Saturday, February 29, 2020
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Saturday, February 22, 2020
Thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim 2020
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Ma’amad Har Sinai was a once-in-existence experience of absolute revelation. Parashat Yitro’s detailed description of the sounds and lights of Sinai portrays the profound exposure to Am Yisrael at that time. Parashat Mishpatim’s account of Moshe’s ascension to receive the luhot, in contrast, depicts a scene of vagueness and obscurity. The people’s vision at the time that he departed was blurred by a “consuming fire” engulfed by an effacing cloud (Shemot 23:15-18).
The Hakhamim hinted at the opposite natures which underlay these two events, as well, in their retelling of the stories. Describing the people’s supernatural retention of every detail and particularity of the Torah at the time of its reception at Sinai, the Rabbis contrarily described Moshe’s repeated “forgetting” of the Torah over the course of his forty-day rendezvous atop the mountain en route to receiving the luhot.
While the importance of God’s revelation to an entire nation at Har Sinai is easily understood, His reason for presenting the luhot in the hidden atmosphere of clouds and forgetfulness requires an explanation.
Several years ago, one of my sons returned home from school with an assignment. He needed to interview a parent and record their memories of September 11th, 2001. I volunteered to be interviewed. Midway through my retelling of what happened on that day in my life, my wife passed by the room. She overheard my recollection and just couldn’t hold back. “I was together with Abba on that day,” she told my son, “and I need to correct a few details in his story.” I, in turn, dismissed her “corrections,” causing my son to look up at the two of us and confusedly ask, “So, which one of you is right?” Laughing at the absurdity of this all-too-typical situation, I explained to him the difference between “history” and “memory.” History must record the absolute and objective facts of an earlier time. Memory, however, is the reflective state of reliving that time as it was then experienced and subsequently understood. “Your assignment is not to research the history of 9/11,” I explained to my son, “but rather to record the memory of one of your parents.” And for that both my wife and I were “right.”
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi relatedly noticed that the Rabbis of the Talmud were uninterested in recording history. Neglecting an account of post-biblical history, they showed no effort to preserve even that which had taken place in the ages immediately prior to their own. He furthermore noted that the Hakahamim’s retelling of biblical events demonstrates a certain indifference to history, as well, as they “seem to play with Time as though with an accordion, expanding and collapsing it at will.” In the Rabbis’ eyes, Adam instructed his son Shet in the Torah, Shem and Ever established a bet midrash, and the forefathers institute the three daily tefilot. “Classical rabbinic literature was never intended as historiography,” Yerushalmi explained, “Instead they were engrossed in an ongoing exploration of the meaning of the history bequeathed to them, striving to interpret it in living terms for their own and later generations.” The Hakhamim thus turned their focus from retelling the facts of history to articulating its meaning in memory.
Stretching beyond the realm of history and memory, however, blotting out certain objective realities and past precedents from our thoughts may aide our own perception and creativity. Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahaneman and Amos Tversky realized that what people remember about the past is likely to warp their judgment of the future. “We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that would cause it to occur,” they wrote. Kahaneman likewise remarked, regarding the study of memory, “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”
The late neurologist Oliver Sacks recalled once rummaging through his old notebooks and finding that many of the thoughts he had recorded in them were forgotten for years, later revived by him and reworked as new. He realized a positive aspect to those “forgettings,” suggesting that “creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.”  R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l would likewise instruct his students to ignore their notes from past classes on the material they were then learning. He was forcing them to creatively engage with the text from an unbiased vantage point, free of any preconceived perspective or thought.
“R. Yohanan said: Initially, Moshe would study Torah and forget it, until it was given to him as a gift” (Nedarim 38a). R. Yehezkel Landau z”l, the great 18th Century rabbi of Prague, explained the nature of that “gift” of Torah which Moshe received by referencing another statement of the Hakhamim: “Rava says: Initially the Torah is called by the name of the Holy One Blessed be He, but ultimately it is called by the name [of the one who studies it]” (Avodah Zarah 19a). R. Landau thus suggested that the “gift” of Torah bestowed upon Moshe was his ability to claim it “as his own.” In light of our above analysis we might further suggest that Moshe could only acquire the Torah “as his own” by means of approaching it with the wide eyes and open mind of an individual whose previous knowledge and perspective were wiped clean through “forgetting.” It was his fresh and unprejudiced engagement with the Torah that allowed for his heart’s creative capacity to emerge from its dormancy, finding expression in the words of God.
