Sunday, December 29, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.9-10

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.9-10 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Taking Tylenol & Advil on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Taking Tylenol & Advil on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Bereshit Themes: Freedom

Listen to the next class in our Bereshit Themes series, "Freedom," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.8

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.8 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Brushing Teeth on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Brushing Teeth on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

"Seeing is Believing" - Developing Balanced Relationships

Listen to tonight's class, "Seeing is Believing," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Bereshit Themes: Separation

Listen to the next class in our Bereshit Themes series, "Separation," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Parashat VaYeshev: "Way Down in Egypt's Land"

Listen to tonight's class on Parashat VaYeshev, "Way Down in Egypt's Land," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.7

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.7 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Using an Automatic Elevator on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Using an Automatic Elevator on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Adjusting a Timer on Shabbat

Listen to last night's class, "Adjusting a Timer on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Nefesh HaHayim 1.6 (pt. 3)

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.6 (pt. 3) here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Parashat VaYesse: Intution

Thoughts on Parashat VaYesse 2019
Click here to view as PDF

And Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran. And he came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night…and he lay down in that place, and dreamed…And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know.” (Bereshit 28:10-16)

Rashi commented upon the apparent uniqueness of Yaakov’s sleep at that time, writing: “In that place (Be El) he lay down, but during the (prior) fourteen years that he served in the House of Ever he did not lay down at night, because he was occupied with the study of Torah.”[1] Indeed, it is reasonable to imagine Yaakov as an individual who abhorred sleep. He would, in fact, remark twenty years later to Lavan that “Scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes” (31:40). The mission-driven Yaakov employed a cunning mind and deceptive spirit to control his destiny. We all know people like that. They never have time for sleep!

But God had another plan for Yaakov. Rashi cited the Hakhamim’s reading of the text: “The sun set for him suddenly, not in its normal time, so that he should spend the night there.”[2] Seeking a prophetic dialogue with Yaakov as He had with Avraham and Yisshak, God laid Yaakov to sleep. This must have felt unnatural for Yaakov. He was unaccustomed to the diminished state of consciousness and loss of cognitive control inherent to sleep. Yaakov’s reaction upon waking best reveal his feelings of vulnerability at that time – “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know.” Yaakov was uncomfortable with “not knowing.” Whereas in the past it was he who “knew” what Esav and Yisshak did not, Yaakov now experienced himself what it meant to “not know.”

I believe that Yaakov’s dream on the mountaintop at Bet El instilled him with more than just a feeling of humility. It exposed him to a dimension of thought that he had until then left unexplored. “There is a profound intimation here about the dynamics of sleep,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote, “about the loss of consciousness and the possible gifts of unconsciousness, about knowing and dreaming.”[3] What is the difference between wakeful “knowing” and restful “dreaming”? Oliver Sacks explained that the electrophysiological properties of the brain in waking and dreaming are quite similar. There is a single mechanism for both – the constant inner-talking between the cerebral cortex and the thalamus, a continuous interplay of image and feeling. Waking and dreaming, then, are fundamentally the same, distinguished only by the sensory input of wakefulness. Whereas a “waking consciousness” derives from sensory input, dreams are the product of their absence. Dr. Sacks summarized: “Waking consciousness is dreaming – but dreaming constrained by external reality.”[4] Yaakov’s state of dreaming, then, opened him to the mental world of “unconstrained thought.”

The Kabbalists distinguish between two distinct modes of thought – hokhmah and binah. Hokhmah derives from the words “koah mah,” or “the potential of what.” It refers to the question of what something really is – its essence. Binah, on the other hand, relates to the word “bein,” or “between.” It implies separation, as you look at something logically and put yourself at distance from it.  While deciding to build a home, for example, hokhmah is the initial flash that enters into the mind about what the house will look like (its essence as a home), while binah is the deliberate blueprint of structure and rooms (its intricate details).[5]

Arriving at the top of the mountain at Bet El, Yaakov must have taken in the landscape and its environs. Employing his cognitive faculty of binah, which he was adept at doing, he immediately noticed the mountain’s many externalities – the grass, the rocks, the trees, etc. Laying him to sleep, however, God encouraged Yaakov’s entrance into the realm of hokhmah. He urged him to see beyond the “logical” and “apparent,” and into the “essence” of that mountain. And so, he did:
And Yaakov awoke from his sleep…And he was afraid and he said, “How fearsome is this place! This can be but the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens.” (28:16-17)
As the trappings of wakefulness faded away, Yaakov’s mind now extended beyond the sensory input of consciousness. He tapped into the pristine perception of hokhmah, and beheld the unfathomable reality that lay before his eyes.

