Posts Tagged Jewish 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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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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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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True Gratitude

Parshas Pekudei

The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).

This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people.  When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that  Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.

Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed:  first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra.  Did the bring enough or more than enough?  It cannot have been both.

imagesExplains the Ohr HaChaim:  Yes, the people had brought more than enough.  But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away.  Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.

Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation.  It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need.  However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled.  Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.

Really, it should be just the opposite.  We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security.  To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings.  And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.

One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.

imgresBut the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless.  When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off.  “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained.  “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.”  For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.

It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now.  It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.

Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul

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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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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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The Death Watch

ARE YOU READY FOR THE END OF TIME?

Whether or not you’re a fan of science fiction, it’s always intriguing when our life in the present imitates the art of our past.

time_space_fabric_coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s first published story, Life-line, Professor Pinero builds a machine that can predict any person’s day of death.  To verify Pinero’s claim, a committee of scientists submit to his examination, after which their names are sealed in separate envelopes, each with the date-of-death printed on the outside, and locked away for  future verification.  The first to die is Pinero himself, murdered by zealots who believe he is tampering with Fate.  Upon learning of Pinero’s death, the chairman of the science committee calls for the box of envelopes and, after determining that Pinero had accurately predicted his own demise, burns the whole batch of envelopes to ashes.

So… what would you do?  If it were possible to predict the day of your death, would you want to know?

Well, now you can.

More or less.

Fredrik Colting has already taken 3000 orders for his new digital watch, the Tikker.  Instead of a single row of numbers, the Tikker has three.  One row tells the time like any ordinary watch.  However, a second row displays years, months, and days, while a third row displays hours, minutes, and seconds, inexorably counting down toward — you guessed it — the day you will die.

Mr. Colting has nicknamed his invention the happiness watch.

Click here to read the whole article.

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The Crossroads of Repentance

Parshas Bo

WHY IS THIS PLAGUE DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER PLAGUES?

imagesAt the outset of the Second Temple era some twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra the Scribe oversaw the division of the Torah into parshios – portions, and set in place the practice of reading successive parshios publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service.  In this way, the Jewish people would collectively review of the entire Torah from year to year.  The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.

It is curious, therefore, that Ezra saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Egyptian Plagues into last week’s Torah portion, while leaving the final three for this week.

But that is not the only question.  The commentaries explain that the plagues can be arranged into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself.  Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, presumably it would be better to place the point of division after the sixth plague – which completes the second set of three – rather than after the seventh.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does mark a watershed moment, not by virtue of the nature of the plague itself, but because of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction.

imgresAfter each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague was over.  But after the seventh plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission:  This time I have sinned; G-d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.

*****

In a discussion concerning the laws of marriage, the Talmud proposes an unlikely scenario, in which a man said to a woman, “You are betrothed to me on condition that I am atzaddik – a righteous man.”  The Talmud concludes that the betrothal is binding and the woman is married, even if the man is a person of dubious reputation.  Why?  Because it is possible, the sages explain, that at the moment he spoke he may indeed have repented the sins of a lifetime and became a truly righteous man (Kiddushin 49b).

If so, perhaps Pharaoh’s sincere confession when confronted by the irrefutable suspension of nature — as the incompatible forces of fire and ice were forced into partnership for the express purpose of punishing the Egyptians — opened a window of opportunity for him and his nation.

From the very beginning, the Almighty had made clear His plan that Pharaoh would not let the Jews go free, providing just cause “to multiply My miracles upon the land of Egypt.”  After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh cooperated by hardening his own heart and refusing to let the people go.  In contrast, after each of the last plagues before Pharaoh’s capitulation, it was G-d who hardened Pharaoh’s heart:  once Pharaoh had discarded every opportunity to submit to the Divine Will, he forfeited the freedom to turn from the course he had chosen for himself through his earlier decisions.

After the seventh plague, however, we find both expressions:  first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; subsequently, G-d informs Moses that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  How can both be true at the same time?

*****

imgresThe power of teshuva – repentance – is unimaginable.  In an instant, any individual can rewrite his past, erase a lifetime of misdeeds, and transform himself into the most righteous of men, if he sincerely desires to change and puts into effect a plan to embrace virtue.  Even Pharaoh, the paradigm of wanton evil, possessed the human potential to return to the path of justice and truth.  Having endowed every human being with the capacity for human renewal and redemption, G-d Himself cannot stand in the way of the truly repentant.

We might suggest, therefore, that when Pharaoh acknowledged both his own wickedness the justice of the Almighty, G-d had no power to further harden Pharaoh’s heart.  In that instant, Pharaoh had positioned himself at the threshold of true righteousness, and no force in the universe could stand in his way if he chose to take the final step forward.

No force, that is, except himself.  Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn…

The moment for change was lost and, having forfeited his chance, Pharaoh’s fate was assured.  Instead of seizing his opportunity and stepping forward into a new future, he stepped backward and toppled into the oblivion of his past.

And so last week’s parsha ends:  by flirting with repentance, Pharaoh held in his hand the opportunity to end the siege of plagues and halt the systematic destruction of his country.  But he failed to follow through, and so the plagues resume as this week’s parsha continues on.

How often do we find ourselves looking through a window of opportunity, offered the divine gift of sudden clarity into the condition of our souls and direction of our travels upon this earth?  How often are our eyes granted the vision to look upon our lives with true objectivity, to recognize in sharp relief the contrast between what we could achieve and how far we have fallen short of our potential?

And what do we do with these opportunities?  Do we rise to the challenge and resolutely chart a new course into the future, or do we take notice only for an instant and then, like Pharaoh, reflexively follow the promptings of pride and stubbornness by returning to the habits of the past?  Every such moment is ours for the taking or ours to discard.  The way we choose will determine our future, in this world and in the World to Come.

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Fathers and Sons

Parshas Vo’eira

imagesStudents of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmudic law, allegory, and mysticism, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, places Rashi in a class by himself. With deceptive simplicity, he draws our attention to the most profound nuances and gently forces us to consider scriptural anomalies, weaving the breadth and depth of Torah wisdom into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.

Consequently, few things make scholars more nervous than Rashi appearing to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.

Read the whole article here.

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The Staff of Leadership

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Published in Jewish World Review

Parshas Shemos

And Moses responded, saying, “But [the people] will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘G-d did not appear to you.’”  And G-d said to him, “What is that in your hand?”  And he said, “A staff.”  (Exodus 4:1-2)

imgresIt’s easy to understand why Moses was anything but eager to accept the onus of leadership.  After 210 years of Egyptian bondage, what possible reason would the Jewish people have to believe Moses when he claimed that the Almighty had sent him to redeem them?  How would he convince a broken nation that he had either the authority or the ability to lead them out of slavery?

G-d’s answer, however, is even more difficult to comprehend.  Seemingly, G-d wanted Moses to cast his staff upon the ground to show him its miraculous transformation into a snake – the sign by which Moses would prove himself to the people.  If so, why did G-d not simply say, “Cast your staff upon the ground.”  Why did the Almighty first ask Moses to identify the object he was holding?

In his classic commentary, Rabbi Meir Libush Malbim explains that Moses could have answered in one of three possible ways.  As a shepherd, he could have identified his staff as a makeil, a shepherd’s crook.  As an eighty year old man, he could have referred to it as a mashenes, a cane or walking stick.  Finally, he could have called it as he did — a matteh, which means staff, but which also can mean scepter, a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.

Moses had directed his objection not solely at the people’s unwillingness to follow, but at his own lack of distinction as a leader.  Who am I, he questioned, that the people should put their trust in me?  And so, G-d presented Moses with a test.

Click here to read the whole article.

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