Sunday, April 22, 2018

Yom HaAssma'ut: A Model of Maturity

A Model of Maturity
A Message for Yom HaAssma'ut 2018
Click here to view as PDF
Several years ago, film critic A.O. Scott penned an article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Surveying a decades-old shift in American film and general culture, Scott wrote about the emergence of “an essentially juvenile vision of the world.” He noted the current popularity of comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development. He pointed to the embrace of Young Adult fiction by many “not so young adults,” and described the widespread conception of adulthood as a “forever young” state-of-being. Scott struggled with his own feelings regarding this phenomenon. He weighed the advantages of a world that is “our playground, without a dad or mom in sight,” with a potentially serious “loss of something.”[1]

Leon Kass noticed a similar trend in his search for the underlying factors for the societal shift away from traditional courtship and marriage. He wrote about today’s shared clothing styles, spoken lingo and interest in music between parents and children, commenting: “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.”[2]

Writer Joseph Epstein described this exact 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.[3]

I believe that the State of Israel, in both its historical and modern existences, can provide a necessary counter-balance of maturity.

Thus said God: I remember the affection of your youth,
The love of your espousals,
How you went after Me in the wilderness,
In a land that was not sown.
(Yirmiyahu 2:2)

Yirmiyahu’s portrayal of a “youthful” Am Yisrael during their sojourn in the desert is likewise familiar to us from Yehezkel’s portrayal of them to a physically maturing young lady (Yehezkel 16:6-7), recited in the haggadah every year. Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid similarly noted the Torah’s description of Am Yisrael as “families” directly prior to leaving Egypt and throughout their travels in the dessert. He suggested that according to the biblical narrative, the period of maturity began when Am Yisrael entered a cultivated land and settled it. Schweid then drew attention to the paradox of that accomplishment:

On the one hand, entering the Land of Israel symbolizes the purpose of wandering in the desert, as the people at last reaches its home. On the other hand, entry into the Land of Israel is only the beginning of a long path, strewn with setbacks on the way to political independence.[4]

As they settled the Land of Israel, Am Yisrael no longer enjoyed the supernatural sustenance of the manna, nor the security of God’s pillar of cloud and fire. They were now tasked with establishing independent sovereignty, and providing their own sustenance and protection. The adolescent existence of the desert had transitioned into maturity, and with that came the hardships of self-responsibility.

The historical symbolism of settling Eress Yisrael has repeated itself in the last sixty-nine years, following the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. The dream of settling the Land of Israel has led way to a national maturity. Building an economy from scratch, enlisting young men in the army and the daily threat and circumstances of terror has built a counter-cultural reality in modern-day Israel.

Joseph Epstein lamented the loss of the positive aspects of a mature society. He yearned for “a more articulated sense of the ebb and flow, the ups and downs of life,” and dreamt of the values of “a clear and fit conception of reality.” Am Yisrael’s historical settlement of Eress Yisrael and its current establishment of Medinat Yisrael may yet provide the necessary counter-perspective for a society in sore need of maturity.

[1] A.O. Scott, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 2014. Available at:

[2] Leon Kass, “The End of Courtship,” Leading a Worthy Life (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 51.

[3] Joseph Epstein, “The Perpetual Adolescent,” The Weekly Standard, Mar. 15, 2004. Available at:

[4] Eliezer Schweid, The Jewish Experience of Time: Philosophical Dimensions of the Jewish Holy Days (Northvale, NJ: 2000), pg. 285.

Parashot Tazria-Messora: Speech

A Message for Parashot Tazria-Messora 2018
Click here to view as PDF

Although the laws regarding sara’at (leprosy) are detailed at length throughout Parashot Tazria and Messorah, the cause of this plague is never once mentioned. The Hakhamim traced its source to the sin of lashon hara – evil talk. They thus understood, for example, that the verse “Don’t let your mouth defile your flesh” (Kohelet 5:5) refers to sara’at,[1] and that the word “messora” (leper) can be broken down to its root of “mossi shem ra” (one who speaks badly about others).[2]

A messora is furthermore envisioned by the Hakhamim as the paradoxical embodiment of a “living dead person.” Noticing Aharon’s description of Miriam when she was plagued by leprosy – “Like a dead person who when he comes out of his mother’s womb, half his flesh is eaten away” (Bemidbar 12:12) – they stated: “a messora is considered dead.”[3]

