Friday, May 16, 2014

Torah Studies: Bechukotai

From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Likkutei Sichot:

The Sidra of Bechukotai begins with the words, “If you walk in My statutes,” and the Sicha is in effect a profound commentary—almost a meditation—on this single phrase. It explores two central themes: The nature of Torah learning, and the relationship between faith and understanding.

1. “My Statutes”

Our Sidra begins with the phrase, “If you walk in My statutes,”1 and the Sifra comments, “One might think that this denotes the fulfillment of the commandments; but when the Torah goes on to state, ‘and you shall keep My commandments and do them’ it is plain that in this passage the fulfillment of the commandments is mentioned. How then must I explain ‘If you walk in My statutes?’ (It means) that you should labor in the study of the Torah.”

If “you walk in My statutes” referred to the commandments, we could understand why only statutes (chukim) were mentioned, without referring to the other kinds of command, testimonies (edut) and judgments (mishpatim). The reason would then be that these other commands, which have a rational explanation, should be performed with the same unconditional acceptance as statutes, which are beyond our understanding.2

But since we must understand the phrase as referring to the study of the Torah, why is the word “statutes” used at all? The study of Torah is, for the most part, an act of intellect and understanding. The labor involved is not merely to learn, by rote, the details of the law, but also to understand their reasons, as explained in the Written and Oral Torah.

But, although statutes are beyond our understanding—as Rashi says,3 “It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to speculate about it”—they form only a small part of Torah, the majority of which is susceptible to explanation.

The Written Torah itself is small in comparison with the vast mass of oral tradition. And with the Written Torah, understanding is not crucial, so that a man must make the blessing of studying or being called to the reading of the Torah even if he does not understand what is being read. Whereas the Oral Torah does require comprehension if one is to make a blessing over it.4

The quantitative difference between the Written and Oral Torah is further emphasized by the fact that the Written Torah consists of a specified number of words and verses. There can be no additions. But the Oral Torah is open-ended. A finite quantity has already been revealed. But new discoveries are always possible—“whatever a worthy pupil will come in the future to discover.”5To it, there are no limits.

Similarly, within the Written Torah itself, the “statutes”—laws for which no reason has been communicated to us—form a minority of the commandments.

So the question becomes more forcible: Why in the context of the study of the Torah, are only statutes mentioned? Why cite a minority instance to cover the whole of the Torah? And why, in an activity of understanding, cite precisely those cases which cannot be understood?

2. Learning and Engraving

In Likkutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe explains that the word “statute” (chok) is related to the word “engrave” or “carve out” (chakikah). Thus the phrase in question uses the word “statute” to suggest that study must be an act of “carving out,” engraving the words of Torah on the soul.

What is special about engraving as a means of writing?

Firstly, the words are not added, as something extraneous, to the material on which they are written. Rather, they become an integral part of the material itself.

Secondly, and more importantly, the letters have no substance of their own. Their whole existence is in virtue of the material out of which they are carved.

So, when we are told by our verse that our learning should be “engraved” in us, we are not simply being taught that a Jew must become united with the Torah (unlike the superficial learning exemplified by Doeg, of which the Rabbis comment6 that it “was only from the surface outward”). For unity can sometimes come about by the joining of two separate things (as ordinary writing brings together ink and paper). And this, in learning, is not enough. Instead it must be “engraved,” meaning that the person learning should have no substance, his ego should have no voice whatsoever. His whole being must be the Torah.

The great example is Moses, the first recipient of the Torah. So complete was his selflessness that he could say, “I will give grass in your field.”7 “The Divine Presence spoke through his throat.”8 He was a void filled by G-d.

The same is true of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who said: “I have seen superior men and they are but few. If there be a thousand, I and my son are among them. If there be a hundred, I and my son are among them. If only two, they are I and my son. If only one, it is I.”9 These are words of self-praise; and self-praise is not the way of the righteous. He could say them only because he was so selfless, so filled with G-d, that it was as if he were speaking about someone else.

3. The Explanations Related

All explanations in the Torah have an inner unity.10 And the interpretation of “statutes” as “engraving” complements, rather than conflicts with, its literal sense, as laws which are beyond our understanding.

