Friday, August 31, 2018

Elul: Mindset

Thoughts on Teshuvah 2018
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The whole essence of the precept of repentance is longing, yearning, pining to return again to being “before You.” (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik)[1]

HaRambam began the third chapter of his Hilkhot Teshuvah (3:1) with a tiered classification of people:
A person whose merits exceed his sins is a saddik. A person whose sins exceed his merits is a rasha. If his sins and merits are equal, he is termed a beinoni.
Several lines later (3:3), he explained this system’s relevance to our judgment on Rosh HaShanah:
…The sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found saddik, his verdict is sealed for life. If one is found rasha, his verdict is sealed for death. A beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his verdict is sealed for life. If not, his verdict is sealed for death.
Taken at first glance, this structure appears volatile, as it allows for a status shift from one extreme to the other with a single action in a mere moment. R. Yisshak Hutner z”l found it inconceivable for God’s judicial system to be governed by a stream of constant fluctuation. He therefore suggested that these standings of sadik, rasha and beinoni represent more than the sum of many actions. They define the midah ba-nefesh – “trait of the soul” – of each individual, which can only change by means of genuine repentance.[2]

This fresh perspective regarding our very essence as human beings and the general mission of this time period requires further clarity.

The well-known psychologist Carol Dweck distinguished between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. She explained that a person with a fixed mindset approaches challenges within a static and unalterable framework. They believe that current habits and skills cannot be changed, and that accepting their present reality is the best hope for success. A person with a growth mindset, in contrast, understands that their basic qualities can be cultivated through effort, strategies and help from others. Their success is thus driven by realizing that they can cause change through application and experience.[3]

Reflecting upon these different mindsets reminds me of a meaningful story that was shared with me by a middle-aged man, nearly twenty years ago. He told me about a life-changing event that took place during the difficult period after his mother’s passing, several years earlier. During his first week of mourning, a rabbi came to pay his respects and handed him a book on the “basics of Judaism.” The man began to read from it. The initial chapters listed many of the interpersonal missvot of the Torah. Encouraged by the positive messages regarding sedakah and gemilut hasadim, actions which he already engaged in regularly, the man continued reading. And then he turned to the page which would haunt him for several months thereafter. It described the absolute importance of observing Shabbat. Feeling that he could not commit to this missvah, he swiftly put down the book and hid it on his bookshelf. The very thought of such a drastic change to the life he had long lived was uncomfortable. Using Dweck’s terminology we may say that he was then entrenched in a fixed mindset. But when he found his mind returning to the contents of that page several months later, he hesitatingly pulled the book off the shelf. And as he began to read again from the place where he had left off, the man made the life-changing decision to shift into a growth mindset. He committed himself to a religious growth and expansion that he had previously deemed impossible.

The rasha, sadik and beinoni are separated by an integral character trait that defines their very souls and existence. Whereas the rasha perceives his spiritual world through a fixed mindset, the sadik’s vision is tinted by growth and the beinoni unpredictably wavers between the conflicting perspectives. HaRambam’s description of “sins and merits,” then, refers not to a quantitative sum, but rather to a quality of outlook.

HaRambam wrote that the days leading up to and following Rosh HaShanah are marked by a repentance that is focused on achieving the status of sadik. Beyond the general focus on individual actions, this teshuvah must aim at a realigned mindset. R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l relatedly spoke about a teshuvah which emphasizes “the sin of averting one’s gaze from God and focusing instead upon alternative concerns.” Beyond the sins of confrontation, this repentance focuses on the core beginnings of those actions: a sense of apathy and failure to relate.[4] Turning away from the fixed perspectives of our past, we enter this world of teshuvah by shifting to the mindset of the sadik – the mindset of growth.

[1] On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 28.
[2] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Rosh Hashanah (Brooklyn, NY, 2008), ma’amar 18.
[3] Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York, NY, 2016).
[4] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God (New Milford, CT, 2016), pg. 161.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Truths of Halakhah (2)

Listen to this morning's class, "Truths of Halakhah (2)," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

Read Moshe Halbertal's "The History of Halakhah, Views from Within: Three Medieval Approaches to Tradition and Controversy" here.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Elul: Creativity

Thoughts on Teshuvah 2018
Click here to view as PDF
At the very onset of his Hilkhot Teshuvah, HaRambam wrote:
If a person transgressed any of the commandments of the Torah – whether a positive command or a negative command, whether willingly or inadvertently – when he repents and turns away from his sin he is obliged to confess before God…
He described a system where teshuvah responds to its most objective context. Following sin, a person must regret their wrongdoing, verbally confess it and commit to act differently. Absent from this picture, however, is a more nuanced approach to mending a fractured relationship with God. A process of that nature would need to expand the focus from concrete actions to the subjective realm of thought and emotion. The first several chapters of Hilkhot Teshuvah make no mention of that concept.

