Sunday, December 31, 2017

Parashat Shemot: Loneliness

A Message for Parashat Shemot 2017
Click here to view as PDF

And God saw that he had turned aside to see, and Hashem called to him from the midst of the bush and said “Moshe, Moshe!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Shemot 3:4)

…And God’s messenger called out to him from the heavens and said, “Avraham, Avraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Bereshit 22:11)

Moshe’s first encounters with God bear several striking parallels to Avraham’s experience at the Akedah. The way in which God first addressed the individuals and how they responded is identical. Each underwent fateful moments on identified mountains – Har HaMoriah by Avraham and Har Horev by Moshe. Both missions centered around the destiny of a “unique son” –  Avraham’s Yitzhak, and God’s “My son, my firs-born, Israel” (4:22). And both Avraham and Moshe experienced the near murder of their son – Avraham by his knife-wielding hand, and Moshe by God, who “sought to put him to death” on his way at a night camp (4:25).

Most important among these parallel narratives, however, is the immediate aftermath of the individual’s adherence to the command of God.

Avraham’s ascent to Har HaMoriah progressed as a joint mission with his son, the verses twice stating “And the two of them went together” (Bereshit 22:6,8), but his retreat from the mountain was alone – “Avraham returned to his young men, and they stood up and went together to Beer Sheva” (22:19). Avraham experienced the tragic irony of reaching the height of his relationship with God at the very moment his connection to his son was diminished.

Moshe’s mission began with the support of others, as well. Following an emotional embrace with Aharon, the brothers addressed the elders of the nation who “believed and heeded” (Shemot 4:31). The two then addressed Pharaoh, as commanded by God, but were met by an angry group from the nation upon their departure. The group shouted at them, “Let God look upon you and judge, for you have made us repugnant in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants” (5:21). It was then that Moshe came to know the lonely existence of an eved Hashem. It was a state-of-being first endured by his great-grandfather Avraham, several hundred years before.

The person who finds God is homeless, fatherless, and childless – not biologically but spiritually. He is related neither to his parent nor to his child; he has to give up and disengage. (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik)[1]

The similar stories of Avraham and Moshe are the sobering paradigms of true commitment to God. The life of an eved Hashem necessarily entails difficult moments of loneliness. As we strive to become genuine servants of God, we must be prepared to summon our courage and strength during those moments of separation, when choosing His word over that of society.

The Joy of Talmud Torah

Listen to this morning's class, "The Joy of Talmud Torah," here. Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) See the various sources that we cited from Pahad Yisshak in their "original": a) Shavuot 6, b) Igerot UMikhtavim 2, c) Hanukkah 6, d) Shavuot 30.

2) Read the full article by Prof. Yaakov Elman, cited in the class, here.

3) Read R. Yitzchak Blau's excellent "The Joy of Torah Study According to Rav Hutner," here.

4) Read our related devar Torah for Parashat VaEthanan here.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Gambling and Halakhah

1) Listen to this morning's class, "Gambling and Halakhah," here. Follow along with the sources here.

2) Read Shlomo Brody's summary of this issue, in A Guide to the Complex, here.

Parashat VaYehi: Crying

A Message for Parashat VaYehi 2017
Click here to view as PDF

The Torah described a final encounter between Yosef and his brothers:
And Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said…“Your father left a charge before his death saying, ‘Thus shall you say to Yosef, We beseech you, forgive the crime and the offense of your brothers, for evil they have caused you. And so now, forgive the crime of the servants of your father’s God.” And Yosef wept when they spoke to him. (Bereshit 50:15-17)
Although Yosef had wept several times in the past, he never seemed comfortable doing so. Whenever he felt the tears coming, he would attempt to hide them. Yosef left the room to cry when he heard his brothers talk about him (42:24) and again when he saw Binyamin (43:30). Revealing himself to his brothers, he cleared out the room before crying with them (45:2). Although Yosef let down his guard when he cried in his embrace with Binyamin and his other brothers, he concealed the tears as he wept “upon his neck” and “upon them” (45:14-15). And his tears in embrace of Yaakov were again “upon his neck” (46:29), and after Yaakov’s death “upon his father’s face” (50:1). Earning the reputation of a rational-minded controller, Yosef was careful to never let his emotions interfere with his thoughts and behavior. But then, perhaps unexpectedly, the stone-cold façade cracked: “And Yosef wept when they spoke to him.”

