Monday, December 31, 2018
Listen to our class on "Averah LiShmah: Is a Sin Ever Appropriate?" here.
Follow along with the sources here.
For further research:
Read R. Aharon Lichtenstein's article on averah lishmah, published in Mussar Aviv, here.
Sunday, December 30, 2018
Friday, December 28, 2018
Thoughts on Shemot 2018
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The Torah’s description of Am Yisrael’s slavery in Egypt bears several striking similarities to the earlier episode of Migdal Bavel. Whereas the people of “all of earth” had once come together to construct a “city and a tower with its top in the heavens” with mortar and bricks (Bereshit 11:1-4), Am Yisrael were now forced to use mortar and bricks to build store-cities (Shemot 1:10-14). And similar to the motive of that initial construction to “make a name” amidst the fear of becoming “scattered over all the earth,” Pharaoh – “King Rameses” now feared that Am Yisrael would “go up from the land” and thus commissioned the building of “Rameses,” a city that bore his name. What is the underlying message of these parallels?
Consider, in this context, the Torah’s very next narrative in Sefer Bereshit: the life of Avraham. God’s first words to him of “Lekh lekha – go forth” (Bereshit 12:1) contrasted to the anticipated settling of Bavel’s city-construction. And whereas the people of Bavel had futilely pursued a “name” with their stable city, God then promised Avraham “a great name” (12:2) by means of his movement.
We possess the ability, as individuals and a society, to grow in two different directions: vertically and horizontally. Growing upwards means strengthening preexisting foundations by continuing along the path that was already begun. Growing sideways, in contrast, means chasing your thoughts or dreams into the precarious realm of the undiscovered. The “builders of Bavel” had singularly focused their growth on a vertical trajectory. They feared the instability of venturing out sideways, and so they built up on steady foundations. Avraham’s growth was differently focused, however, as he followed God’s word to spread out and grow horizontally. By doing so, Avraham endeavored into the realm of the unknown and sought growth along the uncharted paths that loomed at his sides.
The verdict is still out regarding the essential role of the Internet to our intellectual growth. There is no doubt that we have grown by the unprecedented ease of access to information that it has brought. The question remains, however, whether our continued intellectual growth as its result points horizontally or vertically.
Describing the way that the Internet changed his mode of thinking, Nicholas Carr wrote: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” He explained that a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. Carr therefore bemoaned our increased tendency to superficially skim information as a result of Google’s immediate search result, and yearned for the “deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea or narrative” which he had once enjoyed.
Tom Nichols similarly suggested that the art of “research” has been lost to people’s “search for pretty pages online to provide answers they like with the least amount of effort and in the shortest time.” Citing studies which found that people don’t actually read the articles from a search on the Internet, but rather glance at the top line of the first few sentences and then move on, Nichols reflected: “This is actually the opposite of reading, aimed not so much at learning but at winning arguments or confirming a preexisting belief.”
Living in a world that is increasingly governed by Google searches, our thoughts have become vertical. We busy ourselves with building higher and higher in our collection of data. The skill of horizontal thinking, however, is at risk of extinction. We are slowly forgetting the art of creative and in-depth thinking.
The Torah’s parallel descriptions of Am Yisrael’s slavery in Egypt and the episode of Migdal Bavel teaches about the shortcomings of a society stuck in vertical growth. Although Am Yisrael proliferated in Egypt – “And Bnei Yisrael were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and grew very fast, and the land was filled with them” (Shemot 1:7), their growth was stunted by an inability to move outward. They were trapped in a land of vertical growth and the only way out was redemption.
Although distant from a life of physical servitude, today’s intellectual environment also suffers from the difficulty of horizontal growth constraints. Paving our own path to redemption, we must seek return to a world of imaginative thought and discovery. Embracing our generation’s unique tools for vertical growth, we must focus our minds upon the path of horizontal growth.
Monday, December 24, 2018
Sunday, December 23, 2018
Friday, December 21, 2018
Monday, December 17, 2018
Sunday, December 16, 2018
Friday, December 14, 2018
Thoughts on VaYigash 2018
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Yaakov was caught off guard in the moments after hearing that Yosef was alive and well in Egypt – “And his heart stopped, for he did not believe them” (Bereshit 45:26). Once the news sunk in, however, Yaakov exclaimed: “Enough! Yosef my son is still alive. Let me go see him before I die” (28). For twenty-two years he had yearned for one last sight of his beloved son and that time had finally come.