The general contours of teshuvah begin to expand, however, with HaRambam’s words at the beginning of the fifth chapter:
Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.
Stressing our freedom of choice, these words diverged from the strictly structured system of return which was previously described. Accordingly, HaRambam then mentioned the need to repent from negative character traits – anger, hatred, envy, frivolity, etc. – each of which necessarily defies the clear-cut definitions of missvot and averot.[1]

This broader vision of teshuvah emerges as the passage to restoring a lost relationship with God:
Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by God, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear.[2]
Merely straightening our actions which have become skewed cannot bring back a lost emotional bond. Returning to that past communion must instead entail a complete reconstruction of our self-identity.

A transformation of this sort is no simple feat. It requires our steadfast commitment to creative vision. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l wrote about the central role of creativity to teshuvah:
A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception. When he finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner. Man, through repentance creates himself, his own “I.”[3]
Making sense of past mistakes and realigning ourselves with our innermost ideals means tapping into our creative soul and reformulating our very being.

Hilkhot Teshuvah, then, maps out a system of return that begins with a clearly defined structure and ends with the endless possibilities of creativity. The Hakhamim intuited a similar reality in our general approach to Torah. Consider the description of the first luhot:
The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon (“harut”) the tablets. (Shemot 32:16)
Chiseled by God onto the stone tablets that He crafted, the words of the luhot seem impenetrable. Paradoxically, however, R. Yehoshua b. Levi pointed to this very reality when he stated that “no one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study.”[4] Homiletically reading the word limiting word “harut” (incised) as “herut” (free), he realized the potential freedom of future interpretation of the Torah in the initial reception of the luhot. The well-known Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim captured this irony when he referred to the “double astonishment” at that time, beginning with “terror at a Presence, at once divine and commanding,” which then emerged as “joy at a Grace which restores and exalts human freedom by its commanding Presence.”[5] The flourishing life of Torah’s creative expression came forth from the narrow straits of a contained beginning.

Our careful reading of Hilkhot Teshuvah revealed a process that resembles our approach to Torah. Each process begins on a path of a strict obedience which then expands into the freedom of creative expression. This should come as no surprise. Teshuvah and Torah represent ideal paths to establishing a relationship with God. The roots for growth in any relationship are nourished by adherence to precise guidelines which set the grounds for the flowers that are blossomed through thought and emotion.

In our quest for a renewed relationship with God, we must begin along the strictly-defined path of “If a person transgressed…when he repents…he is obliged to confess before God.” Setting the groundwork for the communion, we may then cautiously proceed into the realm of “Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed…Now he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear.”

[1] Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:3.
[2] Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:6.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia, PA, 1983), pg. 113.
[4] Masekhet Avot 6:2.
[5] Emil Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections (New York, NY, 1970), pg. 15-16.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Melting Cheese on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Melting Cheese on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read the full teshuvah from Shu"t Heshev HaEfod (1.34), from which we quoted in the class, here.

2) Several months ago we dealt with the other issue related to grilled cheese sandwiches - making toast on Shabbat. Listen to that class here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Parashat Shofetim: Be Clear!

Be Clear!
A Message for Parashat Shofetim 2016
Click here to view as PDF
לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים וְלֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.
You shall not skew judgment. You shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent. (Devarim 16:19)

וְאַתָּה תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי מִקִּרְבֶּךָ כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה'.
…You shall root out the innocent blood from your midst, for you shall do what is straight in God’s eyes. (Devarim 21:9)

Parashat Shofetim is bookended by the theme of “straightness.” It begins with the warnings of skewed judgment and concludes with the hope that all will “do what is straight in God’s eyes.” In the interim statements of Moshe, he warned twice not to “swerve right or left,” which effectively established “straightness” as a dominant theme of the parashah.

