Thursday, December 27, 2007

Arthurian Passage

In Sanherdrin (21b), Rav teaches that Adoniya, son of David and Chagit, tried to steal the throne, but was unable to, as the throne rejected him. Rashi explains that some of David's descendents had an indentation on their skulls. David's crown had a golden bar from one side to the other, and it would fit only certain offspring of David, thus choosing the next in line.

When learning this, it reminded me of the sword that Arthur pulls out of the stone. There are many more similarities between the legends of Arthur and David the King. Does anyone know of any more?

David Landau: Desecration

According to Wikipedia, David Landau is an orthodox Jew from England who took over as editor-in-chief of the Israeli paper, Ha'aretz. However, if you read what he said to Secretary Rice a few weeks ago, you will see that this man is far from orthodox, and even further from a concerned citizen of Israel.

Arutz-7 reports, and this story is confirmed by Mr. Landau himself, that he had a foul-mouthed, dirty-metaphor talk with Secretary Rice. You can read some of it there, and see what filthy language this supposedly pious man used. The most hick-town hick would never have used such words when speaking to an important person. And yet, an educated, successful Jew opens his mouth in the most crass way, in front of the world! What a profound חילול, desecration, of God's name! Mr. Landau, this is the hardest sin to do penance for.

However, what bothers me even more than his despicable speech was that he called Israel a 'failed state'. He is of the opinion (and believe me, I am phrasing this in a far more genteel manner than he did) that Israel needs the US to step in and force it to make political descisions for it. I cannot imagine a more traitorous feeling.

David Landau, if you feel Israel is failed, go back from whence you came, and let those who have hope, faith, idealism continue to run things.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Great Financial Idea

I know I have not written in a while, and I apologize. I am planning to get posting regularly again within a few days. I just wanted to share the following for anyone traveling outside the US.

In this article, foreign transaction fees that are tacked on by Visa, Mastercard, and most banks are discussed. Most people end up paying about 3% extra on foreign purchases. This can be a real drain when living, shopping, or visiting in Israel (or anywhere else).

After some research, I have found that CapitalOne has a policy that they do not charge any fees for foreign purchases. Now here is the real kicker: not only do they not charge you any extra fees, but they even cover the 1-2% charged by Visa or Mastercard! You only pay the real value in dollars of what you purchased. This beats currency converters or banks, and is the absolute best deal I have seen (and the best possible) in a credit card. (You can get cash or rewards benefits in the deal, also.)

I am in no way connected to CapitalOne, and am posting this as a public service announcement, especially since the Jewish community does so much foreign travel. Check it out at the CapitalOne website.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We can help Jerusalem

A great site allows you to contact President Bush, the Israeli government and Secretary Rice in under 90 seconds.

I urge you to use it:


Many people think that since Abbas, Olmert and even Bush are relatively weak, the dangers of their meetings and declarations are negligible. This is a very dangerous way to think. Weak leaders are in the wobbly position to grab at any straw to enhance their perception abroad and at home. Olmert has been running on the general population's apathy since the Lebanon War. He is obviously trying to cook up something big. See this piece on Arutz-7. We really must come together to forcefully explain the catastrophe that is imminent, if Israel is to again make concessions of land and security on the naive hopes of a penitent Arab population.

However, there is a silver lining. Annapolis seems to have finally awoken the sleeping giant that is the religious-nationalistic community, as evidenced by Rabbi Rosen's and Rabbi Dov Lior's migration towards support for אצ"ל- and לח"י-type activity. "It is not always necessary to be good boys..." It is still vague, but a change is occurring.

The Israeli government must be made to understand that they have no authority to take more chances on the tab of Jewish lives.

UPDATE: Commenters have pointed out that the post is misleading. Allow me to clarify:

I don't think Rav Rosen is promoting terror, I think he is saying that resistance to the government plans to uproot settlements has to be take a more serious coloration than the 'hug and tears' of Gush Katif. He is using rhetoric that shows how serious these issues are.I can see that my post was not clear.

Let me clarify that I do not promote terror. Perhaps לח"י and אצ"ל language is misplaced. What I mean (and think they mean) is that there has to be strong opposition to the government's plans, protests, and a willingness to remain in places the Israeli government abandons, and for brave people to defend themselves there. I think this is the לח"י and אצ"ל spirit.

I am not sure how realistic these ideas are, but the fact that they are discussed will certainly give the government reason to stop and think; no longer can they expect people to follow meekly their destructive orders.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Los Angeles - Spread the Word!

This is a sticky post until next Tuesday. Please scroll down to see new posts.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Update to Midrash Post

Last week, I discussed how we are meant to read the midrash, and explained that the literal reading obviously falls short of the authors' true intent. Today, by chance, I came across a quote from Rav Kook, that butresses my point. I found it on Chanan Morrison's site, and it is adapted from Igrot HaRe'iyah (vol. I, p. 135):

"A scholar once wrote Rav Kook that this statement cannot be taken literally. How could Abraham know what the rabbinical courts would decree a thousand years in the future? The Sages must have intended to convey a subtler message: Abraham's philosophical mastery of the Torah was so complete, his understanding of the Torah's theoretical underpinnings was so comprehensive, that it encompassed even the underlying rationales for future decrees.

Rav Kook, however, was not taken with this explanation. In his response, Rav Kook emphasized that the Torah's theoretical foundations cannot be safeguarded without practical mitzvot. We cannot truly absorb the Torah's philosophical teachings without concrete rituals.
(This in fact is the fundamental failing of Christianity. With its reliance on faith alone, Christianity retreats to the realm of the purely spiritual; it abandons reality and leaves the physical world unredeemed. The Torah's focus on detailed mitzvot, on the other hand, reflects its intense involvement with the physical world.)

Rather, Rav Kook elucidated this Talmudic tradition in a slightly different vein. Clearly, Abraham did not literally perform the ritual of "eiruv tavshilin" as we do today. Nonetheless, Abraham was able to apply the essential concept of this ceremony to his day-to-day life. This was not just a theoretical understanding, but a practical knowledge that guided him in his actions.

What is the essence of "eiruv tavshilin"? This ritual teaches us to distinguish between the sanctity of the Sabbath and the lesser sanctity of the holidays. Abraham was also able to make this fine distinction - in his actions. In his life and deeds, he was able to differentiate not only between the sacred and the profane, but also between varying levels of holiness. "

It is great to find that Rav Kook agrees with my post! Baruch shekivnani!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Anah and The Mules

It is always interesting to see a word that appears only once in all of the Tanach. Invariably, words like this are subject to theories of scribal error. In this week's portion, we are treated to just such a word. "הוא ענה אשר מצא את הימם במדבר ברעתו את החמרים לצבעון אביו". "This is Anah, who discovered 'yemim' in the desert, while shepherding his father's donkeys." (Bereshit 36:24) (The word ימם does appear once more in the Bible, but there (Bamidbar 6:5) it clearly is the חסר (defective) spelling of ימים, days.) The word ימם is a hapax legomenon, and while the traditional commentaries and translations use 'mules', some raise the thought that perhaps it is really the word מים, water, changed by the process of metathesis. Thus, the verse would be talking about Anah, whose discovery was springs in the desert.

The reason this theory is advanced is that the word ימם is a singularity, appearing only once in Tanach. Also, it might be argued that מצא is a weak word for inventing a stronger, sterile animal. If Anah really discovered that mating donkeys and horses will produce a mule, one might expect a stronger word for this discovery, one that remarks on the innovation. For example, in 4:21 and 22, the inventors Yaval, Yuval and Tuval-Kayin are called אבי and לטש, fathers and instructors of new trades. Also, נמרד began the trend of being mighty, and he החל, began the trend. מצא is simply found, or discovered, and seems like a weak verb for an innovator. However, מצא is used time and again referring to finding water.

There are a number of reasons that I tend to reject this theory. First of all, with regard to the possible question of מצא, I find this question weak. It could be that the discovery of mules was by chance, and Anah simply found the results of the horse-donkey mating after the fact. He did not necessarily have a hand in the experiment, and just found the results when the baby was born. Thus, מצא could be the best verb to describe Anah's role in the new breed. Further, the verse's explicit statement that Anah was watching over donkeys certainly does legitimate the discovery of mules.

In regard to the text, we have the general principle of difficilior lectio potior, that the more difficult reading, all things being equal, holds more authority. This is because we assume that the scribes who copied the text read what they wrote, and that a more obvious scribal error would quickly be caught. The offending copy would be destroyed or, at least, clearly marked as un-authoritative. Tiny errors, because they do not necessarily change the meaning of a text, or render it unintelligible, are much more likely to be allowed to creep in. However, corruptions that make the text unreadable, are very likely not able to make it into a guarded text. Therefore, if there is a singularity in the text that, if considered an error, would have been a big one, we tend to believe that the singularity is meant to be there.

It also seems, from a reading of the rest of Tanach, that the construction of the sentence if we exchange מים for ימם is quite awkward. There are many instances of water being found in the Bible. Let us examine some of them, and compare them to the theoretical reading of 36:24 with מים.

In Bereshit 8:9, we have, כי מים על פני כל הארץ. In 26:32, the servants of Yitzchak tell him that מצאנו מים. In Sh'mot 15:22, we have Israel traveling in the desert, שלשת ימים ולא מצאו מים. In Sh'muel I 9:11, girls are found יוצאות לשאוב מים. These are just a few examples of water being found, and it is always referred to as an indefinite article. This suggests that water should be referred to grammatically in Hebrew as it is in English, indefinitely.

It is true that water is sometimes referenced as a definite article. For example, in Sh'muel II 17:20, עברו מיכל המים, and Vayikra 14:6, על המים החיים. However, in these examples, the water is modified; either it is in a container, or it is presented with an adjective. In these situations, it is understandable that usually indefinite water becomes definite: it is now specific water, defined by its container or adjective. However, in general, water is simply indefinite -- water.