Before entering Egypt, Yaakov stopped at Be’er Sheva, where God appeared to him “through visions of the night” (46:1). God initially told him: “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for a great nation I will make you there. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I myself will surely bring you back up as well” (3-4). The encounter came at a critical moment in Yaakov’s life. It represented a period of transition for his family, as they left Canaan, the land of Avraham and Yisshak, on their way to exile. God, then, was placating Yaakov’s fears by promising His protection.
Beyond God’s promises of protection, however, Yaakov’s nighttime visions shifted his general perspective. Indeed, his vision of God at that time was similar to our own nighttime visions. As Marina Benjamin remarked, the significance of our thoughts as we lay awake in bed at night lies not in what we see, but how we see it: “It is about paying attention to what lies at the peripheries of our being, or just across the border.” God’s concluding words to Yaakov changed everything: “And Yosef shall lay his hand on your eyes.” Whereas Yaakov’s excitement about meeting Yosef had previously coupled with his anticipation of things to come, God now informed him that that things would be different. While he would get to see Yosef, there would be no future journey together. Instead, Yosef would “lay his hand” on Yaakov’s eyes. Yaakov’s sight would diminish in place of Yosef’s.
R. Ezra Bick highlighted this transitional time in Yaakov’s life by pointing to the textual discrepancies in presenting his name. Whereas Yisrael travelled to Be’er Sheva – “And Yisrael journeyed onward” (1), Yaakov left for Egypt – “And Yaakov arose from Be’er Sheva” (5). R. Bick suggested that Yisrael represented his role in actively forging Am Yisrael’s future, while Yaakov denoted his state of passivity and dependence. Indeed, although he was already an old man, his travel to Be’er Sheva appeared unassisted, “And Yisrael journeyed onward,” while his departure was led by his children, “And the sons of Yisrael conveyed Yaakov their father…on the wagons Pharaoh had sent to convey him” (5). Yaakov’s brief encounter with God at Be’er Sheva transformed his vision of self and reoriented his understanding of the future.
When Yaakov finally met with Yosef, he eerily repeated his earlier expression, although it was now laden with a literal meaning: “I may die now, after seeing your face, for you are still alive” (46:30). Crossing through the liminal realm of a nighttime vision at Be’er Sheva had changed Yaakov. Entering with the hope that his sight of Yosef would forbear a bright future together, Yaakov left Be’er Sheva with the understanding that it would instead represent his passing of the torch from father to son.
Regarding his great disdain of sleep, the poet Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.” Although I personally share Nabokov’s hate of the lost opportunities inherent in sleep, I can nonetheless appreciate the advantages that sleep and dreams afford us. Matthew Walker, for example, likened REM sleep to a master piano tuner, as it “readjusts the brain’s emotional instrumentation at night to pitch-perfect precision.” Alice Robb likewise wrote: “Dreams can help us become more self-aware; they draw deep-seated anxieties to the surface, forcing us to face up to hope and fears we haven’t acknowledged.” Our sleep and dreams, then, play similar roles to Yaakov’s nighttime vision of God. They sharpen our self-understanding and prepare us for the difficult journey ahead.
Navigating the various stages of our lives without preparation will lead us to sure failure. Yaakov’s nighttime encounter with God conditioned him for the alternate reality that lay ahead. Deep sleep through the night can sometimes do the same for us. But several minutes of mindful recollection can also do the trick. Every parent knows that the few-minute warning before transitioning our children into the next activity are crucial. The same holds true for adults with regards to the many phases of life.
As Arthur Rubinstein reflected upon his career as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, he reportedly remarked: “I play the notes no better than many, but the pauses…ah, that makes all the difference.”
Taking time out of our days on a consistent basis to momentarily pause our stream of thought and activities and take stock of our current state-of-being and the anticipated future is vital to our continued growth. It will provide us with the appropriate mindset for travelling along the uncharted roads of life and serve as our critical “visions of the night.”
Listen to this morning's class, "Can Non-Jews 'Fulfill' Missvot?" here.