It is easy to describe the concept of an unbending direction in the context of actual locations or coordinates. I can demonstrate the definition by walking in a direct line from one end of the room to the other or by using a ruler to draw a line from one point to another. Defining straightness of character, however, is difficult. Although we may intuit the “straight” approach in any given situation, the Torah’s demand of a systematic implementation of “straightness” runs the risks of vagueness and ambiguity.

It is in light of this particular difficulty that we may appreciate the deliberate context of each mention of “straightness” in Parashat Shofetim.

The unswerving justice demanded of the judges at the onset of the parashah takes form through the practical injunction against accepting bribes. Moshe perhaps anticipated confusion surrounding his ambiguous demand of “you shall not skew judgment,” and immediately followed it with a clear path to implementation. 

The judges thus received practical and concrete directions for the task of “straightness.” But what about the nation? What is their practical approach to keeping straight on their march through life? “According to the teaching that they instruct you and according to the judgment that they say to you, you shall do, you shall not swerve from the word that they tell you right or left” (17:12). Describing the future court and law systems, Moshe instructed the nation to listen to the rulings of the judges. By cautioning against “swerving right or left” from their rulings, Moshe was perhaps hinting that therein lay the practical directive to “being straight.”

Advising the nation to heed the words of its judges and leaders assumes that the guidance of those individuals will represent matters that are “straight in God’s eyes.” How, though, can we rule out the possibility of corruption in the leadership? Prefacing the demand that the king not “swerve from what he is commanded right or left” (17:20), Moshe provided specific instructions: “Only let him not get himself many horses…And let him not get himself many wives, that his heart not swerve, and let him not get himself too much silver and gold…He shall write for himself a copy of this teaching in a book…And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life…” (17:16-19). Moshe thus marked the path to straight leadership with precise guidelines and instructions.

Moshe did not just demand “straightness.” He purposefully and consistently gave clear and concrete instructions for its implementation.

We spend the months and days surrounding the Yamim Noraim in intense self-introspection. The unfortunate tendency of many during this period, however, is to commit to vague acceptances of “changing their ways” or “doing what is right.” Repentance that is pronounced by undefined terms such as these runs the acute risk of losing a well-intentioned change to confusion and misunderstanding.

Ha-Rambam therefore mandated that one clearly articulate and utter his every particular wrongdoing through verbal confession (Hil. Teshuvah 1:1). He further avoided the prescription of mere “thoughts of repentance” during the days interlaying Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and instead described the customary acts “to give profusely to charity, perform many good deeds, and be occupied with missvot…to a greater extent than during the remainder of the year” (Hil. Teshuvah 3:4). Concrete perceptions and deeds are necessary for an enduring repentance.

Moshe’s message in Parashat Shofetim must guide us on our path to repentance. It must caution us from the generalities, vagueness and ambiguities associated with character refinement and lead us instead toward real and specific thoughts and actions.

R. Nissim of Gerona & His Philosophy of Halakhah

Listen to last night's class, "R. Nissim of Gerona & His Philosophy of Halakhah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

The class was based upon part of Prof. Warren Zev Harvey's "לפילוסופיית ההלכה של הר"ן," in עיונים חדשים בפילוסופיה של ההלכה.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Truths of Halakhah (1)

Listen to this morning's class, "The Truths of Halakhah (1)," here. Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

a) Regarding the concept of "elu va-elu divre elokim hayim":

1) Read R. Aharon Lichtenstein's "Torat Hesed and Torat Emet" here.

2) Read R. Michael Rosensweig's "Elu Va-Elu Divrei Elokim Hayyim: Halakhic Pluralism and Theories of Controversy" here.

3) Read Prof. Avi Sagi's "Both are the Words of the Living God: A Typological Analysis of Halakhic Pluralism" here.

b) Regarding Mishneh Torah as "art":

1) Read Prof. Haym Soloveitchik's "Mishneh Torah: Polemic and Art" here.

2) Read R. Asher Benzion Buchman's "Mishneh Torah: Science and Art" here.

3) Read David Gillis's brief analysis of this matter in the introduction to his Reading Maimonides' Mishneh Torah here.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Elul: Fleeing From You & To You

Fleeing From You & To You
Thoughts on Teshuvah 2018
Click here to view as PDF
The forty days from rosh hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur mark the period on the Jewish calendar most appropriate for drawing ourselves closer to God. The Hakhamim identified this time as the span between God’s second calling of Moshe to Har Sinai and his reception of the second luhot.[1] Significantly, however, these days were fraught with the tension of a covenant that was broken at het ha-egel and the people’s fear that they would never achieve forgiveness. The bond between Am Yisrael and God had reached one of its lowest points in history specifically at this time.