Was Yosef’s public display of emotion at that time a personal failure? I do not think so. I recall a conversation that I had with a group of 12th Grade boys, several years ago. Over the course of our discussion, one of the boys remarked that he had never seen his father cry. The boy seated next to him quickly added that he had not either. As did the next. And the next. One by one, nearly every one of the thirty boys in the room revealed to me that they had never seen their father cry. This bothered me. I felt that their fathers had failed to expose them to “true emotions.” Hiding behind the veil of “power” and “control,” the fathers had missed the opportunity to teach their children how to appropriately respond to emotional pain and discomfort in a healthy manner.

Yosef was a prominent leader. The eyes of an entire empire were upon him at all times. His thoughts, decisions and expressions were noticed by all. By publicly exposing his tears, Yosef taught them a lesson that extended beyond the basic skills of proper decision-making. He taught them how to feel.

Several years ago, a journalist noted the American people’s changed perception of public crying. When Senator Edmund Muskie was caught crying on camera during the presidential campaign in 1972, he unconvincingly claimed it was melting snowflakes. Muskie lost the campaign and forever remembered that critical moment. He claimed that his tears changed people’s minds about him, explaining, “They were looking for a strong, steady man, and here I was weak.” Consider, now, the impressive list of politicians who have proudly cried on camera in the 21st Century: Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, among others.[1] Crying is no longer seen as an expression of weakness, but rather of humanness. But is it necessary? Can’t we live and succeed without the interference of our personal emotions?

In Feeling Smart, Eyal Winter wrote about the necessary interplay between rational thinking and emotions. He imagined, for example, a situation where you arrive at work one morning and find an email message with an offer for employment by another company. A decision made solely by the rational department of your mind would begin by compiling an exact list of all the characteristics of your current job, followed by a parallel list of the characteristics of the newly offered job. Carefully scaling the advantages and disadvantages of each opportunity, the next step would be to assign to each characteristic a value representing the extent of satisfaction or disappointment you expect to receive from it. Without the help of your emotional mechanism, however, you will certainly fail at this stage. Although you will have all the facts at your disposal, the channel to a wise choice will remain blocked. Winter wrote, “Only close cooperation between the emotional and rational mechanisms can enable you to arrive at a wise and satisfactory decision.”[2]

Yosef’s ability to expose his emotions late in his life revealed his impressive growth as a leader. He taught his brothers, the people of Egypt and all future generations the importance of relating to our feelings in an honest and genuine fashion.

Let the tears flow! It’s best for your growth.

[1] Jim Windolf, “It’s Alright to Cry, Dude,” The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2015.
[2] Eyal Winter, Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think (New York, NY, 2014)), pg. 237-8.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Kiddushin 65b-66b

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

Listen to:  65b,  66a (1),   66a (2),   66b (1)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Parashat VaYehi: Spread Your Blanket

Spread Your Blanket
A Message for Parashat VaYehi 2017
Click here to view as PDF

Following the death of Yaakov, a somewhat familiar scene unfolded between Yosef and his brothers. It harkened back to the events surrounding Yosef’s self-revelation to them seventeen years earlier (44:14-34). The brothers again felt guilt and fear for their past treatment of Yosef, they again prostrated themselves before him, and yet again offered themselves as slaves:
“And they charged Yosef, saying: “…And so now, forgive, pray, the crime of the servants of your father’s God” … And his brothers then came and flung themselves before him and said, “Here we are, your slaves.” (50:15-18)
Yosef’s response echoed his past reply, as well:
And Yosef said: “Fear not, for am I instead of God? While you meant evil toward me, God meant it for good…” (19-20)
He assured his brothers once more that he would not exact revenge, and attributed all that had transpired to a grand providential plan.

