My Dream Synagogue

Here are things my dream Growth Oriented Shul would provide that normal shuls today do not:

  • Qiddush after leining, before mussaf, combined with a devar Torah or text learning. Our attention spans have shrunk. Rather than fight it, and ending up with people who come late, talk, walk out for Kiddush Club, we build the service around this limitation. It requires hitting the history books and finding out how the yeshivos in Lithuania did it when they broke for morning seder between leining and mussaf – there is ample halachic precedent.
  • Short vort before Barekhu on the meaning of the words of the upcoming davening. Have a new kavanah for some part of the siddur each week!
  • Chessed programming — something that involves some subset of the membership hands-on (not fundraising) in an at least weekly basis. Shuls provide both Torah and Avodah, why not be a full Judaism Center and provide opportunities for Gemilus Chassadim too? At least if the shul sponsors something, there is a different atmosphere about what a shul and Yahadus are.
  • Mussar Ve’adim — one for each gender, although given the Ahavas Yisrael Project‘s presence in Passaic, the men’s va’ad would be more critical. The idea isn’t just to have a chaburah in a mussar sefer, but to have a group that actually works together on their middos. (AishDas set up a few groups that meet weekly going through the ve’adim and doing the exercises in Alei Shur vol II.)
  • Along similar lines as the ve’adim — a Teshuvah Workshop with a wider audience every Elul. Speakers giving actual techniques for change. Rather than being all motivated and well intended, if we’re having a good year, on Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, but not having a strategy to actually get anywhere. (And then we wonder why our list of things to fix is the same year after year…)
  • The membership agreement would include an ethics and dina demalkhusa clauses. In the “Shomerei Shabbos” type shuls of 70 years ago, those who were fighting upstream to retain their Shabbos observance created a supporting atmosphere by creating synagogues in in which only shomerei Shabbos could retain full membership in the shul. We need something similar to shore up what’s weak in today’s observance.

    This is largely unenforceable, as we’re not going to have accountants check people’s books. But it combines with the chessed programming and the ve’adim. I realize both of those programs would in the real world be limited in population; but to the majority of the membership, they make a statement. There is secondary involvement — helping out once, donating money, just reading about it in the shul email — that make an impact on everyone, they set a culture. As would knowing this is in the by-laws / membership agreement.

Kallah XII: Finding Joy in Everyday Transitions

An intensive exploration into living life more skillfully

forest_path_smWhat if you could …

  • find joy in everyday transitions?
  • get beyond judging the good and bad of transitions?
  • bring order to the chaos of change?
  • direct your growth with greater intention?
  • live all of life with an enthusiastic heart?

You can learn all this and more by joining a warm, supportive community for deepening your Mussar journey at our Annual Mussar Kallah, November 13–16, 2014.

The Teachers
Faculty will include Alan Morinis, Avi Fertig, Micha Berger [me], Chaim Safren, Efrat Zarren-Zohar, and Cyndee Levy. Read about our teachers.

Expand your mind, nourish your soul. Join the growing Mussar community in learning and celebration.

The Annual Mussar Kallah
The annual Mussar Kallah is a true retreat. The Mussar masters emphasized the need for personal spiritual practice and for that we will lead sessions to teach and practice meditation, contemplation and visualization. But they also stressed the importance of learning and action, and so the contemplative sessions will be interspersed with sessions focused on the middah [soul-trait] of nosei b’ol im chaveiro [bearing the burden with your friend] and rachamim [compassion] as well as chevruta and group interaction. This Kallah will provide comprehensive tools to introduce and guide you in the Mussar ways to cultivate the soul in the context of community, inwardly and outwardly.Sessions will be experiential, include text study and offer practical lessons that can be taken home to enhance and deepen your spiritual life and practice of Mussar.

“I am so grateful I was able to attend this wonderful weekend. I am now doing ten blessings with my son every morning when I drive him to high school.”

What level of knowledge do i need to have?
The Mussar Kallah Retreat Is open and suitable only for people who have already had some exposure to Mussar, whether through courses of The Mussar Institute or other forms of Mussar learning and practice. One does not need to be an expert, however. Every speaker will focus on issues that affect ordinary people in everyday life, because that is precisely what Mussar is meant to do.

“I enjoyed the high degree of interactive practice through the weekend.”
When and Where
The Kallah will begin with dinner on Thursday, November 13 and end before noon on Sunday, November 16. As in recent years, the Kallah will be held at the Illinois Beach Resort on the shores of Lake Michigan outside Chicago.
Registration fee: $499 until September 12, 2014. After September 12, the registration fee is $559. Includes all programs and glatt kosher meals and snacks from Thursday night dinner through Sunday breakfast.
Accommodations are not included. Hotel rooms must be booked directly with the Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center by calling 847-625-7300. We have a special rate of $104.50 per night for up to 4 people in a room. Book your room by October 1 to ensure the special rate and availability.
“This was an inspiring, life-changing experience for me. I am so grateful to have met so many wonderful people and learned so much from them all.”
Register now!

For questions or to discuss your participation in this retreat, email [email protected]


My dear brothers and sisters,

One thing that struck me is how heavily Hashem pointed out to us the concept of achdus, of unity, in how this tragedy unfolded.

First, note the communities each of the boys come from: Eyal YifrachHy”d spoke his Hebrew with a Yemenite accent, Gil-ad ShaarHy”d was a Sepharadi whose family was from Morocco, Naftali FraenkelHy”d was an Ashkenazi, the child of Anglos. Three boys, each returned from different centers of the diaspora.

Second, what were these three young men doing? Would anyone here in the US advise their teens to hitchhike? But no, Israel is in general different. After all, you could always count on your sisters and brothers to share an empty seat to help you get to where you’re going. The fact that “taking a tremp” is part of Israeli life is beautiful evidence of our underlying unity.

As was our common hope. And our common mourning. In how many communities, aside from the Jews, do people across the globe stop their lives because three young men they never met had their taken?

I have no problem with our heated disagreements over ideas. And among legitimate ideologies I consider such debate healthy. For individuals, we need a variety of approaches to Torah to aid a variety of personalities. On the national level,  a healthy body needs a variety of organs. And if we are going to be passionate about our beliefs, argument is going to ensue. Even if unproductive, the debate is a sign of health compared to dispassionate silence.

And of course it is nearly impossible to run a country or a community without disagreements over priorities in how we spend our resources, over proper tactics for reaching our aims, and sometimes even over those goals themselves.

But when we make these disagreements personal, it’s frightening.

After all, Hashem wants our unity. And since we do unite in times of trouble, He has a quick way of getting that unity if we’re not going to do it ourselves. I am not saying this is the reason for the current tragedy, or even a reason for the current tragedy. But it is something glaring that can be learned from it, a lesson we cannot afford to ignore.

Now that we are united, we cannot risk letting it go.

המקום ינחם אתנו, אבלי ציון וירושלים, ולא תוסיפו לדאבה עוד!

Torah Lishmah and Nefesh haChaim

Nefesh haChaim, 1st edition

Nefesh haChaim
Cover Page, First Edition

Nefesh haChaim is a collection of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s writings organized posthumously by his son and successor, R’ Yitzchak. We can see this in the self-description in the title page of the early editions of the Nefesh haChaim which opens, “Yir’as Hashem – for Life! Notebooks of holy writings of the true genius who was famous for his Torah and righteousness, and whose deeds proclaim before him.” The choice of title of the book “Nefesh haChaim” is explained that it is “based on the quote in the Jerusalem [Talmud], Sheqalim pg 6 [2:1, vilna ed. 10b], ‘Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel repeated: we do not make monuments [nefashos] for the righteous, for their words are their memorials.’ And the memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Thus the title means “Rabbi Chaim’s Memorial”, in addition to “The Living Soul”.

