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.

Upcoming Webinar: Building the Temple Within (A Tefillah Workshop)

The Mussar Institute

presents free webinars to nourish your soul

Mussar and Prayer: Building the Temple Within – Rabbi Micha Berger

l’ilui nishmas Yaakov Shlomo ben Shneur Zalman — in memory of Jacob Ween

March 3 and 10 (Mondays) from 8:00 pm EST to 9:00 pm EST on March 3 and March 10

When the Men of the Great Assembly, including the last of Israel’s prophets, convened 2,500 years ago to create a way to continue the conversation with God beyond the twilight of the prophetic era, they began a process from which evolved our contemporary prayer book (siddur). We will discuss:

  • various modalities of prayer in Jewish tradition
  • the structure of prayer
  • practices that can help us relate to and deepen our experience of prayer in its various forms

Register for Berger webinar


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A Thought About Maoz Tzur

(Updated again for 2009, and again for 2013.) One line in Ma’oz Tzur I particularly love.

The 5th verse of Ma’oz Tzur describes the Chanukah story. One phrase in this verse is “ufortzu chomos migdalai“, which would be literally translated “and burst open the walls of my citadel”. Mentally, I used to picture breaking down the walls of the Beis haMiqdosh, or perhaps a fortress. However, I found the following mishnah in Middos (Ch. 2, mishnah 2 in the Yachin uBo’az edition, mishnah 3 in Kahati’s — who splits up the Yu”B‘s mishnah 1 into 2 parts). The second chapter describes the Beis haMiqdosh as it would appear to someone walking in from outside the Temple Mount to the Altar. This mishna picks up right after you walk through the gate and onto the Temple Mount.

Inside of it is the soreg, 10 tefachim [appx 2'6"] high. It had thirteen peratzos (broken openings) there, that the Hellenist kings partzum (broke open). They returned and closed them off, and legislated corresponding to them 13 prostrations.

To help you picture what a soreg is, the root means woven. The Bartenura describes the soreg as a mechitzah woven out of thin wooden slats running at diagonals. The Bartenura compares it to the part of the bed used to support the mattress, with plenty of open space inside the weave.

He goes on to say that the Hellenists opened up holes in the soreg opposite each of the gates in the outer wall to let anyone see in. Note the shoresh used /p-r-tz/, the same as in the piyut. The soreg marked the limit for gentiles, they were not allowed in beyond that point. To the Hellenist mind, this havdalah bein Yisrael la’Amim, separation between the Jews and the other nations, was repugnant. It ran against their assimilationist efforts.

Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchaq, Chanukah 1:5) explains that emphasizing this division is why the mishnah has no mention of Chanukah. It is the Oral Torah which separates the Jews from non-Jews. Anyone can pick up a text and study it. But it’s the fact that the majority of the Torah is “written” on the hearts of the Jewish People, that halakhah is dynamic, not written ink-on-parchment, but a creative partnership between Hashem and the Jewish People, that makes it uniquely ours. This is why there is a prohibition against teaching Oral Torah to non-Jews, a prohibitions our sages debate is a kind of theft, or akin to marital infidelity. Therefore, there was special resistance against codifying the laws of Chanukah in particular, a desire by Rav Yehudah haNasi to keep them oral.

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel, were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

One possible reaction to assimilation is to build up the fortress walls. We can hope to stave off negative influences by reducing out exposure to the outside world. The idea that we need to stay distinct is not necessarily one that isn’t heard, but perhaps one that we are overly stressing.

I think this too is a message of the soreg. Yes, there is a separation between Jew and non-Jew, but it is only waist high and woven of slats with far more space than wood. The “walls of my fortress” are a reminder, not a solid barrier.

We are charged to be G-d’s “mamlekhes kohanim vegoy qadosh — a country of priests and a holy nation.” We need to balance the separation implied by the concept of qedushah with our role as kohanim, a priesthood providing religious leadership. We can not be priests if we do not stay to our special calling, but our special calling is self-indulgent if we do not use it to serve others. “Ki miTzion teitzei Sorah — because from Zion the Torah shall come forth.” By wallling ourselves in we not only protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from teaching others.

This is an important facet of R’ SR Hirsch’s concept of “Torah im Derekh Eretz“. Yes, it does mean that we are to import derekh eretz, the ennobling elements of our surrounding culture and its sciences. But it also means that we are are to be the world’s moral voice, to contribute to the nobility of that society.

In the centuries of passion and scorn our mission was but imperfectly attainable but the ages of mildness and justice now begun beckon us to that glorious goal that every Jew and every Jewess should be in his or her own life a modest and unassuming priest or priestess of God and true humanity When such an ideal and such a mission await us can we still my Benjamin lament our fate?

- R’ SR Hirsch, “The Nineteen Letters”, 9th letter, tr. R’ Dr Bernard Drachman, pg 86

For this future which is promised us in the glorious predictions of the inspired prophets whom God raised up for our ancestors we hope and pray but actively to accelerate its coming were sin and is prohibited to us while the entire purpose of the Messianic age is that we may in prosperity exhibit to mankind a better example of Israel than did our ancestors the first time while hand in hand with us the entire race will be joined in universal brotherhood through the recognition of God the All One On account of this purely spiritual nature of the national character of Israel it is capable  of the most intimate union with states with perhaps this difference that while others seek in the state only the material benefits which it secures considering possession and enjoyment as the highest good Israel can only regard it as a means of fulfilling the mission of humanity Summon up I pray you before your mental vision the picture of such an Israel dwelling in freedom in the midst of the nations and striving to attain unto its ideal every son of Israel a respected and influential exemplar priest of righteousness and love disseminating among the nations not specific Judaism for proselytism is interdicted but pure humanity…

- Ibid. pp 162-163

Noach blessed two of his sons, “Yaft E-lokim leYefes, veyishkon beohalei Sheim — G-d gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” To Rav Hirsch, this is a description of a partnership, Yefes’s mastery of derekh eretz and Sheim’s spiritual gifts.

