Monday, January 29, 2018
Listen to tonight's class, "The Encounter Between Yitro and Moshe," here.
Follow along with the sources here.
Friday, January 26, 2018
A Message for Parashat BeShalah 2018
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It’s kind of fun to do the impossible. (Walt Disney)
Am Yisrael was trapped. They were frozen in their tracks as they stared out at the seemingly endless waters of the Red Sea while the Egyptian forces charged from behind. Believing that they had exhausted all sensible options, they cried out to God. He responded through Moshe:
“Why do you cry out to me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they should journey onward.” (Shemot 14:15-16)
The tone of His words – “Why do you cry out to me?” – portrayed God’s annoyance with their petitional gesture. He demanded that they cease all prayer and trek forward. What was wrong with Am Yisrael’s tefilot at that time? Why did God deem it inappropriate for them to turn to Him at this point of helpless despair?
As Am Yisrael marched ahead, something unexpected took place:
And the messenger of God that was going before the camp of Yisrael moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. (14:19)
R. Yaakov Kaminetzky z”l suggested that the angel changed his position at this time in order to force Am Yisrael to step into the sea without the assistance of God. Meshekh Hokhmah voiced a similar understanding. He suggested that “the messenger of God” referred not to a celestial angel, but to Moshe, and explained that Moshe moved from his place at the front so that the people would proceed on their own. God’s words and actions at that time made clear His will that Am Yisrael cross Yam Suf on their own. Why?
In her best-selling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck delineated two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. She explained that people with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities are “carved in stone.” When they fall short of a desired goal – flunking a test, botching a lucrative business deal, or breaking a diet for an unhealthy craving – they view themselves as total failures and become stuck in that state. People with a growth mindset, however, believe that their basic qualities can be cultivated through efforts, strategies, and help from others. They therefore view their shortcomings as fertile grounds for potential growth.
Dweck explained that people with a strong growth mindset can “stretch beyond the possible.” She cited, for example, the case of actor Christopher Reeve, who was thrown from a horse and became completely paralyzed from his neck down. Doctors advised him to come to terms with his reality and warned that denial would only deepen his disappointment. Reeves ignored them. Five years later, he defied the conceived rules of science and regained movement in his hands, arms, legs and torso. Dweck remarked: “Clearly, people with the growth mindset thrive when they’re stretching themselves.”
I had the special merit to be a firsthand observer of a man who possessed an unparalleled determination to accomplish the unfathomable – my rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel z”l. Although he suffered from the severely debilitating Parkinson’s disease for more than two decades of his life, R. Finkel stood at the head of the largest yeshivah in the world. He steered Yeshivat Mir in every step of its progress. From individually collecting the money to sustain the yeshiva and overseeing the distribution of the monthly stipends, to testing each potential applicant and delivering a half-dozen shiurim throughout the week, Rav Nosson Zvi was involved with every aspect of the yeshivah. Indeed, it is told that R. Finkel once sat with a wealthy businessman and requested a large donation. The man responded, “I can’t,” and assumed that he had put the matter to rest “I can’t either,” the rosh yeshivah counter, “But I do anyway.” Needless to say, the man swiftly opened his pocket and paid out the full donation.
Carol Dweck cautioned our dismissal of students’ weaknesses as “unchangeable.” She warned against self-defeating assurances such as “Don’t worry, you’re just not a math person,” and suggested that we instead inspire them to work harder in the spirt of what they want to become. I believe that God sent a similar message to Am Yisrael as they stood on the brinks of freedom at Yam Suf. Two centuries of slavery had engendered within the people a general sense of despair and dependency. God sensed that now was the time to shift that mentality. He demanded Moshe, “Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they should journey onward,” and forced a new attitude onto people. It was a mindset that was charged by a strong sense of determination and self-confidence. It convinced them that they could now stretch themselves to accomplish the impossible.
God’s message at Yam Suf is eternally relevant. As you encounter the daily challenges of life, remember His words long ago – “Why do you cry out to me?” And then, “Journey onward!”
Rabbi Avi Harari
Rabbi Avi Harari
Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 6-9.
As told by Hanoch Teller in For the Love of Torah (Nanuet, NY, 2012), pg. 253.