Piecing matters together, the integrated message of the Hakhamim seems to be that the improper use of speech is a cause for death. Indeed, the Talmud relates that Rava crafted a golam – a human-created life-being – and sent it to R. Zeira. R. Zeira attempted to talk to the golam. To his astonishment, he found that it did not respond and lacked any ability to speak. R. Zeira was thus unimpressed with Rava’s “speechless” creation and deemed it worthless.[4] His reaction implies that the value of a human being’s existence is measured by their speech.[5]

In his book How Language Began, Daniel Everett took note of mankind’s dominance of this world. He speculated that our strength is so solid that if dinosaurs were still alive today, humans would kill them for trophies, eat them, or put them in parks and zoos. Everett described humans as “the apex predators of all time on this planet,” and attributed our advantage over all other species to speech. He wrote: “Because humans can talk they can plan, they can share knowledge, they can even leave knowledge for future generations.”[6]

Steven Pinker similarly wrote about the importance of speech to human life in his book The Language Instinct. He described the difficulty of imagining our lives without speech, suggesting that if you were to find two or more people together anywhere on earth, they would probably soon be exchanging words. Pinker sensed speech’s essential role in our lives in the devastating effects of aphasia, a brain injury that causes loss of language. In mild cases of aphasia, a painful void emerges from the loss of speech, while in more severe cases family members feel that the whole person is lost forever.[7]

Returning to our analysis of the messora, let us take note of an essential part of the messora’s prescribed “treatment”:
All the days that the affliction is on him …he shall dwell apart – outside of the camp shall his dwelling place be. (Vayikra 13:46)
This socially-secluded state is parallel to that of a mourner of death:
Let him sit alone and be silent. (Eikhah 3:28)
Humans have the unique capability to build communities, cultures and societies with their speech. Depriving them of speech means stripping them of human life. A mourner experiences the death of his loved one by temporarily living in a quasi-state of being. And the messora, who has perverted his use of speech, is destined to discover the true essence of his life-determining capability to speak by experiencing its fatal loss.

Nessiv (R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin) noted that the extent of a being’s demise is inversely related to its potential for elevation. A rock is forever a rock. A plant, however, possesses a greater potential for elevation, and therefore decomposes when it is stripped of its ability to grow. An animal’s demise is even more extreme than a plant, as the loss of its life causes the stench of erosion and rot.[8] It follows, therefore, that a human’s loss of their elevated ability to appropriately speak lands them in an unimaginably deficient state of being.

The Hakhamim drew a line from improper speech to death through their descriptions of the messora. They were aware of the integral role of speech to human existence and taught that the value of our lives is determined by the use of our tongues.

[1] Vayikra Rabah16:5.
[2] Arakhin 15b.
[3] See the Commentary of Rashi ad. loc., s.v. “ke-met.”
[4] Sanhedrin 65b.
[5] This was noted by R. Moshe Shapiro z”l, as cited in MiMa’amakim: Vayikra (Jerusalem, IS, 2015), pg. 159 fn. 1.
[6] Daniel L. Everett, How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 15.
[7] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York, NY, 1994), pg. 3.
[8] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, She’ar Yisrael (Jerusalem, 2008), pg. 271 (chap. 5). Cited in R. Aryeh Leibowitz’s The Neshamah: A Study of the Human Soul (Nanuet, NY, 2018), pg. 17 fn. 9.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Megilah 3b-5a

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

Listen to:  3b,   4a (1),   4a (2),   4b,   5a (1)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Women and Birkot HaTorah

Listen to "Women and Birkot HaTorah" here.

Follow along with R. David Yosef's teshuvah here.

The 2 Dimensions of the Moadim

Listen to "The 2 Dimensions of the Moadim" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Rav Kook: Monism & Secular Zionism

Listen to this morning's class, "Rav Kook - Monism & Secular Zionism," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Megilah 2a-3a

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

Listen to:  2a,   2b,   3a (1),   3a (2)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Parashat Shemini: Courage

