Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Random Wonderings...

A few questions that have been wandering around in my brain over the past few days:

1) Do swimmers sweat?

2) Beginning this year, we will no longer begin saying v'Tein Tal u'Matar on the 4th of December or the day after depending on leap years or Shabbatot; from now on it will either be on the 5th (or 6th) of December here in Chutz la'Aretz. This effectively renders many siddurim obsolete - how will the various publishing houses deal with that?

3) Are the people who are resurrected during techiyat ha'meitim considered ta'amei meit?

Monday, November 18, 2013

I'm a fan of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

I want to be very clear about that before anything else, because what I have to say is critical (in the vein of v'Ani hakatan) of some of his more recent published material in the form of his weekly Covenant and Conversation pieces, which I believe are tonally and ultimately philosophically beyond the scope of traditional commentary on parshiot hashavua.

Some of Rabbi Sacks' essays have portrayed personalities in the Torah in an interesting light; sometimes this is based on an accepted commentary, albeit taken to a further level than that commentator intended, while in other instances Rabbi Sacks' ideas seem to be the product of his own reasoning, without any source material to back himself up.

This is troubling, because we cannot rely on our own understanding when we deal with the Torah, and this goes doubly for dealing with any biblical personality. I once heard a story involving Nechama Leibowitz: while discussing some texts in the Torah, a student offered a novel interpretation, which Nechama summarily dismissed. The student defended herself, upset that the teacher could just cast aside her idea.

"Aren't there seventy faces to the Torah?" the young student asked.

"Yes" replied Nechama, "but yours is the seventy-first."

With that in mind, we must remember to tread carefully when using the Torah to buttress our arguments. When we find ourselves maneuvering texts in order to serve our purposes that should serve as an indication that we should step back and be careful.

I would respond to the most recent essay, as I feel it's the most egregious example thus far, but my good friend Reb Ally has already done the hard work.

Again, I'm a fan of Rabbi Sacks, which is why this is so worrisome for me, and why I feel it's important enough to say something here about it...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Unique, Not Special

A post over at Pop Chassid (a great blog if you haven't seen it) a short while ago got me thinking. Author Elad Nehorai was commenting about our generation's inability to really accomplish anything, how we're very proficient at complaining about how things should be, but not as successful in affecting change in our world. Overall, his post has many good points, and it's worthwhile to read it and consider some of them. However, there is one part of the post that I take issue with that I want to address, because I think it is intrinsically associated with the overall point of the blog post.

About midway through his essay, Elad references a blog post from another site that went viral some time ago; in it, author Tim Urban takes an incisive look at our generation (i.e. those born between the Seventies and the mid-Nineties) and attempts to parse out why we have so much baggage, why there seems to be so much overall dissatisfaction especially here in the United States, when paradoxically we're living in an age of convenience and freedom experienced by no other era in the history of mankind. Ultimately he attributes this malaise to the misbegotten notion that nearly every single child of this generation has been taught: namely, that we are all special. Urban spends a considerable amount of print (?) demonstrating how this focus on special-ness has fostered a sense of complacency and unrealistic expectations, a sense of entitlement that is wholly unfounded and leaves our youth unprepared for the real world.

Again, there is a lot of merit to that post, but my friend Elad takes umbrage with Urban's insistence that we are not all special, barring some sort of objective demonstration of that fact. Elad writes that "[d]espite what a dumb viral article said, we are special, and we can contribute something no one else can contribute."

The problem here is that by the time each respective blogger gets to his bottom line, so to speak, they are echoing each others' sentiments: both agree that the essential issue is the fact that hard work, serious effort, and consistency are key elements for one's achieving actualization, and that our generation is not readily inclined toward that expenditure. The only bone of contention here is a question of wording, what boils down to a matter of operational definitions. Elad's post insists that we are essentially special but we must bring that potential into reality; Urban posits that short of any tangible, quantifiable result that indicates that special-ness exists, we have no right brandishing the word special willy-nilly.

I agree with the essence of both blog posts. What I believe needs to be dealt with is this word special, and that it should be eliminated from the lexicon in this discussion. To me, special has a connotation of "better than"; when used as an adjective it speaks to those qualities that perhaps demonstrate superiority over others. Special is a word that should be reserved for special instances, as in when something merits the distinction that that specific word affords its bearer. Someone who is special deserves special treatment, can expect preferential advantages as a reward for their qualities and accomplishments.