The great medieval poet R. Shelomo ibn Gabirol described his connection to God in three simple words: “Evrah mimekha elekha – I will flee from You, to You.” In this tantalizing line from his liturgical poem Keter Malkhut, Ibn Gabirol articulated a dynamic which characterizes our relationship with the Almighty. Our shared intimacy does not exist as a constant and dependable reality. It is rather the result of a movement that begins with separation – “fleeing from Him,” and only then continues with our steps “to Him.”

Indeed, at that very time after het ha-egel Moshe requested of God, “Show me, pray, Your glory” (Shemot 33:18). Moshe perhaps reasoned that a deep relationship with God began with complete comprehension of His being. God’s response is instructive: “You shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live” (33:20). Man will never attain a bond with Him of that magnitude. God did, however, partially reveal His glory. He instructed Moshe to stand on a cliff while allowing him sight of “His back,” but not “His face” (33:22-3). God taught that a connection with Him does not “just happen,” but rather entails our deliberate approach from afar.

Moshe Halbertal pointed to the well-known story of the “four who entered the pardes” to demonstrate this characteristic of our relationships with God. A cryptic passage in Tosefta describes several Tana’im who endeavored into a precarious realm of comprehension of God: “Four entered the garden: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the Other, and Akiva. One peeked and perished, one peeked and was smitten, one peeked and cut down sprouts and one ascended in peace and descended in peace.”[2] The Tosefta defined R. Akiva as he “who ascended and descended in peace,” and explained his appropriate behavior with a parable: “To what should we compare this? To a royal garden with an upper room built over it. What is the guard’s duty? To look, but not feast his eyes upon it.”[3] Halbertal pinpointed the core message of this passage as the Rabbis’ sense of a dialectic that governs our relationship with God. He is, at once, both “revealed” and “concealed” from us.[4]

Am Yisrael’s sin at het ha-egel severed their shared connection with God. The source of its renewal would need to come from a source of independence. R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l explained:
Sin is separation. It disconnects the dependence and the necessity of our attachment to God…The renewal of the covenant builds a relationship based on separateness, on mutual independence. It is this independence that can become the basis for a deeper connection.[5]
Attempting to build a strong and enduring relationship with someone else requires a healthy foreknowledge of yourself. Rushing into it without a self-awareness leads to a cheap and short-lived bond. I cannot truly commit myself to someone else if I am not first aware of who I am and what I believe. Paradoxically, then, I can only “flee to you” when I have first “fled from you.”

It is for this reason, as well, that HaRambam detailed the concept of man’s freedom of choice within the context of Hilkhot Teshuvah (ch. 5-6). Endeavoring an approach of the Almighty prior to recognizing our own wills and desires is a mission doomed to failure.

The enduring nature of Elul is directly related to its history. What began as the time when Am Yisrael stood most separate and independent of God after their sin at het ha-egel transitioned into the time when they self-identified, as well. Their stage of “fleeing from Him” opened the opportunity for Am Yisrael to identify with themselves and “flee to Him.” Focusing solely on themselves, they determined the true nature of their distinct thoughts, beliefs and ambitions. This was, in turn, their first step forward into a new relationship with God.

May we use the next forty days to transition from “fleeing from Him” to “fleeing to Him.”

[1] Pirkei DeRibi Eliezer 46.
[2] Tosefta Hagigah 2:3.
[3] Tosefta Hagigah 2:5.
[4] Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation (Princeton, NJ, 2007), pg. 13-17.
[5] Rav Shagar, The Human and the Infinite: Discourses on the Meaning of Penitence (Efrat, IS, 2004), pg. 25-6.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Toothpaste and Soaps on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Toothpaste and Soaps on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Maharal: Hazal's Spokesman

Listen to last night's class, "Maharal: Hazal's Spokesman," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read R. Shalom Carmy's "Learning From Maharal: A Non-Mystical Approach with Illustrations from Gevurot Hashem and Other Works" here.

2) Read Marvin Fox's "The Moral Philosophy of Maharal" here.