Being that it’s a compilation of multiple texts, Nefesh haChaim can be a challenge to combine into a single picture of how Rav Chaim believed we are to serve Hashem. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein, in his essay Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy (in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern), notes how the questions in this regard are more clear than the answers.

I mentioned this in my previous post, and suggested my diagnosis of the underlying issue:

… [T]his phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

But to discuss a specific approach to this particular text…

Overall Structure

First, because each section is really a pamphlet, called by the both the author and the editor a “qunterus“, in its own right, its topic was also originally expected to stand on its own. The amount of significance given to Torah study in the pamphlet that became section 4 does not change the significance given to (e.g.) tefillah in section 2. Rav Yitzchaq’s placing them in an overarching structure only has limited value in understanding the meaning of section 2 as it was written.

The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation; how being in the image of E-lokim, G-d as Master of all the forces, means that we have the ability to change the world(s).

The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. Then there are some chapters that about the yeitzer hara and its strategies, and how acting without full commitment to lishmah, to doing a mitzvah for its own sake, will lead to lishmah and thus vanquishing the yeitzer hara.

But the yeshivos focus on — in fact, most exclusively learn only — section four. There he discusses the special nature of Torah, its work on the soul, and how Torah study is central to the task of self-refinement. Obviously for those of the Yeshiva Movement, this is going to be the central piece to their worldview.

Rabbi Norman Lamm (in his book Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake) identified the basic problem with the resulting structure. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein wrote his essay using Rabbi Lamm’s work as a foil. R’ Lamm took the yeshivish position, Rabbi Krumbein doesn’t so much provide a clear alternative reading, his goal is more to set out to prove that focusing on only the fourth sha’ar is incomplete, that we simply haven’t gotten to the full subtlety of Rav Chaim’s position.

But just looking at the overall structure myself, I think the section that is not like the others is the third one, actually. Section one explains how our actions in this world have metaphysical repercussions, and section two addresses prayer, and thus the power of human speech. Section four, is about human thought. But section three is about G-d, about the nature of tzimtzum and in what way is Hashem present in creation and what way is creation an independent entity.

The Introduction

The most logical place to find the author’s intent is his introduction. Here we can’t entirely do so, as Rav Chaim didn’t write one — Rav Yitzchak did. But since his father did leave him the essays and instructions for publication, this is still of some use. And besides, Rav Yitzchak Volozhiner’s own opinion is of sufficient import to be interested in his worldview.

In that introduction, Rav Yitzchak describes Rav Chaim Volozhiner with a long description of his love of Mussar. For example:

This is what he would constantly say to me: that no person was created for himself. Rather, [we were created] for helping others in any way he has the ability to do.

Rav Chaim “with the breadth of his understanding would carve and grave the ideas, the light matters and significant ones, and attach them to the way of the Torah, Avodah, and Yir’as Hashem”. This list of three items recurs in the introduction — Torah rarely appears alone. Also, as we noted above and explained in the introduction, the book was named for the concept of yir’as Hashem, not Talmud Torah.

Looking at the introduction, then, we would be hard pressed to find any description of the book as leading up to the fourth section, or giving Torah study primacy in the meaning of living. Actually, given his repeated instruction to his son, it would seem that such meaning would be found in mitzvos that aid others.

Section 3: Tzimtzum

As I opined in the opening section, it’s section three that really stands out. The other sections are anthropological; discussions of what it is to be a person and the abilities people have to impact creation. Section three, though, deals with Hashem’s relationship to creation, it’s theological.

I understand Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s position on tzimtzum differently than many readers. But then, this whole essay is my own take on a subject numerous others more informed than I am have disagreed about.

Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacial contraction), of other things existing. The Yosher Levav understood this literally. However, that’s very problematic as it implies that Hashem Himself changed. And  both Chasidus and the Gra consider that notion heretical. In the Tanya, the noun is still the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but the verb tzimtzum is only an illusion. In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, the  tzimtzum is real, but he modifies the noun — it is not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else, Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will). ((According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Gra speaks of the tzimtzum of the Or Ein Sof, but that is not the terminology used in Nefesh haChaim, the Leshem or Michtav meiEliyahu — all spiritual heirs of the Gra.) )

Much of the second half of section 3 describes tzimtzum in terms of distinguishing between miTzido, from Hashem’s “perspective”, and mitzideinu, from ours. And therefore it is logical that many understand R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position as being more like the Tanya’s than the Gra’s. But I believe his position actually sits in a middle ground, a synthesis that might even fully include his rebbe’s understanding.

In sec. 3 ch. 2 Rav Chaim explains that calling Hashem “haMaqom” is a rather limited metaphor. A literal maqom is a place or holder of an object without being the cause of its existence. However, if Hashem were to retract his Ratzon from anything, it would cease to exist; He is the Cause of existing. Thus the understanding that his position is like the Tanya’s.

But in chapter 4, Rav Chaim discusses the literal absence of Kevod Hashem, and the first appearance of the word tzimtzum, at the beginning of ch. 5, reads “…צמצם כביכול כבודו ית’ שיוכל להמצא ענין מציאות עולמות וכחות ובריות נבראים ומחודשים — He ‘constricted’, as it were, His Blessed Kavod that He could bring into existence the idea of existing worlds, forces/potentials, and creatures that are created and newly made.”

It seems to me that Nefesh haChaim is describing a literal tzimtzum of Hashem’s glory which then causes the illusion of an absence His Essence. Tzimtzum is something that actually occurred, but not to the Ein Sof — like the Gra, avoiding the problem of saying Hashem could change by making tzimtzum about a different noun. Rav Chaim does differ from the Gra about which noun; according to Rav Chaim, any absence of Hashem’s Ratzon, His Will, is part of the illusion. It’s His Kavod that is absent. Although I’m not sure how either the Vilna Gaon or Rav Chaim Volozhiner define “Ratzon” vs “Kavod“, so it is possible the difference is more in terminology than in substance. In any case, the point I want to emphasize to explain how I understand Nefesh haChaim and the concept of Torah lishmah is that Rav Chaim is giving us that duality: the real absence of Kevod Hashem (3:5) and the illusion of the absence of Hashem Himself (3:3).

The “Chapters”

According to Rabbi Krumbein’s analysis, much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4, so I will also visit them. The additions begin:

Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…

Rabbi Norman Lamm (pp 61-62)  explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.

However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:

First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.

Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.

But within the description I gave above, in which sections 1, 2 and 4 deal with action, speech and thought, respectively, the “chapters” found between three and four serve as a prelude to the last section. They address the yeitzer hara and how to refine thought and motivation, and are thus speaking of the same domain as the section on Torah.

Section Four

In sec 4 ch. 3, Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that  the “lishmah“, the “it’s own sake”, of Torah study is unique. (He has a longer description in Ruach haChahim on Avos 6:1,) Rav Elazar beRav Tzadoq says, “עשה דברים לשם פעלן ודבר בהן לשמן — do things for the sake of the One Who caused them, and speak about them for their own sake.” (Nedarim 51a) Rav Chaim cites the Rosh, who notes the difference in language: when it comes to mitzvos of action, we do them lesheim Pa’alan — for the sake of G-d; but when it comes to learning, we learn leshman — for their own sake.” And Rav Chaim points the reader back to something he wrote at the end of sha’ar 1, that the primary effect of the mitzvah is in the action itself, which is why kavanah (intent) is not an obligatory component of the mitzvah, but one that allows it to effect repairs in higher worlds than otherwise. But as he explained previously in ch. 2, the role of lishmah is different in kind for Torah, for immersion in and internalization of Torah is identification with Hashem’s Thought. One is not relating to Hashem-as-Maker of a world we’re trying to refine, but directly with Him. For the Torah’s sake is for the sake of becoming shaped by His Will. It is this that Rav Chaim identifies with communion with the A-limighty, rather than deveiqus, cleaving to Him. Chapters 4 – 7 discuss the relationship between yir’ah and Torah. To Rav Chaim, yir’ah is something you work on for a few minutes in preparation for learning. It is the silo that enables one to retain Torah. But the focus is on the Torah.