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

The festive atmosphere in the Mishkan on its initial day of operation was unexpectedly marred by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Aharon’s sons “brought forward alien fire before God” (Vayikra 10:1), and were swiftly met with their demise:
And a fire came out from before God and consumed them, and they died before God. (10:2)
Moshe then turned to Aharon and said:
This is what God spoke saying, “Through those close to Me I shall be sanctified, and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.” (10:2)
The Hakhamim were sensitive to Moshe’s rationale and imagined a more detailed conversation:
Aharon was standing in astonishment…Moshe entered and appeased him, saying to him: Aharon my brother, God told me at Sinai: “I will sanctify this house (the Mishkan) in the future, and with a great person I will sanctify it…It now appears that your sons are greater than you and me, as the house (the Mishkan) was sanctified through them.[1]
God had in fact said of the Mishkan, “And I shall meet there with Bnei Yisrael and it shall be consecrated through My glory” (Shemot 29:43), and according to the Hakhamim, His sanctity was finally manifested in the Mishkan through the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

The fact that God’s “sanctity” and “honor” emerged from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu is clear from the text of the Torah and the Hakhamim’s elaboration. Its logic, however, is absent. How did death, of all phenomena, demonstrate God’s unique essence at that time?

The well-known psychotherapist Viktor Frankl distinguished between two types of people: pacemakers and peacemakers. He explained that whereas pacemakers confront us with meanings and values, peacemakers merely alleviate the burden of confrontation. He suggested, for example, that Moshe acted as a “pacemaker” when he confidently presented the Torah to Am Yisrael. He confronted them directly with God’s ideals and values at Har Sinai and spared nothing by means of appeasement.

Frankl further explained that God’s leadership in the midbar, in the form of the amud anan (pillar of cloud), may serve as another prime example of a pacemakers actions. God led the people through the wilderness from the front, as He trailblazed a clear path for them to journey upon. If His presence had instead dwelled in the middle of the people it would have “clouded everything” and led them astray. The cloud would have ceased to be a leader and become a fog. God’s leadership of Am Yisrael, then, was driven by the clear mission of a pacemaker.[2]

God’s fiery consumption of Nadav and Avihu was perhaps another demonstration of His presence as a pacemaker. A peacemaker would have pardoned them for entering an “alien fire” into the Mishkan. He would retract in order to avoid conflict and maintain the equilibrium. A pacemaker, however, understands his true role as a leader, and courageously steps forward to maintain an ideal – as painful as it may seem. God demonstrated His “honor” and “sanctity” at the Mishkan by dealing with Nadav and Avihu in a characteristically “pacemaker fashion,” as the painful deaths of Aharon’s sons afforded the nation a brief glimpse of His true essence.

Our lives present us with the constant decision to act either as a “peacemaker” or a “pacemaker.” Joseph Fabry characterized the difference:
Today’s peacemakers think not in terms of ideals but of normalcy; they trust not in hopes and dreams but in statistics and opinion polls. They talk about the “average” person instead of the unique individual…In an effort to “adjust to the facts of life” they accept the standards of the enemy they are fighting.
He noted that man’s search for meaning in life forces him to operate as a pacemaker. The envisioned life of the peacemaker –the “average” person – will never yield meaning because “average meaning” does not exist.[3]

Searching for meaning in our own lives requires a careful analysis of God’s many ways. His actions at the Mishkan regarding Nadav and Avihu guide us to the difficult decisions of a pacemaker. Standing up for an ideal is often fraught with conflict and ill-will. Fearing the potentials of tension and pressure, the peacemaker retracts. Understanding his role as a leader, however, the pacemaker acts.

[1] Sifra 17:21.
[2] Viktor Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism (New York, NY, 1967), pg. 11-12.
[3] Joseph B. Fabry, The Pursuit of Meaning (Charlottesville, VA, 2013), pg. 78-9.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Parashat Shemini: Balanced Decisions

Balanced Decisions
A Message for Parashat Shemini 2017
Click here to view as PDF

The narrative of Parashat Shemini begins on the last day of the eight-day installment period of Aharon and his sons. Aharon strictly observed the intricate sacrificial processes as instructed, concluding with the elevation of the animal body parts “as He had charged Moshe” (9:21). Momentarily breaking from the scripted activities, Aharon paused to bless the nation: “And Aharon raised his hands toward the people and blessed them” (22). His initial emergence in the role of kohen gadol was a perfect blend of strict obedience and appropriate proactivity.

The day’s activities were then suddenly marred by the surprising death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Moshe provided the explanation: “This is just what God spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored”. And Aharon reverted, again, to an obedient silence: “And Aharon was silent” (10:3). He and his sons followed God’s command to refrain from public mourning: “And they did according to the word of Moshe” (10:7).

