Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Megilat Esther: Rules and Meaning

Listen to my talk from last night, "Rules and Meaning," at Cong. Mikdash Eliyahu, here.

Read a parallel devar Torah, from several years ago, here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Parashat Ki Tissa: Fire

Listen to last night's class, "Fire," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

See, as well, a past devar Torah, which compliments the theme of fire as a representative tool of creation, here.

Lighting Shabbat Candles (Part 1)

Listen to last night's class, "Lighting Shabbat Candles (Part 1)," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research: 

a) Prof. Ta Shma's article on the origin of lighting 2 candles, which we briefly referenced, here.

b) R. Doniel Shreiber's summary of some of the fundamental halakhot regarding candle lighting - Part 1 and Part 2.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Parashat Ki Tissa: True Leadership

True Leadership
A Message for Parashat Ki Tissa 2017
Click here to view as PDF

A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. (Thomas Carruthers)

In his recent book, The Myth of the Strong Leader, Archie Brown noted the mistaken tendency to equate “strong leadership” with “good leadership.” He argued that it is wrong to believe that the more power one individual wields, the more impressive a leader he is. Drawing from examples on each end of the historical spectrum, Brown illustrated the dangers inherent in a system governed by a single individual and the potential success latent in one that includes the voices of many.[1] This perspective on leadership has shed light for me upon Moshe’s several actions in the immediate aftermath of het ha-egel.

The episode began with the nation’s nervousness at that time:

And the people saw that Moshe lagged in coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aharon and said to him, “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him”. (32:1)

Am Yisrael’s description of Moshe in the moments prior to their sin portrayed their mistaken conception of the nature of his role as their leader. Overlooking God’s part in the exodus from Egypt, they declared Moshe their singular leader and panicked in his absence. God hinted at their seriously mistaken understanding when he then commanded Moshe: “Quick, go down, for your people that you brought up from Egypt has acted ruinously” (7). Moshe’s descent from the mountain was thus charged with the mission of fixing the nation’s broken conception of leadership.

And Moshe stood at the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for God, to me!” And the Levi’im gathered round him. And he said to them, “Thus said Hashem, God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his thigh, and cross over and back from gate to gate in the camp and each man kill his brother and each man his fellow and each man his kin.’” And the Levi’im did according to the word of Moshe, and about three thousand men of the people fell on that day. (26-8)

Michael Walzer highlighted the political significance of this episode. He noted that whereas many of the other murmurings in the desert ended with the wrongdoers’ death by God – at his word, the idol worshippers in this instance were killed by the peopleat Moshe’s command. Walzer detected in Moshe’s cry of “Whoever is for God, to me!” an expression of true leadership, seeing in it an immediate creation of a subgroup of leaders whose vision was focused on the future. Moshe drew to his side the “new-modeled men” who were committed to the covenant of a “chosen people,” and thereby created the magistrates of the future – the priests and the bureaucrats.[2]

In stark contrast to his previous acts of justice individually performed in Egypt – when he killed the Egyptian and separated the quarreling Israelites, Moshe now widened the nation’s circle of leadership and emboldened the appropriate people of caliber.

Moshe’s most memorable action at that time, however, was the smashing of the tablets (19). I believe that the true significance of that decision lay in the people’s understanding of the tablets as a body of knowledge necessarily taught by to them by Moshe.[3] Bill Gates wrote that “good leaders will challenge themselves, bring fresh thinking and expert advice, and not only invite but seriously consider opposing viewpoints.”[4] Understanding the unhealthy dependency of the people upon him at that time, that is exactly what Moshe did. He smashed the tablets and beckoned the people to think independent of himself. He forced them to seek knowledge and to discover parts of the Torah on their own.

It is in this light that I understand, as well, several midrashim that describe a fundamental difference between the two sets of tablets. The Hakhamim envisioned the first tablets as miraculously encompassing all the Written and Oral Torah, while the second set taught only the Written Torah.[5] By smashing the first tablets, then, Moshe was necessitating the people’s self-engagement and individual efforts in studying and explaining the Torah.