With this in mind, if one argues that ימם is really water, he would have to argue that this verse is still singular in Tanach. Instead of the singularity of the word ימם, now the singularity of a grammatical construct treating plain water as a definite article would have to be posited. The acceptance of a theoretical grammatical singularity instead of a hapax seems weak ground, indeed, to claim scribal error.

After writing this, S. provided me with the Vulgate and Peshitta. They both translate ימם as water, as opposed to the Samaritan chumash, which uses אימים, mules. The Septuagint transliterates the word as a proper noun. S. further says that it does not have to be metathesis to allow the word to mean water, it could be 'yamim'. This would do away with my point about the definite article, because ימים needs a definite article to mean 'the springs' in the desert. However, it would still be a singularity, with the defective spelling of ימם (missing the אם הקריאה of 'י'). So this reading still admits a hapax.

Be that as it may, it does not seem that there is any reason to treat ימם as an example of metathesis. If anything, it seems the lack of נקודות led to an ambiguity as to the meaning of the word ימם itself.

S. has a great follow-up post to this discussion on his blog that I know you will love.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fifth Column

There is an amazing article in Arutz Sheva, about a Sapir College lecturer who is Arab. He tried to throw an IDF uniform-wearing student out of class, saying that he does not teach soldiers. When the soldier refused to leave, the instructor spent the period trying to degrade the Israeli Army.

What better example of Arab hostility can there be? This Arab was educated by Israel and given a job at an Israeli college. He was not forced to do any type of community service to compensate for his lack of army time. He lives in Israel in comfort and peace, and most of all, security, thanks to soldiers like the student he tried to eject. And this happened, not in the UK, but in Israel.

Shame on a college and society that has allowed its enemy to mock its sons without consequence. Israel needs to gain back its self-respect.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Literal Midrash

In Yoma (28b), a midrash is related concerning Bereshit 26:5. The verse speaking of Avraham's loyalty to God's teachings is used to teach us that the forefathers kept each minute detail of the law, even the rabbinic enactments that came thousands of years later. The same thing is taught about Yitzchak and Ya'akov, from different verses. This has raised some lively debate, and I wish to discuss this midrash's literal meaning, and the irony of reading any midrash literally.

There are many problems with a literal reading of this midrash. For example, if Ya'akov kept the Torah, how could he marry two sisters? Further, how could the midrash state that Shimon married Dinah, his sister? These are clear עריות. Also, more technically, how could Avraham have kept the rabbinic dictum to pray מנחה and ערבית, if the Talmud (Brachot 26b) tells us that Yitzchak and Ya'akov set those prayers, respectively?

The rishonim and acharonim take great pains to iron out these inconsistencies. The Ramban explains that the progenitors of Judaism only kept the laws voluntarily, and in Israel. Outside its bounds, they did not bind themselves to keep the laws. The Maharal, on the other hand, disagrees. He explains that the forefathers were pure in body and soul, and were able to penetrate the depths of creation. As Rav Kedar, זצ"ל, taught, just as God looked into the essence of the Torah to create the universe, so were the forefathers able, with their clear minds and holy spirit (רוח הקדש), to examine the world around them, and re-create the Torah. They willingly accepted the precepts on themselves, and kept it all.

However, the Torah has situations in which a prophet can uproot even a negative commandment as a הוראת שעה, an extra-legal ruling that lasts for a limited amount of time. The prime example for this is Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel, sacrificing upon an altar outside the holy Temple. In the same way, the same רוח הקדש that compelled the spirits of our forefathers to keep the Torah, also, at times, commanded them to break certain laws, as a הוראת שעה. And so, Ya'akov saw that he needed to marry two sisters, in order to bring forth the twelve tribes.

However, the Maharal ends up rejecting the Ramban's explanation, as well as his own first one. He finally settles on the idea that the avot kept only the positive commands, but did not keep away from the negative ones.

Rav Tzuriel, an expert on Maharal who lives in Bnei Brak, directed me to an answer to the third question we raised. Avraham did, in fact, pray mincha and arvit, as the Talmud itself (Yoma 28b) says. The passage in Brachot that claims that Yitzchak and Ya'akov instituted mincha and arvit is talking about setting the prayer as a tradition for their children after them. The forefathers set traditions for their children to follow called תורת האבות, and these traditions were studied and kept by some until the end of the bondage in Egypt. While Avraham prayed mincha, it was Yitzchak who instituted this and handed it down to his children.

In our discussion about this midrash, Rav Tzuriel made a point about reading midrashim literally in general, which I believe reflects the position of the Maharal, as well. He said that midrashim must be read allegorically. A midrash is meant to teach deep truths about our traditions, not to teach us literal facts about the lives and times of those who came before. When the midrash states that the forefathers kept the whole Torah, even the rabbinical decrees, it means to tell us that the process halacha from Sinai to the rabbis, is not some abstract field that has a limited relationship to the world around us. Rather, the commandments are the organic part of the spiritual side of this world, and honest and pure reflection on the world would bring us to a knowledge of the Torah and God. Even עירוב תבשילין, a seemingly insignificant loophole made to allow cooking on a holiday for a shabbat that immediately follows, is part of the spiritual chemistry of the world. Maharal explains the spiritual meaning behind עירוב תבשילין. (I will only say that it seems clear that this rabbinical decree embodies the importance of using the physical and spiritual world in a beneficial way to other human beings.)1

Reading the midrash literally is like reading Shir HaShirim literally. It seems clear to us that wise King Shlomo utilizes the passion of a couple in love to allegorize the relationship between God and His chosen nation. A reading that focuses on the literal meaning of the words does injustice to the work and strays from the true meaning the author had in mind. So too, we should expect depth of allegory and metaphor from the sages in their cryptic writings.

The reading of any midrash literally, and insisting that the literal meaning is the true point of the rabbinic wisdom encapsulated within, is demeaning and belittling to the wisdom of our great sages. The Rambam writes against this as well, in his introduction to the mishna. In it, he writes that one should not confuse his own inability to plumb the depths of חז"ל's teachings with the notion that חז"ל wrote silly, literalist things. The agad'ta of our sages is a repository of depth and metaphor, not the actual height of Moshe or Og.

(Recently, David Guttmann pointed me to an even more explicit and to the point quote from the Rambam's introduction to פרק חלק:

"והכת הזו המסכנה רחמנות על סכלותם לפי שהם רוממו את החכמים לפי מחשבתם ואינם אלא משפילים אותם בתכלית השפלות ואינם מרגישים בכך, וחי ה' כי הכת הזו מאבדים הדר התורה ומחשיכים זהרה, ועושים תורת השם בהפך המכוון בה, לפי שה' אמר על חכמת תורתו אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה וכו', והכת הזו דורשין מפשטי דברי חכמים דברים אשר אם ישמעום העמים יאמרו רק עם סכל ונבל הגוי הקטן הזה. והרבה שעושין כן הדרשנין המבינים לעם מה שאינם מבינים הם עצמם, ומי יתן ושתקו כיון שאינם מבינים מי יתן החרש תחרישון ותהי לכם לחכמה, או היה להם לומר אין אנו יודעים מה רצו חכמים בדברים אלו ולא היאך פירושו, אלא חושבים שהבינו, ומעמידים את עצמם להבין לעם מה שהבינו הם עצמם לא מה שאמרו חכמים, ודורשין בפני ההמון בדרשות ברכות ופרק חלק וזולתם כפשוטם מלה במלה."

Marc Shapiro also points to an interesting reason put forth by the Rashba as to why some מדרשים are written in such a hyperbolic manner: "לעתים היו החכמים דורשים ברבים ומאריכים בדברי תועלת והיו העם ישנים, וכדי לעוררם היו אומרים להם דברים זרים לבהלם ושיתעוררו משנתם."

Additionally, see the Ibn Ezra in his introduction to Eicha: מדרשיה אל דרכים רבים נחלקים/מהם חידות וסודות ומשלים דבוהים עד שחקים/ומהם להרויח לבות נלאות בפרקים עמוקים/ומהם לאמן נכשלים ולמלאת הריקים...ודרך הפשט הוא הגוף בדברים נבחרים ובחוקים...)

If the preceeding is true, we must re-examine the extent to which Ramban and Maharal, and, indeed, many other מפרשים go in their desire to explain the literal meaning of the midrash. If it is all an allegory, why do we care how the little details work into the literal meaning of the metaphor? The answer, of course, is that any metaphor needs to maintain a level of internal consistency. Only through consistency can the deeper meaning behind the allegory come through, and not be obscured by tangental questions that inhibit clarity.

With humility and patience, we can learn great things from the agadot of our sages. By blending the stances of Rambam and Maharal with a level-headed reader's approach, we can truly see the wisdom and wonders of our Torah.
110 Sh'vat 5769: In an important essay on the topic of Maharal and midrash, Rabbi Chaim Eisen gives some history and context for the Maharal's view. I offer in this parenthetical comment a short summary of an essay that is critical for anyone interested in Maharal or midrash.

Rishonic philosophic formulations were made on the backdrop of the neo-rationalist philosophers that flowered in the Arabic countries. Though the Jewish responses to this were rooted in the Talmud, they were formulated towards the philosophers of their times. In those times, most Geonim and Rishonim did not see אגדתא as binding, and R' Shmuel and R' Hai, his son, wrote in the manner that one does not rely on midrash if it is unattuned. Rather, if it is in the Talmud, we do our best to reconcile it [allegorically] with reason, and if we cannot, we disregard it as we do matters that are not in accordance with halacha. If not in the Talmud, we do not even do this much. There is no ruling in agadta, if there is no halachik implication. Similarly and yet very differently, the Rambam saw midrashim as a foundtain of deeper knowledge, allegory and metaphor that could be dismissed by the masses without danger to their souls, while at the same time, be held in waiting for the truly wise to study. The Moreh is a work that attempts to systematically review the allegories of agadta. Rambam wrote that those who misunderstand agadta or take it literally (and either force that upon themselves or reject it) are behaving foolishly, but are not going against the tenents of faith. R' Sherira held that midrash and agada are umdena.

