Listen to this morning's class, "מוליד - 'New Creations' on Shabbat & Yom Tov," here.
Follow along with the sources here.
Listen to this morning's class, "R. Yosef Karo & The Ways of Halakhah," here.
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Listen to a class from several years ago on R. Yosef Karo here.
A Great Name
Thoughts on Parashat Lekh Lekha 2020
At the onset of the parashah, we read about God’s promise of blessing to Avraham for following His command. In addition to wealth and progeny, God promised Avraham a “great name” for going forth on a journey into the unknown (Bereshit 12:2). Reading this story within its larger context, the relevance of a “name” is somewhat predictable. Immediately prior to God’s call to Avraham, we read about the builders of Bavel, whose misguided construction was driven by their will “that we may make us a name” (11:4). That story was followed, in turn, by the elaborate lineage of Noah’s son Shem – or “Name” (11:10-26). What is the relevant lesson of this drawn-out story about names?
Let’s first consider the initial acts of “naming” in the Torah. God named His creations during the days of creation. He called the light Day and the darkness Night (1:5), the vault (rakia) – Heavens (1:8), dry land – Earth, and the gathering of waters – Seas (1:10). Following Adam’s creation on the sixth day, God handed him the “power of naming”: “And whatever Adam called a living creature was its name” (2:19).
Giving names manifests our Godlike ability to reason. The name of any given entity represents its uniqueness. To give one requires an elaborate knowledge of the world and the ability to recognize its particularities by comparing the similarities and differences of one thing to the others. It is for this reason that the Torah later referred to distinguished individuals as “people of name” (Bemidbar 16:2). Since a name represents the uniqueness of its bearer, calling them “people of name” was effectively describing them as “unique people.”
Our privilege to name began with God’s invitation to Adam to name the animals. The people of Bavel wished to continue that legacy with an ambitious building project to establish their own name. But God foiled their plan. He taught that although it is natural to give names to others, it’s unhealthy to name ourselves. A genuine name of distinction is not to be seized through power or conquest, as the builders of Bavel then believed, but must instead be received as a product of our accomplishments.
Fascinatingly, the mention of a name would soon again appear in the story of Avraham. This time it had nothing to do with Avraham’s name, but that of God: “And he built an altar to God and he called out in the name of God” (Bereshit 12:8). Avraham then declared the singular existence of God by mentioning his name. Indeed, the Rabbis taught that Avraham was the first human being to refer to God as Adon, or “Master of the universe.” God’s very own name, then, didn’t emerge from His own pronouncement, but was rather discovered by another.
God’s promise to Avraham of a “great name” contrasted with the prevalent notion of that generation. It was a subtle lesson in how the builders of Bavel misunderstood the merits of distinction. God cautioned us from the attempt to “make a name for ourselves.” He taught that we must, instead, receive a “great name” from others.
Running after a “great name” is a fruitless exercise. Receiving one from others is the merit of a journey of faith.
 Berakhot 7a, based on Bereshit 15:2.
Thoughts on Parashat Bereshit 2020
The Torah’s initial story of human engagement with God has long captured our minds and imaginations. Adam and Hava’s eating from the ess ha-da’at is consistently discussed in debates about human will, our tendencies and the nature of our relationships. Searching the Torah for contextual clues regarding the core lesson of this story, however, is somewhat puzzling. Immediately before it detailed their eating from the tree, the Torah referenced Adam and Hava’s unabashed nakedness (Bereshit 2:25). And just after their “eyes were opened” after consumption, it told how Adam and Hava were ashamed of their nakedness, sewing girdles to cover it (3:7). What is the relevance of nakedness and clothing to the Torah’s story about the folly of its first human beings?
Let us begin with the desire to eat from ess ha-da’at. The serpent revealed to Hava that by eating from the tree, “Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). God had already shown His way of determining “good” after each day of creation, when He consistently “saw that it was good.” And Hava likewise followed her desire to “be as God,” as she gazed at the tree and “saw that the tree was good for food” (3:6). Fundamentally, though, God’s determination of “good” after each of the first days represented His completed creation. And so too, then, Adam and Hava’s desire to “be like God” was, as Rashi wrote, “to craft worlds.” It was a desire to create.
