Archive for category Philosophy

The Scent of Spirit

images“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare, arrange ten simple words into possibly the most famous aphorism in the English language.

And yet, for all the mystique and romance associated with the beauty of the rose, the greatest of all poets recognized fragrance, not visage, as the defining quality of the most admired flower.

Bonnie Blodgett would almost certainly agree. In Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing and Discovering the Primal Sense, Ms. Blodgett describes the emptiness and depression that took over her life when a zinc-based nasal spray disrupted the operation of her olfactory nerve and disfigured her sense of smell.

Gone were the familiar, reassuring fragrances of her garden, replaced by ceaseless aromas of rotting flesh and excrement, which Ms. Blodgett describes as nothing less than torture. But even when these “phantom smells” abated, the odorless existence that replaced them was only a marginal improvement.

“I had no way of knowing before what it would be like to not smell anything,” she told NPR. “When I woke up and sniffed and there was nothing there — I don’t know how to explain it — I felt completely disconnected. I truly felt as if colors were more flat. The voices in conversation felt like a TV soundtrack to me.”

Adding insult to injury was the lack of sympathy received from friends. Unlike blindness, deafness, illness, or injury, most of us cannot relate to an impaired sense of smell as especially debilitating. Of all our senses, it is the one we are most likely to take for granted.

Of course, not everyone fails to recognize the power of fragrance. From Cleopatra to Oprah Winfrey, the rich and powerful have scented themselves to augment their personas and project an image of potency, charisma, or sensuality. Today, the research, development, and production of perfume and cologne have created a $25 billion industry that markets, in the words of star perfumer Sophia Grojsman, “a promise in a bottle.”

imagesNational Geographic explains it this way:  “Memory and fragrance are intertwined, some biologists insist, because the sense of smell plugs smack into the limbic system, the seat of emotion in the brain. No other sense has such immediate access.”

The unique power of fragrance takes little time to assert itself in the chronicles of mankind. Immediately upon exiting the ark, Noach gave thanks for his salvation by building an altar and bringing offerings of thanksgiving. “And Hashem smelled the pleasing fragrance, and Hashem said to Himself, Never again will I curse the earth on account of man” (Bereishis 8:21).  According to Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Torah uses the language of “aroma” to describe direct contact over a great distance in the finest detail and in the most subtle ways.

The Hebrew words rayach (scent) and ruach (spirituality) derive from a common grammatical root, and the implied connection between them appears as early as the narrative of man’s formation, when the Almighty “breathed a living soul into his nostrils” (Ibid. 2:7).  The common derivation of the Hebrew words neshimah – “breath” – and neshomah – “soul” – suggests that our spiritual life force comes, literally and metaphorically, by way of air and respiration. By the same token, the spices we inhale as part of havdalah ease our transition from Shabbos, a day of heightened spiritual sensitivity, back to an existence defined by the physical and the mundane.

In the days of the Mishkan and the first Beis HaMikdash, the burning of incense made up the most intensely spiritual form of service: the only offering presented in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, once a year on Yom Kippur.  Here, explains Rav Hirsch, we find a symbol for the Jewish people’s total ascension before G-d through their commitment to His service. In the language of Chazal, smell is that which benefits the soul and not the body (Berachos 43b).

Just as smell is the most difficult sense to measure, quantify, and define, so too is our spiritual essence the least palpable and discernable facet of our existence.  Similarly, the interplay between one soul and another is the most elusive of human pleasures, but it is also the most rewarding.  As Shlomo HaMelech says, “Scented oil and incense gladden the heart, sweet as the sincere counsel of a kindred soul” (Mishlei 27:9).  Indeed, the smoky fragrance of incense wafting into the corners of our minds and rippling across the strings of our hearts is anything but smoke and mirrors; it stirs our memories and hopes and dreams the same way that true friendship and camaraderie arouse our spirit.  Truly, the faculty of smell provides the spice of life by adding texture and dimension to all our other senses.

Ask Bonnie Blodgett.  As suddenly as her sense of smell disappeared, just as suddenly it returned, and she will never take it for granted again. “I was going around smelling everything,” she says. “Being able to smell lilacs again was just — I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”

imagesBut it goes beyond mere olfactory pleasure. There is truth to common expressions like he has a good nose for business and something doesn’t smell right. Like our sense of smell, human intuition is our intangible moral compass, guiding us when we encounter something for the first time to quickly assess its value and authenticity.  When Yaakov Avinu, disguised as his brother, Eisav, entered his father’s tent, Yitzchok exclaims, “The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field blessed by G-d” (Bereishis 27, 27).  The sages elaborate, explaining that the fragrance of Gan Eden had entered with Yaakov, convincing Yitzchok to bestow his blessing (Rashi, ad. loc).