But it is possible to experience hokhmah even while awake. Albert Einstein remarked: “At times I feel certain that I am right without knowing the reason.”[6] And R. Moshe Sofer z”l, the great 19th Century Hungarian authority and author of Hatam Sofer, more than once told his students that his method to answering halakhic questions was based upon intuition, immediately stating answer that first came to his mind. Upon making that initial determination, R. Sofer would search “backwards” grounding the answer in its appropriate sources.[7]

“The major decisions of man’s life are made spontaneously and suddenly,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z"l once said, “in response to an aboriginal command from within.” He pointed to decisions of faith, marriage, solutions to financial problems, acts of military genius and a variety of other pivotal resolutions in life that are often reached intuitively.[8]

The chaotic nature of life, however, has a way of distracting us. We are often led astray from our intuition in directions that we ourselves choose, based on a variety of logical factors and determinations. Awakened to a similar reality of “self-blindness,” Yaakov expressed surprise that he had failed to intuit the sanctity of his sleeping place. Although it took a dream to “open Yaakov’s inner eyes,” we can “open our eyes” even while awake – by following our intuition.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 28:12 s.v va-yishkav.
[2] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 28:12 s.v. ki ba.
[3] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 190.
[4] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 57.
[5] See, e.g., R. Aryeh Kaplan, Inner Space (Jerusalem, IS, 1991), pg. 57-8 and R. Yechiel Bar-Lev, Song of the Soul: Introduction to Kaballa (Petah Tikvah, IS, 1994), pg. 83-4.
[6] Albert Einstein, Einstein on Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms (Mineola, NY, 2009), pg. 97.
[7] See Maoz Kahana’s “Yesh lanu av zaken,” in Hagedolim: Leaders Who Shaped the Israeli Haredi Jewry (Jerusalem, IS, 2017), pg. 99-100.
[8] R. Abraham R. Besdin, Reflections of the Rav vol. 1: Lessons in Jewish Thought Adapted from Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Hoboken, NJ, 1993), pg. 91.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Bereshit Themes: Challenges

Listen to the next class in our Bereshit Themes series, "Challenges," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

The Rise of Hasidut & the Threat of "Changing What We Do"

Listen to last night's class, "The Rise of Hasidut & the Threat of 'Changing What We Do'," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.6 (pt. 2)

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.6 (pt. 2) here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Applying Lipstick & Eating Red Fruits on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Applying Lipstick & Eating Red Fruits on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Parashat Toledot: Sarah and Rivkah

Listen to last night's class on Parashat Toledot, "Sarah and Rivkah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.6 (pt. 1)

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.6 (pt. 1) here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Clapping Hands & Dancing on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Clapping Hands & Dancing on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Bereshit Themes: Control

Listen to the next class in our Bereshit Themes series, "Control," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Parashat Hayei Sarah: The Search for Rivkah

Listen to our class on Parashat Hayei Sarah from 2017, "The Search for Rivkah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.5

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.5 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Parashat VaYera: Making Space

Making Space
Thoughts on Parashat VaYera 2019
Click here to view as PDF
God’s one-sentence command of Avraham was strict and straightforward:
…And He said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Yisshak, and Go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” (22:2)
It appeared to leave Avraham with no room for self-expression or interpretation. His options seemed simple: to listen or not to listen to God’s word.

And yet, as Avraham began his journey to “the land of Moriah,” something unexpected took place:
On the third day Avraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. (22:4)
Instead of lowering his eyes in an obedient march to “one of the mountains which God would say,” Avraham “raised his eyes,” and recognized the mountain – on his own – from afar.  Indeed, after Avraham had climbed the mountain and God warned him not to harm Yisshak, Avraham again “raised his eyes.” He again expressed himself independently, noticing a ram that was caught in the thicket by its horns, and deeming it the right replacement for Yisshak on the mizbeah (22:14).

Ironically, then, the episode of the Akedah – forever remembered as Avraham’s display of absolute deference to God and His word – lays hint to an integral element of space in the man-God relationship. It teaches that even in the most “constricting” circumstances of our relationship with Him, there remains a hollow void within which each individual may carve out their own personal niche. Even as Avraham followed the absolute order of God to sacrifice his son, the opportunity to “raise his eyes” remained.