To learn Torah as if it were composed entirely of statutes is to study in a state of unconditional commitment. This does not rule out the pursuit of understanding. Indeed, the point is to understand. But only if this is accompanied by commitment. Not “I will do when I understand”; nor “I will understand because I enjoy the search for knowledge”; but “I will do, and because I am commanded, I will try to understand.” This is true “labor,” meaning an effort undertaken beyond the promptings of pleasure.

When learning is of this order, then it becomes “engraved.” The person learning, and the Torah which is learned, become literally one thing.

4. “Going”

This explains one part of the phrase “If you walk in My statutes.” But what of the word “walk?” “Walking” or “going”(halicha) suggests a number of levels, and a progression from one level to the next. For example, in the emotional life, one “goes” or ascends from the lower to the higher form of love. But surely in absolute commitment, there are no levels. It seems like a state, rather than a process.

The Alter Rebbe writes that “going” relates not to a man’s task but to his reward. If one’s service is, in both senses, “in My statutes,” then the reward is “you shall go”—always higher. And true “going” is without limits.

5. Faith and Understanding

However, the simple reading of the verse takes the whole phrase “if you walk in My statutes” as man’s task, and understands the reward as beginning in the next verse, “Then I will give your rains in their seasons.”

It is written in Likkutei Torah11 that the principal element in faith lies in those levels of G-dliness which are beyond the scope of comprehension. What can be, must be understood. Faith begins where understanding ends.

This is the distinctive quality of Jewish faith. It is a faith beyond, not because of, understanding.

Now, intellect has its levels: “Days shall speak, and the multitude of years shall teach wisdom.”12And as one comprehends more, so one raises the threshold of faith. Yesterday’s faith becomes today’s understanding.

This is why “statutes,” too, have their levels. What was incomprehensible yesterday—a statute—is understood today and ceases to be a statute. So, for example, G-d said to Moses, “I will reveal to you the reason behind the Red Heifer.”13 The Red Heifer is for us a statute. For Moses it was not, from that point onwards. It was not that Moses lacked the notion of “statute,” but that for him the threshold of incomprehensibility lay higher than for us.

This is the meaning of “If you walk in My statutes.” By “laboring” in the Torah, by straining to the limit, one daily raises one’s understanding, and thus one raises the stage at which a law is a “statute.” This is the “going”: The progression to an ever-higher faith through ever-higher understanding.

And the reward is then, “I will give your rains in their season …and make you go upright” which is the unlimited “going, from strength to strength” of the future revelation, and which leads, in turn, to what lies beyond the “going”—“to the day which is wholly Shabbat and rest for life everlasting.’’14

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


There he was.

My archenemy, after all these years. I hadn't been expecting to see him, but finally this epic moment that I had fantasized about for years had arrived.

For a long time I had imagined this moment when we would meet, so long after the hell this person had put me through, and he would see the well-adjusted individual that I became despite his best efforts.
 photo Inigo25.gif
All the put downs, all the criticisms; all the countless times when I was unjustly punished and made to feel generally inferior, for no reason other than I didn't fit his conception of what a good student, a good Jew was. And now we're face to face.

I saw him before he saw me, and as he turned in my direction I stood up a little straighter, ready to stare him down as he realized who was standing before him. 

His gaze came up and briefly locked with my own. In that millisecond, there was no hint of recognition whatsoever; our eyes met (perhaps) and he just kept going, surveying the room as he entered. 

It was as if he had never seen me before!

Could the more than ten years since we had last seen each other changed my appearance so much? I didn't think so. Confused, I withdrew and returned to what I was doing before he had approached. But the incident stayed with me the whole time, distracting me. 

How was it possible that this person who was such a source of pain in a particularly difficult point in my life could not even know who I was, these years later? I could pick him out from a crowd with my eyes covered; his every gesture and sound was burned into my memory, but when he saw me a few nights ago it was astonishingly clear that he did not know me. And something tells me that even if I had walked over to him and introduced myself, he might only have a vague recollection of who I was.

And just like that, over a decade's worth of animosity towards this particular individual dissipated. The realization that this is the kind of person who can make someone else suffer so and not forever be bound to that person by the shared experience left me feeling hollow and sad for him. 