There is, however, a significant difference between the two scenarios. Whereas Yehudah had singularly set forth the offer of self-slavery in the past (44:16, 33), that suggestion now came from all of the brothers. In contrast to Yehudah’s past performance as a “lone leader” of the group, he was now joined by all of his brothers in an approach of Yosef.
* * * *
Difficult situations challenge a community to decide between the opposite reactions of “dispersal” and “cohesion.” Dispersal refers to individual, self-centered thinking and action. Faced with adversity, members retreat from the collective whole in search of individual safety. Cohesion, however, is when a community comes together to find a solution. Realizing that no individual can singularly handle the situation, members of the community tackle the dilemma with the input and support of a larger group.
* * * *
Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, once described his first encounter with my rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, of Yeshivat Mir. He and a group of prominent American businessmen had the opportunity to briefly meet with Rabbi Finkel, whereupon the rabbi asked them, “Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?” Rabbi Finkel dismissed the various answers suggested by the men, and then proposed his own:
“As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way – by railcar...After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps…They went off to the bunkers to sleep. As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket when he went to bed had to decide: “Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?”
Reaching the climax of his description, Rabbi Finkel concluded the lesson:
“It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to the five others.”[1]
* * * *
Confronted by the fear of revenge upon their earlier encounter with Yosef, the brothers stood back as a disparate group of individuals with only one vocal leader. They “clutched their blankets tightly” and shared them with no one. Reexperiencing the same emotions seventeen years later, however, the brothers now “pushed their blankets” to one another and stepped forward as a unified unit before Yosef.

Difficult times present us with the decision of “dispersal” – when we keep our blanket to ourselves, or “cohesion” – when we push it to others. Find your blanket and push it to others.

[1] Yehuda Heimowitz, Rav Nosson Tzvi (Brooklyn, NY, 2012), pg. 380-81. It should be noted that this message was based, in part, upon his uncle R. Hayim Shmuelevitz’s well-known explanation of a passage in Sanhedrin 20a. See Sihot Mussar (Jerusalem, IS, 2004), pg. 153.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Why Can't We Use Umbrellas on Shabbat?

Listen to tonight's class, "Why Can't We Use Umbrellas on Shabbat?" here.

Follow along with the source sheet here.

For Further study:

Read the full text from Shu"t Hatam Sofer here.

See, as well, R. Yisshak Yosef's teshuvah regarding a person who attends synagogue on Shabbat with an umbrella, here.

Parashat VaYehi: Yaakov's Last Attempt

1) Listen to tonight's class, "Yaakov's Last Attempt," here. Follow along with the sources here.

2) Read the devar Torah, regarding the irony of "Avel Misrrayim," which we referenced in the class, here. I later found that R. Zvi Grumet noticed this as well, in his Genesis: From Creation to Covenant, here.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Parashat VaYigash: Perspective

A Message for Parashat VaYigash 2017
Click here to view as PDF

Life itself is but what you deem it. (Marcus Aurelius)[1]

