Sunday, May 31, 2020
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Friday, May 22, 2020
Diversity & Unity
Thoughts on Yom Yerushalayim 2020
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“Pray for Jerusalem’s peace; May your lovers rest tranquil!” (Tehilim 122:6) King David’s mention of peace and tranquility with regards to Jerusalem is telling. Jerusalem transcends its mere confines of place and location. It represents harmony and agreement. The Hakhamim thus refer to Jerusalem as “the city which makes all of Israel friends.” It is the city of unity.
Consider, for a moment, the scene in Jerusalem on the three regalim. Throughout the days of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot, the streets and alleys of the city were filled with the many people of Am Yisrael. Men and women of all stripes and colors gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the holidays together.
Focusing on Am Yisrael’s unity is perhaps most appropriate at this time of the year, in our preparation for Shavuot. The Hakhamim envisioned the nation’s unity as the prerequisite to receiving the Torah. Am Yisrael’s encampment “as one person, with one heart” demonstrated their readiness for the Torah.
But is unity actually a virtue? Consider the Torah’s description of the time in history when humanity was completely unified:
And all the earth was one language, one set of words. (Bereshit 11:1)
It would appear, at first glance, as if things couldn’t get better than that state of unity! And yet, that time is forever remembered as a period of utter destruction. It began the episode known to us now as Migdal Bavel:
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (Bereshit 11:4)
Surprisingly, the people’s unity drove them away from growth, leading them instead to an attempted rebellion against God. “With everyone given over to the one common way, there would be mass identity and mass consciousness,” Leon Kass wrote, “but no private identity or true self-consciousness; there would be shoulder-shoulder but no real face-to-face.” In the absence of conflicting thoughts and opinions, without disagreements, the people couldn’t discover the error in their ways.
Think about how this reality rings true in your own life. We dread the discomfort of being confronted by a friend or peer regarding a mistaken thought or character flaw. But how could we develop without ever being challenged? Our decisions would be determined solely by our own thoughts and feelings! And there would be little or no room for change. We could never grow.
And God said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, lets us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” (Bereshit 11:6-7)
God secured the future of humanity by dividing them! “Discovering the partiality of one’s own truths and standards invites the active search for truths and standards beyond one’s making,” Leon Kass wrote, “Opposition is the key to the discovery of the distinction between error and truth…between that which is appears to be and that which truly is.”
Is Jerusalem’s feature of “unity,” then, a matter to rejoice about? Perhaps, instead, it is a dangerous aspect to avoid at all costs!
I believe that the nature of Jerusalem’s particular “unity” is fundamentally different than that of Migdal Bavel.
The Rabbis taught that “Jerusalem wasn’t divided amongst the tribes.” Whereas the Land of Israel was generally zoned according to the twelve shevatim, Jerusalem was left open to all. The concept of this structure seems to be an embrace of diversity – through the division of the larger country, while at once maintaining a particular unity at the center – in the undivided city of Jerusalem.
Indeed, R. Yisshak Hutner z”l pointed out that God demonstrated two divergent realities when He began humanity with a single person. On the one hand, it reflected a particular unity. Humankind’s shared ancestry means that we are all related to one another. On the other hand, however, that single starting point highlighted the spark of individuality inherent in each of us. The life of every person is significant, irrespective of their society or community. Human existence, then, was born with a dichotomy which equally stresses the equal importance of unity and diversity.
Consider the structure of most successful organizations. The general direction and mission are clearly stated. Everyone must agree to work in unison toward their realization. That is Jerusalem. But the particular method or approach to reaching that end is open to different vantage points and expressions. There are, for that reason, separate departments and specific committees. That is the surrounding Land of Israel.
Jerusalem, “the city of peace and tranquility,” calls our attention to national unity. It reminds us that although our growth is owed to an embrace of diversity, we remain unified in purpose. Rising above all conflict and disagreement, the city of Jerusalem is a constant reminder that “all of Israel is friends.”
Monday, May 18, 2020
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Friday, May 15, 2020
Thursday, May 14, 2020
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Sunday, May 3, 2020
The Life of Speech
Thoughts on Parashat Aharei Mot 2020
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And Aharon shall lay his two hands on the head of the goat and confess over it all the transgressions of Bnei Yisrael and all their sins (VaYikra 16:21)
The confession of sins, vidui, played an integral role in our national atonement on Yom Kippur. Aharon once represented the people on that day by confessing their sins while placing his hands atop the goat which was sent off to the desert. Today, in the absence of a Mikdash and kohen gadol, we each confess our wrongdoings on Yom Kippur, as part of the repentance process.
HaRambam ruled that merely admitting to sin in our mind is insufficient for vidui. We must, instead, verbally confess our transgressions. While generally accepting the halakhic principle of “hirhur ke-dibur,” which equates concentrated thought to verbal expression, HaRambam inexplicably presents the confession of sins as an exception to the rule. Why?
I am reminded, in this context, of a related concept in a different realm of halakhah. Although we fulfill the missvah of talmud Torah by simply contemplating its words and precepts, the Hakhamim nonetheless emphasized the value of verbal articulation while learning. They referred to a particular “life” that is generated by uttering words of Torah. And they stressed the strengths of memory and retainment which are born out of learning aloud. How do spoken words affect our comprehension? And what is the connection between our mouths and the “life” and retention of Torah?
The kabbalists separate the human personality into three separate facets. They refer to the two outer extremes as neshamah and nefesh. While the neshamah represents our thought and mental comprehension, the nefesh is our physical motion and activity. The integral component that links those two aspects, however, is ruah. The ruah represents our emotions, expressed by our speech.
During my first year as a high school teacher, Rabbi David Eliach taught me an invaluable method. “Have the students talk,” he repeatedly told me, “Force them to read the text out loud.” I soon learned that by doing so, the words had a way of “concretizing” in my students’ minds. Simply reading with their eyes and giving thought to the concepts left them static in their memory. By speaking the words with their mouths, however, the students breathed into them a dynamic “life” and personal character.
Indeed, it is our ability to talk which allows us to transcend a world of facts and principles into one of feelings and perspective. Consider, for example, our earliest expressions of speech – Adam’s naming of the animals in Gan Eden (Bereshit 2:19). Leon Kass noted the significance of that gesture. He commented on how human acts of selection are shaped by interests, which spring from desire. “The same is true of human speech, even of simple naming,” he wrote, “Although the ability to name rests on the powers of reason, the impulse to name is rooted in desire or emotion.” While bare reason is motiveless and impotent, the act of choosing words and naming is an expression of “an inner urge, need or passion, such as fear or wonder, anxiety or appreciation, interest or curiosity.” The content of speech, Kass thus suggested, reflects the inner soul of the speaker. By forcing Adam to choose the names of the animals and express them with his speech, God introduced him to the emotive side of his personality. He exposed Adam to his ruah.
Our ability to retain information is dependent upon the depth of its penetration into our being. Merely reading Torah with our eyes and minds leaves its words separate and apart from ourselves. Speaking it with our mouth breaths life – our life – into the text. It is for that reason, as well, that one must verbally confess their sins in the process of teshuvah. Thinking about the sins is a mental exercise. Verbalizing them is an emotional experience.
The verbal vidui of Yom Kippur, then, reveals to us the mystery of our expressive ruah. It teaches us that our thoughts and ideas remain dormant when left unspoken. By choosing words of expression, however, we integrate our mindful neshamah with active nefesh, generating the vitality of life through speech.