Monday, January 27, 2020

Parashat Bo: The Last 3 Makot & Convincing Bnei Yisrael

Listen to tonight's class on Parashot Bo, "The Last 3 Makot & Convincing Bnei Yisrael," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Parashat VaEra: Numbers & Names

Numbers & Names
Thoughts on Parashat VaEra 2020
Click here to view as PDF
In the moments leading up to Moshe and Aharon’s confrontation with Pharaoh, the Torah took a brief “pause in action” for a background check:
Amram took to his wife his father’s sister Yokheved, and she bore him Aharon and Moshe… (Shemot 6:20)
Taken on its own, the lineage is simple and straightforward. Contrasting this detailed presentation to its initial rendition, however, reveals something deeper:
A man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. (Shemot 2:1)
There is a deliberate shift from anonymity – “a man of the house of Levi and a Levite woman,” to a clear mention of names – “Amram, Yokheved, Aharon and Moshe.” Interestingly, Sefer Shemot – “The Book of Names” inversely began with “all the names who came to Egypt,” but then summarized the list with the nameless number of “seventy souls” (1:1-4). And this contrast between “names” and “numbers” was perhaps most pronounced as Am Yisrael began their march in the wilderness, in Sefer Bemidbar, or Sefer HaPikudim – “The Book of Numbers,” and God commanded that Moshe lead a census “by the number of the names” (Bemidbar l1:2). What message underlies this consistent contrast between anonymous numbers and pronounced names in the makeup of Am Yisrael?

Near the turn of the 21st century, columnist David Brooks penned a thoughtful article regarding the general culture surrounding the elite young men and women of the day. He referred to them as “organization kids,” bemoaning their unflinching acceptance of the social order of society. Whereas the ambitious young men and women of the latter half of the 20th Century “knew they were supposed to rebel against authority, reject old certainties, and liberate themselves from hidebound customs and prejudices,” the youth of today are “cooperative team players,” they “accept authority” and are “rule followers.” While each of these traits is, of course, positive in its own right, understanding the way to success as the absolute adherence to these trends has suspended a moral development that is oftentimes born out of a fight for our individual ideals. Brooks wrote that today, sadly, “Instead of virtue we talk about accomplishment.”[1]

It remains a challenge, however, to tow the line between a genuine expression of our own thoughts and beliefs – establishing our name, while at once belonging to a collective that is far greater than ourselves – being a part of the count. God introduced the process toward redemption from Egypt to Moshe, Aharon and all of Am Yisrael with that very challenge.

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belong to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness,” Brené Brown wrote, adding, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”[2] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly reflected upon the dichotomy between the individual and community in the realm of kedushah: “If the community were the only source of sanctity, then the individual would be deprived of his creative role, his individual initiative, his originality and uniqueness. The outstanding person would not be able to develop into a great leader.” Individual kedushah experiences, in contrast, are incommensurate with each other, they are “an expression of one’s greatness, and not all people are alike as far as greatness is concerned.”[3]

An ancient kabbalstic tradition maintains that there are “six hundred thousand aspects and meanings in the Torah” – a number corresponding to the men who left Egypt – “the primary souls of Israel. R. Yisshak Luria, the Ari z”l, added that in the messianic age every member of Am Yisrael will read the Torah in accordance with “the meaning peculiar to his root.”[4] Understood on its most simple (and incorrect) level, this concept refers to a religious anarchy. After all, if every person holds an individual key to interpret the Torah, then we are each governed only by the strength of absolute subjectivity. Properly understood, however, this tradition teaches that although there is an objectively binding extrinsic dimension to the Torah, the internal realm is left to the individual. “Some lives have an emotional emphasis; others, an intellectual; for some the way of joy is natural; for others, existence is full of effort and struggle,” R. Adin Steinsaltz wrote, “each soul understands and does things in a way not suitable for another soul.”[5]

The passages regarding the beginning of Am Yisrael transition from explicit names to anonymity and numbers – and then back again. The Torah subtly taught that membership to Am Yisrael entails a dual acceptance: the absolute strictures of this “nation of numbers” – a scrupulous adherence to Torah and missvot, and a genuine expression of our “personal names” – a unique connection to God reflective of our individual souls.