There was a small number of rishonim who held that midrashim must be read as literally true (see K'tav Tamim), the breadth of thought, rationalist and mystical, that they reject to support this, points to the singularity and uniqueness of this approach.

The Ramban saw a duality to the physical and metaphysical worlds. Where the Rambam would see the garden of Eden, for example, as a non-physical reality, and the K'tav Tamim would see it as earthly, the Ramban discusses at length a duality in nature between reality on earth and spiritual reality in Heaven. Both are true, and are linked so that the words of the Torah describe the events in both spheres.

However, as the Enlightenment moved across Western Europe, Jews began to see the statements of the midrash and agadta as an excuse to leave the ways of their fathers. Whereas de Rossi in his Me'or Enayim essentially continued this tradition from the Geonim, willing to dismiss midrashim as non-binding, the Maharal saw in this a reaction to the outside attacks, instead of a re-examination and deepening of understanding of the texts in question. (To quote Rabbi Eisen, "de Rossi responded only to objections from the outside, without subsuming them in an inclusive system cominf forth essentially from the inside.") The Maharal found his roots in the Rambam's view, and this was the path of the Maharal. He saw the midrashim and agadtot as allegory, and once the allegory is understood, the words of the midrash make sense in their plain meaning. The secret of wisdom is unlocked, and the allegory takes over, giving the true, lofty meaning to the seemingly mundane words in which our sages couched their great thoughts. (This is not to detract from the disagreements Maharal had with Rambam's explanations, as Maharal was a student of Ramban's willingness to incorporate kabbalistic-mystical elements in his explications of passages.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Olmert vs. Rabbi Kahane

Ya'akov and the Spotted Sheep

A few years ago, a rabbi from M'chon Pu'ah delivered a series of lectures to our s'micha class in Israel. The lectures were designed to give future rabbis insight into the complexities of fertility treatments and halachot which deal with reproduction. At the end of the first session, he told us a fascinating, novel approach he had regarding Ya'akov's spotted and striped sheep. While it may not be quite the pshat, it certainly is interesting.

In the story, Lavan gives Ya'akov only block colored animals. The striped, spotted and banded ones stay with Lavan's sons. Ya'akov puts striped branches within the sheeps' sight when they drink, and when they mate, they somehow give birth to striped animals. Of course, this seems non-sensical. I always understood the story as Ya'akov doing his best hishtadlut and Hashem lending a hand. But how?

When Ya'akov explains how he is so successful to his wives, he tells them of a vision he had when approached by an angel of God. "Behold, all the males that mated with the ewes, were striped, spotted and banded." How does Ya'akov's vision match the reality of the situation?

In genetics, there are dominant and recessive genes. In peas, to use one facet of Gregor Mendel's experiments, green peas are recessive, and yellow are dominant. The way genetics work is that a plant or animal inherits two sets of genes, one from each parent. As long as there is one dominant, the pea expresses a fully dominant phenotype, and will be yellow. Only when both inherited alleles are recessive will the phenotype be expressed as green.

It has been some time, but I hope that I accurately relate what Rabbi Brownstein explained: Striped and spotted sheep are the result of a recessive genetic mutation. The block colored ones are dominant. It so happens, he said, that the recessive gene also relates to earlier heat seasons.

When Ya'akov had a flock of block colored sheep, he had homozygous and heterozygous males and females. The sheep that were ready to mate earlier would likely carry a recessive gene for spotting and striping, heterozygously. Thus, the ewes ready for mating earlier, even though they were identical in phenotype to the homozygous sheep, were ones that could produce homozygous recessive babies, if mated with males that also carried the recessive gene.

This is the 'opening of the eyes' that the angel performed on Ya'akov. He allowed Ya'akov to 'see' the stripes that were latent in the block colored animals, and taught him that the only way to have a high number of striped offspring would be to allow heterozygotes to mate with heterozygotes. Allow the animals that were ready to mate early to mate together, and then segregate all striped and spotted offspring, permitting them only to reproduce amongst themselves, maintaining the homozygous recessive genes in his flocks.

All that is left are the branches in the watering troughs. It seems that in ancient times, this type of trick was believed to have worked. In fact, the Talmud records just such a popular belief in the idea that what one sees can influence the look of one's offspring (see Brachot and Niddah; exact pages forthcoming). Ya'akov's actions are nothing more than the use of the best animal husbandry knowledge of his time. It is a model for us of hishtadlut.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Poetry I Like II

In the second installment of "Poetry I Like", I present to you Gerard Manley Hopkins, and King David. Hopkins was born in 1844, on July 28. He became a Catholic priest, but found himself better suited to writing and teaching. He studied Welsh, and incorporated into his English poetry what he called "sprung rhythm". This constantly changing rhythm, rising and falling, was meant to demonstrate the immanence of God in his poetry. Later in life, he became depressed, and feared that his prayers did not reach God. This doubt was painful, but, as he died of Typhoid fever in 1889, he said, 'I am happy, so happy.'

Below is my favorite of all his poems, which recalls to mind very strongly the verses of chapter 104 in Psalms. I find the lilting meter and substance of Hopkins echoing these verses. And so, first Hopkins, and then the psalm.

Glory be to God for dappled things—For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

--GM Hopkins

תהום, כלבוש כיסיתו; על הרים, יעמדו מים.
מן גערתך ינוסון; מן קול רעמך, ייחפזון.
יעלו הרים, יירדו בקעות-- אל מקום, זה יסדת להם.
גבול שמת, בל יעבורון; בל ישובון, לכסות הארץ.
המשלח מעיינים, בנחלים; בין הרים, יהלכון.
ישקו, כל חיתו שדיי; ישברו פראים צמאם.
עליהם, עוף השמיים ישכון; מבין עופיים, ייתנו קול...

הכפירים, שואגים לטרף; ולבקש מא-ל, אוכלם.
תזרח השמש, ייאספון; ואל מעונותם, ירבצון.
ייצא אדם לפועלו; ולעבודתו עדי ערב.
מה רבו מעשיך, ה'-- כולם, בחכמה עשית;מלאה הארץ קניינך.

תהילים קד:ח-יב, כ-כד

Modesty and Openness

I am sure that there are some people out there who have been following the discussion in which I have made the point that modesty is necessary even when discussing adult topics. As it seems that many have misunderstood my point of view, and feel that I am trying to 'police' other blogs, I will clarify my position here.

First of all, let me begin with the good. I think it is great that people want to know the halachik view of matters between husband and wife. It speaks of the holiness that an authentic Jewish life can engender, when bloggers ask important questions regarding intimacy within the framework of Jewish law. It happens far too often that both women and men, when meeting their 'marriage teachers' (חתן or כלה teachers), are too embarrassed (or too naiive) to ask detail-oriented questions. Teachers should be bringing up these issues if the prospective bride or groom do not mention them. All to often, tragically, these classes are the first and last exposure the couple has to a religious figure that invites them to ask anything they need. I believe that people require open relationships with honest, trustworthy clergy, so that questions can be posed and answered in a professional and private manner.

It is inevitable that many people will not be exposed to this kind of support system. In this day and age, people turn to the internet, and lately, blogs, to find answers and camaraderie in their quest for fulfilling relationships and lives. This is fine, and there are many sites where rabbis answer anonymous questions in a respectful and halachik way. (Without endorsing any, here are some links: askmoses, kippah, and shoresh.)

When we find out about the details of what is permitted, we fulfill our responsibility to build a healthy relationship with our spouse, while attending our duty to act within the framework of the Torah. However, the danger that lurks at the edges of this important exploration is that a public discussion of these issues, innocently begun with the best of intentions, can quickly degenerate into the presentation of salacious details for the voyeuristic excitement of the audience. This is what happened on one of the threads in the blogosphere, and it is the inherent danger of any public discussion of what traditionally was the most private of issues, discussed between man, woman and respected halachik authority.

The Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 21:1-15) and Yad Hachazaka (Hil. Issurei Biah 21) make it clear that experiences which cause a person improper thoughts for unacceptable reasons is against the law. We are a holy nation. When we learn about what is permitted and what is forbidden, we do it with seriousness. We do not do it in a forum where the discussion will turn into the lowest talk of pubs and beer-halls.

I applaud the desire to know more about how we treat intimacy in halacha. I think the internet can be a good source of information. However, everyone who takes part in such discussions is responsible to make sure that the information is in keeping with the halachik standards of tzniut, and cut off any wandering from the goal honest and serious study of issues between man and woman.

May we merit our Nation שוכן לשבטיו, with love and happiness in abundance, within the bounds of our holy Torah.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fortitude and Patience

The following poem reminded me of the Yerushalmi I quote afterwards. Both remind us of the calm inevitability of the גאולה.

Say not the Struggle Nought Availeth

Say not, the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.

--Arthur Hugh Clough, 1869

ר’ חייא רובה ור”ש בן חלפתא הוו מהלכין בהדא בקעת ארבל בקריצתא ראו אילת השחר שבקע אורה א”ר חייא רובה לר”ש בן חלפתא בר ר’ כך היא גאולתן של ישראל בתחילה קימעא קימעא כל שהיא הולכת היא הולכת ומאיר מאי טעמא (מיכה ז) כי אשב בחשך ה’ אור לי.

