Friday, July 31, 2015

Parashas Vaeschanan: Testing God

Parashas Vaeschanan: Testing God

One of the many mitzvos which are presented in this week's parashah is the mitzvah of "lo tenasu es Hashem" ("do not test Hashem"). This mitzvah is introduced in its own little paragraph:
You shall not test Hashem, your God, as you tested Him at Massah. You shall surely observe the commandments of Hashem, your God, and His testimonies and His decrees that He commanded you. You shall do what is fair and good in the eyes of Hashem, so that it will be good for you, and you shall come and possess the good Land that Hashem swore to your forefathers, to thrust away all your enemies from before you, as Hashem spoke (Devarim 6:16-19)
These pesukim raise two questions:
  1. Practically speaking, what is this mitzvah commanding us not to do? What does it mean to "test Hashem, as you tested Him at Massah"?
  2. What does the rest of this paragraph have to do with testing Hashem? The paragraph begins with an injunction against testing Hashem, but continues with (what seems to be) typical Devarim-themed statements, urging Bnei Yisrael to keep the mitzvos and assuring them that He will take them to the Promised Land.
Thankfully, it is easy to figure out where we should begin: the incident at Massah:
The entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael journeyed from the Wilderness of Sin to their journeys, according to the word of Hashem. They encamped in Rephidim and there was no water for the people to drink. The people contended with Moshe and they said, "Give us water that we may drink!" Moshe said to them, "Why do you contend with me? Why do you test Hashem?" The people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moshe, and it said, "Why is this that you have brought us up from Egypt to kill me and my children and my livestock through thirst?" 
Moshe cried out to Hashem, saying, "What shall I do for this people? I bit more and they will stone me!" 
Hashem said to Moshe, "Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and in your hand take your staff with which you struck the River, and go. Behold! - I shall stand before you by the rock in Horeb; you shall strike the rock and water will come forth from it and the people will drink." Moshe did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah u'Merivah, because of the contention of Bnei Yisrael and because of their test of Hashem, saying, "Is Hashem among us or not?"(Shemos 17:
The Ramban fills us in on the motives behind Bnei Yisrael's complaints, and in doing so, he answers our first question by defining the scope of the prohibition:
The meaning of "as you tested Him at Massah" is that you shouldn't say, "If Hashem is among us [such that He will] perform miracles - or bring us success by satiating us with bread and ensuring our well-being - then when we will keep His Torah!" - for that was the intention [of Bnei Yisrael] there [at Massah]. They saw [fit to reason as follows:] if Hashem would miraculously provide water for them, then they would follow Him in the Wilderness, but if not, they would abandon Him. This was considered to be a major sin on their part, for once it had been verified to them through miracles and wonders that Moshe was Hashem's prophet and that he spoke the word of Hashem in truth, it was wrong for them to perform further tests. A person who does this is not testing the navi, but rather, he is testing Hashem, to know whether His ability is limited. 
For this reason, He prohibited future generations from testing the Torah or the neviim, for it is not proper for a person to serve Hashem in a dubious manner, or to demand a miracle or a test, for it is not Hashem's will to do miracles for every person at every time, and it is not proper to serve Hashem on the condition of receiving reward. Instead, if a person should happen to find pain or suffering in his [divine] service or in his following the paths of the Torah, it is proper for him to accept everything with justice and righteousness - not like the fools of our nation said, "It is useless to serve God! What gain is there for us that we have kept His watch, and that we walk submissively before Hashem, Master of Legions?" (Malachi 3:14).
The mitzvah of lo tenasu prohibits us from doing two things: (1) continuing to test a navi after the authenticity of his nevuah has already been verified, and (2) serving Hashem on the condition that He will reward us - as we see fit. Bnei Yisrael at Massah erred in both regards: they demanded that Moshe Rabbeinu perform a miracle for them, even though his nevuah had been well-established by the numerous miracles in Mitzrayim and at Yam Suf; they also made their service of Hashem contingent on Him "serving" them in a specific manner.

