Sunday, June 30, 2019
Thursday, June 20, 2019
Sunday, June 16, 2019
Friday, June 14, 2019
Thoughts on Parashat Naso 2019
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Following instruction of the three verses of birkat kohanim, God instructed Moshe:
And they [the kohanim] shall set My name over Bnei Yisrael, and I myself shall bless them. (Bemidbar 6:27)
The Hakhamim explained that the call to “set His name” over the people referred to speaking the “shem ha-mefurash” – the clandestine name of God whose utterance was confined to the four walls of the Mishkan. Adhering to this tradition of secrecy, the Rabbis of the Talmud were careful in their transmittance of God’s sacred names, teaching them only on occasion and to their best and most trustworthy students.
Concealment of a name is most appropriate for Sefer Bemidbar. Bemidbar continues the narrative begun in Sefer Shemot of Am Yisrael’s exit from Egypt and march to the Land of Israel. These two books, however, are actually so different from one another. As the title of Shemot suggests, the sefer presents the “names” and stories of several individuals. First teaching about the seventy people who descended into Egypt, Shemot then details the birth and growth of the nation’s future leader Moshe. Sefer Bemidbar, in contrast, is referred to by the Hakhamim as the “Humash of Counting,” and more widely known as the “Book of Numbers.” Generally neglecting the “names,” self-identities and the stories of individuals, Bemibar is the story of a nation. It tells about the trials and travails of a vast number of “nameless” people.
Forty years ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch commented: “Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity.” He wrote that “the tycoon who lives in personal obscurity” and “the empire builder who controls the destinies of nations from behind the scenes” are vanishing types. Akiko Busch more recently realized, “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” Our society’s sustained obsession with social media and the ongoing legal debates regarding surveillance and cyber privacy represent the “public” and “exposed” lives that we now all lead. Indeed, Busch noted that the contemporary use of the word optics has less to do with the science of light (as it once did), and refers instead to how visual impressions of events and issues may be more important than the events and issues themselves.
Reflecting upon the difference between exposure and “namelessness,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l wrote that Judaism demands anonymity from man. “He must do his job and then vanish.” R. Soloveitchik reflected upon the members of the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly), who established many foundational laws and formulated our liturgy, the berakhot, and the recitations of kiddush and havdalah. Who were they? What were their personal stories? “We know next to nothing about them,” R. Soloveitchik remarked, “They did not seek to perpetuate their own names.” Striving diligently to bring the Jewish people together and formulate the Torah she-be’al peh, when these men finished their tasks they disappeared. The Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, like so many of the other individuals who make up the chain of our tradition, “came, did their duty, and then vanished.”
Immediately prior to mention of birkat kohanim, Parashat Naso details the potential circumstances of individuals who may attempt to “stand out,” and establish a “name” for themselves. First predicting the tragic demise of the sotah, the wayward woman, the parashah then describes the ways of the nazir. Although the nazir’s choice to stand apart from the others by abstaining from acts of indulgence may seem positive, the Hakhamim emphasized the Torah’s critique of that decision. The sotah and nazir, then, represent the opposite extremes of name-seeking individuals, and neither is seen positively.
Taking in the current state of our society at the end of his life, the late Oliver Sacks observed:
Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand.
He lamented the fact that we are no longer able to concentrate and appreciate in our own way, silently. We have given up “the amenities and achievements of civilization,” Sacks wrote, forfeiting solitude and leisure and the sanction to be oneself.
Reflecting the broader message of Sefer Bemidbar, Parashat Naso sets forth a perspective on life and accomplishment so relevant to us today. Learning from the mistakes of the sotah and nazir, we discover the detriments of over-exposure. The concealment of God’s name, in contrast, reminds us of the positive value of anonymity. Seeking genuine achievement calls for shielding ourselves from the limelight of fame and searching instead for truths that are determined on our own.
Thursday, June 6, 2019
Monday, June 3, 2019
Thoughts on Parashat BeHukotai 2019
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Parashat Behukotai begins with God’s condition to Am Yisrael. He told them that by following His laws – If you will walk by My statutes (26:3) – they would merit wealth, security and strength. Concluding these promises of prosperity, God told the nation:
I will walk among you; I will be a God to you and you will be a people to me. (26:12)
Paralleling His condition of our “walking by His statutes,” God foresaw “walking among us” – in the sense that we would feel His presence. Instead of mentioning this reality as the immediate result of following the missvot, which would then inspire the possibilities of material success, “I will walk among you” is mentioned as the final promise to the people who follow His will. It appears, then, that the promise of “I will walk among you” stands as the reward, independent of anything else.
Suppose, in theory, that a mixture of technological breakthroughs and human creativity bring the world to a state of utopia. Machines would produce stress-free universal wealth, psychology would vaccinate against mental disorders, and a perfected human intellect would raise us above all fights and competition. What would we then do all day? Philosopher Bernard Suits suggested that we would play games. Games, he explained, are played for their owns sake, irrespective of ulterior considerations. R. Yisshak Hutner z”l accordingly explained the several biblical references of Torah as a “sha’ashua’a” – a “plaything” (Tehillim 119:92; Mishlei 8:30-1), as study of its words and concepts is likewise an intrinsically motivated activity.
As members of a world and community which unabashedly value outcome above process, it is no small feat for us to identify and appreciate any of the intrinsic ideals that life has to offer. Indeed, the novelist KJ Dell’Antonia recently quoted a Senior high student who reflected upon her appreciation of extracurricular activities: “There is definitely this sense that you are putting work into activities so you can get some sort of payback – admission to a top college – and afterward, your work is done.” Dell’Antonia remarked:
Ironically, in placing so much value on activities that our children came to out of love or interest, we grown-ups replaced the intrinsic motivations we often claim to value with extrinsic ones. When you’ve been taught that every action has a purpose, it’s harder to find meaning in just doing something you enjoy, and much more difficult to persuade yourself to do it.
Our society has effectively commercialized the sports and activities which kids once did “just for fun,” and turned them into a means to an end.
The simple activity of taking a walk, however, has withstood the winds of time as it continues to serve no function outside of itself. The noted author Erling Kagge mentioned this facet as a core dimension of his love of walking outside:
I remember that in school, they strived for objectiveness. Tasks had a beginning and an end, tests got graded, and behavior had a norm. To walk is about something else. You can reach your goal, only to continue walking the next day. A hike may last a lifetime. You can walk in one direction and end up at your starting point.
The contemporary French philosopher Frederic Gros similarly contrasted the activity of walking to the world of “sport.” He began his book, A Philosophy of Walking, by succinctly stating that “walking is not a sport.” Whereas the sports of today are a matter of techniques and rules, scores and competition, “Putting one foot in front of the other is child’s play.”
Rashi commented on God’s promise of “I will walk among you”:
I will stroll with you in the Garden of Eden, like one of you, and you will not tremble because of me….
Harkening back to the original story of Adam and Hava who, following their sin, “heard the sound of God walking about in the garden” (Bereshit 3:8), Rashi taught that whereas God was then “walking alone,” following his statutes will earn us the role of “Divine walking buddies.” But what will be the purpose of that “walk”? Already granted the promise of material achievement and security, it appears that the ideal of His presence would not serve any extrinsic value, but rather the intrinsic value of “the walk” itself.
Internalizing the fundamental message of Parashat BeHukotai requires an uphill march against the pressures of our culture and society. In a world where “walking” remains the sole vestige of an independently valued activity, “walking with God” must represent for us the ideal of pursuing a life inspired by intrinsic motivations.