This is unlike the Chassidus, where deveiqus is seen as a personal relationship with G-d. And in the Tanya, yir’ah is the purpose of learning, rather than a prerequisite, and he recommends that one should pause occasionally during learning to remember G-d and insuring that the study is leading to yir’ah 

Rav Chaim seems to be asserting that “Torah lishmah” means that that learning is supposed to be an end in itself. But before R’ Chaim, this was FAR from consensus. A simple reading of either Talmud (TY Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b, TB Sanhedrin 99b) would conclude that Torah lishmah is learning in order to know how to observe, how to decide future questions, or to teach. And assuming the amoraim aren’t really arguing, any of these three motives is “lishmah”. The Yerushalmi goes as far as to say “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world].” The Meshekh Chokhmah (Devarim 28:61) explains that this is because it the goal were to get Torah into the soul, full stop, then that is more easily accomplished before birth, as an intellect unencumbered by a body. (I translated this comment in the Meshekh Chokhmah: part I, part II [where this point is made], part III.)

And a bigger problem with thinking that he means that Torah lishmah is an end to itself is that the introduction to the book tells us that Rav Chaim made a point of teaching his son that people were created for the sake of others. Refining my own knowledge doesn’t fit that worldview, unless it’s not actually the end in itself.


So, how do I understand Nefesh haChaim overall? With trepidation; after all I opened with the assertion that people far more knowledgable than I am only captured the aspects of Rav Chaim’s teachings that fit their abilities and perspectives. So, the following is merely yet another person’s incomplete picture.

I think the distinction between real tzimtzum of kevod Hashem and the apparent absence of G-d Himself parallels the the two types of lishmah, and the concept underlies Rav Yitzchaq’s decision of how to organize Nefesh haChaim.

Section 1 speaks of man’s ability to improve the world, that this is what it means to be in Hashem’s “image”.  Section 2 speaks about prayer, drawing G-dliness down into the world, and identifying the world and its problems with His Ends. (We do not pray for our health, we pray for the health that Hashem wishes He could give us.) Until sec. 3, we are dealing with things that are to be done lesheim Pa’alan. We are told in sec. 3 that the Maqom (the illusion of Hashem’s Kavod being absent) refers to Hashem causing existence — and thus Hashem as Pa’alan.

With sec. 3 we are taught there is a second facet, the actual tzimtzum. This allows us to start discussing the lishmah of Torah, which is also Rav Chaim’s conception of deveiqus: to internalize His Thought, His Will.

Then the “chapters” complete this shifting of gears. The lishmah of mitzvos enhances them, but the lishmah of Torah is part of its essence. And so before discussing the power of talmud Torah, Nefesh haChaim includes a description of how to fight the yeitzer hara and achieve lishmah. There is a positive feedback cycle  between performance and attitude — performance generates lishmah (“מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה — from doing it not lishmah, one comes to do it lishmah”, Sanhedrin 105b) and lishmah heightens performance.

By making Torah study the identification with Hashem’s Will, and making this lishmah part of its essence, Rav Chaim is defining  Torah study and the cognitive  acquisition of knowledge as value not for its intellectual accomplishment but for its ability to change the self. Nefesh haChaim describes learning a cognitive approach to middah modification. Which is why yir’ah, is a prerequisite to being able to acquire Torah. Cognitively getting facts doesn’t require yir’ah, but being changed by those facts does demand an awareness of the magnitude of what and Who one is confronting.

To Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Talmud Torah is the primary means  for fulfilling the advice of Rabban Gamliel III (the son of Rav Yehudah haNasi) in Avos 2:4, “עשה רצונו כרצונך — make His Will like your will”. It’s a cognitive approach to middah modification. All of the power to repair the world (sec. 1) through our actions and to draw Hashem’s shefa into it with speech (sec. 2) only has value if we first turn our wills into His Will (sec. 4), so that our attempts to perfect the world actually improve it.

And so, Rav Chaim isn’t entirely denying the traditional understanding of Torah lishmah. It is still meant as being for the sake of others, just as Hashem “Acts” on the behalf of others. And this other-focus is a central theme in how the author raised his son. But its lishmah is not for the sake of doing or the Doer, but for the sake of acquiring the Torah itself, the Will of the Creator (as explained in sec. 3), to be capable of repairing the world (sec. 1 & 2) in the future.

And the Path of the Moon at Night

Somewhat off topic for this blog, but I hope it will help those following daf yomi who are getting to the topic of astronomy and cross-examining witnesses to determine Rosh Chodesh (Rosh haShanah, mostly around 23b-24a).

Really, the statements about the appearance of the moon can be deduced from two things you already know.

1- The moon rises one less time each month than does the sun

The missing moon right before the molad isn’t that the moon just takes a day off. It’s that the moon goes a smidgeon slower across the sky than does the sun.

(You were probably taught that the solar system revolves around the sun, and we could describe the whole thing that way. But it’s unnecessary for the gemara. For those who insist: The moon is moving in the same direction as the earth’s spin, so that at the end of exactly 24 hours we are in the same place in our spin, but the moon is a little ahead. Until we get to seeing the moon in exactly the same spot, it will be more than 24 hours. As I said, this parenthetic confuses you, you don’t need it.)

Because the moon crosses the sky more slowly than the sun, on Rosh Chodesh it will be slightly behind the sun. Moonrise will be slightly after sunrise, and at the end of the day the moon will only be out a little after sunset and be done. The next day, it will be somewhat more behind sunrise. At a half-moon, the moon is rising at noon and setting at midnight. And finally a little before the new moon it will be nearly a day behind the sun, and therefore be slightly ahead of the next sunrise. The moon will rise slightly before dawn, and set slightly before sunset.

Aside: Notice that this means the moon is out during the day as often as at night. We just tend to ignore that pale white-and-blue daytime moon seen close to sunrise or to sunset, depending on the time of month. I have no idea why we teach children otherwise. In terms of the chumash, we are told that Hashem created the moon “lememsheles balaylah — to rule at night”. We aren’t actually told it’s only out at night; only that its role at night is somehow similar (whatever is meant by “ruling”) as the sun’s is during the day.

2- The moon’s light is a reflection of sunlight

Which means that the side of the moon that is lit will always be the one closer to the sun. When there is a partial moon, the “belly” of the lit side will be toward the sun. Or as the gemara puts it, the “horns” of the moon will always point away from the sun.

And you will only see the moon when the sun is either below the horizon or close enough to sunrise or sunset for it to appear dim enough to not wash out the moon’s white-and-blue daytime appearance. Which means that whenever you see the moon, it is close to the middle of the sky than the sun is. And therefore the lit side of the moon will be “down” closer to the horizon, and the “horns” pointing “up” toward the middle of the sky.


Sighting the end of last month: The moon has fallen so far behind the sun that it’s leading the next day’s sun. So it will rise slightly before dawn. Since the moon is ahead of the sun in its east-to-west path, the moon will be to the sun’s west. (The sun will be at the east or south-east horizon, the moon slightly above the horizon.) The thin sliver of moon will be the sun-ward, i.e. eastward side — toward the horizon, and the “horns” will point west, toward the middle of the sky.