[1] David Brooks, “The Organization Kid,” The Atlantic, Apr. 2001, pg. 40-54.
[2] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 40.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses (Jersey City, NJ, 2013), pg. 195-6.
[4] R. Yisshak Luria, Sefer HaKavanot, 53b. Cited and developed in Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 12 and 65.
[5] R. Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence & Belief (New Milford, CT, 1996), pg. 56.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Parashot Shemot/VaEra: De Javu...All Over Again

Listen to last night's class on Parashot Shemot/VaEra, "De Javu...All Over Again," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Parashat VaYehi: Revealed & Concealed

Revealed & Concealed
Thoughts on Parashat VaYehi 2020
Click here to view as PDF

As Yaakov neared his death, he called his sons to his bedside and said:
“Come together so that I may tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” (Bereshit 49:1)
Yaakov then blessed each of his sons individually. He referenced their respective strengths and weaknesses while hinting to them what lay ahead in their future. The Hakhamim paid careful attention to Yaakov’s initial will to “tell what will happen at the end of days.” They described it as an unfulfilled desire:
He [Yaakov] wished to reveal to them the end of Yisrael’s exile, but the Shekhinah departed from him and he began to speak of other things.[1]
Instead of simply omitting Yaakov’s failed attempt to expose that prophecy, the Torah made a vague reference to it. It thus hinted at a particular importance to this occurrence. What was the significance of this “concealed revelation”?

The great 19th Century Jewish thinker R. Sadok of Lublin dedicated much time and effort to understanding the historical transition from the stage of prophecy to that of Torah she-be’al peh (the Oral Torah) during the period of the second bet hamikdash. “All the wisdom of the oral Torah consists of apprehending truth from darkness,” he wrote, “but in the era of the indwelling of the divine presence in Israel, the Jews did not condescend to perception through darkness at all.”[2] According to R. Sadok, the end of prophecy brought forth a particular “darkness” – the neglect and near-forgetting of the oral Torah. Paradoxically, however, that darkness was necessary for the light and genius of the pillars of Torah she-be’al peh (the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah and rabbis of the Mishnah) to shine forth. Whereas prophecy and overt miracles stunted creativity, causing people to think that “if it wasn’t revealed, then it can’t be true,” their absence opened the potential for individual thought and interpretation.[3]

Consider, for example, the difference between a class in which the instructor speaks the entire time, elucidating every point and detail, and a lesson where the teacher provides the framework and basic principles but entrusts the students to discover the information on their own. The former structure displays a “bright light” shined by the instructor, but leaves the students with little room for self-thought and expression. This model represents the era of divine revelation. The “hands off” model, in contrast, reinforces the pupils’ creative capacities, forcing them to think independently and develop the lesson on their own. The enveloping “darkness” rendered by the end of prophecy likewise opened the crack through which the “light” of creativity and human insight could shine.

Psychologists often discuss a similar dichotomy in the way that we are moved by any given stimulus. Following the occurrence of something in our lives, we have the choice to react or to respond.[4] Reacting refers to our reflex – dealt the hand of a difficult situation, for example, we become depressed and sulk in the thought of an ominous future. Learning by means of prophecy likewise precipitates a reaction – “we hear and we accept.” Responding, in contrast, refers to choosing how to deal with the difficulty. It requires self-strength, courage, and the appropriate insight for planning out a course of action. Growth during an era bereft of prophecy necessitates responding – sparking the lights of novelty within a context of darkness.

The Hakhamim taught that Yaakov wanted to expose his vision of the end of exile, but that the divine presence departed before he could do so. Yaakov’s will at that time was to react, relating God’s revelation to his sons. As the Shekhinah vanished from the scene, however, Yaakov was forced to respond. Foreshadowing the manner of the hakhmei ha-masoret many years later, Yaakov then tapped into his own creative capacity. He thought about the strengths and weaknesses of each of his sons, and sensitively charted out a future for them and their descendants.

I am sometimes troubled by the difficulties of living during a time of hester panim (divine concealment). I find myself yearning for “the times of old,” when God publicly exposed “His face,” leaving little room for doubt or uncertainty. I then remind myself, however, of God’s lesson to Yaakov during those critical moments before his death. By removing His presence from Yaakov, God hinted at the paradoxical detriment of constant revelation. He taught that the greatest depths of understanding and connection are attained specifically within the context of “darkness.” It is only then that we are forced to “dig deep,” inspired to search for and find Him with all of our hearts and minds.

[1] Commentary of Rashi, Bereshit 49:1 s.v. ve-agidah.
[2] R. Sadok HaCohen of Lublin, Resisei Layla (Bnei Brak, IS, 1967), pg 160-1.
[3] For a full analysis of R Sadok of Lublin’s thought on this matter, see R. Yaakov Elman’s “R. Zadok HaKohen on the History of Halakha,” Tradition 21:4, pg. 1-26. Cf. Moshe Koppel, Meta-Halakhah: Logic Intuition and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Lanham, MA, 1997), pg. 52-5 and R. Netanel Wiederblank, Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife and the Messianic Era (New Milford, CT, 2018), pg. 446-7.
[4] See, e.g. Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character of Ethic (New York, NY, 1989), pg. 70-1 and 309-10, and, most recently Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 288-94.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.11

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 11 here.

Follow along with the sources that we used in addition to the text here.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Exercising & Running on Shabbat

Listen to tonight's class, "Exercising & Running on Shabbat," here.

Follow along with the sources here.