Friday, June 29, 2018

Parashat Balak: Vision

A Message for Parashat Balak 2018
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Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
(Walt Whitman)

“Sight” and “vision” are dominant themes in Parashat Balak. Initially mentioned regarding King Balak – “And Balak…saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emorim…” (Bemidbar 22:2) – Bilaam “the seer” predictably engages in a variety of his own visions in the subsequent narrative. Indeed, Bilaam described himself by means of sight: “The man open-eyed,” who beheld God’s vision “prostrate with eyes unveiled” (24:3-4). And although his failure to see in the episode with the donkey and God’s angel is perhaps most memorable, Bilaam’s bird’s-eye view of Am Yisrael were in fact most effective in his general mission.

Erica Brown wrote about the irony that beset Bilaam’s vision. She noted that while he exceled in “long-distance” vision, Bilaam was blind to the cries of a donkey right in front of him.[1] Bilaam could see and perceive the strengths of Am Yisrael as a nation and articulate them in his several blessings in a way that their leader Moshe had failed. Whereas Moshe had errantly referred to them as “rebels” (20:10), Bilaam declared: “How goodly your tents, O Yaakov, your dwellings O Yisrael!” (24:5). His sight was strong enough to understand a distant nation that encamped in the valley below but was blind to his dream-visions of a forbidding God.

I believe that Bilaam’s sight may serve as a foil to that of the meragelim, as described in Parashat Shelah. Moshe chose a highly-regarded group of men and sent them to scout Canaan. He fundamentally instructed them: “And you shall see the land, what it is like…” (13:18). They were tasked with observing the various people and landscapes of Canaan and then generating an integrated report that captured the breadth of their sights. Upon their return, however, the meragelim recounted a vision of disparate details which was narrow in scope and limited in understanding. Instead of answering the general question of “what it is like,” the scouts revealed a tunnel-vision of the land by demonstrating its large-dimensioned fruits and locating each neighboring nation. The meragelim’s vision, in its contrast to that of Bilaam, is most recognizable to us: They saw and understood everything up close but were blind to a broader picture which required some distance.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks pondered whether our experience of life in continuous progress and motion may in fact be an illusion. He suggested that we might actually be piecing together countless “still-frames” in constant subconscious activity. Sacks posited that our eyes and brains may “take” perceptual stills of our surroundings and happenings – as on the “burst mode” of our iPhone cameras – and then somehow fuse them to give a sense of continuity and motion.[2] Shifting these two perspectives of sight and perception to our own biblical case studies, we might suggest that Bilaam failed at pausing between the successive snapshots to take stock of what was happening directly in front of him, while the meragelim became trapped in the many stills of the present and therefore failed to grasp the scene as a whole.

An individual who can see and appreciate the “stills” while also fusing them is rare. This ability is the mark of leadership. Moshe perhaps sensed that his father-in-law was imbued with this trait when he asked him to serve as “eyes” to the nation (10:31). And this is possibly the meaning of “the eyes of the nation” (15:24) as reference to the leadership. The difficulty in achieving a “fused vision” is the result of engagement in the day-to-day activities – the “stills”. It is extremely hard to keep involved in the present while concurrently connecting our vision to past and future as well. It is for the reason, I believe, that Bilaam thrived where Moshe had failed. Bilaam approached the nation as an outsider and he could therefore see past their many flaws which constantly surrounded their leader Moshe.

A leader is challenged to engage his vision with the countless “stills” of the present while at the same time realizing that they are mere fragments of a “fused” whole. Leadership gurus Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky captured this idea with “the balcony metaphor.” Dancing on the ballroom floor necessarily blinds you from the peripheral activity taking place several feet over. Asked about the dance you might therefore exclaim: “The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.” Watching the scene from above, however, you can realize various patterns taking place on the dance floor. You can then see, for example, that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. A leader lives in constant flux between the ballroom floor and the balcony. Although he or she realizes that they are most effective while dancing on the ballroom floor, they are also aware that they can best understand what is actually happening when perched from above.[3]

The stories of Bilaam and the meragelim present us with starkly different approaches to vision. Whereas Bilaam could only see from a distance, the meragelim could only see what was near. A true leader adeptly utilizes both of these visions. Intimately involved in the present, he or she can nonetheless maintain a broader perspective and operate “both in and out of the game.”