Ironically, the idyllic atmosphere of Gan Eden stunted the creative expressions of Adam and Hava. They dwelled in the tranquility of a perfect world which was in no need of human achievements. Adam and Hava were never confronted by challenge. But crafted in the “image of God” (1:27), they wanted to create. And so, by determining the “goodness” of the tree, taking from its fruit to eat, they willingly entered into the divine realm of creation.
And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves girdles. (3:7)
Predictably, Adam and Hava’s first action after eating from the tree was a creation. The purpose of that specific creation, though, was significant, as well. Nakedness is shameful in a world that seeks the challenge of creativity. “The primal experience of Adam and Eve was without time lag, in a direct spontaneous, and uninhibited mode of desire,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote, “hence, the ‘shameless’ quality.” The sheer revelation of one’s body to others is direct and poses no barriers of obstruction. It is antithetical to the life that Adam and Hava sought. “Clothing, a human addition to nature, at first hides the sexual from view,” Leon Kass wrote, “An obstacle is symbolically presented to immediate gratification of lust.” It is no wonder, then, that clothing was their first creation in that new world of creation.
Adam and Hava’s subsequent banishment from Gan Eden continued their journey to divine creativity. “A life of meaningfulness is marked by challenges and adversity,” R. Zvi Grumet wrote, “In the Garden there is fruit ready to eat and no need for shelter; outside the Garden people need to toil to produce food and find shelter for themselves.” Outside of Eden, Adam and Hava were introduced to a world that was rich in challenge: “Thorn and thistle shall it [the ground] sprout for you” (3:18). Human beings were now faced with the task of creation “by the sweat of his brow” (3:19). And their partnership with God – as creators – had begun.
Indeed, the Rabbis taught that our partnership with God is manifested with the conception of babies – “There are three partners in [the creation of] a person – God, father and mother.” And it is in that light, then, that we may understand the immediate response to banishment from the Garden: “And Adam knew Hava his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain, and said: I have gotten a man with God” (4:1)
The story of Adam and Hava’s eating from ess ha-da’at teaches about the innermost drives of human beings. It reveals how each of us possesses an innate passion to create. Distracted by the trappings of comfort and complacency, we risk the surrender to a life a stagnancy and stunted growth. Properly focused, however, our will “to be like God” can drive us to the creative overcoming of one challenge after the next.
 Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 3:5, s.v. ve-he’yitem.
 See, e.g., R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaHayim 1:1-3.
 Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconsciousness (New York, NY, 2009), pg. 15.
 Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL 2003), pg. 109.
 R. Zvi Grumet, Genesis: From Creation to Covenant (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 54.
 Kiddushin 30b.
 Cf. Commentary of Radak ad loc. for an elaboration of this point.
Thoughts on Shemini Asseret 2020
The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:2) teaches: “On the Festival [of Sukkot] the world is judged for water.” The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 16a) elaborates, “Why does the Torah tell us to pour water on the Festival [of Sukkot]? God said: ‘Pour water before Me on the Festival, so that you be blessed with good rainfall during the year’.” And the Rabbis (Ta’anit 2b) likewise suggested that a primary function of the araba’at ha-minim is to appease God for water, demonstrating that “just as these four species cannot exist without water, so too, the world cannot exist without water.” Sukkot, then, is an appropriate time to reflect upon the significance of rain and water to the life of a Jew.
Unsurprisingly, the first mention of rain in the Torah follows Creation:
On the day God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till (la’avod) the soil. (Bereshit 2:5)
Rashi explained that God hadn’t yet caused rain because without a living human there was “no one to recognize the utility of rain.” He explained that the job (avodah) of human beings is to realize the vitality of rain and pray for its downfall. Reading the next pasuk, however, raises a difficulty:
And the wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil. (Bereshit 2:6)
If the “wetness” watered the surface of the soil, why didn’t it remove humans from this process, filling the role of sprouting the fields? Why didn’t God allow for the wetness itself to grow the trees and plants?
