Friday, September 28, 2018

Sukkot: Process

Thoughts on Sukkot 2018
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The Torah bares no explicit mention of an etrog on Sukkot. Instead, it merely hints to it with the command to take a “peri ess hadar” – “fruit of a beautiful tree.” The Hakhamim suggested that the “beauty” of the etrog tree is its unique quality that “the taste of its trunk and fruit are alike.”[1] By focusing on this particular attribute of the etrog I believe that the rabbis were teaching a lesson that extends beyond the trunk of a tree or its fruit.

In his commentary to Parashat Bereshit, Rashi recorded a well-known Midrash regarding the creation of the first fruit trees. He wrote that although God wanted the taste of all tree trunks to match that of their fruit, the ground rebelled by yielding inedible trunks.[2] Rav Kook z”l explained that whereas the fruits of the trees in this story represent a goal, the trunks represent the necessary process.[3] While we are easily drawn toward the sweet endpoints in life – building families, amassing wealth, growing proficient in Torah, or spiritually connecting to God, the bland path toward their achievement is often discouraging. God’s command to the ground, as it were, was that the means be as enjoyable as the ends.

How often do we live up to that ideal? The answer, of course, is unfortunately not too often. We stumble through our day to day activities, become overwhelmed by their unappealing nature and ultimately lose sight of our true ambitions.

Returning to the Hakhamim’s emphasis of the etrog’s same taste of trunk and fruit within this context, we may now appreciate their lesson. The unusually sweet trunk of the etrog represents a process imbued with the same richness and sweetness as its outcome.

Panning out to the broader context of the etrog, the foundational message of Sukkot reflects this very lesson. The Torah teaches that we sit in sukkot on this holiday to recall the sukkot which we dwelled in after leaving Egypt.[4] Our journey in the wilderness represented the necessary process toward the goal of inhabiting the Land of Israel. On Sukkot, then, we celebrate that process – rejoicing in our commemoration of the means which led to the end.

The Hakhamim captured the spirit of these days best in their understanding that we “reside in the sukkah as we dwell in home.”[5] They taught that we may yet discover a sweetness in the means by mirroring them to the ends.

[1] Sukkah 35a.
[2] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 1:11 (s.v. ess peri).
[3] Orot HaTeshuvah 6:7. Translated by Ben Zion Bokser in Abraham Isaac Kook (Mahwah, NJ, 1978), pg. 59-60.
[4] Vayikra 35:43.
[5] Sukkah 27a.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Sukkot: Technology

Thoughts on Sukkot 2016
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With my private room, private car, private office, private (and preferably unlisted) telephone, with food and clothing purchased in large impersonal stores, with my own stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, washer-dryer, I can be practically immune from intimate contact with any other person. (Carl Rogers) [1]

Physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot match...If I lie in bed sick at home in Israel, my online friends from California can talk to me, but they cannot bring me soup or a cup of tea. (Yuval Noah Harari) [2]

It is easy to define the positive effects of technological progress. Technology introduces an enhanced ease and comfort to the various realms of our lives. More difficult to pinpoint, however, are the detriments that result from technological advancements. In his book Civility, Yale law professor Stephen Carter defined “civility” as “the sum of the many sacrifices that we are called to make for the sake of living together.” He posited that technology has hastened the societal demise of civility.

Carter contrasted our current, advanced mode of transportation in automobiles to the railroads of the nineteenth century. Whereas travel in cars, “surrounded by metal and glass” gives us the illusion of solitary mobility and the ability to act as we please, travelers on trains were surrounded by people “packed shoulder to shoulder like chess pieces in their little box,” which therefore demanded appropriate behavior for a tolerable ride. He noted the regretful disadvantage of contemporary transportation, and stated: “We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers.”[3]