When David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York, he called the city’s diversity a “glorious mosaic”. Not the melting pot metaphor that my grandfather encountered when they came to the U.S., the idea that convinced so many others of that generation that being a “real American” meant to assimilate. Being part of the whole and contributing to the whole by maintaining and celebrating our nation’s unique identity and perspective.

We are forced to find some kind of balance: we are supposed to both be a “unique nation in the land” and also contributors of religion, spirituality and ethics to the general society. I think this same tension informs the dispute among American halachic decisors over the appropriateness of celebrating Thanksgiving. Very indirectly, Thanksgiving is derived from Judaism. It commemorates a meal the Pilgrims ate in an intentional imitation of Sukkos in worship of the Creator that we taught the world about. The very name Jew derives from that of the dominant surviving sheivet, Yehudah, who was named by his mother “for this time odeh es Hashem — I shall thank G-d”. The entire concept of Thanksgiving would not exist without us. On the other hand, it was enacted by people who thought of the trinitarian god of Christianity, and the tradition itself comes from them, not us. Does this practice belong “behind the soreg” or within it? Are we advancing the cause of our national priesthood, or are we tearing down the walls of the citadel necessary to preserve its existence?

This too underlies the tefillah of Aleinu. The first paragraph is all about the uniqueness of the Jew. “It is up to us to praise the Master of Everything… For He did not make us like the nations of the world, and didn’t position us like the nations of the land… For they bow to vanity and emptiness… and we bow, prostrate and acknowledge before the King, King of Kings…” And then, the second paragraph switches to a universalist theme. “… That we soon see the Splendor of your Might… to repair the world into a kingdom of Shad-dai, and all children of flesh will bow to Your Name, to turn to you all the heads of the land…” And what’s the connector between these themes? “Al kein nekaveh — therefore we are expectant.” Because we are Hashem’s unique people with the unique role He entrusted to us, we await the day that all of mankind come together, and “they will recognize and know, all the dwellers of the globe, that to You all knee bows, and every tongue swears allegiance.”

Unfortunately, by building up the fortress walls, we miss many opportunities to act as a priesthood. It is a shame that it’s not the most observant Jews who are most vocal about Darfur, global hunger, or the ease of reducing the loss of life to malaria. If we accuse the world for their silence during the Holocaust, then people who feel that the events in Darfur do qualify as genocide can not stand by when it happens to someone else. How much more so if we recognize ourselves as kohanim to the world! More recently, the Union for Reform Judaism is currently raising money for the Nothing but Nets program, an initiative to distribute mosquito netting in malaria ridden parts of Africa. (Communities in which they have distributed $10 nets show a 90% decline of incidents of malaria.)

Similarly, helping out at the local soup kitchen. Earlier today I received an invitation from a synagogue to serve meals there. I was disappointed, although not surprised, to see that the synagogue was not Orthodox. Yes, we need to worry about Jewish causes; there are far more people out there to see to the general need. But I was proud of the local Young Israel, who used to staff a similar kitchen on days like the upcoming Thursday (Dec 25th), when non-Jewish volunteers tend to have family obligations.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting all this as a nice Shabbos-morning style derashah on the concept of a woven 2-1/2′ mechitzah as “the walls of my citadel”. I believe this is the actual meaning of the serug, which was sufficient as a reminder, and yet allowed Jew and non-Jew to serve the same G-d at the same Temple. “For My ‘home’ shall be called for all the people ‘a house for prayer’.”

Antiochus breached the soreg in an attempt to unify his empire as a melting pot, everyone Hellenized. This would have destroyed our goy qadosh, our nations unique voice in the world. However, the ideal soreg defines a distinction, not forces a separation. Once the tile that is the Jewish people, our role as teachers, moral guides and a conduit of sanctity, is protected and intact, then it can and must be part of Hashem’s glorious mosaic. Only by having a serug can we balance integrity and priesthood.

The word migdalai not only means “my towers” or “my citadels”, it can also be read “those things that make me great.” Only by having both separation and contact of a soreg can the walls of our miqdashei me’at, our synagogues and batei medrash, truly be chomos migdalai.

Who in his time?

There were two lines from the Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh haShanah that particularly spoke to me this year — “mekhalkeil chaim bechesed – Who sustains the living with lovingkindness”, and the line from Unsaneh Toqef which tells us that on Rosh haShanah it is written and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed… mi beqitzo umi lo beqitzo — who in their time, and who not in their time”?

Less than 24 hours before Rosh haShanah began I was at JFK Airport, at the funeral of a young man I watched grow up next door to me. “Sustains the living with kindness”? Can I see the generosity of allotting him a mere 22 years of life? “Who in their time”? How can that be the fate sealed for someone who was just beginning his life?

Why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “qeitz”, at the endpoint (from “qatzeh”, edge, c.f. Shemos 36:33)? How does it differ from saying that the “zeman”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived? Fortunately, we have a handle on that question from its use in the Torah.

Parashas Miqeitz opens “Vayhi miqeitz shenasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuq say “shenasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed later in the narrative, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” (Bereishis 47:8) as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’aqov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’aqov was, the years of his life…” (Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah – was” referring to the days.) The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

The Zohar (Pinechas 249a-b) describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” (Eg. Sukkah 52b) and in the navi, “yom Hashem” (Eg. Sukkah 52b).

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz“. And notably it’s in the feminine. A shanah is not the end of a line, it’s the means of producing further.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim (Bereishis 47:8) explains Ya’aqov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” (Ibid v. 9)

Referring to just a zeman or an eis, like referring to a yom or a shanah, cannot represent the goal of the trip. It’s the qeitz, in which both the process of shanim and the progress of yamim reach a culmination. And it was at the qeitz of shensayim yamim“. A qeitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Some die of an old age, and some die younger. Hashem supports life, meaningful existence, with lovingkindness. Each trip is exactly the right length for a person to reach their potential. But the tragic would have been dying without getting to where he was supposed to go.