I'm a very passionate person and I have a strange habit of forming "relationships" with people when we've shared something. A fellow passenger on a particularly difficult flight - when I see that person in some other context I feel a kinship with him despite not knowing him bcause we've bonded in our shared experience. 

With this former Rosh Yeshiva of my high school, I felt a toxic bond, a twisted relationship that stemmed from our constant run-ins. How could I not have affected him some way after all that we'd been through? How could what he had done to me not have left some impression that stayed with him forever? But if that was the case then he would have surely recognized me. The fact that he didn't demonstrated that I really didn't mean anything to him.

And something in my mind clicked off, just like that. While a lot of my growth since that point in my life has been out of spite for those people from back then who said I would always be a failure I have tried to let go of that and focus on the present. But this one-sided enmity had been raging on deep down inside me. Seeing that I wasn't important to his person then, and certainly not now allowed me to finally give up on this person. I'm not saying that I'm totally healed from those years, but this incident has surely liberated another part of my psyche...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bringing back bakashot:

HT to Rabbi Gil Student. I think this is great, on so many levels. It really warms the heart to see renewed interest coupled with the resolve to follow up with a sense of urgency. I have an especially soft spot in my heart for my sephardic brethren; I think I was one in a previous incarnation...

Bringing back bakashot: Young Sephardic Jews embrace an old musical tradition

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dr David Pelcovitz on happiness

I love this format of videos, which are very similar to the wonderful TED talks that you can totally go "down the rabbit hole" just learning great stuff.

Dr Pelcovitz is a great guy, not only as a professional, but as a human being. I worked briefly at the Azrieli School of Jewish Education and Administration where Dr Pelcovitz is on the faculty, and had a few opportunities to chat him up. A real mentsch who is doing his part for the klal.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nesivos Shalom - Erev Shabbos: The Sweetness of Longing

Courtesy of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

It’s not icing on the cake. It’s halachah.

The emotional component in readying ourselves for Shabbos is fixed in the literature of halachah. Rambam writes[2] “Our Sages command a person…to envelop himself in his talis, and sit solemnly, waiting to receive the presence of Shabbos as if he were going out to receive the king.”

In the hours immediately before Shabbos, both the various Worlds and the souls of the departed move to higher places. How are we to relate to such a time?

The Gemara provides us with an important start at an answer. We find [3] two approaches. R. Chanina would say, “Let us go out to greet the queen- bride.” R. Yanai, on the other hand, would say, “Come, oh kallah; come oh kallah.”

Shabbos is the kallah, explains the Maharsha, citing a medrash, because all the days of the week had “mates,” as the six days of Creation easily form three such “couples.” Shabbos gave the week an odd number of days. To restore harmony, Shabbos needed a partner, and found one in the Jewish people.

We experience the fullness of this marriage on Shabbos itself, which is like nisuin. We instantly comprehend that the avodah of erev Shabbos, then, is kiddushin. Shabbos, continues the Maharsha, is the bride. She is also a queen, in that Bnei Yisrael all become like royalty.

A groom ordinarily goes out to greet the kallah, arriving to ready herself for the wedding. So did R. Chanina, walking out to greet Shabbos. At the wedding itself, the chasan, ready to formalize the entrance of the kallah into the new life they will build, stands under the chupah,and bids the kallah approach. The entrance of the kallah into the symbolic house of the chupah will be followed a short time later with the groom’s bidding her enter their actual domicile. R. Yanai took up this role, in his doubled “come, oh kallah.”

Rabbenu Chananel adds a nuance to the Gemara’s description of R. Chanina. The Gemara offers that description in the context of a legal discussion, one that limits liability of people rushing about on erev Shabbos. When they inadvertently damage others, halachah frees them from the obligation to make restitution, arguing that “they rush about with legal approval.” The Gemara points to R. Chanina as the source of this legal approval. Rabbenu Chananel paraphrases the Gemara, and speaks of him as “dancing onwards, proclaiming ‘come, ohkallah.’” While we don’t see the dancing in the words of the Gemara, Rabbenu Chananel did. He understood that the rushing about sanctioned by Chazal is not born of the pragmatic considerations of getting much done in a short period of time Friday afternoon. Rather, it is made of the same stuff as R. Chanina’s Shabbos-greeting ceremony: emotionally charged, unbridled enthusiasm for the approach of Shabbos, akin to the emotive release of dance. It was the heart that dictated R. Chanina’s behavior, not his wristwatch ticking off the little time remaining before shkiah.

