Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Role of 'Peshat' - Rashbam and HaRambam

Listen to last night's class, "The Role of 'Peshat' - Rashbam and HaRambam," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Much of the class was based upon Mordechai Z. Cohen's article, "A New Look at Medieval Jewish Exegetical Constructions of Peshat in Christian and Muslim Lands: Rashbam and Maimonides," in the recently-published Regional Identities and Cultures of Medieval Jews. Read it here.

2) We referenced a past class regarding Rashbam and Ibn Ezra's respective approaches to  peshat when it contradicts Hazal's halakhic derashot. Read R. Amon Bazak's discussion of this issue on the VBM website here

See, as well, R. Bazak's discussion of peshat and derash in the thought of HaRambam and his son R. Avraham here.

3) We discussed, at length, HaRambam's famous words at the beginning of Hil. Ishut, regarding kidushei kesef. Read a summary of many of the prominent approaches to this issue on the VBM website here.

Parashat Ekev: The Dangers of 'Too Much" Unity

The Dangers of 'Too Much' Unity
A Message for Parashat Ekev 2017
Click here to view as PDF
Moshe recounted the tragic aftermath of Ma’amad Har Sinai in Parashat Ekev. He remembered the stone tablets that God presented to him “on the day of the assembly” (9:10), the sudden demand that he descend the mountain and contend with the sinning nation at Het ha-Egel (12), and God’s will to destroy them and “wipe out their name” (14). Turning to the people who had gathered in his midst, Moshe beckoned them to examine their past. He urged them to grow from the failure and to make sure to never repeat it.

Moshe’s choice to retell the story of Het ha-Egel in full detail indicates a lesson beyond the sole prohibition of idolatry. He was seemingly urging the people to carefully analyze the story in search of the underlying flaws that led to catastrophe. Moshe was teaching that true growth means uncovering the mistakes that lay at the core of past actions. But he never revealed that secret. He left open the question of “What caused Het ha-Egel?” I believe that the responsibility to answer that question remains as important today as it did back then.
* * * *
Rashi famously cited the Hakhamim’s description of Am Yisrael’s unity as they approached Har Sinai. He wrote that they encamped “as one person with one heart.”[1] The Rabbis’ description of national unity as the prerequisite to receiving the Torah highlights its importance. The Torah’s precise wording in the ensuing episode of Het ha-Egel, however, seems to hint at an ironic threat that was present in that very unity.

As Moshe retold the story of Het ha-Egel, he curiously referenced Matan Torah as “the day of the assembly” (9:10). Indeed, the imagery of an “assembled nation” was a relevant theme to their subsequent sin, as initially told in Parashat Ki Tisa:
And the people saw that Moshe lagged in coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aharon and said to him, “Rise and make us gods that will go before us…” (Shemot 32:1)
Possessed by a common goal, the people banded together in unity to demand the creation of a calf. It appears, then, that the nation’s unity aided their sin. Did it cause it? To answer this question, we must first distinguish between “appropriate” unity, and “too much” unity.
* * * *
And God said, ‘As one people with one language for all, if this is what they begin to do.’ (Bereshit 11:6)
The Torah’s early history provided a cautionary tale regarding “too much” unity, at the Tower of Bavel. The story began with unity: “And all the earth was one language, one set of words” (1). It proceeded with the stated goal: “And they said, come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens,” and a purpose that was inspired by unity: “That we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth” (4). Discerning evil in their endeavor, God foiled the plan by baffling their languages and scattering them all over the earth (8). The tale of Migdal Bavel thus exists as the Torah’s stern warning about the dangers of “too much” unity.

In what way was the unity of the people at that time “too much”? R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, widely known as Nessiv, described this episode as the world’s first totalitarianism. The people’s “one language and one set of words” represented a suppressed freedom of expression whose purpose was to preserve the masses as a single entity – to “make a name for themselves.”[2]

God’s description of Het ha-Egel represented the chilling repetition of Migdal Bavel in a new context. He first told Moshe how the people had gathered together to create a structure that would rival the true God. He then added a seemingly irrelevant detail. God revealed the words that the people were chanting:
These are your gods, Yisrael, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Shemot 32:8)
Shifting the attention from the broader theme of the statement and focusing instead on its specific wording, the people’s description of themselves in the third-person – Yisrael – seems odd. It appears, however, that they were now invoking their national name, and declaring its significance. The story of Migdal Bavel had returned! A unified nation had now succeeded in the mission to build a structure which strengthened “their name.”