3) Read Avinoam Rosenak's "אחדות ההפכים במשנתו של מהר"ל" here.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Parashat Re'eh: Telling Our Story

Telling Our Story
A Message for Parashat Re'eh 2017
Click here to view as PDF
My family and I have mourned the deaths of two grandparents this past year. I have experienced several personal losses in their absence. I long for their warmth and love. I sense the holes left in their transmission of tradition and heritage. Most of all, I miss their stories.

Reflective of their different backgrounds and cultures, the stories that each of my grandparents would tell evoked opposite emotions. My grandmother reminisced about Bensonhurst and Bradley Beach. Her anecdotes made us laugh. My grandfather spoke about Romania and Auschwitz. His memories made us cry. Taken together, however, my grandparents’ stories provided the foundations of our family. Their stories wrote my family’s narrative.

Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, wrote: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” He cited a study which found that children’s knowledge of their family’s history directly affects their self-esteem and control over their lives. The researchers explained that children with the most self-confidence possess a strong “intergenerational self” – they know that they belong to something bigger than themselves.[1]
* * * *
Beyond individuals and families, however, stories are critical for national endurance. R. Jonathan Sacks explained the Torah’s repeated command to retell the story of yessiat Missrayim by distinguishing between a traditional society and a covenantal society. He explained that in a tradition-based society, things are as they are because that is how they were “since time immemorial.” There exists an unspoken sense of understanding to those who “belong,” and there is no answer or story that can bring clarity to one who “does not belong.” Covenantal societies, in contrast, are born out of rebellion. They represent a conscious new beginning by a group of people dedicated to an ideal. Retelling the story of the past obstacles that were overcome through a strong sense of vision and ideals are fundamental to the ethos of such a society.[2]
* * * *
Where should the history of a “national narrative” begin? Plato set forth his vision for an ideal state in The Republic. He wrote that the people’s education was of fundamental importance, and that it began with stories. Anecdotes that may strengthen the people’s morale must be told; those that cannot should be censored. He pointed to one specific tale that would lead to national strength. It was the story of how the homeland “gave birth” to its people. Plato claimed that if such a story is successfully instilled within the hearts and minds of the people it will inspire them to protect their “Mother Land” at all costs.

Israeli thinker Micah Goodman noted the contrast between Plato’s ideal national story and that of Am Yisrael. The Torah commanded that we tell “our story” upon bringing the bikkurim, our first fruits to the Mikdash every year:

And it shall be, when you come into the land that Hashem your God is about to give you in estate … you shall take from the first yield of all fruit of the soil … And you shall speak out and say … “My father was an Aramean about to perish, and he went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there with a few people, and he became there a great and mighty and multitudinous nation … And God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and with portents…” (Devarim 26:1-6)

The national narrative of Am Yisrael does not begin with the land – by means of God’s relationship and promises to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov – but rather with the nation’s experience in Egypt.[3] Indeed, careful attention to the specific descriptions of Sefer Devarim, and particularly those of Parashat Re’eh, reveals a deliberate plan to place yessiat Missrayim as the cornerstone of our national narrative prior to the people’s entrance into the Land of Israel.
* * * *
Let us first consider the shift in the Fourth Commandment from its initial mention in Parashat Yitro to Moshe’s reminiscence of it in Parashat VaEthanan. Whereas Shabbat was first introduced as a commemoration of God’s rest on the seventh day of Creation (Shemot 20: 10), Moshe described it differently in Parashat VaEthanan:

Keep the day of Shabbat to hallow it … So that your male slave and your slavegirl may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, God charged you to make the day of Shabbat.
(Devarim 5:11-14)
Highlighting its function as a “slave’s day of rest,” Shabbat was then introduced as a commemoration of yessiat Missrayim.

Parashat Re’eh displays a similar phenomenon in two other contexts.

According to the Torah, slave owners may not enslave Israelite slaves for an extended period, and must instead free them at a specific juncture. When this law was first mentioned, the Torah coupled it with the religious conscience that lay at its core, teaching that since we are all slaves of God who redeemed us from Egypt we cannot conceivably enslave another person for life (Vayikra 25:42). Parashat Re’eh repeated the law, but added that one must provide his freed slave with the necessary provisions for self-sustenance, and further cautioning:

And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and Hashem your Gad ransomed you. Therefore, I charge you with this thing today. (Devarim 15:15)
Apart from its religious conscience, the command was then termed as a remembrance of God’s actions during yessiat Missrayim and our mission to mimic them.

