Thursday, March 29, 2018

Pesah: Overcoming Impulsivity

Overcoming Impulsivity
A Message for Pesah 2017
Click here to view as PDF

It is interesting to note several fundamental similarities shared by the Torah’s separate descriptions of Pesah and Yom Kippur. Each holiday is characterized by a cessation of material pleasure, indicated by the Hebrew root “shabbat.” Yom Kippur’s several prohibitions are alluded to in its description as “Shabbat Shabbaton” (Vaykira 23:32), and the destruction of all leavened foods prior to Pesah is commanded as “tashbbitu” (Shemot 12:15). Each holiday furthermore possesses at its core a unique “service,” referred to as an “avodah” – the elaborate avodah of the Kohen Gadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur (Vayikra 16) and the communal avodah of the korban Pesah on Pesah (Shemot 12:25-6).

The cohesive nature of these themes on Yom Kippur is easy to understand. A purge of physical attachments in the “shabbat” dimension of the day goes hand-in-hand with the Kohen Gadol’s all-spiritual avodah in the Mikdash. The connection between the “shabbat” dimension of Pesah and its subsequent avodah, however, is more difficult to comprehend. Whereas the destruction of leavened food seemingly represents a similar obliteration of materialism, the nature of the korban Pesah “service,” wherein the owners feasted on the meat of the animal appears altogether different.

As Am Yisrael stared freedom in the eyes during the hours leading up to its exodus from Egypt, the thoughts of imminent pleasures were inevitable. Denied the freedom to act upon their impulses for more than two hundred years, the potential for the people to let down all guard in pursuit of indulgence upon liberation was a real threat. The material-denying avodah of Yom Kippur would be impossible to execute at that time. God instead introduced to them the unique avodah of the korban Pesah.

Though the korban Pesah admitted the material enjoyment of feasting on meat, it coupled it together with an elaborate set of rules and regulations. The meat was taken together with massot and merorim (Shemot 12:8), roasted (9), could not be left over until morning (10), and eaten in haste (11). Uncircumcised males could not partake in the eating (43), the meat could not be taken out of the home of its owner, and the bones of the animal could not be broken while eating (46).

The korban Pesah presented the people a carefully crafted program for overcoming impulsivity. Enjoying consumption of the korban Pesah while following its long list of laws provided them with a necessary framework. Instead of an absolute denial of the hedonistic drives of a newly freed nation, it formulated limits and boundaries.

Our contemporary society is plagued by the detriments of impulsivity. We are overcome by addictions to alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, sex and so much else. Experts in the fields of human thought and activity have failed to prevent the continued disasters wreaked by our impulsive drives. The model of the korban Pesah, deliberately designed for a nation facing similar threats to our own, must serve as our guide. Utter abnegation is futile. Methodical rules, guidelines and boundaries are our only hopes for success.

Pesahim 102b-105b

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

Listen to:  102b,   103a-b,   104a,   105a-b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Pesah: Women and Hallel on the First Nights

Listen to Monday night's class on "Women and Hallel on the First Nights of Pesah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read the teshuvot of R. Ovadia Yosef that we mentioned: a) Yehaveh Daat 5.34, b) Yehaveh Daat 1.78.

2) Read the comments of R. Moshe Levy, in He'arot Ish Massliah.

Purposeful Sight

Listen to Monday night's class, regarding keriat Yam Suf and "Purposeful Sight," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Pesah: Begin with Negative and End with Praise

Listen to Sunday's class, on the topic of מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח, here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read Amram Domowitz's article, upon which the class was based, here.

2) Read the teshuvah from R. David Zvi Hoffman that we quoted here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Shabbat HaGadol: Freedom

A Message for Shabbat HaGadol 2018
Click here to view as PDF

Watch my brief discussion of this issue, at SCA's Yom Iyun at Bet Torah this past Monday night, here.

Am Yisrael was instructed the elaborate laws and processes of korban Pesah immediately prior to their redemption from Egypt (Shemot 12:21-9). The timing of this missvah appears significant. It was performed during the critical moments of Am Yisrael’s anticipated freedom, as God murdered the firstborn sons of the Egyptians and spared their own. Although the specific rationale that underlay the details related to this sacrifice have long been debated, I believe that the basic concept of commandments at the time of liberation is instructive. It lends a necessary depth to our understanding of freedom.