The customary recitation of Shir Ha-Shirim is perhaps the clearest expression of the air of expectancy surrounding erev Shabbos. Elsewhere, the loving relationship between Klal Yisrael and HKBH is framed in terms of the parent-child relationship. “Banim atem” [4]– your are children to Hashem. Shir Ha-Shirim takes the love to the next level – that of a couple, both smitten with lovesickness. It is reminiscent of Rambam’s definition of the proper way to love Hashem: “One should love Hashem with a very great love, so that his soul should be bound up to His love…as if afflicted by lovesickness…All of Shir Ha-Shirim is a mashal to this state.”

More specifically, the recitation of Shir Ha-Shirim sharply defines the key difference between how we experience erev Shabbos relative to Shabbos itself. If Shabbos is a time of intense devekus to Hashem, then erev Shabbos is the time that we are consumed with longing for that devekus. (This is part of the intent of the verse [5] “And they will prepare what they bring.” We arrive at Shabbos’ devekus to Hashem only by preparing ourselves, by anticipating the imminent connection to Hashem through intense longing.) Within the orbit of love-related feelings, it is longing that most characterizes the mood of Shir Ha-Shirim.

The Ohr Ha-Chaim [6] offered a beautiful mashal for this thought. A king divorced his queen. As far as all in the realm were concerned, the divorce was final. He would not have distanced her unless he had completely lost all feeling for her. Their son, however, suspected otherwise. Speaking to his father, he determined that the king still had much love for the ex-queen. When he spoke to his mother, he detected the same feelings of love for her former spouse. To remedy the situation, he composed two songs or verses. One expressed the love of the king for the queen, and the second her love for the king. He sent each song to its proper recipient, and restored the closeness between them. This is why, explained the Ohr Ha-Chaim, the work is called Shlomo’s Shir Ha-Shirim, and not simply Shlomo’s shir. It is literally a song of songs, a song that merges two songs – one of the King and the other or His queen. Between the two versions, we understand the bond between Hashem and His people.

R. Elimelech of Lizhinsk famously stated that were it not for the sweetness of Shabbos itself, he would not be able to contain within himself the sweetness of erev Shabbos. Our approach makes sense of this. Shabbos and erev Shabbos each bring us to a different emotional place. The longing and desire of erev Shabbos disappear when Shabbos arrive, because we then achieve the object of our desire, as the longing gives way to devekus! Each experience is sweet in its own way – and potentially overpowering. R. Elimelech meant that he would be overcome by the strength of the erev Shabbos feeling if it did not come to an end by morphing into the very different feeling of Shabbos itself.

We should mention yet one more aspect of the pre-Shabbos longing. The Ohr Ha-Chaim [7] sees a connection between the word veshamru and a similar expression of “And his father shamar - kept the matter in mind.”[8] Part of our attitude towards Shabbos should be keeping it in mind at all times. We should look forward to it at all times during the week, impressing upon ourselves that all our other activity pales in comparison to the elevated state that we experience on Shabbos. A Jew should spend his entire week with Shabbos!

We are instructed in the Aseres Ha-Dibros to “remember the Shabbos day.” [9] The commentaries tell us that this means that we should mention it all through the week.[10] According to our thinking, however, it may mean more than that. We should live our lives suffused with Shabbos, making Shabbos the central and most important experience of our week.

We relate to the land of Israel in a similar manner. The Gemara[11] [says, “Both he who is born there, and he who longs to see it.” Here, too, the longing and desire are part of the mitzvah.
Through our loving anticipation of Shabbos, we make it the central pillar of our week. By doing so, we draw from the ohr of Shabbos, allowing it to enter all facets of our lives.

[1] Based on Nesivos Shalom v.2 pgs 40-43
[2] Shabbos 30:2
[3] Bava Kamma 32A
[4] Devarim 14:1
[5] Shemos 16:5
[6] In his Rishon Le-Tziyon on Shir Ha-Shirim
[7] Shemos 31:16
[8] Bereishis 37:11
[9] Shemos 20:8
[10]See Ramban, ibid., that we should count the days of the week towards Shabbos
[11]Kesubos 75A