Monday, May 28, 2018

Parashat BeHa'alotekha: Losing Control

Losing Control
A Message for Parashat BeHa'alotekha 2017
Click here to view as PDF
We want to know what is likely to happen so that we can do something about it. If interest rates are going to skyrocket next month, then we want to shift our money out of bonds right now. If it is going to rain this afternoon, then we want to grab an umbrella this morning. Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on stimulating the future even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have. (Daniel Gilbert)[1]
* * * *
Parashat Beha’alotekha begins the long march of Am Yisrael in the wilderness. As they set out on that journey, the Torah described the exact process of their travels and encampment:

And as the cloud lifted from the tent, then Bnei Yisrael would journey onward, and in the place where the cloud would abide, there would Bnei Yisrael camp. By God’s word Bnei Yisrael would journey onward and by God’s word they would camp… (Bemidbar 9:17-18)

Although the itinerary was unilaterally decided by God, Moshe was instructed to aide in its performance:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, “Make you two silver trumpets…and they shall serve you for calling the community and for the journeying of the camps. And when they blow them, all the community shall meet with you at the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed. (10:1-3)

The journey began:

And it happened in the second month on the twentieth of the month that the cloud lifted from the Mishkan HaEdut. And Bnei Yisrael began on their journeyings from the Wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud abided in the Wilderness of Paran. And they journeyed on from the first by the word of God through the hand of Moshe… (10:11-13)

This section of the parashah is appropriately concluded by a description of the Aron’s role on their journey:

And they journeyed on from the mountain of god a three days’ march, with the Aron HaEdut journeying before them a three days’ march to scout for a resting place for them. And God’s cloud was over them by day as they journeyed on from the camp… (10:33-34)
Immediately before those concluding verses, however, the Torah described a conversation that took place between Moshe and his father-in-law, Hobab:

And Moshe said to Hobab son of Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place of which God said to us, ‘It will I give to you.’ Come with us and we shall be good to you…” (10:29)

Following Hobab’s refusal, Moshe continued to insist:

And he said to him, “Pray, do not leave us, for do you not know our encampment in the wilderness? And you will serve us as eyes…” (10:29)

As this short conversation concluded, the text conspicuously omitted what would appear to be the most critical detail – did Hobab come along with them or not? R. Yonatan Grossman suggested that this is apparently not the crux of the story. The Torah’s intention in recording the conversation between Moshe and Hobab was not for the ultimate decision, but rather for the ways in which Moshe attempted to convince him.[2] What message, then, did the Torah seek to impart through its recounting of this plea of Moshe?
* * * *
In his best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, sociologist Yuval Noah Harari described a shift in the history of mankind from the ancient “foragers,” who constantly lived on the move in search of food and resources, to the onset of farming during the Agricultural Revolution. He explained that this change brought forth the dominance of mankind’s prospective thought, as farmers must always keep the future in mind and work in its service. The seasonal cycles of production and fundamental uncertainty of agriculture forced people into constant thought of the future. Necessary worries sprang into their minds. Nightmares were now consumed by the thought of drought and flood. And people did all that they could to prepare for the future – storing excess foods, clearing away extra fields, digging additional irrigation canals and sowing more crops.[3]

In a recent article entitled “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” psychologists Martin E.P. Seligman and John Tierney argued that humans are best distinguished as a species by their ability to contemplate the future. They suggested we alter our reference to humans as Homo sapiens, or “wise men,” to Homo prospectus – as our most unique characteristic is the ability to consider our prospects. Seligman and Tierney explained:
If you’re a chimp, you spend much of the day searching for your next meal. If you’re a human, you usually rely on the foresight of your supermarket’s manager, or you can make a restaurant reservation for Saturday evening thanks to a remarkably complicated feat of collaborative prospection.
This example is built upon a joint imagination of a future time – Saturday, which exists as a collective fantasy. You trust the restauranteur to acquire food and cook it for you, and she trusts you to show up and give her money, which she will accept only because she expects her landlord to accept it in exchange for occupying his building. The authors further presented a study that found that people think about the future three times more often than the past, and explained: “Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.”[4]
* * * *
It is of little use to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present. …If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world. (Daniel W. Watts)[5]