Best-selling self-help advisor Dale Carnegie once wrote that the above words of Aurelius are “eight words that can transform your life.”[2] Rav Kook z”l similarly declared to an inquirer:
With a broader perspective…the light of truth will shine forth, deeming the search for answers to every detail unnecessary.[3]
Realizing that their own thoughts define their lives, most people know that the path to success must be approached from the proper perspective. The difference between those who succeed and those who fail, however, often lies in the ability to put this task into motion. The successes maintain perspective; the failures do not.
* * * *
At the very moment that Yosef disclosed his identity to his brothers, he revealed something else:
[Yosef said:] And now, do not be pained and do not be incensed with yourselves that you sold me here, because for substance God has sent me before you…And God has sent me before you to make you a remnant on earth and to preserve life, for you to be a great surviving group. And so, it is not you who sent me here but God… (Bereshit 45:5-8)
Yosef then exposed his keen sense of perspective. Glancing back at the ironic twist of events in his life, Yosef overcame thoughts of anger and revenge by placing his brothers’ sale of him within context. Although their actions had caused him much pain, he now understood that they were a necessary step in his climb to power.
* * * *
Viktor Frankl, the well-known Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, once related an encounter that took place long after his experiences in the concentration camps. Somebody showed him an illustrated weekly with photographs of prisoners lying crowded on their bunks and staring dully at a visitor. The person remarked, “Isn’t this terrible, the dreadful staring faces – everything about it.” Frankl could not understand the comment. He was, in that moment, “seeing it all again”: At 5:00 A.M. it was still pitch dark outside. He was lying on the hard boards in an earthen hut where he and seventy others were “taken care of.” They were sick and did not have to leave camp for work, and instead lay all day in the hut, waiting for the daily distribution of bread and soup. Frankl described a particular occurrence at that time:
An exhausted comrade, covered with snow, stumbled inside to sit down for a few minutes. But the senior warden turned him out again…How sorry I was for that fellow and how glad not to be in his skin at that moment, but instead to be sick and able to doze on in the sick quarters!
As he stared at the photograph, Frankl’s remarkable perspective denied him the sight of any negative projection.[4]

Joseph Fabry, a prominent student of Viktor Frankl, recalled a similar experience with his mentor. As they once passed by a barbecue, Frankl remarked that burning wood always reminded him of the concentration camps, because the primitive iron stoves in the barracks were heated with wood. Fabry asked him if the memory was painful. “Oh no,” Frankl replied, “When we returned from a day of hard labor in the freezing cold, we smelled wood fire. This meant a few hours of rest.”[5]
* * * *
A final passage in Sefer Bereshit portrays Yosef’s impressive perspective once again. Following the death of Yaakov, Yosef’s brothers feared that he would now exact revenge. Yosef repeated to them his broad vision and understanding of his life’s occurrences. He assured them:
Fear not, for am I instead of God? While you meant evil toward me, God meant it for good, so as to bring about at this very time keeping many people alive. (50:19-20)
Yosef’s commitment to his brothers, in spite of all that they had done to him, was driven by an astonishingly expansive perspective.

It is precisely facts that do not exist; only interpretations. (Friederich Nietzsche)[6]

[2] Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (New York, NY, 1984), pg. 113.
[3] R. Avraham Yisshak HaCohen Kook, Igerot Hara’ayah vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 1985), pg. 94:
...ועל ידי השקפה יותר אמיתית כללית מתגלה אור האמת, עד שאין צורך כלל לתירוצים מיוחדים על כל פרט.
[4] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston, MA, 2014), pg. 45-6.
[5] Foreword to Viktor Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (New York, NY, 2000), pg. 8-9.
[6] The Portable Nietzsche (New York, NY, 1977), pg. 458.

Is Praying Arbit "Optional"?

Listen to this morning's class, "Is Praying Arbit 'Optional'?" here. Follow along with the sources here.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Kiddushin 64a-65a

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

Listen to:  64a (2),  64b (1),   64b (2),   65a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Parashat VaYigash: "Is My Father Still Alive?"

"Is My Father Still Alive?"
A Message for Parashat VaYigash 2017
Click here to view as PDF.

The long-awaited moment had arrived. Yosef had finally revealed himself to his brothers. As expected, he was met with a shocked speechlessness and crying. Particularly striking, though, are Yosef’s words at that time: “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” (45:3) His thoughts and feelings in that instance weren’t driven by a connection to the brothers in his presence, but by a concern for his absent father, Yaakov.

And Yosef could no longer hold himself in check before all who stood attendance upon him, and he cried “Clear out everyone around me!” And no man stood with him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers.