What was this “fragrance of Eden”?  It was nothing less than the soul’s eternal connection with the Almighty’s master plan, which began with the creation of a perfect world and will culminate in the rectification of the Sin of Adam signaled by the arrival of the messianic era.*  And throughout the long generations of chaos in between, the spiritual nature of our world can be scarcely perceived through sight, sound, touch, or taste.  But it can be smelled, if we pay attention to the subtle pleasures of life that are expressions of the human soul and contemplate the mysterious allegory of fragrance.

And so Chazal tell us that, when Moshiach comes, he will “smell and judge,” – determining complex truths through spiritual discernment (Sanhedrin 93b).  Thus we find, according to Chassidic tradition, the story of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the 18th Century Torah giant whose wife ran through the door one afternoon shouting, “Mendel, Mendel, there’s a man outside shouting that Moshiach has arrived!”

Immediately, Reb Menachem Mendel jumped up and ran to the window, took a long sniff of air, then shook his head and muttered, “Nonsense!” before returning to his studies.  Like Yitzchok Avinu, the rebbe knew that a world with Moshiach smells different from a world without Moshiach, and that if he could not detect the fragrance of Gan Eden then certainly Moshiach had not yet arrived.

Two generations later, Reb Yisroel of Rizhin asked why the illustrious rebbe had to run to the window – why could he not simply sniff the air in his own home?

The Rizhiner answered his own question.  So involved was the Rebbe with his own personal avodas Hashem, so intent was he upon hastening the arrival of Moshiach, so profoundly had he had already connected with the spiritual source of the universe that his own house had already acquired the fragrance of Gan Eden.  Consequently, he had to run to the window to discover what the rest of the world smelt like.

The more we focus on what we should be doing to bring Moshiach, the more our lives will acquire the fragrance of the messianic era.  And the more eagerly we await Moshiach’s arrival, the sooner we will enjoy a world in which we draw in the aroma of kedusha with every breath.

*Based on the Malbim, loc. cit.

Published in Iyan Magazine, 2 July 2014.  With thanks to Rabbi Shraga Simmons and Aish.com.

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Read Chapter 2

Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages

If you haven’t read Chapter 1, you don’t know what you’re missing.  And you don’ t want to miss Chapter 2 as well.  Here’s the “cover” blurb and the link:

imgresTake a guided tour beneath the surface of the world we live in with this marriage of King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, reexamining Solomon’s eternal wisdom through the lens of news stories, scientific discoveries, the natural world, folktales, historical vignettes and, most notably, through the mystery and brilliance of the Mona Lisa – all woven together in a lyrical and engaging medley of the human experience.

Please take a few minutes to read the short introduction. If you like it, read the first chapter. If you have any critiques, I’d love to hear them. And if you really you like it, click on the “vote” button, then repost it and spread the word. You may have to create a Wattpad account to view it, but that only takes a moment.

Thank you!

http://www.wattpad.com/story/11547048-proverbial-beauty-secrets-for-success-and

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New book on Torah education and the modern world

WE NEED YOUR HELP!

​I hope you’ve had an opportunity to enjoy my last book, Celestial Navigation.  Besides offering deeply thoughtful insights into the cycle of Jewish holidays, this project has raised over $11,000 for Block Yeshiva High School.  But this was only possible through the generous sponsorships that enabled us to print and distribute 4000 copies.

Crucible new cover​Please consider becoming a partner with us in our next publication, slated for this September:

A Crucible for Silver
Forging a brighter future for ourselves and our children

Not only has Block Yeshiva consistently turned out the highest caliber of spiritually and professionally successful graduates for 35 years; it is also one of the last high schools in the country that tailors its academic program to every type of Jew without compromising educational quality or halachic standards.

At a time when so many factions of our community have become more and more polarized, the continued success of schools like Block is increasingly difficult as well as increasingly crucial for the survival of both civil society and the relevance of Jewish tradition.