Moshe recalled God’s immediate reaction to the sin:
Leave me be, that I may destroy them and wipe out their name from under the heavens.” (Devarim 9:14)
God stated that destruction of the people’s physical traces would not suffice. The nation had reached the unhealthy state of “too much” unity, wherein they would sacrifice their individual rights and existence for the realization of a single entity – “a national name.” God therefore told Moshe that he sought more than destruction of the people – he was determined to “wipe out their name.”
* * * *
It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress. (John Stuart Mill)[3]

Best-selling author and legal-scholar Cass Sunstein highlighted the novelty of America’s founding fathers. He explained:
The Constitution’s framers made a substantial break with conventional republican thought, focusing on the potential benefits of diversity for democratic debate. Indeed, it is here that we can find the framers’ greatest and most original contribution to political theory. For them, heterogeneity, far from being an obstacle, would be a creative force, improving deliberation and producing better outcomes.[4]
Indeed, the United States of America was built on the grounds of “appropriate” unity. It was purposed to set forth a healthy blend of a shared vision and common goals with the freedom of individual expression.
* * * *
Het ha-Egel was born out of a national unity that had grown unhealthy. Individual thought and rationality were suspended in the national effort to solidify “Yisrael” as a single entity. It became impossible to hear the individual voices of dissent above the deafening roar of “These are your gods, Yisrael!

Standing on the heels of Tisha be-Av, many of us have set our minds upon building national and communal unity. The broader storyline of Ma’amad Har Sinai – viewed from its initial beginnings through its ultimate aftermath – must guide us in this endeavor. It must encourage us to come together as a nation and community by embracing common goals and objectives, but to always leave space for the diversity of thought and opinion.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 19:2, s.v. va-yihan.
[2] HaAmek Davar to Bereshit 11:1-9. See, as well, R. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible vol. 1 (New Milford, CT, 2009), pg. 53-5.
[3] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, 7th ed. (London, UK, 1909), bk., 3, ch. 17.
[4] Cass R. Sunstein, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (Princeton, NJ, 2017), Pg. 49-50

Hazal and Social Realities

Listen to Sunday morning's class, "Hazal and Social Realities," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read R .Yosef Bronstein's article for Lehrhaus, upon which the class was based, here.

2) Read R. Yisshak Nissim's relevant teshuvah regarding women's study of Torah she-be'al peh here.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Parashat VaEthanan: Experience

A Message for Parashat VaEthanan 2018
Click here to view as PDF
Parashat VaEthanan continues Moshe’s final address to Am Yisrael. It opens with him recounting his recent plea to God to cross over into the Land of Israel. Without any explanation, however, Moshe then segued into his recollection of Ma’amad Har Sinai, which took place during their first year in the wilderness. What was the connection between these two disparate events, separated by nearly forty years of travel in the midbar?

Consider, for a moment, the various activities that you are involved with over the course of your life. They can be separated into two categories. Finding a job, making money and getting married are examples of activities with a clear “finish line.” Linguists refer to these sorts of ambitions as “telic,” derived from the Greek word telos, which means “end.” We engage in these activities with the stated goal of arriving at a terminal state when they are completed. “Atelic” activities, however, do not aim at any point of achievement. Listening to music, spending time with friends or family and taking a walk with no particular destination are all atelic. You can stop doing these things whenever you wish, but they will never be “done.” Baring no “finish line,” atelic activities enjoy an endless lifespan.

