Monday, April 26, 2021

The Torah Content of Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss

The Torah Content of Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss

For MONTHS I've been meaning to compile a list of links and descriptions of all the Torah content that I've been producing this year, but I didn't get around to it until now. This list is current as of April 2021, and I'll do my best to update it whenever there are significant changes. 

My Blog: Kol ha'Seridim

Description: I considered myself to be a Torah writer before I became a Torah teacher. In 2007, at the dawn of the Jewish Blogosphere, I started a blog called Kankan Chadash. When I started teaching in 2009 I started using a pseudonym and changed the name of the blog to Kankan Ne'lam. In 2014 I relaunched my blog in its current incarnation as Kol ha'Seridim. I spent most of the summer almost every summer posting an article every weekday, half of which were new and half of which were revised articles from the old blogs. These articles covered a wide range of topics - mostly Torah, but also philosophy, education, and personal musings. It looks like I won't be writing as much this summer as I have in the past, but there are over 300 articles on the blog waiting to be read!
How to Use: My advice is to skim the titles in the blog archive and read whatever looks interesting based on the title. Yes, you can also skim the labels, but I must confess that my labeling policies were inconsistent throughout the years, and there were many articles that were not labeled correctly. Also note that the search feature somehow doesn't work very well, despite the fact that Blogger is owned by Google. Most of the posts from 2017 and on are available for download as PDFs, which makes them ideal for Shabbos.

My YouTube Channel

Description: This year I began teaching at Yeshiva Bnei Torah (YBT) and Lomdeha: the Torah Learning Institute for Women. The majority of the shiurim/classes I give at both institutions are recorded and uploaded to my YouTube channel, usually within a matter of hours after I give them. The advantage of watching them on YouTube (as opposed to the podcasts) is that I usually display the texts and/or translations on the screen, which makes the shiur easier to follow. 
How to Use: I recommend that you sign into YouTube with your gmail account and subscribe to my YouTube channel by clicking "subscribe." That way, all of my new videos will appear whenever you visit YouTube, and YouTube will hold your place in the video when you stop watching it so that you can come back and pick up where you left off. Another pro-tip is to go to my playlists, where you'll find all of my shiurim organized by topic (and color-coded), which makes them easier to browse or to find specific shiurim. You can choose whether to order them in chronological or reverse chronological order. 

My Podcasts

Description: I currently have five podcasts where I upload almost all of my shiurim/classes, usually within a matter of hours after I give them. (I say "almost" because some I record but don't upload, and others I don't even record.) The advantage of listening on a podcast is that the audio quality is superior to that of YouTube, and it will generally be easier to find what you're looking for. Also, they're podcasts! You can listen to them when you're out and about.
How to Use: The best way to listen to these podcasts is to download a podcast app (see "platforms" below for a list), search for my podcasts by title, and subscribe. All of the new episodes will show up automatically and will be easy to access. Alternatively, if you prefer to listen to it on your computer, you can just click directly on the link. 
Platforms/Apps: My podcasts should all be available on the following platforms/apps: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Pandora, TuneIn + Alexa, Podcast Addict, Podchaser, Pocket Casts, Deezer, Listen Notes, Player FM, Podcast Index, Overcast, Castro, Castbox, Podfriend. If you find out that a particular podcast isn't available on the platform you use, let me know and I'll see what I can do.

Here are my podcasts:

  1. The Stoic Jew Podcast
    • Frequency: five new episodes each week
    • Average Episode Length: 10-15 minutes
    • Description: This podcast is devoted to the exploration of the relationship between Judaism and Stoicism where they overlap, where they differ, and how they complement each other. Each day I read a selection from one of the Stoic philosophers - Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca - and reflect on the practical insights we can learn from them. I almost always incorporate Torah sources or ideas, and real-world examples.
    • Note: This is the only podcast I make unique content for. In other words, you will not find this content available on my YouTube channel or my blog. 

  2. The Mishlei Podcast
    • Frequency: five new episodes of each week
    • Average Episode Length: 35-45 minutes for most episodes, and 75-90 minutes for some
    • Description: I give two Mishlei shiurim: a 35-45 minute morning shiur for the yeshiva guys in YBT Monday through Thursday, in which we usually average one pasuk every day or two, and a 75-90 minute weekly shiur for the community at large on Monday nights, in which we learn one pasuk. The morning shiur is more advanced in the sense that I don't translate as much, so if you're looking for something more accessible, I recommend the longer episodes. 
    • Note: This podcast and the other three are not recorded AS PODCASTS. They're recorded as shiurim and then uploaded as podcasts. For this reason, there tends to be lots of discussion back and forth, which some might enjoy but others might find annoying, distracting, or hard to hear.

  3. Rambam Bekius
    • Frequency: four new episodes each week
    • Average Episode Length: 60 minutes
    • Description: I give a Rambam Bekius shiur (or, more accurately, a chavurah) at YBT Monday through Thursday. Our learning is anchored in the Mishneh Torah, which we started from the very beginning, but we tend to go wherever our learning takes us. Some might describe our learning as more "bekiyun" than "bekius" since we delve in-depth into whatever happens to interest us, but we try to keep the pace up. In addition to going straight through the Mishneh Torah, we'll also take detours to learn subjects related to the upcoming moadim and occasionally we'll do a side-topic or a shiur from The Kuntress. 

  4. Tefilah [and Tehilim]
    • Frequency: two new episodes each week
    • Average Episode Length: 45-55 minutes
    • Description: This began as a tefilah podcast where I uploaded my shiurim at YBT on tefilah, but then I stopped giving a regular tefilah shiur and switched to Tehilim, which is a related topic. Regardless, anything that can be remotely connected with tefilah, Tehilim, "how to cultivate a relationship with Hashem" is uploaded here.
    • Note: If you're looking for a "spoonfeedy" shiur, in which the ideas are neatly packaged and ready for consumption, then these shiurim might not be for you. We work through everything from scratch, which means a fair share of dead ends, misfires, and approaches which don't yield fruit. The upside is that this will provide good training in the methodology of learning Tehilim and tefilah.

  5. Machshavah Lab
    • Frequency: one, two, three, or sometimes four new episodes each week
    • Average Episode Length: 45-75 minutes
    • Description: This is my "miscellaneous" podcast. It includes shiurim I give at YBT and Lomdeha on Jewish philosophy, Chumash methodology, midrashim, Pirkei Avos, and more. I call it "Machshavah Lab" because this is where we will conduct Torah "experiments" by exploring questions, texts, and ideas in an effort to develop our machshavah in a "hands on," exploratory, firsthand manner.

My WhatsApp Group

Link: if you want to join, email me; let me know who you are and what led you to my content, and ask me to send you the link to join
Description: If you want to stay up to date on ALL of my Torah content, then this is the best way. I upload everything here: YouTube videos, podcast episodes, articles, AND announcements/Zoom info for my shiurim which are open to the public. 
Note: Because I produce a ton of content, I tend to post to this group a lot ... like, 4-6 times each day. But don't worry: it's set on "admins only" so there won't be any discussion taking place here.