I’ll miss you Buzzy!



My rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, passed away on 9 Tammuz 5753, 20 years ago today. I am posting a gemara that rebbe would often refer to in his shmuessin. Yuma 86a:

At Rabbi Yanai['s school] it was said: Anyone whose peers are embarassed by what is heard about him, that is a desecration of Hashem’s name.
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchaq said: For example, if people say [about him], “May the Lord forgive So-and-so.”

Abaye said: As the beraisa says, “‘And you shall love Hashem your G-d’ — that the Name of Heaven shall be beloved because of you.”

If someone studies Tanakh and Mishnah, and apprentices under the Sages, is trustworthy in business, and speaks pleasantly to people, what do people say about him? “Enriched is his father who taught him Torah! Enriched is his rebbe who taught him Torah! Woe for those who didn’t study Torah! For So-and-so who learned Torah, look how pleasant his ways are, how sweet his deeds!” The pasuq says of him “[Hashem] said to me: Yisrael, you are my servant that in you I will be glorified!” (Yeshaiah 49:3)
But, if someone studies Tanakh and Mishnah, and apprentices under the Sages, but is not trustworthy in business, and his words are unpleasant toward people, what do people say about him? “Woe for his father who taught him Torah! Woe for his rebbe who taught him Torah! So-and-so who learned Torah, look how accursed are his ways, how disgustinghis deeds!” The pasuq says of him, “About them people say: These are Hashem’s people, and they are gone from His land.” (Yechezqeil 36:20)


דבי ר’ ינאי אמר: כל שחביריו מתביישין מחמת שמועתו (היינו חילול השם).
אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק: כגון דקא אמרי אינשי שרא ליה מריה לפלניא.
אביי אמר כדתניא: (דברים ו, ה) וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ — שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך.
שיהא קורא ושונה ומשמש ת”ח ויהא משאו ומתנו בנחת עם הבריות מה הבריות אומרות עליו אשרי אביו שלמדו תורה אשרי רבו שלמדו תורה אוי להם לבריות שלא למדו תורה פלוני שלמדו תורה ראו כמה נאים דרכיו כמה מתוקנים מעשיו עליו הכתוב אומר (ישעיהו מט, ג) וַיֹּאמֶר לִי עַבְדִּי אָתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בְּךָ אֶתְפָּאָר.
אבל מי שקורא ושונה ומשמש ת”ח ואין משאו ומתנו באמונה ואין דבורו בנחת עם הבריות מה הבריות אומרות עליו אוי לו לפלוני שלמד תורה אוי לו לאביו שלמדו תורה אוי לו לרבו שלמדו תורה פלוני שלמד תורה ראו כמה מקולקלין מעשיו וכמה מכוערין דרכיו ועליו הכתוב אומר (יחזקאל לו, כ) [וַיָּבוֹא אֶל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר בָּאוּ שָׁם וַיְחַלְּלוּ אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי] בֶּאֱמֹר לָהֶם עַם ה אֵלֶּה וּמֵאַרְצוֹ יָצָאוּ.

Other posts related to Rav Dovid:

  • Rebbe – Bios and hespedim
  • Brisk and Telzh – on how his shiur differed from Brisker derekh (and why I am happy with my choice), published in Kol haMevaser
  • Shalom Rav – on peace and wholeness, and why they share the same root, another theme Rav Dovid often revisited

Don’t Present Oneself as a Liar!

צריך שיהיו תפילין עליו בשעת ק”ש ותפלה.

A man must have tefillin on at the time of reading Shema and prayer [Shemoneh Esrei].

- Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 25:4

בשעת ק”ש ותפלה: ר”ל לכל הפחות בשעת ק”ש ותפלה וכדלקמן בסימן ל”ז ס”ב ואמרינן בגמרא כל הקורא ק”ש בלי תפלין הרי הוא כאלו מעיד עדות שקר בעצמו ח”ו ופירשו בתוספות לפי שאומר וקשרתם לאות וגו’ ואין קושר ואף שבדיעבד יצא ידי ק”ש מ”מ יש לו עבירה מצד אחר שמראה על עצמו שאין רוצה לקיים רצון הש”י וזהו עדות שקר שמעיד על עצמו ויש עוד פי’ אחר עיין בלבוש וכתב בספר חרדים דמזה נלמוד כשאומר ואהבת את ד’ וגו’ יראה להכניס אהבת הש”י בלבו שלא יהיה כדובר שקר ח”ו. ודע דלא אמרו כן אלא כשעושה כן במזיד שמתעצל להניח תפלין קודם ק”ש אבל מי שאין לו תפלין או כשהוא בדרך ומחמת קור וצינה אינו יכול להניח תפלין וכל כה”ג בודאי אין לו לאחר ק”ש בזמנה מחמת זה. לבוש בסימן נ”ח והעתקתי שם את לשונו עי”ש:

At the time of reading Shema and prayer: Meaning to say, at the very least during reading Shema and prayer. As it says later in 37:2.

As it says in the gemara, “Whomever reads Shema without tefillin, he is as though he gives false testimony about himself ch”v.” And its explanation in Tosafos is that according to what [Shema] says “and you shall tie them as a sign…” and he isn’t tying. Even though post-facto he fulfilled the obligation of reading Shema, still he has a sin from another angle in that he makes himself look like he doesn’t want to do Hashem’s will. And that’s the [talmud's] “false testimony” that he “says about himself,” (There is also another explanation, see the Levush.)

It is written in the Seifer Chareidim that from this we will learn from when [Shema] says “You shall love Hashem…” a person should look [for ways to] being love of Hashem into his heart, so that he will not be like someone telling lies ch”v(emphasis added)

But someone who doesn’t have tefillin, or is traveling and because of cold or heat he cannot put on tefillin, or anything of the like, certainly he should not delay Shema beyond the proper time for this reason. (Levush, siman 58, and I checked his language there, c.f.)