Honor a family member, friend, rabbi, or teacher with a full-page tribute for $2500 or more, or a partial-page tribute for $1000 or more.  All sponsors of $100 or more will be acknowledged, and every sponsor of $36 or more will receive a complimentary copy.

You can read the title essay here.

Thank you for your support.  Please contact me through the form below with any questions or to be a sponsor.

​With Torah blessings,​
Yonason Goldson

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Playing Second Fiddle

Published in Ami Magazine, issue 171 

This article is not about me.

imagesIt’s not about how I grew up virtually tone-deaf, or about how long it took me to figure out why Mrs. Pinkston, my elementary school music teacher, would bend down to place her ear directly in front of my face as the class sang together, giving me a curious look before moving on to circulate among the other students.

This article is not about the time I found my voice.  I was a sophomore in college when, the first night of our dorm camping trip, someone started to sing as we stood around the campfire.  I joined in, and out came a rich baritone no one had ever heard – including me.  Everyone – including me – burst into laughter.  I was a stringbean of a teenager, and my mouth had no business producing a voice like Enrico Molinari’s.

Neither is it about how I started to lead davening servicesafter becoming observant.  I had already finished college when I began to learn aleph-beis; pronunciation did not come easily, and neither did nusach – the subtle, not-quite-random liturgical chant.  But I was determined: whenever mastery of Talmudic texts eluded me, it was leading the weekday prayersthat gave me my only sense of real accomplishment.

It’s not about how I made the transition from weekday to Shabbos services.  The head of my yeshiva was old-school:  imperfect nusach was an offense to the congregation, and I was repeatedly disqualified as incompetent before finally being allowed to enter the regular rotation.  My wife still groans when she recalls the countless hours of practice she had to endure in our tiny apartment.

It’s not about gaining confidence before the congregation, first for Shabbos, then for festivals, and finally for the High Holidays.  A deeper intimacy with the liturgy and an appreciative congregationwere the rewards of my labors.  Over time, Shabbos chazzan became part of my identity.

This article is not even about the day I lost my father when, according to the laws of mourning, I found myself disqualified from leading the Shabbos services once again after a quarter-century.

This is what it’s about:  two women named Naomi and Ruth who, together, changed the world by laying the foundations of the Jewish monarchy.

* * *

The problem with having had a mentor who was such a stickler for davening is that I myself became intolerant of less than fully-qualified chazzanim.  Mispronounced words, uneven rhythm, corrupted nusach, and dreary melodiesmade me wince and soured my entire shul experience.  After all, I could do so much better myself.

Until I couldn’t.  During my twelve months as a mourner, the only access I would have to Shabbos and festival davening would be as a participant, not as a leader.  And faced with the inevitable, my whole attitude began to change.

imgresWhat is a congregation?  Is it not the creation of one out of many, a microcosm of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai, when we stood together, k’ish echad b’leiv echad – like one man with one heart?  And what does it say about me if I stubbornly critique the shortcomings of others instead of looking for every way that I can contribute to the collective?

The one-thousandth piece of a puzzle can remain apart, a shapeless splash of incoherent imagery whose only contribution is to leave an empty scar upon an otherwise perfect picture.  But when it adds itself to the whole it does not lose its identity; rather, it becomes part of something much greater than itself while bringing completion to a thousand other pieces.  By the same token, a single voice, no matter how sweet, will be hard-pressed to fill a decent-sized sanctuary.  But add in the accompaniment of even a few moderately tuneful voices and instantaneously a rush of spiritual energy floods through the sanctuary and transports the parishioners to a higher plane.

Moreover, if one can use his talent anonymously to enhance the davening of another chazzan– or, by stepping into the breach, to spare him embarrassment when he stumbles — is there any expression of divine servicemore precious before the Almighty and more lovingly received before His court and His throne?

This is the divine magic of harmony, of unity, of the splintering of egos before the singularity of the Jewish nation.  Together, we create more than we possibly can as individuals; and if, by losing myself among the many, I also forgo the recognition of individual accomplishment… well, what of it?  Better second fiddle in an eternal symphony than first violin on some forgotten stage.

Which brings us at last to Naomi and Ruth, the real subjects of this article.

In a time of famine, in a generation beleaguered by national crisis, Elimelech took his family and left his land, forsaking his nation and his obligations as a leader among his people.  And his wife, Naomi, acquiesced, following her husband for the sake of her family duties, despite whatever misgivings she may have had about their collective decision.