The final steps of the sacrificial processes then continued, but were halted abruptly when Moshe noticed that the flesh of the hatat goat was burnt instead of eaten. He hastily admonished Aharon’s sons for their failure to follow directions, but Aharon now defended: “Had I eaten a hatat today, would it have seemed good in the eyes of God?” His innovative decision to refrain from eating on the day of his sons’ deaths was again deemed appropriate: “And Moshe heard, and it seemed good in his eyes” (10:20).

Seen through the lenses of successfully balanced judgments about how and when to act, the story of Aharon and his sons at the onset of the parashah meshes with its subsequent missvot, each of which stresses the importance of mindfulness:

And God spoke to Aharon saying, “Wine and strong drink you shall not drink…when you come into Ohel Mo’ed…to divide between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and to teach Bnei Yisrael all the statutes that God spoke to them by the hand of Moshe. (10:8-11)

And God spoke to Moshe to Aharon, saying to them, “Speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying, ‘These are the beasts that you may eat…’ (11:1-2)  This is the teaching about beast and bird and every living creature that sirs in the water and every swarming thing that swarms on the earth, to divide between the unclean and the clean and between the animal that is eaten and the animal that shall not be eaten” (47)

Realizing this unifying theme of the seemingly disparate sections of the parashah further sensitized me to the core flaw of Nadav and Avihu:

…And a fire came out from before God and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat…And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before God, which He had not charged them. And fire came out from before God and consumed them, and they died before God. (9:24, 10:1-3)

Sandwiched between descriptions of fire “from before God,” Nadav and Avihu’s sin consisted of a self-lit fire “which He had not charged them.” The narrative thus stressed the clash between their fire and that of God. It highlighted their inability to separate between the two, and their failure to evaluate the situation with precision.

In a parashah that consistently stresses the importance of balanced decisions – between obedience and proactivity, holy and profane, clean and unclean, kosher and unkosher – the sin of Nadav and Avihu stands out as its failed completion. It reminds us of the balanced approach that is necessary for appropriately “sifting through” our encountered dilemmas, and the dangers inherent in an absent-minded existence.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Parashat Shemini: Trespassing Boundaries

Listen to Monday night's class, "Trespassing Boundaries," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Women and Havdalah

Listen to Monday night's class, "Women and Havdalah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Related to our conclusion, Moshe Hazbany sent me this clip of R. Yitzhak Yosef describing how his father, Hakham Ovadia z"l, would repeat havdalah for his wife upon returning home on Saturday night:

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Pesah: Speed

A Message for Pesah 2018
Click here to view as PDF

The defining aspect of the korban Pesah was its speedy procedure. Am Yisrael was commanded to cook and eat the meat quickly – loins girdled, sandals on their feet and staff in their hands – as God told them that there was no time for comfort, you shall eat it in haste! (Shemot 12:11). Indeed, HaRambam (Moreh HaNevukhim 3:46) explained that all of the intricate rules associated with the korban Pesah reflect this feature of haste. The stated reason for eating massah similarly reflects the hurried exit from Egypt (Devarim 16:3). And an ancient version of the of the Haggadah highlights this aspect in its opening statement – “We left Egypt in a hurry (bi-vehilu).”[1] Living in an era that is unparalleled in the speed of our everyday lives, the swift-driven yessiat Misrayim must possess a relevant message. What is it?

The well-known neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks was fascinated by Tourette syndrome, which is a psychiatric disorder that is characterized by compulsions, tics and involuntary movements and noises. He explained that people with Tourette’s experience life more rapidly than others. Some, for example, can catch flies by the wing. Flies seem to them to be “slow moving.” Sacks described one particular patient who used this irregularity to his advantage. He became skilled at improvising on the drums, and his fast reactions and unpredictable style made him unbeatable at Ping-Pong.

Intrigued by the positive effects of Tourette’s, Sacks contemplated its disadvantages, as well. He found that “excessive speed” is conducive to disinhibition, an impulsiveness which allows “inappropriate” movements and impulses to suddenly emerge. Dangerous impulses such as putting a finger in a flame or darting in front of traffic, though inhibited in the rest of us, are dangerous risks for a person with Tourette’s.[2]

As Am Yisrael departed Egypt, they were faced with the serious risks of independence. Once they escaped to freedom, life in the “real world” would rush their way and afford them with the vast array of opportunities – both positive and negative – that exist outside of the slave’s house. I imagine that just as the Tourettic person is often overcome by extreme impulsivity when faced by their fast-moving circumstances, so too would Am Yisrael’s visceral instincts would be the same. The world would now appear to them as uncontrollably fast-paced and they would therefore face the risks of its many obvious dangers. The carefully-crafted procedure of korban Pesah and departure from Egypt prepared them for this challenge. They taught the people how to positively approach the reality of speed, to act like Oliver Sacks’s patient, and manipulate it to their advantage.