Follow along with the sources here.
For further research:
1) Read R. Gideon Rothstein's summary and analysis of R. Moshe Feinstein's teshuvot on this topic here.
2) Read R. Asher Weiss's analysis of this topic here.
Monday, December 10, 2018
Sunday, December 9, 2018
Friday, December 7, 2018
Thoughts on Mikess 2018
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R. Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. (Pirkei Avot 2:15)
After hearing Yosef’s interpretation of his dreams, Pharaoh exclaimed, “Could we find a man like him, whom is the spirit of God?” (Bereshit 41:38). He then turned to Yosef and remarked, “There is none as discerning and wise as you” (39). Just as the cupbearer and baker were overwhelmed by Yosef’s clairvoyant interpretations in prison, so too was Pharaoh at that time. But were Yosef’s explanations actually that impressive? Asked to render a plausible solution to those very dreams in his same circumstance, isn’t it possible that you too might interpret them like Yosef? What, then, were Yosef’s powers of wisdom and insight that appeared so remarkable at that time?
Many of the technological products that we buy and use are designed with planned obsolescence in mind. The operating systems of our smartphones, for example, slow down significantly after a mere two years of use. At that same time, their battery life begins to drain quickly, as well. There is, in fact, a purpose that underlies this seemingly money-making scam. The systems are able to produce at maximum capacity because they possess a confined window of time. Building a lifespan into the usage of our devices ensures their maximum efficiency during that time period.
Allison Arieff noted the irony that the same Silicon Valley culture that produces these gadgets appears obsessed with living forever. She pointed to venture capitalists like the tech billionaire Peter Thiel who have begun pouring money into anti-aging and life extension start-ups. Arieff mentioned, as well, that Google has launched the biotech company Calico to study “the biology that controls lifespan,” specifically researching the long-living naked mole rat, which shows little to no sign of aging.
The tech world shares good company in its obsession with “living forever.” Our society at large has become possessed by the dream of eternal life. Noting the long list of new books related to “successful aging,” Barbara Ehrenreich remarked, “A major themes is that aging itself is abnormal and unacceptable.” And before detailing the many other ways that this mindset and approach has spread throughout our culture, she wrote, “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it.” Alternatively, and more realistically, she suggested, “You can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”
Peggy Noonan recently wrote about a depressing outgrowth of our society’s concept of life. She noticed the adolescent clothing donned by many of today’s well-known business executives – the casual T-shirts, hoodies and jeans. She pointed out that although our culture has always honored the young, it has never honored immaturity. The model of dignified “adult attire” has largely been lost, replaced instead by “soft clothes, the kind 5-year-olds favor.” The past ideal of a life of serious demeanor and style has disintegrated to one of childish thoughts and behavior. Along the path of our futile attempts to “defy death,” we have begun to act and attempt to “be young” forever.
Joseph Epstein described this phenomenon over a decade ago, adding to it his own critique and misgivings. Epstein began “The Perpetual Adolescent” by contrasting the “grown up” attire one beheld at the baseball games of the 1940’s and 50’s – tailored suits and fedoras, to the youthful jeans, caps and T-shirts that fill the seats of today’s games. Broadly observing many of society’s general trends, he noticed a sharp shift from a society that conceived of adolescence as necessarily transient to one that yearns for its eternal existence. Epstein viewed this perspective very negatively. He suggested that it lowered the tone of national life, took away from its richness, and lowered intellectual expectations. He argued that an observable “dumbing down” of society is to be attributed to this mindset, as contemporary journalism has lost its depth by necessarily adapting to the short attention span with the soundbite, photo-op, quickie take and a general suppression of complexity.
Leon Kass noticed a similar trend in his search for the underlying factors for our society’s shift away from traditional dating and marriage. He wrote about today’s shared clothing styles, spoken lingo and interest in music between parents and children, and commented: “Youth, not adulthood, is the cultural ideal, at least as celebrated in the popular culture.” Kass explained that today’s young man doesn’t feel the urge to take his father’s place, as he has seen his father continuously running from it “with all deliberate speed.”