The Ramban continues by explaining what the rest of the paragraph has to do with this lo taaseh:
It is for this reason that the pasuk says here that you shall surely observe His mitzvos (commandments) and His eidos (testimonies) - because they [testify to] the miracles that He did for you in the past, for which they serve as testimonials (e.g. pesach, matzah, sukkah). [Likewise,] "you shall keep His chukim (decrees)" even though you don't know their reasons, for in truth, they will benefit you in the end. There is no need to test the Torah and the mitzvos after you have already verified for yourself that they are from Him (blessed is He) ... 
It is for this reason that [Moshe Rabbeinu] promised that the glory will come in the end, with the inheritance of the Land and victory over the enemies, for this is a great good, and was necessary for that generation. Afterwards he said that even for future generations there is no need for testing in the performance of mitzvos, but rather, they should ask their fathers and their elders who will tell them the truth of the Torah and the mitzvos, as he subsequently explains, "When your son asks you tomorrow, saying, 'What are the eidos, and the chukim, and the mishpatim that Hashem, our God, commanded you?' You shall say to your child, 'We were slaves to Paroh in Mitzrayim, and Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim with a strong hand. Hashem placed signs and wonders, great and terrible, against Egypt, against Paroh, and against his entire household before our very eyes, etc.." (Devarim 6:20-25).
Ramban's answer to our second question is as follows. After commanding Bnei Yisrael not to test Hashem by demanding proof that He is with them or by demanding a reward for their service, Moshe Rabbeinu then addresses their concerns. "You want proof that Hashem is with you? Look no further than the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim, which your parents - and some of you - experienced. You want benefits for keeping the mitzvos? How does conquering Eretz Yisrael sound? It's all right there in the words of nevuah - those very same prophetic words which you stubbornly refused to accept even after their authenticity was verified time and again."

Ordinarily, when I write these weekly divrei Torah, I try to bring out some new insight or application. But every once in a while, it is best to just let the Torah speak for itself. The two problematic behaviors exhibited by Bnei Yisrael at Massah continue to afflict us to this day. How many people out there still attempt to "make deals" with Hashem, saying, "I'll do such-and-such for You if You do such-and-such for me?" How many Jews keep all of the eidos which testify to the historicity of the miracles that Hashem performed, but still question the veracity of nevuah and desire for Hashem to miraculously reveal Himself to them, personally?

This is precisely why lo tenasu is one of the 613 mitzvos, for all generations. The problems which it is designed to uproot are perennial. If the generation that witnessed these miracles continued to test Hashem, we must ponder why that is the case. Apparently, our feeling that, "Everyone would accept Hashem, if only He did a miracle for them!" is not as true as we think it is. Perhaps this is another reason why lo tenasu is a mitzvah: to prompt us to analyze the roots of the subversive attitudes which the mitzvah is intended to eliminate.

In other words, this mitzvah, itself, serves as a test: a test to see whether we are willing to examine our own desire to test Hashem, and to actually do something about it. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Parashas Vaeschanan: The Loneliness of the Jew

This is a write-up of an idea that my Mishlei rebbi told me. Originally posted in July 2013.

Parashas Va'eschanan: The Loneliness of the Jew

In Parashas Va'eschanan, Moshe Rabbeinu exhorts Bnei Yisrael to observe the mitzvos upon entering and settling the Eretz Yisrael. He begins by reminding the Jews of an incident still fresh in their memory:
Now, O Israel, listen to the decrees and to the ordinances that I teach you to perform, so that you may live, and you will come and possess the Land that Hashem, the God of your forefathers, gives you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you. Your eyes have seen what Hashem did with Baal-peor, for every man that followed Baal-peor - Hashem, your God, destroyed him from your midst. But you who cling to Hashem, your God - you are all alive today. [1]
Next, he proceeds to describe how the surrounding nations will view them if they keep the mitzvos properly:
See I have taught you decrees and ordinances, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, "Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!" For which is a great nation that has a God Who is close to it, as is Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him? And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?
Moshe tells us that if we keep the mitzvos correctly, the goyim will admire us in three ways: (1) they will see that we are a wise and discerning nation, (2) they will realize that we, as a nation, are unique in that we enjoy a special, providential relationship with God, and (3) they will recognize that we live a life of righteousness.

My rebbi raised a basic question on Moshe's entire approach: Who cares what other people think? Why does Moshe place so much emphasis on how the goyim will view us? Is that really why we should keep the mitzvos? Should we really measure our value by the opinion of the surrounding nations?

