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.