Kieran Setiya, a professor of philosophy at MIT, suggested that our general displeasure with life and feelings of emptiness arise from our singular focus on telic ambitions. The goals that we set ensnare us in these unpleasant states of being. The unattainable goals cause frustration and the attainable ones engender boredom. He wrote:
The way out is to find sufficient value in atelic activities, activities that have no point of conclusion or limit, ones whose fulfillment lies in the moment of action itself. To draw meaning from such activities is to live in the present…[1]
Setiya explained that while we tend to see most of our lifelong activities as telic, a shifted mindset can be the easy solution for appreciating their atelic dimension. Consider, for example, when parents cook dinner for their children, help them finish their homework and put them to bed. They understandably see these activities through the single lens of “getting it done.” In reality, however, mothers and fathers are constantly involved in the atelic development of “parenting.” Setiya explained: “Unlike dinner and homework, parenting is complete at every instant; it is a process, not a project.”[2] He argued that we will discover an emotional stability and meaning to life when we couple our focus on necessary goals with an interest in “limitless” activities.

In a letter sent to a student at summer camp, R. Yisshak Hutner z”l defined the telic and atelic dimensions of studying Torah. He referred to the biblical references of Torah as a “sha’ashu’a” – a “plaything,”[3] explaining that whereas most activities in life are driven by a specific goal, playing has no goal beyond itself. The purpose of playing is the playing itself. R. Hutner explained that although our talmud Torah must set goals of knowledge and practice, its study must nonetheless entail the joy of playing, as well, by appreciating its learning experience for the experience itself. Studying Torah, then, is both “work” – with regards to its practical implications, and “play” – with regards to its experience.[4] Prof. Yaakov Elman summarized R. Hutner’s insight: “The joy of intellectual discovery is the very essence of talmud Torah; without it, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of talmud Torah.”[5]

As Moshe began recalling the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai, he warned:
Only be you on the watch and watch yourself closely, lest you forget the things that your own eyes have seen and lest they swerve from your heart – all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your sons and to your son’s sons: the day that you stood before Hashem your God at Horev… (Devarim 4:9-10)
Moshe did not simply caution them from forgetting the words and messages of the Torah. Instead, he conspicuously demanded that they eternalize the experience of its reception. Standing before the nation several days before his death, Moshe first voiced his frustration at failing at his goal of entering into Israel. He then taught them the lesson of his disappointment from that failure – a proper perspective on life. Never denying the necessity of setting goals and accomplishing them – as he repeated the missvot received at Sinai, Moshe cautioned the people to appreciate the atelic dimensions of life, as well.  By demanding that Am Yisrael eternally remember the experience of matan Torah, Moshe was guiding them – and us – to appreciate the “limitless” dimensions of life.

[1] Kieran Setiya, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton, NJ, 2017), pg. 144
[2] Ibid., pg. 141.
[3] See, Tehillim 119:92 and Mishlei 8:30-1.
[4] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Igerot UKetavim (Brooklyn, NY, 1991), no. 2.
[5] Yaakov Elman, “Pahad Yitzak: A Joyful Song of Affirmation,” Hakirah 20 (Winter 2015), Pg. 49.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Entering a Non-Kosher Restaurant

Listen to last night's class, "Entering a Non-Kosher Restaurant," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Parashat VaEthanan: Separation

A Message for Parashat VaEthanan 2017
Click here to view as PDF

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)[1]
Moshe continued his final address to the people in Parashat Va-Et’hanan. He began with a brief retelling of Ma’amad Har Sinai, and then segued into various warnings and rebukes of the people. In the midst of this narrative he made a surprising statement:
And God was incensed with me because of your words and he swore not to let me cross the Jordan and not to let me come into the goodly land that Hashem your God is about to give you in estate. (4:21)
His words implied that it was Am Yisrael’s fault for his barred entrance into the Land of Israel. Indeed, Moshe had recently made a similar declaration, as recorded in last week’s parashah. In the context of his retelling of God’s punishment for the sin of the spies, he declared:
Against me, too, God was incensed because of you, saying, “You, too, shall not come there…” (1:37)
Why did he say this? Moshe surely remembered his own actions at Mei Merivah, when God had subsequently informed him, “Since you did not trust Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the nation, even so you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given to them” (Bemidbar 20:12). Why, then, did he now deflect the responsibility from himself to the nation?
* * * *
Ramban dealt with a different textual difficulty regarding Moshe’s recollection. He was troubled by its specific context in this week’s parashah. What was the relevance of Moshe’s denied entrance into Israel to Ma’amad Har Sinai and his various warnings and rebukes? Ramban pointed to Moshe’s reminiscence several sentences earlier, when he detailed God’s command to him upon reception of the luhot:
And God charged me at that time to teach you statutes and laws for you to do in the land into which you are crossing over to take hold of it. (4:14)
Ramban thus suggested that Moshe was now setting forth the rationale for his subsequent explanation of the laws of the Torah. He was fulfilling his responsibility to teach them because he would soon die.[2]

