Thursday, November 30, 2017

Kiddushin 59b-60b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Kiddushin from this past week!

Listen to:   59b (2),  60a,   60a (1),   60b (2)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Halakhah and Kabbalah: Tefillin on Hol HaMo'ed

1) Listen to our class on "Halakhah and Kabbalah: Tefillin on Hol HaMo'ed" here. Follow along with the sources here.

2) Read the classic article on this issue, by historian Jacob Katz, here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Parashat VaYishlah: Prayer

A Message for Parashat VaYishlah 2016
Click here to view as PDF.

The opening episode of last week’s parashah introduced us to a “changed” Yaakov. A mysterious encounter with God brought him to recognition of a realm that lay beyond his comprehension. Yaakov woke up from his dream “afraid,” and immediately recognized the inexplicable “awesomeness” of his resting place. It was a turning point in the life of a patriarch whose early life was pronounced by rational perception and intellectual manipulation.[1]

Twenty years pass by in Yaakov’s life before we learn of his next significant “God encounter,” at the onset of this week’s parashah. This time in came in the form of a struggle with an unidentified “man” and Yaakov’s ultimate victory. Its preceding act, however, is perhaps most significant:

And Yaakov was greatly afraid, and he was distressed … And Yaakov said: “God of my father Avraham and God of my father Yitzhak! … O save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, mother with sons. And You Yourself said, ‘I will surely deal well with you and I will set your seed like the sand of the sea, multitudinous beyond all count.’” (32:8-13)

Momentarily relinquishing self-control of the situation, Yaakov begged God for help in his upcoming encounter with Esav. He admitted his human finitude and turned to Him in an act so foreign to the rational-minded folk: prayer.

It is worth contrasting Yaakov’s response in this instance to his specific actions and words following his earlier vision of the ladder.

Yaakov responded then by erecting a memorial pillar, renaming the location, and vowing:

“If God will be with me and guard me on this way that I am going and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely to my father’s house, then Hashem will be my God. And this stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God, and everything that You give me I will surely tithe it to You.” (28:20-2)

The memorial pillar and place-renaming were Yaakov’s attempt to exert control of the situation. His conditional vow followed in a consistently “controlled” fashion, as he sought God’s entrance into a deal that granted him continued security in return for his pledged acts of respect.
Though the pesukim clearly describe Yaakov’s extreme fright in both instances, his particular reactions differ greatly from one to the next. With the conditional vow, he sought to be an “equal party” in the deal, pledging his own sacrifice in return for that of God. In prayer, however, he simply screamed for help. Gone was the man whose every action and decision were driven by intellect and rationality, as he poured out his heart to a Being greater than he could ever fathom or comprehend.

Eminent Jewish thinker R. Norman Lamm once responded to the “major complaint of contemporary man” that they cannot bring themselves to pray. Accepting it as an honest objection, R. Lamm argued that the complaint is based on the faulty premise that “the cognitive affirmation of religion must precede its affective relationship.” He explained:

When we are convinced, however, that confrontation precedes cognition, that the existential encounter and the sense of trust have priority over the propositional belief-that aspect of faith, then we shall realize that it is possible by an act of will to locate ourselves in a situation of prayer.

While admitting that prayer will not answer philosophical questions nor resolve theoretical doubts, R. Lamm posited that the force of relationship latent in prayer will nonetheless “take the sting out of them,” and transform the substantive doubts into methodological ones. [2]

The late R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l similarly remarked:
God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you.
Rav Shagar’s conception of God’s presence in his prayers matched his broader understanding of faith, which lay not in the realm of “proof” but in that of “experience.”[3]

Yaakov’s emotional outpour to God prior to his encounter with Esav must serve as a guide for our approach to prayer. It must remind us of the necessary encounters with God in realms beyond our comprehension, and force us to seek an experiential relationship with Him that will sometimes defy our cognitive capacities.