As Am Yisrael set out for their journey in the wilderness, they were immediately told to cease all future thought. They understood that planning for the future was useless, as they were powerless in affecting it. By God’s word Bnei Yisrael would journey onward and by God’s word they would camp. Their method of sustenance was taken out of their control, as well. It now came in the form of the manna which poured down from the sky, whose purpose, God said, was “that I may thus test them, to see whether they ill follow My instructions or not” (Shemot 16:4). Consistent with our depiction of Am Yisrael’s journey in the midbar, Ibn Ezra explained that the manna tested the nation’s acceptance of the difficult reality of “needing [God] each and every day.”[6] Am Yisrael was effectively instructed to return their thoughts and vision to the time of the ancient “foragers,” and to focus on the past and present, while setting aside all plans for the “uncontrollable” future.

The Torah’s description of the journey process was interrupted by Moshe’s plea to his father-in-law. Moshe’s objective was clear: “And you will serve us as eyes.” In a situation which God had informed would not be controlled by humans, Moshe sought some control through the “eyes” of Hobab. The conversation was cut short by the continued description: “And they journeyed on from the mountain of god a three days’ march, with the Aron HaEdut journeying before them a three days’ march to scout for a resting place for them. And God’s cloud was over them by day as they journeyed on from the camp.” The message is clear: Am Yisrael’s journey in the wilderness was to be governed by rules that were different than life’s general reality. Man’s “eyes” and future vision played no role on this mission. Am Yisrael would be fully dependent upon the decisions of God during this period.

God’s plan for the nation upon their journey in the midbar holds a message that expands further than the forty years of sun and sandals. It is a lesson about relationships. Though Am Yisrael would soon enter a “future looking” agricultural society in Eress Yisrael, their first priority was to cement the building blocks of their respective relationships with God. A healthy relationship begins with a sense of vulnerability. It is the sense of trusting the other party, and relinquishing some self-control. It is a “leap of faith” in the other, entrusting them with secrets and decisions which were until then yours alone.

By cutting short Moshe’s dialogue with Hobab, the Torah contrasted the necessary first steps of a “mission” with those of a “relationship.” It taught us that enduring relationships begin with the courage to step into a state of vulnerability and to accept the loss of total control.

[1] Stumbling on Happiness (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 21.
[2] See Torah MiEtzion (New Milford, CT, 2014), pg. 116. Although I share R. Grossman’s suggestion for the general significance of this episode, I diverge from his thought in my understanding of its particular meaning.
[3] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York, NY, 2015), pg. 100-101.
[4] Martin E.P. Seligman and John Tierney, “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” The New York Times, May 19, 2017. Available at:
[5] The Wisdom of Insecurity (New York, NY, 1951), pg. 34-5.
[6] Commentary of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra to Shemot 16:4.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Megila 12a-12b

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

Listen to:  12a,   12b (1)12b (2)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Parashat Naso: To Have or To Be?

To Have or To Be?
A Message for Parashat Naso 2018
Click here to view as PDF
In their careful reading of the disparate passages in Parshat Naso, the Hakhamim gave reason to the juxtaposition of the laws of nazir and sotah: “To tell you that anyone who sees a sotah in her state of disgrace will take upon himself to abstain from wine, for wine leads to adultery.”[1] They explained that by noticing the lowly state of the wayward woman accused of adultery one will naturally accept the precautionary measures of the life of a nazir.

The status of the nazir’s state of being, however, is no simple matter. On the one hand, the nazir is called “holy to God” (Bemidbar 6:8), while on the other he is required to bring a sin offering when he concludes the period of his vow (6:13-14). Indeed, the Talmud records conflicting opinions regarding this matter, and R. Elazar HaKapar maintains that his decision to abstain from wine represents his sin.[2] Surprisingly, even when the nazir’s vow to ascetism is only temporarily accepted in order to prevent future sin, it is nonetheless deemed negative. Why?

I believe that the answer lays hidden in the parashah’s next segment, birkat kohanim. In three separate sentences, God first commanded the kohanim to bless the people regarding a relationship with Him. He then concluded: “They shall place My name upon Bnei Yisrael and I shall bless them” (6:27). What does it mean to “carry God’s name”?