Zoom Shiurim Open to the Public

Right now the only regularly scheduled shiur I give over Zoom which is open to everybody is my Monday Night Mishlei shiur, which runs from 8:00pm to 9:15pm EST every Monday night. This shiur will continue until the end of June, then break for most of July, and resume in August. 

I also give shiurim on a wide variety of topics as part of our Lomdeha Friday Seminar, which is open to all women. Each Friday's shiurim begin at 9:00am EST every Friday, and my slot is from 11:30am to 12:15pm. If you're interested, email info at

I also occasionally give our YBT Sunday Shiur, also on a variety of topics.

Some of my other shiurim are quasi-open, so if you're interested in joining any one of them, contact me and I'll let you know whether it's an option. 

As I said above, if you want to stay up-to-date with my shiur announcements, join my WhatsApp group.

One-On-One Torah Teaching/Learning

At the outset of the year I intended to do a lot of one-on-one Torah teaching/learning - not so much as a "tutor" to help students succeed in school, but as a sort of "personal chef" of Torah, ready to serve up whatever the customer is interested in. I ended up becoming so busy with my shiurim and classes at YBT and Lomdeha that I've barely had time for offering one-on-one sessions. I have one weekly session of this nature and another monthly session. If you're interested in something like this, feel free to contact me and I'll let you know whether I'm available. When I've done this in the past, it's usually been at the behest of parents who feel that their child is not receiving the Torah education that he or she needs - usually because they have questions that aren't being answered, or curiosities that aren't being nurtured. I'm also open to giving one-off or series of shiurim to small or large groups.

My Email

If you want to join my WhatsApp group, or if you have questions, comments, or any other type of feedback about any of my content, feel free to email me at rabbischneeweiss at gmail. 

Who Knows What the Future Holds?

I believe that covers everything for now! I'm sure these will change next year, but only Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu can tell you that! 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Sefer ha'Chinuch: On Opposition to COVID-19 Vaccines

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this article. 

Note: this article was revised on 2/7/2021 at 6:55pm EST; all changes pertained to style, not substance.

Mind Twist (Amonkhet Invocations), by Igor Kieryluk

Sefer ha'Chinuch: On Opposition to COVID-19 Vaccines

Over the past couple of months, I've encountered a number of people who have expressed opposition to the COVID-19 vaccines. Some of these encounters have taken place online with strangers; others have been with real-life acquaintances. Some of these people are anti-vax in general; others are opposed to the COVID-19 vaccines in specific. Some believe that science is on their side; others have expressed distrust in the very enterprise of science. Some limit their skepticism to vaccination but are on board with masks, social distancing, and other COVID-19 precautions; others question or deny the severity of the pandemic as a whole, believing it to be the result of fearmongering fueled by mainstream media, pharmaceutical profiteering, and/or political conspiracies. 

In other words, anti-vaxxers come in many flavors. 

My response to all such arguments ultimately boils down to an analogy stated in the introduction of the Sefer ha'Chinuch:

There was a man whom thousands upon thousands of people adjured not to drink the water of a certain stream, as they saw that water kill those who drank it. They tested this matter a thousand times, at various periods, and with persons from different countries. Yet one wise person, an expert physician, told this man, "Do not believe them all: for I tell you from the vantage point of wisdom that this water is not lethal, because it is pure and swift-running, and the earth over which it passes is good. Drink to your heart's desire." Would it be good for that man to forget the widely known testimony of all and do as this wise person said? Of course it would not be good; an intelligent person would not listen to him nor do as he advised.

First and foremost, it should be noted that the Sefer ha'Chinuch is not criticizing the expert physician for relying on his own mind against mass testimony. One of the core values of Judaism is to rely on one's mind, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. Our founder was Avraham Avinu, whom we laud for his independent thinking and bold intellectual resolve. Our Sages explain that he is called "ha'Ivri" because "the whole world was on one side and he was on the other side" (Bereishis Rabbah 42:8). 

This value of independent thinking isn't limited to our philosophy and our ethics. Our entire system of post-Talmudic halacha is built on the notion that the great halachists will analyze all of the relevant sources and follow the conclusions of their own minds, even if they diverge from the dominant views. 

Rambam beautifully expressed Judaism's epistemological stance when he said: “Truth does not become truer by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” The true thinker knows this and will not be daunted by any opposition, no matter the numbers.

From this standpoint, it is entirely possible that the expert physician in the Sefer ha'Chinuch's analogy is correct. It may be true that thousands of people died when they drank the water, but the testimony of thousands might very well be based on a misinterpretation of what they saw. The history of science is filled with examples of independent thinkers whose persistence in the face of opposition was ultimately vindicated (sometimes after their deaths) and whose theories shattered the old paradigms and became the new. Look no further than Louis Pasteur: his germ theory of disease started out as a minority view and was rejected in favor of the then-popular miasma theory - an explanation that was certainly supported by "observational data" during its reign. (On a related note, I highly recommend reading my article Seltzer Theories vs. Jam Theories for Sigmund Freud's wise take on this phenomenon.)  

So if the lone expert can be right and if this type of intellectual fortitude is a core value in both Judaism and in science, then what is the Sefer ha'Chinuch trying to say? 

The answer, I believe, is that the Sefer ha'Chinuch's analogy is aimed at the layperson. The moral of the story is that the layperson should not follow the advice of a minority view - even from an expert in the field - against the testimony of thousands, especially when the stakes are high. It may be rational for the expert physician to rely on his own knowledge, and it is his prerogative and duty to attempt to convince others of his position, but it would be irrational for the layperson to follow the expert's view in the face of the thousands of deaths suffered by those who drank the water. To construct a hypothetical non-politically charged medical example: if your doctor recommended that you take Vitamin C supplements, but you were aware of thousands upon thousands of people who died shortly after they began their Vitamin C regimen, then it would be irrational to rely on that doctor's recommendation, despite his expertise.

This brings us to a new point which allows us to upgrade the analogy for modern times. We must remember that the Sefer ha'Chinuch was written hundreds of years before the advent of the scientific method. The author's statement about the water being "tested a thousand times" was made before there was such a thing as empirical studies. The reference to "an expert physician" was made before there was dividing line between what we call "hard sciences" and what they called "natural philosophy" (i.e. theorizing about the natural world on the basis of unaided observation and common sense). 

But unlike the Sefer ha'Chinuch, we live in an era of science, and our reliance on prevailing medical research is far superior to the reliance upon the observations of laypeople. 

Let us apply the Sefer ha'Chinuch's analogy to the case at hand. Pfizer's phase III clinical trials involved 44,000 individuals. Moderna's involved 30,000. Oxford-AstraZeneca's involved 23,000. But unlike the "thousands upon thousands" of individual testimonies in the Sefer ha'Chinuch's analogy, these clinical trials were conducted in accordance with the rigorous standards of 21st century science and medicine. I'm referring to the use of randomization, placebos, double-blind studies, precise measurements, thorough collection of data, knowledge of statistics, etc. etc. Not only were these vaccines developed by thousands of experts in their respective fields in accordance with these criteria, but they were also approved of by thousands of additional experts of various other organizations (e.g. CDC, FDA, WHO), not to mention the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of medical practitioners involved in administering the vaccines and countless more medical practitioners who have received the vaccines themselves! In other words, our "thousands upon thousands" are quantitatively AND qualitatively superior to the "thousands upon thousands" in the Sefer ha'Chinuch's analogy. And if we take into consideration the unprecedented worldwide cooperation in the efforts to develop the COVID-19 vaccines, then they even meet the Sefer ha'Chinuch's criterion of being carried out "[by] persons from different countries"! 