[1] Recall our broader analysis of the experience and its significance in last week’s devar Torah, “Mystical Moments.”
[2] R. Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought (Jersey City, NJ, 2006), pg. 27.
[3] R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 23-4.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Bicycle Riding on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, on the topic of "Bicycle Riding on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with R. Messas's teshuvah here.

Follow along with our source sheet here.

Read the short passage from R. Mazouz's Asaf  HaMazkir, which we mentioned, here.

For further research: Read R. Ovadia Yosef's full analysis in Halikhot Olam here, and R. Shlomo Brody's summary in A Guide to the Complex here.

Parashat VaYishlah: The Dinah Episode

Listen to this evening's class here. Follow along with the sources here.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Lighting an Electric Hanukiyah

1) Listen to this evening's class on the topic of "Lighting an Electric Hanukiyah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

2) See the major sources in their original context: a) Mayim Hayim, b) Ner Missvah, c) Yehaveh Da'at.

3) Read R. Daniel Z. Feldman's survey of this issue, with a special emphasis on contemporary poskim, in his brand new Binah BaSefarim - Inyanei Hanukkah.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Parashat VaYesse: Uncertainty


A Message for Parashat VaYesse 2017
Click here to view as PDF.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. (Socrates) [1]
* * * *
And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and he said, “Indeed God is in this place and I did not know.”
(Bereshit 28:16)

The Torah’s precise recording of Yaakov’s reaction during his encounter with God at Bet El is difficult to understand. There is an emphasis on his initial state of “not knowing,” which calls attention to its significance. The actual importance of that uncertainty, however, is never explained. What was the significance of Yaakov’s “not knowing” at that time?
* * * *
Sports psychologist Bob Christina is the assistant coach for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro men’s golf team. Among his various creative teaching styles and techniques, Christina prides himself for not helping. Though his students were initially uncomfortable with his method of withholding feedback, they soon came to appreciate it. His pupils found that it stimulated them to a keener sensitivity for the nonverbal feedback of how their body feels after a swing and how the ball moves and sounds. Christina has chosen this approach because he is convinced that a coach’s constant feedback is used by the players as a crutch, which hurts them later on when they have to think and play for themselves.

In his Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes wrote that higher education faces a problem that is similar to that of Christina. He wrote that professors generally fail to incorporate gaps in logic for the students to fill in, contradictions to work out, or pauses that encourage reflection. Holmes explained that today’s graduates are therefore unprepared for a labor market that emphasizes creativity, and revolves around individuals who can successfully explore uncertainties and learn from failure.

Holmes challenged his readers to consider how they learned a skill. He ventured to guess that our knowledge and understanding didn’t emerge from being told how to do it, but rather by doing it – figuring it out on our own or with help. [2]

Dr. Stuart Firestein’s dual role as head of a laboratory and Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University alerted him to a disconnect between how science is perceived and how it is actually pursued. He realized that although only the “answers” of science were being taught in the classrooms, a successful laboratory is actually built upon its “questions.” Firestein sought to transmit the “undone part of science” to his students. He explained its importance as the realm that “gets us into the lab early and keeps us there late…the very driving force of science, the exhilaration of the unknown.” He was therefore inspired to begin a course on “Ignorance,” which is led by guest scientists who emphasize to the students the critical aspects in their fields of science which they do not know.[3]
* * * *
The Torah’s description of Yaakov’s early life paints the portrait of an individual bestowed with the traits of self-sufficiency and manipulation. He twice wrestled away control from his unexpecting brother Esav, without ever experiencing the discomforts of confrontation. Fleeing his parents’ household in fear of his life, however, Yaakov first encountered “real life.” His journey began with the realization that “he did not know.” As Estelle Frankel wrote: "Jacob is both humbled and awed by this realization. It is this recognition of his own ignorance that will catalyze Jacob's spiritual development."[4]