I first appreciated the significance of a literal and figurative space to our lives during a meeting with a personal mentor, David “Hurdle” Tawil. Hurdle was critiquing the speed of my speech in a sermon on one particular Shabbat morning. He told me that by failing to sufficiently breathe in between sentences and paragraphs, I stole the opportunity from my listeners to reflect upon the message and find its relevance to their own lives.

“I’ll tell you a story to get across the point,” Hurdle then told me, with the twinkle of his eye. He told me that over sixty years ago, a friend of his was struggling in the retail business of clothing. Distinguished today as a standout philanthropist of our community, this individual was struggling to make ends meet at the beginning years of his career. And so, he called Hurdle into his store, and asked him for advice. He showed off his high-quality merchandise and questioned why nobody seemed interested in buying it. “And I noticed the issue immediately,” Hurdle told me, “there was not enough space from one rack to the next.” Entering into the store, consumers were “overwhelmed” by the vast array of merchandise laid out in front of them, and unable to appropriately “take in” and appreciate the value of each individual garment and parcel. “When you leave the right amount of space,” Hurdle then taught me, “you allow for the people around you to appreciate what you have to offer.”

The British historian Emma Hornby pointed out that both in Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit” also mean “breath” (nefesh and neshamah) or “wind” (ruah). The silence of the “space in between,” a breath or the wind, allows the spirit in.[1] Indeed, the very creation of man entailed God “blowing into his nostrils the breath of life – nefesh hayah,” creating a “living spirit – nishmat hayim” (2:7). And Onkelos, the classic translator to the Torah, famously explained that the “living spirit” of man is best defined by his ability to speak (ruah me-malela). How ironic! Our self-identity, which is best expressed through our speech with one another, was born out of the silent space of a breath.

Consider the similarity of relationships with our children to the “Akedah experience” between God and Avraham. No, I don’t mean that we too ask our children to slaughter others! But just as God expected Avraham to obediently follow his word, so too do we of our children in many interactions with them. Learning from that somewhat unexpected “space” which God carved out for Avraham, the message to us is clear. Allow your children to “raise their eyes” and notice on their own. Even as you intend to impart advice from years of life-experience, the words are often understood best through a medium of appropriate space. It is ironic yet true that guided-growth flourishes most in a context that invites self-reflection and expression.

[1] Emma Hornby, “Preliminary Thoughts About Silence in Early Western Chant,” in Silence, Music, Silent Music, (Aldershot, UK, 2007). Pg. 142-3. Cited by Jane Brox, Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 68.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Parashat VaYera: Hagar, Yishmael & the Akedah

Listen to our class on Parashat VaYera from 2016, "Hagar, Yishmael & the Akedah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.3-4

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.3-4 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Cutting Through Letters on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Cutting Through Letters on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Bereshit Themes: Perspective

Listen to the next class in our Bereshit Themes series, "Perspective," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Parashat Lekh Lekha: (L)earning it the Hard Way

Listen to tonight's class on Parashat Lekh Lekha, "(L)earning it the Hard Way," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Nefesh HaHayim 1.1-2

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.1-2 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Parashat Noah: Separation & Unity

Separation & Unity
Thoughts on Parashat Noah 2019
Click here to view as PDF
The Torah described Noah’s actions upon descending from the ark:
And Noah built an altar to God and he took from every clean cattle and every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (Bereshit 8:20)
And God’s response:
And God smelled the fragrant odor (re’ah ha-nihoah) and God said in His heart: “I will not again damn the soil on humankinds score…And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. (8:21)
God’s determination appears to be inspired by Noah’s korbanot. His decision to spare the future of humankind and all living things wasn’t decided by the sheer devastation of the flood, but by Noah’s sacrifices. What was the significance of those korbanot?

“Creation is the making of separated things,” stated the political philosopher Leo Strauss, upon counting five explicit and ten implicit mentions of havdalah – “separation” – in the first chapter of Bereshit.[1] Indeed, Ramban interpreted the Torah’s first pasuk, “At the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” as a reference to God’s initial creation of a single entity of formless matter.[2] God’s subsequent actions during the six days of creation, then, gave form to that matter through a series of deliberate acts of separation.