By connecting Moshe’s obligation to teach the people with his barred entrance into Israel, Ramban unwittingly opened a passageway for us to make sense of Moshe’s puzzling attribution of his punishment to the nation.
* * * *
On its most basic level, God’s command that Moshe “teach the statutes and laws” meant that he elaborate upon their various details. More fundamentally, however, this charge constituted Moshe’s obligation to interpret the Torah, to explain its laws and to pinpoint their relevance to practical situations. In a word, God’s command to Moshe at that time began the tradition of Torah she-Be’al Peh – the Oral Law.

God’s stated system for transmitting the Oral Law, however, posed a problem. Although it was necessary for Moshe – as emissary of God – to first introduce the rules and methods for interpreting the Torah, his continued role as sole decisor of the law would threaten a developmental stagnancy. The system of halakhah, received from God, was meant to be dynamic within its received structure. The existence of a “sole authority” would undermine that function. It would stifle any hope of future creative interpretation, effectively shuttering all batei midrash before they could ever open. And even if Moshe were to personally open the study halls and encourage others to engage in the process of original pesak halakhah, who would dare to speak up and voice their opinion in the presence of Moshe?

In his Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud presented an imaginative description of the life, death and enduring legacy of Moshe. Freud illustrated a core theme of the work by quoting from German poet Friedrich von Schiller:
All that is to live in endless song
Must in life-time first be drown’d.[3]
Freud wrote that sometimes for a tradition to take hold the “messenger has to be killed.” Noted philosopher Jonathan Lear suggested that the world of philosophy owes its existence to this phenomenon. Plato was motivated to invent “philosophy” by the murder of his mentor Socrates. He did so as an act of mourning and longing for the lost wisdom of his teacher.[4]

Patrick Miller noted that the “closing” of the Torah was coincidental with the death of Moshe “in a real sense.” He explained that Moshe “now moves off the scene, and Israel henceforth will not be led by a great authority figure but by the living word of the Torah that Moses taught.”[5]  The Hakhamim perhaps hinted at a similar phenomenon regarding Moshe’s death. They taught that following his death, 1,700 derashot of the Torah were forgotten, but that Otniel ben Kenaz, a later leader of the people, heroically restored them with his “sharpness.” This process of initial forgetfulness and its subsequent “restoration” was, in a sense, the successful continuity of Torah she-Be’al Peh.[6]

As Moshe recounted the initial stages of the oral tradition, he pondered the system’s enduring strengths and deficiencies. And he then understood God’s decree that he must soon die.

Moshe realized that the system’s vitality depended upon its adherents’ courage and creativity, and realized that he paradoxically stood as the obstacle in their path. Political scientist Aaron Wildavsky explained:
Moses the eternal teacher would then instead be Moses the permanent master. What Moses teaches in Deuteronomy is not just law but institutions for the transmission of law, continuity of leadership to make the law effective. It is better for the people that Moses die physically than that his character be assassinated morally.[7]
Moshe flashed back to the nation’s first display of unhealthy over-dependence upon others, during the sin of the meragelim. The nation then showed that they were incapable of marching ahead without the constant guidance and advice of others. And he now realized that his continued presence threatened the persistence of that flaw.
* * * *
One might say that the difficulty of rearing children has to do with the ambiguities of independence. The child must be separate from the parent; the parent must allow the child to discover his or her own reality…But this separation, though necessary, is a complex and often tormented experience…In the act of creation, there is perhaps inevitable sadness, as the work works itself loose from the vision.
(Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg)[8]

As a parent and teacher, I am often reminded of this lesson of Moshe. It is at the “transition periods” that I feel it most – when my children mature and grow more independent or when my students graduate and move away. In those moments, when my role in their lives begins to change and sometimes diminish, I reflect upon the core lessons that I have attempted to teach and remind myself that separation is sometimes necessary for maximal growth.

