Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Megilah from this past week!
Monday, November 26, 2018
Listen to tonight's class, "Should You Make a Berakhah on Chewing Gum?" here.
Follow along with the sources here.
For further research:
1) Read some of the relevant sources in their entirety: a) Yabia Omer 7.33, b) Birkat HaShem 2, c) Yabia Omer 9.108, d) Birkat HaShem 5.
2) Read R. Ari Enkin's "Gum: Should a Blessing Be Recited?" here.
Saturday, November 24, 2018
Thoughts on VaYishlah 2018
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Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Yaakov felt helpless as he cried to God in preparation for his encounter with Esav:
God who has said to me, “Return to your land and your birthplace, and I will deal well with you.” I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly done for your servant. For with my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps… (Bereshit 32:10-11)
Painfully describing his state of instability, wedged between the homes of Lavan and his parents, Yaakov understood that this was the time for prayer. He shouted out to God: “Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav!” (12)
The Hakhamim pointed to a most unusual context for the first biblical reference to prayer:
On the day Hashem Elokim made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for Hashem Elokim had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human [“ve-adam ayin”] to fill the soil…
Although God had already commanded the ground to bring forth vegetation on the third day of creation, he didn’t send rain for its growth until the sixth. Why not? Rashi answered:
Because “There was no man” [adam ayin] to till the soil, and so there was no one to realize the goodness of the rains. But when man arrived and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and vegetation grew.
Vegetation wouldn’t grow without man’s recognition of its absence and subsequent prayer. In the kabbalists’ transformative reading of these verses, it is man’s ability to recognize the “nothingness” – the ayin – that fuels the prayer which steers existence.
Describing this Kabbalistic concept of ayin, Arthur Green wrote: “There is an ungraspable instant in the midst of all transformation when that which is about to be transformed is no longer what it had been until that moment, but has not yet emerged as its transformed self.” That fleeting period of transition is the moment of ayin. And in a world of constant change and transformation, we are in contact with ayin at all times. Indeed, the great medieval kabbalist R. Azriel of Gerona long ago noted the paradoxical belief that the source of all “being” is “nothingness,” when he stated: “Being is in nothingness in the mode of nothingness, and nothingness is in being in the mode of being.”
By separating the “upper” and “lower” waters on the second day of creation, God concurrently brought forth the space in between – the ayin. Man’s paradigmatic prayers fill that space of “nothingness” by bringing forth water from the “upper” realms and merging it with those below. Genuine prayer emerges from understanding our role within the ayin of existence.
Considering his past journey from Lavan’s home (“with my staff I crossed this Jordan”), Yaakov longed for return to his parents’ home (his “land and birthplace”), and was overwhelmed by the unstable realm between the two – the ayin – which he was then experiencing. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly done for your servant,” Yaakov then declared. He pondered the deeper meaning of ayin, and realized that his own self (אני) was merely a vexing reconfiguration of nothingness (אין). And just as he was engulfed by the vulnerable and self-effacing state of ayin, Yaakov tapped into its essence – prayer. He cried out in prayer to God and demanded: “Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav!”
Friday, November 23, 2018
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Thoughts on VaYesse 2018
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The essence of Judaism is the awareness of the reciprocity of God and man, of man’s togetherness with Him who abides in eternal otherness. (R. Abraham J. Heschel)
The opening passage of Parashat VaYesse describes Yaakov’s first direct encounter with God. Stopping to sleep upon his journey from home, Yaakov dreamt of a ramp that was set against the ground and stretched up to the heavens. And as God then spoke to him, Yaakov noticed a host of God’s angels who rose and descended upon the ramp. This vivid imagery sent him a message regarding the fundamental connection between heaven and earth – between God and man.
Indeed, Yaakov’s instinctive reaction to the dream was to exclaim, “This can be but the house of God and this is the gate of the heavens” (28:17). But his actions went beyond mere observation. He set a stone into the ground as a pillar, poured oil over its top and vowed that upon his safe return to that location, “This stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God” (22). Rather than passively accepting the sanctified nature of this metaphysical “house of God” which he had just discovered, Yaakov pledged to build the physical structure of a “house of God” at that location, as well.
The heaven-reaching ramp, coupled with the transitional angels taught Yaakov about the inherent link between “God’s heavens” and “man’s earth.” The images furthermore inspired him to strengthen that bond by vowing the future construction of a physical “house of God.”
The Hakhamim hinted at this concept regarding our “partnership with God” in several different contexts. They pointed to an apparent contradiction in two verses from Tehilim. Whereas one pasuk says that “The earth and all it contains is God’s” (24:1) another one states “The heavens are God’s and the earth He has given over to mankind” (115:16). R. Levi explained that while “the earth and all it contains is God’s,” once making a berakhah on the food of the earth “He gives it over to mankind.” His statement reinforces the mandate for us to partner with God in completing this world.
Rava’s statement that “Initially the Torah is called by the name of God, but ultimately it is called by the name of the one who studies it” imparts a similar lesson. It teaches that by studying “God’s Torah” and revealing its multifaceted messages, we enter into a partnership with Him in the very “ownership” of the Torah.