By contrasting Moshe’s mysterious reception of the luhot to the clarity of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Torah shined light on the ideal engagement with its texts. It taught that its letters and words encompass a potential far greater than any static book of stories and law. The cloudy scene of Matan HaLuhot presented the Torah as an unimagined reality awaiting the creative discovery of all future seekers. It beckoned us to move beyond a mere reading of the Torah, encouraging us instead to dig deep and discover its depth.
Saturday, February 15, 2020
Monday, February 10, 2020
Sunday, February 9, 2020
Saturday, February 8, 2020
Friday, February 7, 2020
Appreciating the Process
Thoughts on Parashat BeShalah 2020
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Masekhet Shabbat 117b.
Shortly after Am Yisrael began their trek through the wilderness, God informed them of a miraculous source of sustenance – the man – which would accompany them along the journey. “Look I am about to rain down bread for you from the heavens,” He told Moshe, “And the people shall go out and gather each day’s share on that day” (Shemot 16:4). God continued:
And it will happen, on the sixth day, that they will prepare what they bring in, and it will be double what they gather each day. (16:5)
By raining down a double portion of man on Friday morning, God forced the people to prepare for Shabbat. The Hakhamim interpreted this as a lasting instruction: “A person should always arise early to attend to the expenditures of Shabbat.” Shulhan Arukh underscored its importance by codifying it as law. And the medieval French commentator Hizkuni furthermore suggested that the very missvah of “shemirat Shabbat – guarding Shabbat” (Devarim 5:11) refers to an anticipatory preparation for its arrival. While it is clear that an appropriate preparation is necessary for all significant endeavors, God seemed intent on teaching a particular lesson in the context of Shabbat at this juncture. What is it?
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l once digressed from a public lecture to share a “private confession” with his listeners. “True, there are Jews in America who observe the Shabbat,” he remarked, “But it is not for the Shabbat that my heart aches, it is for the forgotten eve of the Shabbat.” While thankful for the many shomrei Shabbat Jews in America, R. Soloveitchik bemoaned the dearth of those “who go out to greet the Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls.” He explained that the vanishing “Erev Shabbat Jews” spells the loss of the inner spirit and meaning of Shabbat – its “service of the heart.”
We extend the essence of Shabbat in our lives by looking forward to and preparing for its arrival. We thereby appreciate it as a day imbued with sanctity and meaning that stretch beyond the confines of mere words spoken and actions performed. It is by thinking about Shabbat during the “profane week” that we accept its potential to affect each and every moment of our lives.
Ramban suggested that Judaism’s traditional reference to the days of the week as “the first of the Shabbat,” “the second of the Shabbat,” etc. is an expression of a commandment which obligates us to “remember it always, every day.” Indeed, the Talmud relates: “They said of Shamai the Elder: All his days he would eat in honor of Shabbat. If he found a fine bit of meat, he would say: ‘This is for Shabbat.’ If he found another that was still better, he would set aside the second [for Shabbat] and eat the first.” Ramban explained that constant thought of Shabbat causes its essential message to pervade our lives: “By always remembering it we will remember Creation at all times and acknowledge at all times that the universe has a Creator.”
The preparation for Shabbat, then, touches on the fundamental concept of appreciating the process. Rather than viewing the first six days of the week as disjointed and separate from Shabbat, we are cautioned to “live Shabbat” on those days as well. Shabbat exists as more than just a “destination day” to perform ritual acts of sanctity. It represents the essence of a connectedness to God. And by living the life of an “Erev Shabbat Jew,” its essence pervades all that we do during the week.
Appreciating the significance of the process naturally leads to enjoying it, as well. Rav Kook wrote: “All the supportive actions that sustain any general worthwhile spiritual goal should by right be experienced in the soul with the same feeling of elation and delight as the goal itself is experienced when we envision it.” And best-selling author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi similarly found that all creative people love what they do. “It is not the hope of achieving fame or making money that drives them,” he wrote, “rather, it is the opportunity to do the work that they enjoy doing.”
Addressing the nation as they began a journey through the desert to the Land of Israel, God taught them the invaluable lesson of appreciating the process en route the destination. By instructing Am Yisrael to prepare for Shabbat before its arrival He furthermore expanded their general perspective. God corrected their vision of a destination detached from the process to one that informs it. And He perhaps hinted to them, as well, that just as the sanctity of “destination Shabbat” might now pervade their lives, so too might the waters of “destination Israel” moisten their seemingly dry travels through the midbar.
Masekhet Shabbat 117b.
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York, NY, 1997), pg. 107.