Did Naomi protest against Elimelech’s abandonment of the Jewish people?  Did she try to dissuade her sons from taking foreign women as wives?  We would assume so, although scripture gives us no clues.  But Naomi stayed with her family until the bitter end when, bereft of everything she had once had, she sends her daughters-in-law back to their people and stoically accepts the justice of her fate alone.

But she does not remain alone.  Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d.  Can we begin to imagine Naomi’s reaction to these words, spoken by the daughter who refuses to abandon her, recompensing the dubious loyalty Naomi had shown the husband who led her away from her G-d and from her people, embracing her with a passionate expression of fidelity to return with her to G-d and to her nation?

Who must Naomi have been, to inspire such profound selflessness in a daughter of Moab, a nation so lacking in the quality of kindnessthat its sons can never be fully accepted as true converts even after ten generations?  Who must Ruth have been, to put so much trust in her adopted mother that she would cut every tie to her past and strike out penniless into the unknown?

Is this Naomi?  gasped the women who had known her before her departure, unable to reconcile the poor and lonely widow returning from afar with the visage of wealth and prominence they remembered.  But it was Naomi, the same woman who had silenced her own misgivings to follow her husband, who now suppressed her own feelings of shame and abandonment to guide the migrant soul of Ruth toward finding a place among her new nation.

And it was Ruth who, having lost her new husband, Boaz, on her very wedding night, declined the spotlight and eschewed center stage upon the birth of her son as the women proclaimed, A child is born to Naomi!  This moment was Naomi’s consolation for all she had lost, and far be it from Ruth to claim it for her own, however entitled she might have been.

imagesEach a heroine willing to step aside before the will and honor of another, Ruth and Naomi both rise as shining stars, showing future generations the way of selfless harmony that blends disparate individuals into a holy orchestra, led forward in its mission by their great-grandson, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and guided by the celestial baton of the Conductor.

I still feel my blood pressure rising whenever a chazzan fails to do justice to the beauty of our prayers.  But now I hear the whispering of two women, reminding me that it’s not all about me, reminding me that I have a role to play even if it isn’t from center stage, and reminding me that when our devotion to one another outweighs all other considerations, then we will truly stand together as we did at Sinai, as one man with one heart, to merit the divine harmony of true redemption.

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More than a lucky number

Parshas Behar/ Sefiras HaOmer

imagesIn this week’s Torah portion we read about the shemittah year, the Sabbatical for the Land of Israel that parallels the weekly Sabbath on which the Jewish people refrain from work. 

It’s no coincidence that this parsha falls out in the middle of Sefiras HaOmer, the count of seven days and seven weeks that links the festivals of Pesach and Shavuos as the beginning and end of a process of spiritual growth, providing us with an opportunity to re-experience the transformation of the Jews from a people into a nation.

But what is it about the number seven that it plays such a significant role in Jewish thought, and in the very structure of our world?

Click here to find out.

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Sefiras HaOmer — The path of a good heart

[Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai] said to [his students]: Go and see which is the good path to which a person should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences. Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart. [Rabban Yochanon] said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.

Pirkei Avos, 2:13

 

imagesThe old cliché remains as timeless as ever: Give a man a fish and you give him food for a day; teach him to fish and you give him food for a lifetime.

The principle applies especially well to education: teach a student information and you add to his reservoir of knowledge; teach him how to learn and you enable him to educate himself for the rest of his life.

For this reason, Rabban Yochanon does not merely teach his students which is “the good path” that a person should follow. Instead, he sends them out to “see” for themselves, to discover on their own the answer to this all-important question.

But where are they supposed to look? And what do their answers mean? A good eye? A good heart? How do these simplistic sound bites define the “good path”? And why does Rabban Yochanon find Rabbi Elazar’s answer superior to those of his fellow students?

The Zohar tells us that before the Almighty created the world, He looked into the Torah as His blueprint for Creation.[2] The best way to understand our place in the world, therefore, is for us to look into the Torah as well.
This was how the students of Rabban Yochanon interpreted their rebbe’s instruction to “go and see.” They began at the beginning, carefully rereading the narrative of Bereishis, looking for any clue through which the Torah might direct us along the “good path.”

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning — one day (Bereishis 1:1-5).