To repeat what I said earlier: it is certainly possible that all of these doctors and scientists are wrong; in rare cases it might even be correct to rely on the minority view against the consensus of the field. But none of this undermines the Sefer ha'Chinuch's message that as a general policy, not only is it wrong to rely on a minority expert view in the face of thousands of counter-cases, but it is foolish to do so - and kal va'chomer (even more so) to rely on a minority opinion in the face of the expert consensus.

To translate all of this into binary terms: 
  • If a person had the capacity to evaluate the abundant scientific data regarding the COVID-19 vaccines and opposed them on the basis of their professional knowledge and firsthand analysis, then their oppositional stance would be entirely within reason. Granted, I would hope such an individual would have the intellectual honesty to recognize what it means to go against the prevailing views when the stakes are so high, but I wouldn't hold it against them, nor would their esteem be diminished in my eyes.
  • But if a layperson lacked the requisite expertise to adequately assess the relevant data and nevertheless chose to rely on a handful of cherrypicked findings from experts who disagree with the rest of the scientific community, then such a person is, in my opinion, making an irrational decision. And if their behavior results in harm to others, then their decision is also immoral, and the blood will be on their hands. 
There are three final points I'd like to make. The first pertains to those anti-vax friends and acquaintances of mine whom I regard as thinkers and whose intellect and character I otherwise respect. To my mind, this drives home the point that even the intelligent among us can fall prey to the same mind-twisting patterns of thought which plague the truly mind-twisted. In other words, we are all susceptible to fallacious thinking and cognitive biases. That recognition should give us pause and empathy. This point is underscored by the fact that my friend and I learned this same excerpt from the Sefer ha'Chinuch together this past summer and agreed on our understanding - and yet, it is clear that we did not draw the same implications from what we learned.

The second point is that one can hold irrational positions and still be a rational person. I think it is important to bear this distinction in mind so that we don't write people off entirely on the basis of the one or two or even ten misguided views they hold. That type of wholesale dismissal of intellectual personhood is part of what has torn our country apart during these last five years and gotten us into the mess we're still in. In other words, we must be able to say: "Yes, I have a friend who is opposed to the COVID vaccines. No, that's not okay. They are wrong, and their reasons for being wrong are also wrong, but that doesn't negate their status as a thinker in my mind, nor does it sully our friendship. Many thinkers throughout history have tenaciously clung to 'crazy' views without being crazy themselves." (Of course, one can hold irrational positions and also be an irrational person, but I don't think I need to waste any digital ink by expounding on that point.)

My third and final point is that in the unlikely event that all of these scientists and doctors turn out to be wrong about the COVID-19 vaccines and the anti-vaxxers turns out to be right to resist vaccination, I want to go on record now as saying that it is STILL irrational for these laypeople to have rejected the scientific and medical consensus in favor of fringe theories. You can be right in your conclusions but wrong in how you got there. The religious Biblical literalists who denied science throughout the ages happened to have been right that the universe had a beginning, but their reasons for being right were wrong. 

None of us knows how this will end, but we can bet on at least one thing: critical thinking is key. The lack of critical thinking may or may not have started this whole mess, but it has certainly exacerbated it in numerous ways. May the God Who grants knowledge to man grant knowledge to man.

If you are in need of resources to help combat anti-COVID-19-vaxxers, check out The COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook, which is where I got much of my information. I also recorded a podcast episode entitled A Stoic Perspective on Vaccination for my podcast: The Stoic Jew

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Chanukah 5781: Asking for Miracles on Chanukah

Note: most of my blog posts are written for general audiences, but this one required so much background in halachic practice and terminology that I decided to address it to those who are already familiar. For this reason, I've only translated and explained a small portion of the terms and halachic jargon. Had I attempted to maintain my usual style, the post would be cluttered and distracting.

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this blog post.

Artwork: Candlelight Vigil, by Alexander Forssberg

Chanukah 5781: Asking for Miracles on Chanukah 

Requesting Miracles at the End of Al Ha’Nissim 

On Chanukah we recite the Al ha’Nissim paragraph in the berachos of hodaah (thanksgiving) in the Shemoneh Esrei and Birkas ha’Mazon. The standard text of Al Ha’Nissim found in most Ashkenazic siddurim concludes with the following line: 

And they established these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and to praise Your great name. 

However, there is another version of Al ha’Nissim which concludes in a radically different manner. Here is the conclusion of Al ha’Nissim in the Rambam’s [1] siddur: 

And You made for Yourself a great name in Your world, and for your people Israel you did a wonder and miracles. Just as You did miracles and mighty acts for them, so too, do miracles and mighty acts with us, at this time and season. 

We will henceforth refer to this bakashah (request) with the shorthand phrase k’shem (“just as”). This bakashah will likely seem strange to those who haven’t encountered it before. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the version of Al ha’Nissim with k’shem is more authentic than the version without it. 

The earliest written siddur was compiled by Rav Amram Gaon [2] (9th century). While the version of his siddur we have today is riddled with inaccuracies and later emendations, the Rishonim testify that his siddur included a version of the bakashah of k’shem. Here is what the critical edition of his siddur says: 

And they established these eight days of Chanukah with praise and thanksgiving to Your name. And just as You did a miracle with them, so too, do with us, Hashem our God, miracles and wonders at this time, and we will give thanks to Your great name, Selah. 

Likewise, the siddur of Saadia Gaon [3] (10th century) includes a version of the bakashah

And they established eight days of praise and thanksgiving to Your name. And just as You did miracles for the earlier [generations], so too, do [miracles] for the later [generations], and save us in these days like [You did] in those days. 

Indeed, it appears that the bakashah of k’shem dates back at least to the time that the “minor tractate” of Masechet Soferim was composed (estimated to be in the 8th century), as can be seen in 20:7: 

We say in [the berachah of] Thanksgiving: “and thanks for the wonders and salvation of Your Kohanim which You have wrought in the days of Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol, and the Chashmonaim, his sons. So too, do with us, Hashem our God and the God of our forefathers, miracles and wonders, and we will give thanks to Your name forever. 

The bakashah also appears in the writings of the majority of those Rishonim who recorded their views on the proper nusach ha’tefilah, such as the Machzor Vitry, Abudirham, Ri Bar Yakar, Rokeach, and Kol Bo. It is also found in the nuschaos of many other ancient communities around the globe, such as Yemen, Castile, Persia, Aram Zobah, and Rome. 

Not only is the inclusion of this bakashah rooted in the most authentic and authoritative versions of the nusach ha’tefilah, but it is also sanctioned by the leading halachic authorities followed by many Ashkenazic Jews today. Rav Yosef Karo [4], author of the Beit Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch, rules in both of his works that one may include this bakashah if one so desires, and the Rema [5], the leading halachic authority for Ashkenazim, does not dispute his ruling. The Mishnah Berurah [6] cites the Beit Yosef’s psak without providing any dissenting views from later Achronim. The Aruch ha’Shulchan [7] the inclusion of k’shem, saying that it was the custom in his community to say it. 