R. Yehoshua ben Levi taught: “No one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study”.[1] Although the strict laws and methodology of talmud Torah and the performance of its missvot seem antithetical to the standard conception of freedom, R. Yehoshua ben Levi inexplicably pointed to them as its paradigmatic expressions. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly noted that the full expression of “retelling the exodus from Egypt” (sipur yessiat Misrayim) takes place through the intense study of the laws and strictures of korban Pesah.[2] How do the study of Torah and performance of its missvot relate to a proper expression of freedom? 

The well-known social psychologist Erich Fromm articulated a fundamental distinction regarding the ideal nature of freedom. He paid careful attention to Adam and Hava’s acquired “freedom” after they ate from the ess ha-da’at, and realized that although they certainly did achieve a “freedom from the sweet bondage of paradise,” they were nonetheless devoid of a “freedom to self-governance and individual realization.”[3] Without a guiding light of a “freedom to,” our “freedom from” can leave us more constricted than any prior state of slavery. 

Consider, for example, that an art professor at Sacramento State College observed that students often panic when confronted by an empty canvas. In contrast to former times, when painters had patrons who ordered portraits or painted commemorations of important events, contemporary artists are confronted by a vacuum in which no style is required and no task is demanded of them. The “freedom” of an empty canvas freezes the students. The professor realized that his students often react to the situation by “self-enslaving themselves,” and turning back to old masterpieces in search of form and meaning.[4] 

Dr. Moshe Koppel provided an excellent analogy for a similar concept: the rules of grammar. Though an outsider may believe that language would allow most expressiveness if there were no rules, the exact opposite is true. The grammar of language provides the necessary structure within which expression can flourish.[5] 

Studying Torah at the “seder of liberation” serves as our yearly reminder that “no one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study.” Torah and missvot provide the necessary structure for our lives of “freedom to,” allowing us to circumvent the uncertainty and chaos of a life stuck in a constant state of “freedom from.” 

The paradoxical experience of attaining freedom by submitting to a context of law stretches back to an earlier time than the first seder. The elaborate rules that accompanied Am Yisrael’s performance of korban Pesah were performed by the people of Am Yisrael at the same time that they experienced a “freedom from” the Egyptians. The nation’s ability to follow the instructions provided them with the necessary medium for their transition into “freedom to” Torah and missvot

Shabbat shalom! 

Rabbi Avi Harari 


[2] See, e.g. R. Soloveitchik’s Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 26-7, 99, and Haggadat Siah HaGrid (Jerusalem, IS, 1995), pg. 30-33.

[3] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York, NY, 1969), pg. 33-34.

[4] Related by Joseph B. Fabry, in The Pursuit of Meaning: Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy and Life (Charlottesville, VA, 2013), pg. 101.

[5] Moshe Koppel, Meta-Halakhah: Logic, Intuition, and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Lanham, MD, 1997), pg. 116-17.

Shabbat HaGadol: Competent Followers

Competent Followers
A Message for Shabbat HaGadol 2017
Click here to view as PDF

Most of us are conditioned to primarily evaluate the “leadership” of an initiative or institution when assessing its success. Our general theory is that the greatness of an operation is mostly dependent upon the strength and competency of its leaders. A recent opinion column in The New York Times accordingly noted that many leading universities excessively boast their association with leadership: Princeton’s website lists “leadership activities” as the first on a list of characteristics for would-be students to showcase, Harvard’s application informs that its mission is “to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society,” and Yale’s website informs applicants that it seeks “the leaders of their generation.”[1]

In the days and hours leading up to the exodus from Egypt and the historic establishment of Am Yisrael, we might then expect the emergence of a new crop of leadership. And yet, the Torah does not emphasize the “leaders” of that time, but rather the “followers”:

And Moshe called all the elders of Yisrael and said to them, “Draw out and take yourselves sheep according to your clans and slaughter the Pesah offering” … And Bnei Yisrael went and did as God had charged Moshe and Aharon, thus they did do. (Shemot 12:21,28) 

And Bnei Yisrael had done according to Moshe’s word, and they had asked of the Egyptians ornaments of silver and ornaments of god and cloaks. (35) 

And God said to Moshe and Aharon, “This is the statute of the Pesah offering: no foreigner shall eat of it” … And all Bnei Yisrael did as God had charged Moshe and Aharon, thus did they do. (43, 50) 