R. Mosheh Lichtenstein detected a similar initiative in Moshe’s subsequent actions:

And Moshe would take the Tent and pitch it for himself outside the camp, far from the camp, and he called it Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Meeting). And so, whoever sought God would go out to Ohel Mo’ed which was outside the camp. (33:7)

R. Lichtenstein noted that Moshe was no longer in the camp – teaching the people in their own homes, walking among them, bringing the Torah to their door, and instead required anyone who desired the Word of God to make an active effort to go outside the camp and seek God. He thereby created a new echelon of active spiritual leadership and shifted the people from a leadership model based on passive acceptance to one that demanded initiative and effort.[6]

Het ha-egel taught Moshe the vital lesson of the “myth of the strong leader.” He learned that the people’s dependency upon him as their sole leader had led to their swift downfall and he quickly sought to change that conception. His string of successive actions – demanding that the God-fearers murder the idol worshippers, smashing the tablets, and moving the Tent outside of the camp – were all aimed at broadening the leadership of the nation. It was in those hectic moments of crisis that Moshe emerged as a true leader.

I’ve seen firsthand how ineffective and even dangerous it can be when leaders make decisions alone – and how much good we can do when we work together. (Bill Gates)

[2] Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York, 1985), pg. 60-1.
[3] Consider, for example, the nation’s request of Moshe at Har Sinai: “Speak you with us that we may hear, and let not God speak with us lest we die” (20:19). See, as well, Devarim 5:20-4.
[5] See Beit ha-Levi, derush no. 18 (printed at the end of Responsa Beit ha-Levi) and HaAmek Davar to Shemot 34:1 and Devarim 9:10.
[6] R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (Jersey City, NJ, 2008), pg. 72-6. Cf. the introduction to Harerei Kedem vol. 2 (Jerusalem. IS, 2004).

The "Proper" Time for Arbit

Listen to this morning's class, "The 'Proper' Time for Arbit," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read Jacob Katz's classic article, upon which the class was based, here.

2) Read Chaim Saiman's interesting perspective on this sugya and its development here.

Purim: Mishloah Manot

Listen to last night's class, on the halakhot of mishloah manot, here.

Follow along with the sources that were referenced here.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Purim: Hearing His Voice

Hearing His Voice
A Message for Purim 2018
Click here to view as PDF

Two people were once given the identical task of identifying their friends in the black of the night. One was supplied a flashlight, and he easily recognized his acquaintances by shining the light at their faces. The other, however, was not given a flashlight and he was therefore compelled to identify those around him by carefully listening to the sounds of their voices and footsteps. The first individual performed best in the challenge, as the sight of people’s faces is far more revealing than audial clues. The second individual, however, had acquired a skill that would last him long into the sun-lit morning hours and beyond. He had developed a sensitivity akin to that of a blind person, and he could now identify his contacts under any circumstance, even in the absence of a visual aid.

R. Yisshak Hutner z”l cited the above parable in order to distinguish between the lasting legacies of Purim and Pesah, respectively. He explained that in contrast to the integral role of God’s exposed miracles on Pesah, Purim’s enduring mark lies in His hidden voice at its events. Indeed, “The memory of Purim will never cease from among their descendants” (Esther 9:28), as Am Yisrael then developed the vital skill of “hearing the voice and footsteps of God.”[1] In the words of Ilana Kurshan: “To know God in Purim mode is to give shape to the shadows. But to know God in Pesah mode is to live in a world of absolute black and white, where everything has its reason.”[2]

Understanding the lesson of Purim in this fashion, we may further explain a puzzling statement of the Hakhamim:
“The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor” (Esther 8:16). Rav Yehudah said: “Light” refers to Torah. And it similarly says, “For the missvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Mishlei 6:23).[3]
It is surprising that the Hakhamim found any reference to talmud Torah in a pasuk from Megilat Esther – a book that conspicuously omits any explicit mention of Torah and missvot! Perhaps, however, they were specifically pointing to the Torah’s role in our future ability to expose God’s hidden presence in this world. Allow me to explain.