Considering the fact that the bakashah of k’shem enjoys the support of the majority of halachic authorities and likely reflects the original nusach ha’tefilah established by the Anshei Kneses ha’Gedolah, one must wonder: Why don't Ashkenazim say it? What does the opposition say?

The Leaders of the Opposition 

One of the earliest arguments against the inclusion of k’shem is advanced by the Maharam of Rothenberg [8] and the Sefer ha’Manhig [9] who write that one shouldn’t say it because “there shouldn’t be tefilah (i.e. requests) in hodaah (thanksgiving).” The middle berachos of the Shemoneh Esrei are the appropriate place for requests, but Modim is reserved for giving thanks, as the Gemara in Berachos 34a states: 

Rav Yehuda said: A person should never ask for his needs in the first three or the last three [berachos], but in the middle [berachos], for Rebbi Chanina said: the first three [berachos] are like a servant who arranges praises before his master, the middle [berachos] are like a servant who asks for a portion from his master, and the last three [berachos] are like a servant who has received a gift from his master and excuses himself and goes on his way. 

This line of reasoning is roundly attacked, both by those who disagree with their conclusion and even by those who agree. The Abudirham [10], who holds we should include k’shem, writes that “since it is for the needs of the many, one can say it.” He cites numerous examples where we do this: adding “u’khesov l’chayim tovim etc.” (“inscribe us for good life”) during the Aseres Ymei Teshuvah, incorporating “kein yegieinu etc.” (“so bring us”) into the blessing of hodaah at the end of the Magid section of the Haggadah, saying “kein techayeinu etc.” (“so bring us life”) in Modim de’Rabbanan. This same counterargument is echoed by the Meiri [11] who adds that “since the principal portion is hodaah, a little tefilah can’t hurt.” 

The Baalei Tosafos (Megilah 4a) are much harsher in voicing this same counterargument: 

There are those who don’t say k’shem because the Sages said, “a person may not ask for his needs in the first three or the last three berachos.” This is foolishness, since that reasoning only applies to someone who formulates an individual request, but anything on behalf of the community is permissible. 

They then go on to provide their own reasoning for not including k’shem

Rather, it seems that one shouldn’t say it because of another reason: since the Sages said (Pesachim 117b [12]) that everything pertaining to the future was established to be said [in reference to] the future, but hodaah pertains to the past, and [it is] because of this they established that Al ha’Nissim in [hodaah], which is about the past. 

The Tur mentions that some include the bakashah and some don’t. He cites the reason given by the Maharam and the Sefer ha’Manhig and the counterargument given by the Abudirham and the Meiri. After noting that Rav Amram’s siddur has it, the Tur says that his father, the Rosh, would not say it. 

It seems it is because of this small but influential band of Ashkenazic dissenters that most Ashkenazic siddurim did not end up including the bakashah, despite it being the majority view among the Rishonim. This may be regarded as another Chanukah-themed instance of “the many [being delivered] into the hands of the few.” 

Understanding the Disagreement 

What are we to make of this machlokess? The majority side has a strong counterargument. How can the Maharam and Manhig insist that Modim is not a place for this bakashah when there are so many exceptions to the rule, especially the seasonal bakashah of u’khesov l’chayim tovim? How can the Baalei Tosafos insist that k’shem has no place in Modim simply because the bakashah is about the future and Modim is about the past? And even though it is reasonable to assume that it is correct to include the bakashah of k’shem, the question is: Why was it instituted in the first place? Why are we asking Hashem to perform miracles for us as He did for them? Furthermore, how do we have the right to make such a request? 

Let us start with the Maharam and the Manhig. The Gemara’s analogy about the servant and master makes it easy to understand why inserting a bakashah into Modim would be inappropriate: it would constitute a pgam (blemish) in the act of hodaah. You should ask your master for something during the time when it is customary to ask your master for things, not during the time when you are supposed to be thanking him. In fact, if a servant did slip a request into his thanks, that might even throw the thanksgiving into question, making it seem like he had an alternative motive. (Think back to the last time someone gave you profusive thanks, then immediately asked you for a favor.) 

What about the exceptions to this “no bakashah during hodaah” rule mentioned by the Abudirham? Two of the exceptions – namely, the bakashah at the conclusion of Magid and the bakashah in Modim de’Rabbanan – are easy to dismiss on the basis that the restriction against adding a bakashah to hodaah applies specifically to modifying Modim in one’s actual Shemoneh Esrei. The difficult exception is u’kheskov l’chayim tovim. Perhaps the answer is that whereas k’shem is a bakashah for a specific good (i.e. miracles at this time), u’khesov is a bakashah for life itself. Such an essential request would not be a violation of protocol in the servant/master relationship because the very existence of the servant/master relationship depends upon the servant staying alive. Thus, it is not a problem for us to interrupt Modim by throwing ourselves at the mercy of our Master and asking Him to grant us life. It can even be argued that such a request is an expression of the hodaah we give him at the beginning of Modim when we refer to Him as the “Rock of our lives, shield of our salvation” and thank Him for “our lives, which are in Your hand, and our souls which are entrusted to You.” 

The Baalei Tosafos don’t care about the fact that k’shem is a bakashah, since they hold that only personal bakashos shouldn’t be added into Modim. All they care about is that “hodaah pertains to the past, and because of this they established that Al ha’Nissim in it, which is about the past,” whereas the bakashah of k’shem is about the future. At first glance, this sounds like irrelevant quibbling about tenses. Who cares that k’shem is about the future? 

In truth, I believe their objection is not about past versus future at all. Modim is about hodaah in general. Al ha’Nissim is about hodaah on a particular event. Thus, even though Al ha’Nissim deviates from the general theme of the berachah, it is still on topic insofar as it is still an expression of thanksgiving. But if within the added hodaah on a particular topic we also add a particular bakashah pertaining to the future – that would be too far removed from the theme of Modim, and would therefore be inappropriate. Imagine someone giving you a general account about their happy childhood. If in the midst of this account they segued into a nostalgic story about a pet dog they had growing up, you might regard this as a tangent, but you’ll still feel like it’s part of the conversation. But imagine if they conclude this story by asking you to come to the pet store with them later on this week to help them pick out a dog for their own child. You’d probably react by thinking: “Wait, what? I thought we were talking about your childhood!” A footnote with additional information? That’s fine. A non-informational footnote on an informational footnote introduces a completely new element? That’s too far afield. 

This leave us with our question on the majority view: Why are we asking Hashem to do miracles for us? Since when do we ask Hashem for miracles in tefilah? And why “at this time and season”? 

I believe the answer lies in an understanding of a fundamental theme of Chanukah. The Rambam [13] opens his discussion of Chanukah with the following: 

During the era of the second Beis ha’Mikdash, during the era of Malchus Yavan (the political sovereignty of Greece), they made decrees against Israel, abolished their religion, and did not allow them to be involved in Torah and mitzvos; the Greeks stretched forth their hands into Israel’s money and women; they entered into the Sanctuary, breached barriers, and rendered the pure impure; they caused Israel great distress and oppressed them exceedingly – until the God of our fathers had mercy on them and saved them from their hands. The Chashmonaim, the great Kohanim, overpowered them and killed them, and saved Israel from their hand. They appointed a melech (king) from the Kohanim, and the malchus (political sovereignty) returned to Israel for over 200 years until the destruction of the second Beis ha’Mikdash. 