The rabbis were walking in a valley during the harvest time, and witnessed the day-break as its light broke forth. One said, "Such is the redemption of Israel: first, it is bit by bit, but as it goes on, the light continues to grow, as the prophet states, 'Even as I sit in darkness, God is my light'."

-- ירושלמי יומא, פרק ג, דף מ, עמ’ ב

Friday, November 02, 2007

Rivkah and Avraham

When Eliezer goes to find a wife for Yitzchak, the Torah tells us that he found 'Rivkah coming out, who was born to Betuel'. (Gen. 24:15) This seems quite redundant, as in 22:23, the Torah has already told us the exact same fact, that Rivkah was born to Betuel. What is being added here? Further, the verb used in our verse is pu'al, effectively making Betuel's fathering of Rivkah passive. Why this change from 22:23 and, indeed, most other similar situations in scripture, where the verb is active?

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv has an interesting explanation. Rivkah, he says, was born to Betuel, it is true, but not in his merit, and not for him. Rivkah was given to Betuel for Avraham. Avraham is the hidden cause for the birth, and she carries his personality, as a proof of authenticity. Rivkah's capacity for loving-kindness is unique in her generation, and recalls Avraham's chessed. It is for this reason that Eliezer was so sure of his selection.

All middot must be balanced by an opposing one. Too much strictness is dangerous, and so is too much kindness. Especially in raising a family (or, in the fore-fathers' cases, a nation), we need to make sure we provide a balance of traits as examples for our children. Each fore-father had a specific characteristic. Avraham was full of loving-kindness, while Yitzchak exemplified gevurah, strict justice. In order for them to produce successful families, they needed the input of opposing traits from their wives. It is clear from last week's parashah that Sarah was able to provide the trait of gevurah, as we see from her sending away Yishmael when he became a bad influence.

Yitzchak needed a balance, and this was provided by Rivkah's loving-kindness. The proper mate for Yitzchak had to be inspired by Avraham's trait.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) records an argument. Some amoraim hold that Avraham had a daughter, implied by the verse stating that Avraham was blessed with everything. Others hold he had no daughter. Perhaps this view of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in his Kedushat HaLevi can make peace between the two views.

It is only with a harmonious balance of traits on display in a Jewish home can children be raised with a healthy atmosphere of love and strictness. Our fore-bearers are a lesson to us in how we must structure our homes for the benefit of our children and, indeed, for all of Israel.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Last Note on Providence

What comes out of our previous discussions of divine providence is that (according to Rambam and Ramban) God does not always actively make a good or bad thing happen to us. Sometimes, it is a product of the natural general providence. However, this does not take away from the fact that God did allow this to occur. If an event could not fit in with the divine plan for the world, it would be stopped before it occurred.

Therefore, when evil befalls us, we can use it as an impetus from God to mend our ways and repent. By allowing this event, God has given us a doorway through which to move towards greater spiritual growth. We may find a specific action on our part that this event corresponds to, and treat it as individual providence, or we may not, and simply treat is as falling under the rubric of general providence. The same can be said for good events that befall us.

We can find comfort and solace in the fact that no evil could befall us, even through general providence, if it could not be reconciled with the ultimate designs of God for the course of world events. God may allow evil to occur, even when it goes against His will, but he would not allow it to occur if it would derail the ultimate plan.

And so, the destruction of the Temples, the crusades, the Holocaust, and on an individual level, even the loss of a cherished infant, are certainly not the way God may have wanted the world to act. However, his very allowance of these events testifies to their being compatible with ultimate redemption and meaning in life.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


As we move further and further into the nightmare of Oslo and land for peace, Rabbi Kahane's Yahrtzeit today reminds us of where we should be: a proud nation, steadfastly faithful to God, demonstrating power and security before its enemies.

May we soon merit his dream.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Pride of the IDF

Loosely translated from the Maariv article:

"In unit 202 of the paratroop brigade, the religious soldiers choose to vacation in a yeshiva.

Ever fighter in the IDF waits for this moment. After endless guard duties and ambushes, after training and pressure, the unit earns a week of vacation. It happens about once a month, and when it comes, the soldiers celebrate. When this celebration came to unit 202, many of the soldiers chose to spend their vacation in Torah lectures, spiritually uplifting talks, and meetings with rabbis.

The soldiers approached the rabbi of their unit, and explained that they felt a need to strengthen their resolve with Torah study. He turned to the Hesder yeshivas, and they organized a Torah-oriented vacation for the soldiers in Karnei Shomron.

The soldiers enjoyed Torah study as well as separate swimming. One of the soldiers explained: "Our life choices lead us to combine Torah and army service. For us to learn for two days in between our operational responsibilities and training is a spiritual necessity."

Tomorrow these soldiers will join their comrades in Givat Olga for a day of sports. Lior Lifshitz, dean of the Hesder yeshiva in Karnei Shomron, said that, "These guys are used to learning. Two days of return to the study halls is a tonic for them, and it is what does them good." He pointed out that when these soldiers have weekends off the base, they spend them in yeshivas.

Hesder soldiers serve the army for sixteen months, and for three and a half years, study in yeshivas. Most of the students serve in fighting units. In the officer's course that ended last week, ten of the graduates were yeshiva students."

While every Jew, religious or secular, can connect to Israel and Am Yisrael, serving and defending, it is these religious soldiers, who carry in one hand the sword of Gideon, and in the other hand, the Book of God, who embody our national spirit completely. May God guide them to victory in war and success in Torah.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Binding of Yitzchak

At the end of this week's reading appears the narrative of the binding of Yitzchak, עקדת יצחק. This is how the prayer service of Rosh Hashanah refers to it, "ועקדת יצחק לזרעו ברחמים תזכור." And indeed, Rabbi Hirsch explains that this was a great test of Yitzchak's faith. Yitzchak only found out about this command of Hashem through his oral law-giver, his father. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) explains, this הוראת שעה, temporary commandment was only relied upon because Avraham had proven himself a true conduit of God's word.

However, the Torah narrates the event as the climactic test of Avraham's faith. His son is passive, inactive, throughout the story. It is Avraham who is commanded by God to bring his son up on an altar, and demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice everything he worked for, and all his hopes for the future, at God's command. Why does the Torah put the emphasis on Avraham?

(It is worth noting, when mentioning this theologically difficult episode, that the pshat is clear that God never intended Avraham to actually carry through with the sacrifice. The Torah decries human sacrifice such as מולך, and the words והעלהו שם לעולה imply that he is only to be brought up, but not slaughtered. The lesson was to be one of devotion to God's will to the extent that, when commanded, we are willing to follow blindly God's word, even when it seems to contradict everything we know about the world and His ways. It is a lesson in humility and יראת שמים, and, according to Rav Kook, a demonstration that passion and active service do not take a back seat to abstract philosophy in Avraham's (and Judaism's) philosophy.)

Rav Yosef Dov, author of the Beis HaLevi, has an interesting take on this. He writes that the harder test was not Yitzchak's. Yitzchak was charged with a martyr's death. Although this is certainly a high level, and a tremendous test, it is absolutely terminative. His martyrdom would not create any emotional, theological or psychological crises in the future because, quite simply, passing his test he would cease to exist.

Not so for Avraham's test. When Yitzchak is gone, Avraham would be left with a void in his life. His most prized acquisition in this world, his whole hope for the future, Yitzchak, would be gone, and Avraham would be left with a sterile existence that would leave no possibility of God's lessons and Avraham's worldview being propagated in this world. Avraham would be left emotionally and psychologically scarred as well. The test for Avraham is less the commandment to sacrifice his son, and more the order to actively destroy all hope for the good future of mankind.

The Beis Halevi points out that while many people would be willing to make the catastrophic show of faith of dying על קידוש השם, it is harder to find people who are willing to forego personal comforts, and live without something they truly desire, for God. Living for God is harder than dying for him. This is why the Torah calls it a test of Avraham. He is the one who we must model, with a willingness to be stripped of all material, emotional and psychological goods in God's service.

In our times, it may seem that the aspects of קידוש השם, martyrdom for God, is not something we need worry about. We do not experience existential fear while serving God. However, we do experience the test of Avraham in our own ways. We give up on prestige, comfort and ease for shabbat, yamim tovim, and kashruth. וחי בהם, living for God through the tests of everyday life, is the more intense and protracted test. It is the one we can find glory through in our lives.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Dialectic of Individual and Community

Last week, we discussed the emergence of the creative individual, and the accompanying elevation from mediocrity engendered by an individual's spiritual activity. Rabbi Carmy, in the same essay, presents the other side of the coin.

In the Guide, Rambam states that those who interpret every trouble and annoyance in life as expressions of hashgacha pratit are guilty of the tragic flaw, hubris. The assumption is all too common that we are in tune with God to a greater extent than our peers, and there is more meaning in everyday troubles for us than others. Rambam calls a person who feels this way foolish, and writes against expecting too much hashgacha pratit. There is great divine wisdom in the shepherding of the flock, and there is great human self-knowledge in the concession that perhaps, in the words of Rabbi Carmy, "vanity, spiritual self-indulgence, and sullen self-justification" lead us to expect too much individual attention.

Rav Kook echoes this when he states that the cringing in the face of personal suffering and troubles prevents the natural love and reverence towards the divine. Individuals and the collective nation can thus become spiritually and physically sick. A pre-occupation with hashgacha pratit can paralyze our abilities to perform our tasks in this life, causing us to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate ourselves vis-à-vis God and what he has allowed to befall us. This is what Rabbi Carmy refers to as "hothouse hashgacha theology".

It is also clear that, however great a human being's personal achievements, they are only possible in the cultural and social milieu into which he is born and raised. Science, theology, logic, music, art and language are all fields which clearly demonstrate that great progress is made on the shoulders of those who came before. And so, as much as a man may like to view himself, and have God view him, as an individual, he cannot and should not completely shake off the shackles of his species.

