Bereishis 4:1).

Rachamim: Being a conduit of Hashem’s Love from its source “under the Throne of Glory” through the higher levels of the soul to the nefesh, the souls presence in the physical world, so as to bring that Love to the others we encounter there.

Tif’eres: Human autonomy and creativity, the ultimate expression of our Image of the Divine, when placed in service of the Almighty. Thus tif’eres involves both the notion of a Jewish aesthetic and refinement of the self through mussar. It is creating a unity of soul in which one can be fully self-expressive and yet fully in service of the Creator.

The triad could be seen in terms of perfecting three relationships, as the Maharal understands Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassdim. Daas describes the ideal relationship with G-d, rachamim guides our interactions with others, and tif’eres is perfection of the self.

Or we could see them in terms of a single process, and this understanding is not contradictory. Da’as is how one attaches oneself to Hashem’s good and love. Rachamim is sharing that love with others, being good to them as He would. And tif’eres is the process of maximizing our ability to do so, now and in the future.

(Dear skimmer: If I now tempted you to return to the top and read through, click here.)

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.


Tevel is Called Holy

The Mishnah in Maaser Sheini 5:4 discusses the obligation to be finished with all maaser by the Pesach after the third and sixth years of the shemittah cycle. The mishnah describes messages sent to remind people to remove the maaser from their crops, so that can give it out or destroy it before the deadline. The Yerushalmi (31b) opens the discussion of the mishnah wondering why the obligation to be able to say “I destroyed the qodesh from the house…” would obligate one to do anything to untithed crops, called tevel. The Gemara quotes R’ Hila repeating Shemuel’s answer, “זאת אומרת שהטבל קרוי קודש — this tells [us] that tevel is called qodesh.”

Think about this… Tevel, the farmer’s raw produce, is considered holy. Terumah and maaser don’t become holy, they are the separated-out portions of holiness inherent in the pre-tithed tevel, separating them so that the owner may eat the remainder. Just farming Eretz Yisrael creates holiness in the product.

The word in Hebrew closest to “secular” is “chol”. The root is the same one used for chal, as in the first mishnah of Megillah, where the mishnah discusses the dates on which the megillah is read, depending on which day the 15th of Adar, Purim, falls out — chal — upon.

Chol is a blank slate. One we can write holiness upon. Qedushah means separation. As Chazal comment on the verse (quoted by Rashi), “‘Qedoshim tihyu’ perushim tihyu — ‘You shall be holy’ — [meaning,] you shall be separate. But not separation from, but separation for. The farmer doesn’t create holiness by refusing to farm and leading a guru’s life atop the mountain. He does it by taking his farming and using it to develop G-d’s land.

Similarly, when Yaaqov fled from Esav, he risked returning back to get some “small jugs”. Rashi again quotes Chazal, saying “Tzadiqim cherish their possessions more than their own lives, because they avoid sinning through thievery.” As I wrote on that concept and the Yalqut Reuveini who ties it to other events later in history:

Proper business ethics isn’t “just” the permissable way to conduct business, it actually sanctifies the activity. And therefore, the pachim qetanim were sacred to Yaaqov, not to be simply left behind.

Which brings us to Chanukah…. The Jews lost themselves to Hellene values. To a religion where even the gods represent physical forces: Ares was the god of war, Hermes was the concept of change, Venus of love, etc…

And then they find the jug of oil. The jug of holy wordliness, of sanctifying the universe through halakhah. Not disdain for the physical or the beautiful, but knowing its value — as a tool. And with that concept the Chashmonaim revived Jewish loyalty, disbanded Hellenist oppression, and restored the concept of Jewish autonomy for the next two centuries….

Holiness and Carrying the Yoke with the Other

(The following is based on a class I gave on Shabbat at Mussar Kallah IX, and is the further development of a number of ideas R’ Gil Student and I wrote for Mesuqim MiDevash.)

The question of holiness is central to the title phrase of the sedra of Qedoshim. “Qedoshim tihyu hi Qadosh Ani – Be qadosh [holy, sacred] for I Am Qadosh.” (Vayiqra 19:2) But what is qedushah?

Translating it as “sanctity” or “holiness” falls short as: (1) the meaning of the English is itself not too clear, (2) nor are we sure that they truly capture the connotations of the Hebrew original.

The Sifra[1], commenting on our verse, writes “’qedoshim tihyu': perushim tihyu – ‘be holy': you shall be separated”.

Along these lines, Rashi understands the verse as referring to the list of laws of intimacy with which the previous sedra concluded, as well as other transgressions. And he gives other examples where such a separation is associated with the concept of qedushah.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) writes “make yourself qadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted.

It would seem that they are both defining qedushah as separation. But there is also a real difference. Rashi discusses things that are specifically prohibited. The Ramban is quite specifically speaking about separating oneself from things that are not the topic of a specific prohibition – there is no ban on the action, but rather the action isn’t in concert with being a holy person.