- Mishnah Berurah ad loc, #14

Obvious, no? If I’m careful to wear tefillin when saying Shema, so that we do not look like hypocrits, how the more so should I be careful to actually recommit to loving Hashem and finding ways to increase that love! So why is it so hard to remember to actually do so?

Malki-Tzedeq and Birkhas Avos

Compare these two snippets. I added color to highlight my point.

First, Bereishis 14:19-20. A massive regional war just completed, and Avraham joins the kings he fought with. Malki-Tzedeq the king of Shaleim (the future Jerusalem) and priest of the Kel Elyon (most high G-d) serves food and blesses him:

וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר: “בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.
וּבָרוּךְ אֵ-ל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ”, וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל.

He blessed him and said:
“Blessed be Avraham to the Most High G-d, Owner of heaven and earth.
“And Blessed be the Most High G-d who delivered your enemies in your hands.”
And he gave him a tenth of all [the booty].

And now, Birkhas Avos, the first blessing of the Amidah:

אֵ-ל עֶלְיון. גּומֵל חֲסָדִים טובִים. וְקונֵה הַכּל. וְזוכֵר חַסְדֵּי אָבות. וּמֵבִיא גואֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַעַן שְׁמו בְּאַהֲבָה: מֶלֶךְ עוזֵר וּמושִׁיעַ וּמָגֵן: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם:

… Most High G-d, Supporter through good generosity, Owner of everything, Who remembers the generosity of the forefathers and brings the redeemer to their children’s children for the sake of His Reputation, with love.
King, Helper, Savior, and Protector.
Blessed are You Hashem, the Protector of Avraham.

And in case you find comparing “Qonei shamayim va’aretz” and “Qonei hakol” a stretch, note that on Friday night, in a shortened repetition of the Amidah, the Chazan does use “Qonei Shamayim va’aretz“. Chazal did consider them roughly identical; although it would be interesting to explore why they changed the expression from “heaven and earth” to “everything”.

To further this comparison, Malki-Tzedek’s titles for G-d — “Keil Elyon” and “Qoneih haKol” — are uniquely found in this story (here and in Avraham’s reply) and nowhere else in Tanakh. They also make very weak theological claims: “Keil Elyon” is true — Hashem is the Highest Power. But it can be asserted by a Canaanite who happens to believe that El is greater than his other deities. Similarly, as the Creator, of course Hashem owns what he created. But to only call Him “Owner” also includes people who don’t believe in creation. These phrases make sense for Malkhi-Tzedeq, who was trying to preach monotheism even before Avraham. (Our sages associate him with Sheim, Noach’s son.) They allow him to build a student base without confronting too many of their beliefs up-front. But they are odd expressions for us Jews to use in prayer — and in fact they do not appear elsewhere in the siddur, either.

I think therefore it’s clear that the Amidah is making reference to Malki-Tzedeq’s blessing. And moreso, a blessing of “אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ. אֱ-להֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלהֵי יַעֲקב — G-d as we perceive Him, G-d as perceived by Avraham, by Yitzchaq, and by Yaaqov” uses terms from a less developed perception of Deity, language of Malki-Tzedeq who attempts to be a priest between idolators and the Creator without confronting his “congregation”.

I am not sure what to make oft this — it’s counterintuitive. Perhaps the point is just that — to identify the lofty conception of G-d the avos discovered with the concept their contemporaries grappled for when they looked at creation. That the G-d of revelation is the G-d of nature.

Modeh Ani (redux)

A while back I blogged a recording of a shiur I gave on Modeh Ani. The sound quality on the recording was too poor for the shiur to be made out by most listeners. I recently emailed a group a piece on Modeh Ani that makes, in abbreviated form, many of the points I made in that shiur. So, here it is.`

One opening thought about the prayer as a whole: I see in this prayer two things: The obvious one, that we need to acknowledge the One Who enabled us to wake up this morning. The second, that waking up in the morning is itself a previous gift, worthy of thanking G-d for.

The prayer “Modah Ani” became a custom roughly 400-500 years ago, judging from the time of its first mention in print (Sefer haMinhagim). There is an older prayer, a berakhah, with the same theme. It was composed as one of pair, which is why it did not need to begin with the phrase “Barukh Atah Hashem“. One of the pair is said upon going to bed, the other when waking up. But its use shifted to being part of Shacharis, recombined with a blessing for health and for the commandment and gift of the Torah, and moved away from being said upon waking up.

Besides, it opens with G-d’s name, meaning none of it would be said by an observant Jew until after hand-washing. Modeh Ani does not contain the name of G-d, although a second line which is either its post-washing continuation or a second prayer does. (More about that, later.)

Modeh Ani: The word “modeh“, a term of thanks, comes from the same root as “vidui”, confession, and is used in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew to mean agreement. What do these concepts have in common? In all three cases we are declaring our attachment to the other. In confession, we are addressing how that connection enabled us to harm the other. And in agreement, the two parties share an idea rather than each claiming sole ownership. (This idea is discussed in more detail here, in particular section V.)

Modeh in the sense of thanks, then, is an awareness that I do not stand alone. That my existance is founded not only on my efforts, but on those of others. Including, in this case, the Creator.

Modeh ani lefanekha: I thank before You…

Rather than thanking G-d, we place our thanks before Him. What’s that about?

In rabbinic descriptions of the prophetic vision of Ma’aseh haMerkavah, G-d’s Throne (not that we believe He actually is in human form or has a literal throne, but prophecy involves metaphor), the souls of those not yet born are kept in a chest before His Throne.

Perhaps this is being referred to when we speak of thanking before Him for the return of that soul.