In a 1988 Harvard Business Review article, Robert Kelley defined a discipline in organizational psychology termed “followership.” He listed the qualities of a good follower as one committed to “a purpose, principle or person outside of themselves,” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” Kelly explained that “companies will not succeed without the kind of people who take pride and satisfaction in the role of supporting player, doing the less glorious work without fanfare.” He wrote that the best bet for true success is to be found in a healthy culture of “followership.”[2]

The importance of a strong “followership” is sorely missing from our current societal landscape. Unfortunately, “leadership” reigns as the single qualification in the contemporary vision of a path to success. David Brooks suggested that our society’s misconception stems from its collective cynicism, as people believe that they are better than everything else around them. Steering his readers to the proper path, Brooks cited from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoir “At Ease”:

Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you. 

It is a statement that is perhaps better known to us from Ben Zoma:

Who is wise? He who learns from all people.[3]

Brooks further explained that good leaders need good followers. The followers must possess the ability to "recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it."[4] A positive partnership is the core ingredient for all successful operations.

The Torah’s repeated mention of the nation’s obedience during the critical moments of its formation teaches the invaluable lesson of “followership.” Learning from the success of Am Yisrael at that time, the model of a strong “followership” must serve as our compass for success in all walks of life. 

[1] Susan Cain, “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers,” The New York Times, March 24, 2017.

[2] Robert Kelley, “In Praise of Followers,” Harvard Business Review, November 1988.

[3] Avot 4:1.

[4] David Brooks, “The Follower Problem,” The New York Times, June 11, 2012. See, as well, Brooks’ The Road to Character (New York, 2015), pg. 63.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Pesahim 99b-102a

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

Listen to:  99b,   100a,   100b-101a,   101b-102a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Birkat "HaNoten LaYa'ef Koah"

Listen to the class from Sunday morning, "Birkat 'HaNoten LaYa'ef Koah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read the related chapter from Moshe Hallamish's Hakabbalah here.

2) Read Benny Lau's article, regarding R. Ovadia Yosef's approach to pesak and Shulhan Arukh here.

3) Read R. Ovadia Yosef's analysis in Yabia Omer 2.25 here.

4) Read R. David Yosef's analysis in Ossrot Yosef 3.10 here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Kiddushin 80b-82a

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

Listen to:  80b (1),   80b (2),   81a,   81b,   82a,   82b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tefillin and Our Covenant

Listen to last night's class, "Tefillin and Our Covenant," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

"Dairy Meals" on Shabbat

Listen to last night's class, "'Dairy Meals' on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

Read the analysis of R. David Yosef in Ossrot Yosef, upon which the class was structured, here.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Women and Kaddish

Listen to this morning's class, "Women and Kaddish," here.

Follow along with the source sheet here.

For further research:

1) Read Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky's most recent article regarding women and kaddish here.

2) Read R. Yehuda Henkin's two chapters on this topic in his Equality Lost here.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Parashot VaYakhel-Pekudei: Focus

A Message for Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudei 2018
Click here to view as PDF
And Moshe assembled all the community of Yisrael and said to them, “These are the things that God has charged to do: Six days shall tasks be done and on the seventh day there shall be holiness for you, an absolute Shabbat for God… (Shemot 35:1-2)

The story of het ha-egel is sandwiched between two commands related to Shabbat. God first spoke to Moshe about Shabbat during their forty-day rendezvous atop Har Sinai (31:12-17), and Moshe then relayed the message to the nation in the aftermath of their sin, directly prior to building the Mishkan (35:1-3). What was the significance of Shabbat to this period in Am Yisrael’s history?

Let us first consider the philosophical implications of the Mishkan. God described its function in His initial command: “And they shall make Me a mikdash, that I may abide in their midst” (25:8). The Mishkan was the physical structure that allowed for Am Yisrael’s most intimate connection to Him. Although a relationship with God can be established in any place at any time, the ideal bond was only formed upon entrance through the doors of the Mishkan. Seen from this angle, the concept of the Mishkan appears somewhat restrictive, as it forced the optimal connection into a particular place and designated times. What was God’s reason for “limiting” Am Yisrael’s connection to Him at that time, through the construction of the Mishkan?