 To say that everyone is special is inherently fallacious and not only robs the word special of its meaning but does a great disservice to everyone by placing the onus on them. After all, if everyone is special, then I too must be special. And if I turn out not to be special then what does that say about my value, my self worth? This obsession with special-ness undermines all the other important values that previous generations held, and I fear it is crippling our generation. Of course we'd rather complain about things than actually do anything about it, because nothing is ever big enough of an undertaking to tickle our fancy - we're waiting for the big, heroic events that reinforce our inflated self importance and fan the flames of our egocentricity.

But Elad does have a point. We do need to instill in our children a healthy sense of value; they need to see that they're capable of making a siginificant contribution to our world.

A better word for what Elad is speaking of? I would propose "unique" which has the connotation of individuality without the elevated status that "special" holds for the bearer. Each person's uniqueness captures the essence of what makes us valuable and powerful, as Elad puts it, because it acknowledges the value of individuality, the distinct element that every person can contribute to the world by exercising free will - without the expectation that we must outperform or somehow elevate ourselves over others to be recognized as worthy.

When we are cognizant of our ability while being aware of our limitations, we can ignore the unreasonable expectations that society bombards us with and we internalize - and get to work. By understanding that special status is something that is earned, we can rightfully attribute worth and value to true accomplishments, "big" or "small".


...קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:

Adapted from Ein AYaH:

The Talmud (Shabbat 32a) counsels the following attitude towards miracles: 
"One should never put himself in a dangerous situation and say, 'A miracle will save me.' Perhaps the miracle will not come. And even if a miracle occurs, one's merits are reduced."  
The Sages learned that one should not rely on miracles from Jacob. When Jacob returned home after twenty years in Laban's house, he greatly feared meeting his brother Esau. He prayed to God, "I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith that You have shown me" (Gen. 32:11). The Sages explained Jacob's prayer in this way: "I am unworthy due to all the kindness and faith that You have shown me." Your miracles and intervention have detracted from my merits. 
We need to examine this concept. What is so wrong with relying on miracles? Does it not show greater faith? And why should miracles come at the expense of one's spiritual accomplishments? 
The Function of SkepticismSkepticism is a natural, healthy trait. Miracles can have a positive moral influence, but they also have a downside. Reliance on miracles can lead to a weakened or even warped sense of reality. 
At certain times in history, God disrupted natural law in order to increase faith and knowledge. However, this intervention in nature was always limited as much as possible, in order that we should not belittle the importance of personal effort and initiative. This is where skepticism fulfills its purpose. Our natural inclination to doubt the occurrence of miracles helps offset these negative side effects, keeping us within the framework of the naturally-ordered world, which is the greatest good that God continually bestows to us. It is preferable that we do not rely on divine intervention, but rather say, 'Perhaps a miracle will not occur.' 
Miracles and NatureUltimately, both miracles and natural events are the work of God. So how do they differ? A miracle occurs when we are unable to succeed through our own efforts. By its very nature, a miracle indicates humanity's limitations, even helplessness. When miracles occur, we are passive, on the receiving end. 
Natural events are also the work of God, but they are achieved through our skill, initiative, and effort. When we are active, we spiritually advance ourselves by virtue of our actions. Our zechuyot (merits) are the result of the positive, ethical deeds that we have performed. We should strive for an active life of giving, not a passive one of receiving. Such an engaged, enterprising life better fulfills God's will — the attainment of the highest level of perfection for His creations. 
Jacob 'used up' merits when he required God's intervention to protect him from Laban and Esau. He admitted to God, "I am unworthy due to all the kindness and faith that You have shown me." But Jacob later regained spiritual greatness through his active struggle against the mysterious angel. "For you have struggled with angels and men, and have overcome them" (Gen. 32:29).

 And here's a rather nice song from Yonatan Razel, inspired by these verses; as you can see, he's taken some liberties with the wording, but it works overall...

Sunday, November 10, 2013


If anyone has any idea why the Daf HaYomi schedule is now learning Yoma and skipping Rosh HaShana until several months down the line, I'd be much obliged. I assume most folks out there are more or less accustomed to the Vilna Shas' ordering of the tractates which places Rosh HaShana as following Shekalim and preceding Yoma (often printed in the same volume as Yoma lang with Succah); that is why it was puzzling when I noticed that not only does "the Daf's" schedule place it elsewhere, but that both Artscroll and the new Koren Steinsaltz gemarot print them in the same sequence.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Fable of the Goat

