Sunday, March 31, 2019

Parashat Shemini: Taking Risks

Taking Risks
Thoughts on Shemini 2019
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Life is sacrifice and risk taking.
(Nassim Nicholas Taleb)[1]

And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forth alien fire before God, which He had not charged them. And fire came out from before God and consumed them, and they died before God. (VaYikra 10:1-2)

Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe approached Aharon and told him:
 “This is just what God spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to me shall I be hallowed and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.” (10:3)
Rashi interpreted Moshe’s consolation of Aharon in a somewhat surprising fashion:
…Moshe said to Aharon: “Aharon, my brother, I knew that the House (Mishkan) would become sanctified through those intimate with God, and I was under the impression that it was either through me or you. Now I see that they are greater than me and you.”[2]
Although it is possible that Moshe had stretched the truth in order to calm Aharon at that time, the fact that neither the verse nor Rashi make reference of such suggests that Moshe’s words were in fact literal. Moshe had stated that although Nadav and Avihu had transgressed by bringing forth “alien fire before God, which He had not charged them,” they nonetheless stood as greater than Moshe and Aharon! With little knowledge of any of their earlier achievements, it is surprising that the Torah hinted at their greatness specifically at the time of their sinful death. Unless, however, it was their very act of sin that somehow revealed that greatness.

Psychologist Adam Grant realized that many of the most creative minds of our generation were less-than-perfect students: Steve Jobs finished high school with a 2.65 G.P.A., J.K. Rowling graduated college with a roughly C average and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got only one A in his four years in college. Grant explained: “Getting straight A’s requires conformity. Having an influential career demands originality.” He quoted education researcher Karen Arnold, who noted that valedictorians aren’t likely be the future’s visionaries, as “they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” Grant charged today’s universities to “make it easier for students to take some intellectual risks.” And he advised employers to value skills over straight A’s.[3]

Perhaps Moshe’s perception of Nadav and Avihu’s greatness didn’t stem from knowledge of their past actions and deeds but rather from their act of sin itself. It was, paradoxically, the courageous act of bringing forth an “alien fire which He had not charged them” that proved their greatness.  Nadav and Avihu literally “played with fire” as they sought to rise above the confined world of God’s explicit words. Seeking a deeper connection with the Almighty – an unprecedented “approach of God” (16:1), Nadav and Avihu dared greatly and fell. Moshe’s consolation to Aharon, then, focused not on their fatal mistake, but on its inspired mindset.

The economist George Stigler remarked that one of the most common failures of able people is their lack of nerve. Their tendency to “play safe games” ends up ruining any chance for significant breakthroughs.[4] While we must always be mindful of the danger of taking risks, Rashi’s words regarding Moshe’s consolation of Aharon remind us of the potential greatness that lies in well-placed risks.

[1] Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 121.
[2] Commentary of Rashi to VaYikra 10:3, s.v. hu.
[3] Adam Grant, “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” The New York Times Dec. 8, 2018.
[4] Quoted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Creativity: The Psychology of Discover and Invention (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 72.

Avodah Zarah 29a-30b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   29a,     29b,     30a,      30b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Medical Treatments for Non-Jews on Shabbat

Listen to our class, "Medical Treatments for Non-Jews on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The 'Written Words' of Halakhah (2)

Listen to tonight's class, "The 'Written Words' of Halakhah (2)," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

Listen to "The 'Written Words' of Halakhah (1)" here. Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Derekh HaShem 5.8

Listen to this morning's class on Derekh Hashem here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Avodah Zarah 27a-28b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   27a,     27b,     28a,      28b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Megilat Esther: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Listen to today's class, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

The class was part of the SCA and Yeshivah of Flatbush's "Torah Talks" series.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Avodah Zarah 24b-26b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   24b,    25a,    25b,     26a,    26b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Megilat Esther: Success in Exile?

Listen to last night's class on Megilat Esther, "Success in Exile?" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Is Gelatin Kosher?

Listen to last night's class, "Is Gelatin Kosher?" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read R. Shlomo Brody's brief summary of the various issues and opinion on this topic, in his A Guide to the Complex, here.