The korban Pesah procedure had many particular instructions. It could only be eaten until midnight, needed to be roasted, the bones could not be broken, and the people were constricted to their homes during its consumption. Tightly bound by rules and restrictions, the procedure emerged not as a “haphazard indulgence,” but as a meal of deliberate haste.

R. Norman Lamm distinguished, in this context, between the English words hurry and haste. He explained that whereas hurry denotes an anxious scramble, haste is a purposeful movement toward meaning.[3] I believe that Am Yisrael’s song as they crossed Yam Suf (shirat ha-yam) is further evidence of their deliberate motion at that time. Speedily fleeing the Egyptians, it took the context of a calculated and focused motion to set their minds on the appropriate words of song and praise.

The speedy nature of the korban Pesah procedure and yessiat Misrayim teach an eternal lesson particularly relevant to our contemporary society. An unconstrained hurry faces the dangers of mistaken decisions and impulsivity. A deliberate haste which is structured by rules and meaning, however, is constructive.

[1] See, e.g. R. Menahem Mendel Kasher’s Haggadah Shelemah (Israel, 1967), pg. 106-7.
[2] Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 49-53.
[3] R. Norman Lamm, Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays (New York, NY, 2011), pg. 213.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Pesah: Risk-Taking

A Message for Pesah 2018
Click here to view as PDF

Am Yisrael was frozen in its tracks. They had been hastily fleeing the Egyptians but now found themselves at a standstill. The sound of the beating hooves of the Egyptian horsemen intensified from behind, as they peered forward and beheld the vast expanse of the sea. They were trapped. They instinctively began to pray. God reprimanded Moshe: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they journey onward” (Shemot 14:15). The people had become accustomed to God’s miraculous acts of redemption in Egypt, so they expected one again at this juncture. God’s response, however, was surprising. He informed them that this time He wouldn’t affect the miraculous – they would. He shifted the central force of redemption from the divine to the people. Why?

“Pascal’s Wager” is the well-known argument advanced by the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal. It suggests that a rational person should live as though God does exist and seek to believe in His existence because the potential benefits of this “wager” far outweigh its losses. Pascal explained that if God does exist, then the believer will receive the infinite gains of the afterlife, whereas the losses of His possible nonexistence are only the finite pleasures and luxuries of life in this world.

As Am Yisrael set out on their journey toward nationhood and an enduring bond with the Almighty, God carved out the contours of that future relationship. He taught them that it would not be defined by Pascal’s vision of the shallow conveniences of security and stability inherent in a connection to Him. Instead, He demanded that they take risks, put their lives on the line and prove their dedication to a relationship worth having.

Jordan Peterson described how “we prefer to live on the edge.” He noted that we seek to optimize risk by pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones in order to continue self-development. “We’re hard-wired…to enjoy risk,” he wrote, and explained that the risks that we take imbue us with the positive feelings of excitement and invigoration which prepare us for future challenges.[1]

In his Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb described the “experience machine” thought experiment. You sit in an apparatus and a technician plugs a few cables into your brain, after which you undergo an “experience.” Although you feel exactly as if the event took place, it actually all happens in virtual reality. Taleb posited such an experience will never be the same as the real. He explained: “If you do not undertake a risk of real harm, reparable or even potentially irreparable, from and adventure, it is not an adventure.” Although while inside the machine you may believe that you had “skin in the game,” experiencing the pains and consequences of actual life, those realities vanish once outside. Taleb put it simply: “Life is sacrifice and risk taking.”[2]

As you reexperience the epic journey of Am Yisrael from Egypt on this evening, pause for a moment to remember the enduring lesson of God’s command to Moshe, “Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they journey onward.” Consider what matter most to you – the values, relationships and practices that distinguish your life from all others. And understand that truly experiencing life means taking the necessary risks for their realization.

[1] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Canada, 2018), pg. 287.
[2] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 121.