A parallel division exists in other discussions about qedushah.

In parashas Sheqalim, the portion discussing the mitzvah for each person to donate a 1/2 sheqel coin to the Temple (also counted for a census), we are told to take “half a sheqel of a sheqel haqodesh”. The Ramban (ad loc) explains that these sheqalim were considered sacred because they were used for holy purposes. The funds gathered by this census in the first year were donated towards the construction of the Tabernacle, other “sheqel haqodesh” were used for buying offerings and utensils for the Tabernacle or Temple, or for redeeming a first-born. Along similar lines, Rabbeinu Bachya (ad loc) writes, “Since all mitzvos are the core of holiness and some mitzvos require this currency,” the currency takes on a holiness corresponding to its use.

The Ramban continues, Hebrew is called leshon haqodesh – the holy language – because it was and continues to be used for holy purposes. It is the language in which G-d said “yehi or – let there be light”, in which He gave us the Torah and the Tanakh was written, the language in which our ancestors were named, etc…

However, the Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that the Rambam (Maimonides) has a very different understanding of why Hebrew is called “the holy language”. In his Guide for the Perplexed (3:8), Rambam explains that Hebrew is called sacred because it has no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts, for the acts that lead to conception of a child, nor does it have precise terms for the various bodily emissions and excretions.

Rabbi Shimon Romm [2] explains this dispute between Rambam and Ramban as being a fundamental disagreement over the nature of qedushah, holiness.

According to Ramban (Nachmanides), holiness comes from being committed for a purpose. When currency is used for a mitzvah it becomes sacred and when a language is used to create the world and convey the Torah it becomes sanctified.

According to the Rambam (Maimonides), however, holiness is not due to a positive usage but to a lack of diminution of its purity. A language is inherently sacred and only loses that status when it contains less than holy words. Presumably, the Rambam would explain that the sheqel haqodesh is called holy because, as the Ramban himself suggests at the beginning of his comments, the sheqel coins used in the Torah were entirely pure, lacking all dilution. This purity of content, rather than its sanctity of use, is what earned for these coins the title of qadosh. R’ Romm continued that it would seem that the Rashi we looked at agrees with the Rambam. By not engaging in prohibited action, one lives up to “be holy”.

Someone in the audience when I presented this material at Mussar Kallah IX suggested another way to understand the dispute. It could be that both sides agree in how they define qedushah — holiness. Rather, they disagree about the nature of the mitzvah. Rashi sees the obligation “qedoshim tihyu — be holy” as one to protect the holiness we already have; not to descend the ladder, so to speak. And therefore it’s accomplished by not tainting oneself with sin. The Ramban sees it as a duty to increase one’s holiness, to climb the ladder, and therefore to commit beyond what would otherwise be mandatory.

When a Mussarist wants to understand a middah, the first place to turn is a genre of mussar texts that are organized by middah. Most famously Orchos Tzadiqim and Mesilat Yesharim (Ways of the Righteous, and Path of the Just, respectively.) The last chapter of Mesilat Yesharim (ch. 26) discusses Qedushah. To quote Rav Shraga Simmons’ translation, in part:

Note the distinction between one who is Pure and one who is Holy. The earthy actions of the first are necessary ones, and he is motivated by necessity alone, so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure. But they do not approach Holiness, for it were better if one could get along without them. One who is Holy, however, and clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his Creator -such a person is as one walking before God in the Land of the Living, here in this world. …

In fine, Holiness consists in one’s clinging so closely to his God that in any deed he might perform he does not depart or move from the Blessed One, until the physical objects of which he makes use become more elevated because of his having used them, than he descends from his communion and from his high plane because of his having occupied himself with them. This obtains, however, only in relation to one whose mind and intelligence cling so closely to the greatness, majesty and Holiness of the Blessed One that it is as if he is united with the celestial angels while yet in this world….

According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the “Ramchal”), a focus on separation is more associated with purity than with holiness. Avoiding unnecessary entanglements with the physical “so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure.” Qedushah is clinging to G-d.

Is this a shift in definition from that offered by the Sifra and discussed through the next millennium by Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, Nachmanides and Maimonides?

Rav Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher, introduction) argues that the Sifra’s comment cannot be an actual definition. He points out that separation as a definition would fail for the verse’s next clause – “for I [Hashem] am Qadosh”. There is no purpose or meaning in Hashem restraining Himself, no dangerous entanglements for Him to avoid. (For that matter, it is arguable that such separation on His part would mean the item in question would cease to exist!)

Perhaps we could also note that Nachmanides could not be understanding the Sifra as defining qedushah. You cannot translate a word using another conjugation of the same word. “Qadeish es atmekha bemah shemutar lakh — sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” therefore cannot be his elaboration of a definition. Rather, the Ramban is suggesting the way in which to obey the verse and become holy to someone who already knows how to translate the word.

So, qedushah is commitment to Hashem’s goal, which the Ramban is telling us we can reach by separation from the pursuit of other goals.