Ancient Egyptian society was pervaded by a strikingly similar feature to ours today. Leon Kass explained that Egypt sought to abolish change and to make time stand still in their pursuit of “changelessness, agelessness and permanent presence.” He elaborated: “Whether one looks to the hieroglyph in which the mobile world is represented in static ideograms; or to the worship of the eternally circling but never-changing heavenly bodies or of the cyclically rising and ebbing river, with its life-giving overflows; or to the practices of denying aging through bodily adornment and defying death through mummification and preparation for reincarnation – everywhere one looks, one sees in Egypt the rejection of change and the denial of death.” Indeed, the first thing that Yosef did before approaching Pharaoh was shaving his beard (41:14). A beard is the paradigmatic sign of “old age” (hence its Hebrew word – zakan), which was the perfect emblem of the Egyptian penchant to deny change and conquer human decay. Attempting to enter the mainstream Egyptian society, Yosef made sure to first dress the part.
The legacy of Am Yisrael, in contrast, was built upon the core concept of remembering the past and anticipating the future. God’s covenant with Avraham was passed down from father to son in a continuous chain. Adherents of this dynasty lived with “full awareness of time and with full acceptance of change and unavoidable decay.” Consider the establishment of berit bein ha-betarim, the foundational covenant with Avraham, when God clearly stated to him: “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace, you shall be buried in ripe old age” (15:15). We were first taught then to accept – and embrace – the existence of old age and the inevitability of death.
As Yosef listened to the retelling of the ministers’ dreams and then those of Pharaoh, this veritable clash of worlds came to the fore. Denying the inevitable passing of time, the Egyptians couldn’t possibly fathom that the objects in their dreams – the vine branches, baskets of bread, cows and ears of wheat – represented the passage of time. The very concept of a set “deadline” was foreign to their intellectual conceptions. And as Yosef described their symbolism – first as three days to the ministers, and then as seven years to Pharaoh, the Egyptian dreamers were spellbound by its novelty. The idea of the fleeting nature of time, although intuitive, had been squashed by their culture and society. And Yosef’s seamless mention of this concept opened their eyes to a hidden truth.
“Carpe diem,” John Keating (played by Robin Williams) famously shouted to his students in the classic film Dead Poets Society. “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary,” he urged them. Living in a world which once again seeks to freeze itself in “perpetual adolescence,” the Torah awakens us to the inevitability of aging and the concept of a lifespan. It reminds us to seize the day.
Sunday, December 2, 2018
Friday, November 30, 2018
Monday, November 26, 2018
Listen to tonight's class, "Should You Make a Berakhah on Chewing Gum?" here.
Follow along with the sources here.
For further research:
1) Read some of the relevant sources in their entirety: a) Yabia Omer 7.33, b) Birkat HaShem 2, c) Yabia Omer 9.108, d) Birkat HaShem 5.
2) Read R. Ari Enkin's "Gum: Should a Blessing Be Recited?" here.
Saturday, November 24, 2018
Thoughts on VaYishlah 2018
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Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Yaakov felt helpless as he cried to God in preparation for his encounter with Esav:
God who has said to me, “Return to your land and your birthplace, and I will deal well with you.” I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly done for your servant. For with my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps… (Bereshit 32:10-11)
Painfully describing his state of instability, wedged between the homes of Lavan and his parents, Yaakov understood that this was the time for prayer. He shouted out to God: “Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav!” (12)
The Hakhamim pointed to a most unusual context for the first biblical reference to prayer:
On the day Hashem Elokim made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for Hashem Elokim had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human [“ve-adam ayin”] to fill the soil…
Although God had already commanded the ground to bring forth vegetation on the third day of creation, he didn’t send rain for its growth until the sixth. Why not? Rashi answered:
Because “There was no man” [adam ayin] to till the soil, and so there was no one to realize the goodness of the rains. But when man arrived and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and vegetation grew.
Vegetation wouldn’t grow without man’s recognition of its absence and subsequent prayer. In the kabbalists’ transformative reading of these verses, it is man’s ability to recognize the “nothingness” – the ayin – that fuels the prayer which steers existence.