This feeling of uncertainty was most appropriate for Yaakov at this time. It initiated his relationship with the Almighty – a bond which necessarily begins with the submission to “not knowing.” Leon Kass noted, as well, that whereas Esav was married to two wives at the age of forty, self-sufficient and controlling Yaakov was never compelled to search for a soulmate until leaving the comforts of his homeland and encountering the realities of uncertainty. Reflecting upon his state of “not knowing,” Yaakov left Bet El in search of a wife.[5]
* * * *
In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. (T.S. Elliot)[5]
Although the realization that we “do not know” feels uncomfortable, much of individual growth depends upon it. Approaching the various realms of our lives with the open eyes and mind of one who “does not know” engenders a state of heightened sensitivity and creativity. Embracing our uncertainties forces us to realize our need of others, as well, which enriches our relationships with people and God.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Cited by Plato in Apology.
[2] Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (New York, NY, 2015), pg. 164-6.
[3] Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How it Drives Science (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 2-6.
[4] Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder, CO, 2017), pg. 64.
[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, IL, 2003), pg. 412.
[6]“East Coker.” Cited by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in The Murmuring Deep (New York, NY, 2009), pg. 270.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Kiddushin 58a-59b

Listen to our shiurim on Maskhet Kiddushin from this past week!

Listen to:   58a (2)58b,   59a,   59b (1)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Parashat VaYesse: Mystical Moments

Mystical Moments
A Message for Parashat VaYesse 2016
Click here to view as PDF.

There are moments, and it is only a matter of a few seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony...A terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you...During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly. (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

* * * *

Several years ago, author Barbara Ehrenreich penned an article for The New York Times, entitled A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment. She described an adolescent experience that jolted her long-held familial tradition of atheism. Walking alone in the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., her world suddenly flamed into life. She vividly recalled the scene:
There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured into it … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.
The experience inspired Ehrenreich to set forth a broad agenda for the enhanced scientific study of mystical experiences and encounters.[1] A few days later, Ross Douthat responded by pointing out the near impossibility of Ehrenreich’s suggested mission. He noted that since the field of cognitive science has a great enough difficulty explaining what happens during non-mystical states of consciousness, shedding light on the “moments of encounter” does not stand much of a chance. He instead suggested a shift in scientific focus, from one of dependence on brains scans and fMRI machines to the revival of philosophically-informed psychology and anthropology.[2]
* * * *
As Yaakov set out from Be’er Sheva for Haran, the setting sun forced his stop and subsequent sleep in Bet El, where he dreamed:
…And, look, a ladder was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and, look, messengers of God were going up and coming down it. And, look, God was poised over him… (28:12-13)
God then promised Yaakov the inheritance of Canaan, abundance offspring and continued protection (13-16). Yaakov awoke from his sleep, took note of God’s presence in that place, and said:
“How fearsome is this place! This can be but the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens.” (17)
Several scholars have noted a connection between this ladder scene in Yaakov’s dream and the terraced towers traditionally built as temples in ancient Mesopotamia, known as ziggurats. The sight of a stairway connecting heaven and earth is strikingly similar to the ziggurat, with its external ramp linking each stage of the tower to the other.

Indeed, the description of Yaakov’s dream employs many similarities to the scene of the tower of Bavel (11:1-9), which seemingly detailed the failed mission of the construction of a ziggurat.[3] The tower had “its top in the sky” (11:4) just as the stairway’s “top reached the sky” (28:12). Each episode furthermore focused on “stones”: the creation of bricks “in place of stones” at Migdal Bavel,[4] and the erection of a stone pillar following Yaakov’s dream and his declaration that the stone be “a house of God” (28:22).[5] What was the significance of this connection?
* * * *
…And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and he said, “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know.” And he was afraid. And he said, “How fearsome is this place!” (17)
Yaakov’s response of fear and wonderment to his first encounter with God stands out as unique among the patriarchs. God’s promises and concurrent lesson to him on this occasion notwithstanding, Yaakov’s intense emotional response demands our attention.