Consider God’s initial actions in Creation: Light was separated from darkness (1:3-4), the “upper and lower waters” were separated from one another (6-7), land and water were separated (9-10), and the heavenly bodies were purposed to separate between day and night (14-18). Leon Kass thus summarized: “Creation is the bringing of order out of chaos largely through acts of separation, division, distinction.”[3]

Why did God bring forth all of these separations? To create a habitable space for humankind. After all, a world of absolute darkness and water leaves no place for man. It is through the space that was created “in between” – the rays of light, air space and land – that we find our place in this world.

But what is the role of humankind in this “separated space”? I believe, perhaps paradoxically, that it is to seek a reunification.  Consider the fact that our very creation began in a state of unity between “upper” and “lower” realms of existence – crafted from “the dust of the earth,” God breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (2:7).[4] The Hakhamim similarly suggested that the “mist” which “ascended from the earth” (2:6) immediately prior to his creation was from the clouds and was purposed to “saturate the soil” from which he was created.[5] It was the water of the “upper worlds,” then, that mixed with the “lower world” soil to create a human being.[6]

Indeed, immediately after Hava’s separation from Adam – “And God built the rib He had taken from Adam into a woman” (2:22), she was led to a natural unity with him – “Therefore does man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they become one flesh” (2:24). The Hakhamim furthermore pointed to humankind’s task to seek unity in existence in their explanation of a rather cryptic pasuk, “For God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” Rashi explained:
And what is the reason that “He had not sent rain?” Because “there was no man to work the soil”…When Adam came and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them and they came down, and the trees and types of vegetation sprouted.[7]
God withheld the downpouring of the “upper world” rains until the creation of a human being. It was the human’s destiny to establish a unity between his “lower” world and that of above.

But the flood of Parashat Noah effectively “turned back the clock” of creation, rendering the world uninhabitable by collapsing the natural separation onto itself. The “upper” and “lower” waters crashed again into one another – “The springs of the great deep were split open and the storehouses of the heavens opened up” (6:11), and the waters covered the mountains (7:19), as an effective “un-creation” took place in a world of “chaotic unity.”[8] Noah’s subsequent emergence from the ark into a “recreated” world of separation, then, renewed humanity’s mission of unity.

And Noah built an altar to God and he took from every clean cattle and every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (8:20)

R. Ezra Bick commented, in a different context: “If sacrificing an animal is characterized as turning the flesh into smoke, the inner meaning of this action is turning the physical into the spiritual…the korban creates an actual metaphysical link by bridging the gap, by turning the physical into the spiritual.”[9] Noah’s decision to bring forth a korban at that time touched on the very core of his existential mission. The divinely “fragrant odor” produced by his sacrifice represented the necessary bridge between the material flesh of this world with the spiritual essence of the world above. It was his immediate step in the appropriate direction of unity – his ultimate destiny – that inspired God’s will to secure the future of humankind and all living beings.

The call to unify cries out to us on a constant basis in our own lives of compartmentalization. And it is only realized when we successfully overlap the ideals of the various realms of our lives. We are commanded, for example, to extend the time of kedushah at the synagogue to our everyday activities. The commitment to truth and honesty in our households must likewise be matched in our dealings at the workplace. And a strict adherence to halakhah may not be reserved for specific times or places, but rather exist as a part of our very identity. Unity is found when we infuse the seemingly disparate domains of our lives with the common essence of sanctity and truth.

[1] Leo Strauss, On the Interpretation of Genesis, L’Homme 1981 (21:1), pg. 9.
[2] Commentary of Ramban to Bereshit 1:1 (s.v. bereshit).
[3] Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL, 2006), pg. 32.
[4] See Bereshit Rabah 12.8. See, as well, R. Hayim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayim 1.5 (s.v. hagah).
[5] Commentary of Rashi ad. loc., s.v. ve-ed.
[6] As noted by R. Moshe Shapira, Afikei Mayim: Sukkot ed. R. Reuven M. Shmeltzer (Jerusalem, IS, 2012), pg. 243.
[7] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 2:5 s.v. ki.
[8] The Hakhamim likewise deduced that over the course of the flood there was no distinction between day and night (Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 8:22, s.v. ve-yom).  
[9] R. Ezra Bick, “The Significance of Haktarah,” Torah MiEtzion: VaYikra (New Milford, CT, 2014), pg. 32-33.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Bereshit Themes: Movement