Over forty years ago, The New York Times Magazine ran an article entitled “A Life in the Talmud.” It described the fascinating life and experiences of Holocaust survivor and Talmud scholar David Weiss Halivni. The article particularly highlighted the central role that the study of Talmud played at every stage of his development. The concluding paragraphs recalled a student revolt at Columbia University in 1968. Halivni remembered walking to his home, near the uprising, when the students looked at him with obvious disdain. He sensed these young men and women viewed a Talmud scholar, who focused on ancient texts and wisdom, as the epitome of “non-relevance.” Halivni’s interviewer asked him what he did next. “I did what I always do when I feel upset,” he answered, “I went back…to my home; I went upstairs, took out a Talmud, and learned. Except this time, my eyes were wet. I had tears in my eyes, and I couldn’t very well see what I was learning.”[4]

How did studying Talmud provide Prof. Halivni with a sense of solace during his most difficult experiences? Consider R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l’s description of his similar reaction to a tragic occurrence in his life. He explained his experiences following the untimely passing of his wife:
Sometimes I study the Torah deep into the night. Of course, these are the best hours for Torah study – things appear clearer, sharper. It happens, in the course of my study, that I sense someone standing near me, bending over my shoulder and peering at my page of Gemara, looking precisely at the same subject on which I am focusing, and nodding his head at a new idea whose accuracy I am still considering.
R. Soloveitchik concluded: “My ability to get over what befell me during these past few years is due to the fact that I relate to this principle of ‘Torah from Heaven’ not merely in the sense of ‘to believe’ but also in the sense of ‘to know’.”[5]

Our success at rising from the “low points” in our lives is commensurate to our ability to locate and “know” God’s presence. Mordekhai, Esther and the Jews of Shushan accomplished this mission long ago. The enduring message of Purim, then, is to hear His silent and hidden voice in our own lives. The tools for discovery, of course, are His eternal words – the Torah.

“The Jews had light…” Rav Yehudah said: “Light refers to Torah.”

Shabbat shalom!                    Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Purim (Brooklyn, NY, 2004), Inyan 34. This essay was translated into English by Pinchas Stolper, in Living Beyond Time: The Mystery and Meaning of the Jewish Festivals (Brooklyn, NY, 2003), pg. 299-302.
[2] Ilana Kirshan, If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 71.
[4] Israel Shenker, “A Life in the Talmud,” The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 1977. I supplemented the narrative with Halivni’s own retelling in The Book and The Sword (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 126-7.
[5] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 76.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Kiddushin 75b-77b

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

Listen to:  75b,   76,   77a,   77b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Kiddushin 74a-75a

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

Listen to:  74a (2),   74b,   75a (1),   75a (2)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Parashat Terumah: Mystery

A Message for Parashat Terumah 2018
Click here to view as PDF

Parashat Terumah is the first of several parashot that describe the construction of the Mishkan. Ramban (R. Moshe b. Nahman) suggested that the Mishkan was meant to shift the public manifestation of God’s glory at Sinai into the private domain of a sanctuary. He noted the similar descriptions of Sinai – “And God’s glory abode on Har Sinai” (24:16), and the Mishkan – “And the glory of God filled the Mishkan” (40:34), and pointed to the similar restrictions of entrance and required purity of each.[1]

Why did God shift from an open exposure at Har Sinai to a hidden presence at the Mishkan? Although the grand revelation at Sinai would certainly lose its effect if consistently repeated, the Mishkan seemingly introduced an entirely opposite extreme. It represented God’s unexplainable “contraction” into an enclosed area where He would now “abide.” Consider, for example, the fact that the luhot – the very symbol of God’s covenant with Am Yisrael at Har Sinai – were hidden inside an ark which was nestled away in a chamber (kodesh ha-kodashim) which was only entered by a single person (the cohen gadol) on a single day of the year (Yom Kippur). What was the reason for this extreme shift from revelation at Har Sinai to concealment at the Mishkan?