Let us first consider the Torah’s narrative of the early life and actions of Yaakov. It consists of two stories: (1) the cunning purchase of the firstborn rights from Esav, and (2) the deception employed to receive Yitzhak’s blessing. Each event is underscored by Yaakov’s ability to manipulate the situation with his wits and cognitive perception. Indeed, the Hakhamim similarly highlighted Yaakov’s intellectual depth, interpreting his occupation as a “tent dweller” (25:27) as reference to Torah study,[6] and describing his 14-year halt to study upon leaving home.[7]

Imagine now the probable approach to knowledge of and faith in God for a person imbued with the smarts and tendencies of Yaakov. It would probably consist of something along the lines of an attempt to prove His existence, an effort to perceive His ways of governance, or the study of His created world. And yet, contrary to man’s historical attempt to approach God by building ziggurat temples or a tower in Bavel, Yaakov’s vision consisted of a ladder that he did not erect, upon which he could not ascend and whereupon God’s presence unapproachably loomed. It replaced rational man’s attempt to approach of God with God’s incomprehensible approach of man.

Leon Kass similarly described the situation:
Jacob’s dream turns out to be a perfect (not to say heaven-sent) device for confronting the rational man with the limits of his rationality…Yet the substance of the dream shows precisely the limits of the human mind’s ability to discern the truth about the world and to provide for a man’s most urgent needs. The sharp-eyed man – and also the sharp-eyed reader – is invited to see the limits of his own sharp -mindedness.[8]
Yaakov encountered God in this instance in a fashion reminiscent of Rudolph Otto’s description of the “numinous” – when man encounters the Almighty by means of an essentially irrational and unconscious feeling.[9] Alternatively referring to this sensation as “mysterium tremendum,” or a “creaturely feeling,” Otto’s association of religion with an internal feeling of “awe” may similarly describe Yaakov’s unexpected experience at this time.

We have all experienced it at some point of our lives. Even the most rationally-minded individuals can relate to an emotionally-rich and difficult-to-describe encounter at some point in their life. Consider, for example, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s description, in his early work Halakhic Man, of the way that his grandfather and role mode R. Hayyim of Brisk would overcome his fear of death through cognitive means, such as the study of the laws of ritual defilement (tum’ah and taharah). R. Soloveitchik provided this account as a primary instance of halakhic man’s insistence that “objectification triumphs over the subjective terror of death.”[10] Years later, however, R. Soloveitchik reflected upon death and noticed:
…The cognitive gesture points toward the unknown, towards the mysterium magnum, which escapes our comprehension. Man’s knowledge rests upon substitution of the known for the unknown, the comprehensible quantity for the qualitative phenomenon; the immediate sense experience will remain an eternal enigma.[11]
William Kolbrener suggested that this shift in R. Soloveitchik’s thought, from an insistence on strict rationalization and objectification to a submittal to the subjective experience, reflects his ongoing engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust, personal tragedies and his perception of American Jewish life in the 1950s.[12]
* * * *
The lasting effects of Barbara Ehrenreich’s mystical encounter led to her desire for the study and objectification of all such experiences. Russ Douthat’s response, however, rings true to reality. Admitting that “I did not know,” Yaakov could not possibly objectify his encounter with God and was instead overcome by the moment’s intensity of fear and awe.

The moments during which we “do not know” provide us with an emotional strength inaccessible through cognition. Setting out on a journey that would lead him far from the comfort of his family and home, Yaakov’s dream taught him that his own rational perceptions couldn't singularly guide him through the difficulties that lay ahead. His emotional experience at Bet El, albeit mystical and indescribable, continues to inspire.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Barbara Ehrenreich, “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment,” The New York Times, Apr. 5, 2014.
[2] Ross Douthat, “How to Study the Numinous,” The New York Times, Apr. 9, 2014.
[3] Recall our analysis of Parashat Vayera, several weeks ago, Cities & Human Progress.
[4] “And they said to each other, ‘Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.’ And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar” (11:3).
[5] “And Yaakov rose early in the morning and took the stone he had put at his head, and he set it as a pillar and poured oil over its top” (28:18), “…And this stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God…” (28:22). For the various parallels and extensive analyses, see, among others, Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 193-4; Yair Zakovitch, Mikra’ot be-Eress ha-Mar’ot (Tel Aviv, IS, 1995), pg. 60-2); and Yehudah Elitzur, Yisrael ve-ha-Mikra (Ramat Gan, IS, 2000), pg. 44-8;
[6] See Rashi’s commentary ad loc.
[7] See Rashi’s commentary to 28:11 (s.v. va-yishkav).
[8] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, 2006), pg. 415.
[9] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford, EN, 1958), translated by John W. Harvey.
[10] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia, 1984), pg. 73.
[11] R. Joseph B. Solovetichik, “The Crisis of Human Finitude,” printed in Out of the Whirlwind (Jersey City, NJ, 2003), pg. 156.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Torah LiShmah - Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim

Listen to this morning's class on "Torah Lishmah - Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim" here. Follow along with the sources here.

For further research: 

1) As mentioned, the classic book on this topic is R. Dr. Norman Lamm's Torah for Torah's Sake

2) R. Reuven Raz recently published הרב קוק בין חסידים למתנגדים, in which he probes Rav Kook's thought for his stances on classical Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim debates. Chapter 6 deals with "Torah LiShmah." Read the part relevant to Rav Kook here.

3) R. Elyakim Krumbein has authored an entire series on the topic of "Torah Lishmah," published on Har Etzion's Virtual Beit Midrash - explore it here.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parashat Toledot: Innovation

A Message for Parashat Toledot 2017
Click here to view as PDF.

…And Yisshak dug anew the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Avraham his father, which the Pelishtim had blocked up after Avraham’s death, and he gave them names, like the names his father had called them. And Yisshak’s servants dug in the wadi and they found there a well of fresh water…And they dug another well…And he pulled the stakes from there and dug another well... (Bereshit 26:18-22)

The Torah’s description of the wells that Yisshak dug is puzzling. The text meticulously detailed the various excavations and subsequent quarrels, but never explained their significance. How do these details contribute to our understanding of Yisshak’s life, mission, and accomplishments?
* * * *
One day in the late 1870s, a Parisian obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier took a day off from his job at a maternity clinic to take a stroll in the nearby Paris Zoo. As he watched the chicken hatchlings enclosed in their incubators, he was struck by an insight. He contacted the zoo’s poultry raiser, Odile Martin, and tasked him to construct a similar device for human newborns. Martin obliged, and Tarnier then installed the incubators at the medical center and conducted a quick study. He found that while 66 percent of low-weight babies died within weeks of birth, only 38 percent of those housed in his incubating boxes died. The medical world soon learned of Tarnier’s innovation, and more advanced incubators became standard equipment in all American hospitals. The use of infant incubators triggered a startling 75 percent decline in infant mortality rates between 1950 and 1998.

Modern incubators are expensive and complex. A standard American incubator generally costs more than $40,000 and requires specific parts and technical expertise to repair. Incubators are therefore rare in developing countries such as Liberia and Ethiopia, and the fatality rates of premature babies in those countries is consequently high. In 2008, MIT professor Timothy Prestero set out to design the appropriate incubator for developing countries. Realizing that even the smaller towns of the developing world seemed capable at keeping their automobiles in working order, he decided to design for them an incubator using car parts. Prestero reasoned that since the car replacement parts are abundant and their necessary technical knowledge elementary, the hospitals could more easily maintain such machines. Using sealed-beam headlights to supply the warmth, dashboard fans for air circulation and door chimes as sound alarms, he and his team solved a severely fatal situation.
* * * *
The scientist Stuart Kauffman wrote about the process to innovation and change. Terming it “the adjacent possible,” Kauffman explained that novelties are discovered through a course of “opening doors.” Following an initial breakthrough – a “door opening,” we are opened to a new perspective – an “entrance into another room,” wherein future breakthroughs are possible – “new doors can be opened.” While ideas that are “ahead of their time” may indeed be true, since the doors leading up to that room have not yet been opened, they will generally fail to be implemented.[1]