Listen to the next class in our Bereshit Themes series, "Movement," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Parashat Noah: A Whole New World

Listen to last night's class on Parashat Noah, "A Whole New World," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Halakhah & Aggadah

Listen to this morning's class, "Halakhah & Aggadah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Parashat Bereshit: Hearing His Voice

Hearing His Voice
Thoughts on Parashat Bereshit 2019
Click here to view as PDF
Following the story of Adam and Hava’s banishment from Gan Eden, the Torah stated:

And Adam knew Hava his wife and she conceived and bore Kayin…And she bore as well his brother Hevel… (Bereshit 4:1-2)

Although Rashi understood this to have taken place prior to their exit from Eden, a simple reading of the text suggests that Adam and Hava procreated only after leaving the Garden. Indeed, Ibn Ezra explained why this response would make sense. Undisturbed by thoughts of mortality during their lives in Gan Eden, Adam and Hava understood their own lives of productivity as all that mattered. Realizing now that they would one day die, however, inspired them to seek children who would continue their legacy even after their deaths.[1]

Reading the reaction of Adam and Hava from this perspective, though, is reminiscent to me of the philosophical perspective of French existentialists such as Camus and Sartre. Accepting that life is, objectively speaking, “meaningless,” existentialism admits only to the subjective search for meaning in life. In other words, their philosophy suggests that there is no real meaning to living, but once alive, we may as well “invent” a purpose and reason for our individual lives. The great psychotherapist Viktor Frankl compared this approach to looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. Peering into a kaleidoscope, we can only see what other human beings have put in, and the pattern depends on how we turn the kaleidoscope. Understood in this fashion, we might then suggest that Adam and Hava’s decision to have children was self-conceived at the time that they realized the bleak future that lay ahead.

In truth, however, Adam and Hava’s mission to procreate had already been determined in the very moment that followed their creation:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it’. (1:28)

But although He had thus spoken to them back then, they apparently only heard it now. While the call of mankind to pursue meaningful-based activity was clearly stated upon their appearance in this world, it took this moment of crisis for Adam and Hava to finally understand it.

Viktor Frankl compared this approach to searching for meaning to staring into a telescope. Although we might each look through the telescope from a different subjective viewpoint, what we see is the same – the objective reality. Presenting this idea at Harvard University almost sixty years ago, Frankl pointed through the window at the Harvard Chapel outside and told his students: “That chapel out there presents itself from a different perspective to each of you, depending on where you sit. If two of you were to claim that you see the chapel in exactly the same way, I would have to tell you that one of you is imagining things. But despite this different and highly subjective perspective, no one will deny that the Harvard Chapel out there is one and the same objective reality.”[2]

I believe that each of our own journeys towards meaning in life are similarly guided. Based in the objective existence of God’s words, our authentic experiences and genuine study of Torah hold the keys to uncovering their veiled meaning. The Hakhamim thus demanded that we “reenact Ma’amad Har Sinai” every time we study Torah – “Just as there it was in awe, fear, trembling and quaking, so in this case too it must be in awe, fear, trembling and quaking.[3] The Zohar furthermore stated, “He who endeavors in [study of] Torah is as if he stands every day at Mount Sinai and receives the Torah.”[4] We are commanded, then, to reposition ourselves in dialogue with the Almighty, urged to crane our necks out ever further to hear His words as He speaks to us in the present.

“Somehow, when I open up the gemara, either alone or when I am in company,” R. Soloveitchik once remarked, “I have the impression, do not call it a hallucination, as if I hear, so to say, the soft footsteps of somebody invisible. He comes in and sits down with me, sometimes looking over my shoulders…The study of Torah is basically, for me, an ecstatic experience in which one meets God.”[5] Gershom Scholem likened this phenomenon to a musical symphony. He explained that when genuinely engaging in Torah we play the role of a musician playing the symphony. And although we have not composed it, we nonetheless participate in significant measure to its production. God’s dialogue with Am Yisrael, which began at Har Sinai, continues to take form through us – as we listen for His voice in the present.[6]

God’s initial blessing of “Be fruitful and multiply” fell upon the deaf ears of Adam and Hava. The ease and relative certainty of their early stages of life made it difficult for Adam and Hava to properly comprehend His words at that time. Banishment from Gan Eden and realizing their finitude raised the volume of His message and forced its meaning upon them. It was then that they “discovered” the objective words that God had spoken to them long before.