In his thought-provoking book The End of Absence, Michael Harris analyzed several losses that our contemporary society has suffered in “a world of constant connection.” He reminisced about the cathartic moments of solitude that he cherished as a child, and described his fears for a world that can no longer uninterruptedly daydream. Harris wrote that the loss of “absence” in our lives often leads to our struggles with concentration and meaningful thought. He explained that the moments of insight born out of silent contemplation have nearly vanished in our world of “constant connection.”[1]

Harris furthermore suggested that our contemporary state of constant connection has negatively affected several facets of our interpersonal relationships, as well. Indeed, researchers have found that long-distance relationships are often more romantic and satisfying than those that are geographically close. They explained that the effect of limited face-to-face interactions compels the long-distance couples to engage in more meaningful communication and discussions. Anticipating the rare moments shared together causes the couples to better focus their thoughts and emotions upon one another.[2]

Following Am Yisrael’s awesome encounter of the Almighty at Ma’amad Har Sinai, God reinforced the importance of Shabbat to Moshe. He sought to strengthen His relationship with the nation by designating a weekly “time of absence.” Indeed, as God spoke to Moshe at that time, the people’s concurrent actions at het ha-egel proved the prudence of His gesture. The people’s concept of relationship at that time was underdeveloped, and the temporary loss of connection had caused them to panic and franticly construct a meaningless conduit to God by means of an idol.

Moshe’s subsequent command of Shabbat, coupled with building the Mishkan, then, taught Am Yisrael about the importance of a set-aside time and space for connection. It informed them about the shallow nature of “constant contact” relationships. The instructions of Shabbat and the Mishkan taught the enduring lesson of the relational depth that is attained by focusing our thoughts and emotions.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

Parashot VaYakhel-Pekudei: The 'Unity Project'

The 'Unity Project'
A Message for Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudei 2017
Click here to view as PDF
Parashat VaYakhel begins with a unique description:

And Moshe assembled all the community of Yisrael and said to them… (35:1)

Instead of a standard address to the nation, the pasuk stated that Moshe now “gathered them” for his commands. And as they exited the gathering, the Torah again highlighted the people’s unity, and stated: “And all the community of Yisrael went out from before Moshe” (20). Indeed, as the construction of the Mishkan came to an end, the concluding verses of Parashat Pekudei hint again at this theme of unity:

And the cloud covered Ohel Mo’ed, and the glory of God filled the Mishkan. And Moshe could not come into Ohel Mo’ed, for the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of God filled the Mishkan. (40:34-5)

The combination of God’s aboding glory and enveloping cloud had earlier occurred at Sinai: “And God’s glory abode on Har Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days” (24:16). At Sinai, Moshe was separated from the nation – “And Moshe entered within the cloud and went up the mountain” (24:18). At the Mishkan, however, he stood outside together with them – “And Moshe could not come into Ohel Mo’ed.”

Though the stated purpose of the Mishkan was so that God “may abide in their midst” (25:9), the particular plan for its construction – built by the people with the donations of the people – was aimed at building unity. Kenneth Seeskin explained: “Having been liberated from slavery, they were now asked to embark on a community project. Although not everyone was able to enter the Tabernacle, everyone was able to contribute something to its construction and take pride in what was accomplished.”[1] Shmuel Trigano further suggested that it is for this reason that the description of the Mishkan and its accessories preceded the prohibition of census-taking (30:11), as the nation’s true unity was to be formed through the construction of the Mishkan.[2]

National unity is important at all times, but it was particularly vital for Am Yisrael at this specific juncture. R. Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l noted the contrast between Moshe’s “gathering” at the onset of VaYakhel and the people’s disparity at the time of het ha-egel.[3] He explained that Moshe’s actions at that time, consistent with the general “unity project” of the Mishkan, were appropriately commanded in the aftermath of het ha-egel.[4] Seen in this light, the unifying nature of the Mishkan served as the remedy to the detrimental consequences of sin.

