The Kindness of Hashem

For many years — from before my bar mitzvah until my marriage — I had the honor to learn with Rabbi Matis Blum (who was a teen when we started) on Shabbos morning. Yesterday I had the heartwrenching experience of attending his wife’s funeral. Rebbetzen Etty Blum was 45 at the time, a mother of ten children.

I just want to make one point that emerged from the hespeidim.

When Rn Blum was diagnosed with a brain tumor, 1-1/2 years ago, she brought the news to her oldest daughter, Binah, and her husband with the opening, “Let me share with you the challenge Hashem gave me.” Chasdei Hashem, she said — the kindness of Hashem.

Initially they thought she was diagnosed on time. It was Elul. She thanked Hashem for giving her the tools to pray that Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur with real intent.

Then she learned that she would have to go for scans every three months to monitor the tumor. Rn Blum thanked Hashem for not giving her an opportunity to slip back into complacency after appealing to Him from within her crisis. Again, “Chasdei Hashem“, as she saw it.

Then the first scans came back, and the news wasn’t good. Again she thanked G-d,  “Chasdei Hashem” as she described it to her family, because He gave her the news piecewise. Had she heard how bad it was when she first got the news, would she have been able to accept it?

During her illness, Rn Etty Blum gave talks about davening, about accepting Shabbos just a little earlier even in the winter, about teaching our children that Shabbos is about more than a day to play ball. In particular, she herself took on the Jerusalem practice of lighting Shabbos candles 40 minutes before sunset rather than 18.

Two weeks ago, she and her sister  were in the hospital, but Rn Blum was unaware, staring off into the distance. The illness, after all, was attacking her brain. As Shabbos approached her sister told her it was time to light. Suddenly, awareness dawned. And they turned on the lamp together and started Shabbos.

Last Friday too she drifted off. And her sister tried again to tell her it was time for Shabbos lights. Her sister didn’t see her move, but the nurse noticed her eyes turn to look at her sister. So, her sister took her hand, and again they turned on the lamp together. A short while later, she was gone.

Rabbi Matis got the news before he began Shabbos. But he didn’t tell anyone. He carried through Shabbos giving his usual talks. He carried the burden and didn’t ruin anyone else’s Shabbos but his own. And as soon as havdalah was over, he called their children over, and  finally released the pain of a partner lost.

Many people say “chasdei Hashem — the lovingkindness of G-d”. How many actually feel it? Actually are capable of being happy with their lot,  both when enjoyable and even to have the opportunity of living through trials, through challenges?

“Moshe rejoices with the giving of his portion, for a trustworthy servant you have called him.”

תהא נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים

Birchos haTorah

This week’s shiur (audio recording) concludes a series on aspects of the soul. With Asher Yatzar we looked at man’s ability to exist in and relate to the physical world. This is followed by E-lokai Neshamah, and our connection to heaven and man’s higher calling. Now we look at the universe we hold within our heads, our ability to change and grow, and become better at existence on all three planes.

Some topics:

  • Who is holier: people or angels? Who is loftier?
  • Being and becoming
  • Hislamdus — self awareness, life as a learning experience
  • The ruach
  • On empty cups: cleaving to G-d and self improvement
  • The importance of saying birkhos haTorah
  • How many berakhos are there (is ha’Arev its own berakhah), and what kinds of learning require the berakhos?
  • Is the berakhos on learning Torah, or on the Torah lifestyle as a whole?
  • Meaning of the words and phrases.
  • The progression from learning, “sweetening”, remembering, carrying to future generations, and getting protection by being the Torah’s guarantor.
  • Torah as a means of growth — a tool for “becoming”.

E-lokai Neshamah

This week’s class was on E-lokai Neshamah. Some of the topics discussed:
  • Different opinions about why the berakhah doesn’t begin with the word “barukh”
  • The berakhah’s possible connection to Hamapil said before going to bed or Asher Yatzar
  • Is the berakhah primarily about waking up, or the resurrection?
  • Who is the “me” saying “the soul which You put within me”? Aren’t I my soul — how can it be placed within “me”?
  • More on the “anatomy” of the soul
  • The connection between the soul and the body
  • Different opinions on the nature and role of the resurrection.

Vetaheir Libeinu

We say in the Amidah for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “Vetaheir libeinu le’avekha be’emes”, usually translated simply as “And purify our hearts to serve You in truth.””Vetaheir libeinu” provides an interesting contrast to “veyacheid levaveinu li’ahavah ulyir’ah es shemekha — and unify our hearts to love and be in awe of Your name”, said in the last berakhah before the morning recitation of Shema. Libeinu stands distinct from levaveinu, the same two-veis “levav” that we find in Shema, “And you shall love Hashem your G-d bekhol levavekha, with all your heart.” There, Chazal interpret the word as “beshnei yitzrekha — with both your inclinations”. In “veyacheid levaveinu” we speak of unifying the warring urges of a complex heart, which notably has one veis for each inclination, “levav”. Here we ask for surcease from that complexity, that Hashem render the single-veis “leiv” tahor, pure of other inclinations. (While many question the accuracy of “tahor” as being defined “pure”, “zahav tahor” does mean “pure gold”.)