A diminished sense of civility threatens more than just the societal structure of a nation or community. It poses a danger to the well-being of every individual. Researchers have found that strong social relationships are prone to strengthen the immune system, extend life, speed recovery from surgery and reduce the risks of depression and anxiety disorders.[4] As, Seneca remarked nearly two thousand years ago, “No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility.”
* * * *
We may detect a reality similar to Carter description in other areas of life, as well. Consider the differences between watching a show in the theater or on the couch of your living room, asking a stranger for directions or following the GPS on your phone, and waiting on line for a roller coaster or skipping to the front with a Fast Pass, to name just a few. Though many yearn for the efficiency that will accompany the future of automated grocery shopping, sociologist Stacy Torres demurred: “I’m not looking forward to it. While interactions with cashiers may seem insignificant, or at times even a nuisance, they also foster sociability between strangers.”[5] While we were once forced to engage in appropriate dialogue during encounters with other people, we can now avoid all such meetings and conduct ourselves as we wish – on our own.
* * * *
The reason for the missvah to sit in a sukkah on Sukkot is never explicitly stated by the Torah. Instead, we are cryptically taught that its purpose is to recall the sukkot that Bnei Yisrael dwelled in during their sojourn in the desert:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם...
In sukkot you shall dwell seven days. All natives in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, so that your generations will know that I made Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt… (Vayikra 23:42-3)

The reasoning seems to rely on a proper understanding of the constructive purpose of dwelling in sukkot in the desert, which would thereby justify its eternal reenactment. But what was it? What was – and is – the practical benefit of dwelling in a sukkah?

The Hakhamim (TB Sukkah 28b) explained that the objective of dwelling in the sukkah over the duration of Sukkot is to mimic life in our actual homes. And most of us actually find a fair measure of success in achieving this feat. The food we eat, the pizmonim we sing, and the amount of time we spend at the table in the sukkah are far more similar to the meal at home than the picnic in the park. But truth be told, it is practically impossible to fully “recreate” our home experience in a hut exposed to the elements, in a location that requires constant reentrance into the home and in quarters generally smaller than that of the dining room.
* * * *
Our experiences in the sukkah necessarily “turn back the clock” on technological advancements. The narrow space of the sukkah forces us to pass the food to each other and to engage in dialogue with one another. The experiences bring us back to a time before the space and amenities of modern homes, and thrust upon us a heightened awareness of our surroundings and a sensitivity to the people with whom we are sharing space.

Returning to the terminology of Prof. Carter: Dwelling in the sukkah restores a necessary sense of civility to the Jews of every generation by forcing their entrance into a virtual realm unexposed to the ever-present reality of technological solitude.

May we spend the final days of “dwelling in the sukkah” in appreciation of the moral and interpersonal growths inherent in its apparent “inconveniences.”

[1] A Way of Being (New York, NY, 1980), pg.198.
[2] 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 88-9.
[3] Stephen Carter, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (New York, NY, 1998), pg. 4.
[4] See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 133.
[5] Stacy Torres, “You Don’t Want to Buy Groceries from a Robot,” The New York Times, June 23, 2017.

Yom Kippur: Time

Thoughts on Yom Kippur 2018
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We neither perceive the past as “no more” nor the future as “not yet” nor the present as a “fleeting moment.” Rather past, present, future merge and blend together…The past is joined to the future and both are reflected in the present. (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik)[1]

Teshuva sensitizes us to the full significance of time…To be a Jew is to live poised between past and future: the past and future of our individual lives, of our ancient but still young people and of humanity as a whole. (R. Jonathan Sacks)[2]

HaRambam famously articulated the underlying message of the sounds of the shofar in his Hilkhot Teshuvah (3:4):

It has a deep meaning, as if saying “Awake, awake, sleepers from your sleep…and examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the vanities of the time and go astray the whole year…improve your ways and works.

A careful analysis of his precise wording reveals a seemingly unbalanced contrast between “truth” and “vanities of the time.” HaRambam curiously described our engagements with falsity within the context of “time.” What lies at the root of this connection between folly and temporality?