[1] Erica Brown, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers (New Milford, CT, 2013), pg. 169.
[2] Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 161-84.
[3] Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston, MA, 2017), pg. 53. Cited by Brown (fn. 1).

Parashat Balak: Social Growth

Social Growth
A Message for Parashat Balak 2017
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It is difficult to overlook several ironies that are latent in Bilam’s blessings to Am Yisrael, when reading them within their proper context.

Consider the opening words of his first berakhah:

Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations. (Bemidbar 23:9)

Whereas Bilam praised the nation for their ability to stand apart from other nations, the immediate aftermath of this episode is one of intermingling and sexual misconduct between the men of Am Yisrael and the women of neighboring Moav![1]

The third berakhah, as well, is quite ironic. Glancing at the nation’s ordered encampment in accordance with their tribes (24:2), Bilam exclaimed:

How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael. (24:5)

The very structure that impressed Bilam at that moment was, in the eyes of the Hakhamim, a strong cause for the group that had not long before joined Korah in rebellion. The Hakhamim explained that the several members of the tribe of Reuven who joined Korah were specifically drawn to him because of their adjacent living quarters![2]
* * * *
Christopher Thomas Knight is the subject of a recent book by Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.[3] Knight lived in solitude in the woods of Central Maine for nearly thirty years. He directly encountered and exchanged word with another person only once during that duration. Following his forced emergence into society, Finkel pressed him to share insights about life and the human condition that he had gleaned during his extended period of solitude. Knight responded:
I did examine myself. Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing – when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.[4]
Knight described his “freedom” as a complete loss of self-identity. It was born out of isolation from others. A loss of societal pressures to explain one’s thoughts, beliefs or actions to others, necessarily leads to the loss of one’s name.
* * * *
This insight may further explain a detail from an earlier episode in the Torah. Upon learning about God’s punishment to him for killing his brother, Kayin immediately settled to the east of Eden, bore a child with his wife and built the mankind’s first city.[5] What was the significance of his city-building?

Tracing backwards for the source of sin in Bereshit, a peculiar dialogue following Adam’s indulgence from the ess ha-hayim stands out. God asked him, “Where are you?” And Adam had difficulty responding. [6] Rav Kook z”l suggested that this exchange revealed the core of Adam’s sin. Adam’s inability to properly identify himself left him in the perfectly vulnerable state for the serpent’s evil advice.[7] Reflecting upon his own sin, perhaps Kayin discovered that it too had stemmed from a deficient self-identity. The cause of that deficiency was perhaps his state of quasi-solitude. He therefore set out to “discover himself” by creating the social environment of a city.
* * * *
Philosopher David Kishik noted that “philosophy” is typically depicted as a solitary activity conducted in remote natural settings. People generally believe that philosophers think in a clearing in the middle of the forest, a cave on the slope of a mountain, or on a rocking chair on a porch in a quaint college town. Kishik noted that this is far from the truth. He noted that the birthplace of the ancient philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle was the city of Athens. Many important strands of modern philosophy were similarly born in the city – from Bacon’s London to Descartes’s Paris and Spinoza’s Amsterdam, all the way to James’s New York. He explained the reason for this phenomenon:
Ideas do not operate in a void. They respond to and depend on human beings in particular situations. Ideas prevail not because of their immutable logic but because they are embedded in the social environment at hand.[8]
His observations broaden our analysis, as they suggest that even the thoughts that extend beyond our self-understanding are best performed by means of exchange with others.
* * * *
Perhaps the depth of Bilam’s blessings lies in their irony.