The Gaon of Vilna clarified the difference between that mist which rose and the fall of rain by paralleling them to the divided “upper waters” and “lower waters,” which came into being on the second day of creation. He explained that the wetness which wells from the earth comes from the natural “lower waters,” as opposed to the rain, which is produced from the divine realm of the “upper waters.” The Gaon explained that human beings are tasked with transcending the limits of our lower realm to forge a unity between the “upper” and “lower” dimensions of existence. We must seek out and find God in this world, and our prayer for rain completes this mission. It emerges, then, that although the rising mist could indeed cause growth in a natural fashion, we are to opt instead for an ideal world wherein we pray to God for the merging of heaven and earth through the showers of rain.
The choice is yours. You can, on the one hand, choose a life of relative ease, collecting from the “lower waters” and bypassing the difficulty of establishing a connection with God. You might in fact achieve financial success in your life’s endeavors and then safely turn inward to focus on your continued stability. By avoiding the challenge, however, you’ll lose out on the potential for a relationship. Learning from the lesson of rain, we know that developing a bond with God is no easy feat. It’s inspired by a genuine search – a “prayer for rain” – which necessarily accepts our own insufficiencies. But it’s worth it.
Consider, in this context, HaRambam’s opinion that the arba’at ha-minim represent the natural growth of the land of Israel, which then focuses us on its agricultural successes. At the end of his life, Moshe compared the land of Israel to that of Egypt. He warned the Nation of the difficulties that lay up ahead:
For the land into which you are coming to take hold of it is not like the land of Egypt from which you went out, where you sow your seed and water it with your foot like a garden of greens. But the land into which you are crossing to take hold of it is a land of mountains and valleys. (Devarim 11:10-11)
He then explained the positive side of those hardships:
From the rain of the heavens you will drink water – a land that God seeks out perpetually, the eyes of God are upon it from the year’s beginning to the year’s end. (Devarim 11:12)
Put in other words, Egypt was agriculturally sustained by the “lower waters” of an overflowing river and an elaborate irrigation system. Its society was built upon the stable foundations of self-sufficiency and predictability. The mountainous land of Israel, in contrast, was dependent upon the “upper waters” of heavenly rainfall. As Robert Alter noted: “The geographical fact, then, that the land of Israel is dependent on rainfall…is both a blessing and a curse.” The fear of drought and challenge of helplessness inspire us to prayer for the “upper waters” of rain. They are the catalysts for a relationship with God.
Raising the arba’at ha-minim in our hands on each of the seven days of Sukkot, we are forced to reconsider our relationship with God. The four species remind us of the difficult yet worthwhile challenge of seeking the “upper waters” of Israel. And just as we conclude that first holiday, we enter the next with the courage to step forward and demand more from our relationship with God. We begin Shemini Asseret with the prayer for rain.
Thoughts on Rosh HaShanah 2020
I remember the first time that I noticed someone coughing. I was praying Shaharit on a Monday morning shortly after Purim and the man sitting to my right let out a weak cough. I instinctively stopped reading and looked up at the man. Several minutes later, a man to my left cleared his throat. This time I kept my head down, but I became distracted, stumbling over the next few words that came out of my mouth.
Coronavirus has forced us to notice. Today we notice the people around us in unprecedented ways. We’ve also become more aware of the physical spaces we inhabit, paying careful attention to exactly where we walk, sit and stand. And, on a deeper lever, we’ve developed a heightened sensitivity to our personal feelings of fear and vulnerability.
Avraham Avenu is the Torah personality we focus upon most during Rosh HaShanah. We consistently invoke his memory and actions in our prayers as a source of inspiration and merit. Avraham’s life centered around two seemingly different endeavors: hesed to other people and a deep connection to God. These actions were drawn together, however, by his unique way of noticing. Avraham’s hesed began with his sight of people in need: “And he lifted up his eyes, and behold, three men stood nearby” (Bereshit 18:2). And his discovery of God was much the same: “On the third day, Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar” (Bereshit 22:4). Avraham was the paradigmatic noticer. His sensitivity to the world and people around him was the driving force behind his remarkable life.