Sighting the molad: The moon just started trailing the sun, so it rises slightly after sunrise and set slightly after sunset. The most likely time to see it, given the brightness of the sun, would be in the evening. Since it’s behind of the sun in its path, the moon will be to its east. (The sun will be at the west or south-west horizon, the moon slightly above the horizon.) The thin sliver of moon will be the sun-ward, i.e. westward side — toward the horizon, and the “horns” will point east, which again is toward the middle of the sky.

The moon during the day is blue and white, and is only out during times of change — sunrise or sunset. How does this relate to the comparison of the Jewish People to the moon?


A Kingdom of Priests

We are here between ourselves, so we may frankly make the confession that we did not invent the art of printing; we did not discover America, in spite of Kayserling; we did not inaugurate the French Revolution, in spite of some one else; we were not the first to utilize the power of steam or electricity, in spite of any future Kayserling. Our great claim to the gratitude of mankind is that we gave to the world the word of God, the Bible. We have stormed heaven to snatch down this heavenly gift, as the Paitanic expression is; we threw ourselves into the breach and covered it with our bodies against every attack; we allowed ourselves to be slain by hundreds and thousands rather than become unfaithful to it; and we bore witness to its truth and watched over its purity in the face of a hostile world. The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future.

I believe that this describes what it means for us to be the “mamelkhes kohanim“, Hashem’s “kingdom of priests”, with humanity as our flock.

Many consider Yeshaiah’s calls to bring Torah to the masses in a similar light (pardon the pun):

אֲנִי ה קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ וְאֶצָּרְךָ וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

I, Hashem, have called to you in righteousness, and will hold your hand tightly, and given you to be as the people’s covenant, as a light for the nations.

- 42:6
וַיֹּאמֶר נָקֵל מִהְיוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד לְהָקִים אֶת שִׁבְטֵי יַעֲקֹב וּנְצוּרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהָשִׁיב וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם לִהְיוֹת יְשׁוּעָתִי עַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ

And He said: It is too easy for you to be My servant, to establish the tribes of Yaaqov, and the besieged of Israel, and I shall submit you as a light for the nations, to be My salvation until the end of the earth.

- 49:6
וְהָלְכוּ גוֹיִם לְאוֹרֵךְ וּמְלָכִים לְנֹגַהּ זַרְחֵךְ

And nations shall walk to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

– 60:3

And leaving the “light for the nations” image, Yeshaiah also has:

וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים, וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל הַר ה אֶל בֵּית אֱ-לֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו: כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר ה מִירוּשָׁלִָם.

And many nations will go and say: Let us come and ascend to Hashem’s mountain and to the house of the G-d of Yaaqov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will go in His light; because the Torah will come out of Zion, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.

– 2:3

Which is echoed by his contemporary, Mikhah (4:2). But all of these are descriptive, in the future tense, rather than prescriptive, in the imperative. Hashem is describing what will be, perhaps in a messianic context.

It is the pasuq in chumash which makes it clear that it is an imperative. We are duty-bound to be a priesthood for the nations. The world is a glorious mosaic, each nationality bringing its strength to the body of humanity. Ours is to provide its spirituality and moral voice.

וְעַתָּה, אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי, וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ: אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And now, if you surely listen to My Voice and guard my covenant, you will be for Me a treasure among all the nations; for all the world is Mine. And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation — these are the things you should tell the Benei Yisrael!

– Shemos 19:5-6

And if we are dissatisfied with the level of morality and spirituality among the congregation, our reaction should not be to deride our parishioners, but to inspire them.

Amoraim and Amoraim

I am not a fan of the revadim (layers) method of gemara study. In short, this is a way of analyzing the gemara by teasing out the various layers of halachic discourse through the centuries we simply call “chazal”. My opposition isn’t so much that I think there is anything heretical or evil about it, just that this isn’t the way the gemara is meant to be studied. It’s focusing on a feature we should really consider incidental, in terms of the priorities of talmud Torah. Simply because we should be focusing on halachic authority, not history.

Still, it may be of interest that the voices in Shas can be divided into three eras, and one of those divisions actually has halachic significance.  My tutorial in this area was a PhD thesis by Joshua Even Eisen titled, “Stammaitic Activity versus Stammaitic Chronology; Anonymity’s Impact on the Legal Narrative of the Babylonian Talmud“.

It’s discussed in Doros haRishoinim (R’ Yitzchaq haLevi, Frankfurt, 189 – DhR) and Hischavus haTalmud beShleimuso (R’ Avraham Weiss, New York, 1943). DhR sets out three periods:

  1. The acceptance of Rebbe’s work as The Mishnah to Abyaei veRava (AvR). In this period, halakhah was discussed using Rebbe’s mishnayos as the structure, but not attempt at organizing.
  2. AvR to Rav Ashi veRavina (RAvR). I am preserving the name order used by the Rambam, as it’s likely this Ravina is R’ Ashi’s grandson, not the one of “Ravina veR’ Ashi”. New discussion and redaction of earlier conversations into the start of a formalization.
  3. The savoraim, under whom the basic gemara wasn’t changed much, it was more a cleanup and the insertion of a few notes that ended up in the final text. (To which I would add: whether by intent or not, I have no idea.)

I would also note that with Abayei’s death, Yeshivas Pumpedisa (which is today’s “Falluja“) moved to Mechoza and was taken over by Rava. So there is a geographical discontinuity between (2) and (3) as well.

There is halachic significance to each of these breaks, which is why I think this particular point goes beyond the general issue of revadim.

Halakhah kebasra’i — the halakhah is like the latter [authority]” is only miAbayei veRava va’eilakh (from AvR onward) and before that “ein halakhah ketalmid bemaqom harav — the halakhah is not like the student in the place of the rebbe” held sway. (See “halakhah kebasra’i” for sources.) The Mahariq (shoresh 84) writes that it’s because before AvR a student learned only “al pi qabalas raboseihem, kefi mah shehayu shonim lahem — according to what their rebbes received, what they [the mentors] repeated to them.” But from AvR onward “lomdu kol hadei’os — they learned all the opinions”. Which could be taken to be a change in teaching style, or as a standardization of set shaqlos vetaryos (question-and-answer dialectics) consistent with saying they compiled a proto-Bavli. But what’s important in terms of talmud Torah is the effect, the change in meaning in how we read statements before Abayei veRava, vs. those made by them or after.

And in fact it was in context of learning about when halakhah kebasra’i began from a public speaker (forgot whom) that I was first told of this idea of AvR’s proto-gemara. It was said en passant, not presented as the lecture’s focal chiddush. So I thought I had just filled a lacuna in my own knowledge. (Which was when I found the above-cited thesis.)

There are some who try to show that consistent with this statement, the Rambam never pasqens like material that is provably after RAvR over other positions from Chazal. As the Rambam writes in his introduction to his Code, “Rav Ashi veRavina sof hora’ah — Rav Ashi and Ravina are the end of halachic guidance [of some level].” Although it would seem that other rishonim place the line at the sealing of the Talmud, and thus would include as amoraic (in authority, not history) those opinions of savoraim that were deemed worthy of inclusion.