Independently, each of the students followed the narrative of Creation and each, mindful of Rabban Yochanon’s instruction to find the good path, stopped at the same place: And God saw the light, that it was good. Each student recognized that the Torah’s first mention of the word “good” offered the most likely source for divining the good path they had been commanded to seek.

At this point they all arrived in agreement. From here forward their interpretations diverged.

Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye

imagesAn understanding of the students’ answers, however, requires a closer examination into the Creation narrative. The light of Creation cannot refer simply to the light by which we see, for the simple reason that the Almighty did not create the sun and the stars until the fourth day, whereas He created the light on day one. If so, what was this light of Creation?

The kabbalistic principle of tzimtzum (literally, contraction) instructs us that, since Hashem is everywhere, He could not begin to create the universe until He had first created a place where He was not, a spiritual vacuum that would serve as the blank canvas on which to produce the greatest creative masterpieces imaginable — the universe, the world, and Man.[3] Only after preparing this spiritual vacuum (described by the Torah as void and darkness), could the spirit of God begin the act of Creation as it hovered over the primordial emptiness (the face of the deep), reintroducing the divine energy of the Eternal into the spiritual void — an act that can only be described in human language through the expression, Let there be light!

Through this act of Divine illumination, the Almighty translated His creative blueprint into physical and spiritual reality. The Torah, previously an unformed ideal in the infinite mind of God, manifested as a world created for the fulfillment of spiritual purpose. It is for this reason that the Aramaic name for Torah is oraissa — source of light — for it shows us the path and guides us as we seek to find our way through the darkness of the physical world toward spiritual enlightenment.

Thus Rabbi Eliezer declares that to walk the “good path” requires a “good eye,” the ability to perceive the Divine light of Hashem and follow it through our world of spiritual darkness. The spiritually myopic or, even worse, the spiritually blind, will stumble and stray from the path. Only one who cultivates the spiritual sensitivity to recognize and appreciate the Divine illumination of the Torah will be able to cling to the good path.

Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend

According to Jewish law, each 24-hour day actually begins as the evening sun falls below the horizon. Just as the Jewish Sabbath starts Friday evening, so too does every day of the week begin as night falls rather than with dawn the following morning. The biblical source for this is the repeated verse, And there was evening and there was morning.

Why is this so?

Human nature dictates that we truly appreciate only those things we are forced to do without. Just as the light of Creation is essential to human beings, equally essential is our appreciation of that light. With this in mind (together with the mystical reasons already discussed), the Almighty created first the darkness before the light, thereby enabling mankind to fully appreciate the light that would illuminate his world.

The light, therefore, became a good friend to the darkness that preceded it, while the darkness provided the contrast and context in which to value and cherish the light. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, adherence to the good path requires not only spiritual perception but the spiritual framework that gives perception its true meaning — not only a good eye but a good friend as well.

Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor

imagesThe kabbalists introduce us to the mystifying idea that, in the earliest moments of Creation, light and darkness were not divided as they are now, but were somehow intertwined in harmonious coexistence.[4]
Having already defined the light of Creation not as photons striking the optic nerve but as spiritual illumination of the Divine will, we can take the next step of interpreting light as symbolic of good and darkness as symbolic of evil. Since everything the Almighty does is ultimately for the good, light and darkness — i.e., good and (the perception of) evil — were at first inextricably woven together. But since the ultimate purpose of Creation would require that Man recognize and choose the good path, Hashem needed to enable Man to discern the good that should define his mission and guide his actions.

As the next step in Creation, therefore, God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.

According to Rabbi Yossi, it is sufficient neither to have merely a good eye to see the light nor a good friend to appreciate it. What is even more critical is a good neighbor, the ability to draw and recognize boundaries between the light and the darkness, between good and evil. As Rabbi Yossi understood it, this is the key to walking the good path.

Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences

The sages explain that the creation of light, although necessary for the existence of Man, presented a profound danger to survival of Man as well.

Just as nuclear technology can produce the energy to sustain all civilization, so too can it produce the destructive power to annihilate all civilization. Even greater than nuclear energy is the power of the Almighty’s Divine light. In the hands of the righteous, Hashem’s spiritual light can elevate humanity to the level of Godliness. In the hands of the unscrupulous it can be perverted to manipulate and exploit the unlimited blessing Hashem has provided for our benefit.