Steven Johnson used “the adjacent possible” to explain the ironic development of incubators for developing countries. He wrote that although we tend to think of our ideas as $40,000 incubators, shipped direct from the factory, they are in fact the result of an initial encounter at the zoo and subsequent project with spare parts that happened to be sitting around in the garage.[2]
* * * *
The wells of Avraham represent his lifetime’s accomplishments. Trailblazing a new path in this world, Avraham “brought forth water” in unprecedented ways. Following his death, however, the wells were temporarily closed. The effects of his legacy were halted until the emergence of Yisshak as a leader. Intuitively understanding “the adjacent possible,” Yisshak looked to build his own innovations upon the foundations of his father’s.  He returned to the wells of Avraham and undug them. Then – and only then – did Yisshak set forth upon his own path to growth and expansion – by digging his own wells.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Stuart A. Kauffman, Investigations (New York, NY, 2000).
[2] Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From (New York, NY, 2010), pg. 24-42.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Kiddushin 57a-58a

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Kiddushin from this past week!

Listen to:   57a (1)57a (2)57b58a (1)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

פסיק רישיה על ידי נכרי: Fridge Lights and Boilers on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class on Hilkhot Shabbat here. Follow along with the source sheets here.

The primary focus of the class was the concept of פסיק רישיה על ידי נכרי, and we therefore discussed  the involvement of a non-Jew with lights in fridges and activating a boiler on Shabbat.

Parashat Toledot: Yisshak and Esav

1) Listen to tonight's class, "Yisshak and Esav," here. Follow along with the sources here.

2) Listen to last year's class on Toledot, "Yaakov VS. Esav or Yaakov AS Esav?" here. Follow along with the sources here. Read the cited article by R. Yoel Bin Nun here.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Yibum vs. Halissah: A History

1) Listen to our class on the topic of "Yibum vs. Halissah," here. Follow along with the sources here.

2) See Jacon Katz's classic article on this matter here, and a brief summary and related analysis from Avraham Grossman's Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe, here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Is it a Missvah to Live in Israel?

1) Listen to tonight's class, "Is it a Missvah to Live in Israel?" here.

2) See the sources we cited:

a) Ramban - Shikehat Asin 4

b) HaRambam - Hilkhot Melakhim 5:9-12

c) R. Hayim - Tosafot Ketubot 110b

d) R. M. Feinstein - Igerot Moshe EH I 102

e) R. S. Wosner - Shevet HaLevi 5:173

f) R. O. Yosef - Yehaveh Daat 4:49Yehaveh Daat 5:57

3) Read an original teshuvah by R. Ovadia Yosef to the Prime Minister of Israel's office regarding this matter, here.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Parashat Hayei Sarah: Community

A Message for Parashat Hayei Sarah 2017
Click here to view as PDF.

...And the servant said to him [Avraham], “Perhaps the woman will not want to come after me to this land. Shall I indeed bring your son back to the land you left?” And Avraham said to him, “Watch yourself, lest you bring my son back there…” (Bereshit 24:5-6)

Avraham’s absolute demand that Yisshak remain in Canaan is perplexing. What did he fear? Raised with the values of Avraham and strengthened by God’s promise of the Land, it seems likely that Yisshak would succeed even in exile. Why, then, was Avraham so deeply concerned?

The final verse of this episode may illumine its preceding motive:
And Yisshak brought her [Rivkah] into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rivkah as wife. And he loved her, and Yisshak was consoled after his mother’s death. (67)
The Torah highlighted Rivkah’s entrance into Sarah’s tent as an act of continuity that concluded the search for Yisshak’s wife. But why did it need to end in Sarah’s physical tent? Couldn’t Yisshak and Rivkah continue the family’s moral and theological legacies while starting out in a different land?
* * * *
In the introduction to his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell described the fascinating story of the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania.[1] He wrote that in the late 19th Century, several thousand residents of the Italian town Roseto Valfortore set sail for America. The people founded and settled a small but self-sufficient town on a rocky hillside in Pennsylvania. They established a centralized church, and built schools, a park, small shops, bakeries and various other community venues.