The novel function of yessiat Missrayim returned to the parashah again, in the context of the commandment to rejoice on the holidays. Whereas this missvah was mentioned earlier in the Torah as a celebration of agricultural success (Vayikra 23:40), Parashat Re’eh repeated it and added the obligation to include the poor and unfortunate in the celebration, explaining:

And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall keep and do these statutes.
(Devarim 16:12)
* * * *
A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down – where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means. Our life stories are who we are. They are our identity. (Jonathan Gottschall)[4]

As Moshe taught his final lesson on the laws of the Torah, he interspliced it with a carefully-crafted story. Its purpose was not to teach history. The people had already received the first four books of the Torah, which detailed their origins and most of them already knew the stories of their forefathers and nation. The purpose of this story, instead, was to create a national narrative.

In his classic work Zakhor, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi distinguished between the opposite objectives of history and collective memory (or “zekhirah”). Whereas history begins with the facts and searches for their meaning, memory begins with the meaning and searches for its facts.[5] Yerushalmi’s distinction may aide in clarifying Moshe’s unique objectives in Sefer Devarim. The first four books of the Torah represent history. Their purpose was to teach Am Yisrael the facts regarding their origins. Sefer Devarim, however, represents memory. The stories and laws that Moshe taught at the end of his life were meant to engender within the people an appropriate sense of identity. They taught about what it means to be a member of the nation – the ideals, vision and ambitions that “are” Am Yisrael.

Moshe molded the national identity around the narrative of yessiat Missrayim. He time and again stressed the lessons of their redemption from slavery. In addition to the scripted narrative that was read upon bringing the bikkurim, Moshe now linked the laws of Shabbat, eved Ivri, and rejoicing on the festivals to yessiat Missrayim. He thereby added the critical dimensions of sympathy, empathy, compassion and inclusion of others to these various missvot. In the words of eminent Tanakh scholar Amnon Bazak: “The memory of the exodus from Egypt will accompany them as the basis of their commitment to behave morally and ethically towards the weak and vulnerable among them.”[6]

Over the course of his final address in Sefer Devarim, and specifically in Parashat Re’eh, Moshe told the nation their story. The story prepared them for the challenges of self-sovereignty and independence that lay ahead. Moshe placed yessiat Missrayim at the center of Am Yisrael’s narrative, and fashioned their identity in its countenance. The emergent identity was one of kindness and care – the very traits necessary for their future lives of governance in the Land of Israel.

[1] Bruce Feiler, “The Family Stories That Bind Us,” The New York Times, Mar. 15, 2013. Accessible at:
[2] R. Jonathan Sacks, Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (New Milford, CT, 2016), pg. 91-5. Rabbi Sacks revisited this theme upon receival of one of the Bradley Prizes in 2016 <>, and he mentioned it again during a subsequent TED Talks presentation – “How we can face the future without fear, together” <>.
[3] Micah Goodman, HaNe’um HaAharon Shel Moshe (Israel, 2014), pg. 118-19.
[4] The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 161.
[5] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor (Seattle, WA, 1996).
[6] Amnon Bazak, “Duplication and Contradiction – Three Themes Unique to Sefer Devarim,” accessible at: See, as well, Goodman, pg. 120-21.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The "Written Words" of Halakhah (1)

Listen to this morning's class, "The 'Written Words' of Halakhah (1)," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

We mentioned several past classes while discussing how to process "retracted opinions":

1) Listen to the class that touched on HaRambam's opinion regarding kidushei kesef here.

2) Listen to the class regarding birkat "ha-noten la-ya'ef ko'ah" here.

3) Listen to the class regarding riding a bicycle on Shabbat here.

4) Listen to the class regarding halav Yisrael here.

Parashat Ekev: Presence

A Message for Parashat Ekev 2018
Click here to view as PDF
Addressing Am Yisrael during the final days of his life, Moshe remembered the events of het ha-egel. He recalled God’s indication to him at the time that the people had sinned:
“And God said to me: ‘Arise, go down quickly from here, for your people that you brought out of Egypt have acted ruinously…’” (Devarim 9:12)
Removing himself from involvement in Am Yisrael’s redemption from Egypt, God seemingly rebranded Moshe as their sole leader. And when Moshe petitioned on their behalf, he responded to God’s claim by deflecting that role and declaring:
“…And they are Your people and Your estate that you brought out with Your great power and Your outstretched arm.” (9:29)
It appears at first glance as if God and Moshe were taking turns at refusing the responsibility of the nation and its sins. I believe that in reality, however, this conversation represented God’s attempt to redirect Moshe’s approach to leadership at that time.