On other mornings, it feels to me simply as an acknowledgement of the distance between my still half-asleep self and the Almighty. I cannot thank Him, I am not mentally prepared yet. So I place my thanks before Him, for G-d to carry the rest of the way.

Melekh Chai veQayam: the King Who is “Alive” and “Eternal”…

Continuing this thought… We call G-d here by a reference, rather than a name as we haven’t yet washed out hands. (As I said at the top.)

We try to avoid saying any one of G-d’s names before this purification. I refer you back to what I said about the implied distance in our placing our thanks before Him. This is a difficult prayer: on the one hand, it is most appropriate to thank G-d for waking up when actually waking up. On the other, it takes time to be fully alert and mentally ready. Jewish tradition has a washing ritual to rid ourselves of any spiritual impurities our wandering hands may have touched over the night. It serves as a time to get our brains out of whatever they were in while we were unconscious, and into a more appropriate mode for prayer. So, to strike this balance, we pray to G-d now, but do so while acknowledging that we aren’t really ready, that there is a distance that we aren’t daring to breach. Instead of the familiarity of a name, we use titles and descriptions of Divine Grandeur.

I place Eternal in quotes because “qayam” means permanent, eternal in the sense of taking up infinite time. G-d, however, is simply outside of the stream of time altogether. It’s not that He spans all of time, but that time simply has no meaning in a discussion of G-d’s existence. (Kind of like asking where “1 + 1 = 2″ is.)

And yet He is “Alive” in the sense of being the Cause of an animated, changing, and ever-improving (progressing) existence.

Shehechazarta bi nishmasi bechemlah: for You have returned my soul within me with compassion…

This phrase is problematic. Who is the “me”? I here am speaking as though I were a body, and thus thanking G-d for the soul He placed within me. However, I am the soul, placed within the body! Shouldn’t we say something more like “for You have returned me to my body with compassion”?

There are two modalities (at least) of Jewish Prayer. One is the formal prayer of prewritten words. In them we say the things we ought to be thinking, to learn from them and internalize the priorities we ought to have. To relate to G-d by becoming the kind of person who is more related to G-d. In the other, the prewritten words are less essential, more of a scaffolding, if there are all. It is the child crying out her needs to the Parent, sharing with G-d our joys and trevails, our happiness and our burdens.

One signal for which of those modes a given prayer is in is whether it is written in the singular or the plural. The attitude we are to internalize places us as members of the community first. Therefore, such prayers are in the plural, “Heal us Hashem our G-d and we shall be healed”. (More on this distinction, here.)

This prayer isn’t like that. “Modeh aniI thank”. In the singular, speaking only of myself. It’s an expression of my relationship to G-d not in the ideal, but as it actually is. Not with the abstract knowledge of being a soul placed within a body, but within our illusion and confusion that we are that body.

Rabba emunasekha — great is Your faithfulness

This closing is based on a pasuq, Eikhah 3:23:

כב חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא תָמְנוּ כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו.
כג חֲדָשִׁים לַבְּקָרִים רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

22 The kindnesses of G-d — for they have no end, for His Compassion does not end
23 They are new every morning, rabba emunasekha — great is Your Faithfulness

What is the faithfulness here?

Some commentaries take the verse to refer to our belief in the resurrection. We trust that G-d will someday resurrect the dead, confidence built from how He wakes us every morning.

Others see it referring to the daily miracles, the ones we take for granted and for some silly reason think of as “natural”. And then get upset when the gift isn’t given in full measure, rather than grateful for the times it does. Meaning: Getting sick is not really a reason to petition G-d with “Why me?” That takes health for granted, as something coming to us, a right of which the sick are deprived. Health is a precious gift. The daily sunrise is a previous gift, even if we don’t expect it to end for the foreseeable future.

And thus we thank G-d not just that He allows us to wake up, but that He does so so reliably that it takes this ritual to help us remember He is there doing it!

A third thought is that we’re referring to G-d’s faith in us! G-d returned my soul to me yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. He gave me so many opportunities, and I wasted so many of them. And even though I wasn’t as good as I could have been yesterday, G-d gives me another chance today. Truly, “Great is Your Faith”!

Tefillah Behitpa’alut

These are notes from a talk I gave in Zion Il at the 8th Mussar Kallah. As a favor to those who asked me to publish notes, as the talk was given on Shabbos, I tried to use a more Israeli-sounding transliteration scheme than I’m used to. The result is probably sadly inconsistent.

Defining Tefillah

Our forefather Jacob, lying on his deathbed, tells his son Joseph:

וַֽאֲנִ֞י נָתַ֧תִּֽי לְךָ֛ שְׁכֶ֥ם אַחַ֖ד עַל־אַחֶ֑יךָ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לָקַ֨חְתִּי֙ מִיַּ֣ד הָֽאֱמֹרִ֔י בְּחַרְבִּ֖י וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי׃

Also, I gave you one portion (or perhaps, “one thing, [the city of] Shechem”) beyond that of your brothers, which I took from the control of the Emori — becharbi uvqashti — with my sword and with my bow.

- Bereishit 48:22

The Targum Yonasan renders “with my sword and with my bow” as “betzeloti uva’ut-hi — with my prayers and my requests”. This is also in Bava Batra 123, “‘Charbi’ — this is tefillah, ‘qashti’ – this is request.”

The Amidah is such an archetype for the former kind prayer, Chazal simply refer to it as tefillah or tzelotana (depending on the language). The Amidah, even in its immediate requests speaks in the plural, referring to the Jewish people as a whole, not my own immediate needs, and the majority of its requests are a progression describing the ultimate redemption. We have the list of prayers in the gemara (Berakhos 16b) that various tannaim, “after tzelotana — his Amidah — he would say like this”. In contrast, E-lokai Netzor, the post-Amidah petition that made it into our liturgy, is written in the first person, about my own religious needs and protection from those who want ill for me personally.