[1] “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied,” in Collected Poems (New York, NY, 2011), pg. 562.
[2] Commentary of Ramban to the Torah, Devarim 4:21-4.
[3] Cited from Schiller’s The Gods of Greece, in Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (New York, NY, 1967), pg. 130.
[4] Jonathan Lear, Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life (Cambridge, MA, 2002), pg. 102-3.
[5] Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY, 2011), pg. 244.
[6] Temurah 16a. See, as well, R. Yisshak Hutner’s Pahad Yisshak: Hanukkah (ma’amar 3, no. 3) and William Kollbrener’s article for Lehrhaus, “Killing Off the Rav (So He May Live),” May 15, 2017 <http://www.thelehrhaus.com/commentary-short-articles/2017/5/14/killing-off-the-rav>.
[7] Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader (Jerusalem, IS, 2005), pg. 188.
[8] The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 20.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Parashat Devarim: Leadership

A Message for Parashat Devarim 2018
Click here to view as PDF
Sefer Devarim presents Moshe’s final mission as the leader of Am Yisrael. Understanding that he would soon die and that the nation would then enter the Land of Israel, he prepared them for a future without him. Instead of speaking about the future challenges that lay ahead, however, Moshe turned to the past and recounted their forty years of shared experiences in the midbar.

Am Yisrael stood on the brinks of a historic transition into an independent homeland. They were in dire need of vision for the future. Why, then, did Moshe focus primarily on their past history instead of on the future that lay ahead?

I believe that Moshe based his decision upon a deep understanding of the people’s mindset at that time. Am Yisrael had suspended all prospective thinking over the course of their forty-year journey in the wilderness. In a state of constant search for signs from above – “By God’s word Bnei Yisrael would journey onward” (Bemidbar 9:18) – the people relinquished any control over their future. Moshe needed to shift the people’s collective consciousness by redirecting the trajectory of their thought from the present to the future. But how could he do so?

Theoretical biologists refer to our ability to learn via stimulus and response as a “remembered present.” (For example: After touching the oven and burning my hand I understand that I shouldn’t touch the oven again). A “remembered future,” however, is when we retain memory traces even when the stimulus is no longer present. (For example: After touching the oven and burning my hand, I now understand that it is harmful to touch anything boiling hot in the future). [1] Following two centuries of slavery and several more decades of blind wanderings in the desert, Am Yisrael was stuck in a state of “remembered present.” They were trained to think in the present and could not even fathom planning for the future. Moshe understood, however, that “future thinking” begins with the ability to draw insights from the past. And so, he began to teach them their history.

Viewing Sefer Devarim through the lenses of Moshe’s mission to build an independently future-thinking nation, we may better understand several of his surprising statements in our parashah.
At the beginning of his talk to the people, Moshe remembered:
And I said to you at that time, saying, “I cannot carry you by myself…Oh, how can I carry by myself your trouble and your burden and your disputing? Get you wise and understanding and knowing men according to your tribes, and I shall set them at your head.” And you answered me and said, “The thing that you have spoken is good to do.” (Devarim 1:9-14)
Moshe’s retelling of the episode of the judges’ appointments differs from its earlier description in the Torah. In Parashat Yitro (Shemot 18:13-26), it was Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro who suggested that he appoint judges, after which Moshe forced the system onto the nation. In Moshe’s retelling at this time, however, it was he who realized his inability to lead alone and then turned to the nation for their approval of the new judicial system.

Moshe made a similar change in his reminiscence of the story of the meragelim:
“And you came forward to me, all of you, and you said: ‘Let us send men before us that they probe the land for us and bring back word to us of the way on which we should go up and the towns into which we should come.’ And the thing was good in my eyes, and I took from you twelve men, one man for each tribe. (Devarim 1:22-3)
Whereas Parashat Shelah (Bemidbar 13-14) presented the meragelim’s mission as God’s command, Moshe now remembered it differently. He recounted the people’s self-insight and consultation with him regarding the plan – “And you came forward to me,” and his own approval – “And the thing was good in my eyes.”