Am Yisrael’s failure with benot Midian was a paradoxical step forward in establishing their national distinction. The strength of a nation that has never ventured – and even stumbled – beyond its environs is considerably weaker than one that has. True self-identity is born out of encounters with others. It is the questioning pressures of a social environment that force us to best articulate our beliefs. And though Korah’s companions from the tribe of Reuven found themselves on the wrong side of an ideological divide, the exchange of ideas that resulted from the structure of their encampment was commendable.
* * * *
In his The Big Sort, Bill Bishop wrote about how contemporary American society has geographically, politically and even spiritually “sorted itself” into like-minded groups. He explained the tragic outcome:
As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.[9]
Our reactions to the setbacks that result from our involvement with people who think differently than us are often short-sighted. Our search for immediate results “in our favor” and the fear of potential pitfalls cause us to avoid these opportunities for growth. Bilam’s blessings urge us to reconsider.

[1] Bemidbar 25:1.
[2] See Commentary of Rashi to 16:1, s.v. ve-Datan.
[3] Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (New York, NY, 2017).
[4] Michael Finkel, “The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit,” GQ Magazine, Aug. 4, 2014.
[5] Bereshit 4:16-17.
[6] Bereshit 3:9-10.
[7] Mussar ha-Kodesh no. 97.
[8] David Kishik, “Metrosophy: Philosophy and the City,” The New York Times, July 6, 2015.
[9] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart (New York, NY, 2008), pg. 39.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Parashat Hukat: Conflict Resolution

Conflict Resolution
A Message for Parashat Hukat 2018
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Although Moshe's sin at Mei Merivah stands as a pivotal event in our national history, the Torah is surprisingly vague in its description of the exact mistake. God rebukes Moshe for lacking trust and failing to sanctify Him before Am Yisrael, but never details the specific blunder. There are, therefore, dozens of traditional approaches and interpretations to this episode. Perhaps the Torah’s silence in pinpointing one particular offense, however, points to the fact that Moshe’s sin lay not in a specific sentence or action but rather in its general approach.

The episode began with the nation’s belligerent confrontation:
And the community (ha-am) had no water, and they assembled against (va-yikahalu) Moshe and Aharon. (Bemidbar 20:2)
Upon hearing their angry complaints, Moshe and Aharon fled:
And Moshe and Aaron with him, came from the assembly (ha-kahal) to the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed… (6)
By shifting the description of the people from “the community” (v. 2) to “the assembly” (v. 6), the Torah called attention to the people’s unified stance against Moshe and Aharon at that time. It painted a scene where the perceived threat from the people lay not in their claims, but in their intimidating stance and positioning.

God then instructed Moshe:
Take the staff and assemble (ve-hakhel) the community (ha-edah), you and Aharon your brother, and you shall speak to the rock before their eyes… (8)
Surprisingly, God’s advice for dealing with the people at that time did not refer to combatting their strength of unison by dispersing them and scattering them about. Instead, He commanded Moshe to regroup the people and redirect their potential for unity toward another purpose. Moshe failed at this mission:
And Moshe and Aharon gathered the assembly (ha-kahal) in front of the rock… (10)
Instead of engaging the people as a “community” (edah) in need of a repurposed “assembly” (kahal), as God had commanded, Moshe approached them as an unalterable “assembly” that awaited confrontation. Whereas God had instructed him to handle the situation by embracing the nation’s latent unity and rebuilding it, Moshe saw their unity as a threat and prepared to fight against it. Moshe’s inability to approach the situation in the way that God had demanded exposed his limits for future leadership.

God perhaps hinted at the importance of this approach again, during a later conflict in the parashah:
…And the people grew impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moshe…And God sent against the people the viper-serpents, and they bit the people, and many people of Yisrael died. (21:4-6)
After the people cried to Moshe, God instructed him the remedy:
“Make you a viper and put it on a standard, and so then, whoever is bitten will see it and live.” (8)
He taught Moshe that overcoming the dangers of the viper-serpents would not come through a head-on attack of the venomous amphibians. That was a losing battle. Instead, he was to redirect the snakes’ powers over life and death by constructing a viper that would not take life but rather grant life.

All too often our own instincts during times of conflict resemble that of Moshe. We believe that the appropriate way to overcome a threat is to strengthen ourselves and defeat it in a duel. We fail to realize, however, that the ideal approach to resolution is often a patient acceptance of the challenge while setting our eyes on reorienting the challenger.

Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl taught his students and patients a method known as “paradoxical intention.” He told how he was once pulled over by a policeman for driving through a yellow light. Rolling down his window, he greeted the cop with a flood of self-accusations: “You’re right, officer,” he initially told him. “How could I do such a thing?” he continued, “I am sure I will never do it again, and this will be a lesson to me.” The officer did his best to calm and reassure Frankl, telling him that such a thing could happen to anyone, and that he was sure he would never do so again.[1] Instead of engaging the officer in an argument in defense of himself, Frankl overcame the challenge by embracing the officer’s approach and redirecting the impending assault from rebuke to remorse.

More often, however, Frankl instructed his patients to use paradoxical intention for dealing with personal issues of anxiety or compulsion. He told about a young physician who consulted him regarding his fear of perspiring. The anticipatory anxiety of perspiration was often enough to bring about excessive sweating. Instead of defeating the anxious perspiration through denial, Frankl advised the patient to embrace the sweating. He told the man that when he sensed the onset of sweating he should deliberately show people how much he could sweat. He should then say to himself, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!” By redirecting the sweat from a source of embarrassment to one of pride, the man was able to permanently vanquish his anxiety.[2]

Beyond the specific missteps of Moshe at Mei Merivah, his mistaken approach to resolving conflict proved most fatal. A leader who consistently combats the strengths of his adversaries with his own might may prevail for a time. Ultimately, however, his power will drain and he will concede defeat. Enduring leaders emerge instead by carefully redirecting the incoming threats. Their strength is found in their embrace of the difficulties as they deliberately assign them a new purpose or plan.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (Cambridge, MA, 2000), pg. 67-8.
[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (Boston, MA, 2014), pg. 116.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Wool, Cotton & Nylon Sisit

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Why Do We Put on the Tallit Before Tefillin?

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Parashat Hukat: We Are Not Worthy

We Are Not Worthy
A Message for Parashat Hukat 2016
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וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן...קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ וְהַעַל אֹתָם הֹר הָהָר. וְהַפְשֵׁט אֶת אַהֲרֹן אֶת בְּגָדָיו וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּם אֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ וְאַהֲרֹן יֵאָסֵף וּמֵת שָׁם. וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶל הֹר הָהָר לְעֵינֵי כָּל הָעֵדָה. וַיַּפְשֵׁט מֹשֶׁה אֶת אַהֲרֹן אֶת בְּגָדָיו וַיַּלְבֵּשׁ אֹתָם אֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ וַיָּמָת אַהֲרֹן שָׁם בְּרֹאשׁ הָהָר. וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה וְאֶלְעָזָר מִן הָהָר.
And God said to Moshe and Aharon…“Take Aharon and Eleazar his son and bring them up Hor the mountain. And strip Aharon of his garments and clothe with them Eleazar his son, and Aharon will be gathered up and will die there.” And Moshe did as God had charged and they went up Hor the mountain before the eyes of all the community. And Moshe stripped Aharon of his garments and clothed with them Eleazar his son, and Aharon died there on the mountain top. And Moshe came down, and Eleazar with him, from the mountain.
(Bemidbar 20:23-29)

As we read that the great leader Aharon was informed of his imminent death, it is most appropriate to expect an ensuing description of his actions during his last moments alive. It is natural to anticipate a parting scene dominated by the “leading role Aharon.” The Torah ironically teaches instead what Moshe did at this time. Acting “as God had charged,” Moshe led Aharon and Eleazar up the mountain, Moshe stripped Aharon of his garments and Moshe then clothed Eleazar. In a markedly unexpected passage, the scene of Aharon’s death is painted not by his own actions, but by those of Moshe.

Viewed as part of the broader portrait of Aharon’s life as a leader, however, this depiction of his death is not so surprising. Consider his emergent identity in the Torah, upon Moshe’s return to Egypt after many years away. Whereas Moshe was first raised a prince and then escaped to Midyan for some time, Aharon was born and bred a loyal member of a nation of tormented slaves. Understanding these circumstances, who could blame Aharon if he felt jealous upon learning that his younger brother was appointed leader of that nation? But it was not so. God informed Moshe, “…Look, he (Aharon) is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, his heart will rejoice” (Shemot 4:15). And so it was.