Describing this Kabbalistic concept of ayin, Arthur Green wrote: “There is an ungraspable instant in the midst of all transformation when that which is about to be transformed is no longer what it had been until that moment, but has not yet emerged as its transformed self.” That fleeting period of transition is the moment of ayin. And in a world of constant change and transformation, we are in contact with ayin at all times. Indeed, the great medieval kabbalist R. Azriel of Gerona long ago noted the paradoxical belief that the source of all “being” is “nothingness,” when he stated: “Being is in nothingness in the mode of nothingness, and nothingness is in being in the mode of being.”
By separating the “upper” and “lower” waters on the second day of creation, God concurrently brought forth the space in between – the ayin. Man’s paradigmatic prayers fill that space of “nothingness” by bringing forth water from the “upper” realms and merging it with those below. Genuine prayer emerges from understanding our role within the ayin of existence.
Considering his past journey from Lavan’s home (“with my staff I crossed this Jordan”), Yaakov longed for return to his parents’ home (his “land and birthplace”), and was overwhelmed by the unstable realm between the two – the ayin – which he was then experiencing. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly done for your servant,” Yaakov then declared. He pondered the deeper meaning of ayin, and realized that his own self (אני) was merely a vexing reconfiguration of nothingness (אין). And just as he was engulfed by the vulnerable and self-effacing state of ayin, Yaakov tapped into its essence – prayer. He cried out in prayer to God and demanded: “Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav!”
Friday, November 23, 2018
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Thoughts on VaYesse 2018
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The essence of Judaism is the awareness of the reciprocity of God and man, of man’s togetherness with Him who abides in eternal otherness. (R. Abraham J. Heschel)
The opening passage of Parashat VaYesse describes Yaakov’s first direct encounter with God. Stopping to sleep upon his journey from home, Yaakov dreamt of a ramp that was set against the ground and stretched up to the heavens. And as God then spoke to him, Yaakov noticed a host of God’s angels who rose and descended upon the ramp. This vivid imagery sent him a message regarding the fundamental connection between heaven and earth – between God and man.
Indeed, Yaakov’s instinctive reaction to the dream was to exclaim, “This can be but the house of God and this is the gate of the heavens” (28:17). But his actions went beyond mere observation. He set a stone into the ground as a pillar, poured oil over its top and vowed that upon his safe return to that location, “This stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God” (22). Rather than passively accepting the sanctified nature of this metaphysical “house of God” which he had just discovered, Yaakov pledged to build the physical structure of a “house of God” at that location, as well.
The heaven-reaching ramp, coupled with the transitional angels taught Yaakov about the inherent link between “God’s heavens” and “man’s earth.” The images furthermore inspired him to strengthen that bond by vowing the future construction of a physical “house of God.”
The Hakhamim hinted at this concept regarding our “partnership with God” in several different contexts. They pointed to an apparent contradiction in two verses from Tehilim. Whereas one pasuk says that “The earth and all it contains is God’s” (24:1) another one states “The heavens are God’s and the earth He has given over to mankind” (115:16). R. Levi explained that while “the earth and all it contains is God’s,” once making a berakhah on the food of the earth “He gives it over to mankind.” His statement reinforces the mandate for us to partner with God in completing this world.
Rava’s statement that “Initially the Torah is called by the name of God, but ultimately it is called by the name of the one who studies it” imparts a similar lesson. It teaches that by studying “God’s Torah” and revealing its multifaceted messages, we enter into a partnership with Him in the very “ownership” of the Torah.
God’s message to Yaakov at that time, then, touched upon the very essence of our mission in life. Indeed, the kabbalists point to the Torah’s cryptic description of man’s creation “in the image of God” (1:27) as evidence of this fact. They explain that since the most basic attribute of God in the story of Creation is that of “Creator,” our existence “in His image” must then imply our mission to couple with Him as creators.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly wrote that “the dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator of worlds.” If at times we raise the question of the ultimate aim of Judaism, R. Soloveitchik continued, “we must not disregard the fact that this wondrous spectacle of the creation of worlds is the Jewish people’s eschatological vision, the realization of all its hopes.”
The vivid imagery of Yaakov’s dream during his initial encounter with God reminded him about his continued mission in this world. Stretching beyond a simple one-time message, however, his dream must inspire every decision that we make and every action that we take. Searching for and discovering the spiritual “house of God” is only one facet of our lifelong mission. Setting out to build the material one is the other.