Hashem required, therefore, a plan through which He could limit the access of the wicked to His Divine light. Originally, He intended to allow His light to permeate the entire world, that every tree and stone, every field and mountain would testify to the divinity of Creation and guide Mankind along the good path. To protect it from misuse, however, He withdrew His light from every corner of the world and devised its concealment in a place where the wicked would not go. [5]

Hashem hid His light in the Torah.

imagesUnlike other intellectual pursuits, the study of Torah is no mere academic discipline. To truly acquire Torah wisdom, the student of Torah must commit himself to the internalization of Torah values and must allow the Torah to transform his character. Although Jewish history does provide examples of charlatans who learned enough to exploit their Torah knowledge, these are exceptions to the rule. For the most part, by the time a scholar reaches the level where he has acquired Torah wisdom, the Torah has shaped him into one of the righteous to whom the divine light of Torah can be safely entrusted.

For this reason, Rabbi Shimon declares that the essential quality to walk the good path is to foresee consequences, to discern and appreciate the divine light not only as it appears at any given moment, but to anticipate what will become of it as one walks the good path in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart

It is often said in the name of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter that there is no greater distance than from the head to the heart. Intellectual knowledge is indispensable, but true wisdom comes when we internalize the knowledge of our minds so that it penetrates our hearts, when we allow what we know to become part of who we are.

The first four students of Rabban Yochanon all identified the correct source to answer their teacher’s question, and they all accurately interpreted its relevance. Their argument was about emphasis: which is the most critical factor in adhering to the good path? Perception, context, differentiation, or forsight?

But they erred by failing to recognize that each of the steps they identified is an inseparable part of a process that remains incomplete without the full integration of every component. No one factor outweighs any of the others, since the process itself is an indivisible whole.

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach expressed this understanding as a good heart: only when one has acquired a unified perspective of every facet of the Divine light is he equipped to adhere to the good path; only when he has completed the whole process will he have fully internalized the values of Torah; and only then will he have refined his character to the point where his Torah wisdom will faithfully serve him, and where he will faithfully serve it.

It is the absolute commitment to acquiring a good heart that enables one to walk the good path. This is why Rabban Yochanon declares: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.

A final insight into Rabbi Elazar’s words comes by calculating the gematria of the word heart, leiv, the numerical value of which equals 32. In the narrative of Creation, we find that from the Torah’s opening word – Bereishis – until the first appearance of the word good we count 32 words, the equivalent of leiv, or heart.  Consequently, the phrase “good heart” – leiv tov – alludes to the process that begins at the beginning of the Torah and ends with the heart fully integrating the values of Hashem’s ultimate good.

Not merely the story of Creation but the very structure of the Divine word provides a remarkable illumination of Rabbi Elazar’s lesson. Only by beginning at the Beginning and working steadfastly through to the end can one acquire a good heart and successfully negotiate the good path. Like any physical journey, the journey to spiritual well-being begins with a single step and ends only after the traveler has placed one foot in front of the other until he arrives at his destination.

The days of transformation

Between Pesach and Shavuos we count 49 days, from the korban omer (the offering of the first barley harvest) to the sh’tei halechem (the offering of the first wheat harvest).  The sages describe barley as animal food; only bread from wheat flour is truly fit for human consumption.

The 49 days of Sefiras HaOmer, therefore, represent our transition from creatures little better than animals to fully human creations more exalted than the angels.  The freedom of Passover, ironically, does not even begin the count.  Freedom is mere potential.  It is what we do with our freedom that defines who and what we are.

imagesAnd so it is on the day after Pesach that we begin to count, describing a process of spiritual and moral development through which we strive to re-experience the spiritual maturation of the Jewish people from yetzias Mitzrayim to their acceptance of the Torah, the Divine gift that provides us with purpose and direction so that we might reach the limits of our potential.  Each day and each week corresponds to a unique combination of qualities:  kindness, discipline, mercy, consistency, humility, moderation and, ultimately, the integration and harmonization of all these into the most elusive quality — character.

Within Rabbi Elazar’s formula of a good heart we find yet another profound allusion.  Just as the numerical value of the word leiv, heart, equals 32, so does the numerical value of tov, good, equal 17.  Together they equal 49, the number of days we count as we prepare to re-accept the Torah.