Adam and Hava’s experiences back then ring true to us today. Seeking God’s presence and searching for meaning in our own lives is sometimes misperceived as a futile attempt at self-invention (as in: “You don’t actually believe that?!”). In truth, however, endeavoring upon that journey taps into the sounds of His eternal voice which seek dialogue with us.

Genuinely studying His words while engaging life with open eyes reveals a particular truth that continues to shine from afar.

[1] See Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 4:1, s.v. ve-ha-adam and Commentary of Ibn Ezra ad. loc. See, as well, Ossar Mefarshei HaTorah: Bereshit vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2016), pg. 153 and R. Meir Mazouz’s related discussion of this topic in Bayit Ne’eman: Bereshit vol. 1 (Bnei Brak, IS, 2019), pg. 117-119.
[2] As cited by Joseph B. Fabry in The Pursuit of Meaning: Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy, and Life (Charlottesville, VG, 2013), pg. 46-47.
[3] Berakhot 22a.
[4] Zohar vol. 3, pg. 179. Cited by R. Hayim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaHayim 4:14.
[5] Related in an address on June 19, 1975. Transcribed by R.Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, in The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik vol. 2 (Jersey City, NJ, 1999), pg. 200-4.
[6] Gershom G. Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York, NY, 1971), pg. 296-303.

Simhat Torah: The Song of Torah

The Song of Torah
Thoughts on Simhat Torah 2019
Click here to view as PDF
On the final day of Moshe’s life, he instructed: “And now, write this song and teach to Bnei Yisrael, put it in their mouths…” (Devarim 31:19). The Hakhamim interpreted “this song” as a reference to the entirety of the Torah, understanding it as an obligation for every individual to write a sefer Torah.[1] Although there are several poetic passages in the Torah, the vast majority of its verses tell stories or present laws. Why, then, would Moshe characterize its general nature as a “song”?

The great neurologist Oliver Sacks suffered from a loss of hearing in his final years of life. He was intrigued by the way that he often misheard individual words in sentences that were spoken to him during those years, and probed the psychological and physiological causes of his “mishearings.”  Sacks noticed that while he often misheard words, he seldom misheard music. The notes, melodies and phrasings remained as clear and rich to him then as they had been all his life. He explained that whereas speech is “open, inventive and improvised” and thus vulnerable to mishearing, playing and hearing music engages the procedural memory and emotional centers of one’s brain, thus minimizing the risk of mishearing.[2]

By referring to the Torah as a “song,” Moshe was perhaps teaching that its messages must be perceived in a realm that lies beyond our intellect – the realm of emotion. Consider, for example, a particular description of the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “For Nietzsche, thinking was an act of extreme emotional intensity. He thought the way others feel.”[3] Transcending their mundane existence as cerebral data-pieces, Moshe likewise commanded that the words of Torah be “put in our mouths,” and perceived as part of an everlasting and developing experience. An experience enriched by feeling – a “song” – resonates further than a lesson computed by the mind.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik often spoke about his “child-like” mindset while engaging in talmud Torah. “The adult is too clever,” he declared, “Utility is his guiding light. The experience of God is unavailable to those approaching it with a businesslike attitude.” He suggested that only the child – or an individual possessing a childlike emotional disposition – can appropriately engage the words of God. Adults depend upon their intellect to problem-solve. Children keep their eyes and hearts wide open. “The adult is not capable of the all-embracing and all-penetrating outpouring of the soul,” he wrote, “The most sublime crown we can give a great man sparkles with the gems of childhood.”[4]

Am Yisrael has long dedicated itself on Shavuot to the intense study of the words and concepts of the Torah with the custom of all-night learning. Our minds are sharpened and thoughts cleansed by the Torah’s teachings on the holiday of Shavuot. Simhat Torah represents an alternate vehicle of connection. We sing and dance with the Torah, tapping into the joys of childhood, as we allow the “song of Torah” to penetrate our hearts and souls.

[1] Sanhedrin 21b.
[2] Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 126.
[3] RĂ¼diger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (New York, NY, 2002), pg. 181.
[4] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Divrei Hagut VeHa’arakhah (Jerusalem, IS, 1982), pg. 57-98 See, as well, his “BeSod HaYahid VeHaYahad (Jerusalem, IS, 1976), pg. 209.