I would posit therefore that there is great benefit in being viewed, both by God and by ourselves, as members of a Nation, and not simply as individuals worthy of individual attention. Our achievements are only attainable because of our origins, and our nation is the repository of a wealth of cultural and intellectual treasures that fuel our creativity.

Even more than this, the hashgacha klalit that the nation provides us is not simply a lower level of providence, one that should be replaced with hashgacha pratit at all costs. The national providence in play in hashgacha klalit is a powerful mechanism of protection for the individual. As Rav Kook points out in his essay, "Process of Ideas in Israel," the national identity provides immortality to our actions in this world. We are supposed to see ourselves as gaining fulfillment through our national identity. Further, the national destiny of Israel collects even sinners, and allows them to be gathered up in the salvation of the nation. (See Vayikra Rabba 3, where the midrash compares the different parts of the nation to the elements of the mitzvah of lulav. The midrash ends, יבאו אלו ויכפרו על אלו, teaching that even sinners are forgiven and provided for in the redemption.) Indeed, there is unique value and protection that national providence is capable of, that individual providence simply cannot reach.

This point is elaborated upon by the כלי יקר (Sh'mot 30:11-12) in Ki Tisa. He asks a number of questions regarding the nature of protection that donating money provides from the dangers of being singled out by counting. Perhaps, he says, each individual will be remembered and inspected and found wanting. However, as the shunamite woman said of herself, "sitting amongst my nation" can defend against just such analysis.

The national aspect of a Jew provides him with providence vital to survival. And so it is that an individual constantly experiences this paradox, the dialectic between his individual identity, and that of his nation. To abdicate either is to sign one's own spiritual, intellectual and emotional death warrant. Forever vacillating between these two extremes, we nurture ourselves from both springs, never fully our own personality, and never simply part of a group.

Thus judged, we become deserving of the protective qualities of both hashgachot, protected from anonymity on the one side, and from the lonely starkness of isolated individuality on the other.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Individual Providence and Avraham

In Rabbi Carmy's Essay, "Tell Them I've Had a Good Enough Life", he points out a contradiction in Rambam's Guide, and shows how Rabbi Soloveitchik resolves it. In chapter 17, Rambam differentiates between the animal world, which is run on hashgacha klalit, general providence, and the human world, which runs, additionally, on hashgacha pratit, individualized attention from God. However, in chapter 18, Miamonides states that individual attention is bestowed upon one who actively seeks and engages the Divine.

This apparent contradiction is resolved in Halachik Man. Rabbi Soloveitchik divides humanity's existence into two modes. The first is representative of nothing more than an incarnation of the platonic form 'Man'. He is simply an example, an instance of mankind. He lives with no special understanding of any higher purpose, and his existence as a human is analogous to the existence of a cow as a bovine; he naturally participates in the life-cycle and perpetuation of his species. To quote the Rav, he "has never done anything that could...legitimate his existence as an individual." He is not an individual. His reality is mired in the mediocrity of humanity.

On the other hand, a human being can transcend this earthly, animalistic persona. By engaging the universe as a creative, active participant, he elevates himself out of the hum-drum of the species. He thinks, designs, and strives for further understanding of the world around him, his purpose in it, and his relationship to his Creator. Such a person has raised himself out of the mediocrity of his species, and "lives not on account of being born but for the sake of life itself, and so that he may merit thereby the life in the world to come."

And so, one who, through his actions, acts as a creature of the species Man (quantitatively, but not quantitatively, above other animals), is treated with hashgacha klalit. It is a person who sees the glory and grandeur of the calling of Man, qualitatively different from other creatures, who is provided with hashgacha pratit.

Ultimately, the design of Man is to obligate him to strengthen that relationship to God. He is commanded to create, improve and elevate his existence, and, in doing so, to increase the level of providence he is showered with from Above. "When a person creates himself, ceases to be a mere species man, and becomes a man of God, then he has fulfilled that commandment which is implicit in the principle of providence." Indeed, Rabbi Carmy points out, the very act of turning to God at a time of distress, and not discounting the troubles experienced as random occurrences, turns a person into an individual, and allows them to be judged so by Him.

This distinction may highlight the difference between Avraham and his nephew, Lot. Lot's choice to live with the wicked of Sodom for the economic benefits showed himself an excellent example of a human being allowing himself to be led by his animalistic tendencies. He goes where it is most economically prudent, and when there, he does not influence the people to be better, but hides the lessons he learned in his uncle's household from the Sodomites. He is therefore caught in the dragnet of the hashgacha klalit of the war between empires, and is only saved by Avraham. Even from the destruction of the city, he is only saved by the relationship he shares with Avraham.

On the other hand, Avraham, the quintessential Man in search of his Lord, finds hashgacha pratit in his fiery furnace, his battles, and ultimately, his quest for continuity through Isaac.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Forty Years of Jerusalem

It is forty years since God gave us the blessing of a unified Jerusalem. And it seems that, in forty years, we have squandered the miracles and blessings showered upon us before the eyes of the world in the Six Day War. Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel, is ready to hand over parts of Jerusalem to the arabs who have never ceased to call for our destruction.

We have tried everything that has been suggested. Land for Peace is a proven farce, and unilateral withdrawl brings our enemies closer than ever with more sophisticated weapons that they bring across their open border with Egypt. Israel suffers from a lack of enthusiasm because its citizens know that what they fight for heroically today will be seen as oppression and conquest tomorrow. Without Torah, zionism cannot survive, and we witness the pathetic crumbling of secular zionism with politicians who are willing to trade Israel's very security for a smile and handshake from US presidents and Arab terrorists.

And now, we come to the lowest point: The most obvious miracle performed in 2000 years, the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and to the Temple Mount, is turned into a trading card. The splendor and spiritual meaning of our redemption of our holiest place is lost in Olmert's desire for international approval. And the nation sits desolate, in apathy and shame.

In his book, Forty Years, Rabbi Kahane writes:

"The idea first entered my head as I sat, one day, in Ramle Prison. It was the eve of Tisha B'Av, the tragic commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, the beginning of both terrible exiles. I sat, reviewing the book of Jonah, with its message of repentance, on the day of national tragedy. Jonah enters the city of Nineveh, to which he has been sent by the Al-Mighty, to warn them of impending destruction unless they repent. And as I read, the words of Jonah to the people suddenly leaped out at me: "In forty days, Nineveh shall be overturned!"

Forty. The thought suddenly struck me: How many times, again and again, does that number arise in connection with sin and punishment? "And the rain was on the earch forty days and forty nights." (Genesis 7:12), the punishment of a world flooded for its sin. Forty. And centuries later, as the Jews of the desert "despised the pleasant land" and wept over their "home" in Egypt, the Al-Mighty angrily decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Holy Land, saying: "And your children will wander in the wilderness forty years and bear your faithlessness." (Numbers 14:33) Again, forty. And the punishment of stripes, whipping, is one of "Forty shall he strike him, he shall not increase," and the atonement for sin and the purification process begins with a study of Torah given forty days at Sinai continuing in a mikva, ritualarium, whose waters must be a minimum of forty S'ah.

...And iddn that tiny cell in prison the thought expanded. Not only was the concept "forty" tied to sin and punisment, it was specifically connected to the warning of G-d to the sinner, a warning designed to avert that punishment. Jonah warns Nineveh of impending punishment and this gives them a grace period of forty days during which they might search their souls and change their ways.

In the case of both Holy Temples, the Al-Mighty gave the Jewish people a period of forty years of grace; time to think and rethink their ways. Time to return to Him and save themselves from that punishment. In the awful final days of the first Jewish state, the L-rd tells the prophet Ezekiel: "And thou shalt lie again on your right side and bear the iniquity of the house of Judah, forty days; each day for a year, each day for a year." (Ezekiel 4:6)

...Once again, the period of grace. Forty years. The final hope of the Al-Mighty that, perhaps, His final warning would be heeded. The countdown of forty years, the last chance.

...For make no mistake. The magnificent miracle of return and rise of a Jewish State is surely the beginning of the Final Redemption, but hardly the end. THe true finality, the magnificent era of Messiah, comes to fruition gloriously and majestically and breathtakingly only if we cleave to the great axiom: "If you walk in my statues...I will give peace in the land." (Leviticus 26)

...This is the choice; the only choice. All the rest is nonsense. And time ticks away and the decision is in our hands.

...And it become clearer and clearer to me that, once again, it is forty years; forty years of warning, admonition, opportunity. The final chance."

It is up to us. The nation must decide. We must struggle as we have never struggled before, to stop the politicians who, whether or not they realize it, bring us to the brink of disaster. As long as it has not happened, we can still avert it.

Rav Kook on the Documentary Hypothesis

Someone (X.) brought up Rav Kook's comments in קבצים מכתב יד קדשו that purportedly say that believing in the "DH is not a problem". I think this is a serious stretch for the words of Rav Kook. Firstly, the DH purports that none of the Torah was written by God. It was all weaved together from different authors. Rav Kook speaks of the belief that some parts of the Torah were written in post Mosaic times. Also, Rav Kook ends up with a far more mystical approach to Torah מן השמים, from Heaven, than X. would accept. It seems that Rav Kook is being taken out of context and used against his true meaning. Therefore, I will post a translation, and readers can decide.

What follows is the fourth problem that leads people to leave orthodoxy, as posed by Rav Kook, and his response to it (The Hebrew text can be found at XGH. First the question, then the first page of the answer, and then then the second page of the answer):

"[Problem:] Biblical criticism weakens the foundation of Torah from Heaven, chas veshalom.