The Rabbis taught: “God is my light (Tehilim 27:1) – This is Rosh HaShanah.” Rosh HaShanah is a day of light. It is a time of noticing. Indeed, HaRambam wrote that the very function of the shofar is to awaken us from our spiritual slumber, directing our focus to the matters of life which are truly significant. Surprisingly, though, Jewish mystics designate night as the time of divine judgment (din). It would make sense, then, to associate Rosh HaShanah – “The Day of Judgment” (Yom HaDin) – with the darkness of night. The Rabbis likewise taught: “Blow a shofar at the New Moon, at the covered time for our holiday (Tehilim 81:4) – Which is the holiday on which the moon is covered? You must say that this is Rosh HaShanah.” How can Rosh HaShanah be a time of “light” and noticing, while at once existing as a time darkness and concealment?
The story is told about two men who were each given the task of identifying their friends in the darkness of night. One was given a flashlight, and he easily recognized his acquaintances by shining the light at their faces. The other, however, never got a flashlight, and was therefore forced to identify those around him by carefully listening to the sounds of their voices and footsteps. Predictably, the first person performed best in the challenge, as the sight of people’s faces is far more revealing than audial clues. The second individual, however, acquired a skill that would last him long into the sun-lit hours of daytime. He had developed a sensitivity akin to that of a blind person; he could identify his contacts in any future situation – even if his vision was blocked. The challenge of concealment brought forth the opportunity to notice.
I underwent a related experience several years ago. Following a severe virus, I lost my sense of taste for a period of over a year. Surprisingly, though, I discovered that I naturally developed a new skill in that midst. Without actually tasting the food or drink in my mouth, I could still identify exactly what it was. Several of my students put me to the test. They created different concoctions of water, soda, grape juice and other beverages, handing me the cups to drink while I was blindfolded. Judging the drinks solely by their texture – how they felt in my mouth, on my teeth and tongue, and down my throat – I scored a perfect score on the “taste test.” It was the “concealing” nature of my lost taste that enhanced in me the ability to notice.
Rosh HaShanah is a time of mysterious din. It pushes us into the hidden realm of the Divine. The challenge is daunting, as the fear of stumbling in the darkness is real. But the opportunity is ripe, as well. We can choose to falter or we can decide to notice. We can accept the darkness or we can discover the light.
Following in the ways of Avraham Avenu, we too must notice. Ironically, coronavirus has actually made the task easier to fulfil. So, pay attention to your surroundings. Find God’s presence in the world around you. Raise your eyes above the masks of others. Gaze into their eyes and notice them. And embrace those difficult feelings of fear and vulnerability to notice yourself.
Thoughts on Rosh HaShanah 2020
At the start of a year which we hope will restore a sense of normalcy to our lives, Rosh HaShanah will be anything but normal. This year we won’t be sounding a shofar on the first day of the holiday, in deference to the rabbinic restriction of shofar on Shabbat. How can we appreciate a day whose very essence is the sounds of the shofar without a shofar? How may we approach the “Yom Teruah” (Bemidbar 29:1) without a teruah?
Imagine the scene of an orchestra which experiences unexpected technical difficulties just as it prepares to play. The instruments were wrongly arranged and it will take hours to properly assemble them. The conductor turns to face the audience and embarrassedly announces that the show is postponed until the instruments are fixed.
Now imagine a different scene. A band takes the stage in a concert hall. And just as they tune up their instruments and begin to play, the room turns dark and the electricity goes out. As the people in the audience begin to nervously shuffle in their seats, the band leaders step aside from their instruments, walk to the edge of the stage and begin to sing with all their might. The crowd erupts in applause, spontaneously joining in with the chorus and reveling in every second of the unique experience.
Why is the outcome of these two scenarios so different? Why can’t the orchestra adjust to the situation in a way similar to the band at the concert? The answer, of course, is that an orchestra can’t play as an orchestra without instruments. Its function, by definition, is to make music with instruments. The function of a band, in contrast, is to sing songs. And although they generally do so with the accompaniment of instruments, the truly skilled group can adjust to sing even without. Pouring their hearts into the singing, the band may even seize that opportunity to raise the situation to a new level, generating a unique experience for their listeners in the absence of any sound from an instrument.
What does “Yom Teruah” actually mean? Okelos translated it as “Yom Yebabah” – a “Day of Crying.” The essence of Rosh HaShanah, then, lies not in the sound of the shofar per se, but in the cries that we raise up to God on the day – with or without a shofar. It’s no wonder, then, that the Hakhamim determined the calls of shevarim and teruah by comparing them to the cries of the mother of the fallen general Sisera. The shofar plays not as our “orchestra,” but as the “musical accompaniment” to our band of prayers to God.