The psychoanalyst and author Stephen Mitchell described a tension that lies at the core of our human needs. He referred to the dialectic between love and desire. Mitchell wrote:
Love seeks control, stability, continuity, certainty. Desire seeks surrender adventure, the unknown. In love we are searching for points of attachment, anchoring, something we know we can count on. In desire we are searching both for missing, disowned pieces of ourselves and for something beyond ourselves, outside the borders of self-recognition that, under ordinary circumstances, we protect so fiercely.[2]
Psychotherapist and spiritual advisor Estelle Frankel explained that mystery and knowledge play equal roles in our relationships with one another. She wrote: “No matter how much we strive to know those whom we love, we can never fully plumb the depths of their innermost being, for, at our core, each of us is an unfathomable mystery.” Frankel posited that the challenge of long-term love is to strike a careful balance between a sense of mystery and adventure with an emotional intimacy.[3]

Our relationship with God must similarly exhibit an interplay between knowledge and mystery. HaRambam famously opened his Mishneh Torah with the fundamental principle to “know that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being.”[4] R. Hayim Soloveitchik z”l explained that the missvah to “know God” mandates that we stretch our cognitive capacity to its limits of understanding. Our cognitive breadth, however, is limited. In contrast to God’s infinite existence, our minds are confined by space and time, so a complete knowledge of God is impossible. R. Hayim nonetheless suggested that we are commanded to stretch beyond the realm of knowledge into that of belief. [5] He referred to the “unknowable” realm of God’s existence, and described it too is a necessary component of our relationship with Him. [6]

Prof. David Weiss Halivni introduced a similar dialectic in his analysis of the philosophical implications of the Holocaust. He cautioned philosophers and theologians from seeking its root cause or rationale, and claimed that the question of “Why did the Holocaust happen?” diminishes the uniqueness of the event by rendering it a basic “answerable question.”. He likened its reality to a historic encounter between God and Moshe, following het ha-egel. Moshe then requested to “know God’s ways,” and God responded, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Shemot 33:13-14).  When Moshe pushed further and asked, “Show me, pray, your glory” (18), however, God responded, “You shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live” (20). Halivni explained: “One can know God’s ways, but not his reasons…There is no explanation.”[7]

Ma’amad Har Sinai introduced Am Yisrael to an integral aspect of their relationship with God. God then exposed himself in an unprecedentedly open fashion. A relationship built merely upon revealed knowledge, however, is shallow. Without the appeal of an “unknown,” the bond will weaken and lose its passion. God’s transition to the Mishkan therefore set the stage for a side-by-side world of “belief.” It opened the gates of mystery and adventure, deepening Am Yisrael’s connection to the incomprehensible “Ein Sof.”

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Commentary of Ramban to the Torah, Shemot 25:1, and his Introduction to Vayikra and Bemidbar. See, as well, e.g., Nahum M. Sarna’s Exploring Exodus (New York, 1996), pg. 203-4.
[2] Stephen A. Mitchell, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time (New York, NY, 2002), pg. 91-2.
[4] Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 1:1.
[5] As cited by his son R. Yisshak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, to R. Elazar Menahem M. Shach z”l, and recorded in Avi Ezri vol. 1 (Bnei Brak, IS, 1995), pg. 41.
[6] The kabbalists often refer to this “unknowable” realm as the “ayin.” See, e.g., Daniel C. Matt, “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” in Essential Papers on Kabbalah (New York, NY, 2000), pg. 67-108.
[7] David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 156.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Parashat Terumah: A Dynamic Relationship

A Dynamic Relationship
A Message for Parashat Terumah 2017
Click here to view as PDF

Parashat Terumah is the first of several parashot that describe the Mishkan. What was the purpose of the Mishkan? R. Moshe b. Nahman (Ramban) suggested that it was meant to shift the public manifestation of God’s glory at Sinai into the private domain of a sanctuary. He noted the similar descriptions of Sinai – “And God’s glory abode on Har Sinai” (24:16), and the Mishkan – “And the glory of God filled the Mishkan” (40:34),[1] and pointed to the similar restrictions of entrance and prerequisite purification of each.[2]