The Vilna Gaon characterizes two kinds of prayer: tefillah and tachanunim. As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik note, lehit-pallel is in the reflexive; something we do to ourselves. Teaching ourselves to turn to Hashem, and what things ought to be our priorities. Our primary tefillah was therefore organized by Anshei Keneses haGdolah in the sunset of the prophetic period, as a means of impressing us with the art of dialogue with the Almighty.

Turning to our Father with the needs actually on our mind is called tachanunim. An ideal time for requests of Gcd is immediately after tefillah, as we find in the above-mentioned list of tannaim’s requests. As well as the prayer named “Tachanun.” Common among many of our grandmothers or greatgrandmothers was the old, worn, Techines, a collection of Yiddish informal prayers. Requests.

Tefillah is always in the plural, placing ourselves in the context of the community. Requests, like E-lokai Netzor, can also be in the singular. Because E-lokai Netzor exists as a framework for what should essentially be spontaneous, we have a long tradition of adding various requests to it, rather than preserving the tanna’s original coinage untouched. Similarly also, in the blessing said early in the morning, “E-lokai Neshamah”, also written about “E-lokai”, my Gcd, without expecting me to connect to the rest of the nation and speak to “E-lokeinu — our Gcd.” And we begin the blessing, “My Gcd, the soul which you placed within me is pure”. Note that we don’t speak of the truth, of our being the soul who is placed within the body. Rather, we phrase this techninah, this request, in terms of how the world too often seems to us. That there is some “me” that the soul is placed within.

Just as the requests we make as part of regular davening has this element of a pre-written trellis, of tefillah, upon which we are to grow our natural expressions of our longings for Gcd, we also do not call for pure tefillah with no element of personal outpouring. We ask for the health of a sick friend with an insertion in “Refa’einu”, or Hashem’s help showing our children how to embrace the Torah’s wisdom in “Atah Chonein”, etc… “Whomever makes their tefillos fixed has not made their tefillos into tachanunim.” How is it possible inculcate the proper way to turn to Gcd to ask for someone’s health and yet still be able to remain silent when at the same time we know someone ill?

This inseparability of these two modes of worship might be an implication of the opening words of Mesilat Yesharim. The Ramchal begins, “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה – the foundation of piety and the root of work/worship…” The words’ initials are an acronym spelling out the four letter name of Gcd. However, three of the letters used in the acronym are prefixes. The Ramchal could have equally written “יסוד העבודה ושורש החסידות – the foundation of worship and the root of piety” and still have had the same acronym. Why did he choose to associate the more artificial “foundation” with piety, and the image of the more natural “root” when it comes to avodah, which means work? It would seem to me he is intentionally showing that the two are inherently mixed. That conscious work on our relationships with Hashem and with other people must flow from natural growth from the root, and our free emotional expression can’t be divorced from consciously building a foundation.

Returning to the Vilna Gaon’s distinction, the core difference between tefillah and requests is that requests are a raw primeval reaching out to our Parent in heaven, and tefillah is an exercise in how we are supposed to reach out to Him.

In this light, the core of the metaphor in the original verse, “my sword and my bow” as modes of prayer, is usability. A sword in the hands of an expert is formidable, but even in the hands of a klutz, a sword can be dangerous. Arrows shot by someone with no experience at marksmanship are pretty much useless. Thus, tefillah, like those pre-composed by the Men of the Great Assembly or the sages of the Talmud, is more like a sword — of utility to anyone. The art of techinah, of personally composed requests — that requires greater skill and for the person to already feel that connection to the A-lmighty that their reflexive response is to cry out to Him, to be of any value.

The words of the Targum also appear in the Full Qaddish, the version used for the first recitation of Qaddish after the Amidah. “Titqabel tzelot-hon uva’ut-hon dekhol Yisrael — accept the tefillot and the requests of all of Israel…” And when Tachanun is said, this Qaddish isn’t said until after Tachanun – after the core mitzvot of tefillah and requests.

And so, our siddur has a long preparatory section and a cooling down section after the Full Qaddish. In between are three mitzvot:

  • Shema – accepting Gcd as Monarch, a distinct biblical mitzvah
  • Tefillah
  • Tachanunim


We noted that the verb usually used for tefillah, lehitpalel, is the reflexive conjugation — which is called hitpa’el. Hitpa’elhitpa’alut! The notion of tefillah behitpa’alut is not some Mussar Movement innovation, it’s inherent in the very language used.

Defining Hitpa’alut

Encounters with text:

The old way of doing things, from the Enlightenment until the middle of the 20th century, was to encounter texts by trying to determine the author’s original intent. This requires finding the historical context of the author, learning about his mental state, etc…

Of course, it was rapidly found to be error prone. Whether we wish to or not, we can’t really recreate the world and the mind of the author, and we are still encountering the text based on our own definitions of things. While the classical academic tried to find the original intent of the text, the postmodern found this impossible and therefore doesn’t try. Instead, he looks to see what social constructs the text implies for the primary purpose of questioning it.

One can see a central theme of Judaism, or almost any religion, is to make a point of imparting a metanarrative. Questioning the metanarrative means never really encountering a religious narrative. You can’t sit on the outside peering in and truly experience a religion. Without “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ — taste”, one will never get to “וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֑ — see that Gcd is good!” (Tehillim 34:9)

Both the classical academic and the Deconstructionist share one thing in common — they see themselves as encountering the text. The idea is that the material is “other”, outside, to remain objectively studied. One looks for the context for which the text was written. The other looks for how the text can be understood with minimal assumptions about context.

Mesorah is a living tradition of a development of ideas. The Oral Torah is oral, a dialog across the generations. If we see a quote in the talmud from Rav Yochanan, we might be curious about the historical intent of Rav Yochanan. But in terms of Torah, important to us than what R’ Yochanan’s original intent is what R’ Ashi (a redactor of the talmud) thought that intent was, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of what the Rosh and the Rambam understood R’ Ashi’s meaning to be, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of the Shaagas Aryeh and R’ Chaim Briskerm and so on down until the rabbis of today.  That is the “true meaning”, in terms of Torah, of Rav Yoachanan’s statement.