Following the death of his close Italian friend Michele Besso, Albert Einstein addressed Besso’s sister in a moving letter, writing:

Michele has left this strange world a little before me. This means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion.”[3]

Einstein referred to the unity of time, a scientific principle which then provided him with psychological solace. Unsurprisingly, the concept has significant religious and philosophical ramifications, as well.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l discussed this concept in several contexts. He wrote:
The past is not gone; it is still here. The future is not only anticipated, it is already here, and the present connects the future and the past…All three dimensions of time merge into one experience, into one awareness.[4]
R. Soloveitchik understood the underpinnings of teshuvah within this context. He explained that we repent sins committed in the past by redefining them in their continued existence in the present. Past experiences represent the “early chapters” of our ever-evolving book of life – “The infinite past enters into the present moment.”[5] The nature of those experiences is continuously transformed by later decisions in the gradual processes of our lives.[6]

Beyond our conceptual understanding of teshuvah, however, embracing this understanding of time has broader applications. In Alan Lightman’s best-selling novel Einstein’s Dreams, he imagined a world where there are two times: mechanical time and body time. People who live by mechanical time have exact schedules: they wake up at seven every morning, eat lunch at noon and dinner at six. “When their stomachs growl, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat. When they begin to lose themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it will be time to go home.” Those who live by body time, in contrast, don’t keep clocks. They eat when they are hungry and go to work whenever they wake up from their sleep.[7]

Lightman traced these two perspectives regarding time to the two different words for time in ancient Greece: chronos and kairos.  Whereas chronos is measured by quantity, kairos is determined by quality. Chronos is “the relentless time that marches on in the external world, oblivious to the lives of human beings,” while kairos is “time created by events.” When a significant event occurs, it occupies a great deal of kairos. When insignificant, its kairos is inexistent.[8]

We all strive for more kairos in our lives. We dread the ticking clock that accompanies our everyday routines and yearn for those elusive moments of meaning. A proper understanding of time is the key to achieving this feat. Envisioning the broader narrative of our lives by realizing that each experience builds upon the past while connecting to the future imbues even our seemingly petty activities with a particular significance. It is through that prism that we understand their role as a necessary step in the long-stretching process of our lives of meaning.

R. Soloveitchik developed this concept with the alternative terminology of philosopher Henri Bergson, distinguishing between quantitative time and qualitative time. He lamented the people stuck in quantitative, dead time: “They measure time by the clock and by the calendar. For them there is no merger of the past and the future. The present itself is a lost moment.” Individuals who live in qualitative time, in contrast, “measure time not by length-extensio, but by pure quality, creativity and accomplishment.” The decision of how to view time is “up to man himself,” R. Soloveitchik remarked, adding that it is “the highest criterion by which man, life, and actions should be judged.”[9]

R. Eliyahu Barukh Finkel z”l, one of my rabbis at Yeshivat Mir, suggested that by mentioning “time” in the context of our pursuit of false vanities HaRambam hinted at the underlying flaw of those actions. Unlike acts of meaning, which eternally persist in the realm of “qualitative time,” vane endeavors are confined by the minutes, hours or days that they consume.[10] Indeed, it is fitting that the shofar – which represents both past (ma’amad Har Sinai) and future (yemot ha-mashiah)[11] – arouses us from our slumber in time-boundedness, and awakens us to the world of eternal time of quality.