Interestingly, God was not the first to attribute Moshe with the role of singularly “bringing the nation out of Egypt.” The people of Am Yisrael were. In the moments that led up to het ha-egel, they panicked and turned to Aharon, saying:
“Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” (Shemot 32:1)
God’s reference to Moshe in this manner, then, was merely a reference to the nation’s own misperception. And it was precisely that mistake which had inspired their sin. They had, after all, sought “gods” to replace Moshe because his presence as their leader appeared to them as “a god.” What may have caused this misunderstanding?

Consider a particular detail that Moshe repeatedly mentioned in his retelling of this story:
“When I went up the mountain to take the stone tablets…And I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, no bread did I eat nor water did I drink…” (9:9)
“And I threw myself before God as at first, forty days and forty nights – no bread did I eat nor water did I drink…” (9:18)
“And I threw myself before God the forty days and the forty nights that I threw myself…” (9:25)
A forty-day spiritual rendezvous with God is impossible for the simple man. Moshe – and only Moshe “the man of God” – could engage in that experience. And as he reflected on that time forty years later, Moshe stressed that specific detail in order to signify the rift that had grown between him and the people. Indeed, R. Zvi Grumet described Moshe in this context: “He is no longer merely a man, but someone endowed with near God-like capabilities…This cannot have gone unnoticed by the people.”[1]

Returning to the dialogue with which we began, God’s intended message to Moshe may now take full form. His description of Am Yisrael as “your people that you brought out of Egypt” hinted at the distance that had grown between Moshe and the nation. Moshe was no longer seen by them as “one of us,” but rather as a separate and distant “god.” And the tragic outcome of his failed connection to the nation as a “man of the people” was het ha-egel, when they declared: “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” God’s demand of Moshe after the sin, then, was to undergo a significant change in his approach to leadership. He tasked Moshe with mending his disconnect from the people by making his presence felt and emerging as a “man of the people.”

Leadership expert John P. Kotter distinguished between “management” and “leadership.” He explained that whereas managers organize, leaders align. The potential roles of a football quarterback may demonstrate the difference: A quarterback who describes to his team the next two or three plays is managing. One who explains a totally new approach to the game for the second half of the season, however, is leading. Managers look for the right fit between people and the jobs, by setting up systems to ensure that plans are implemented precisely and efficiently. And management works best in short-term projects. Leadership, in contrast, is involved in long-term projects. A leader searches for the proper fit between people and the vision. He or she communicates the new direction to the individuals who can create coalitions that understand the vision and are committed to its achievement.[2]

Matan Torah had cast Moshe in the distant and limited role of a “national manager.” Consider his descent from the mountain from the vantage point of the nation: He approached them upon return from the superhuman feat of forty days and nights without food or drink while clutching a large set of laws and instructions that he would now transmit to them. He was operating from a distance – almost like a god – as he played out the role of “organizing manager” of the nation.

Reflecting back on that event during the final days of his life, however, Moshe was determined to learn from his experience. He segued from the story of het ha-egel to a demand that displayed his empathetic role as a leader. He addressed the people:
“And now, Yisrael, what does Hashem your God ask of you but to fear Hashem your God in all his ways, to love Him, and to worship Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your being, to keep God’s commands and His statutes that I charge you today for your own good?” … Only your fathers did God desire to love them, and He chose their seed after them, chose you from all the peoples as on this day. (10:12-15)
Stripping away the cold demeanor of a distant pedagogue, Moshe appealed to their emotions. By invoking God’s love of the forefathers and them he was speaking to the people’s hearts – as one of them. Moshe no longer addressed them as a manager who conveyed performance demands, but as a leader who was laying out the broad vision for the future of God’s nation.

[1] R. Zvi Grumet, Moses and the Path to Leadership (Jerusalem, IS, 2014), pg. 75.
[2] John P. Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do, in Harvard Business Review’s Ten Must-Reads on Leadership (Boston, MA, 2011), pg. 46-8.