Prominent Jewish thinker Micha Goodman suggested that Moshe was driven by a shared motive in each of these deliberate “rewritings.” He was aware of his central role in the nation’s history, and now wished to diminish it. Moshe rebranded his leadership role from being the sole conveyor of God’s will to the sensitive figure who was attentive to the heartbeat of the nation.[2] By placing the people at the focus of past decisions, Moshe empowered them to courageously tackle future decisions by learning from the strengths of their past.

Indeed, leadership experts consistently stress the importance of empowering the people to lead. Consider, for example, the description of several leadership gurus:
Authentic leaders recognize that leadership is not about their success or about getting loyal subordinates to follow them. They know the key to a successful organization is having empowered leaders at all levels, including those who have no direct reports. They not only inspire those around them, they empower those individuals to step up and lead.[3]
Best-selling author and billionaire Ray Dalio similarly explained that authoritarian managers don’t develop subordinates, which means that those who report to them stay dependent. And systems built upon dependency are weak, as they often collapse when the constituents grow tired of silent obedience. Dalio warned: “When you are the only one thinking, the results will suffer.”[4]

As he pondered the future of a nation that depended upon his central role for so many years, Moshe realized that his absence would leave them powerless. He knew that in order to transition the people from their “present-thinking” consciousness to one of future perspective he needed to first build their sense of history. Moshe thus began teaching them their history while carefully tweaking the details in order to decentralize himself and empower the people. Informed of a history of self-strength, the people could now march into the future with confidence.

[1] For a survey of the recent research and studies in this field, see Oren Harman’s Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 228-230.
[2] Micha Goodman, Moses’ Final Oration (Or Yehuda, IS, 2014), pg. 21-2.
[3] Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. Mclean and Dianna Mayer, “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” in Harvard Business Reviews Ten Must-Reads on Leadership (Boston, MA, 2011), pg. 176.
[4] Ray Dalio, Principles (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 466.

Parashat Devarim: Daring Greatly

Daring Greatly
A Message for Parashat Devarim 2017
Click here to view as PDF
Parashat Devarim presents the opening remarks of Moshe’s final address to Am Yisrael. The generation that left Egypt had deceased, and Moshe was now facing their children, who were poised to soon enter the Land of Israel. Though a cursory reading of the parashah’s general narrative seems to set forth several disparate past experiences which were haphazardly presented by Moshe, a sensitive analysis may instead reveal a pervading theme of confidence and inner strength.

The parashah begins by setting the context. The location: “Across the Jordan in the wilderness in the Aravah opposite Suph between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Di-Zahav…” (1:2). The date: “It was in the fortieth year in the eleventh month on the first of the month…” (3). And the temporal relevance: “After he had struck down Sihon king of the Amorite who dwelled in Heshbon and Og king of the Bashan…” (4). Following their success in recent battles, Am Yisrael raised their eyes to the horizon and excitedly gazed upon the edge of the Land of Israel. And in that moment Moshe began to feel the nervous pangs of déjà vu.

He immediately recalled the days following Ma’amad Har Sinai:
Hashem our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, “Long enough you have stayed at this mountain. Turn and journey onward…See I have given the land before you. Come and take hold of the land that God swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yisshak and to Yaakov…” (6-8)
As Moshe beheld the optimistic group of young men and women standing before him, he couldn’t help but remember the nearly identical situation which he had experienced nearly forty years earlier. And he then realized that he must now encourage this new generation to learn from the mistakes of their forefathers.

Where should he begin? What point in the nation’s history would best highlight the dangers inherent in their current situation? The incessant complaints of the first generation? Their sin of the golden calf? Moshe had a different plan. He first recounted his personal thoughts from back at the beginning of their journey:
“Oh, how can I carry by myself your trouble and your burden and your disputing? (12)
He then remembered his solution:
And I took the heads of your tribes, wise and knowing men, and I made them heads over you… (15)
What was the relevance of this historical event to Am Yisrael at this time?

Without any explanation, Moshe continued:
And I said to you: “You have come to the high country of the Amorite which Hashem our God is about to give us. See, Hashem your God has given the land before you. Go up, take hold, as Hashem God of your fathers has spoken to you. Be not afraid nor be dismayed.” (20-21)
He then admitted that those words of inspiration never took hold:
And you came forward to me, all of you, and you said, “Let us send before us that they probe the land for us and bring back word to us of the way on which we should go up and the towns into which we should come.” And the matter was good in my eyes… (22-23)
He recalled the punishment for the sin of the meragelim – death to the entire generation, took pause to note the exception of the spies who had set themselves apart – Yehoshua and Calev, and then continued with the highlight reel of their history.

