Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Koshering Frying Pans

Listen to today's class, "Koshering Frying Pans," here.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Koshering Plastic Utensils

Listen to today's class, "Koshering Plastic Utensils," here.

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Massah: Go and Stop!

Listen to tonight's class, "Massah: Go and Stop!" here.

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Nefesh HaHayim 1.15 (2)

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.15 (2) here.

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

Friday, March 27, 2020

Quality Time Alone

Quality Time Alone
Thoughts on the Coronavirus
Click here to view as PDF

As the people of Am Yisrael prepared for the fateful night of the fourteenth of Nisan, God instructed:
And you shall take a bundle of hyssop and you shall dip it in the blood that is in the basin and you shall touch the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts… (Shemot 12:22)
The great medieval commentator R. Avraham Ibn Ezra noticed the similarity between this command and the purifying process of the messora (leper), which God would later instruct:
The Cohen shall charge that there be taken for him who is cleansing himself two live pure birds and cedar wood and crimson stuff and hyssop…And dip them and the living bird in the blood of the slaughtered bird over fresh water. (VaYikra 14:4)
Ibn Ezra suggested that the similarity of dipping hyssop into blood in each of these cases hints at a shared essence.[1] How was the exalted night of “Pesah Missrayim” in any way similar to the lowly state of the exiled messora?

The 18th Century Hasidic leader R. Nahman of Bratzlav z”l spent much of his life preaching about the basic importance of seeking a “conversation with God.” He taught his followers to meditate in solitude – be-hitbodedut – as a way of connecting with the Almighty. R. Nahman advised finding a physical place apart from others and saying to yourself, “For the next twenty minutes, I will be alone with God.” He explained that even if there is in fact nothing to say, the very experience of spending time alone with God – aware of His presence – is still valid.[2]

Indeed, Jewish tradition has long stressed the importance of solitude to our approach of God. R. Avraham, the son of HaRambam, distinguished between an external and internal isolation. Whereas external isolation consists of physically distancing oneself from others, the fundamental state of internal isolation separates the mind from outward sensation and thought itself.[3] And the great codifier R. Yaakov b. Asher wrote, as well, how “Saints and people of deed…would meditate in solitude and concentrate in their prayers until they reached a level where they would be divested of the physical.”[4]

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l traced the significance of Har Sinai, God’s chosen place for giving the Torah, to Moshe’s earlier experience with God at the burning bush in that location.[5] “When God wanted to select a mountain for the public revelation,” R. Soloveitchik wrote, “He selected Mount Sinai, because the first confrontation, the first rendezvous between God and man, had already taken place there.”[6] R. Soloveitchik furthermore noticed that while we tend to focus on the spectacular heroism “on the battlefield,” there is another type of heroism, set out of the public. “Most mitzvot concern one’s private life,” he wrote, “No one watches; there are no onlookers. It is just a relationship between oneself and God.”[7] The “acts of heroism” performed in solitude enjoy the unique aspect of intimacy, absent from those in public.

Concluding His instructions for touching the blood to the lintel and doorposts of Am Yisrael, God said:
And as for you, none of you shall go out from the entrance of his house till morning. (Shemot 12:22)
In a similar vein to the leper’s isolation from nation in the wilderness – “outside the camp shall his dwelling place be” (VaYikra 13:46), God instructed every household to quarantine themselves. He commanded them to be mitboded – isolated and apart from others – for just one night.

It is a night of watch (shimurim) for God, for His taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is God’s a watch (shimurim) for all Bnei Yisrael through their generations. (Shemot 12:42)
R. Avraham Ibn Ezra explained that Am Yisrael’s duty to “watch” on that night was similar to the way a guard stays awake and “watches out” to protect his city overnight.[8] But there was no city for the people to protect at that time. Am Yisrael was, instead, watching over and experiencing the night itself.

“It is a night of watch for God.” As God stood guard to protect and “watch” through the night, the people of Am Yisrael distanced themselves from one another. They spent the night standing guard and “watching” on their own –together with the Almighty.

Two weeks of social isolation have passed. Many more lie ahead. Instead of dreaming about our ultimate return to “normalcy,” perhaps we should seize this time as an opportunity to deepen our relationships with God. The solitude so suddenly placed upon us need not be an obstacle. It may, instead, be a potential.