It might look like the Rambam is just giving us some factual historical background to Chanukah, without engaging in any homiletics. However, take a look at the Rambam’s [14] very first description of Yemos ha’Moshiach (the Messianic Era) in the Mishneh Torah, in Hilchos Teshuvah: 

Because of this, all the Prophets and Wise Men of Israel desired the era of the Melech ha'Moshiach, so that they can gain relief from the evil malchus which does not allow them to be involved in Torah and mitzvos properly, so that they can find tranquility and increase their wisdom and merit life in Olam ha'Ba

In those days [of the Melech ha'Moshiach] there will be an increase of knowledge, wisdom, and truth, as it is stated, "For the entire world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem" (Yeshaya 11:9)Yemos ha'Moshiach is Olam ha'Zeh, and the world will continue in its natural order - except that the malchus will return to Israel. The Early Sages said: "The only difference between Olam ha'Zeh and Yemos ha'Moshiach is shibude malchiyos (our subjugation to foreign political sovereignty) alone." 

The parallels are clear. During the events of Chanukah we were subjugated to a malchus which didn’t allow us to keep Torah and mitzvos properly, and which cut us off from the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and truth. That malchus was uprooted and Malchus Yisrael (Jewish Sovereignty) was restored, granting us the opportunity to flourish in Torah once again … that is, until we lost our malchus again and our current exile began. In our current exile we find ourselves subjugated to a malchus which doesn’t allow us to keep Torah and mitzvos properly. This political subjugation, according to the Rambam, is the only difference between the current era and Yemos ha’Moshiach. One day the obstructive malchus will be uprooted and Malchus Yisrael will be restored permanently, enabling us to flourish in Torah like never before. 

In light of this, the appropriateness of k’shem is clear: by asking Hashem to save us as He saved them, we are acknowledging that the Chanukah salvation was not standalone event, but rather, was one step on the journey towards the ultimate redemption – a journey we are still on, and have been on for the nearly 2000 years since the Chanukah story ended. In fact, our inclusion of the bakashah of k’shem serves a dual role: (a) it contextualizes the events of Chanukah within the arc of Jewish history, stretching from the past through the present and into the future, thereby achieving the objective of pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle) by highlighting the fact that the Chanukah redemption was incomplete and has yet to reach its culmination; (b) the bakashah is a natural extension of the hakaras ha’tov (recognition of the good) central to Modim: our recognition of the true good of the Chanukah salvation moves us to ask Hashem to bring about the full version of that good in our lifetimes. 

To sum it up: 
- the Maharam and Sefer ha’Manhig object to including bakashah in hodaah because it’s a pgam in the hodaah (unless it’s a bakashah for life itself, which is the very premise of the hodaah
- the Baalei Tosafos object to this bakashah because its fundamentally different character, in content and tense, renders it too “off-script” to blend into the hodaah established by the Sages 
- everyone else holds that the bakashah is appropriate because it contextualizes what we’re thanking Hashem for and underscores our yearning for that good to come to fruition 

That’s all I’ve got! If you have a different or sharper explanation, I’m all ears! 

Asking for a Miracle on Chanukah 5781/2020 

As I mentioned before, the Shulchan Aruch, Rema, Mishnah Berurah, and Aruch ha’Shulchan all hold that a person may insert this bakashah if they so choose. I don’t know about you, but this year more than ever I think we are in need of miracles. If the poskim say it’s okay to insert k’shem, then it’s something we should at least consider. 

If you’re bothered by the audacity of asking Hashem to do miracles for us, considering His conservative stance on miracles and our assumed lack of merit, I’d like to quote from the commentary of the Bechor Shor [15] who addresses the question of whether we have the right to ask for a miracle in tefilah

Certainly an individual may not daven for a [personal] miracle, for who is to say that he is worthy? But if he davens that a miracle should be done on behalf of the many – like in the liturgy: “May the Merciful One do miracles for us” – then this is fine. Likewise, all the texts in the piyyutim (liturgical poems) which mention that we daven for a miracle – all of them are in the plural … 

Furthermore, we must differentiate between miracles that are done in a natural manner – such as the wars of the Chashmonaim, which were miracles done in a natural manner – which is not the case regarding the transformation of a female into a male [as described in the Gemara Berachos 60a in which Leah asked that the baby she was carrying be transformed from a male into a female], which is a miracle not done in a natural manner at all. [To daven for a miracle] like that would be a tefilas shav (a prayer in vain). [Therefore,] one must be careful not to daven that a miracle be done for him which is outside of the natural manner

According to the Bechor Shor, there are clear limitations on what types of miracles we may daven for. However, if we daven for miracles which (a) are not personal, but are “for the many,” and (b) are “hidden miracles” rather than supernatural miracles which overtly violate the laws of nature, then such a bakashah would be acceptable. And guess what makes a great paradigm for that category? The miracle of “the wars of the Chashmonaim” in the events of Chanukah! Perhaps this is why the Rambam’s version of Al ha’Nissim doesn’t mention the miracle of the oil, but only the miracle of the war: when, according to the Rambam, we say “just as You did miracles and mighty acts for them, so too, do miracles and mighty acts with us at this time and season,” we are asking Hashem to do non-supernatural miracles for the sake of the Jewish people at large – not supernatural miracles for our own personal benefit. 

When we look around us at all the suffering we have witnessed and experienced in 2020, there is ample need for non-supernatural miracles to help the public: miracles to bring a swift end to the pandemic, whether through expediency in science and technology or by other means; miracles to help the economy; miracles to minimize to minimize the damage being done by the government and its politicians; miracles to unite this fractured country; miracles to assure Israel’s safety in the face of shifting world powers; miracles to help us learn from the many mistakes made by so many people this year. It is miracles like these which are worth davening for at this time and in this season. 

But if we choose to insert the bakashah of k’shem, we must remember that the miraculous solutions we yearn for are a means to a very specific end: so that we can be involved in the good for its own sake, which is “an increase of knowledge, wisdom, and truth,” which will lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy: "For the entire world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem.” 

Just as Hashem did miracles and mighty acts for them, so too, may He do miracles and mighty acts with us, at this time and season. Have a happy and healthy Chanukah! 