In the mid-1950’s, Dr. Stewart Wolf stumbled upon an astonishing phenomenon in Roseto. Studying the results of an extensive study that he had conducted, Wolf found that virtually no resident of Roseto under the age of fifty-five had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. He discovered that the death rate of men over sixty-five was roughly half that of the United States, and the death rate from all causes in Roseto was 30 to 35 percent lower than expected. Pairing up with sociologist John Bruhn, Stewart then found that there was no suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction and very little crime in Roseto. Bruhn summarized their findings: “These people were dying of old age. That’s it.” Informed of the facts, their next step was to determine the secret of this tiny town in eastern Pennsylvania.

Thinking that a unique dietary practice may have contributed to their health, Wolf investigated but found that it was anything but healthy. He then checked their exercise habits, soon realizing that they too were deficient. Many struggled with obesity and others smoked heavily. He studied the lives of the Rosetan relatives who lived in other areas of America for a potential genetic link, but found no evidence of remarkable health in them. Finally, he analyzed the lives of the residents of Roseta’s neighboring communities, but found nothing special in them either.

Wolf began to realize that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet, nor exercise, genes or location. It was Roseto itself. Walking around the town, he and Bruhn figured out why. They watched the Rosetans stop to chat with one another in the street. They saw them cook food for each other. They realized that many homes had three generations living under one roof, and noticed how much respect the grandparents demanded. And in that modest town with a population below two-thousand, they counted more than twenty separate civic organizations. They discovered, to their astonishment, that the physical health of the Rosetans was rooted in the community.
* * * *
Someone recently argued to me that in today’s era we must expand our conception of community. She argued that technology’s advances in communication have forced the transition from many local communities to one large international community. Though I believe that her general logic is correct, I nonetheless know that the existence of a local community will forever maintain a vital function. As Wolf and Bruhn learned, our personal interaction with one another engenders within us capabilities that would otherwise be impossible. The physical proximity and close spaces that we share create unfathomable realities.

Insisting that Yisshak and Rivkah continue in Canaan, Avraham understood that the unique entity which he had tirelessly built could only endure within the structure of its physical community.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

* In memory of Naomi Houllou z”l, and in appreciation of her tireless efforts for our community.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York, NY, 2008), pg. 3-11.

Eating Bread During Seudah Shelisheet

Listen to this morning's class, on the topic of "Eating Bread During Seudah Shelisheet," here. Follow along with the source sheet here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Kiddushin 55a-56b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Kiddushin from this past week!

Listen to:   55a, 55b, 56a, 56b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Parashat Hayei Sarah: Life and Death

Life & Death
A Message for Parashat Hayei Sarah 2016
Click here to view as PDF.

In the opening scene of Parashat Hayei Sarah, Avraham approached the citizens of Hebron to purchase a burial place for Sarah. He curiously introduced himself to them as a “resident alien” (23:4). Paralleling his self-description to the Torah’s subsequent use of similar wording, this phrase appears to indicate a legal disadvantage.[1] Indeed, archaeologists have found that while the urban agriculturalists during the time of the Avot possessed familial burial plots in the cities, the general practice of nomadic shepherds was to bury in desolate lands that lay distant from civilization. Avraham’s request of a sepulcher for Sarah in Hebron, then, was a clear divergence from his social status, thereby deeming him a “resident alien.”[2]

Bearing in mind Sefer Bereshit’s aversion to the innovations of city-dwellers and its consistent depiction of Avraham’s life as a nomad,[3] his decision to bury in the city in the way of city-dwellers is particularly difficult to understand.
* * * *
Prominent thinker Leon Kass noted the Torah’s deliberate contrast between the burial of Yaakov at Me’arat ha-Makhpelah and the mummification of Yosef in Egypt, in the last chapter of Bereshit. He explained the significance:
The contrast between burial and embalming/mummification reveals a crucial difference between Israel and Egypt: the difference between the acceptance and the denial or defiance of death.
While embalming the body is an attempt at human control after death – to prevent decay and to beautify the body, burial accepts that we are “dust to dust” and submits to the impossibility of eternal life in this world.[4] Kass noted, as well, that the Egyptian counter-cultural custom of men to shave their beards was underlain by a similar drive, as shaving is “a perfect emblem of the Egyptian penchant to deny change and to conquer decay by human effort.”[5]