[1] Commentary of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra to VaYikra 14:4, s.v. ve-ess.
[2] See R. Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation (New York, NY, 1985), pg. 95. Cf. Arthur Green, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (Woodstock, VT, 1992), pg. 145-148.
[3] R. Avraham b. HaRambam, Hamaspik LeOvdei HaShem, Perek Hitbodedut. Cf. Jewish Mediation, pg. 52.
[4] R. Yaakov b. Asher, Arba’ah Turim, Orah Hayim: 98.
[5] See Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 3:1, s.v. el har.
[6] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses (Jersey City, NJ, 2013), pg. 77.
[7] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch (Jersey City, NJ, 2008), pg. 65.
[8] Commentary of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra to Shemot 12:42, s.v. leil. See, as well, Commentary of R. Shimon b. Semah to the Hagadah, s.v. ma’aseh.

Hallel on the First Nights of Pesah

Listen to today's class, "Hallel on the First Nights of Pesah," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further learning:

Listen to our class on "Women & Hallel on the First Nights" here.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Do Countertops & Tables Need to be Koshered for Pesah?

Listen to today's class, "Do Countertops & Tables Need to be Koshered for Pesah?" here.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Do Glass & Pyrex Utensils Need to be Koshered?

Listen to today's class, "Do Glass & Pyrex Utensils Need to be Koshered?" here.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Lonely Man of Faith

Listen to our classes on R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's The Lonely Man of Faith:

Part I          Part II

Follow along with the source sheets:  Part I,    Part II

Monday, March 23, 2020

Kiddush on Friday Night

Listen to tonight's class, "Kiddush on Friday Night," here.

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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.15 (1)

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.15 (1) here.

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


Thoughts on the Coronavirus
Click here to view as PDF

Dear Friends,

I am sharing with you a thought that has shaped my perspective during these past few days.

Realizing the fast approach of Pesah has been hard for me. Zeman herutenu, the holiday which celebrates our national freedom, seems blatantly out of sync with our current situation of helplessness. By paying closer attention to the halakhah’s fundamental interplay between hamess and massah, however, we might discover an inspiring vantage point for the days ahead.

While the concepts of hamess and massah might appear as so distantly apart from one another, the Torah dictates otherwise:
You shall not eat hamess with it. Seven days you shall eat with it massot, poverty’s bread (Devarim 16:3).
Noticing to the dual-mention of not eating hamess and eating massah in a single pasuk, the Hakhamim taught that the massah must be baked from grains that could lead to hamess. They thus excluded, for example, the use of rice massot.[1] Some authorities maintained, as well, that the rabbinic prohibition of eating massah on the eve Pesah only begins at the time that consumption of hamess ends.[2] The Rabbis likewise understood from this verse that women are obligated in the obligation to eat massah on the first night of Pesah. Although generally exempt from positive time-bound missvot, this pasuk hinted at women’s inclusion, since “anyone who is a part of not eating hamess is a part of eating massah.”[3]

It appears, then, that hamess and massah are closely related to one another. How strange! If hamess traditionally represents the yesser ha-ra, our inclination to do wrong,[4] it would make sense that the opposite – massah – should be kept at a distance from it. Why does the halakhah draw such a close relation between two concepts which should have seemingly been better situated afar from one another?

Following the final day of Creation, the Torah stated: “And God saw all that He had done, and, look, it was very good” (Bereshit 1:31). The Hakhamim had a novel, yet counterintuitive interpretation to the “very good” of Creation: “R. Shemuel b. Nahman said…this is the yesser ha-ra.” The Rabbis were incredulous! How could “very good” refer to the very basis of “bad” in this world – the evil inclination? But the Midrash explained that if the world was bereft of all yesser ha-ra, existing instead in a state of absolute piety and sainthood, it would quickly fall into a state of disuse and deterioration. Ironically, it is only by means of the evil inclination – when positively manipulated – that human beings are productive by building homes, having children and making money.[5]

Erasing the stark division between “good” and “bad,” the Hakhamim forced us to realize the delicate interplay between the two. They explained that the light of goodness is actually dimmed when isolated from bad. It is, instead, the seemingly “evil” challenges of life that bring forth its glow. Our potentials are manifested best when forced to emerge from the straits of difficulty.

Estelle Frankel noticed that the natural world, as well, tends to blur the distinct boundaries between “good” and “bad.” Cholesterol, for example, comes in two forms – one that is primarily good (HDL) and another that is primarily bad (LDL). Yet even the so-called “bad” cholesterol is necessary for cell growth and without it you would die. Frankel remarked: “In human physiology and in the natural world, cutting-edge thought defines optimal health as the dynamic balance of good and bad elements, not the eradication of something that is wholly ‘bad’.”[6]

Pointing to the Torah’s paired-mention of hamess and massah, the Hakhamim highlighted their codependence. They taught that “goodness” cannot exist in a vacuous realm, apart from bad. A dough that avoids the challenge of rising to hamess is not a kosher massah. Genuine goodness must instead emerge from within a world of challenges. Massat missvah must conquer the test of rising, coming into being through a courageous defeat of difficulty.