Thus began Aharon’s career as the comfortable “secondary leader” of Am Yisrael. He lived the rest of his life with the poise of a man whole-heartedly content with his appointed role in the shadows of his brother.

Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, once related an experience that he shared with my rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, z”l. Rabbi Finkel, who stood at the head of the largest yeshivah in history, once approached the Kotel with Shultz. Rabbi Finkel unexpectedly stopped and stood in his place some thirty feet from the wall. Shultz beckoned him further, but Rabbi Finkel explained, “I’ve never been closer than this.” Asked why, he quietly answered, “You go. I’m not worthy.” Shultz thus designated Rabbi Finkel the paradigmatic “servant leader,” a man who consistently put others first and led from the heart.[1]

True leaders don’t seek the limelight of self-exposure, nor the satisfaction of public recognition. They are satisfied with working from “behind the scenes,” and are in constant thought of how to better the lives of those around them. Learning from the life of Aharon we must recall Rabbi Finkel’s poignant remark and lesson – “We are not worthy.”

[1] America Deserves a Servant Leader, Op-Ed for The New York Times on Aug. 6th, 2015, available at: servant-leader.html?_r=0.

Holding & Kissing the Sisit During Shema

Listen to this morning's class, "Holding & Kissing the Sisit During Shema," here.

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Parashat Hukat: The Makkot 2.0

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Moisturizers on Shabbat

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Wearing a Watch with Tefillin

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Torat Eress Yisrael

Listen to this morning's class, "Torat Eress Yisrael," here.

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For further research:

Read Yaakov Blidstein's "תורת ארץ ישראל ותורת בבל במשנת הנצי"ב מוולוז,'ין" here.

Parashat Korah: Synthesis

A Message for Parashat Korah 2018
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Although it is clear that the uprising of Korah and his assembly was driven by their quest for pride and power, the specific ideologies that underlay their attack appear to be disjointed. In their initial encounter with Moshe, they charged him:

“You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is God, and why should you raise yourselves up over God’s assembly?” (Bemidbar 16:3)
This mission sought equality in the spiritual realm. They reasoned that since the entire assembly is holy, every individual should possess equal access to the sanctified realm of the Mishkan and its service. Several verses later in the narrative, however, Datan and Aviram angrily shouted at Moshe:
“Is it too little that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to put us to death in the wilderness…What’s more, to a land flowing with milk and honey you have not brought us, nor given us an estate of fields and vineyards…” (13-14)
Their angry diatribe bore no mention of holiness or spirituality. Instead, it was solely focused on their deficient state of material pleasures. They accused Moshe of forcefully removing them from a land that was rich in “milk and honey” as he guided them to the barren lands of the midbar and Israel.

Basing himself on various statements of the Hakhamim, Nessiv suggested that Korah’s rebellion was led by two separate factions.[1] The first consisted of “two hundred fifty men of Israel, community chieftains, people called up to meeting, men of renown” (2). This group of dignified men hoped for a greater role in the formal procedures of the Mishkan. They argued that “they are all holy, and in their midst is God,” and therefore demanded equal access to a life of pure sanctity. Their punishment, in turn, came by a “sanctified” means. Moshe instructed them to bring forth fire-pans of incense and to stand by Ohel Mo’ed. God performed the rest:
And a fire had gone out from God, and consumed the two hundred fifty men bringing forward the incense. (16:35)
Datan and Aviram, in contrast, fought with an opposite agenda. They sought a return to the materialistic lifestyle that they remembered from Egypt. And their punishment, as well, matched their mission:
The ground that was under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households…and all the possessions. (16:32)
Their death came not from a “God-sent fire,” but rather from the source of materialism itself – the ground. It didn’t take place at Ohel Mo’ed, but rather at their homes. And it claimed more than just their lives, swallowing up all of their material possessions as well.

These separate groups of opposite-minded individuals banded around Korah in rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. They were drawn together by a unified contempt of any “synthesis” between sanctity and materialism. The groups chose, instead, a life of extremity. Whereas the two hundred and fifty men wanted absolute sanctity, Datan and Aviram wanted absolute materialism.