Definitionally, Torah study is entering the stream of Jewish Tradition. Not seeing a statement as a point to isolate in time and space, but as a being within current that runs through history from creation to redemption.

Hitpa’alut is not standing outside the text and interpreting it — it’s achieving unity with with the text by letting it interpret and shape me. Notice this definition isn’t limited to any particular practice or technique. It’s an attitude toward how we study Mussar texts, Torah texts in general…

… and in how we pray. The siddur becomes a set of truths and values that a millennium of rabbis — from the last of the prophets through the Second Temple period, the Talmudic era, and all the way until the 9th century CE and the transition from geonim to the rishonim of Sepharad and Ashkenaz (after which all our differences were very minor) — thought were so crucial to being a Jew they wanted these ideas repeated daily and internalized.


Hitpa’alut is therefore an attitude one takes to how one learns a text. Not a specific technique or practice. It is learning a text to seek ways to be changed and refined by the encounter with it.

That said, the Mussar Movement did produce such techniques. [Below I divide them by the schools in which each technique was more common. However, after giving this presentation, Rabbi Avi Fertig noted that while this distinction may be accurate, that kind of analysis is itself something the members of those schools would not have made.]

I would like to relate the various kinds of hitpa’alut to the siddur’s description of the prayers of the angels, as it appears in the first blessing of the morning Shema. More than an aid for remembering an organizing the modes, it itself may aid in hitpa’alut when saying these words. Don’t just think of it as a description of events in heaven, as perceived by Ezekiel and Isaiah. Rather, it is an example for us to emulate of how yir’ah is felt and expressed. The blessing reads (in part):

…וְכֻלָּם מְקַבְּלִים עֲלֵיהֶם על מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם זֶה מִזֶּה.
וְנותְנִים רְשׁוּת זֶה לָזֶה
לְהַקְדִּישׁ לְיוצְרָם
בְּנַחַת רוּחַ – Spiritual tranquility
בְּשפָה בְרוּרָה – Clear language: cognitive
וּבִנְעִימָה. – Pleasant voice: aesthetic
קְדֻשָׁה כֻּלָּם כְּאֶחָד עונִים, וְאומְרִים בְּיִרְאָה…

And they all accept the yoke of the kingdom of [the One in] heaven one from the other
and give permission, one to the other
to sanctify [proclaim the sanctity] of their Maker
with a tranquil spirit
with clear language
and with a pleasant voice.
They declare sanctity as one
and say with yir’ah…

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes that the angelic prayer is described as having perfection on three planes:

  • spiritual – tranquil spirit
  • cognitive – clear language, and
  • aesthetic – pleasant voice.

And so we’re going to find that tools for hitpa’alut are also designed to move man on each of these planes.


Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Ohr Yisrael has a chapter (#30) about hitpa’alut, but it too focuses on the attitude toward texts and its role in Mussar more than giving any particular methodology. I think that it’s from here that Rabbi Zvi Miller draws his sources for a chanting practice. Rav Yisrael does speak of two specifics:

  1. Studying with “sefatayim dolqot - lips aflame”
  2. Repetition with tune, volume and passion.

So Rav Yisrael is speaking of chanting or passionate singing. But as I wrote, there isn’t enough there to really be sure about a specific practice. We will revisit this issue when we get to Novhardok and their take on “lips aflame”.

Kelm – Cognitive

Rav Yisrael Salanter opens his Mussar Letter with the words “A person is constrained in his intellect and free/undisciplined in his imagination.” To Kelm, this meant seeing Mussar in terms of imposing will, conscious thought, on our decisions. Rather than reacting reflexively, react after reflecting. This is demonstrated in how they practiced hitpa’alut as well.

The Alter of Kelm describes a five-step process (broken down into clear steps from the original letter in Kitvei haSaba miKelm — Letters of the Alter of Kelm by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg in “The Fire Within”, which is out of print but available used via Amazon’s sellers) :

  1. Intense and single-minded concentration on a single thought. One phrase, sentence or paragraph, repeated out loud and with a tune, to help keep away extraneous thoughts.A beginner should start with five minutes and work his way upward.
  2. That much focus on a single thought creates an emotional response.
  3. Through the extended concentration, one can find a chiddush, a new insight into the thought. As many corporate managers learn, if you want your employees to “buy into” a new project, you hold a brainstorming session. By getting each person to contribute ideas to the project, they get a sense of possession. The project becomes “theirs”.
  4. Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.
  5. Last, the person deepens the insight into profundity on Torah, one’s own nature, and the interaction of the two. How the Torah speaks to my condition, and how the uniqueness of who I am and how I see things speaks to the Torah.

Rav EE Dessler was a third generation Kelm disciple. In “Strive for Truth” vol I, the chapter “How to reflect on a Mussar Statement: A meditation on Messilat Yasharim chapter one” the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim” he describes the layers of meaning that can be found in that chapter. Mesilat Yesharim would be studied, repeated, absorbed, innovated, applied to one’s life at a rate of a couple of lines per day with 20 minutes to a half an hour dedicated to the exercise. Their goal wasn’t to study or learn the book, but to create an emotional bond and unity with it.         That was hitpa’alut as understood in Kelm.

Novhardok – Music

In Novhardok, hitpa’alut had both of these elements. One would begin with the contemplations and analysis that we saw attributed to the Alter of Kelm. But rather than relying on the sense of intellectual “ownership” alone to internalize the message, they would take a second step, using aesthetics to make an impression. They would chant the idea, sing the idea, repeat it to themselves in a heartful song for fifteen minutes or more. Dance, if that’s what they were moved to do.