Building upon Ramban’s explanation while viewing the command to build the Mishkan in its broader context may shed light on its vital role in the developing relationship of God and Am Yisrael at that time. Whereas Ma’amad Har Sinai ended with fear and recoil, the command to build the Mishkan encouraged approach. The end of Parashat Yitro described the shaken nation’s request of Moshe, “Speak you with us that we may hear, and let not God speak with us lest we die” (20:19). The distance then intensified with the description of a cloud-covered mountain, at the end of Parashat Mishpatim.[3] But God then turned to Moshe and demanded, “And they shall make Me a Mikdash, that I may abide in their midst” (25:9). By continuing His presence in the Mishkan, God was setting the stage for resumption of a forward-moving relationship with the nation.

Ha-Rambam famously located this “back and forth” relationship with God in the precepts of love and fear of God. He first wrote:
And what is the way to the love of Him and the fear of Him? At the hour that man contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures, and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightaway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and desire with an exceeding desire to know His great name, even as David said, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Tehillim 42:3).[4]
The approach of God, an appreciation of His might, and the desire to know His great name was intensely experienced during the theophany at Sinai.

Ha-Rambam then continued:
And when he ponders these very matters, he will straightaway recoil and be frightened, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. And so David said, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers – what is man that You are mindful of him?” (Tehillim 8:4-5)[5]
The fear of God and recoil from His overwhelming presence was Am Yisrael’s immediate reaction to Ma’amad Har Sinai.

Seeking God’s presence in the Mishkan represented the next step in a relationship best defined as a continuous “approach and recoil.” Ha-Rambam later delineated this condition, and wrote:
When one reflects on these things and comes to know all created beings…and sees His wisdom in all created things – his love for God will increase, his sould will thirst, his very flesh will yearn to love God. He will be filled with fear and trembling because of his lowly condition, his poverty, his insignificance…[6]

The Torah’s description of Ma’amad Har Sinai, its aftermath, and the Mishkan are representative of our own relationships with God. They are far more complicated than a one-word description and instead exist as a constant flux between love and fear, back and forth, and approach and recoil.

[1] Commentary of Ramban to the Torah, Shemot 25:1.
[2] Ibid., Introduction to Vayikra and Introduction to Bemidbar. See, as well, e.g., Nahum M. Sarna’s Exploring Exodus (New York, 1996), 203-4.
[3] See last week’s devar Torah, “Boundaries.”
[5] Ibid., 2:2.
[6] Ibid., 4:12.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Megilat Esther: Mordekhai & Haman as Yaakov & Esav

Listen to last night's class, "Mordekhai & Haman as Yaakov & Esav," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

The Status of Today's Mehalelei Shabbat

Listen to last night's class, "The Status of Today's Mehalelei Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

Read R. Yisshak Yosef's analysis of the halakhah regarding hearing kiddush from a mehalel Shabbat and drinking his wine, in Ein Yisshak here.

Self-Defense and Abortion in Halakhah

Listen to Sunday's class, "Self-Defense and Abortion in Halakhah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sept. 11th in Halakhah

Listen to Friday's class, "Sept. 11th in Halakhah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research: 

a) R. Yisshak Zilberstein's essay on this issue, in אסון מגדלי התאומים לאור ההלכה

b) R. J. David Bleich's "Saving the Few to Save the Many."

Purim: Is it a Missvah to Drink?

Listen to last night's class, "Drinking on Purim," here.

Reference the sources that we cited, on sheets that were prepared afterwards, here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim: Relationship

A Message for Parashat Mishpatim 2018
Click here to view as PDF

Following an elaborate list of laws in Parashat Mishpatim, God informed Am Yisrael of His future plans. He told them:
Look, I am about to send a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I made ready. Watch yourself with him and heed his voice, do not defy him, for he will not pardon your trespass, for My name is within Him… (Shemot 23:20-21)
The Hakhamim sensed a negative motivation in this change. They noticed an implied shift from God’s direct leadership of the nation to the guidance of a “messenger,” or “angel,” in his place.[1] What was the cause of this change? Am Yisrael seemed dedicated to missvot ha-Torah with their famous exclamation that, “Everything that God has spoken we shall do” (19:8). And that impressive response was mentioned again at the end of Parashat Mishpatim (24:7). What, then, caused the rift in their relationship with God?