What was Moshe’s core lesson at this time? What was the specific relevance of the judge appointments at this juncture? And what were these people supposed to learn from the sin of the meragelim?

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable. (Madeleine L’Engle)[1]

Our society lives with the constant thoughts of “never enough.” Global activist Lynne Twist in fact noted that our first waking thought of the day is usually “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is generally “I don’t have enough time.” And the “never enough” syndrome often continues to plague us throughout the day.[2]

In her best-selling book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown posited that the counterapproach to living a life of “never enough” is not about abundance. It is rather what she refers to as “Wholeheartedness.” At the core of Wholeheartedness is vulnerability and worthiness. It is about “facing uncertainty, exposure and emotional risks and knowing that I am enough.”[3] Acknowledging the grim reality, confidently facing the ensuing feelings of vulnerability while still believing that you can achieve is to dare greatly.
* * * *
As Moshe gazed at the fresh generation of Am Yisrael on the brinks of entrance into the Promised Land, he recognized that look in their eyes. He had seen it in their parents’ eyes forty years earlier. It was a look that mixed the excitement of a new adventure with the doubts of uncertainty. Though they truly wanted to conquer the land that had long been promised to their forefathers, they didn’t actually believe that they could do it.

Clearing his throat, Moshe began his lesson by reviewing the past. He validated their feelings of vulnerability, but urged them to achieve something that their forefathers were unable to do. He tasked them to dare greatly.

Typifying his greatness as a leader, Moshe began by professing his own past mistakes in this regard. He first recalled that God’s initial message to the people consisted of words of encouragement – “See I have given the land before you...Come and take hold of the land!” But he then admitted his own feelings of “not enough” at that time, describing how he had felt overwhelmed by the “burden” of single-handedly leading a nation of such magnitude. And he recounted that he had succumbed to the pressure and feelings of incapability. He had complained about the difficulty and then sought to deflect it by delegating the judicial responsibilities which were previously his own.

Moshe continued his story, remembering that as the nation continued their journey he had attempted to raise their confidence by exclaiming: “See, Hashem your God has given the land before you. Go up, take hold…Be not afraid nor be dismayed!” But his message had fallen upon deaf ears. The people couldn’t find the inner strength to overcome their feelings of weakness, so they turned to Moshe and begged him to send scouts ahead of them to Israel. The return of the meragelim furthered the people’s submittal to anxiety. Moshe remembered how they had cowardly “grumbled in their tents” (1:27), as they doubted their ability to conquer the land.

He now revealed to the people standing in front of him why the members of the past generation were unfit to enter the Land of Israel. He subtly explained that a soldier who lacks courage and conviction cannot be trusted to conquer a country. But Moshe reminded them how two men had stood out at that time: Calev and Yehoshua. Possessed by an inner strength to dare greatly, they stared down the fear and overcame their feelings of vulnerability by declaring “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it” (Bemidbar 13:30). Moshe now assured the people that those two men were indeed suited to enter the Land.

The sermon continued. Moshe told how God had several times averted the previous generation from battles with the encountered nations. He contrasted the past to their present situation, reminding the people of their recent success at battle with Sihon and Og. As his talk of encouragement winded to an end, Moshe revealed to the people the content of his recent talk with their future leader, Yehoshua. It was an identical message:
And I charged Yehoshua at that time, saying: “Your own eyes have seen all that Hashem your God did to these two kings. So shall God do to all the kingdoms into which you are about to cross. You shall not fear them, for it is Hashem your God Who does battle for you.” (3:21-22)

As the lesson ended, the message was clear. Moshe advised the “new generation” to stand up to the feelings of weakness and vulnerability in a way that he and the previous generation had failed to do. He encouraged them to “not fear.” And he urged them – and us – to dare greatly.

[1] Cited by Brené Brown, in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 43.
[2] Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money (New York, NY, 2003), pg. 43-5.
[3] Daring Greatly, pg. 29.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

R. Ovadia Seforno & Humanism

Listen to Monday night's class, "R. Ovadia Seforno & Humanism," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read R. Hayim Angel's "Text and Historical Motivations Behind the Commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah Sfrono on the Torah" here.