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Ahavah, Sidur ha’Tefilah 
[2] Amram Gaon: Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Seder Chanukah (Haparnas, 1984) 
[3] Saadia Gaon: Sidur Rav Saadia Gaon (Reuven Mass) 
[4] Rav Yosef Karo: Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 682:6; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 682:3 
[5] Rav Moshe Isserless: Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 682:3 
[6] Rav Yisroel Meir ha’Kohen Kagan: Mishnah Berurah 682:8 
[7] Rav Yechiel Michel Ha’Levi Epstein: Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 682:2 
[8] Rabbeinu Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg: Tshuvos, Psakim, u’Minhagim Chelek 1 Siman 612 
[9] Rabbeinu Avraham ben Nosson: Sefer ha’Manhig, Hilchos Megilah p.247 
[10] Rabbeinu David ben Yosef: Abudirham, Commentary on Al ha’Nissim 
[11] Rabbeinu Menachem ha’Meiri: Beis ha’Bechirah, Berachos 34a 
[12] The citation of Pesachim 117b is printed in the standard Tosafos, but I couldn’t find this exact quotation. Abraham Katz, in the Facebook group Passages of Rite: Exploring the History of Nusach Hatefilah, says that Tosafos is paraphrasing the Talmud Yerushalmi in Berachos (Perek 4 Daf 8 Line 1) which says: “Anything which [pertains to that which is] to come should be said in [the berachah of] Avodah, and anything which [pertains] to the past should be said in [the berachah of] Hodaah. And the mishnah said: 'one should give thanks for the past and cry out [in supplication] about the future.'" I subsequently took another look at Pesachim 117b and realized that the Gemara is dealing with particular differences in tense: “gaal Yisroel” vs. “goel Yisrael” and “kideshanu b’mitzvosecha” and “kadsheinu b’mitzvosecha.” Perhaps Tosafos is just drawing a universal principle from the cases mentioned there. The Meiri certainly seems to think so. To my mind, this weakens the argument of the Baalei Tosafos here, since those who include k’shem are not changing the text of Al ha’Nissim established by Chazal by adding the bakashah, but rather, they’re claiming that this bakashah was established by Chazal from the get-go. 
[13] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Zmanim, Hilchos Chanukah 3:1 
[14] ibid. Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha’Mada, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:2 
[15] Rabbeinu Yosef ben Yitzchak (Bechor Shor), Commentary on Talmud Bavli Maseches Shabbos 21a

Friday, October 9, 2020

Shemini Atzeres 5781: The Festival of Holding On

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Artwork: Secluded Steppe, by Noah Bradley

Shemini Atzeres 5781: The Festival of Holding On

The thematic identity of Shemini Atzeres is obscure for a number of reasons, among them: 

(1) “Shemini” (“eighth”) indicates that this is the eighth day of the seven-day Chag ha’Sukkos, and would therefore share in its themes. This supposition is reinforced by the fact that we refer to both moadim (holidays) as “zman simchaseinu” (“the time of our rejoicing”). Halachically, however, Shemini Atzeres is regarded as a chag bifnei atzmo (its own independent festival), which suggests – or at least leaves open the possibility – that it has its own thematic identity, separate from that of Sukkos. 

(2) The word “Atzeres” is subject to a number of different translations, including “assembly,”[1] “detainment,”[2] “refraining,”[3] “lordship”[4] and more. Unlike “Pesach” and “Sukkos,” it is difficult to deduce the theme of this holiday from its name.

(3) This problem is compounded by the fact that the seventh day of Pesach is also called “Atzeres” in the Torah. What relationship does it have to Shemini Atzeres, if any? [5]

(4) The other Regalim (Pilgrimage Festivals) each have their own mitzvos which reflect their themes. In contrast, Shemini Atzeres has no special mitzvos associated with its observance.

(5) There are few clues provided in the text of the Written Torah to help us figure out what it is that we are celebrating, other than the cryptic, “It shall be an atzeres for you” (Vayikra 23:36).

In his commentary on that phrase, Rashi [6] offers an explanation based on a midrash [7]:

“it is an atzeres” (lit. “a holding-back”) [means] “I have held you back with Me,” like a king who invited his children to a [festive] meal for a certain number of days, and when it was time for them to depart, he said, “My children, please stay with me one more day, for our parting is difficult for me.”

It would appear that Rashi is doing more than just weighing in on the translation of “atzeres” as “a holding-back.” It would seem that the midrash he cites sheds light on the theme of Shemini Atzeres, namely, that it represents an effort on the part of Hashem to “hold back” His children (as it were), because He finds our departure difficult. Obviously, this is intended to be understood allegorically. The question is: What is the meaning of the allegory?

Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg [8] cites Rashi and explains the import of the allegory:

In this manner we can also say that from our perspective the last Yom Tov of Pesach and of Sukkos are called “atzeres,” meaning “being held back,” [referring to] the difficulty of separation on account of all the precious lessons we have acquired in our souls through Hashem’s moadim and the preparation for sanctity that we have attained through them – because it is only for this reason that they are called “Mikraei Kodesh,” as we have explained above. [We ask that these lessons] be “held back” with us, and remain with us even after the conclusion of the festival, and regarding these spiritual lessons which we have internalized over the days of the festival, that we not abandon them when the moed ends. 

According to Rav Mecklenburg, Hashem’s reluctance to part ways with His children is a metaphor for our reluctance to part ways with the moadim, and all the lessons and sanctity we have gained through their observance, for it is these perfections that have brought us “close” to Hashem during these designated times of sanctity.

Strictly speaking, the cycle of moadim should end with Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of chol ha’moed Sukkos. If that were the case, however, we would be at risk of returning to our normal non-Moadim life and losing all of the gains we had made along the way. 

To counteract this eventuality, Hashem established the “extra” moed of Shemini Atzeres – endowed with its own kedushah (sanctity), but without its own mitzvos or independent themes – as an opportunity to reflect on the insights we have gleaned over the course of all the moadim, and to face the fact that unless we take care to “hold on” to what we have gained, we will be in danger of slipping back into the same mindset and habits we had before being enlightened and transformed by the moadim

At the end of his comments here Rav Mecklenburg refers the reader to his commentary on Parashas Pinchas [9] where he elaborates on the purpose of the moadim in general and the connection to the role of Shemini Atzeres:

According to all of the explanations [listed above] it is necessary to clarify why the Torah singles out the last day [of Pesach and Sukkos] by the name “atzeres.” [The answer,] it seems, is that the Torah nicknamed it this in order to teach us something of tremendous benefit, namely, that since people’s desires for temporal acquisitions are very powerful, and the labor for them weighs heavily upon them, and the more one increases them the more he diminishes eternal acquisitions, therefore it was the goal of the God-given Torah to free people from this great servitude which has no benefit and to exchange it for the kabbalas malchus shamayim (the acceptance of heavenly kingship). [10]

For this reason [the Torah] established the Moadei Hashem which, according to their straightforward objective, is to provide us with a great motivation not to be excessively involved in transitory possessions, but only to the extent that is necessary, and to only strive to acquire them except insofar as we need, and only in accordance with the avodah commanded in the God-given Torah, in order to give our souls success in the eternal world. 

For this reason they are called “Moadei Hashem,” meaning “designated times for godly matters,” far removed from the various types of striving for temporal possessions. These times designated exclusively for avodas Hashem (divine service) will make a great impression upon our souls, enabling us to acquire a firm disposition to reject excess worldly possessions in order that our striving after them during the days of the week will not be for their own sake, but for the benefit which results from them in attaining the true and eternal purpose. 

Therefore these moadim are also called by the name “Mikraei Kodesh” (lit. “Holy Convocations”) the intent of which – as we explained in Emor – is [to convey] “preparation and readying for sanctity,” in reference to the precious lessons that are alluded to [in the Moadim] in order to motivate us to separate ourselves from the excesses of this world and from striving after temporal possessions; our preparedness for sanctity in the moadei Hashem will serve as a great [precautionary] fence and a universal remedy for the time period which follows after the moed, when we return to matters of material involvement, so that we don’t deviate through them from the path that is proper for an elevated person, and that we direct all of our activities and movements exclusively towards a sublime purpose, to the extent that our necessary involvement in This World for our material bodies is only in order to draw its existence towards the true perfection of serving its Creator, or to that which is instrumental in His service. 

