Archive for category Holidays

Purim and the Limits of Imagination

Enjoy this blast from the past.

lennonAccording to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.

One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.

The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.

Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.

Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner’s blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.

Click here to read the whole article.

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Tu B’Shevat: The Roots of Wisdom

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

From Celestial Navigation, a publication of Block Yeshiva

images[Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say:  Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds – to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are many and whose roots are few; then the wind will come and uproot it and turn it over. As it is said: “And he will be like a lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see when good comes. It will dwell on parched soil in the desert, on a salted land, uninhabited” (Yirmyahu 17:6). But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom — to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many; even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they will not move it from its place. As it is said: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the water spreading its roots toward the stream, and it will not notice when heat comes. Its leaves will be fresh, in a year of drought it will not worry, and it shall not cease yielding fruit” (ibid., 17:8).

Pirkei Avos 3:22

On the surface, Rabbi Elazar’s allegory appears easy to understand.  Scholarship alone is not enough; only when wisdom influences action and produces virtue will it endure.

On closer examination, however, the image of a tree raises many questions.  If wisdom is the source of action, why does Rabbi Elazar not compare wisdom to the roots and good deeds to the branches?  Just as roots draw sustenance from the earth to nourish the tree, similarly the roots in the allegory should represent the wisdom that fosters action.

Moreover, granted that wisdom is not enough, and that without good deeds a person is like a tree without adequate support, why describe a tree with few branches in the second part of the allegory?  If a person has many good deeds, why do the “branches” of his wisdom still have to be “few”?

And what is the point of mentioning the wind at all?  Would it not have been simpler to describe a tree so unstable that it is in danger of toppling under its own weight, regardless of external forces?

Finally, why does Rabbi Elazar prove his lesson with verses describing land that is either parched or abundantly watered?  Since the tree has no control over its environment, how are these verses relevant to his illustration?

THE ROAD OF GOOD INTENTIONS

Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes that when he was a boy, a visiting rabbi asked him the following question:  Since the Torah equates thought with action, then thinking of a question should be the same as actually speaking it.  “If so,” concluded the rabbi, “you should be able to answer the question I am thinking at this moment.”

The young Abraham Twersky offered the only reply that seemed to make sense:  “I am thinking of the answer,” he said.

The Torah’s equation of thought and deed informs us that thoughts are the first step toward actions and that actions are imperfect without sincere intent.  Nevertheless, thoughts alone are not enough: although wisdom is indisputably the source of action, it is action that secures and preserves our wisdom.  In the famous words of the Sefer HaChinuch, “man is drawn according to his deeds; his heart and all his thoughts follow inevitably after his actions, whether for good or for bad.”[1]

Unless properly channeled, wisdom comes to nothing; even worse, it may become twisted and corrupted through rationalization.˜

imagesUnderstood this way, actions are indeed the roots that support wisdom and enable it to endure, whereas scholarship that is not proportional to the measure of good deeds creates moral and spiritual instability.  Esoteric scholarship that is not firmly grounded in practical wisdom and disciplined behavior becomes first a distraction and ultimately a danger.  One who dabbles excessively in theoretical studies with little relevance to everyday life can easily become so lost in his musings that he neglects the mundane but essential responsibilities of worldly existence.

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

Whether or not we like it, as human beings we are creatures of habit.  This can work against us:  we easily fall into routine, often fail to give our activities the full attention they require, and frequently resist thinking outside the box.  But routine can work in our favor as well.  Just as bad habits are broken only with difficulty, good habits propel us in the right direction even when our minds are elsewhere.

Why do star basketball players invest hours a day shooting free throws, and why do actors rehearse their lines again and again, long after they have learned them by heart?  Because they understand that the more a person practices the more he implants natural actions and reactions into his subconscious, until they become woven into the fiber of his being.  The routine of repetition leaves an imprint upon his behavior that will govern his actions for the rest of his life.

Similarly, the more good deeds we perform, the more we inculcate good behavior into our psyche, and the greater the likelihood that we will continue to conduct ourselves in the same manner.  When the winds of temptation, of impulsivity, of self-interest, and of self-indulgence blow against us, the scholar will easily buckle before them unless he has trained himself in the performance of good deeds proportional to his scholarship.

THE WATERS OF VIRTUE

Why does one tree develop a complex root system when another becomes overgrown with branches?  A tree that is planted near water easily stretches out its roots to absorb the ready supply of life-giving water that surrounds it.  In contrast, a tree planted in parched soil sends its branches in all direction as it attempts to absorb moisture from the atmosphere.  Its search for sustenance creates its instability.

Unlike trees, which have no control over where they take root, human beings can determine their own environment.  If one chooses to live among people unconcerned with the goodness of their deeds, then he will become like a “lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see good when it comes.”  Without support from a community committed to virtuous conduct, even if one studies Torah and increases his wisdom, his wisdom will not endure, for it will remain disconnected from the actions necessary to preserve and protect it.

However, if he “plants” himself in a community devoted to applying the wisdom of Torah to concrete actions, then he will flourish, without fear of depletion, and will always enjoy the spiritual fruits of his labors.