Yosef’s revelation at this juncture was unplanned. If he had controlled himself better, he would perhaps have sent his brothers back to Canaan and held Binyamin hostage. This would have caused Yaakov to descend to Egypt, whereupon he would probably prostrate himself before Yosef. Yosef’s dream of everyone bowing to him would then be fulfilled.[1] It appears, however, that it was the thought of his father that broke his composure.

Yaakov soon caused another shift in Yosef’s demeanor. The parashah begins with Yehudah’s “approach” (va-yigash) to Yosef (44:18). It continues with Yosef’s initial demand that his brother’s “come close” to him (45:4), and then his instructions to “bring down my father here” (13). It presents the image of Yosef as a strong authority figure who does not “approach” others, but is instead “approached” by them. Then Yaakov arrived. “And Yosef harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Yisrael his father in Goshen” (46:29). Yosef no longer acted as the self-described “lord to all Egypt” (9), but rather as the average person who must “approach others.” His immediate action thereafter was again a selfless approach, as he came to Pharaoh and addressed him on behalf of his family (47:1), and his last encounter with his father similarly included an important “bringing forward” of his children (48:10,13). Yosef’s condescending conduct leveled off with the appearance of his father.

The fact that Yosef’s personality changed when the thought about his father was perhaps due to the fact that Yaakov represented a moral conscience to him. The Hakhamim appropriately captured this reality when they imagined Yosef overcoming an internal struggle with the wife of Potifar, because “the image of his father’s visage appeared to him.”[2] Whenever Yosef thought about his father, his perceptions of self-strength and superiority subsided.

The moral conscience inherent in Yosef’s vision of Yaakov may have been the simple reverence of a son to his father. Perhaps, however, its significance ran deeper than that. Summarizing the rabbinical commentaries, Louis Ginzberg remarked, “The whole course of the son’s life is but a repetition of the father’s.”[3] Tracing the lives of Yaakov and Yosef from their difficult inceptions, to their rivalry with and deception of brothers, their exile from home – and everything in between, scholars have long noted a striking parallelism.[4] This reality must have added an integral dimension of relatability from Yaakov to Yosef. Yosef found in his father a familiar personality who possessed a similar history. He saw in Yaakov’s ethical triumph, despite his various challenges and success, the embodiment of his own moral conscience.

I am Yosef. As he let down his cover and divulged his true identity to his brothers, Yosef admitted his moral conscience – Is my father still alive? The image of his father and its powerful meaning gave the all-powerful Yosef the strength to expose his weaknesses to his brothers and admit his true identity.

The image and thought of our own “father” – our moral conscience, must embolden us as well during times of adversity and doubt. It must give us the strength to stand up and act in accordance with our beliefs even as it may expose our hidden vulnerabilities.

[1] This was suggested by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses (Jersey City, NJ, 2013), pg. 40. It follows the general theory of Nahmanides (42:9), that Yosef was driven in much of his actions by the pursuit of a fulfillment of his childhood dreams.
[2] See Rashi’s Commentary to 39:11 (s.v. la’asot).
[3] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA, 2003), pg. 4.
[4] See, e.g., Aaron Wildavsky, Assimilation versus Separation: Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Religion in Biblical Israel (New Brunswick, NJ, 2002), pg. 111-12, and the sources cited in fn. 42.

Torah for Non-Jews

Listen to this morning's class, "Torah for Non-Jews," here. Follow along with the sources here.

See Shlomo Brody's summary of the issue, in his A Guide to the Complex, here.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Hanukkah: Laws of Lighting

Listen to this evening's class here.

Follow along with some of the sources: a) Masekhet Shabbat (21b), b) Maskhet Shabbat (23a), c) HaRambam (Hil. Hanukkah 4:2-3), d) Shulhan Arukh (671:2), e) Mikra'ei Kodesh (Hanukkah pg. 28-9), f) Shu"t R. Akiva Eger (2:13).