2) Read the full text of R. Ovadia Yosef's teshuvah in Yabia Omer here.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Derekh HaShem 5.2-6

Listen to this morning's class on Derekh HaShem here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Avodah Zarah 22b-24a

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   22b,     23a,     23b,     24a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Parashat Pekudei: Balanced Thought

Balanced Thought
Thoughts on Pekudei 2019
Click here to view as PDF
And Moshe saw all the tasks, and, look, they had done it as God had charged, thus they had done it, and Moshe blessed them. (Shemot 39:43)

The Torah described the men who built the Mishkan as “hakhmei lev – wise of heart.” Nessiv suggested that “hearts” in this context refers to their unique passion and choice in this endeavor. Lacking the basic skills and training for craftsmanship of the Mishkan and its furnishings, the volunteers were guided by inspiration instead of education.[1] Moshe was thus filled with awe as he peered upon the final product, “And, look, they had done it as God had charged.” He was surprised by their ability to construct the Mishkan with minimal training and only partial instruction.[2] Indeed, the Hakhamim imagined Moshe’s exclamation at that time: “Bessalel, you must have been in the shadow of God (be-sel-el), for absolutely so did God command me!”[3]

Mention of Bessalel, “in the shadow of God,” is reminiscent of Man’s initial creation. It was God’s expression of “Let us make man in our image (be-salmenu)” that represents the divine inspiration for humanity. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg commented on the similarity between “image – selem” and “shadow – sel,” suggesting that it represents “a subtle, self-effacing sensibility that can pick up on hints, on intimations that are almost nonexistent.”[4] Construction of the Mishkan, then, represented the fulfilment of our destiny – ambitiously following “God’s word” by means of our personal intuition and creativity.

It is somewhat surprising, however, that the fulfillment of “God’s word” at the Mishkan would be coupled with human intuition. Following the Torah repeated statements that the Mishkan be built “as God commanded Moshe,” it stands to reason that the process would happen by means of a pristine “mirror of God,” instead of His darkened “shadow.” Why did human perception play such a vital role in the construction of the “dwelling place of God”?

Albert Einstein once remarked that “the greatest scientists are artists as well.” He reflected on his own accomplishments, remarking:
When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge. . . . All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration. . . . At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.[5]
Best-selling author Daniel Levitin mentioned, in this context, an initiative of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), several years ago. In 2012, NCI sponsored a groundbreaking brainstorming session with artists, scientists and other creative people. Acknowledging that the cure for cancer remained a dream even after decades of intense research, NCI handpicked people with no knowledge or expertise in cancer research and paired them with the leading cancer researchers in the world. Several of the “out of the box” ideas which were generated by the nonexperts were subsequently deemed brilliant, providing avenues for future thought and research. Levitin likened this initiative to Einstein’s self-reflection that our thoughts are best formulated when rational and linear thinking is tethered to nonlinear creativity.[6]

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that determining how to combine the best of conscious deliberation and instinctive judgment is “one of the greatest challenges of our time.”[7] Indeed, each of us struggles on a consistent basis to balance our “raw thoughts” with ruminative deliberations. While we fear “rash decisions,” we don’t want to “overthink” our choices either. God’s deliberate plan for the Mishkan’s construction – “by His word,” yet by the “wise of heart” and in “the shadow of God” – remains for us a blueprint of life “be-selem Elokim.” It reminds us of the necessary value of balance in our thought.

[1] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, Commentary of Ha’amek Davar to Shemot 36:2 s.v. asher.
[2] Ha’amek Davar to Shemot 39:43 s.v. va-yar.
[3] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 38:22 s.v. u-Bessalel.
[4] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York, NY, 2001), pg. 477.
[5] The Expanded Quotable Einstein (Princeton, NJ, 2000), pg. 245.
[6] Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (New York, NY, 2014), pg. 380.
[7] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY, 2007), pg. 269.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Megilat Esther & Gan Eden

Listen to last night's class, "Megilat Esther & Gan Eden" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Derekh HaShem 5.1

Listen to this morning's class on Derekh HaShem here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Parashat VaYakhel: Creating Through Unity

Creating Through Unity
Thoughts on VaYakhel 2019
Click here to view as PDF
And Bessalel and Aholiav and every wise-hearted man in whom God has given wisdom and understanding to know how to do the task of the holy work, shall do all that God has charged. (Shemot 36:1)

The Hakhamim described the uniqueness of Bessalel, the head contractor of the Mishkan, in a single sentence:
Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Bessalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created.[1]
Understood within context of the Torah’s many thematic and linguistic similarities between the Mishkan and Creation,[2] the Hakhamim were teaching that the Mishkan represented a “second creation.” The “letters of creation” are likewise a reference to the Rabbis’ cryptic portrayal of creation with letters, as the Talmud elsewhere refers to our ability to create by means of Sefer Yessirah – a book that details the central role of the Hebrew alphabet (“letters”) in beriat ha-olam.[3]

It is surprising, however, that as they likened the construction of the Mishkan to Creation, the Rabbis spoke about the “joining of letters.” The Torah’s telling of Creation, after all, is an elaborate story of the opposite verb – separation. Following God’s initial creation of formless matter (tohu va-vohu), each of His next consecutive actions represented separation – light from darkness (1:3-4), the upper “waters” from the lower ones (6-7), dryland from water (9-10) and day from night with the heavenly bodies (14-18). Indeed, political philosopher Leo Strauss once remarked, “Creation is the making of separated things.”[4]