In order [to ensure] that this desirable purpose remains after the festival is over, clinging to holy thoughts that we have acquired during the days of the moed, without distancing them from our souls upon the completion of the moed, but they should be “held back” with us with all the powers of our souls for the upcoming time period – it is for this reason the last day of Pesach and Sukkos is called by the name “atzeres” (the “Festival of Holding On” [11]), that is to say, a day on which we strengthen ourselves with all of our might to seize with our souls the precious lessons we have internalized for all the days of the festival, and to not abandon them with the conclusion of the festival, but to retain them with us and to bring the preparedness for sanctity of the days of the festival from potentiality to actuality in the days of work that will follow after the festival.

According to Rav Mecklenberg, the general purpose of the Moadim – aside from the specific themes of each moed – is to properly frame our involvement in material acquisitions, recognizing that these possessions are only temporary, and that the more we strive after them, the more we forfeit our true success, which is eternal. The six-month period of time after the cycle of moadim, from the end of Tishrei until the middle of Nisan, poses a unique threat. During this time we are exclusively occupied with the day-to-day labor of acquiring our material needs. There is a real danger that the impact of the Moadim will wear off. To counteract this we were given the final chag of Shemini Atzeres to ready ourselves for the metaphysical winter that will soon follow. [12]

I think it’s safe to say for most (if not all) of us, the cycle of moadim this year – the year of COVID-19 – has resulted in a unique set of transformational insights. Our Pesach, our Shavuos, and our Sukkos this year have been different from all other years. [13] At each point along the way, we have experienced highs and lows. We have learned things about each other and about ourselves, as individuals, as a nation, and as a species. The insights generated by the plague have intermingled with the insights embedded in the moadim and their mitzvos, resulting in new perspectives that might otherwise never have been brought to mind. And the winter we will soon face may be one of the darkest in our lifetimes. 

On this Shemini Atzeres, the “Festival of Holding On,” we will have the opportunity to contemplate the personal growth we have undergone in these past seven months and to ready ourselves for the months to follow. This will be a Yom Tov, a time to have simchah (joy) in our material and metaphysical portion. But as Shlomo ha’Melech said, “let him rejoice in all of them, but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many” (Koheles 11:8). We must not content ourselves with the illusion that the clarity we have gained from the moadim of the year of COVID-19 will remain with us. If we wish to retain what our souls have acquired, then it is in our best interest to use this final chag to reflect, to mobilize, and to strategize ways to hold on to this year’s life lessons. Because if not now, then when? When we are in the throes of this coming year, with all its uncertainties? “Give portions to seven, and also to eight, for you never know what calamity will strike the land” (Koheles 11:2). Do not content yourself with having made progress through these past seven months. Secure what you have gained by using Atzeres of the Eighth for its intended purpose, for you never know what this year may bring. 

I wish us all a chag sameach – one through which we may hold on to what we have gained this year.

End Notes
[1] cited but rejected by Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23:36 
[2] Rav Ovadiah Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23:36 
[3] Rabbeinu Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23:36 
[4] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23:36 
[5] Shavuos is also called “Atzeres,” but only by the Rabbis – not in the Torah itself. 
[6]  Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 23:36 
[7] This midrash is supposedly from Vayikra Rabbah, but I couldn’t seem to track it down. 
[8]  Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, Ha’Kesav ve’ha’Kabbalah on Sefer Vayikra 23:36 
[9]  ibid. Sefer Bamidbar 29:35, with my own paragraph breaks for clarity 
[10] I cannot help but associate to one of my favorite of Thoreau’s quips in Walden: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” 
[11] This was our best guess at Rav Mecklenburg’s Hebrew-transliterated-into-German phrase אנהאלטספעסט"." 
[12] According to this explanation, why is the seventh day of Pesach also called “Atzeres” when it will not be followed by such a long period of non-kedushah? Perhaps because Pesach is the beginning of the harvest season – a time when we will be preoccupied with material success in a different way. There is a danger that all of the spiritual growth we underwent as a result of the Chag ha’Matzos will be overridden by the stresses and exertions of the harvest season. Although not as great of a threat as the long winter, it is enough that the Torah had to establish an Atzeres specific to the Chag ha’Matzos. 
[13] Rabbinically speaking, the themes of Pesach begin a month earlier, at Purim – and we certainly remember how Purim this year was the real turning point in our lives.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Meditations on Rosh ha'Shanah 5781: The Meaning of "Shanah Tovah"

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Meditations on Rosh ha'Shanah 5781: The Meaning of "Shanah Tovah"

When I think back to the headspace I was in last Erev Rosh ha'Shanah, I am shocked by the level of unfounded certainty I had about how the year would play out. Obviously, I didn't think I'd be able to predict the particulars of the upcoming year, but I was so secure in my ability to predict its general parameters that I wasn't even aware of my own baseless assumptions. 

For example, I wondered, "How many new Shalhevet students will we be able to recruit in the upcoming year?" Never once did it occur to me that the school would close permanently. I wondered, "How successful will I be in preparing my AP English students for the exam in the spring?" Never once did I imagine that all of my students would be taking their drastically modified exam from home, after two months of stressful and disruptive preparation over Zoom. I wondered, "How will my personal and professional development this year improve my practices as a high school teacher next year?" Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would no longer be a high school teacher in 2020-2021.

The pandemic's telescoping effect on my ability to see into the future has been humbling, to say the least. The fact that we can't even see a week or two into the future has made me realize the folly of trying to predict what will happen later in the year. It has become increasingly real to me what ought to have been real all along: the fact that the future is unknowable.

Because of this fundamental shift in perspective, I find myself in a much better position to appreciate the reality of the Yom ha'Din (Judgment Day) we are about to experience. In the Zichronos part of the Mussaf of Rosh ha'Shanah we say: "and over countries [judgment] is pronounced, which of them is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for famine and which for abundance, and on it, creatures are recalled, to be remembered for life or for death." In past years statements like these seemed like hyperbolic abstractions, but this year they are more real than ever. The same is true of the mentality Chazal urged us to have, that our individual and collective fate is "hanging in the balance," awaiting the verdict of the Dayan ha'Emes (True Judge).

Speaking of Judgment Day, I find myself recalling the maxim that a certain single mother used to say to her son throughout his upbringing: "There is no fate but what we make." On its surface, this aphorism underscores the primacy of bechirah (free will) and its role in determining what happens in our lives. When I thought about this statement this morning, my reaction was, "That's not entirely true! Yes, our choices play a role in shaping our fate, but so much of our fate is determined by factors beyond our control! Our lives are a product of our own decisions and external factors!"