R. Yisshak Hutner z”l once distinguished between a “double life” and a “broad life.” He was responding to a student who worried that pursuing a secular career was inconsistent with the life of a God-fearing Jew. R. Hutner explained that while a person who rents a room in a home as a resident while concurrently renting a room at a hotel to live there as a visitor is in fact engaging in a “double life,” a person who rents a two-room apartment lives a “broad life.” He described the scene of a doctor who prayed for his patient before performing the operation. And R. Hutner incredulously asked his student, “Tell me the truth…is the doctor who recites a chapter of Tehilim for the well-being of his ill patient living a double life?”[2]

R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l cited, in this context, the Mishnah’s dictum, “And all your acts should be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12), and HaRambam’s eloquent elaboration:
The result is that if one pursues this course during his entire lifetime, that he serves God constantly, even while he is conducting a commercial transaction, and even while copulating, inasmuch as his thought throughout is that he care for his needs so that he shall be physically sound in order to serve God.[3]
R. Lichtenstein wrote about the ideal life of “integrated diversity,” wherein “an analogous relation obtains between the pure study and teaching of Torah and advancing yishuvo shel olam.”[4] Indeed, R. Lichtenstein’s student, R. Michael Rosensweig remembered his mentor as embodying this ideal: “Rav Lichtenstein eschewed compartmentalization. His approach was seamlessly holistic.”[5] And his son, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, similarly wrote: “The dialectic of my father’s world is best described as a forward movement that harmonizes conflicting ideals by blending them into an integrated whole.”[6]

The various characters in Korah’s rebellion could not fathom a life of synthesis and integration. They claimed that any merging of the physical and spiritual in their lives would create an inconsistent “double life.” Aharon’s subsequent actions corrected this mistaken mindset. As the people of Am Yisrael were rapidly dying from a God-sent plague, he ran through the camp while clutching a fire-pan and incense (17:12). The fire-pan and incense represented absolute holiness. They were generally only used by a kohen in the Mishkan. And Am Yisrael’s camp at that time, the scene of mass of carnage, displayed the opposite reality of “this-worldliness.” Aharon’s life-restoring actions drew these contrasting realities together, as he effectively taught the lesson of synthesis.

Aharon’s actions taught Am Yisrael the lesson that Korah and his assembly could not possibly fathom. He caused them to realize that although certain aspects of our lives may seem “spiritual” and others “material,” they don’t necessarily contrast one another. He taught that when seen through the proper perspective, a diverse and multifaceted life need not exist as a “double life,” but rather as a “broad life.”

[1] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, HaAmek Davar to Bemidbar 16:1. See, as well, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein’s Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (Jersey City, NJ, 2008), pg. 133-41.
[2] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Igerot UKetavim (Brooklyn, NY, 1991), pg. 184-5.
[3] Hilkhot De’ot 3:3.
[4] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Varieties of Jewish Experience (Jersey City, NJ, 2011), pg. 269-80.
[5] A Life Steady and Whole: Recollections and Appreciations of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l (Brooklyn, NY, 2018), ed. Elka Weber and Joel B. Wolowelsky, pg. 178.
[6] Ibid., pg. 56.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Parashat Korah: Authenticity

A Message for Parashat Korah 2017
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The story of Korah’s uprising and subsequent demise are well-known. The larger context and details of his story generally fade from our minds, however, as we narrowly associate Korah with his bizarre ending. Similar to our difficulty with separating Esav from his lentil soup or distinguishing Bilaam from his donkey, we tend to identify Korah by his fatal fall into that gaping God-made pit. This tendency has unfortunately obscured our vision from the clear lessons of his story.

A full understanding of the unusual death of Korah requires a proper contextualization of its circumstances. The Torah is replete with rebellions punished by death. Although each uprising differed from the other in specific motives and outcomes, the general narrative is generally the same: rebellion against God or His messengers leads to ultimate death by seemingly natural causes such as fire, snake bites or defeat at battle. Why was Korah’s punishment so different? What was the underlying logic for punishing Korah and his assembly by means of the extraordinary death of the ground swallowing them alive?