[1] Halakhic Man (Philadelphia, PA, 1983), pg. 114.
[2] Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 19-20.
[3] Albert Einstein et Michele Besso, Correspondence 1903-1955 (Paris, FR, 1972), pg. 538. Cited by Carlo Rovelli, in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 60.
[4] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and Human Condition (Jersey City, NJ, 2003), pg. 17. See, as well, R. Ezra Bick’s similar description of Emet, according to R. Yisshak Hutner z”l, in In His Mercy: Understanding the Thirteen Midot (New Milford, CT, 2010), pg. 67-9.
[5] Halakhic Man pg. 119.
[6] For more on R. Soloveitchik’s concept of teshuvah, see, e.g., R. Yitzhak Blau’s “Creative Repentance: On Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Concept of Teshuvah,” Tradition 28:2, pg. 11-18, and Eliezer Goldman’s “Repentance and Time in the Philosophy of Rabbi Soloveitchik” in Emunah BiZemanim Mishtanim, ed. Avi Sagi (Jersualem, IS, 1996), pg. 175-89.
[7] Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (New York, NY, 1993), pg. 18-21.
[8] Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 72-3.
[9] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Sacred and Profane: Kodesh and Hol in World Perspectives,” in Shiurei HaRav: A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Joseph Epstein (Hoboken, NJ, 1974), pg. 14-15.
[10] See R. Eliyahu Barukh Finkel, MiShulhan R. Eliyahu Barukh: Al HaMo’adim vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2018), pg. 68-9.
[11] As noted in Halakhic Man, pg. 119.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Rosh HaShanah: Simplicity

Thoughts on Rosh HaShanah 2018
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The purpose of Rosh HaShanah is to return us to simplicity, to the cry of the infant, before one is caught up in the complications and complexities of life. (R. Yehuda Amital)[1]

Why do we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah? HaRambam famously suggested that the sounds of the shofar serve as our wakeup call from the spiritual slumber that has overcome us over the course of the year. They divert our attention from the “vanities of time” and redirect us towards worthy endeavors.[2] But how does the shofar do that? What lies at the core of those enigmatic cries of the ram’s horn?

R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l, the former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was renowned for his complexity of thought. It often appeared to his students as if nothing was simple to him. Rav Aharon meticulously dissected each and every issue, scanning all of the relevant sources and breaking them down into a variety of components and dimensions. Following his death, however, R. Lichtenstein’s son remembered the time when a student asked his father why he kissed the sefer Torah. The young man expected his rabbi to respond with a list of sources and relevant analyses, and was therefore surprised when Rav Aharon explained that he did so simply “because a Jew wants to kiss the sefer Torah.”[3]

It was a perspective of simplicity, as well, that guided the great 13th Century French rabbi, Shimshon of Chinon, in his approach to prayer. R. Shimshon’s contemporaries reported that even after growing proficient in the many mystical traditions and intentions of Judaism he continued to pray with the basic thoughts and understandings of a young child.[4]

Consider, in this context, our relationships with one another. The misunderstandings that sometimes arise between us are misleading. They cause us to singularly focus on the difficulties and complications, and to forget what lies at their foundation. When the issues are ultimately resolved, however, we often realize that our relationships are actually sustained by a simple and basic connection.

I trust that everyone has experienced a moment of profound simplicity over the course of their relationship with the Almighty. On one particular afternoon several months ago, I waited anxiously for an update regarding the health status of one of my family members. As I anticipated positive news, the difficult message that I received was deflating. I was immediately struck by a barrage of emotions – depression, abandonment and loneliness. And in that very moment I felt the layers of complex intellectual connection which I had long worked to develop with God melt away. I reached out for Him with the simple cries of a baby.

The shofar’s secret is hidden in the simplicity of its call. Our spiritual vision has become obstructed by the “vanities of time.” They have distracted us from the plain sight of truth. And it is the unassuming sounds of the shofar that chillingly remind us of the nature of our connection to God. They awaken us to its simplicity.

* Adapted from the derashah on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.
[1] “Simplicity in a Complex World,” in When God is Near: On the High Holidays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 104.
[2] Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4.
[3] R. Moshe Lichtenstein, “Be-khol libi derashtikha,” in Ashrei Adam Oz Lo Vakh (Rishon LeZion, IS, 2018), pg. 93.
[4] See Shu”t Rivash (no. 157) and Shu”t MaHarshal (no. 98).