In the days and hours leading up to Matan Torah, God repeatedly commanded Moshe to caution the people from stepping onto Har Sinai. Fearing that the awe-inspiring experience would drive them to trespass the boundaries of the mountain, God time and again warned of its potentially fatal consequences. As the ceremony progressed, the people obediently listened to the Ten Commandments, but their reaction was entirely different than expected:
And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the shofar and the mountain in smoke, and the people saw and they drew back and stood at a distance. And they said to Moshe, “Speak you with us that we may hear, and let not God speak with us lest we die.” (20:18-19)
Contrary to the fear that they might race forward in an attempt to “cling” to God, the people instead turned away from the mountain in fear! They readily accepted God’s laws, but hastily dismissed the potential of a relationship.

I am reminded in this context of an anecdote regarding R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l. At the onset of a summer several decades ago, R. Soloveitchik decided to break from his regular schedule of strict Talmudic instruction, to introduce his students to the world of Hasidic thought and philosophy. He began teaching Likutei Torah, a compilation of Hasidic treatises by the first Habad Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Shortly after beginning, however, R. Soloveitchik unexpectedly cancelled the classes. Asked why he had changed his plans, the rabbi explained that he had sensed his students’ disinterest in the material. He sadly remarked, “They are only interested in the contents of my mind, but not of those in my heart.[2]

On another occasion, R. Soloveitchik bemoaned the delinquent “shomrei Shabbat of America.” He explained:
There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are not “eve-of-the-Shabbat” Jews who go out to greet the Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few, indeed, who truly know the meaning of service of the heart![3]
Reading in between the lines of the Torah, I sense a similar reality regarding Am Yisrael’s spiritual state at Ma’amad Har Sinai. The people excitedly accepted the missvot ha-Torah with a definitive declaration of “We shall do!” And although they were in fact committed with their minds and bodies to the words of God, they lacked the passion and commitment of their heart. Fearing a deeper connection to God, they instead turned to Moshe for guidance and instruction.

God’s decision to send a messenger in His place, then, matched the people’s approach. Instead of seeking out a relationship with Him, Am Yisrael simply wanted a competent messenger to relay His laws. And that was exactly what they got.

The positioning of God’s messenger in relation to the nation is reminiscent of an earlier occurrence, which took place directly prior to crossing Yam Suf:
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)
In contrast to the previous accompaniment “from behind” the people, however, the messenger had now shifted to “the front” of their march. I believe that this change was similarly motivated by the deficient spiritual state of Am Yisrael at that time. Consider, for example, the Hakhamim’s well-known contrast of Noah to Avraham:
“Noah walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9). And regarding Avraham it says, “Walk before Me” (Bereshit 17:1). Noah needed support to bear him up, but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness.[4]
By contrasting these two figures to each other, the Hakhamim highlighted Noah’s failure to independently locate and act upon his admirable traits. They realized that his inability to “walk before God” indicated a deficient relationship with Him. Am Yisrael’s spiritual status at the time of Matan Torah resembled that of Noah. Although they were committed to God in thought and action, they lacked the depth of an emotional relationship. Realizing that the people were not yet prepared to “walk in front of Him,” God sent a law-teaching messenger “before them.”

Our own exclamations of “Everything that God has spoken we shall do,” is commendable. It represents our commitment to His word and commands. We must be cautious, however, to understand it as a mere stride on the journey. It begins our walk “behind His messenger,” but must proceed to the march “in front of Him.” Our commitment to God through thought and action are not a means in themselves, but rather the stepping stone into a relationship with Him that is bonded by our hearts.

