Archive for category Philosophy
Parshas Behar/ Sefiras HaOmer
In 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.
[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
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. 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
An 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. 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
The 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.
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. 
Hashem hid His light in the Torah.
Unlike 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.
And 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.
Enjoy this blast from the past.
According 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.
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
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).
In 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:
When 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
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine
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.”
I 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.
In 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).
Explains 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.
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
And you shall make Me a dwelling (mikdash), and I will dwell (v’shochanti) among them (Sh’mos 25:8).
The 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.
Just 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.
Finally 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.
You shall not ascend my altar by steps, so that you will not reveal your nakedness upon it. And these are the statutes that you [Moses] shall place before them [the Jewish people]
During the early days of the Second Temple era, the sages divided the Torah into portions, or parshios, to be read on successive Sabbaths. The juxtaposition of any two of these parshios always alludes to some principle in Jewish thought. In the case of this week’s Torah portion, however, the connection with the end of last week’s parsha seems particularly elusive.
After the drama of the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, the narrative switches to a rather dry and technical description of the altar in the Tabernacle. Not by stairs should the kohain go up, lest the gaping of his robes expose his private regions to the stones upon which he walks; rather, he should ascend by a ramp, so that his shorter, more even steps will not result in any impropriety.
Immediately afterward, the Torah introduces the mishpatim, the statutes that govern civil law by establishing the legal parameters of business dealings, private property, loans, and damages. Superficially, no two subjects within Torah could be more distant from one another.
The revered Chassidic Master, Reb Elimelech of Lizensk, offers a tantalizing explanation. As we go through life, we should see ourselves as kohanim, the priests of the Almighty, engaged in a perpetual quest to ascend spiritually, approaching ever nearer to a more perfect service upon the conceptual altar of the Creator. Every attainment of a new spiritual level is called by the kabbalists a madrega — a “step” onward and upward. The Jew is not meant to remain static, but to pursue ever more challenging goals in pursuit of spiritual perfection.
The danger, however, is that we may try to take too much upon ourselves, that we attempt to move forward by unrealistic leaps, that we may seek inspiration in the mystical and ethereal at the expense of more fundamental forms of heavenly service. By reaching for the stars, we may find ourselves without firm footing beneath us, leaving ourselves vulnerable to the indictments of the divine attribute of Justice. By artificially propelling ourselves to a level that we cannot realistically sustain, we may cause ourselves to be judged with a strictness that is beyond our capacity to endure.
The ramp up to the altar, therefore, serves as a symbol of the measured, determined consistency with which we should approach our commitment to spiritual growth. HaShem may bless us at times with great leaps forward and moments of dazzling inspiration, but spiritual development is often like physical development — painfully slow and paradoxically mundane.
This, teaches Reb Elimelech, is the connection between the details of the altar and the words that introduce this week’s portion, “And these are the statutes…” If we look for spiritual excitement only in arcane mysteries and secrets, we will inevitably miss the most essential opportunities for spiritual growth that our daily routine provides. The concern for others, for their money and their time and their property, the respect for boundaries both personal and legal — these are the sensitivities that most effectively and meaningfully transform us into spiritual beings. If we think we can overlook them in our quest for personal revelation and divine intimacy, we will have no foundation upon which to stand. If we carefully cultivate them, we will awaken within ourselves the spiritual vision that will enable us to recognize the presence of the Almighty in every aspect of our lives.
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
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.
Understood 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). 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.
The 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.”
 Parshas Bo, mitzvah 16
 Derech HaChaim, ad loc.
 Koheles Rabbah 7:13
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
It is said that the great sage Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once found himself profoundly depressed over the spiritual shortcomings of his students and his community. As the High Holidays approached, Rabbi Yisroel left to search out the company of Jews more passionate about their own relationship with the Divine.
Traveling from village to village, Rabbi Yisroel prayed with one congregation and then another until finally, in a small synagogue in an unremarkable town, he found himself surrounded by individuals who seemed to take their prayers as seriously as he did. Rabbi Yisroel positioned himself directly behind one parishioner who seemed to pray with extraordinary devotion. Here, he thought, he would surely find his inspiration.
The High Holidays service began exactly as Rabbi Yisroel had hoped. The Jew in front of him swayed slowly as he prayed, the whispered words of the liturgy falling from his lips with a quiet intensity that made Rabbi Yisroel feel as if he were being drawn steadily upward on his neighbor’s coattails. When the man intoned, “I am mere dust and ashes before You,” Rabbi Yisroel experienced a profound sense of his own humility before G-d.