The parashah first introduces Korah by means of his action – “va-yikah Korah – Korah took people along with him on his mission.[1] Indeed, this action quickly emerged as a recurring theme in his mission, as we are soon told that he “gathered” with his co-conspirers around Moshe and Aharon,[2] and then “gathered the whole community” against them.[3] This recurrent action reflects Korah’s extreme lack of self-identity and personal conviction. He was incapable of conducting this confrontation on his own, and instead needed to constantly turn to the opinion and support of others.

Korah’s articulation of his claim against Moshe and Aharon further highlights his deep-set flaw:

כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה' וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה'.
For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is God, and why should you raise yourselves up over God’s assembly? (Bemidbar 16:3)

Korah could not fathom the concept and value of individuality.
It is against this backdrop that God commanded Moshe and Aharon: “Divide yourselves from this community and I will put an end to them in an instant” (16:21). His demand stood in stark contrast to the actions of Korah, and encouraged a strong sense of authenticity and individuality.
At a defining moment of the controversy, Moshe was able to penetrate Korah’s deepest flaws, as he exclaimed:

הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן ה' וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם. וַיַּקְרֵב אֹתְךָ וְאֶת כָּל אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי לֵוִי אִתָּךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה.
Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of God’s Mishkan and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levi’im with you, do you seek the Kehunah too?

Moshe’s accusation pointed to a flaw that ran deeper than greed. Korah’s inability to suffice with his status as a Levi represented his inability to comfortably self-identify. Moshe was urging him to stop analyzing what others have, how they act or what they think and to instead focus on himself.

Korah’s lack of self-identity seems extreme. But is it really so different than our present state of being? Can we in fact find a sense of individuality in any realm of our lives? Philosopher Yehudah Gellman highly doubted it, and wrote:
This is the predicament of modern man. He is so saturated with reflexive portrayals of others’ lives, of others’ visions, of their forms of life, that he loses his authenticity.[4]
The close spatial proximity of our residences, social media’s tendency to reveal the private, and technology’s continued success at interconnecting all of humanity have rid us of the ability to think or act on our own. Our decisions are instead dictated by others. What “they think” and how “they act” have emerged as our moral compasses in navigating our own life’s paths. Do we stand a chance at achieving even a sliver of authenticity in our lifetimes?

Barely. The rabbis taught (Ta’anit 11a), “When a person dies all of his deeds are displayed before him.” The existential philosophers furthered this notion by suggesting that the path to authenticity in one’s lifetime is paved by an awareness of death. Consider, for example, the self-reflection of neurologist Oliver Sacks, weeks after discovering his life-ending disease:
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts…I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work, and my friends…When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual. To find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.[5]
The moment of death divorces man of a “they” vision, and forces him to examine his life and deeds through his “I” lenses.
There was no better punishment for the identity-lacking Korah than lowering him to death alive. It was in those few moments, as he descended into the ground and stared the Angel of Death straight in the eyes, that Korah could finally come to terms with his own self-identity.

Memento mori – remember that you have to die,” the slave positioned behind the victorious general would say upon his triumph in Ancient Rome. Several pesukim in Kohelet and Mishlei and various statements of the hakhamim similarly remind one that he will ultimately die. More than just a combative measure against haughtiness, this recognition serves to engender individuality and authenticity.

But perhaps death is not the only way. Maybe a few transformative moments can also do the trick. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl, was often asked, “What is the meaning of life?” In his Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote:
I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms…One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it…Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked…[6]
In those rare (but not that rare) moments of existential solitude, as the feelings of “I am different” begin to set in, stop and search for your true inner self. Fighting the instinct to immediately “gather together” with everyone else, seize the opportunity to “divide yourself” and to think about what you believe in, what you stand for and who you are.

[1] Based on Rashi’s second explanation to 16:1 (s.v. va-yikah).
[2] “They gathered around Moshe and Aharon…” (16:3).
[3] “Korah gathered the whole community against them at the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed” (16:19).
[4] Yehudah Gellman, “Teshuvah and Authenticity,” Tradition, 20 (3), Fall 1982, pg. 250.
[5] Oliver Sacks, “My Own Life,” reprinted in Gratitude (Toronto, Canada, 2015), pg. 18-20.
[6] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston, MA, 2006), pg. 108-9.