[Response:] The truth is as our received tradition states, that nothing has changed the Torah, which has been preserved always with utmost care. However, even according to the incorrect idea that some portions were written later or that certain scribal errors found their way into it, this does not affect in any way the Torah or its authenticity. The authenticity of the Torah is dependent on the acceptance of the Nation, and the Nation accepted and continues to accept it with love. The Nation used [and uses] the Torah in its present form as a symbol of our covenant of faith in God. Therefore, it is impossible for an individual to remove himself from the plural [the Nation], for by the nature of any bond of covenant that is made by general [national] consensus, and by the nature of actions that are accepted [by all as powerful and binding] as national language, and [like] ethics [social norms -ed.] that are accepted by all, no individual is able to change [the covenant ] in opposition to the plural consensus. When one does try to change [his participation in this covenant ], he oppresses his own soul.

Now we can understand well the Godly bond that is present in the Torah, no matter how it reached us, and there is no difference whatsoever what circumstances brought it to us in this [its present] form. Since the pieces are all woven into the Torah, they are included in the Divine holiness. In this Israel is unique [מצויין can also mean noted. -ed.] from all nations, in that the existence of the Nation is bound in being known by the name of the Lord of the world, by which [Whose name] it [the Nation of Israel] is called.

Therefore, the commandments in their entirety, which are bound in the Divine bond, since they are tied to the Torah and written in it, are all in the grasp of the covenant of God. He who keeps them keeps the covenant, and he who breaks them, acts against the covenant . And if there are things which need to be strengthened or weakened [דברים שימצא צורך להחמיר או להקל באופן אחר קצת], the issue is given to the power of the Beit Din [when there are reasons, they have the power even] to uproot actively a part of the Torah. Meanwhile, without a central Beit Din accepted by the Nation, and with, additionally, a national stronghold, we are unable to the spiritual center of the nation for nothing...

When the Torah is upheld by Israel, the feeling is so pure and refined, and the bond to the Torah is so great, that those who have true intellect come to an inner knowledge that there is no place at all for those questions [questions from biblical criticism], for they recognize the hand of God that is spread out over us, who did wonders for us from then until now, so that we cleave to him with love. From a recognition of the greatness of Torah, we recognize its Divinity, so that all the stutterings are done away with from their root, and Israel does well, and the Torah of God is its stronghold."

The Torah is unassailable. It is definitely written by God and given at Sinai. However, even according to those who question each word's origin at Sinai, Rav Kook develops a world-view that maintains the divinity of the Torah as we possess it. The soul of Israel accepted the Torah. God endowed our National soul with a prophetic uniqueness. Its acceptance of things is a type of prophecy. And so, the fact that our nation accepted the Torah makes it God-given through this secondary prophecy, even if you believe that parts were not written originally by Hashem. Even if all of it were not revealed at Sinai, the Torah as we have it in our hands has been turned into prophecy by the soul of the nation of Israel throughout the generations. Even without all its parts being given at Sinai, those later parts would still become part of Torah through Am Yisrael ratification with the national nevuah-spirit.

Furthermore, now that the Torah its entirety has been ratified, no individual can deny its divinity. By doing so, they would be contradicting their own soul's testimony.

Rav Kook ends by reaffirming his stance, true to the nation, that the Torah was in fact given in its entirety to the Nation of Israel on Mt. Sinai.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Fear Protects Wisdom

כל שיראת חטאו קודמת לחכמתו חכמתו מתקיימת. אם אין יראה אין חכמה, אם אין חכמה אין יראה. --אבות ג:יב,טו
One whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom will retain his wisdom. If there is no fear, there can be no wisdom, and lack of wisdom implies lack of fear.

Of God's creations, humanity is the only one that is compared to Him by being made in His image. Rav Soloveitchick writes that the quality that represents this is our creative mind. Man can freely create and invent, using his intellect to participate in the creation process that God began.

However, this intellect also has the free-willed ability to rebel against He who endowed it. History is full of rebellion against God, and seldom does rebellion come without innovative philosophical support for it. Man doubts God or His word with the very intellect whose existence testifies to Him. Some believe in God, yet doubt the veracity of the Torah. I have heard people confindent in the impossibility of a flood or an exodus or a forty year sojourn in the desert, based on flimsy archeological excavation that is far from complete, and far from convincing. And when these methods (which are far from science) fail, they miss the lesson of the inherent problem with the way they study archeology, that לא מצינו אינו רעיא, lack of evidence is proof of nothing.

And yet, skeptics say, what are we to do? We cannot be intellectually dishonest. We must rely on the minds that we are blessed with, and accept whatever seems to us to be true, no matter where it leads. To this, masechet Avot responds.

Proper fear of sin holds our imaginative intellect in check. A world-view which admits that there is a source of wisdom above us provides us with a sine qua non of intellectual study -- humility. The understanding that there are things we may not know, that the best of our methodologies do not always lead us to certainty, this forces us to be less confident in what we think we know. When we have proper humility and a deep-seated fear of sin, of mistake, we can begin to search for truth. With the lesson of Avot we can be confident that our search for truth will not end in falsehood rooted in haughty assumptions. The world's intellectual history is full of those, and fear of Heaven is the gift, the rabbis teach, that can defend us from them, even as we plumb the depths of the unknown.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Shmini Atzeres and Water

During all days of Sukos (aside from the first) and Shmini Atzeret (the eighth day of Sukos), there was a beautiful ceremony performed in the Temple. Recorded in the fourth chapter of tractate Sukah, ניסוך המים consisted of water being drawn from the שילוח stream and brought to the altar. The water was then poured through a spout on the copper altar. ספר התודעה points out that the celebration is called שמחת בית השואבה, placing the emphasis on the drawing of water. This teaches us that the main point of this celebration was the drawing of spiritual sustenance, רוח הקודש, from the sources of Godliness.

On the last day of Sukos, water makes a second appearance. It is this day that we begin to hint at our need for rain in תפילת גשם. (There are two places in our daily prayers where we mention rain. The first is in the blessing of אבות, in which we do not request rain, but praise God as the 'One who makes the wind blow, and causes the rain to fall'. Afterwards, in the section of our t'fillah where we petition God, we insert an actual request for rain, 'send dew and rain as a blessing upon the earth'.) We do not actually begin to pray for rain in the daily prayer ברכת השנים until the second month of the year, so as to give Jews who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem time to reach their homes in dry weather. However, since the season in which precipitation is needed starts with Sukos, we do begin to praise God as Giver of rain on Shmini Atzeres, in the blessing of אבות.

Why does water play such a central role on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, a day of rejoicing in the spiritual gifts God has given us?

In Jewish symbolism, water is a metaphor for Torah. Yeshaya (55:1) states, 'Let all those who are thirsty, go to water', and the Talmud (Bava Kama 82a) explains that this means that anyone who thirsts for meaning in life can find it in the teachings of the Torah. After leaving Egypt, the people cried out for water at Marah. The rabbis teach that for the Jewish people, going three days without Torah was insufferable; it was then that Moshe decreed that the Torah be read on Mondays and Thursdays, so that there should never again be three consecutive days without Torah-water being studied.

Indeed, the Rambam at the end of his synopsis of הלכות מקוואות, echoes the midrash, שיר השירים רבה. It states that, just as water cleans us of physical filth and ritual impurity, diligence in Torah purifies our mind and soul from intellectual and spiritual impropriety. The study of the word of God and the desire to become close to Him through His teaching is the most ethereal of our pursuits. Water, a liquid which arrives from heaven and, with a bit of heat, becomes a vapor to rise to the heights, is the perfect analogy for this.

Physical life could not exist without water. Rabbi Schorsch points out that the search for life on distant planets begins with a search for water. In the same way, spiritual existence is impossible without Torah. And so, Rabbi Chaim from Volhozin writes in נפש החיים, that, were it not for the study of the Torah, the wold would not be able to exist. He quotes Jer. 33:24, 'if not for my continued covenant day and night, the laws of nature would not have been established'. Nothing illustrates this point better than the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Brachos 61b) tells us:

פעם אחת גזרה מלכות הרשעה שלא יעסקו ישראל בתורה בא פפוס בן יהודה ומצאו לרבי עקיבא שהיה מקהיל קהלות ברבים ועוסק בתורה אמר ליה עקיבא אי אתה מתירא מפני מלכות הרשעה אמר לו אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה לשועל שהיה מהלך על גב הנהר וראה דגים שהיו מתקבצים ממקום למקום אמר להם מפני מה אתם בורחים אמרו לו מפני רשתות שמביאין עלינו בני אדם אמר להם רצונכם שתעלו ליבשה ונדור אני ואתם כשם שדרו אבותי עם אבותיכם אמרו לו אתה הוא שאומרים עליך פקח שבחיות לא פקח אתה אלא טפש אתה ומה במקום חיותנו אנו מתיראין במקום מיתתנו על אחת כמה וכמה אף אנחנו עכשיו שאנו יושבים ועוסקים בתורה שכתוב בה (דברים ל) כי הוא חייך ואורך ימיך כך אם אנו הולכים ומבטלים ממנה עאכ"ו

When the Romans forbade the study of Torah on the pain of death, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach. A man asked if he was not concerned for his life! Rabbi Akiva answered with a parable: Some fish were swimming away from fishermen's nets. A fox saw them and said, why are you swimming? Come out on land and live with me in peace! The fish said, fool! If we are in danger in water, the element of world that allows us to live, how much more so will we die if we leave our life-giving medium! Fish cannot physically exist without water, and Rabbi Akiva declares that Jews cannot live spiritually without Torah.

The study of the Torah, must be done with the intent of enhancing this world and contributing to the revelation of God in it. In fact, the Talmud (Nedarim 81a) states that even though the Jews of the second Temple studied Torah, they were punished because they did not recite the blessing on it. The sin was that they saw Torah as a scholarly pursuit, but one devoid of spiritual and practical application. We must study and fulfill the Torah not as academia, but as a way to interface with God and serve Him, molding the world into one that better matches His plans.