Greg Walton and Carol Dweck, “Willpower: It’s in Your Head,” The New York Times, Nov. 26, 2011.
Sunday, January 21, 2018
A Message for Winter Break 2018
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Watch a short recap of the devar Torah here:
Sefer Bemidbar, the book of ‘In the Wilderness,’ records the story of Am Yisrael’s forty-year journey from Egypt to Israel. The book’s name is derived from its opening verse, which mentions the location of the initial dialogue, stating:
And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in Ohel Mo’ed… (Bemidbar 1:1)
Though the “wilderness of Sinai” functioned as the necessary trail to the ultimate destination of the Land of Israel, its role in the national-historical growth of Am Yisrael is far more significant.
Several decades ago, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep introduced the idea of liminal space. Liminal is the Latin word for “threshold,” and the concept refers to the transitional period between the old and the new. R. Jonathan Sacks suggested that that is what the wilderness signified for Am Yisrael. The wilderness was the “liminal space between slavery and freedom, past and future, exile and return, Egypt and the Promised Land.” He suggested that the desert exists as “the space that makes transition and transformation possible.” Erica Brown similarly noted that the lengthy and arduous travel in the midbar forced people to move only with that which they could carry. Stripped of all but the essentials forced the nation to “challenge every preconceived assumption about their relationships with God, with Moses, with self, and with other.”
My uncle related to me that one summer that he spent learning at Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem in the early 1970’s, the question of safety came up as the young men’s vacation time (bein ha-zemanim) approached. The administration considered suspending the break time, and continuing the students in active study at the yeshivah throughout bein ha-zemanim. The rosh ha-yeshivah, R. Hayim Shmuelevitz z”l weighed in on the matter in a public address that he delivered in the bet midrash. He set forth his position in one brief sentence: “Just as the laws of a sefer Torah require that there be a blank space to separate each of the five books of the Torah, so too must our Torah study leave space in between each of the zemanim.” His message was clear: healthy growth is best attained when the activity is separated by appropriate breaks.
The famous violinist and conductor Isaac Stern once said that “music” is what goes on in between the notes. Erling Kagge wrote: “Your brain is eager to tune in when the music is in borderland where it can fluctuate.” He described his amazement at the reflections and thoughts that suddenly arise in those moments. Estelle Frankel similarly explained that the silent spaces in between notes create the rhythm and musical composition of a piece. They also provide the musician with room to pour his or her emotions into the music. Frankel reflected upon her appreciation of “negative space” in her career as a storyteller. She noted that her silent pauses provide her listeners with the chance to absorb and reflect upon what has been said and to locate themselves within the story.
David Leonhardt recalled a conversation that he had with George Shultz, the former secretary of state during the 1980’s. Shultz told him that he would carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He would sit down in his office with a pad of paper and a pen. He would close the door and instruct his secretary to interrupt him only if his wife or the president called. Shultz felt that his hour of solitude was the only way that he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of the job. The moment-to-moment tactical issues would otherwise distract his focus from the larger questions of national interest.
Indeed, researchers have found that procrastination is often conductive to originality. By delaying progress, we enable ourselves to spend more time considering different ways to accomplish, and avoid becoming stuck on one particular strategy. Adam Grant noted that long before the modern obsession with efficiency, ancient civilizations recognized the benefits of procrastination. In ancient Egypt, for example, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness and the other meant waiting for the right time. Grant astutely observed: “Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.”
Psychoanalyst Anthony Storr found that nearly all types of creative people seek states of solitude. He noticed that appropriate avoidances of social encounters can oftentimes engender originality. Researchers similarly found that teenagers who struggle with being alone tend to have lessened creative abilities. Their creative habits seemingly blossom best in the comfort of solitude. As Michael Harris noted: “The cliché of the painter locked away in a studio, the writer in his cabin, the scientist in her late-night laboratory is no accident.”
Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late sets forth a similar map for success in today’s fast-paced world. Friedman wrote that he would regularly meet friends or interview officials, analysts or diplomats over breakfast in downtown Washington, D.C. Once in a while, owing to a variety of excuses, his guest would arrive late for the meeting. They would enter flustered, apologizing as they sat down: “The subway was delayed…” “My alarm failed…” or “My kid was sick…” It was on one of those occasions that Friedman realized that he didn’t care at all about his guest’s tardiness, and so he replied: “No, no, please – don’t apologize. In fact, you know what, thank you for being late!” He recognized that the lateness had helped him mint time for himself. Friedman discovered that during that time he could “just sit.” He would eavesdrop on the conversations around him, “people-watch” the lobby, and most importantly connect several ideas that he had struggled with for days.
The tattered group of individuals that was miraculously saved from Egypt was in no immediate position to enter their own land and set up an independent system of governance. They lacked the experience, mental strength, and national cohesion so necessary for that task. Their growth therefore began with a transitional stage – a liminal space, in the wilderness.
Searching for successful growth in any realm of our lives, the transitional stage of the midbar must serve as our model. It should remind us of the necessity of occasional vacation days and the importance of a weekly “Shultz hour” of silent reflection. In our world of constant connection and regular availability, our growth starves for the solitude of those “blank spaces.”
Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 230.
The Bed of Procrustes:Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (New York, NY, 2010), pg. 5.
Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago, IL, 1960).
R. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Numbers (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 43.
Erica Brown, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers (New Milford, CT, 2013), pg. xi.
Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise (New York, NY, 2017), pg.109.
Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder, CO, 2017), pg. 98-9.
David Leonhardt, “You’re Too Busy. You Need a ‘Shultz Hour.” The New York Times, Apr. 18, 2017.
Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 94-6.
Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self (New York, NY, 2005), pg. 34.
Michael Harris, Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 34-5.
Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 2-3.
Quality Time Together
A Message for Parashat Bo 2018
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The Hebrew root shamar (שמר) is mentioned several times in Parashat Bo, each time referring to a different verb or action. Am Yisrael were commanded to separate a lamb prior to its sacrifice le-mishmeret – “for examination” (12:6), they were furthermore instructed u-shmartem et ha-massot – to “safeguard the massot” (12:17), and they were twice told u-shmartem – to eternally “observe the service of the korban Pesah” (12:25, 13:10). Indeed, the very night of departure from Egypt was designated as a night of shemirah:
It is a night of “shimurim” for God, to take them out of the Land of Egypt. This was the night for God; a “shimurim” for all Bnei Yisrael for their generations. (Shemot 12:42)
This pasuk implies that the night of the 14th of Nissan exhibits a “shared shemirah,” as both God and Am Yisrael will experience it as an evening of “shimurim.” What is the meaning of this “shimurim,” and how do we perform it “for generations”?
R. Avraham Ibn Ezra suggested that shemirah in this context refers to this word’s standard association – to guard and protect. God commanded Am Yisrael to treat the night as a guard (shomer) protects a city. Just as a responsible guard must stay awake all night at his post, so too must Am Yisrael stay awake throughout this night. But what was the purpose of this “all-night” endeavor? It surely wasn’t to eat the korban Pesah, as according to most authorities it needed to be consumed by midnight. It wasn’t intended for the retelling of yessiat Missrayim either, as that must be done while eating the korban Pesah, massah, and maror. Why, then, was Am Yisrael signed up for an “all-night shift” on the night of the 14th of Nissan?
Let us shift our focus to the beginning of the pasuk, which details God’s role in this shemirah: “It is a night of shimurim for God…this was the night for God.” The pasuk clearly states that God, as it were, took ownership of this night – it is “His night.” The shimurim duty of Am Yisrael thus flows from His possession. God seemingly says, “Since it is my night, and on it I will perform my own shimurim, you, Am Yisrael, must do so as well.” It appears, then, that there is no practical, action-based purpose to this all-night endeavor of leil shimurim beyond the simple (yet awesome) experience of sharing the night awake and in the presence of God – “on His night.”
R. Shimon ben Semah Duran (Rashbass) suggested a similar understanding of leil shimurim in his commentary to the Haggadah. In the well-known anecdote recited at the seder every year, several prominent tana’im retold yessiat Missrayim throughout the night, until their students informed them that the time for the morning keriat shema had arrived. Rashbass suggested that the reason for the rabbis’ long-winded retelling of yessiat Missrayim was in order to fulfill the mandate of leil shimurim. Beyond the structured missvot of korban Pesah, massah and maror, the night of 14 Nissan sets forth the obligation to stay awake and experience the entire night.