The great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm distinguished between two modes of existence: to have and to be. A person who strives to have is concerned with material possessions, physical pleasure, power and aggression. Their measures of success are what and how much they have attained. One who lives to be, in contrast, seeks an inner satisfaction and general harmony. Their existence is based upon love, the pleasure of sharing and productive activity.[3]

The sotah wants to have. She submits to the urges that pull her to the allure of adultery. Realizing her damned ending, the nazir seeks an alternate route. By prohibiting himself from shaving his hair, drinking wine, and coming in contact with the dead, the nazir seeks to not have. Although he shares a perspective on life with sotah, as they both peer through the prism of “to have or not to have,” he nonetheless builds a protective wall of “not having” with restrictions. Lacking an alternative mindset, however, the nazir’s plan is criticized by the Torah and the Hakhamim.

“Carrying God’s name,” afterwards mentioned by the Kohanim, means living a life of essence. It is an existence that is driven by the will to be. Its goal is quality instead of quantity. This mission contrasts the “lives of having” of the nazir and sotah, by instead viewing our lives as the experience of being the bearers of God’s name.

The nazir’s fear of death might in fact stem from his focus on having. Erich Fromm noted that when we say, “This person has a future,” we refer to what he or she might attain in the future even though they haven’t in the present. Seen through this prism, the “present” is the point where past and future join, but not different in quality from those two realms that it connects. Living to be, however, transcends time. Painting and writing, for example, are conceived in a creative event outside of time. The experiences of loving, joy and grasping truth similarly transpire in the timeless present, which is enmeshed with both the past and the future. Living to be, then, dispels the tensions and fears of our future.[4]

By delicately stitching the passages regarding the sotah, nazir and birkat kohanim to each other, Parashat Naso contrasts the mistaken life of having to the ideal one of being.

[1] Bemidbar Rabah10:2-4. Cited by Rashi to 6:2 s.v. yafli.
[2] Nazir 19a. Cited by Rashi to 6:11 s.v me-asher.
[3] Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? (London, UK, 1997).
[4] See Fromm, pg. 109-11.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Megilah 10a-11a

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

Listen to:  10a,   10b (1),  10b (2),   11a (1),   11a (2)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Megilat Rut: Understanding Law, Appreciating Hesed

Listen to Monday night's class on Megilat Rut, "Understanding Law, Appreciating Hesed," here.

Follow along with the pesukim and sources here.

Women and Pesukei DeZimrah

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

Follow along with the sources here.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Shavuot: Forgetting How to 'Browse'

Forgetting How to 'Browse'
A Message for Shavuot 2017
Click here to view as PDF
A particularly intriguing facet of the Torah’s description of ma’amad Har Sinai is Am Yisrael’s sensual experience at that time:

וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק.
And all of the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain in smoke, and the people saw and they drew back and stood at a distance. (Shemot 20:15)

Rashi (s.v. ro’im) explained that this experience was unparalleled in its uniqueness. The people then saw the audible – “the thunder” and “the sound of the ram’s horn” – a generally impossible experience. R. Yisshak Ze’ev Soloveitchik z”l, the Rav of Brisk, reportedly cited a verse from Mishlei (3:3) – “Write them on the tablet of your mind” – to help clarify this phenomenon. Attentive to the imagery and message of the verse, the Brisker Rav explained that “seeing the sounds” represented the nation’s complete knowledge and understanding of God’s words at that time.[1]

The Hakhamim further elaborated upon the full-exposure experience of ma’amad Har Sinai. They envisioned the first tablets, which were then presented, as miraculously encompassing all of the Written and Oral Torah.[2]

The subtle wording of the text of the Torah, taken together with the rabbinic depiction of the scene, gives rise to an experience unparalleled in its revelation of content and understanding of Torah. Our foreknowledge of the subsequent episode of het ha-egel therefore begs the question: How could these very people – who had just risen to the pinnacle of human perception of God and His words – then swiftly descend to the depths of a most grave sin?
* * * *
Not too long ago, the Sunday Times reported: “A non-virtual, real-life Amazon bookstore opened in Manhattan.” The article explained that the store’s strategy is to use Amazon’s massive online archives of reader data in order to bring the most popular books to shoppers. The store stocks only 3,000 of the most popular data-driven titles, which have received the highest-level ratings from customers. The bookstore is set apart in other significant ways:
There’s no café to indulge idle time, and the floors don’t invite flopping with a book or a cranky toddler…Still, the store lacks the little handwritten employee recommendations posted in independent bookstores as humanizing beacons.
Chris Doeblin, owner of several independent bookstores in the city, was critical of the structure and general vision of the store, remarking: “It’s weird – they keep talking about ‘discover,’ but how do you discover something different in a process that channels people into a smaller and smaller focus”[3]