To compare to the sequence in producing the Yerushalmi… Tradition has it that Rav Yochanan and Reish Laqish authored the Yerushalmi. This can’t be taken at face value, because Rav Yochanan, a student of Rebbe, was the first generation of amoraim and Reish Laqish was his chavrusah — most of the Yerushalmi post-dates them. I would therefore suggest that they compiled proto-Yerushalmi, much the way Abayei and Rava later start the process that produces the Bavli. There is very little stam, unnamed text in the Yerushalmi, and very little editing of quotes. Part of this may be conceptual — the Yerushalmi places more emphasis in tracking and preserving quotes — but part of this is also because the Israeli amoraic tradition ends abruptly, with expulsion. The Yerushalmi is an unfinished book.

While discussing the Rambam and differences in authority in statements of amoraim, I wish to add one more idea. According to the Gra, the Rambam considered named opinions more authoritative than unsigned ones. Therefore, while in general the Rambam sided with the Bavli, he would rule like a named opinion in the Yerushalmi over an unnamed one in the Bavli. There are still a few unnamed passages in the Yerushalmi, which would be yet earlier than most of the Bavli. But even so, these passages do not — according to the Gra — get chosen by the Rambam over later named quotes in the Bavli. It’s not about historical sequence, but of exact citation.

Some dispute this, the matter of how much emphasis the Rambam gave the Yerushalmi is a matter open to debate. One point in favor of assuming greater value was that when the Rabam was 30 — years before writing the Mishneh Torah — he wrote all or part of Halakhos haYerushalmi — a collection of the Yerushalmi’s halachic conclusions, much the way the Rif addressed the Bavli. (Dr Saul Leiberman produced a critical edition of the extant portions.)

Either would stand in contrast to the Ri (Berachos 11b, Tosafos “shekevar niftar“), who explicitly dismisses any role of the Yerushalmi in halakhah where the Bavli states a position — even unnamed, stam.

And a middle road is taken by the author of the Shulchan Arukh (Kessef Mishnah, Hil’ Geirushin 13:18) . He too say the the halakhah is always like the Bavli over the Yerushalmi. But our understanding of the Bavli should be based on the assumption that its conflicts with the Yerushalmi are rare. Therefore, we must sometimes take an understanding of the gemara that would otherwise seem a stretch (dochaq) because assuming the two conflict is implicitly a greater stretch. According to the Shulchan Arukh, then, we need to refer to both Talmuds just to know what the Bavli is saying in order to follow it, even though in theory we are following the Bavli exclusively.

Process and Permanence

When you drop a drop of ink into a cup of water, the ink spirals around in some chaotic pattern and eventually diffuses until the entire liquid is a uniform light blue. Even though each time you repeat the experiment the dance and spiral is different, something about it in the general is predictable. If you had different snapshots of the sequence that were far enough apart in time, you could place them in historical order – overall the blue area will get larger. Entropy always increases until it reaches the maximum. The system runs a certain way, reaching equilibrium.

History is also a process. At the time of creation, the world was not created in its ideal end-state form. To review an earlier post in which I explored this divergence… It all began on the very first Tuesday:

There is a medrash (Breishis Rabba 5:9) that comments on a change in language in the middle describing of the creation of trees. Hashem orders the earth on the third day to bring forth “eitz peri oseh peri“, fruit trees that make fruit, yet the land actually produces only “eitz oseh peri“. Between the commandment and the fulfillment, something is lost. The medrash explains that originally the wood would have tasted like the fruit, so that it would truly be a “fruit tree”. Instead of the norm being that the wood of the tree would taste like the fruit, this is now the exception. With a couple of exceptions, one of them — note this for later — the esrog, the trees, or the angels entrusted to guard them, were afraid for their survival. If the wood tasted like the fruit, animals would eat the plant rather than the fruit, and they would die out. And so, the earth “disobeyed”.What does this medrash mean? Does the earth have free will, that it can choose to disobey G-d? …

According to Rav Kook [Orot haTeshuvah 6:7], the medrash gives the reason why the holiness of our goal is not felt in our day-to-day life. Our physical framework is limited and needs support. It requires our attention. The trees didn’t embody the ideal because they were afraid for their survival. In truth, the mundane only exists to be the means to an end, but because of the needs of survival, it takes on its own reality.
The second step occurs on day four, with Hashem’s creation of the moon. … In Parshas Bereishis (1:16) the Torah reads: “And G-d made the two large luminaries — the large luminary to rule the day and the small luminary to rule the night — and the stars.” The gemara (Chulin 60b) points out an inconsistency in the pasuq. R. Shimon ben Pazi asks why the Torah first describes the sun and moon as “the two large luminaries”, but then it calls the sun “the large luminary” and the moon is called the small one. The gemara answers with a story. Originally the sun and moon were the same size. But the moon complained to Hashem, “Can there exist two kings sharing the same crown?” How can both the sun and the moon share the glory? … [longer exchange deleted]

The Maharsha explains that the story is about the Jewish people and our goals vs the world at large and theirs. … Why do we live in a world that seems to be dominated by Edom’s principal, that might makes right? Why isn’t holiness the dominant idea, and right make might?

… One day 3, the notion of needing to be concerned about the “real world” entered creation, which made it take on a life of its own, hiding its true nature of being merely the means toward holiness. Now, this second thing became a competing power. The moon sees a power struggle between itself, the pursuit of holiness, and the might of the sun.

The gemara (Succah 35a) explains, “‘P’ri eitz hadar’ — that its fruit tastes like the tree.” A defining feature of the esrog is that it did not participate in the rebellion of day three. Based on this, Medrash Rabba (15:6) identifies the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the eitz hada’as, with the esrog. … [Chavah and Adam] ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night overlap. The sun and moon, might and holiness, vie for rule.

Through these three stages we have the creation of the notion of secular, that which we can’t already see holiness and the goal of the process in it; secular rises to be an opposing power to the holy; and man internalizes this gap by eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Interestingly, these stages are revisited through the course of last week’s parashah and this one’s — Qorach and Chuqas.

What made me realize this was when we read about one of the miracles that put the complaints of Qorach’s camp to rest. Each of the princes, including Aharon, took a staff and Moshe laid them before the aron. The next morning, Aharon’s staff had produced buds, blossoms, and ripe fruit. Rav Kook raises this point in his discussion of the trees. Aharon’s staff had all the stages of producing fruit at the same time, even though in nature one develops into the other in the course of seasons.

(The almond is the first tree in Israel to bud, but it isn’t harvested until after the fruit dries out and its seed, the nut, is ready. Thus its process to create fruit is the longest of any Israeli crop. Perhaps that is why it was chosen.)

After the dispute with Qorach, the people express terror of the Mishkan. They are afraid that all who enter it die.Hashem teaches us the laws of terumah, ma’aser and other gifts to the kohanim. A farmer is reminded that he does not raise a crop without Hashem’s aid. He is called upon to sanctify that crop by dedicating some of it to the kohanim and levi’im. A sanctification of the secular. A repair of the fruit tree, the moon, and the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

A punishment of eating that fruit was that man became a mortal being (Bereishis 2:17). Overcoming death is the central theme of parashas Chuqas, which tells of the mitzvah of the parah adumah, the death of Miriam and the restoration of food, and the death of Aharon and the restoration of food.

As I wrote in yet another older essay (Chuqas 1995):

The parah [adumah] is a work animal. However, to be usable for the mitzvah, this cow must never have been harnessed. It represents the physical man, which, in the state of tum’ah, is not controlled by the creative mind. For this reason, the parah must be pure red – the color of unadulterated physicality. [Adom - red, related to adamah - earth.]

How does one get past death, and permitted again to enter the beis hamiqdash? By remembering that the physical is not an end in itself. That the body in question was “merely” a tool to be harnessed for the Divine Goal, that what we call secular is the process for reaching holy, in which the eventual holiness is hidden.