Since most of our lives and the decisions we make are driven by practical considerations, the concept of leil shimurim may seem foreign. It is difficult to see the “gain” in staying up all night without a set plan of action. Conceptualizing our relationship with God as similar to that of a loved one, however, may help our understanding. We can relate to the enriching experience of simply spending time together with a person whom we cherish. It is not the food that we eat, the show that we watch, nor the game that we play that endures. It is the simple reality of quality time spent together. Similarly, leil shimurim is the night designated for us to “spend together” with God – without a scripted plan or course of events.
The concept of leil shimurim must extend further than one night a year. It must serve as our paradigm for connection, and become our guiding light on a continuous search for moments in the presence of God. Those moments, we know, are invaluable. They represent our opportunity to bond with God during the simple, yet ever important quality time together.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Monday, January 15, 2018
A Message for Parashat Bo 2017
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The detailed laws that Am Yisrael was commanded on the night before their exodus from Egypt reveal a recurring theme of the “house” and “household.” They were instructed with regards to the korban Pesah, “let every man take a lamb for a father’s house, a lamb for a household” (12:3), and further informed that if the household was too small to consume a full lamb, “it must take together with its neighbor who is close to its house” (4). The blood of the lamb was to be placed on “the doorposts and lintel of the house” (7), serving as “a sign for you upon the house in which you are” (13), in order that “He shall not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to scourge” (23). Each man was commanded to not leave the entrance “of his house” until morning (22), and to teach his children in the future: “A Passover sacrifice to God, who passed over the houses of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt when he scourged Egypt, and our households He rescued” (27).
The significance of the “house” and “household” to the story of yessiat Misrayim became clear when the nation was twice commanded to remember the exodus from the “house of slaves” (13:3, 14). They were perhaps being taught in that instance that their freedom from a “house of slavery” was appropriately designated by the establishment of independent “houses” and “households.”
The Torah surprisingly shifts from its emphasis on the “house,” however, when commanding future observance of the laws of Pesah. Whereas the nation was initially commanded, “The very first day you shall expunge leaven (se’or) from your houses,” and, “Seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses” (12:19), the command upon entrance into Israel was different: “And no leavening of yours shall be seen in all your territory” (13:7). Whereas the theme of “house” and “household” dominated the description of Pesah in Egypt, its repeated command for future observance bore no mention of it whatsoever.
This conspicuous change in theme was repeated in the context of another dominant feature of the commands – the distinguishing “sign” (ot) of Am Yisrael. In Egypt, the blood on the houses stood as their “sign”: “And the blood will be a sign for you upon the houses in which you are” (12:13). The future “sign,” however, bore no connection to houses or households and instead lived on through the tefillin: “And it shall be a sign for you on your hand and a remembrance between your eyes…” (13:10, 16).
The establishment of Am Yisrael as a free and independent nation began with complete separation. This was initially performed by God through the plagues, and then symbolized by the nation’s various observances in their “houses” and “households” which separated them from the “house of Pharaoh.” The future vision for the nation, however, was considerably different. The distinguishing “sign” was no longer displayed on their houses, but instead concealed on their arms. The spatial isolation necessary for Am Yisrael’s establishment in Egypt was replaced by self-realization and demonstration.
We often misunderstand our communities’ source of strength. We believe that it is the separate “houses” and “households” that empower the members, and we therefore fear involvement with others. The Torah’s deliberate shift in description from the initial creation of Am Yisrael to its eternal existence teaches otherwise. Freed from the “house of slavery,” the nation was further freed to endeavor from their “houses” and appropriately engage with others. Though a sense and practice of separateness was eternally enduring, it no longer existed as a spatial segregation but as an existential realization and performance.
Recall last week’s devar Torah, “Separation.”
Sunday, January 14, 2018
1) Listen to this morning's class, "The Experience of Talmud Torah," here. Follow along with the sources here.
2) For further study: Read "Torah Study: Intellect and Experience," Chapter 9 of Reuven Ziegler's Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, here.