What was Avraham’s approach to life and death?
Consider this intriguing midrash:
Until Avraham, there was no old age, so that one who wished to speak with Avraham might mistakenly find himself speaking to Yitzhak, or one who wished to speak with Yitzhak might mistakenly find himself speaking to Avraham. But when Avraham came, he pleaded for old age, saying, “Master of the universe, You must make a visible distinction between father and son, between a youth and an old man, so that the old man may be honored by the youth.” God replied, “As you live, I shall begin with you.” So Avraham went off, passed the night, and arose in the morning. When he arose, he saw that the hair of his head and of his beard had turned white…[6]
The Hakhamim traced the origins of whitening hair – the paradigmatic mark of old age – to Avraham. They clarified its significance by imagining Avraham’s request and intent – that “the old man may be honored by the youth.” Avraham marched on a mission to establish a derekh Hashem in this world. He fought for faith in monotheism and the practice of justice and righteousness. But he knew that this undertaking would not be accomplished in his lifetime. As stated by God, “For I have embraced him so that he will charge his sons and his household after him to keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice” (Bereshit 18:19), Avraham was aware that this mission awaited his children’s completion. Trailblazing this path, Avraham prayed that his descendants honor their predecessor and continue upon it.

French-American philosopher Gabriel Rockhill wrote about his personal transition from fear of death to its wholehearted acceptance, in an article entitled “Why We Never Die.” Describing our continued existence after death, he wrote:
The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made … There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had – for better or for worse – on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.[7]
Leon Wieseltier similarly wrote that man’s death is “almost never complete,” explaining, “He survives himself in many ways, he leaves many traces of himself behind, in his works and in the people he loved.”[8] Seen from this angle, the deceased’s life continues after death by those who appreciate and continue their mission.

It is in this light that we may imagine that Avraham was not frightened by death, as were the Egyptians of old. Avraham was instead conscious of the mission that he had set into motion, and he strode confidently to the beat of a legacy that would live on long after death.
* * * *
Last week we explained that the danger of cities and human progress, as depicted by Sefer Bereshit, lies in their tendency to lead man to focus on his own “name,” instead of that of God. They pose the threat of becoming absorbed in our own accomplishments, and losing sight of our relationship with God. Since cities possess no inherent danger, and their evils lie only in active engagement, Avraham’s burial of Sarah therein posed no problem. But why would he specifically seek a “city plot,” in the ways of the “city folk,” instead of burying Sarah in a place and fashion befitting a nomad?

Avraham was perhaps teaching his children and future descendants an important lesson regarding life and death. Life must be lived “as a nomad” – constantly deflecting the focus from oneself to that of a larger mission, stripped of all ego. Death, in turn, represents the “next step” on that mission, through the everlasting legacy imparted to future generations. Burying Sarah on a random countryside ran the risk of confusing his descendants’ understanding of death. It could cause death to be seen as a loss of all identity, an entrance into a looming abyss of anonymity and inexistence. Burial in the city, by contrast, drew attention to the acceptance of death, and symbolized man’s permanent life in this world.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] See Vayikra 25:23, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers residents with Me,” and Nahum M. Sarna’s Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 166-7.

[2] R. Elhanan Samet, Iyunim be-Parashot ha-Shavua II, vol. I (Tel Aviv, IS 2009 ), pg. 90.

[3] See last week’s devar Torah, “Cities and Human Progress.”

[4] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, 2003), pg. 658-9.

[5] Kass, 564-5.

[6] Bava Metzia 87a.

[7] Gabriel Rockhill, “Why We Never Die,” The New York Times, Aug. 26, 2016. 

[8] Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York, 1998), pg. 242.