Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Monday, October 28, 2019
Sunday, October 27, 2019
Hearing His Voice
Thoughts on Parashat Bereshit 2019
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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.
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.
The Song of Torah
Thoughts on Simhat Torah 2019
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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. 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.
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.” 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.”
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.
Saturday, October 19, 2019
Friday, October 18, 2019
Thursday, October 17, 2019
Friday, October 11, 2019
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
Listen to my talk on Monday night, "Zokhrenu LeHayim: On Memory & Process," here.
Follow along with the sources here.
It was run as part of Yeshivah of Flatbush's "Lishmah" program, at the home of Abie and Yvette Hidary.