Reading about this new store, I was reminded of an article written several years ago by noted philosopher Leon Wieseltier. In his “Going to Melody,” Wieseltier bemoaned the closing of a beloved record store in his native Washington, D.C. Realizing the success and popularity of colossal competitor Amazon as the cause for its closing, Wieseltier explained that he wasn’t saddened by the loss of purchasable items – as he could still purchase all of the discs online, but rather by the loss of his ability to “browse.” He defined “browsing” as “active idleness – an exploring capacity,” which is the opposite of “searching.” Wieseltier explained:
Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations.
The experience of “browsing” at the record store exposed Wieseltier to new songs, artists, and genres – which he would have never discovered by merely “searching” on the internet.[4] Borrowing Wieseltier’s terminology to describe the new “Amazon Book Store,” I would term it a venue for “searching,” or “limited browsing.”
* * * *
In a recent edition of The New York Times Magazine published a similarly-themed article, entitled, “Where Did the Great Hollywood Baseball Movie Go?” Noticing his loss of interest in watching baseball games and a steady decline in the production of “baseball movies,” writer Jay Caspian Kang pointed to “the informational clutter that accompanies every baseball broadcast” as the core of the issue. He explained that baseball has benefited least from high-definition technology, writing:
Even supposedly helpful viewing aids, like the box that demarcates the strike zone or the cometlike streaks that show you the path of a pitch, take baseball out of its familiar, comforting settings – the laconic pacing, the simplicity of one player throwing a ball that another player tries to hit with a stick – and places it within intensely focused frames that promise, but rarely provide, some new insight into the game.
Kang opined that the overload of information has caused a situation wherein, “No room is left for the imagination.”  He wrote that it was the silent spaces in baseball that used to be filled in by novelists and filmmakers, but those spaces have vanished from the present-day game.[5]
* * * *
Though grappling with entirely different issues, these several thinkers and writers touched on an identical point: An increase in exposure and information is prone to a decrease in imagination and creativity.

Though the unparalleled revelations of ma’amad Har Sinai were necessary for cultivating the nation’s appropriate emotions of fear and awe of God,[6] they were perhaps accompanied by a downside. Am Yisrael’s edifying experience of “seeing sounds” suffered the concurrent loss of an ambitious “browsing” faculty.[7] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg similarly envisioned a mental block that grew out of the excessive inflow of information at that time:
It is not that they cannot retain an impression, a memory, but that they are too much in the grip of successive impressions, of the successive shocks of information. Frenetically registering the images of the moment, a necessary process of assimilation never takes place.[8]
Indeed, the Hakhamim hinted to the nation’s inability to think freely at Har Sinai when they described the scene of God raising the mountain above their heads and definitively threatening them, “If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial” (Shabbat 88a).
Het ha-egel was a crisis of theological doubt. Confronted by the unexpected absence of their leader, Am Yisrael felt abandoned, misled and confused. A nation untrained to think critically about their principles of faith now found itself with a severe disadvantage for appropriate tackling a situation of uncertainty. And they succumbed to its pressures.
* * * *
Living in a “search”-dominated generation, it is worth taking pause to appreciate the lost beauty of “browsing,” and to seek out new ways and methods through which we can appropriately return it to our lives.