Friday, December 15, 2017

Parashat Mikess: Listening

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

And the brothers said to one another, “Alas, we are guilty for our brother, whose mortal distress we saw when he pleaded with us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has overtaken us.” … And they did not know that Yosef was listening… (Bereshit 42:22-23)

Defenselessly trapped in a dungeon, Yosef’s brothers finally reflected upon their past decision to cast him into a pit. Thinking that no one else was listening as they spoke to one another, the brothers remembered Yosef’s piercing cries at that time. They expressed regret for the way that they had callously ignored his pleas for help. The brothers’ own experience of being unheard by the Egyptian viceroy had awakened them to a decades-old mistake. Ironically, however, that viceroy – their brother Yosef – was now listening to them.

And Reuven heard, and he came to the rescue and said, “We must not take his life!” (37:21)
In contrast to the others, Yosef’s oldest brother Reuven had “heard” at that time. He had therefore attempted to rescue Yosef. And now, as the brothers nervously discussed the situation, Reuven’s voice rang out the loudest:
“Didn’t I say to you, ‘Do not sin against the boy?’ And you would not listen!” (42:22)
He charged his brothers of the sin of ignoring more than Yosef. Reuven accused them of not hearing his own voice, as well. He accused his brothers of not listening.
* * * *
The famed humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers described his passion for “hearing deeply.” He explained the experience of hearing the words, thoughts, feeling tones, personal meaning, and even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. Rogers described the special occasions upon which his listening led to the discovery of a deep human cry that lay buried far below the surface of the person. He imagined the emotions of the person when they are finally heard, and wrote:

In such moments I have had the fantasy of a prisoner in a dungeon, tapping out day after day a Morse code message, “Does anybody hear me? Is anybody there?” And finally, one day he hears some faint tappings which spell out “Yes.”

Rogers tasked all people to listen carefully to others and to decipher the faint messages that emanate from their dungeons.[1]

The well-known psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl often told the story about a woman who had once called him at three o’clock in the morning, during her bout with thoughts of suicide. He talked with her for a half hour about her choice, until she agreed to come in and meet in person with him later that morning. She then told Frankl that it wasn’t his arguments that had helped her pull through her crisis, but rather the simple fact that even after he’d been awakened in the middle of the night, he had listened patiently and encouraged her. His care and kindness – his listening –  had inspired her to give life another chance.[2]

The art of listening, however, is often necessary in order to hear even our own voices

R. Yaakov Moshe Harlap z”l thus interpreted the depth of Am Yisrael’s declaration “We will do and we will hear” (Shemot 24:7) at Sinai:

An animal also hears, but does not listen. A human being listens, and the differences among people depends on the quality of their listening. In proclaiming “We will do and we will hear,” the Israelites elevated themselves to be listeners; in other words, we will hear, and we will listen to the act itself.

According to R. Harlap, Am Yisrael’s commitment to “do and hear” represented the mature determination to become attentive to their own deeds.[3]

The Talmud (Taanit 21a) tells about R. Yohanan and his friend Ilfa, who had studied together at the bet midrash. During a time of famine, the two friends left the midrash in search of a job. Setting out on their journey, they stopped to eat in front of a rickety wall. R. Yohanan then overheard a conversation between two angels who were angered at the friends’ decision to leave and therefore considered toppling the wall upon them. Realizing that only he had heard the conversation, R. Yohanan took internalized the message and retraced his steps to the midrash. Years later, Ilfa returned with great wealth and discovered that R. Yohanan had subsequently been appointed to the post of rosh ha-yeshivah.

R. Mordekhai Sabato suggested that both Ilfa and R. Yohanan could have potentially heard the voices of the angels. Only R. Yohanan had heard their voices, however, because only he was listening. Whereas Ilfa had made up his mind regarding his future endeavors in the marketplace, R. Yohanan was uncertain. He was still searching for the proper path in life. He was listening.[4]
* * * *
The Torah’s description of the brothers’ memories at the time of their incarceration serves to ontrast them to Yosef. Whereas they had failed to listen to him in the past, Yosef was now listening to them. Indeed, Yosef’s ability to listen had driven his success. Consider the art of interpreting dreams: The interpreter must listen intently to the vision, pay attention to its various details and notice the nuanced descriptions of the teller. Then – and only then – can an interpretation be rendered. Yosef found success in the very realm that his brothers had neglected.