Accordingly, we discover that the first 32 days represent a transformation of the heart, where the final 17 days represent the application of our newly elevated moral character into the practice of true good, or tov.  The transition point is day 33, the day we call Lag B’Omer, on which we commemorate the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Days of joy and tragedy

Having attained the highest strata of Torah scholarship, Rabbi Akiva transmitted his incomparable wisdom on to 24,000 students, only to see a plague take the lives of virtually every last one.  As great as they were, Rabbi Akiva’s students failed to rise to the level demanded by their tutelage under the greatest sage since Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher whose most famous lesson was, “Love your fellow as yourself:  this is the great principle of the Torah.”

Despite their exceptional scholarship, Rabbi Akiva’s students fell short in the respect they showed to one another.  To achieve anything less than perfection in that critical lesson, to miss the mark in the development of character (which is the foundation of Torah observance), to overlook the opportunity offered by the days between Pesach and Shavuos to perfect the qualities that govern one’s interpersonal relationships — all this proved fatal to a whole generation of extraordinary scholars.  The season that should have remained a time of joy instead became a season of mourning and self-reflection.

But all was not lost.  Among the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose unique ability to bring the mystical secrets of the Torah to light yielded a new era of spiritual illumination for the Jewish people.  Amidst the deepening darkness, the light of Torah would burn all the more brightly; and after the loss of so much Torah, the potential to rebuild the spiritual supports of the Jewish nation can be recovered through our understanding of why tragedy befell us, and how each of us carries in his heart a flame to light the world.

And so we commemorate the life and teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai by suspending the days of mourning, by lighting bonfires to symbolize the light of Torah dispelling the darkness of exile, and by rejoicing in the mercy of the Almighty who transforms every disaster into the potential for renewal.  Through our Torah study and our sincere efforts to acquire the quality and character that defines a true Torah Jew, each and every one of us can hasten the arrival of the End of Days, when the darkness of confusion and despair will be permanently dispelled by the light of the Ultimate Redemption.


[1] Adapted from the Chassidic classic, B’nei Yissosschar; expanded from an article originally published by Aish.com
[2] Zohar Terumah 161b                                                                   
[3] Zohar 1:15a; Zohar Chadash, Va’eschanan, 57a
[4] Rashi, Bereishis 1:4, citing Bereishis Rabbah and Pesachim 2a
[5] Rashi, ibid., citing Bereishis Rabbah and Chagigah 12a

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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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It’s not my job — or is it?

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Vayakhel

And Moshe said to B’nei Yisroel:  “See, Hashem has proclaimed by name Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Yehudah… to perform every craft of design” (Shemos 35:30-33).

RavIn the 1930s, Rav Elchonon Wasserman travelled to America to raise funds for his yeshiva in Baranovich.  Addressing an affluent congregation one Shabbos morning, Rav Elchonon asked the parishioners to consider giving a donation of $180, which could support a bochur in his yeshiva for an entire year.

The rabbi of the shul, worried that his congregants might resent being asked for so large a contribution, added that even a donation of one dollar would also be helpful.  Not surprisingly, Rav Elchonon received many one dollar donations and not many $180 donations.

Recognizing that he had undermined the rosh yeshiva’s appeal, the rabbi offered an apology for scuttling his efforts.  Rav Elchonon replied with the following moshel:

mishkanWhen Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint Betzalel as the chief architect of the mishkan, Moshe immediately went to the camp of Yehudah and began asking people if they knew Betzalel.  With over 74,000 adult males in the tribe, it took a while before Moshe found someone who could direct him to Betzalel.

Said Rav Elchonon:  “Did Moshe become angry with the people who did not know Betzalel?  Of course not.  If they did not know Betzalel, then Moshe would have to keep searching for someone who did.

“Supporting a Torah institution is exactly the same,” continued Rav Elchonon.  “Whatever money Hashem intends to provide for Torah education will come through the means that Hashem has prepared.  The only question is who will have the merit to participate in the support of Torah.  If one person does not have the merit to be such a participant, there is no reason to become angry with him.  Someone else who values the importance of educating students in the ways of Torah will step forward to act as Hashem’s agent, and that person will be rewarded in the next world in proportion to his generosity.”

And so we have to ask ourselves every moment of every day:  are we eager to accept the job as Hashem’s agents to bring about the fulfillment of His will, or are we all too eager to leave that job to others?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

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Double Down for Spiritual Success

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

 

From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

imgresIt’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.

The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.

My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.

But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.

“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”

Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.

Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”

imagesI tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)

Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?

Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.

In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.

Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”

(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)

In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.

I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.

And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.

imagesIn hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”

 

In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.