[1] See, e.g. MiShulhan R. Eliyahu Barukh (Jerusalem, IS, 2014), pg. 328-9.
[2] See Beit ha-Levi, derush no. 18 (printed at the end of Responsa Beit HaLevi) and HaAmek Davar to Shemot 34:1 and Devarim 9:10. Recall, as well, our explanation of the difference between the first and second tablets in the devar Torah for Parashat Ki Tissa earlier this year, “True Leadership.”
[3] Francis X. Clines, “At Amazon’s Bookstore, No Coffee, but All the Data You Can Drink,” The New York Times, May 27, 2017. Available at:
[4] Leon Wieseltier, “Going to Melody,” The New Republic, Jan. 11, 2012. Available at:
[5] “Where Did the Great Hollywood Baseball Movie Go?” The New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2017. Available at:
[6] See Shemot 20:17 and Devarim 4:10.
[7] Contemporary scholar R. Yoel Bin Nun in fact suggested that the experience at that time was similar to our own “sight of sound” via electrical transmittance – wherein the phenomena of sight and sound emerge at the same speed. See Mikra’ot – Iyun Rav Tehumi BaTorah: Yitro (Rishon LeZion, IS, 2017), pg. 122.
[8] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York, NY, 2001), pg. 458.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Parashat BeHukotai: Habit

A Message for Parashat BeHukotai 2018
Click here to view as PDF
The human brain is hardwired to develop habits. Our habits, formed by routine, play a crucial role in maintaining mental efficiency. Unencumbered by thoughts about basic behaviors such as walking and choosing what to eat, we can instead focus our mental energy on more complex insights and tasks. Realizing that so much of our everyday thought and activity is decided by habits, the famous psychologist William James once remarked, “All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”[1] Understanding our habits and learning how to positively manipulate them is a critical component of our success.

The Hakhamim portrayed the potential dangers of habituation in a well-known midrash that related Esav’s angry approach of Yaakov’s sons as they prepared his burial at Me’arat HaMakhpelah. Esav argued that he – and not Yaakov – was the rightful heir to burial at the me’arah and demanded that the brothers bring a bill of sale to prove their father’s ownership. In the midst of this heated debate, Hushim the son of Dan – who was hard of hearing – innocently asked why the burial had delayed. Ashamed that his grandfather’s body lay in degradation, he drew a club and hit Esav on the head.[2] Carefully analyzing the Hakhamim’s telling of this scene, the question arises as to why nobody but Hushim could take a defiant stance at that time.

R. Hayim Shmuelevitz z”l, the famed mashgiah of Yeshivat Mir, suggested that this story portrays the dangers of becoming “stuck” in an unhealthy habit. Ensconced in a heated debate with their uncle, the sons of Yaakov lost track of a rational understanding of the situation. They had become habituated to the petty disagreement with Esav and were overcome by the need to “prove their side.” This blocked them from then realizing that their father’s corpse lay embarrassingly exposed. Only an “outsider” to the situation – the hard of hearing Hushim who was removed from the argument – could instinctively act upon hearing what was actually taking place.[3]

Researchers have recently worked to better understand the development of our habits. They found that habits work on a “loop.” They begin with a cue – a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, continue with the routine – which can be physical, mental or emotional, and end with the reward – which helps your brain decide that this loop is worth remembering in the future. Unless you deliberately fight the habit, by finding a new routine, the pattern will unfold automatically.[4]

The Hakhamim’s commentary at the beginning of Parashat BeHukotai demonstrates their understanding of the vital role of habit to our lives. The parashah begins:
If you shall walk by My statutes and keep my commands and do them, I shall give you rains in their season, and the land will give its yield and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (VaYikra 26:3)
The Rabbis were sensitive to the awkward pairing of the verb “walk” with “statutes.” The expected verb would be “following” the statutes, or “obeying” them. What does it mean to “walk” by the laws? They drew upon a legend regarding King David, who remarked that although he planned to visit various places and homes on a daily basis, he consistently realized that his “feet brought him” instead to the synagogues and batei midrash.[5] The Hakhamim thus interpreted the command to “walk by My statutes” as God’s call for us to develop an appropriate “habit loop.”

Changing our current habits and replacing them with new ones is difficult. It will take a considerable amount of time and effort. The first words of Parashat BeHukotai remind us, however, of the importance to do so. Merely “following the missvot requires a constant battle; “walking by them” will render them second-nature. 

[1] William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (Mineola, NY, 1962), pg. 33.
[2] Sotah 13a.
[3] R. Hayim Shmuelevitz, Sihot Mussar (Jerusalem, IS, 2004), pg. 410-11.
[4] Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 19-20.
[5] VaYikra Rabbah 35:1.