But then my thinking shifted back to the words of Shlomo ha'Melech, the Rambam, the Stoic thinkers, and others whose writings I've been pondering lately, and I was reminded that we live a dual life. One is life as a human being who lives in the world of ideas; the other is life as a physical creature living in a physical world. Regarding this physical life it would not be true to say, "There is no fate but what we make," but regarding our metaphysical existence as a tzelem Elokim (truth-seeking intellect), the statement is 100% true (regardless of whether this is what Ms. Connor had in mind when she said it).

Chazal teach: "Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven" (Berachos 33b). The Rambam (Responsa #436) explains that the phrase "fear of heaven" in this context refers to all of our free will decisions, insofar as all decisions culminate in either mitzvah or aveirah (transgression). Thus, while all of our other circumstances may be "in the hands of heaven," our "fear of Hashem" - that is, our life as a decision-making tzelem Elokim - is entirely in our own hands. No matter what unforeseen circumstances we find ourselves in, we always have the ability to choose between mitzvah and aveirah, wisdom and folly, good and evil, truth and falsehood.

And that, I believe, sheds a new light on the uncertainty of the upcoming year. The circumstances which will determine the trajectory of our physical lives this coming year are unknowable and unpredictable, but the factors which will determine our true lives are fully within our control. I find that thought to be both tremendously reassuring and terribly frightening. It means that no matter what happens to us this year, our fate as human beings is still in our own hands. "There is no fate but what we make."

The Rambam, in his commentary on Rosh ha'Shanah Perek 1 Mishnah 2, explains that the judgment of Rosh ha'Shanah and Yom ha'Kippurim determines things like health, sickness, life, death, and the other circumstances of our physical lives. In light of the foregoing observations, I believe we can reframe what we mean when we daven for, yearn for, and wish each other a "shanah tovah." We can't be asking for a year characterized by the true good - a year of choosing the good - since that good is dependent entirely on each of our own choices. Rather, I believe we are asking Hashem to bless us with external circumstances which are conducive to choosing the good, for it is far easier to make good choices when we enjoy health, security, livelihood, and the other physical blessings. What we do with these blessings is up to us, but we are entirely dependent on Hashem for furnishing the circumstances which facilitate our good choices.

And so, with that meaning in mind, I would like to wish all of us - you, me, the Jewish people, and all of mankind - a "shanah tovah."

Friday, September 4, 2020

Ki Savo: The Accursed Transgressors

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Artwork: Curse of Exhaustion, by Slawomir Maniak

Ki Savo: The Accursed Transgressors 
- by Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss 

In Parashas Ki Savo Moshe commands the entire Jewish people, upon entering the Land of Israel, to gather on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival. He instructs the Leviim to proclaim a series of curses, to which the entire people responds, “Amen.” These curses are directed at twelve categories of transgressors: [1]
  1. one who makes an idol and emplaces it in secret 
  2. one who degrades his father and mother 
  3. one who moves the boundary of his fellow 
  4. one who causes a blind person to go astray on the road (i.e. someone who intentionally misleads his fellow by giving him harmful advice) 
  5. one who perverts the judgment of a convert, an orphan, or a widow 
  6. one who lies with his father’s wife 
  7. one who lies with an animal 
  8. one who lies with his sister 
  9. one who lies with his mother-in-law 
  10. one who strikes his fellow in secret 
  11. one who takes a bribe to kill a person of innocent blood 
  12. one who will not uphold the words of the Torah, to do them 
There are two major questions here: (1) What do all of these transgressions have in common? (2) What makes these transgressions more deserving of Hashem’s curse than others? 

Most Rishonim [2] (medieval commentators) give more or less the answer to our first question: these twelve transgressions are all commonly done in secret. Rashbam [3] adds that the only two transgressions listed which are not always done in secret are making an idol and striking one’s fellow. This is why the Torah needs to specify “in secret” in both of these cases. 

This answer to our first question holds the key to answering our second question. What makes a “secret transgression” more deserving of a curse than an open transgression? The answer can be found in a Mishnah: “Anyone who does not have mercy on the glory of his Creator – it would be better for him not to have come into the world.” [4] The Gemara explains: “To whom does this refer? – to one who commits an aveirah (transgression) in secret.” [5] Rambam [6] clarifies the meaning of the cryptic phrase “anyone who does not have mercy on the glory of his Creator”: 

Consider the wondrous expression, which was said with the help of God, “anyone who does not have mercy on the glory of his Creator” – this refers to someone who has no mercy on his intellect, for the intellect is the “glory of Hashem.” The intent of the Sages is that such a person does not recognize the value of this intellect which was given to him, for behold, he forfeits it into the hands of his emotions and becomes like an animal. This is what our Sages meant when they said, “What does it mean by, ‘one who does not have mercy on the glory of his Creator’? – this refers to one who transgresses in secret,” and as they say in another place, “Adulterers do not commit adultery until they are invaded by a spirit of stupidity,” [7] and the matter is true, for at the moment of the emotion – whichever emotion it will be – the intellect is incomplete

Based on these statements of Chazal, in light of the Rambam’s explanation, we can answer our second question as follows: the reason why secret transgressors are especially “curse-worthy” is because their aveiros involve a greater corruption of the intellect than the aveiros of public transgressors. When a person transgresses in secret, this reinforces the false notion that Hashem doesn’t know what we are doing, or has no dominion over our actions. Yeshayahu ha’navi condemns this mentality, saying: “Woe to those who try to hide in depths to conceal counsel from Hashem, and their deeds are done in darkness; they say, ‘Who sees us and who knows of us?’” (Yeshayahu 29:15). 

Rashbam [8] takes an entirely different approach, based on a pasuk (verse) in Parashas Nitzavim: “The hidden [sins] are for Hashem, our God, but the revealed [sins] are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah” (Devarim 29:28). Rashbam explains that it was only necessary for Hashem to curse these “secret transgressors” because they are beyond the reach of the human courts. In other words, the laws of the Torah are enforced by punishments. These punishments are meted out through a “division of labor,” so to speak: Beis Din (the court) is in charge of penalizing the public transgressors for their “revealed sins” via the punishments entrusted to them by the Torah (i.e. stoning, burning, beheading, strangulation, and lashes), whereas the penalizing of the secret transgressors for their “hidden sins” is in the hands of Hashem. 

According to the Rashbam’s approach, it’s not that these secret transgressions are more deserving of Hashem’s curses than public transgressions. Rather, it was necessary for Hashem to curse these secret transgressors for practical reasons – since there would be no other way to enforce these violations. In other words, if Beis Din could punish these secret transgressions, there would have been no need for these curses altogether. 

Whether one prefers the explanation based on Chazal in the Gemara or the explanation of the Rashbam, the bottom line message is clear: Hashem is the Chacham ha’Razim (Knower of Secrets), [9] and “God will judge every deed – even everything hidden – whether good or evil” (Koheles 12:14). 

End Notes
[1] Sefer Devarim 27:14-26 
[2] see Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Baalei Tosafos, Chazkuni, Rosh, and others 
[3] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:15 
[4] Mishnah, Chagigah 2:1 
[5] Talmud Bavli, Maseches Chagigah 16a; Kiddushin 40a 
[6] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Commentary on the Mishnah, Chagigah 2:1 
[7] Tanchuma: Nasso 5 
[8] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:15 and 2:28 
[9] Phrase borrowed from the berachah which is recited upon seeing 600,000 Jews gathered in one place.