According to Maharal, this equation is implicit in the Torah’s comment that man is a tree of the field (Devarim 20:19).[2]  We are in this world to grow, to stretch forth our branches, to reach for the heavens but remain firmly planted on the earth, to sustain the world with the fruit of our efforts by striving to fulfill the unique potential that resides in every one of us.  When our intellect guides our actions according to the laws and the values of the Torah, then our branches become an extension of our roots, and we find ourselves securely fastened to both this world and the World to Come.

imagesThe insights of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah offer a deeper understanding into the essence of Tu B’Shevat, when we celebrate the New Year of the trees.  Just as Rosh Hashanah reminds us that the whole world was created for man, Tu B’Shevat reminds us of man’s obligations to the world in which he lives.  The resources upon which we depend similarly depend on us, and the fruits of the natural world that sustain us will be sustained only when the fruits of our labors are so directed that they draw Hashem’s blessings back down from the heavens and replenish the bounty of the earth.

And so Hashem took Adam and showed him the trees of the Gan Eden, saying, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are!  Now all that I created is for you.  Take care that you do not destroy My world, for it there is no one to repair it after you.”[3]


[1] Parshas Bo, mitzvah 16

[2] Derech HaChaim, ad loc.

[3] Koheles Rabbah 7:13

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Latkes with Cranberry Sauce?

Published at Aish.com

Will Rogers couldn’t have said it better: “No nation has ever had more, yet no nation has ever had less.” And it’s easy to understand why the two go together.

imgresThe Talmud describes a person obsessed by the dream of becoming rich. If only he had a million dollars, he would be happy. So he labors tirelessly, clawing and scratching to amass his fortune, until what happens? The moment he finally makes his million, he immediately sets his sights on two million.

Human nature dictates that the more we have, the more we want. And the more we believe that we are entitled to have whatever we want, the less inclined we are either to be grateful for what we have or to recognize our obligations to others.

It’s somewhat heartening, therefore, that Thanksgiving has retained so prominent a place in American culture, even if most of us rarely give a passing thought to the Puritan ideals that gave birth to the holiday.

Read the whole article here.

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Gaining entry to the Glorious Kingdom

Aharon shall place lots upon the two goats: one lot “for God” and one lot “for Azazel.”  Aharon shall bring close the goat designated by lot for God and make it a sin-offering. And the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before God, to provide atonement though it, to send it to Azazel into the wilderness.

Vayikra 16:8-10

imagesOne of the most puzzling and disturbing rituals in Jewish practice is the goat “for Azazel.” During the afternoon of Yom Kippur, two goats are brought before the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest.  By lot, one is chosen to be placed upon the altar as a sin-offering, while the other is taken out into the desert and thrown alive over the edge of a sheer cliff. What purpose could such a practice possibly serve? In truth, the symbolism of this ritual is astonishingly simple and frighteningly relevant.  The two goats, identical in every way, symbolize the two possible futures that stretch out before every single human being.  Like these goats – which appear indistinguishable from one another – many of the paths open to us in our youth seem equally attractive and filled with opportunity.  Every child demonstrates both qualities of virtue and qualities of selfishness.  Whether our higher or lower nature will win out in the end can never be reliably predicted.

To read the whole essay, click here.

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Best Left Unsaid

Try to imagine the standard of ritual purity and cleanliness held by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest, the spiritual envoy of the Jewish people to the Almighty whose role demanded that he never come in contact with a dead body, prohibiting him from escorting even his own parents, spouse, siblings, or children to their final resting places.

gossipingNevertheless, if the Kohein Gadol encountered a meis mitzvah — the unattended corpse of an unidentified stranger — while on his way to perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash, the Torah obligated him to provide a proper and immediate burial, even if that meant an underling would have to assume his duties in the Temple.  The honor of his fellow Jew and respect for the divinity that resides within every member of his nation had to take precedence over virtually any other concern.

The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohein Kagan, applies this precept in an unexpected direction.

Read the whole article here on Block Yeshiva’s new blog.

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Kindling the Lights of Wisdom

Please take a look back at past essays, popular and scholarly, that explore the profound contemporary relevance of Chanukah and how the cultural battle against Hellenism remains the defining condition of the Jewish people.

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Into the Void

Suspended between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, some reflections on our relationship with the Almighty and with others.

It’s all about trust.

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Tisha B’Av — The Other Butterfly Effect

Seemingly small actions can produce dramatic results in the spiritual world as well as the physical world.  A timely wind can win or lose a revolution, a volcano eruption can prevent a famine or save a life, and the musings of our hearts can destroy our world or redeem us from exile.

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The Sin of the Golden Calf

Today, the 17th of Tammuz, we fast primarily in commemoration of the events surrounding the destruction of the First Temple.  The origins of the day, however, and of all our suffering, can be traced back to one of the most troubling events in Jewish history:  the sin of the Golden Calf.

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The Price of Disunity

Understanding the natural and spiritual causes of the destruction of the Second Temple.  Excerpted from my book, Dawn to Destiny.

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