 From a collection of S. Y. Agnon's short stories and essays, this one just grabbed me. There's a part toward the end that just hit me in the gut; there was an involuntary sucking in of air when I read it...
The tale is told of an old man who groaned from his heart. The doctors were sent for, and they advised him to drink goat's milk. He went out and bought a she-goat and brought her into his home. Not many days passed before the goat disappeared. They went out to search for her but did not find her. She was not in the yard and not in the garden, not on the roof of the house of study and not by the spring, not in the hills and not in the fields. She tarried several days and then returned by herself; and when she returned, her udder was full of a great deal of milk, the taste of which was as the taste of Eden. 
Not just once, but many times she disappeared from the house. They would go out in search of her and would not find her until she returned by herself with her udder full of milk that was sweeter than honey and whose taste was the taste of Eden. 
One time the old man said to his son, "My son, I desire to know where she goes and whence she brings this milk which is sweet to my palate and a balm to all my bones." His son said to him, "Father, I have a plan."He said to him, "What is it?" The son got up and brought a length of cord. He tied it to the goat's tail.His father said to him, "What are you doing, my son?" He said to him, "I am tying a cord to the goat's tail, so that when I feel a pull on it, I will know that she has decided to leave, and I can catch the end of the cord and follow her on her way." The old man nodded his head and said to him, "My son, if your heart is wise, my heart too will rejoice." 
The youth tied the cord to the goat's tail and minded it carefully. When the goat set off, he held the cord in his hand and did not let it slacken until the goat was well on her way and he was following her. He was dragged along behind her until he came to a cave. The goat went into the cave, and the youth followed her, holding the cord. They walked thus for an hour or two, and maybe even a day or two. The goat wagged her tail and bleated, and the cave came to an end. 
When they emerged from the cave, the youth saw lofty mountains, and hills full of the choicest fruit, and a fountain of living waters that flowed down from the mountains; and the wind wafted all manner of perfumes. The goat climbed up a tree by clutching at the ribbed leaves. Carob fruits full of honey dropped from the tree, and she ate of the carobs and drank of the garden's fountain.The youth stood and called to the wayfarers: "I adjure you, good people, tell me where I am, and what is the name of this place?" They answered him, "You are in the Land of Israel, and you are close by Safed." 
The youth lifted up his eyes to the heavens and said, "Blessed by the Omnipresent, blessed be He who has brought me to the Land of Israel." He kissed the soil and sat down under the tree. He said, "Until the day breathe and the shadows flee away, I shall sit on the hill under this tree. Then I shall go home and bring my father and mother to the Land of Israel." 
As he was sitting and feasting his eyes on the holiness of the Land of Israel, he heard a voice proclaiming: "Come, let us go out to greet the Sabbath Queen." And he saw men like angels, wrapped in white shawls, with boughs of myrtle in their hands, and all the houses were lit with a great many candles. He perceived that the eve of Sabbath would arrive with the darkening, and that he would not be able to return. 
He uprooted a reed and dipped it in gallnuts, from which the ink for the writing of the Torah scrolls is made. He took a piece of paper and wrote a letter to his father: "From the ends of the earth, I lift up my voice in song to tell you that I have come in peace to the Land of Israel. Here I sit, close by Safed, the holy city, and I imbibe its sanctity. Do not inquire how I arrived here but hold on to this cord which is tied to the goat's tail and follow the footsteps of the goat; then your journey will be secure, and you will enter the Land of Israel." 
The youth rolled up the note and placed it in the goat's ear. He said to himself: When she arrives at Father's house, Father will pat her on the head, and she will flick her ears. The note will fall out, Father will pick it up and read what is written on it. Then he will take up the cord and follow the goat to the Land of Israel. 
The goat returned to the old man, but she did not flick her ears, and the note did not fall. When the old man saw that the goat had returned without his son, he clapped his hands to his head and began to cry and weep and wail, "My son, my son, where are you? My son, would that I might die in your stead, my son, my son!" So he went, weeping and mourning over his son, for he said, "An evil beast has devoured him, my son is assuredly rent in pieces!" 
And whenever he saw the goat, he would say, "I will go down to my grave in mourning for my son." The old man's mind would not be at peace until he sent for the butcher to slaughter the goat. The butcher came and slaughtered the goat. 
As they were skinning her, the note fell out of her ear. 
The old man picked up the note and said, "My son's handwriting!" When he had read all that his son had written, he clapped his hands to his head and cried, "Vay! Vay! Woe to the man who robs himself of his own good fortune, and woe to the man who requites good with evil!" 
He mourned over the goat many days and refused to be comforted, saying, "Woe to me, for I could have gone up to the Land of Israel in one bound, and now I must suffer out my days in this exile!" 
Since that time the mouth of the cave has been hidden from the eye,and there is no longer a short way. And that youth, if he has not died, shall bear fruit in his old age, full of sap and richness, calm and peaceful in the Land of the Living.