The time arrived for the reading of the Torah, and the gabbai of the congregation began distributing honors among the notables of the community. First he called up a Kohein, and then a Levi. Had the gabbai known that the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter graced his shul, he would certainly have accorded him the prestigious third aliyah. But Rabbi Yisroel had chosen to remain anonymous and thought nothing of it when no honor was bestowed upon him. He assumed that the recipient called up for the third Torah reading must be one of the synagogue’s most prominent members.
For the fourth honor, the gabbai called the name of Rabbi Yisroel’s neighbor, from whom the sage had drawn such inspiration. Upon being called to the Torah, however, the man suddenly flew into a rage. “You called him third,” he cried, pointing to the previous honoree, “and you only called me fourth? Who is he that I should be second to him?”
Astonished and appalled, Rabbi Yisroel rushed forward. “My friend, I can’t believe my ears. Only a moment ago you were saying before the Almighty that you are only dust and ashes.”
The man turned to Rabbi Yisroel, still furious, and declared, “Before G-d I am dust and ashes; not before him!”
Even the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter had to learn an unpleasant lesson that year about jumping to superficial conclusions. He returned to his community and reapplied himself to the business of spiritual growth.
TWO PATHS THAT ARE ONE
Rabbi Chanina used to say: If one is found pleasing by his fellows, then he is pleasing to the Almighty; but if one is not pleasing to his fellows, then he is not pleasing to the Almighty.
In this teaching (Pirkei Avos 3:13), Rabbi Chanina alludes to a basic principle of Torah observance: The commandments articulated in the Torah comprise two types of obligations — those between man and G-d, and those between man and man.
Many people neglect the first category, believing that as long as one is “a good person,” his relationship with the Almighty can be more casual and subjectively defined. In practice, however, with no absolute authority to define what is good, each person will inevitably judge himself “good” in his own eyes.
Others neglect the second category, believing that if they are ardent in their relationship with G-d, then it is of no consequence how they relate to their fellows. It is this second type of fallacy that Rabbi Chanina comes to refute.
The tablets received by Moses at Sinai are often depicted as heart-shaped, suggesting a deeply symbolic lesson: Just as our blood has to flow efficiently through both the right and the left chambers of the heart to maintain a healthy body, so too does a healthy soul depend upon an interdependence between the two categories of mitzvos.
THE SECRET OF THE TABLETS
Each of the two tablets contains five of the Ten Commandments. The first five are precepts between man and G-d; the second five are precepts between man and his fellow. And each pairing reflects the integral nature of the two categories:
I am the L-rd, your G-d — Do not commit murder
Have no other gods before Me — Do not commit adultery
Do not take G-d’s name in vain — Do not steal
Honor the Sabbath — Do not testify falsely
Honor your father and mother — Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor
The first commandment is I am the L-rd, your G-d; the sixth (which is the first on the second tablet’s group of five) is the prohibition against Murder. Only by acknowledging that there is a Creator who fashioned every human being in His image can one rationally explain why eating steak and swatting flies is any different from shedding human blood. Without such a distinction, we should all be either Vegans or serial killers.
The second commandment is the prohibition against Idolatry; the seventh is the prohibition against Adultery. The former is faithlessness in one’s relationship with the Almighty; the latter faithlessness in the sacred vow of marriage.
The third commandment is the prohibition against Taking G-d’s Name in Vain; the eighth is the prohibition against Stealing. The Almighty placed everything in this world for our use, conditional only upon recognizing that everything comes from Him. To misuse His name is to fail in that recognition, rendering all benefit from the material world the equivalent of theft.
The fourth pair of commandments includes the requirement to honor and keep the Sabbath, and the prohibition against Bearing False Witness. Since the Sabbath testifies to the creation of the world, one who violates it is in effect testifying falsely against the Creator.
The final pair includes Honoring Parents and the prohibition against Coveting, or seeking to acquire what belongs to one’s fellow through manipulation. Although the former appears to belong in the category between man and man, it teaches us to appreciate that our parents are the connection between us and our Creator. Just as parents withhold from their child that which they believe is not good for the child, similarly will G-d withhold from each of His children that which may not serve their spiritual best interests. One who internalizes this will never feel envy toward his neighbor.
The Torah commands us to serve the Almighty “with all your heart,” suggesting that our service of G-d is imperfect as long as our relationship with others is incomplete. Rabbi Chanina does not mean that we should curry favor with our neighbors through flattery or bribery. Rather, he comes to teach us that through genuine concern for our fellows we will transform ourselves into G-dly human beings.
Adapted from an article originally published at Aish.com
YOU CAN HELP!
I’ve published the first chapter of my new book online: Here’s the “cover” blurb and the link:
Take 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.