With Miriam’s death, this lesson is learned imperfectly. We were receiving water in Miriam’s merit, and with her death we needed a new well. Moshe and Aharon manage to reestablish a source of water, but do so by hitting the rock rather than speaking to it. It is with Aharon’s death that we succeed in continuing what he established in his lifetime.

Non-coincidentally, the next event in the Torah involves Edom, the “sun” in the metaphor of the two great lights. But this devar Torah is long enough…

How does one create permanence? I asked this question a number of years ago in an essay on parashas Pequdei:

When the parts of the Mishkan were completed, the Mishkan was then dedicated in the Shmonas Yimei Hamilu’im, 8 days in which it was assembled and taken down. For the first seven days, it was assembled by Aharon and his sons, the kohanim. On the eight day, Moshe assembled the Mishkan.

What was the purpose of this? If the building of the Mishkan was just practice, to learn how to do it in the future, Moshe would have demonstrated to the kohanim how to assemble the Mishkan on the first day, not the last, after they’ve done it seven times already.

Rav Samson Rephael Hirsch sees in these 8 days a symbol for the subsequent history of all of the sanctuaries. The Mishkan was assembled in five places: Sinai, Gilgal, Shilo, Nov, and Gideon. After the Mishkan, we have had two Batei Mikdash so far, and await the building of the third. In all, sanctuaries are built eight times in Jewish history.

There is a famous Aggadita that explains why Moshe Rabbeinu could not be the one to take us into Eretz Yisrael. Anything Moshe did is permanent. This is important, because if it were possible to abrogate one thing that he did, it brings into question the permanence of the Torah. However, Hashem knew that the time would come when the Jews would deserve punishment. By having Joshua bring us into Israel, it made the choice of exile a possible punishment.

This makes Rabbiner Hirsch’s comment even more interesting. On the eighth day the assembly was done by Moshe. The eighth day also parallels the Third Beis Hamikdosh, which will never be destroyed. Moshe was not merely participating in the consecration of the Mishkan, but also was demonstrating the permanence of the Messianic age. The Temple will not fall again, there will be no more exiles.

But what gave Moshe Rabbeinu’s actions the power of permanence?

R. Yochanan Hasandler (Avos 4:14) describes what gives permanence to a congregation. “Any congregation which is lesheim Shamayim will end up existing, and congregation which is not lesheim Shamayim will not end up existing.”

Perhaps this too is the source of the permanence of Moshe Rabbeinu’s actions. Just as a congregation that is lesheim Shamayim endures, so too other activities.

There is a similar statement about arguments, to which our story of Qorach is set up as a foil. Avos 5:20:

Any dispute which is for the lesheim Shamayim its outcome is that it will be permanent, and any dispute which is not for the lesheim Shamayim — its outcome is that it will not be permanent. What is a dispute which is for the lesheim Shamayim? This is the dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is the dispute which is not for the lesheim Shamayim? This is the dispute between Qorach and all his followers.

But why do things that are for the sake of heaven persist? For that I think we should return to the cup of water. Enough time has passed that it’s entirely an inky blue. The outcome was predetermined, but the path the process took to get there was not.

History too, is on a path. From the non-ideal state where the tree does not taste like the fruit, the holiness of its goals are not always seen in its means, to the messianic vision of “the whole world will be filled of knowledge of Hashem,” a world in which “Hashem be One and His name, One.” Not divided between tree and fruit, no more wars between the sun and moon.

Qorach played for Edom’s power, and therefore did not succeed. Because his vision did not fit that final state, it did not persist. Moshe and Aharon — and much later, the schools of Hillel and Shammai — saw their authority as a tool for making sanctity manifest, and so they did.

We tend to think of Hashem punishing sin because it’s evil. But we can equally view sin as that which doesn’t fit Hashem’s plan, and thus Hashem forewarns us that according to the rules He set up, it has no permanence. The person aligned with sin and everything he gained through his sin would perforce be destroyed. (This idea and the water-in-ink metaphor are from the Aspaqlaria reader for Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, pg. 45 “The Thermodynamics of History.)

That which is performed for the sake of heaven is part of the greater plan of the process of history — a physical action tied to the sacred goal — and therefore does have permanence. This is what we see from Qorach, teruamah and maaser, and as the parah adumah tells us — even allows what we created to survive death.

(This devar Torah was originally given at shevar berakhos for my nephew and new niece-in-law, phrased to answer the question: Well, everyone wishes you a ba’ayis ne’eman beYisrael. But how does one actually build a “permanent home in Israel?” Mazal tov Pinchas and Malkah!)

Redemption and Teshuvah

My friend Neil Harris wrote over on his blog Modern Uberdox:

I pray that this Pesach brings an end to the exile of the self and a redemption of the person I was created to be.

On which I commented:

First reaction: Beautiful!

Second reaction: Woah, wait a second, how then is Pesach different than Yom Kippur? (not meant rhetorically)

I liked our answers to this question sufficiently to want them recorded here on my turf.

R’ Neil’s suggestion:

Teshuva is a return to the state of who we should be. I think geulah (redemption) is the actualization of the potential. It’s the difference… of wanting to serve Hashem and serving Hashem.

Which is powerful enough to warrant pausing here rather than rushing to my reply. I’ll wait.

Between the time I asked and the time I was able to revisit RNH’s blog, I played with the following:

Tishrei is (in the Zohar’s language) an is’arusa delesata (an awakening from below) — we awaken the qedushah, and Hashem responds. Nissan is an is’aru dele’eilah (from above) — Hashem offers us the qedushah, and it is for us to respond. This is why Tishrei is associated with Din (Divine Justice), as Hashem’s response is in measure to what we earned, whereas Nissan is unearned holiness, an expression of Rachamim (Divine Empathy).


Applying this idea…


Ge’ulah is being freed from those external challenges that are holding us back. Thus, Hashem can offer it to us without violating our free will. And so it happens in Nissan.


Teshuvah is freeing ourselves from our internal flaws. Something we must do for ourselves — a Tishrei awakening from below.

Pagans in Our Midst

נענה רבן גמליאל ואמר: “צְדָקָה תְרוֹמֵם גּוֹי…” (משלי יד:לד) — אלו ישראל. דכתיב (דברי הימים א יז:כא) “וּמִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל…” [וגו'] “…וְחֶסֶד לְאֻמִּים חַטָּאת”(משלי שם) — כל צדקה וחסד שעכו”ם עושין, חטא הוא להן. שאין עושין אלא להתיהר בו. וכל המתיהר נופל בגיהנם, שנאמר (משלי כא:כד), “זֵד יָהִיר לֵץ שְׁמוֹ עוֹשֶׂה בְּעֶבְרַת זָדוֹן.” ואין עברה אלא גיהנם שנאמר (צפניה א:טו), “יוֹם עֶבְרָה הַיּוֹם הַהוּא….”

Rabban Gamliel answered and said:

“Righteousness will uplift a nation…” — That is Israel. As it says, “And who is like Your nation, Israel….”

“…And the loving-kindness of the nations is sin” — All the righteousness and loving-kindness that idolaters do, it is a sin for them, because they only act in order to glorify themselves with it. And anyone who indulges in self-glorification falls into gehenom, as it says “A proud and egotistical man, ‘scorner’ is his name, he acts in sinful pride” and sin is nothing but gehenom, as it says, “That day is a day of sin[, a day of tragedy and distress, a day of holocaust and desolation]…”

- Bava Basra 10b

The gemara defines the key attribute of paganism is that it subverts all spirituality and kindness into acts of self-glorification. All of worship is selfish, in service of the pagan’s own ends. Lightening is scary, so the Romans attributed it to Zeus and the Germanic peoples to Thor. War appears to run out of control once ignited; it must be the whim of the Canaanite Anat, or Ares (Greece) or Mars (Rome). Once the force is reduced from something more powerful than themselves to a person they can appease through worship, the pagan can feel more in control.

כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה כְּדֵי לְקַבַּל שָׂכָר, אוֹ כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא תַגִּיעַ עָדָיו פֻּרְעָנוּת, הֲרֵי זֶה עוֹסֵק בָּהּ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ. וְכָל הָעוֹסֵק בָּהּ לֹא לְיִרְאָה, וְלֹא לְקַבַּל שָׂכָר, אֵלָא מִפְּנֵי אַהֲבַת אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ שֶׁצִּוָּה בָּהּ–הֲרֵי זֶה עוֹסֵק בָּהּ לִשְׁמָהּ. וְאָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים, “לְעוֹלָם יַעְסֹק אָדָם בַּתּוֹרָה [וּמִצְוֹת], אַפִלּוּ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ. שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ, בָּא לִשְׁמָהּ.” (רב יהודה אמר רב, פסחים נ:) לְפִיכָּךְ כְּשֶׁמְּלַמְּדִין אֶת הַקְּטַנִּים וְאֶת הַנָּשִׁים וּכְלָל עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, אֵין מְלַמְּדִין אוֹתָן אֵלָא לַעֲבֹד מִיִּרְאָה וּכְדֵי לְקַבַּל שָׂכָר, עַד שֶׁתִּרְבֶּה דַּעְתָּן וְיִתְחַכְּמוּ חָכְמָה יְתֵרָה, מְגַּלִּין לָהֶן רָז זֶה מְעַט מְעַט; וּמַרְגִּילִין אוֹתָן לְעִנְיָן זֶה בְּנַחַת, עַד שֶׁיַּשִּׂיגוּהוּ וְיֵדָעוּהוּ וְיַעַבְדוּ מֵאַהֲבָה.

Whomever is busy in Torah in order to receive reward or in order that tribulations don’t reach him, he is busy in it “shelo lishmah — not for its [proper] sake”. And whomever is busy in [Torah] not because of yir’ah [of punishment] nor in order to receive reward, but because of love for the L-rd of the whole world Who commanded it, that one is busy with it “lishmah — for its [proper sake]. And our sages [Rav Yehudah, quoting Rav] said, “A person should always be busy in Torah [and mitzvos] even if shelo lishmah. Because through acting shelo lishmah, comes [being motivated] lishmah.” Therefore, when we teach children, women and the uninformed in general, we do not teach them anything but to serve from yir’ah and also to get a reward. Until their knowledge increases, and they gain greater wisdom. You reveal to them this secret little by little, and you pleasantly habituate them to this idea, until they grasp it, understand it, and act from love.

- Rambam, Hilkhos Teshuvah 10:5

According to the Rambam, ignorant people might need to be led to serving Torah through love of the Creator. However, this is just a stepping stone. All through the process they must understand that the ideal is different. Otherwise, we turn Judaism into a kind of paganism, ch”v. The Chovos haLvavos writes in Sha’ar Yichud haMaaseh ch. 4 that doing mitzvos out of this sort of self-worship is worse than idolatry in four ways:

  1. the self-worshiper knows Torah, and thus the warning against serving anyone but Hashem;
  2. he worships someone in rebellion against G-d, whereas the idolater worships something that isn’t;
  3. all his acts are tainted, whereas the idolater is only inappropriate in the worshiping of one thing; and
  4. the self-worshiper who goes through the motions of being an observant Jew will mislead others, the idolater is obvious.

Rav JB Soloveitchik gives an etiology for why this tendency might be on the increase in today’s society:

Let me spell out this passional experience of contemporary man of faith.   He looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society which is technically minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being. What can a man of faith like myself, living by a doctrine which has no technical potential, by a law which cannot be tested in the laboratory, steadfast in his loyalty to an eschatological vision whose fulfillment cannot be predicted with any degree of probability, let alone certainty, even by the most complex, advanced mathematical calculations — what can such a man say to a functional utilitarian society which is saeculum-oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart?

Tradition Magazine vol. 7 no. 2, The Lonely Man of Faith, pg 8

Adam the Second (Adam as described in Bereishis 2), who seeks redemption through relationships with others and with the Creator, the Man of Faith, seeks spirituality as an end in itself. As science and technology progress, the stance of Adam the First , who is charged (in ch. 1) to “subdue the world and master it” is a very successful strategy and popular self-image. But to him, religion gets reduced to a pragmatic tool. The “functional utilitarian society which is saeculum-oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart” has decided that the value of praying is that “A Family That Prays Together, Stays Together”. Not that prayer is of value in-and-of itself.

There are a number of phenomena in today’s observant community that make me nervous, because for many they may be symptoms of a pagan, functional, religion. This is not to say all of these elements of our worship are inherently evil or wrong. But the disproportionate interest they are getting might be.


The most blatant way Orthodox Jews today may be turning avodas Hashem into a means for getting their own ends is the increasing attention segulos have been getting. Five metal rings, or rings made at the graves of particular famous rabbis. Red strings from Qever Rachel. All of these could have originated tools for kavanah and either aiding prayer or turning to Hashem with one’s problems in an act of “prayer”. Siblings to dipping an apple in honey on Rosh haShanah to underscore our prayer that it be Hashem’s Will that we have a good and sweet year. But they do not seem to be “sold” that way in publications and conversation.

The loss of this distinction, between actions that add passion to a request from the Almighty to believe in the power of the action itself is frighteningly similar to the Rambam’s description of the birth of idolatry:

בִּימֵי אֱנוֹשׁ טָעוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם טְעוּת גְּדוֹלָה, וְנִבְעֲרָה עֲצַת חַכְמֵי אוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר; וֶאֱנוֹשׁ עַצְמוֹ, מִן הַטּוֹעִים.  וְזוֹ הָיְתָה טְעוּתָם:  אָמְרוּ הוֹאִיל וְהָאֵל בָּרָא כּוֹכָבִים אֵלּוּ וְגַלְגַּלִּים אֵלּוּ לְהַנְהִיג אֶת הָעוֹלָם, וּנְתָנָם בַּמָּרוֹם, וְחָלַק לָהֶם כָּבוֹד, וְהֶם שַׁמָּשִׁים הַמְּשַׁמְּשִׁים לְפָנָיו רְאוּיִים הֶם לְשַׁבְּחָם וּלְפָאֲרָם, וְלַחְלֹק לָהֶם כָּבוֹד.  וְזֶה הוּא רְצוֹן הָאֵל בָּרוּךְ הוּא, לְגַדַּל וּלְכַבַּד מִי שֶׁגִּדְּלוֹ וְכִבְּדוֹ, כְּמוֹ שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ רוֹצֶה לְכַבַּד עֲבָדָיו וְהָעוֹמְדִים לְפָנָיו, וְזֶה הוּא כִּבּוּדוֹ שֶׁלַּמֶּלֶךְ.
כֵּיוָן שֶׁעָלָה דָּבָר זֶה עַל לִבָּם, הִתְחִילוּ לִבְנוֹת לַכּוֹכָבִים הֵיכָלוֹת, וּלְהַקְרִיב לָהֶם קָרְבָּנוֹת, וּלְשַׁבְּחָם וּלְפָאֲרָם בִּדְבָרִים, וּלְהִשְׁתַּחֲווֹת לְמוּלָן–כְּדֵי לְהַשִּׂיג רְצוֹן הַבּוֹרֵא, בְּדַעְתָּם הָרָעָה.  וְזֶה, הָיָה עִיקַר עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה.
וְכָּךְ הֶם אוֹמְרִים עוֹבְדֶיהָ הַיּוֹדְעִים עִיקָרָהּ, לֹא שְׁהֶם אוֹמְרִים שְׁאֵין שָׁם אֱלוֹהַּ אֵלָא כּוֹכָב זֶה.  הוּא שֶׁיִּרְמְיָהוּ אוֹמֵר “מִי לֹא יִרָאֲךָ מֶלֶךְ הַגּוֹיִם, כִּי לְךָ יָאָתָה…” (ירמיהו י,ז-ח) כְּלוֹמַר, הַכֹּל יוֹדְעִין שֶׁאַתָּה הוּא הָאֵל לְבַדָּךְ; אֲבָל טְעוּתָם וּכְסִילוּתָם, שֶׁמְּדַמִּין שֶׁזֶּה הַהֶבֶל רְצוֹנָךְ הוּא.

