Monday, December 31, 2012

Between Man and Angels

The gemara (Shabbos 88b-89a) relates a fascinating event that happened when Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah.

The angels protested the giving of this valuable treasure that had been hidden for nearly 1000 generations prior to Creation to a flesh and blood man, "born of woman". God instructs Moshe himself to address their claim, at which point he grasps the Throne of Glory and proceeds to respond to their criticism. Using the Ten Commandments as his template, Moshe proceeds to demonstrate that the Torah is specifically designed for humans who are capable of exercising free will and must contend with all the challenges of being human. At this point the angels are mollified, and not only do they ally themselves with him, but they also provide Moshe with gifts; the Angel of Death himself shares the secret of the incense and its life-restoring qualities.

In Nefesh HaChaim, Reb Chaim of Volozhin examines the difference between humans and angels. It's not so much that humans are greater than angels - on the contrary, in all respects but one, angels are far superior to humans in terms of inherent holiness, purity, and the like. However, the angel is limited in one aspect that the human is not: the potential to affect other realms with his actions, and have an impact beyond the immediate surroundings.

The angel is described as stationary; its appearance gives off the impression of a single leg, i.e. the inability to move. However, man is described as a composite, a microcosm of all the different worlds beyond that of our  physical plane of existence; he is termed a mehalech - a walker (related to the reason why the corpus of Jewish law is called halacha). Everything he does has an effect that endures forever, and has far reaching ramifications. As we see in this week's parsha, Moshe "[T]urned this way and that and saw that there was no man..." (Ex. 2:12); this is explained as Moshe utilizing ruach haKodesh to determine that no future converts would come from this Egyptian before killing him.

This singularly human ability accords us with a tremendous amount of responsibility. The realization that our decisions and actions have enduring repercussions that stems from our development as creatures of action and flux may no doubt create a certain amount of existential angst. But that is no reason to shy away from our duties while we are here on Earth. There is no way to avoid it; even our inaction has serious causal effect on future generations (sometimes by cutting off the continued growth of our descendants, God forbid).

Of late, there has been a movement toward a more positively-oriented perspective in psychology, built around a pursuit of happiness. Many philosophically minded psychologists have attempted to define what happiness is and how it is attained. Concurrently, they have devised many practical interventions toward this end of cultivating happiness - many of which have tremendous benefits for those who take the time and care to implement them properly. This is a very good step in the right direction; after all, the Ba'al Shem Tov and others stressed the importance of serving HaShem with joy, a concept that should be a basic tenet of Judaism but somehow gets lost in translation sometimes (in fact, it is biblical in nature - "...tachat asher lo avadeta et HaShem b'simcha").

But many of these scholars lose sight of the main goal, seeing happiness as an end in itself. Happiness is a subjective concept that can prove elusive when placed as a desired achievement. A corollary of this attitude is the mistaken notion that pain or discomfort is unhelpful, unwanted, unnecessary; conflict is something that should be avoided as much as possible. This is not the case. The existential struggles and tests that we must go through are what galvanize us to continue, to grow, to keep moving and improving. They give us a sense of responsibility to others as well as ourselves. Frankl called this a "will to meaning"; the Torah itself asserts that "man is born to toil". Only through hard work and dedication is it possible to truly achieve anything in life - and when we feel that we are working for something important, the satisfaction and self assurance is more valuable than any other type of happiness.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

...and the kitchen sink, too.

My wonderful children don't really have a concept of seasonal time yet, so they're more than willing to listen to holiday-related tapes at random times throughout the year. Favorites are timeless, I guess.

Thankfully, some of their favorites include tapes I listened to as a child, including Cleveland's very own Torahvision series' The Purim Story. A classic, my kids are always up for another listen - case in point, this morning.

Listening with half an ear reminded me of a story I heard involving Rav Yitzchak Hutner OBM. One summer, Rav Hutner and his wife went up to Camp Morris (the summer camp affiliated with Yeshivas Chaim Berlin) to visit for a Shabbos. On Sunday morning, the couple came to the dining room following shacharis for breakfast.

Eager to please, the waiter charged with catering to the Hutners asked them what they wanted for breakfast. When Rav Hutner asked what they had, he launched into a litany of dishes, rattling off with breathtaking speed a menu that boasted hardboiled, softboiled, fried, scrambled, sunnyside up and poached eggs; belgian and regular waffles, french toast, pancakes; freshly squeezed orange juice, brewed or instant coffee, hot cereal like oatmeal and farina, or any choice of various cold cereals. Bagels, rye bread, white bread served plain or toasted with jam, mergarine, or butter - anything the Hutners wanted could be provided.

Rav Hutner - who was known for his wit as well as his size - smiled at the waiter, leaned back in his chair. Placing both hands on his stomach, he sang with the trop of the megilla: "Al tapel davar m'kol asher dibarta! And do not leave out anything from which you mentioned!" (Esther 6:10)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Brain teaser...

A glorious "no prize" for anyone who can come up with the solution to this riddle:

How is it possible to speak for a minute straight without ever using the letter "A"?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Imperative of Chanuka

Words of encouragement and exhortation from the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM...

And a contemporary tzaddik, the Tolna Rebbe of Jerusalem, at the first night's lighting this year:

Anyone with a yiddish translation would be welcomed...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Holy Incandescence

We are not always fit for elevated spiritual experiences.  Those many instances that lack any elevated illumination are to be dedicated to exoteric Torah learning and practical service of God. 
But when the light of our soul bursts forth, we must immediately give that light its freedom, so that we may unfold, visualize, imagine, grow wise and attain, aspire and yearn to the highest heights, to the source of our root, to the life of our soul, to the light of the life of the soul of all universes, to the light of the supernal God, to His goodness and beauty.Rav Kook, Orot Hakodesh 10:2
Much as we would like our lives to be more peaks than valleys, and indeed we can strive toward that goal of   allowing our souls to flourish and expand into the world, we have to know how to stay well grounded as well and utilize our time wisely in the interim. But like Reb Kalonymos Kalman says in many places: once the "doors to the prison" are open and we have that time - we should make the most of our visitation!

Chanukah is one of those times when the light of the Torah sheBa'al Peh shines forth. Everything about Chanukah is so very deep, deeper than words can ever describe. As the only yom tov that was established after the redaction of the Torah sheb'Ktav, Chanukah is the one holiday that is tailored for us here in exile, so far from where we once were and yet getting closer with every passing day.

May the light of Chanukah spread out and illuminate the world with the light of Moshiach permanently this time!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

8th Day/ Kids of Courage

The 8th Day is one of those few bands that has universal appeal in my family; their albums are on regular rotation here...

A sweet video for an important cause...

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sale at Kehot Online!

In  honor of 19 & 20 Kislev, the folks at Kehot Online are making a massive sale, up to 40% off their inventory. I've been waiting for this sale since the summer after reading Rabbi Benzion Twerski's essay in Klal Perspectives where he mentions a sefer he has been learning, Lilmod Eich L'Hitpallel...

Check out the sale - there's something for everyone, and it's continuing today and tomorrow!

It's Close To You

L'kavod Yud Tes Kislev.

An unsettling experience: I didn't realize this morning that it was Yat Kislev until my chavruta reminded me. This is my first year completely out of the yeshiva environment, and it's a timely lesson that I have to take steps to ensure that things don't just slip by when I'm not paying attention.

I wish I had seen this a few weeks ago...