Slabodka – Visualization

Rav Yisrael speaks in the Mussar Letter not only of intellect vs. emotion, but of intellect vs. imagination — meaning both what we normally call imagination, but also the impact of having images and sounds of what we experience copied into our heads. (What philosophers of the mind call “qualia“.) In Slabodka, this meant that hitpa’alut would require drafting that mode of thought, sublimating the path usually taken by the yeitzer hara. A pamplet by R’ Yehudah Mendelson (of Kollel Daas Shelomo in J-m, named for R’ Shelomo Wolbe) develops this notion of hitpa’alut – Visualizing.

[We heard this too on Sunday, in Rabbi Avi Fertig’s description of hitpa'alut. It includes visualizing how we would handle a situation. Visualizing how the text being studied would call for the situation to be played out. There was much more in his talk about how to do hitpa’alut that wasn’t touched on in my talk, but trying to include it all would broaden the scope of this write-up beyond my ability to complete.]

In prayer, we can just say “Barukh”, calling Hashem the Source, the Wellspring (Bereikhah) of existence. Or we can visualizing getting our vitality as light or water from an infinitely far away Source. We can speak of the Divine Wisdom in the apple we are about to eat, or we can spend time picturing the beauty of an apple tree. Or an apple seed somehow containing all the information necessary for us to watch it grow into a tree, bear fruit, and have new seeds.


Tefillah is something we do to ourselves, to make ourselves a prayer. What is greater praise of Gcd — to say “You are worthy of our service” or actually serving him? And so, tefillah is about internalizing those things we say in order to be better able to live up to those ideals, so that the prayers do not remain empty platitudes.

We see in the liturgical poem, Nishmat, “Even if our mouths were as full of song as the sea, our tongues — of joyous noise like its high waves, our lips — praise like the expanse of the sky, our hands outstretched like the eagles of the heavens, our feet as swift as ibexes” we would still lack the skill necessary to praise Gcd. “Therefore,” we continue “the limbs that You attached to us, and the will and soul which You breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that You placed in our mouths, they themselves shall praise…” How is this? First we say they are grossly insufficient, therefore they should do the praising? The answer is in the words “heim heim — they themselves.” The existence of a mouth that can do all the right motions, of a mind that can put together the concepts and the words, they themselves embody more praise of Gcd than the words I use them to utter.

And so the goal of my prayer is to commit them to the tasks for which they were made. To embody their highest potential. To take the words we were given and impress them on those limbs, will, soul, tongue and mouth.

This requires changing how we view the siddur. It is not quiet calming ritual, an abstract book, or a text for me to pick and choose what relates to me as I am now. Rather, it is an active encounter between real and ideal. Me facing the stream of Jewish tradition since the prophets, and trying to join that momentum.

To do so, we need to employ deep study of the words, to continually find new meaning in the words. We need to employ the aesthetics of song and the power of visualizing to add emotional impact, to move both body and heart, so that, as King David wrote (Tehillim 35:10):

כָּ֥ל עַצְמוֹתַ֨י ׀ תֹּאמַרְנָה֮    ה֗’ מִ֥י כָ֫מ֥וֹךָ

All my bones shall say, “Hashem, who is like you?”


(These are the examples I prepared for the talk. They don’t really work as examples without the presentation.)


אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶך עוֹד יְהַלְלוּךָ סֶּלָה.
אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם שֶׁכָּכָה לּוֹ: אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם, שֱׁיְ-הוָה אֱ-לֹהָיו.

Ash-rei yo-sh’vei vei-te-cha, od y’ha-l’lu-cha, se-la.
Ash-rei ha-am she-ka-cha lo, ash-rei ha-am she-A-do-nai e-lo-hav.

Enriched [in their pursuit of self-refinement] are those who dwell in Your house, they are forever praising You, Selah!
Enriched [in their interpersonal unity] is the nation for whom such is the case,
Enriched [in their cleaving to Hashem] is the nation that Hashem is its Gcd.

מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל-עֹלָמִים, וּמֶמְשַׁלְתְּךָ, בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדֹר.

Mal-chut’cha mal-chut kawl o-la-mim, u-mem-shal-t’cha b’chawl dor va-dor.

Your kingship [by the acclimation of the governed] is a kingship for all ages
Your rule [as imposed by Your Will] is from generation to generation [even before Kingship is manifest].

פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת-יָדֶךָ, וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל-חַי רָצוֹן.

Po-tei-ach et ya-de-cha,u-mas-bi-a l’chawl chai ra-tson.

You open Your “Hand”
and satisfy the desire of every living being.
… and willingly satisfy every living being.
… and satisfy the need of every living being to be desirable.
… and satisfy the need of every living being to have desires and goals [rather than ennui].


אֲ-דנָי שפָתַי תִּפְתָּח
וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ:

A-do-nai s’fa-tai tif-tach,
u-fi ya-gid t’hi-la-te-cha.

Hashem, open my lips[, remove my surface distractions],
and my mouth [expressing my more inner thoughts] will tell of Your praises.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ-הוָה
וֵ-אלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ
א-ֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם
אֱ-להֵי יִצְחָק
וֵא-להֵי יַעֲקב….

a-tah A-do-nai
E-lo-hei-nu, Vei-lo-hei a-vo-tei-nu,
E-lo-hei Av-ra-ham, E-lo-hei Yitz-chak, Vei-lo-hei Ya-a-kov…

You are Blessed the Source of all increase
the All-Merciful Cause of all existence
Our Lawgiving Gcd [of natural law]
the Lawgiving Gcd of our ancestors [who better lived by Your moral law]
the Gcd of Abraham [who emulated Your kindness]
the Gcd of Isaac [who cleaved to you]
the Gcd of Jacov [who saught to internalize your wisdom]….


לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל
לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית.

l’sha-bei-ach La-a-don ha-kol

It is upon us
to praise to the Master of everything
to give greatness to the One Who gave form to the beginning…