In the days of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave destructive advice. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. Their mistake was as follows: They said that since G-d created these stars and spheres with which to control the world, placed them on high and accorded to them honor, and they are servants who minister before Him. Therefore[, they said], it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor; that it the Will of G-d, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.
Since this idea came upon their hearts, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would – according to their false conception – be fulfilling the will of God. This was the essence of the worship of false gods.
And this was the rationale of those who worshiped them who knew the essence. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star. Which is what Yirmiyahu says (10:7-8): “Who will not fear You, King of the nations, for to You it is fitting….” I.e., all know that You alone are G-d. Their error and foolishness consists of conceiving of this emptiness as Your Will.

- Rambam, Laws of Idolatry 1:1

Idolatry began with confusing the means with the ends, looking at appeasing forces rather than remembering they are but things Hashem utilize, and everything depends on how He assesses us and our needs.

Qabbalistic Causality

Closely related to segulos is our increased focus on the segulah aspect of mitzvos. Not to put up a mezuzah as a reminder that protection comes from G-d, not our walls, or more purely putting it up because Hashem commanded us to. Instead, we increasingly view mezuzos as a means for obtaining protection. The ultimate object of worship is myself; my goal is my own safety. Similarly the belief that one should keep kosher in order to avoid the heartbreak of teen rebellion by eliminating timtum haleiv (the callusing of the heart associated with consuming non-kosher food). One who gives tzedaqah in order to have success in business, or gives to the tzedaqah that promises particular miracles or near miracles. And spend more spreading the word claiming credit for past “miracles” than explaining the nature and worthiness of their cause!

By the way, what started this post was a story in Bechadrei Chareidim by Yo’el Beitlman, dated 21-Nov-2012 titled “Mystery solved: Why dozens of children broke their arms“. Numerous children in a Satmar cheder in Borough Park broke in random events, falling and whatnot. Eventually, the school’s mezuzah was checked, and they found that the word “yadekha — your arm” was cracked. We are lead to believe that the mezuzah’s faulty state caused the injury to the boys — boys who were only left “unprotected” because they went to school to learn Torah!?

However, we can still understand this as a story of metaphysical causality without turning the mitzvah into something we observe for our own ends. Perhaps it’s common cause… Whatever higher force that was breaking the literal arms also broke the “al yadekha“. This spin calls on the community using this school to “yefashpeish/yemashmeish bemaasav“, rather than just replace the mezuzah and get on with life. And that defeats the motive of many of those focusing attention on such forces.

Miracle Stories

Which then impacts how we view hashqadah, and how we do kiruv. (Kiruv being one of the few remaining venues where hashqadah is discussed at length among adults.)

There is an entire genre of literature based on this premise that mitzvos are a means to get what you want. That if one only became a little more religious and had a little more bitachon (trust in the Almighty) the only airplanes they would miss were ones that would ch”v crash or be delayed, or would take them out of the country just when they instead get the phone call that saves their career. A world in which one mitzvah stands between who was in the World Trade Center that morning, and who was not.

Of course, we all know baalei teshuvah whose lives do not go as smoothly as their non-observant relatives. And we know stories of those who died on 9/11 in the midst of acts of selflessness. The whole thrust of the book of Iyov is to disspell this notion that religion is a means for understanding what happens to us.

וַיַּעַן-ה’ אֶת-אִיּוֹב, מנהסערה (מִן הַסְּעָרָה); וַיֹּאמַר:
מִי זֶה, מַחְשִׁיךְ עֵצָה בְמִלִּין בְּלִי-דָעַת.
אֱזָר-נָא כְגֶבֶר חֲלָצֶיךָ; וְאֶשְׁאָלְךָ, וְהוֹדִיעֵנִי.
אֵיפֹה הָיִיתָ, בְּיָסְדִי-אָרֶץ; הַגֵּד, אִם-יָדַעְתָּ בִינָה.
מִי-שָׂם מְמַדֶּיהָ, כִּי תֵדָע; אוֹ מִי-נָטָה עָלֶיהָ קָּו.

Hashem responded to Iyov from the whirlwind and said:
Who is this, who darkens advice with words that lack knowledge?
Gird you loins up like a hero; for I will make demands of you, and you will acknowledge Me.

Where were you when I established the world? Tell me, if you know reason!

Who set its measures, if you know? Or who set a line against it?


- Job 31:1-5

Bitachon is trust that everything is within His Plan, not within ours!

But if religion is a means to feel in control of a scary and uncertain universe, the evidence of our lives and those around us is ignored in favor of security.

Torah-Based Self-Help

The typical sefarim store today has shelves of self-help books. But I am concerned with books that that conflate mussar with self-help. These books like this turn mussar from being a means of becoming the person Hashem made me to be into a tool for self-actualization, being able to be the person I wish I were. Observing the Torah as a means to be happy rather than simply because it’s the right thing to do.You want to write a self-help book, great. We need more happiness and self-fulfillment in this world. But don’t make the Torah “a spade to dig with”.

Much of kiruv is based around this notion — that we worship G-d in order to have a happy life. (Part of this is that too much kiruv is oriented at marketing traditional Judaism rather than teaching it.) Again, yes we need to start out adulterating our motives with self interest. That is different than defining self-interest as the primary motive of religion, as the goal of observance.

G-d of the Gaps

My final instance is more subtle. One way in which paganism is the harnessing of spirituality for self-worship is in the creation of gods to explain the unknown.  The pagans worshiped deities to drive out the fear of the unknown. Blaming lightning on Thor does give the person hopes to control lightning by appeasing its god. But logically prior to that, blaming it on Thor takes it out of the realm of the unknown.

And so the pagan associates the gods with things they don’t understand and can’t get a handle on. And thus the pagan stops seeing his gods in things they can explain philosophically or scientifically. This is the “God of the Gaps” — the god who lives only in the gaps in human knowledge.

And this mentality apparently motivates much of our internal science-and-Torah debates. On one side, we have people who feel that if we don’t accept every miraculous claim of every medrash in its maximal and most extreme sense, we reduce G-d. They see G-d in the gaps, and therefore are maximizing G-d by insisting on the greatest possible gaps. On the other side, we have people with a near deist conception of G-d, where only that which cannot be explained in natural terms are left as miracles. His Wisdom is seen as being within nature, and miracles a concession. But they too are obsessing on G-d in relation to the gaps. However, with pride and confidence in science and technology, they feel more in control by placing G-d within science.

Neither are focusing on religion in terms of ethics and ideals, making the entire issue of Torah and science minor to our understanding of either, and its questions unimportant. Our obsession with the issue speaks of our placing G-d in the realm of explaining the world around us and thus of filling our need for security.