The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?

Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.

Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.

Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?

 

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:

A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).

imagesExplains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.

We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.

When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”

In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along:  it’s worth it.

And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.

And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.

On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!

But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.

Now there’s a story I can tell his children.

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The Heart of the World

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Terumah

And you shall make Me a dwelling (mikdash), and I will dwell (v’shochanti) among them (Sh’mos 25:8).

imagesThe Mishkan, or Tabernacle, was much more than a place of worship for the Jews as they traveled through the desert.  It was the prototype of the Beis HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem and, even more, a microcosm of the entire universe.  As such, the details of its construction offer a look behind to curtain of nature into the very design of Creation.

However, first we have to ask ourselves a question:  why does the Almighty command the construction of a mikdash, which lay four hundred eighty years in the future, rather than a mishkan, which is what the Jewish people were about to build.

The word mishkan literally means “that which creates a dwelling.”  In the desert, with no land, no permanence, and no boundaries, the tabernacle provided the focal point around which the Jewish nation could coalesce.  Of course, the spirit of HaShem is everywhere.  But the physical House of G-d placed in the midst of the people would bind them together in a way that their abstract identity as a holy people could not.  Indeed, a careful reading of the verse reveals HaShem’s true intention.  Build Me a tabernacle, commanded the Almighty, and I will dwell not in it but in and among them, the people.

Consequently, we understand that the Mishkan was never intended to be permanent.  Its purpose was to sustain the people until they could enter the land.  At that point, they would no longer require a mishkan, for the land itself would bind them together as a nation.  From then on they would require a mikdash — literally, that which creates sanctity.  Once in the land, a House of G-d would serve to remind the people of their divine mission and inspire them to strive for ever higher levels of spiritual achievement.

To that end, the people would gather three times a year for the pilgrim festivals — Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos.  And herein lies the secret of the Mikdash, as explained by the Chassidic classic Arvei Nachal.

imagesJust as our world exists within three physical dimensions, similarly was it created along three spiritual axes:  space, time, and life.  Of these three, the human body presents the most familiar model for understanding the spiritual pattern of the universe.

Within the body, the heart pumps blood throughout the system.  Through arteries and capillaries, the blood reaches every corner of the body, carrying with it oxygenated blood that literally breathes life into every cell.  Returning to the heart, the blood is pumped through the lungs to become oxygenated once again, so that the body’s internal cycle of life can continue.  This is the essential structure of life.

The same pattern manifests itself in the nature of time.  According to the kabbalists, time is not linear but cyclical.  In the course of each year, every soul visits every day and every moment in the 365 days that describe the solar year.  Just as the flow of blood deposits life-giving oxygen to the body’s cells, similarly does each soul deposit kedusha, sanctity, to the individual moments that together form the body of time.  And just as the body’s cycle begins and ends with the heart, similarly does the annual cycle begin and end with Yom Kippur — the holiest day, and the “heart” of the year.  The extent to which the Jew renews his relationship with the Almighty on Yom Kippur will affect not only his own fortunes for the coming year, but the fortunes of all mankind.  Symbiotically, our involvement in Torah and mitzvos draws the innate kedusha from the temporal plasma of the universe and allows us to return to the next Yom Kippur on a spiritual level higher than we were on the year before.

imagesFinally we come to physical space.  Once established in the land, the Jewish people  spread out to settle their country, striving to strike the perfect balance between material prosperity and spiritual purpose.  Their involvement in Torah and mitzvos throughout every corner of the Land of Israel would draw out the intrinsic spiritual essence of the land, enabling them to achieve greater levels in divine service as they prepared for each successive festival, when they would come together at the Beis HaMikdash — the heart of the world.  Inspired and elevated by each festival, the Jews would return to their homes, elevated in their spirituality so that they could elevate the land on which they toiled, thus creating a virtuous cycle that brought them ever closer and closer to their Creator.

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the great sage Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai decreed that every shul, every place of Jewish prayer, should be treated as a mikdash ma’at, and Temple in miniature.  Every time the Jewish community comes together to pray, on weekdays and on Shabbos, on festivals and on the High Holy Days, we have the opportunity to renew the cycle of spiritual elevation.  Prayer is not for G-d; it is for us.  It is not a burden; it is a privilege and an opportunity.  It is not an inconvenience; it is as fundamental to our existence as our life’s blood, as our heart, and as our soul.

 

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