Times of crisis challenge the strength of a community or nation. The ripple effects of despair and confusion cause individual retreat and separation. The Mishkan must serve as a model of appropriate rebuilding and reparation in the wake of tragedy. Led by a mission of unity set forth by the leadership, a communal project patches the holes created by catastrophe.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Kenneth Seeskin, Thinking About the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (Philadelphia, PA, 2016), pg. 99.
[2] Shmuel Trigano, Philosophy of the Law: The Political in the Torah (Jerusalem, IS, 2011), pg. 349.
[3] R. Kaminetzky cited Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2 as proof. The Hakhamim there stated that Am Yisrael built and worshipped twelve separate golden calves, which seems to suggest a state of disparity. The cryptic description of Shemot 32:25 may be a similar hint in the text: And Moshe saw the people, that it was let loose, for Aharon had let them loose as a shameful thing to their adversaries.
[4] R. Yaakov Kaminetzky, Emet le-Yaakov (Brooklyn, NY, 1996), Shemot 35:1. Note, however, the mention of “assembling” in the context of het ha-egel: “And the people assembled against Aharon…” (32:1).

Pesah: Principles of Koshering Utensils (Part I)

Listen to this morning's class, "Principles of Koshering Utensils for Pesah - Part I," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Kiddushin 79a-80a

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

Listen to:  79a (1),   79a (2),   79b,   80a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Kaddish: A Brief History

Listen to this morning's class, "Kaddish - A Brief History," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

a) Hakham Ovadia's Yehaveh Daat 5:59

b) Prof. Ta Shma's קצת ענייני קדיש-יתום ומנהגיו.

Parashat Ki Tissa: Sensitivity

A Message for Parashat Ki Tissa 2018
Click here to view as PDF

As Moshe and Yehoshua walked together to the scene of het ha-egel, the cries of the nation rang out from a distance. Yehoshua exclaimed, “A sound of war in the camp!” But Moshe corrected him: “Not the sound of crying out in triumph, and not the sound of crying out in defeat. A sound of crying out I hear” (Shemot 32:18-19). Imagining the full effect of Moshe’s reaction at that time, the Hakhamim retold: “Moshe said: ‘Yehoshua, a person who will in the future lead six hundred thousand people doesn’t know how to distinguish between one sound and another?’”[1] The Rabbis clearly understood that this ability to “distinguish between sounds” was a vital quality of leadership, but they never explained why. How was this trait related to the proper guidance of Am Yisrael?

R. Yehuda Amital z”l, the former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion would often describe the unique character of his students' involvement even beyond the walls of the beit midrash by means of a Hasidic story. R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi –  the “Alter Rebbe” and founder of Habad – and his grandson, R. Menahem Mendel – the “Semah Sedek” – once sat studying Torah in a three-room house. The Alter Rebbe sat in the inner room, while the Semah Sedek was in the middle, and his baby slept in the outer room. The baby began to cry, but the Semah Sedek was so immersed in his studies that he did not hear it. The Alter Rebbe, however, heard the baby and quickly ran to soothe it. As he returned to his place in the inner room, he reprimanded his grandson: “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the crying of a Jewish baby, there is something very wrong with his learning.”[2]

I believe that although Yehoshua did hear the cries of the people at that time, his failure to understand them was similar to the Semah Sedek’s mistake. Each of them lacked sensitivity. Moshe was teaching Yehoshua that his inability to decipher the nation’s shouts signified a disconnect. The ears of a sensitive leader can hear beyond the muffled calls of his people – he can understand why they are crying, as well.

In his best-selling book Principles, billionaire Ray Dalio listed many of the recurring lessons that he has encountered in his climb to success as an investor and hedge fund manager. One of his core principles is to “remember that the who is more important than the what.” He explained that potential visionaries sometimes fail at their projects by mistakenly focusing on what they want accomplished, and overlooking who will accomplish it best. He wrote: “Not knowing what is required to do the job well and not knowing what your people are like is like trying to run a machine without knowing how its park work together.”[3] The success or failure at “being in sync” with your team will oftentimes dictate the successive results of the project. This was, in a sense, Moshe’s message to Yehoshua at that time: he taught him that leading a nation entails more than tactical planning and perceiving vision – it requires understanding the people.

Moshe’s words to Yehoshua extend further than the realm of national leadership and project management. They affect our vital roles as friends, spouses and parents, as well. They teach the essential lesson of sensitivity. Shared dreams can only carry our relationships as far as we can hear and understand each other’s cries.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[2] As retold in Elyashiv Reichner’s By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital (New Milford, CT, 2011), pg. 23.
[3] Ray Dalio, Principles (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 400.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Kiddushin 78a-78b

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

Listen to:  78a (1),   78a (2),   78b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.