Learning from the story of Yosef’s brothers in the dungeon, we must always remember the importance of listening.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 8-10.
[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (New York, NY, 2000), pg. 128-9.
[3] R. Yaakov Moshe Harlap, Mei Marom – Ori VeYish’i (Jerusalem, IS, 5729), as cited in R. Haim Sabato’s Rest for the Dove: Reading for Shabbat (New Milford, CT, 2000), pg. 99.
[4] R. Mordekhai Sabato, Petah Devarekha vol. 1 (Bet El, IS, 2015), pg. 29-30.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Kiddushin 63a-64a

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

Listen to:   63a,  63b (1),   63b (2),   64a (1)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Parashat Mikess: Self-Identity

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

Whereas the narratives of Sefer Bereshit are generally clear regarding God’s ultimate plan and purpose in action, the reason for Yosef’s imprisonment is never fully explained. His self-restraint during his encounter with his master’s wife appears commendable, and his rise to power could have conceivably been implemented in a variety of other ways. What, then, was the reason for Yosef’s incarceration and ultimate rise to power by means of dream-interpretation?

Mankind is diverse in every sense of the word. Beyond our various differences in appearance and opinion, we are fundamentally separated from one another by our distinct “identities.” We each possess several defining characteristics, shaped by a myriad of factors, which define who we are and what we stand for. What was Yosef’s core “self-identity” during the various stages of his life?

The Torah first introduces us to Yosef by means of his dreams. His childhood is summed up by two dreams of majesty and the resulting conflict with his brothers. The portrait of Yosef’s early self-identity thus stands out for its clear association to dreams. And dreams would continue to define him in Egypt. His dream-interpretations in prison and then to Pharaoh were the clear sparks of his success.

Yosef is further identified as an “Ivri,” a Hebrew, during his stay in Egypt. Judging by his own self-description and that of others about him, Yosef’s strong association to his homeland played a prominent role in his self-identity while in Egypt.

Immediately following his sale to Potifar, the pasuk summarizes Yosef’s status at that time in a sentence: “And Hashem was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master” (39:2). The latter part of the verse importantly highlights the contrast between Yosef “the Ivri,” and Potifar “the Missri,” and calls our attention to its association with his success.

Following Yosef’s successful resistance of the sexual advances from his master’s wife, she mockingly exclaims to the members of her household, “See, he (Potifar) has brought us a Hebrew man to play with us” (39:14), and then remarks to her husband, “The Hebrew slave came into me” (39:17). Underlying her claim that Yosef had overstepped his boundaries as a slave looms the possible reality that Yosef had in fact lost sight of his unique “Ivri” identity. And therein lay the rationale for his demise and imprisonment – a loss of appropriate self-identity.

If a loss of self-identity earned him imprisonment, then appropriate recognition would grant him freedom. And so, following his interpretation of the chief cup-bearer’s dream, Yosef begged he remember him, adding, “For indeed I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here, too I did nothing that I should have been put in the pit” (40:15). Notice how Yosef’s identity-recognition now appropriately dovetailed with his other dominant association – dreams! Yosef had now “rediscovered” his true self, honestly self-identifying as an Ivri and symbolically exposing his essence by means of his dreams.

Yosef’s subsequent rise to power, however, brought forth a new challenge to maintaining true self-identity. The drift was precipitated by the public honor that he was immediately granted (41:43), and furthered by a subsequent name change (Safenat Pa’ane’ah) and arranged marriage by Pharaoh (3:45). Indeed, his Ivri self-identity seemed all but lost following the birth of his sons: “And Yosef called the name of his firstborn Menashe, meaning, God has released me from all the debt of my hardship, and of all my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Ephraim, meaning, God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:51-2). Reading his life’s story through our current prism, we fear the worst for Yosef at this juncture. He has consciously and publicly shed his self-identity with his sons’ naming!