“Le’avdiacha”. Rav SR Hirsch explains the root /ayin-beis-dalet/ as a more intensive form of /aleph-beis-dalet/, to be lost (just as an ayin is like an alef, but is supposed to be voiced). To lose one’s goals to another’s’, working entirely for another person. Here we speak of taharah from inappropriate goals so that one can work entirely toward the aims Hashem spelled out for us.

I would think that a Ba’al Mussar would focus on “vetaheir libeinu”, while the Chassid would read them as secondary to the next — le’avdikha. True to the fork in the hashkafic road between Litta’s focus on sheleimus, wholeness and completion, and Chassidus’s focus on deveiqus, cleaving to G-d.

Bi’emes — in/through truth: At first I took this to be an adverb for le’avdekha. However, I want to draw attention back to the first thing I skipped in this quote, the opening letter, “vav — vetaheir”. It begins with a prefix meaning “and”. This makes our phrase part of a list, along with, “qadsheinu bemitzvosekha, vesein chelqeinu beSorasekha, sab’einu mituvekha, vesamcheinu biyshu’asekha”. In all of those cases, the noun at the end of the phrase is the means by which we ask for the thing described by the rest of the phrase; for example “Sanctify us through your mitzvos”. (The mem in “mituvekha” deserves comment. Another time.) So, here too, emes would be the means, not a modifier for le’vadekha.

Taking the phrase all together: We are asking for Hashem to give us emes, by which we will get the taharas haleiv necessary to answer only one calling — His.

Hispa’alus, or: Yismach Moshe

One of the critical tools of Tenu’as haMussar is hispa’alus, “learning ‘with lips aflame.'” Literally, the word is the reflexive of “to work”, in other words “to work on oneself.” Hispa’alus is such a useful practice it even became part of their davening, tefillah behispa’alus.What is hispa’alus? The Alter of Kelm describes a four-step process:

  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. As does the use of melody and chanting.The Alter of Novorodok focuses on this emotional component. In his version of hispa’alus, the melody and volume are more critical.
  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”.

    Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.

  4. 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.

How does this become a style of prayer? Obviously, saying every line of the siddur with five minutes of concentration apiece (and that’s just when you’re starting out!) is impossible, both humanly, and because of the finite time of the day. Instead, certain parts of tefillah call for this kind of attention: the first berakhah of the Amidah, the first line or paragraph of Shema, maybe the verses in Qorbanos about bitachon (trust in G-d) which the siddur rells us to repeat three times each, whichever tefillos speak to you and where you’re up to in life. In adapting hispa’alus to contemporary prayer in a contemporary synagogue, perhaps Kelm’s style of hispa’alus that is quieter then Novorodok’s passioned cry would be more useful.Perhaps it’s best to explain by inviting you to experience it. I ask you to try the following next Shabbos morning, and write about your experiences on the “comment” section for this post.

The middle blessing of the Shabbos Amidah begins:

Yismach Mosheh — Moses will be happy
bematnas chelqo — with the giving of his portion,
ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant
qaraso lo — You have called to him.

The line looks simple enough, however riches lie underneath, with a little concentration. Rather than spell out what they are, and my opinion on what they mean, I am going to list some questions to think about and give you a chance to find your own chiddushim, your own relationship to the text.

Why does it say “yismach” in the future tense? Wasn’t Moshe’s happiness at the time?

“Yismach” is from the word “simchah”. Think of some of the other words for happiness: sason, gilah, etc… How do they differ in usage? What does the choice of “yismach” here indicate?

“Bematnas” with the giving of his portion. What does it mean that Moshe is happy with the giving of his portion, his lot in life, rather than referring to the happy is caused by the portion itself? The mishnah says “Who is wealthy? One who is samai’ach bechalqo — happy with his lot.” Nearly the same phrase, but without “bematnas”. The lot itself. Am I to be happy with my lot, or with the giving of it?

“Ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant…” Rashi says the word “ki” has 7 meanings, “because” is only one of them. The others are: rather, when, that, perhaps, if, reason. Why did they choose a potentially ambiguous word? What happens to the meaning of the phrase if we try some of these other translations?

“Eved ne’eman.” What does it mean to be an “eved Hashem”, servant of G-d. What’s the added point of being “ne’eman”, a reliable servant in particular?

“Karasa lo” — You called to him. Why not “qarasa oso”, that Hashem called him, why “to him”?

Why does being a servant make Moshe happier with his lot? Or, in light of the above questions, why does being called to as a reliable servant make him happy — and the kind of happiness we call simchah — with the giving of his lot? And is “because” and “why” the only connection implied?

And most important, what does this say of my worship and my happiness?

Look! “Treasures buried in the sand”, repeated with minimal or no thought every week holds worlds of meaning about ourselves and how we should relate to G-d. Through hispa’alus we can not only find them, but use them to enrich ourselves.

As I wrote, I invite you to explore this line of the siddur yourself. See what hispa’alus can bring to your middos and your prayers. And, if you’re comfortable, share your experience with the other readers. (Recall that you can always post anonymously.)