All that is left is the “simple” question of defining that goal.

Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction opens (tr. mine):

BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker1, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” The Midrash (Leviticus, Emor, ch. 24) says about this verse: “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘for I am Holy’ to teach that My Sanctity is above yours.” And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim [ie the Sifra] has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.

According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible. What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is above Yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand; in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Sanctity], except that His Holiness is more general and inclusive. If we say that the essential idea of the holiness He demands of us (in this mitzvah of “be holy”) is distance from the permissible, this kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.5

And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. 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. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but no one else.

Maimonides would be bothered by this attempt to explain why Hashem created the universe. It requires assuming our mind can contain His “Thought”. (At the Kallah, this topic took on a life of its own.) However, this approach, that Hashem must have created the world to have someone to whom to be good is found in sources as diverse as Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDeios” (an Aristotilian from 9th-10th cent Baghdad) to the Ramchal’s “Derekh Hashem” (an Italian Qabbalist, 18th cent CE). Even a Maimonidian, though, can accept the notion that this is how Hashem presents Himself to us; G-d as He appears through his actions as opposed to the unknowable G-d as He is. In any case…

G-d’s goal is to bestow good on others. Which paradoxically doesn’t mean doing everything for us and making our lives perfect, as that would deprive us of a greater good: the ability to emulate His Good and to bestow good to others. Ours and the world’s imperfections are areas where there is good left for us to bestow.

Is this not, after all, what Hillel famously told the prospective convert?

There is another story [this is the third in a sequence] with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s  amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

- Shabbos 55a

What then is the role of the more rite-like mitzvot? If Hashem’s goal for us is to emulate Him in being good to others, why do we need kashrut, Shabbat, mezuzah, etc, etc, etc…? (This topic also took on a life of its own). I suggested two coexisting reasons:

First, such mitzvot teach discipline, they habituate us in making more thoughtful decisions. For example, one doesn’t just see food and eat it, one has to pay attention to what one is eating and how the food is prepared. Second, one needs to develop a relationship with G-d in order to accomplish this goal. One cannot bestow Hashem’s good upon others without knowing what that good is. Such knowledge requires the “go learn”, both from Torah texts and from the experiences provided by the mitzvot that mediate the relationship between man and G-d.

Even relaxation can be sanctified; if one rests for the purpose of being able to continue doing one’s mission in life without burnout. To protect future productivity at this goal by not trying to exceed one’s capacity in the short term.

So, you might have started reading this essay picturing a holy person as a hermit in a cave, an ascetic who spends his day in prayer. Referring back to the title of the post, you might have assumed that separation of holiness is in tension with our duty to nosei be’ol im chaveiro — share the burden of the other, to help him “pull his yoke”. Conflicting values we must balance. This is quite far from Rav Shimon’s definition; the separation isn’t asceticism, rather a very focus on being good to others.

We say in the Amidah: “You are Qadosh, and Your Name [Reputation] is Qadosh, and qedoshim praise You every day. Selah! [For you are G-d, King, Great and Qadosh. –Sepharad] Baruch Atah … the Qadosh G-d.”

It is not coincidence that there are three clauses, and three iterations of the word “Qadosh” in the verse at the heart of Qedushah (Isaiah 6:3). As we quote in the prayer UVa leTzion, Targum Yonatan explains that verse as follows: “Qadosh in the heavens above, the home of His Presence; Qadosh on the earth, the product of His Might; Qadosh forever and ever is Hashem Tzevakos – the whole world is full of the Radiance of His Glory.” The “home of His Glory” is where Hashem is Qadosh. The earth, is where Hashem’s name, how people perceive him, is Qadosh. And the qedoshim, the people who allow others to experience Hashem’s good, fill the world with His Glory – their sanctity is his praise.

According to Rav Shimon Shkop, this blessings becomes, “You are committed to bestow food on others, and your reputation is that of an undivided commitment to bestowing good on others, and people who live entirely for sharing your good with others praise you. Selah!” It is not simply that the class of people who are committed to working for others rather than being self-focused also praise Hashem. It is working for the betterment of others which itself is praise.

There are a number of prayers that require a minyan: the repetition of the amidah, and a class of prayers called davar shebiqdushah — proclamations of holiness. Among these prayers are Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah. In case you question whether our final definition of holiness is authentic, notice this: One cannot say the prayer of Qedushah alone.

[1] The Sifra, also called Torat Kohanim, is attributed to Rav (175-247 CE). Rav also founded of the Babylonian academy of Sura, which centuries later produced the Talmud. Rav’s real name, was Abba Akira, Abba the tall. He frequently appears in the Talmud, consistently under his honorific.

[2] Rabbi Shimon Romm was a student of the pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva who participated in their flight from Nazi-occupied Vilna to Shanghai. He became a rabbi in Washington Heights, NY and a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University. Thanks to R’ Gil Student for relaying this thought.