God’s message to Yaakov at that time, then, touched upon the very essence of our mission in life. Indeed, the kabbalists point to the Torah’s cryptic description of man’s creation “in the image of God” (1:27) as evidence of this fact. They explain that since the most basic attribute of God in the story of Creation is that of “Creator,” our existence “in His image” must then imply our mission to couple with Him as creators.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly wrote that “the dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator of worlds.” If at times we raise the question of the ultimate aim of Judaism, R. Soloveitchik continued, “we must not disregard the fact that this wondrous spectacle of the creation of worlds is the Jewish people’s eschatological vision, the realization of all its hopes.”
The vivid imagery of Yaakov’s dream during his initial encounter with God reminded him about his continued mission in this world. Stretching beyond a simple one-time message, however, his dream must inspire every decision that we make and every action that we take. Searching for and discovering the spiritual “house of God” is only one facet of our lifelong mission. Setting out to build the material one is the other.
Monday, November 12, 2018
Sunday, November 11, 2018
Friday, November 9, 2018
Seeing with Smell
Thoughts on Toledot 2018
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As Yaakov approached his father for the blessing of the firstborn, Yisshak sensed that something was wrong. Although his eyesight had diminished in old age, he was skeptical of the son who approached him. The blessing was purposed for Esav, the bekhor, and Yisshak was unsure that he was indeed the son who was now in his room.
“Come close, pray, that I may feel you, my son, whether you are my son Esav or not” (27:21), Yisshak requested. Yaakov did so, but Yisshak was still concerned. He remarked, “The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav” (21:22). Substituting his sense of sight with hearing and touch had only confused him more. Yisshak ate the food which Yaakov served him, but then resumed his investigation. “Come close, pray, and kiss me, my son” (27:26). Beckoning Yaakov closer, Yisshak now hoped to determine his identity with smell.
And then something clicked. Yisshak exclaimed, “See (re’eh), the smell of my son is like the smell of the field that God has blessed” (21:27). He had somehow bypassed the natural restrictions of sight in a state of blindness! Indeed, Yisshak now saw better with his nose than he had ever seen with his eyes. He had never truly understood the nature of his sons, erring back at the time when he still saw with his eyes – “Yisshak loved Esav…but Rivkah loved Yaakov” (25:28). But in this intense moment of revelation with Yaakov at his bedside, Yisshak finally saw the truth – though not through his eyes. “At this moment, the visual world symbolically returns in a density of assembled moments,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote, “Isaac is divinely inspired to see without anxiety or rational inhibition.”
Our tendency to an increased perception when dealing with a diminished sense is well-known. At times, losing one sense leads to an increased sensitivity in the others. Martin Milligan, a philosopher who was blind from the age of two wrote that born-blind people with normal hearing don’t just “hear sounds” – they “hear objects.” He described “hearing” silent objects such as lamp-posts and parked cars with their engines off. He sensed their atmosphere-thickening occupation of space and the way they absorb or echo back the sounds of his footsteps. Other times, however, we seem to enhance the features of the very sense that was diminished. Oliver Sacks described the case of Zoltan Torey, whose “mind’s eye” increased after becoming blind. Torey singlehandedly replaced the entire roof guttering of his multi-gabled home on the strength of an accurate and well-focused mental visual imagery. In place of a natural eyesight, his visual imagery had enabled him to think in ways that had not been available before. It allowed him to project himself inside machines and other systems, envisioning solutions, models and designs.
Malcolm Gladwell mentioned a similar phenomenon regarding an experiment performed several years ago with a group of students at Princeton University. Half of the group was first given a standard Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) – three questions which measure the ability to understand when something is more difficult than it appears. The students averaged 1.9 correct answers out of three. The researchers then printed the same test questions in a font that was harder to read – a 10 percent gray, 10-point italics Myriad Pro font – and administered the test to the second group of students. This time the average score was 2.45. The researchers explained that by making the questions “disfluent” the students were forced to “think more deeply about whatever they came across.” It caused them to use more resources on it, process more deeply and think more carefully about what was going on.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked:
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity…We fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.
R. Yohanan hinted at this reality, as well, when he stated: “Since the day the Bet HaMikdash was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given to madmen and young children.” Moshe Koppel remarked that “madmen” are not idiots, but people who have not internalized conventional wisdom and lack self-consciousness. They share these two characteristics with young children. Faced with the large body of information which had emerged in the wake of destruction, people were left contemplating the “leaves” of halakhah instead of its “roots.” R. Yohanan taught that it is only the madmen and children, who don’t internalize the conventional wisdom, who are free of this limitation.
Ironically, Yisshak could only see that Yaakov was the rightful son for his blessing in a state of blindness. “One is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes,” Wittgenstein wrote. When the reality seemed “simple” and “familiar,” Yisshak remained shortsighted. Visually impaired, however, Yisshak’s perceptions were sharpened. Using his smell to see, he could now understand what had lay before him all along – “See, the smell of my son is like the smell of the field that God has blessed.”
Experiencing life at its fullest, delving into the depths of meaning and existence, requires that we, too, “see with our smell.” It demands that we periodically step back from the world as it seems, wipe our eyes clean of the distracting appearances of reality, and then step in to see it again.