I'm a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, living with my wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where I teach, write, and lecture. My forthcoming book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages, is due out in July.
Do you think spiritual impurity is hocus-pocus?
Would you walk into a radioactive hot zone just because you can’t see or smell radiation?
Click to watch this 5-minute primer on the nature of purity and impurity, and why it’s still relevant in our times.
Every year, we endeavor to re-experience the spiritual transformation the Jewish people underwent 3330 years ago from the moment they left Egypt to the moment they received the Torah at Sinai. Enjoy these insights:
The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat allows us to think deeply about how the obstacles we face today will shape the benefits we will enjoy tomorrow.
Thank you to Rabbi Yaakov Berkowitz of the St. Louis Kollel for inviting me to contribute to the Amud Yomi program with this discussion.
I found interesting the juxtaposition between last week’s letters regarding Hillary Clinton’s cover picture and Rabbi Grylak’s weekly insights into the parsha. His essay began with the introduction, “From age three, Avraham was asking questions, challenging the pervading belief system of the time.”
So I’d like to ask some questions of my own. If I can sit across from a woman at the Shabbos table, if I can pass a woman in the grocery store aisle, if I can survive spiritually crossing paths with the secular women who live in my neighborhood or work in my office, why is my neshoma so profoundly threatened by a picture of a modestly attired woman in a magazine?
And, assuming that there is indeed a reasonable answer, then what about this: is it not possible — given the mores of the modern world — that some young women and girls in our communities might interpret the exclusion of feminine images from Torah publications as symptomatic of a society that degrades the value and contribution of women, and who therein find a pretext to reject normative hashkofah? If so, is the gain worth the loss?
I’m no gadol, so these are not my questions to answer. But I’m reminded of what Rav Nota Schiller is fond of saying, that the Torah allows the Jews to change enough to stay the same.
It’s worth at least contemplating which changes will ultimately benefit Klal Yisroel in the future even as we fiercely defend the traditions of the past.
Between Passover and the festival of Shavuos (Pentacost, celebrating the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai), tradition calls for every Jew to count the days and the weeks connecting the freedom of the exodus from Egypt with the responsible application of that freedom.
These seven weeks are a time filled with opportunity for personal growth, beginning with the awareness that little changes can add up to extraordinary transformation.
From Celestial Navigation, a publication of Block Yeshiva
[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.”
Unless properly channeled, wisdom comes to nothing; even worse, it may become twisted and corrupted through rationalization.
Posted in Education and Parenting on December 1, 2015
I never had any great desire to be a classroom teacher until I found myself under the tutelage of Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, whose unparalleled pedagogic genius and vast reservoir of Torah knowledge inspired me to embark upon my career as a rebbe. Whatever I have accomplished in the field of Torah education is primarily because of him.
Rav Oratz was — if I may be permitted to use the term — the ultimate Torah-Renaissance man. He possessed the passion of the Amshinover chassidim, theyekkishe precision of the German Jews, the academic discipline of the Lithuanian scholars, and the worldly nobility of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, all rolled up — as Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz would say — into one selfless, total servant of the Almighty.
Rav Oratz was truly of the old school, with countless stories about growing up in the post-depression years, about learning and teaching in the old American day school system, about playing stickball on the streets of New York. He told me once how his father had to go out every Monday morning to find new employment, because his Sabbath-observance cost him his job time and time again. More incredibly, Rav Oratz didn’t learn of this until years later; his parents kept the children in the dark so they wouldn’t feel insecure.
In our coddled generation, that kind of mesiras nefesh — self-sacrifice — is almost entirely forgotten.
Coddling was one term absent from Rav Oratz’s educational lexicon. He understood with every fiber of his being that self-esteem is not given, it is acquired by learning discipline and discovering the joy that comes from struggle and success. He never acknowledged good work with exuberant cries of excellent, fantastic, or well done. Instead he responded with a silent nod, a quick smile, a short nu, nu or, on one extraordinary occasion, with not bad, not bad at all. That was high praise indeed.
Rav Oratz would arrive exactly two minutes before each class, replace his hat with his yarmulke in one smooth, practiced motion, then look inscrutably around the room, which was usually less than half full when it was time to begin. On one occasion, when there were only two of us present on time, he looked at me and asked, “Is something else going on this evening?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Rav Oratz shook his head. “Just one of those things I guess I’ll never understand,” he said.
There weren’t many things Rav Oratz didn’t understand. In two years of classes I never heard him unable to answer a question, although he could hold his tongue indefinitely when he wanted us to come up with the answers on our own.
“Wouldn’t you have hated to have him as a rebbe?” a member of the Ohr LaGolah leadership-training program once commented — after Rav Oratz was safely out of earshot.
“Wouldn’t you love to have had him as a rebbe now?” I shot back.
There’s nothing more inspirational than witnessing a true master do something as well as it can be done. Watching Rav Oratz teach made me want to be a teacher. That was it. My course in life was set, without prompting, without a sales pitch, with just enough encouragement to convince me that I could succeed if I put my heart into it. And I wanted nothing more than to do what he could do, even if I did it only half as well he could.
If you live in the St. Louis area, please join me on Wednesday 4 November at 6:30 PM when Subterranean Books will be hosting a launch party for my new book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages. There will be a reading, Q & A, and a book signing.
6275 Delmar Blvd, in the Loop
I hope to see you there, and bring a friend!
I can always count on my friend Daniel Jacobsen to pose simple questions with complicated answers. Whenever I see him coming at me with that look in his eye, I know my brain is in for some heavy lifting.
This time was no exception. “I’ve been wondering about the rainbow,” he began. Here we go, I thought. And I was right.
“Why did God choose something so beautiful as a symbol of destruction?”
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow: even as the Almighty points the arrows of divine wrath away from us, it is only His promise to Noah that protects us from the natural consequences of our own moral corruption.
But what do the colors and the beauty of the rainbow signify? Here was another simple question that had never occurred to me. I told Daniel that I’d have to get back to him.
What is a rainbow but the refraction of white light into a multitude of colored bands? Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, we take white light for granted; by doing so, we fail to appreciate the very blessings that are most essential to our existence. Indeed, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato observes in the introduction to his ethical classic Mesillas Yesharim, those things that are most obvious to us are the things most easily forgotten.
Only when moisture in the air disperses photons into a spectrum of color do we stop and marvel at the beauty of light.
In the same way, the unity of the Almighty that we declare daily when we recite Hashem echad is far too abstract a concept to guide us as we seek to infuse Godliness into our lives. We therefore partition the Divine “white light” of the Creator through the prism of human comprehension into 13 individual descriptive qualities on which we can focus one at a time.
When we do so, the primordial beauty of God’s indivisibility manifests in a rainbow of separate middos, or characteristics. Individually, they represent our journey; collectively, they represent our goal.
Now let’s apply the same principle to the Jewish nation as a whole.
An old joke tells of the Jew who proclaims his love for the Jewish people but denounces Steinberg as a cheapskate, Lebowitz as a crook, and Schneiderman as a nogoodnick. The sad reality, however, is that too often it isn’t a joke.