If a man studies Torah in order to know, to feel, to live – then for him Torah study is not simply an intellectual accomplishment, but a many-faceted undertaking, rich in spiritual and psychological meanings.
(R. Joseph B. Solovetichik)[5]

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 23:20 s.v. hineh.
[2] As related by R. Herschel Schachter, Nefesh HaRav (Brooklyn, NY, 1994), pg. 39 fn. 5.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 32 fn. 1.
[4] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 6:9 s.v. et.
[5] On Repentance, pg. 76.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Kiddushin 72b-74a

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

Listen to:  72b (2),   73a,   73b,   74a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim: Boundaries

A Message for Parashat Mishpatim 2017
Click here to view as PDF
Parashat Yitro presented Ma’amad Har Sinai as a scene of illuminated clarity:

 All of Har Sinai was smoking, because God had descended upon it in the fire (19:18).
And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain in smoke (20:15).

The Har Sinai of Parashat Mishpatim was markedly different:

And Moshe went up, and the cloud covered the mountain. And God’s glory abode on Har Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the sixth day He called out to Moshe from the midst of the cloud…And Moshe entered within the cloud and went up the mountain. (24:15-18)

In stark contrast to the previous display of a radiant fire, clouds now obstructed a clear vision of the mountain. Indeed, it was the pillar of cloud that had once before served as a blinding veil, shielding Am Yisrael from the Egyptians upon the exodus from Egypt (14:19). This time it was Am Yisrael who could not see clearly.

From the specific descriptions of Har Sinai at these two different points of time emerge two sight-specific experiences that were practically opposite in nature.

Whereas the “fire-consumed” Har Sinai of Parashat Yitro served the purpose of clarity, the “cloud-covered” mountain of Parashat Mishpatim established the necessary boundaries between Am Yisrael and God. The described “elect of Yisrael,” who were barely spared punishment at that time, fittingly sinned by means of an optical transgression: But against the elect of Yisrael He did not send forth His hand, and they looked at God and ate and drank (24:12). Failing to appropriately set limits for themselves, these individuals overstepped their designated boundaries.[1] God’s unprecedented revelation to the people brought with it a simultaneous call for hesitancy and caution.

I believe that God had actually already begun to hint at the importance of an appropriate distance when he spoke at Har Sinai. In contrast to His initial encounter with Moshe – when He denied a revelation of His name (3:14), God then introduced Himself by means of his personal name: I am YHVH your God, Who freed you from the land of Egypt (20:2). Michael Wyschogrod underscored the significance of this revelation:
The God of Israel is not just a Thou. The God of Israel has a proper name. There is no fact in Jewish theology more significant than this.[2]
Several statements later, however, God issued a strict warning regarding an over-familiarity with His name: “You shall not take up (tisa) the name of Hashem your God in vain.” Leon Kass noted the verb “take up” in this instance, explaining that by treating anyone’s name as something that can be “taken up” is to take him up, as if by his handle. He further explained:
Like making images of the divine, trafficking in the divine name evinces a presumption of familiarity and knowledge. To handle the name of the Lord risks treating Him as a finite thing known through and through. Even if uttered in innocence, the use of the Lord’s name invites the all-too-human error that attends all acts of naming: the belief that one thereby knows the essence.[3]
God, then, set forth a delicate message to the people at Har Sinai. He urged them to come forth and learn His name – but do so with caution.

In The Art Of Loving, Erich Fromm described a common misconception regarding love. We tend to idealize “symbiotic love,” and desire a fusion with another wherein we know them as deeply as we know ourselves. Fromm explained that mature love of both man and God is instead achieved through the retention of the individual self, in the paradoxical state of both “belonging” and “not belonging” to the union.[4] The contrast between the “revealed fire” and “concealed cloud” scenes at Har Sinai remind us of the sensitive balance inherent in a healthy relationship. Mature love is only achieved together along the guidelines of appropriate limits and boundaries.

[1] See Moreh Nevukhim 1:5.
[2] Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith (Plymouth, UK, 1996), pg. 91.
[3] Leon Kass, “The Ten Commandments: Why the Decalogue Matters,” Mosaic Magazine, June 1, 2013. Available at:
[4] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York, 2006). See specifically pg. 67-72.