In describing many קרבנות, the Torah calls them לחם אשה, food-fuel for the fires of God. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the קרבנות remind us to use our existence in this world as an opportunity to provide fuel for the service of God. We are on earth to do God's will, and bring the world to a better place, by following the Torah. And so, when we pour water on the altar in the ceremony of ניסוך המים, the symbol is clear. We are to use even our most ethereal and spiritual of pursuits, symbolized by water, for the service of God.

Perhaps this was the mistake of the Samaritan high priest, who, in the fourth chapter of Sukah poured the water on his own feet, instead of on the altar. He did not realize that spiritual pursuits are not for us, but ultimately must also be brought as a קרבן on the מזבח.

And so, for seven days, we draw water and pour it on the altar, showing ourselves and God that we plan to serve Him through the very life force, the Torah. And after this, we ask Him, on Shmini Atzeres, to provide us with rain. The Vilna Gaon quotes the kabalistic concept that in any venture, first we are required to put in our best try (איתערותא דלתתא), and after showing God the path we want to take, he inspires us from above (איתערותא דילעילא). Through ניסוך המים, we demonstrate our desire to, as ספר התודעה taught above, draw divine inspiration from our resources. Only after this attempt can we be bold enough to ask Hashem to shower us with rain and inspiration from above.

Demonstrating the interdependence of the physical and spiritual realms of our existence, the water celebrations trade places. On the Sukos holiday, which represents God's physical preservation of our nation, we demonstrate our willingness to use our abilities to plumb the depths of Torah in the ceremony of ניסוך המים. On Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, we celebrate God's spiritual preservation of Israel, and ask him to continue to rain life-giving precipitation upon our crops and aqueducts. אם אין תורה, אין דרך ארץ, אם אין דרך ארץ, אין תורה.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Sukkah of Faith

The mishnah teaches (Sukah 1:1) that a sukah that is built with its schach higher than twenty amos is invalid. The reason given in the gemara is that this extreme height implies permanence. However, the sukah must be diras aray, the opposite of permanent. Indeed, the roofing of the sukah is made of transitive materials, and its manner of placement must be ad hoc. It is not to be held down by metal or other man-made materials. However, the Davidic dynasty, the most resplendent demonstration of Israel's power and prestige, is referred to as a sukah: we say in the birkas hamazon, may God re-establish the sukah of David. What is the connection?

Rabbi Hirsch describes the symbolism of the schach. Sitting in the sukah, we leave the comfort and safety of our man-made dwellings. In our houses, it is easy to develop the feeling that we need our physical protection. We move into the temporary dwelling and remind ourselves that it is not the roof over our heads that protects us. We gladly trade the illusion of safety in kochi v'otzem yadi, the strength of our hands, for the protective care of God. In the sukah, exposed to the elements and sitting under a non-roof, we demonstrate that it is really Hashem who we rely on. He protects us in recompense for our actions, and our spiritual relationship to Him is what truly defends us against danger.

In a few weeks, we will read about Ya'akov wrestling the angel of Esav. The text describes the attack of the angel as, 'vaye'avek', he raised dust against Ya'akov. Rabbi Hirsch comments that it is more than just raising dust due to the actual struggle, but that the angel of Esav tried with all his might to bring Ya'akov down to the dust, to completely take him off his feet, to the ground. Realizing that this was impossible, the angel settled for bruising Ya'akov's sciatic nerve, his gid hanasheh.The angel leaves our forefather, and he continues on his way back to his family, limping into the sunrise, 'v'hu tzole'a' al y'recho'.

A person's legs symbolize the ability to take care of oneself and be stable. The nation of Israel limps through history, not quite able to walk upright. We are visibly weakened in the eyes of the nations around us. It is clear, as we make our painful way from exile to exile, that the children of Ya'akov are barely able to stay alive.The angel of Esav periodically throws all his resources at finally putting us down for the count. And yet, although we limp, we can never be stopped. We can be slowed, but we constantly plod resolutely toward the finish line of history.

It is not physical strength or fortitude that sustains Man. Not by our own power do Ya'akov's People limp on by. It is rather by our adherence to the Torah that we continue to exist. When we succeed, it is not thanks to our own physical prowess, for we are cripple. Rather, it is testament to God's power and our fulfillment of His will. In weakness, we learn that it is our faith in God that sustains us.

This holiday is a commemoration of God's physical preservation and continued sustenance of the nation of Israel in the desert, and throughout history. We celebrate the fact that, (Deut. 8:15) "[God] led you through the terrible wilderness where were serpents and scorpions, and thirst for water; He brought forth water out of stone." Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah celebrate God's spiritual preservation of Israel throughout history.

Whereas Ya'akov teaches us the lesson of our reliance on God in times of weakness and poverty, Sukos and Shmini Atzeres teach this lesson in the opulence of holiday cheer and comfort. The kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon represented the height and peak of our nation's wealth and honor. Precisely this royalty is stamped with the qualifier, sukah. Even in our power, we recognize that it is not from this power that our sustenance stems, but from our relationship with God. When we internalize this lesson, our power and honor can be sustained for the future.

Precisely our ever-developing relationship with God provides us with protection and solace in times of weakness, and power and prestige in times of good fortune. This relationship remains healthy as long as we cultivate it, much as a horticulturist would tend to a treasured specimen of flower. The word for growth, tzome'ach, is related, in Rabbi Hirsch's grammatical system, to the word for happiness, same'ach. True happiness is participating in this ever-growing relationship with Hashem.

If we internalize this lesson of the holiday of sukos, the lesson of the sukah and of the Davidic dynasty, we will merit to celebrate sukos as a true holiday of gladness through spiritual growth, yom simchatenu.

Monday, September 24, 2007

To Bollinger

"It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very dangers in such ideas." -- Lee Bollinger, President, Columbia University

Bollinger represents the dangerous tendency we have to be so open-minded that our brains fall out. We so passionately defend the despot's right to be heard, that we forget to destroy him when we can. We protect the free speech of tyrants more than we abhor the tyrant himself.

The opportunity to speak freely (which Ahmedinejad refuses to all dissenters in his country) is exactly what he desperately desires. Providing a platform to evil affords it legitimacy.

You do not argue with evil, you crush it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Please Pray for Rabbi Shapira

HaRav Avraham Elkana HaKohen ben Henna Raizel, former chief Rabbi of Israel and present Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz Harav has taken a turn for the worse. Please pray for this tzaddik and gaon.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Is Something Brewing?

YNet and CNN are reporting that the Israeli incursion into Syrian airspace last week was accompanied by supporting ground troops. It seems to have been aimed at Hizbollah armament, passing through from Iran.

May God protect Israel and the soldiers of the IDF, and grant them a year of clear, ethical orders, and the strength and moral will to destroy the enemies of the Jews.

May we usher in the redemption this year!

Shana Tova Um'tuka!

We pray for a happy and healthy new year for all of Am Yisrael. May we merit to see the fulfillment of the prophecies, and may we all bask in the light of the גאולה, now!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

S'lichot: A Path to Reconstruction


Day is the natural time of humanity’s activity and creativity. It is by day that we fulfill our role set out by God to Adam, to ‘settle the world and conquer it.’ (Gen. 1:28) In contrast, night is the time when Mankind retreats from his dominant stance and hides from real and imagined dangers. It is a time of אמונה, but also a time of humility, when the bravado and temerity of כחי ועוצם ידי vanishes into the dusk, and Man scurries back to his protector, God. This shift is evident in the prayers of each time of day. Morning-man states with confidence, אמת ויציב, while night-man hesitates, and assuages his confusion with אמת ואמונה.

In his essays, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch discusses the season of the Days of Awe. He writes about the industrious preparation that the animal and plant kingdoms begin in autumn. Nature itself, by design, is sensitive to the impending winter months, and begins to carefully prepare for them. Bears store energy in fat deposits, and begin months of hibernation. Squirrels hoard nuts and even insects make sure that they are ready for winter. The natural order is an ethical lesson to humanity. Do not allow life to deceive you, ‘that youth will last forever…that strength will never wane…at wealth is secure, that earthly greatness is eternal!’ This time of year turns our thoughts to assuring our spiritual sustenance, for the future. It is a season in which we are no longer able to revel in the abundance and decadence of summer; the plenty we have must be carefully preserved for the night-season of winter.

This is the season that begins our s'lichot tonight. Interesting indeed that this autumn season is one in which the nights are long, and days short. As Rabbi Hirsch points out, night leads to night, with day only a short reprieve. The season reinforces the message of dependence and humility of night-time. And it is in this double night that we congregate here, to officially begin our season of repentance and, ultimately, atonement.

Both night and autumn-winter lead us to shed any pretenses we may have developed. In our fear for our personal survival during the natural times of danger and scarcity, we are forced to recognize our stark dependence on God. We know better than ever that we need our relationship to God.

Throughout the year, in our active conquering of the world around us, it is almost inevitable that we veer from the path God has commanded us to travel. The word חטא itself means running afoul of one’s target, as an arrow that misses its mark. As nature turns us back to thoughts of God and our ultimate reliance on him, we contemplate our neglected relationship with Him. In these days, the lessons of un’taneh tokef guide us. Three things erase our sins and lead us to a sweet year: תשובה, תפילה, and צדקה. I would like to touch on these three concepts briefly, and discuss what I believe to be the central theme of the triad, the reconstruction of the broken relationship between a man and his God.