Megilah 8a-9b

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

Listen to:  8a,   8b (1) 8b (2),   9a,   9b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Parashat BeHukotai: Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen
A Message for Parashat BeHukotai 2017
Click here to view as PDF
Most of Parashat Behukotai exists as a presentation of the tokhehah – the doom and punishment that await Am Yisrael if they stray from the path of God. These ominous conditions are twice preceded by a brief description of Am Yisrael’s potential rebellion:

And if you will not listen to Me… (26:14)
And if in all this you will not listen to Me… (26:27)

R. Norman Lamm noted that the word “shemi’ah,” or “listening,” is a homonym. Depending on the context, it can mean either a literal sensory experience or the more figurative expression of obeying an order or will. He explained that the two meanings in fact dovetail with one another, as the primary cause of disobedience is faulty listening. When God warned the nation about disobedience he was cautioning them about the necessity of to listen properly, as well.[1]

Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist, distinguished between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening. He explained that hearing has evolved as our alarm system, operating out of the line of sight, and working even while we are asleep. Listening, in contrast, is the intricate application of attention to the auditory sense. In our world of digital distraction and information overload there exists the acute risk of losing the skill of listening. Horowitz warned:

…And yet we dare not lose it. Because listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills.[2]

Our individual success in every realm of life is crucially dependent upon our ability to cultivate the skill of listening.

The best-selling author Greg Mckeown described how the journalist Thomas Friedman once ate lunch together with sources for a column that he was writing and someone at the table accused him of not paying attention to the banter at the table. Friedman, however, defended himself by explaining that he was in fact listening, but it was in a unique and deliberate fashion. He was carefully filtering out everything other than the matters that grabbed his attention and seemed most essential. Mckeown explained that by doing so, Friedman was able to discern the important details and facts that were not explicitly spoken and would have otherwise been overlooked.[3]

Michael Taft, the author of The Mindful Geek, explained that the first step to learning how to listen is discovering how to be quiet. Instead of focusing on the words and thoughts of the other person during our conversations, our mind capacity is generally spent pondering our own response. He suggested that we wait one full second before responding to a comment while talking with another person. That second of silence should be spent paying proper attention to what the other person has said. Taft explained that because humans love to be heard, the speaker will begin to say things and respond in ways that are very positive, while you will feel yourself opening to the person in a new way. Proper performance of this simple task has the potential to transform a dysfunctional conversation into one of thoughtful engagement and dialogue.[4]

The influential British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion once spoke about the importance of “silence” to his practice. He explained that silence can sometimes become “a valuable communication,” likening it to the necessary rests and pauses in music and holes and gaps in sculpture.[5] Carl Rogers similarly wrote about “hearing deeply,” which he defined as “hearing the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, and even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker.” Rogers wrote that hearing others had enriched his life, explaining: “It is through hearing people that I have learned all that I know about individuals, about personality, about interpersonal relationships.”[6]

Summarizing his central thesis, Seth Horowitz wrote, “The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.” Parashat Behukotai reminds us about the importance of “listening to God.” It teaches that just as our success in dealing with people and navigating the various challenges of life depends upon our skill of listening, so too does our relationship with God.

We must extend beyond simply “hearing” the words of the Torah and attentively listen to them. Instead of viewing the missvot ha-Torah as mere rules and demands to dutifully obey, we must listen for the penetrating “voice of God” as it calls for their performance. The model of “a single second of silence” must exist in developing our relationship with God, as well. It is the need for us to pay attention to His words, to let them resonate, and to properly understand them. It is the need to listen.

[1] R. Norman Lamm, Derashot LeDorot: Leviticus (New York, NY, 2013), pg. 177-8.
[2] Seth S. Horowitz, “The Science and Art of Listening,” The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2012. Available at:
[3] Greg Mckeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York, NY, 2014), pg. 76-7.
[4] Michael Taft, “Learning to Listen,” Huffington Post, Sept. 29, 2011. Available at:
[5] Quoted in Francesca Bion’s 1994 address at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, as published in The Journal of Melanie Klein & Object Relations, 13:1 (1995).
[6] Carl Rogers, A Way of Being (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 8.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Megilah 6b-7b

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

Listen to:  6b (2),   7a,   7b (1),   7b (2)

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Parashat Emor: Restraint

A Message for Parashat Emor 2018
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Kedushah is a dominant theme in Sefer VaYikra. It is particularly featured in our current set of parashot, each of which presents a specific facet of sanctity. Whereas Parashat Kedoshim presented kedushah “in action” by means of the missvot, Parashat Emor presents it “in person” – the kohanim, and “in time” with the holidays, while Parashat Behar will demonstrate it “in space,” as manifested by the years of shemitah and yovel. What is the thread that runs through these various kedushot and how can we act upon it in our everyday lives?