Labels: Hilkhot Talmud Torah
Friday, January 12, 2018
A Message for Parashat VaEra 2018
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And Moshe said before God, “Look, I am uncircumcised of lips, and how will Pharaoh heed me?” And God said to Moshe, “Behold, I have set you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aharon your brother will be your prophet.” (Shemot 6:30-7:1)
God placed Aharon into the role of vocal ambassador to Pharaoh in response to Moshe’s reluctance to speak. He explained that although Moshe would continue as the direct conduit to Him, Aharon would now voice the messages to Pharaoh. Why, then, did God insist that Moshe accompany his brother on the subsequent encounters with Pharaoh? What was the purpose of Moshe’s “silent presence” at the palace of Pharaoh?
I believe that the answer to this question lies in a proper understanding of the role of silence in our lives. Best-selling author Susan Cain wrote about the hidden strengths of silence in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She noted the surprising reality that many of the world’s most effective people have climbed to success through a naturally inclined demeanor of introversion. Her list includes the likes of Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, Brenda Barnes (CEO of Sara Lee) and James Copeland (former CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu). She quoted the findings of management guru Peter Drucker, that successful leaders possessed a broad variety of personalities and approaches, but generally shared one common characteristic: “They had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.” Cain then demonstrated the ultimate strengths of introversion by pointing to Moshe, and noting: “People followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well.”
Moshe’s impressive stature as a leader, then, wasn’t built upon his spoken words, but rather upon the content of his messages. Indeed, Nessiv highlighted God’s unique description of Moshe as “a god to Pharaoh,” and explained that it meant that just as God can maintain his stature among mankind even without any direct verbal correspondence with them, so too would Moshe to Pharaoh.
I would suggest, however, that beyond the important force of the content of the message voiced by Aharon, Moshe gained authority by means of the manner in which they presented it, as well.
Noted philosopher Erling Kagge referred to a unique style of many contemporary songs. The songs are introduced by long buildups which lead to “the drop” – the moment when the drums and the song’s most important themes kick in. They then turn quiet again, as the cycle repeats. He explained that this style is used in other realms of our lives, as well. For instance, in order to convince someone else of his position, the clever debater will introduce a pause before and after the crux of his argument. Kagge realized our tendency to become attentive whenever the soundscape changes and to doze off when it remains the same, and briefly surmised: “Our brains prefer contrasts.”
This reality lends depth to the Hakhamim’s description of a worldwide silence prior to God’s first pronouncement at Har Sinai.  They were perhaps hinting that the silent prelude added a significant layer of potency to His words. Michael Fishbane similarly wrote: “The sounds of speech are meaningful only through the silences that precede them or carry them forward.” He suggested that the efficacy of prayer lies primarily in the preceding moments of silent focus upon the content of the words and their reference. Fishbane explained: “This is a spiritually pregnant silence, and gives birth to words framed by that silence and infused by it in every aspiration.”
Perhaps God demanded Moshe’s presence when Aharon made his demands to Pharaoh in order to build the contrast between a silent demeanor and a loud message. Becoming a “god to Pharaoh” emanated from Moshe’s firm and silent stance at the very moment that his forceful demands reverberated off the walls of Pharaoh’s palace.
The ironic concept that strength can be manifested in contraction (or “holding back”) is most relevant to this analysis. The Lurianic kabbalists explained that God created the world by means of “contracting his infinite light” and allowing for a “conceptual space,” a principle widely known as “simsum.” The awesomeness of existence, then, is borne out of His act of withdrawal. Mordechai Rotenberg furthermore pointed to the parallel demand of man to “contract” in order to “make room for others.” He demonstrated the necessity of man’s simsum in the realms such as empathy and education.
The ability to withstand the urge to immediately voice our opinion and instead remain silent represents another dimension of simsum. Moshe’s approach to leadership teaches that in order to best transmit a message, the direct route of loud confrontation is rarely effective. A careful contrast between gaps of appropriate silence and a meaningful message will oftentimes work best.
Rabbi Avi Harari
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 53.
R. Naftali Yehudah Sevi Berlin, HaAmek Davar: Shemot 7:1 (s.v. netatikha).
Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise (New York, NY, 2017), pg.108.
See Shemot Rabah 29.
Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago, IL, 2008), pg. 133-4.