This year will begin differently than usual. The first day of Rosh HaShanah will present us with the challenge of realizing the “Yom Teruah” as a “Day of Crying” without a shofar. The electricity will go out and we will be forced to decide between postponing the concert or stepping forward and singing our hearts away. So, go ahead. Take a deep breath and step forward in prayer. Find the courage within to replace the external sounds of the shofar with the genuine cries to God that lay dormant in your heart.
Cf. R. Yeruham Olshin, Yerah LaMoadim: Yamim Noraim vol. 1 (Lakewood, NJ, 2014), ma’amar 37, for the well-known halakhic opinion of R. Yisshak Zev Soloveitchik z”l that the shofar plays an integral role to the tefilah of Rosh HaShanah. See, as well, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Blessings and Thanksgiving: Reflections on the Siddur and Synagogue (New Milford, CT, 2019), pg. 103.
Return to Origins
Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tavo 2020
As Moshe began to mention potential blessings and curses to Am Yisrael, he said:
This day Hashem your God charges you to do these statutes and these laws… (Devarim 26:16)
And several sentences later, he stated:
This day you have become a people to Hashem Your God. (27:9)
The description of these events occurring on “this day” is puzzling. The missvot and berit with God were established long before these final words of Moshe! Why, then, did he describe them as happening “on this day”? Rashi explained that by referring to “this day” Moshe was instructing the people to continuously return their hearts and minds to the original moments of receiving the commandments and establishing a covenant with God.
In a well-known passage, the Rabbis envisioned every experience of talmud Torah as one of “return.” R. Simlai taught that the embryo is taught the entire Torah as it crouches in its mother’s fetus. As soon as the baby sees light, however, an angel comes and slaps it on the mouth, causing it to forget the entire Torah. “When a Jew studies Torah, he is confronted with something…familiar,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l explained, “because he has already studied it and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory.” Strikingly similar to the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection, R. Simlai taught that we return to our origin every time we study words of Torah.
This lesson of “continuous return” is perhaps latent in the game of baseball, as well. Beginning with their stance at “home,” baseball players then circle the bases with the goal of getting back to “home.”
The 20th Century poet T.S. Eliot memorably wrote about the irony of a life-long “journey to return”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But it was long before, in God’s words to Adam and Hava after sin, that He mapped out our life trajectory as circular in motion, ending just where it began:
By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the soil, for from there were you taken, for dust you are and to dust shall you return. (Bereshit 3:19)
Moshe’s words to the people, then, represent a broader perspective regarding our life’s direction. He taught that although we spend most of our time marching forward to the beat of innovation and progress, we will inevitably return to our humble place of origin at some point. Each of us will retreat to our “true” self, coming back to the time we first received the missvot and committed ourselves to God.
R. Adin Steinsaltz z”l pointed to Daniel Pearl’s final words as evidence of our innate drive to return. Pearl, an assimilated Jewish journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002, famously said in his final moment alive: “My name is Daniel Pearl. I am an American Jew. My father is Jewish, my mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.”
The current global pandemic has had me thinking more and more about our individual and collective return to beginnings.
The threat of coronavirus has spurred a mass movement out of the fast-paced, human-built cities and into the idyllic space of the primordial countryside. Young adults have returned from college campuses to live in the childhood quarters of their parents’ homes. And many men and women are now spending their daytime hours outside of the workplace inside their homes. Though I’m aware that these changes probably won’t last long after the discovery of a vaccine, I’ve nonetheless seen this time as an important “reality check” for us all. It has caused a widespread return to origins.
The lesson of “return” is particularly relevant to Jews during this period of the year. Teshuvah signifies a circular motion. “When one finds oneself on the circumference of a large circle, it sometimes seems that the starting point is becoming farther and farther removed,” R. Soloveitchik remarked, “but actually it is getting closer and closer.”
Our current lives have forced upon us Moshe’s lesson of a continuous return to origins. Opening our eyes to this reality will provide direction for a successful journey of teshuvah in the weeks and days ahead.