2) Read Avigail Rock's discussion of Seforno's commentary, on the VBM website, here.

3) Read Moshe Rachimi's "פולמוס יהודי-נוצרי סמוי בפירושו של רבי עובדיה ספורנו לתורה" here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Restoring Semikhah (2)

Listen to this morning's class, "Restoring Semikhah (2)," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Parashat Masei: Focus

A Message for Parashat Masei 2018
Click here to view as PDF
Nearly half of the pesukim in Parashat Masei are a basic “travel log” of the various journeys of Am Yisrael in the wilderness. Following God’s command, Moshe meticulously recorded each of the forty-two places where the nation stopped.[1] Surprisingly, however, there is hardly any mention of what took place at those stops. Most of the places are instead solely mentioned as part of a long list of locations along the forty-year journey. What lesson can we learn from the mere mention of these many masa’ot?

R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l, the former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, once described his personal path to faith in God. He initially recalled some of the philosophical doubts and difficulties that he experienced in his youth but then explained that his faith was ultimately formed through the various chance “encounters” with God in his life. He wrote:
In part is has been channeled – primarily through talmud Torah…but also through tefillah and the performance of mitzvot…In part it has been random – moments of illumination while getting on a crowded bus or watching children play in a park at twilight.
Stressing the essential role of those experiences to his self-growth, Rav Aharon wrote: “In its totality…whatever the form and content, it has been the ultimate basis of spiritual life.”[2]

R. Lichtenstein explained that although our intellectual assent is essential, at the personal level it is not the key. He movingly stated: “The primary human source of faith is faith itself.”[3] The encounters with God which we desire cannot be anticipated. They are driven by a source of faith which is unscripted and unpredictable. I am convinced, however, that although we cannot will those “chance meetings” with God, we can nonetheless cultivate an approach to life which engenders such encounters.

Charles Lindbergh once described his experience inside the cockpit of The Spirit of St. Louis, which he famously flew across the Atlantic alone. He wrote:
My cockpit is small, and its walls are thin: but inside this cocoon I feel secure, despite the speculations of mind … I become minutely conscious of details in my cockpit – of the instruments, the levers, the angles of construction. Each item takes on a new value. I study weld marks on the tubing…a dot of radiolite on the altimeter’s face…the battery of fuel valves…all such things which I never considered much before, are now obvious and important…I may be flying a complicated airplane, rushing through space, but in this cabin I’m surrounded by simplicity and thoughts set free of time.[4]
Bestselling author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pointed to Lindbergh’s experience as an ideal approach to engagement with the world. He explained that a focused attention on the environment relieves us of thought about ourselves. Instead of expending energy and time to satisfy our own supposed needs, our attention is set alert to processing information from our surroundings. This stance opens the possibility for an objective vision and an awareness of alternative possibilities.[5]

In order to create an environment for encounter with God in our lives we must similarly shift our attention from internal concerns to thoughts about the external. His presence and approach can only be felt if we are sensitively attuned to our surroundings. Perhaps that is the essential lesson of the Torah’s long list of Am Yisrael’s journey locations in the midbar. A nation that had endured slavery for more than two centuries had become incapable of adjusting their sights from their own pain and suffering to the world around them. They were unaware of and disinterested in their surroundings. The forty-two stops along their journey – most of which were generally uneventful – forced them to pay attention. Each and every one of those locations, then, was significant for their growth. They encountered new surroundings which caused them to search for a world and existence that lay outside of them.

Am Yisrael’s seemingly meaningless journeyings in the midbar opened them to the opportunities for “random moments of illumination” with God. The Torah’s mention of those many masa’ot reminds us that in order to “randomly” experience God in our lives we must shift our focus from its fixed-state on ourselves to the world outside of us.

[1] Based on the Commentary of Ramban to 33:2.
[2] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning vol. 2 (Jersey City, NJ, 2004), pg. 366.
[3] Ibid., pg, 367.
[4] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis (New York, NY, 1953), pg. 227-8.
[5] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, NY, 1990), pg. 204-5.