Our world is currently submerged in a sea of viral threats. It feels at this time as if we can only see the evil side of Creation’s “very good.” We constantly behold the rampant “risen dough” of hamess in our midst. Our mission, however, is to begin searching for the positive which is latent in this challenge. The difficulties will awaken a strength that lies dormant in each of us. It will actualize our yesser ha-tov – our massah, and help us come out stronger than we went in.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Pesahim 35a.
[2] See Ba’al HaMaor to Pesahim 43a and Perush HaRan ad loc.
[3] Pesahim 43b.
[4] Berakhot 17a and Commentary of Rashi ad loc, s.v. se’or.
[5] Bereshit Rabah 9:7.
[6] Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness (Boston, MA, 2003), pg. 234.

Friday, March 20, 2020

HaRambam: The Rational Traditionalist

Listen to "HaRambam: The Rational Traditionalist" here.

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Kiddush & Havdalah: Standing or Sitting?

Listen to today's class, "Kiddush & Havdalah: Standing or Sitting?" here.

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HaRambam: The Traditional Rationalist

Listen to "HaRambam: The Traditional Rationalist" here.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Four Cups: A History

Listen to "The Four Cups: A History" here.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Grape Juice for Kiddush & the 4 Cups at the Seder

Listen to today's class, "Grape Juice for Kiddush & the 4 Cups at the Seder," here.

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Monday, March 16, 2020

Pasteurized Wine for Kiddush & the 4 Cups at the Seder

Listen to today's class, "Pasteurized Wine for Kiddush & the 4 Cups at the Seder," here.

Follow along with the sources here.


Thoughts on the Coronavirus
Click here to view as PDF

Dear Friends,

I have experienced the past few days with the constant discomfort of thoughts and feelings of vulnerability. Unknowingly thrust into this situation of uncertainty has brought forth in me the difficult emotions of doubt and confusion.

I have, as a result, more than once reflected upon the difference between vulnerability and weakness. Bren√© Brown explained that according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning “to wound.” The definition includes “capable of being wounded,” and “open to attack or damage.” Weakness, however, is “the inability to withstand attack or wounding.” Brown noted that weakness often stems from a lack of vulnerability, because when we don’t acknowledge how and where we’re tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.[1]

Ironically, I began to think about this topic in the days leading up to Purim. At a time that now feels like “the distant past,” I pondered a concept that I did not imagine would soon become real. Hearing from Mordekhai about the dangers awaiting the Jews of Ahashverosh's kingdom, Esther sent back to him: 

All the king's servants and the people of the king's province know that every man and woman who comes into the inner court without having been called, the single rule is to put to death, unless the king reach out to him the golden scepter. And as for me, I have not been called to come to the king thirty days now. (Esther 4:11-12)
Her message was clear: Stepping foot into the king's inner court spelled a dangerous loss of control. Esther would not accept such a circumstance. Mordekhai's response to her was legendary:
Do not imagine to escape of all the Jews in the house of the king. For if you indeed remain silent, relief and rescue will come to the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether for just a time like this you have attained royalty? (4:14-15)
He taught Esther that although her position as queen may have had the outward appearance and trappings of stability, her actual standing was no different than anyone else’s. Mordekhai told her that we are always vulnerable. While we may deceive ourselves into the belief that we do control our fate, it is the times of crisis that force us to realize that we do not. Reminding Esther of this fundamental truth, Mordekhai offered her the decision of succumbing to the pressure and exposing her weakness in a continued state of self-denial, or admitting to the vulnerability and bravely rising above.

Madeleine L'Engle wrote: "When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable."[2] At a time like the present, when uncertainty is pervasive, it is easy to despair. Being true to ourselves, however, we must soberly realize that life was never predictable. Admitting this will inspire us to look at the days and weeks ahead with a refreshing sense of courage and strength. 

We do not know what the future holds in store. But we never did. We are vulnerable. But we are not weak.

Wishing you safety and strength,

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 39.
[2] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 182.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Reading Ketoret Written on Parchment

Listen to tonight's class, "Reading Ketoret Written on Parchment," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.14

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 1.14 here.

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