Ramban (R. Moshe b. Nahman) relatedly wrote that the letters of the Torah are in fact a sheet of God’s names that Moshe separated in a particular way, to yield the words and sentences that express meaning in our text. The Torah could theoretically be read to portray altogether different meanings, however, by dividing its letters into different words and sentences.[5] The great kabbalist R. Yosef Gikatilla similarly expressed: “The Book is therefore not vocalized, has no intonations, and lacks punctuation, for the Torah contains all wisdom, revealed as well as concealed … And thus, the Torah may be interpreted in many aspects as man inverts the verses one way or another.”[6] “Creation” of our Torah is thus likened to that of the World – as a “formless matter” of thousands of letters incoherently strung together take form by means of a deliberate process of separation.

Describing Bessalel’s divine power to create, then, we would perhaps have expected the Hakhamim to refer to his ability to “separate the letters with which heaven and earth were created” – the absolute opposite of their reference to his “joining” those letters!

Consider, however, that the Torah twice expresses a theme of unity in the context of constructing the Mishkan:
And you shall join the panels to one another with the clasps, that the Mishkan be one whole. (Shemot 26:6)
And you shall join the tent, that it become one whole. (26:11)
Indeed, the very idea of turning to the people for their donations (terumah) was interpreted by some as an expression of unity, as well. “Having been liberated from slavery, they were now asked to embark on a community project…everyone was able to contribute something to its construction and take pride in what was accomplished,” Kenneth Seeskin wrote.[7] Countering a world that was built and maintained through separation, then, the Mishkan introduced an alternate reality of creation through unity.

This contrast between the construction of the Mishkan and Creation arises with regards to the mystical concept of simsum (contraction), as well. The kabbalists long pondered the paradox of an infinite God’s creation of a finite world, questioning the existence of anything aside from Himself. R. Yisshak Luria, the Ari z”l, famously taught that God created by means of simsum. By “withdrawing” into Himself, God consequently “made space” for the existence of a physical world.[8] A midrash that imagined a conversation between Moshe and God regarding construction of the Mishkan, however, mentioned the concept of simsum with an opposite meaning! According to the midrash, God responded to Moshe’s confusion about building a sanctuary to “house” Him, by explaining: “Moshe, not as you think. Rather, twenty boards to the north, twenty boards to the south and eight to the west – and I will descend and contract (mesamsem) My presence among you below.”[9] Whereas beriat ha-olam took place by means of God’s “separation,” the very entity of the Mishkan sought His “union.”

Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Bessalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created.
Using the very same “letters” of beriah, Bessalel transformed the concept of creation by introducing the foundational reality of creation though unity. Living in a world first created through separation, much of our own interactions take place within the frame of distinction – we associate ourselves from different people, thoughts, ideas, allegiances, etc. Joining “letters” and materials to one another, the Mishkan connected Am Yisrael to one another and to God. And it introduced the eternally relevant paradigm of creation through unity.

In memory of Felix Torgueman z”l – a “man of letters” who created through “unity.”

[1] Berakhot 55a.
[2] Recall our thoughts on Parashat Tessaveh 2019, “Man-Made.”
[3] See, e.g., Sanhedrin 65b and 67b.
[4] Leo Strauss, “On the Interpretation of Genesis,” L’Homme 1981 (21:1), pg. 9. Cf. our thoughts to Parashat VaEra 2017, “Separation & Unity.”
[5] Introduction to the Commentary of Ramban on the Torah.
[6] R. Yosef Gikatilla, Shaarei Sedek. Cited by Moshe Hallamish in An Introduction to the Kabbalah (New York, NY, 1999), pg. 217.
[7] Kenneth Seeskin, Thinking About the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (Philadelphia, PA, 2016), pg. 99. Cf. our thoughts on Parashot VaYakhel-Pekudei 2017, “The Unity Project.”
[8] See, e.g. Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 260-4.
[9] Pesikta DeRav Kahana 2:10. See, as well, Shemot Rabah 34:1. And R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s analysis in Halakhic Man (Philadelphia, PA, 1983), pg. 49-52, as noted by R. Reuven Ziegler “The Halakhist as Creator,” in Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 282 fn. 25. And Cf. R. Shai Held’s “Being Present While Making Space,” in The Heart of Torah vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA, 2017), pg. 184-8.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Returning the Talet and Tefilin After Using the Bathroom

Listen to this morning's class here.

Follow along with the sources here.