In his Essay on prayer, R’ Soloveitchick describes a new approach to the concept of t'fillah. Prayer does not only make us better people, more deserving of favorable judgment. Neither is prayer simply Man's attempt to beseech God for his needs. It is a fundamental way that Mankind interacts with God, a medium through which we encounter the divine. T'fillah is not focused on God, but on Man. However, it is not only anthropocentric, because it is a dialogue between Man and God. By creating that emotional connection that prayer instantiates, Man brings himself into communion with God. By realizing that life in the absence of God is empty and cold, a person brings himself to prayer, in order to draw God back into his realm of existence, so to speak. We are commanded to find God through prayer. Thus, the very act of prayer is a form of interaction and דביקות with the Divine. When we pray, we develop a connection to God. Much as each interaction between a husband and wife pave the strength and depth of connection in their marriage, so does prayer lay a foundation of familiarity and intimacy.

Prayer, then, not only provides a venue for us to petition God for help with the minutiae of life. It also provides us with a life-line to God, Who acts as a shoulder to cry on. As Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein writes (Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering, Ch. 2), we can always turn to God at a time of crisis, and He comforts us even when he does not immediately alleviate the suffering. T'fillah reconstructs this important aspect of the divine relationship.


The recreation of our shattered relationship to Hashem as a beloved supporter is also the fundamental aim of t'shuvah.

There are two concepts used in Jewish thought for atonement. The first is כפרה, the absolution of sin. This is the cut and dry idea of penance: the correction of our propensity to break God’s word. It is affected by sacrifice and rite.

However, there is another concept, developed most clearly by the prophets, that of תשובה. This is the rectification of our damaged emotional relationship to Hashem. This requires service of the heart and mind, and a change in attitude. We realize the beauty of closeness to God – קרבת אלקים לי טוב, and mourn the actions that have placed an iron curtain between us and our Father in Heaven.

In Chagiga (15a), we read the tragedy of Elisha ben Avuyah, apostate par excellence. Goaded by R’ Meir, his faithful student, to repent, he stated, ‘I have already heard a בת קול that everyone may do teshuvah, but I am barred.’ We can imagine the sort of sins he must have done, and incited others to do, in order to be barred from repentance by heavenly decree. Even so, says the Maharsha, Elisha should have repented, for nothing can stand in the way of תשובה, even a בת קול.

I believe Elisha’s mistake was that he saw t'shuvah simply as a means of attaining atonement. He missed out on the relationship with God that t'shuvah aims to rectify. This is an emotional bond, like one between a man and wife. Imagine a situation where your wife tells you, ‘do not even ask for forgiveness, I cannot forgive you.’ The emotional bond and intimacy of the relationship does not allow you to accept this. You beg, even demand forgiveness, and it is granted in the end. This is the relationship that Elisha should have been trying to attain through t'shuvah . He did not possess it, and so he missed the fundamental lesson, and the opportunity for forgivness.

Another explicit example, the story of Elazar ben Dordia (Avodah Zara 17a) stands out in contrast, as one who learned the value of this relationship. A man who visited every harlot he could, Elazar was once confronted by a woman who told him that he would never reach עולם הבא because of his many sins. He sat and cried, begging the mountains, valleys and all of nature to intercede on his behalf. Nature refused to help him. In the analogous situation, Elisha ben Avuyah gave up on his atonement. Not so Elazar ben Dordia. אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי, he cried, taking his repentance into his own hands. As he died from the intensity of his emotion, a בת קול proclaimed that he had been accepted. His refusal to live without reconnecting his relationship to God was so strong, it overcame the seemingly impossible. (Paradoxically, it is a heavenly voice that proclaims him worthy, the same medium which claimed that Elisha would find no forgiveness.)

In הררי קדם, R’ Soloveitchik speaks of the tremendous power of repentance out of love. Since it comes from an internal need to rectify a shattered relationship with God, it has the power to transcend ordinary rules of t'shuvah such as the levels of penance and categories of sin. It is able to affect immediate and unconditional purity in the pennant one. When we utilize this internal connection to God and repent from love, we are able to reach the t'shuvah that can defeat even a heavenly decree against it.

When a woman sins against her husband, his natural love for her causes him to wish to take her back. Indeed, this analogy is not lost on the prophets. Thus, Hoshea is told to take a harlot as a wife. When she is unfaithful, God tells him to leave her and their children. When Hoshea hesitates, God remarks on his natural desire to remain with her. He says, ‘how can you tell me to abandon the Jews because of their sin, when you are unwilling to abandon your wife?’ The love and intimacy between man and wife, reflected in the bond between God and Israel, is able to transcend the chasm created by the most vile offence. אין דבר עומד בפני התשובה.


Lastly, we turn to צדקה. If תשובה and תפילה are so powerful, why do we need this third part?

The singularity of the communal Yom Kippur offerings is that they atone for Israel’s sins even without any effort on the part of the nation. The communal offerings create a national forgiveness that trickles down to the individual Jew.

In order to be forgiven on our national level, we must demonstrate to Hashem that we are unified. We love each other, and care for one another. This bond is demonstrated most powerfully by the giving of charity and kindness to the less fortunate. By demonstrating our national bond and showing love and respect to God’s people, we show our desire to be treated as part of the עם סגולה, with all the rights and privileges that brings. Thus, the final element of national teshuvah is completed by חסד and צדקה to one another.

Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of the estrangement sin engenders, and the subsequent intimacy reignited by repentance. And what action does Hashem demand of us, so that our penance may be accepted? 'But thou bidst, and just thou art/Me shew mercy from my heart/Towards my brother, every other/Man my mate and counterpart.' Demonstrating mercy and love to our fellow man is our way of deserving the same treatment from Heaven.


Through the season and time of day, may we be moved to realize our close connection to God. The סליחות we are about to say will melt our hearts and help us return to God with love. Let us read the english translation, and be moved by the traditional tunes that accompany out thoughts of return and love for God. May this awesome time leave its impression on our future.

May our application of prayer, repentance and kindness lead us to a wonderful, sweet, safe and spiritually uplifting new year.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Nitzavim and Faith

In this week's portion, God warns us to keep His commandments. If we do not, we will be sent into exile, and 'we will be singled out for suffering' (Deut 29:20). The nations will stand in wonder at the torture and destruction of God's beloved nation, and they will say, 'it must be punishment for turning away from God's covenant' (29:24). And yet, no matter how far we fall, God will redeem us. 'God will return with our exiles, and have mercy; He will gather us from the lands of our dispersion', into Israel (29:3-5). God promises us this.

In Amos (9:13-15), we are again promised the vision of salvation, this time even more clearly and in far more detail:

"יג הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם-יְהוָה, וְנִגַּשׁ חוֹרֵשׁ בַּקֹּצֵר, וְדֹרֵךְ עֲנָבִים בְּמֹשֵׁךְ הַזָּרַע; וְהִטִּיפוּ הֶהָרִים עָסִיס, וְכָל-הַגְּבָעוֹת תִּתְמוֹגַגְנָה. יד וְשַׁבְתִּי, אֶת-שְׁבוּת עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּבָנוּ עָרִים נְשַׁמּוֹת וְיָשָׁבוּ, וְנָטְעוּ כְרָמִים וְשָׁתוּ אֶת-יֵינָם; וְעָשׂוּ גַנּוֹת, וְאָכְלוּ אֶת-פְּרִיהֶם. טו וּנְטַעְתִּים, עַל-אַדְמָתָם; וְלֹא יִנָּתְשׁוּ עוֹד, מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם--אָמַר, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ."

"'When the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them,' says the Lord your God."

I think these quotes are especially important to read and allow to permeate our souls in our present day, when so much of our tradition is under attack by skeptical elements. In the past millennia, Jews and gentiles have accepted prima facie the authenticity of the Torah and other books of the Bible. Even without the fulfillment of the positive prophecies of reconstruction, they have survived with their faith in God and His word. They lived and died for a day when their children and grandchildren would be able to witness the fulfillment of God's promises. They needed no proof.

However, around the turn of the last century, scholars and skeptics have begun to question, not only the dating of certain works, or the exact authorship of certain parts of some books, but the very concept of God's revelation of His will and future plans to Mankind. Whole sections of Jews may not believe in the divinity of our scripture, or even in the existence of God! Humanity has become cynical, and so, have chosen to question God's revelation.

However, we must pay attention to the historical currents that surrounded this movement. The return of Jews to Zion with the intent of rebuilding the land and Jewish culture gained steam. Eventually, European Jewry was destroyed, and out of the fire, like a phoenix, the modern state of Israel rose. The remnants beat back blood-thirsty hordes of Arab soldiers, intent on destroying them. This happened, not once, but five times. Jews returned and continue to stream to their land, and even the anti-Zionists admit that, if not ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, we are living through, at least, עיקבתא דמשיחא.

This is God's most poetic answer to the skeptics. God counters their questions by making the living word of His books come true! Hashem always keeps us open to faith. Sometimes we are sustained by faith in the word, as the generations before us. However, if we begin to question its authenticity, he makes it come true, so we can no longer doubt it.

In Nitzavim and Amos, God promised us redemption, and placed his name on it as a seal of truth. It happens now as we watch! And yet, we are blinded by its shining light, even as we live through it. Future generations will ask us, did you not see the obvious fulfillment of God's word?

I realized, while speaking to a skeptical friend, that what we are witnessing with our own eyes is the irrefutable realization of the prophecies of God. These verses are our generation's personal Har Sinai experience; this is our revelation! We ourselves bear witness to the fact that God exists, and that He keeps his promises to Israel.

God's hand forces history, and history, against all odds and against all precedent, favors Israel (by all accounts a dead nationalism) and the nation of Israel rises again in the land of Israel, just as the Torah and prophets foresaw.

May this coming year be one in which all prophecies come true, and the floodgates of knowledge, light, and peace open wide. May the world bask in the glow of our redemption, and may mountains and valleys ring with the song of global salvation.