The mo’adim are detailed in several places in the Torah. Each description of the holidays highlights a different dimension of the days. Parashat Pinehas (Bemidbar 28-9) mentions them in the context of their unique korbanot, while Parashat Re’eh (Devarim 16) references them as a core part of the centrality of the Mikdash. Parashat Emor (VaYikra 23), however, portrays the mo’adim through the prism of their sanctity. Described as “mikra’ei kodesh,” Emor stresses the prohibition of melakhah on those days. The pesukim’s constant refrain regarding the forbidden labor on the mo’adim suggests that the source of their sanctity lies in that restraint.

Indeed, all of the other “kedushah” dimensions of these parashot are underscored by a demand to “hold back”: The kohanim are forbidden to come in contact with the dead and to marry specific women (21:1-16), shemitah and yovel prohibit working the land (25:1-13), and the general command that “you shall be holy” (19:1) was famously envisioned by the Hakhamim as a demand to restrain our sexual desires.[1]

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l described the constant tension between our competing drives towards “majesty” and “humility.” He explained that we seek dominance in all realms of our lives, striving for the best in health, wealth and intellect and doing everything that it takes for their attainment. At the same time, however, we are drawn back to our origins and sometimes feel the natural urge to pull back and “return.” Although this is often felt most during the “low moments” of life, even the courageous explorers anticipate the homecoming at the end of the voyage.

R. Soloveitchik likened our dialectical nature to that of God, who paradoxically manifests his infinite essence in this limited world. Known by the Lurianic mystics as “simsum,” God’s ability to “contract” Himself for creation of this world is thus the paradigm for man’s innate appreciation of his modest and contained origins.[2]

The Gemara (Sukkah 28a) stated that Hillel’s greatest student was Yonatan ben Uziel. Demonstrating the heights of his greatness, the Gemara related that when he was engaged in Torah study birds that flew over him were immediately incinerated. Considering this impressive level of his student, it is intriguing to ponder what strengths the teacher Hillel possessed. A well-known remark in this context is that Hillel’s greatness lay in his ability to withhold his strengths so that any bird flying over his head would not be burned.[3]

Cultivating a character of self-constraint is important for career advancement, as well. Greg Mckeown laid out a map toward “the disciplined pursuit of less” in his engaging book Essentialism. He detailed the many mistakes committed on the path toward the unfocused and less productive life of a “nonessentialist.” Mckeown explained that one distinguishing feature between an “essentialist” and “nonessentialist” is the ability to say “no” to others. He quoted Tom Friel, a former CEO, who remarked, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’ ” Without the strength to turn away, social and societal pressures will push us into counterproductive situations and circumstances.[4]

In addition to the vital role of self-restraint for individual sanctity and success, it is also a necessary component of a healthy society. A society built upon the foundations of intense competition leads to the downfall of many of its individuals. Structured instead by a model of self-restraint and focused on “making room” for one another, however, the community may flourish as a solitary unit.[5]

The various dimensions of sanctity in Parashat Emor and its surrounding parashot invite us to explore the essence of kedushah. Indeed, God’s command that “You shall be holy, for I, God, am holy” (19:2) is a daunting task. Its realization, however, is the result of understanding our conflicting tendencies of strength and restraint and following His lead in a careful balance. Needless to say, a life imbued with this kedushah will positively influence our professional and communal successes, as well.

[1] See the Commentary of Rashi ad loc., s.v kedoshim.
[2] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” in Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg.25-40.
[3] See, most recently, R. Simha Maimon’s mention of this remark in his Shiurei Humash – Mahadura Tinyana vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2017), pg. 61.
[4] Greg Mckeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York, NY, 2014), pg. 135-43.
[5] See further on this point in Mordechai Rotenberg’s The Psychology of Tzimtzum (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 75-96.