This time, however, there would be no imprisonment. A far stronger measure was in store for Yosef: “And the sons of Yisrael came to buy provisions among those who came, for there was famine in the land of Canaan. As for Yosef, he was the regent of the land, he was the provider to all the people of the land” (42:5-6). Maintaining a false self-identity in face of his brothers, even as they did not recognize him, would not be simple. He was now staring and conversing with the living reminders of who he really was.

“And Yosef remembered the dreams he had dreamed about them” (42:9). As he opened his mouth to address his brothers, Yosef’s inner conscience stirred. His true self-identity – represented by his dreams – came to mind. He struggled with the dichotomy of what he had become and who he really was. “And he said to them, ‘You are spies! To see the land’s nakedness you have come” (ibid.). It would take time for Yosef to come clean with his true self-identity, and his own self struggle would first play out through a struggle with his brothers.

The irony of his brothers’ subsequent conversation in his “mother tongue,” which they presumed he did not understand, brought him to tears (42:23-4). His self-identity crisis intensified. As they much later sat to eat bread it continued: “They served him and them separately, and the Egyptians that were eating with him separately, for the Egyptians would not eat bread with the Hebrews” (43:32). Yosef was then separated from the Egyptians, and associated with his brothers – the Ivrim. And as his inner struggle came to its end, as Yosef confided his identity to his brothers, he begged they come closer (45:4). The Hakhamim appropriately captured this moment of closure and acceptance of self-identity when they suggested that the purpose of Yosef’s invitation was to expose to them his circumcision – his true mark of “Ivri” identity.[1]

Several years ago, The New York Times ran an article that examined several successful people in varied walks of life. Interviewing a restaurateur, a tennis champion and a rock star, the authors expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. They instead wrote about their surprise to find that self-awareness played an equally strong role. Each person recalled the “wrong path” they inadvertently trekked down at the “low points” of their career, and how their ultimate success was only realized by courageously challenging their assumptions, objectives and goals.[2] We are similarly reminded by the unique telling of Yosef’s story that a periodic self-examination – of our beliefs, missions and goals – is a necessity for success.

[2] “Secret Ingredient for Success,” by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2013. Thank you to Marc and Rita Mishan for sharing this article with me.

Hanukkah: "Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin" (Shabbat 21b)

Did you ever wonder why Sepharadim and Ashkenazim differ on how many candles to light each night of Hanukkah? Listen to our class here to learn why!

Follow along with the sources: a) Shabbat 21b, b) HaRambam (Hil. Hanukkah ch. 4) and c) Shulhan Arukh (no. 671).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Walking in the Snow on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Walking in the Snow on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Parashat Mikess: Yosef's Plan

Listen to last night's class, "Yosef's Plan," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Are You Living a Double Life?

Listen to this morning's class, on R. Hutner's approach to divrei reshut - the realm that is neither obligatory nor forbidden, here.

Follow along with his Iggerot UKetavim, Pahad Yisshak - Shavuot (no. 36), and Pahad Yisshak - Pesah (no. 69).

For further research:

1) Read R. Yitzchak Blau's thorough analysis of this topic, on Yeshivat Har Etzion's VBM website, here.

2) Read our related devar Torah for Parashat Korah here.

3) To learn more about the life and thought of R. Hutner, see Steven Schwartzschild's "An Introduction to the Thought of Isaac Hutner" here, Yaakov Elman's "Pahad Yitzhak: A Joyful Song of Affirmation" here, Hillel Goldberg's "Isaac Hutner: A Synoptic Interpretive Biography" here, and Matis Greenblatt's "Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner: The Song Before His Eyes" here.