My rebbi answered that Moshe is responding to an emotion that Bnei Yisrael were destined to feel once they settled in the land. That emotion is loneliness. Ahm Yisrael is destined to be different than all other people. Our ways are different from their ways and our values and ideas do not conform theirs. This difference is bound to make us feel isolated, rejected, and alone.

Moshe was the leader of Klal Yisrael. He witnessed and facilitated the birth of the nation through Yetzias Mitzrayim. He was the agent through whom the Torah was given, which forever altered the national destiny of the Jewish people. He shepherded them for 40 years in the desert, overseeing their arduous developmental journey until this point. Now, on the threshold of their entry into the Land, he knew that they would be faced with a new challenge: the challenge of living a unique lifestyle in the face of all the nations.

Moshe foresaw what we, with the advantage of historical hindsight, have seen play itself out for the past 3,000 years of our history until this day. Throughout the ages, the nation of Israel has struggled with a feeling of national loneliness. We cannot help but be self-conscious of the differences between ourselves and our neighbors. Theorize all you want about the roots of this emotion, but it is there, and it is inescapable.

There is only one antidote to loneliness. Not companionship, not affection, but acceptance. One must feel accepted by other people in order to overcome one's loneliness. [3] The lonely individual will seek acceptance at any cost.

Moshe knew there are only two ways that Bnei Yisrael would seek acceptance. The incorrect way - and, unfortunately, the easiest way - is to modify Torah to conform to the norms of the society. Ultimately, this approach will necessitate either adding or subtracting to the Torah, thereby violating the system of 613 mitzvos. This is precisely why Moshe reminds Bnei Yisrael about what happened to them the last time they attempted to assimilate into the surrounding culture in this manner (i.e. the incident with Baal-peor). All such attempts to "fit in" with the goyim by compromising Torah-observance are destined to end in destruction.

So, what is the correct way to earn acceptance from the goyim? By becoming an ohr l'amim (light onto the nations). [3] This is why Moshe Rabbeinu assures Bnei Yisrael that if they keep Torah properly, not only will the goyim accept them, but they will look up to them as role models. The goyim will laud them for their wisdom and understanding, for their closeness to Hashem (as evidenced by His hashgachah pratis over them), and for the justice and righteousness exemplified by Bnei Yisrael in the way they live. When this happens, the feelings of national loneliness will dissolve.
This lesson is just as relevant for us individuals as it is for the entire nation. As Jews, each of us will feel this existential sense of loneliness at some point - perhaps at many points - in our lives.

Sometimes, this feeling is easy to deal with, but at other times, it can be crippling. Nobody likes to feel unaccepted or rejected by the world at large.

We, too, are faced with the same two approaches to seeking acceptance: either compromise our adherence to Torah in an attempt to fit in with our surrounding culture, or embrace Torah and live up to its ideals, thereby winning the recognition and admiration of our non-Jewish peers. The crossroads of these two paths is the decision about whether to modify the system of Torah and its mitzvos.

As a wise man once said, "we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy." The road to acceptance set forth by Moshe Rabbeinu is far from easy. One must learn and live Torah to the extent to which wisdom, justice, and hashgachah are manifest in one's life. But even if we do not achieve this ideal level in whole, we can at least achieve it in part. To the extent that we come to embody the three qualities mentioned by Moshe Rabbeinu, we can overcome that feeling of existential loneliness, enjoy the benefits that the Torah has to offer, and be a light unto the rest of mankind.

[1] Sefer Devarim, Chapter 4
[2] I know what some of you might be thinking. "Shouldn't a person just undo the need for loneliness altogether?" I have two responses to this: (1) Moshe Rabbeinu is talking to the entire nation of Bnei Yisrael, and most of them (read: us) will probably never be on the level to undo our need for acceptance; (2) even great tzadikim feel an existential sense of loneliness, and I suspect that Moshe's words have relevance to them as well.
[3] cf. Sefer Yeshayahu 51:4. Little do people realize that the real phrase in the pasuk is not "ohr l'amim" but "l'ohr amim." Whatevs.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mishlei 24:27 - Short-term Long-term Planning

משלי כד:כז
הָכֵן בַּחוּץ מְלַאכְתֶּךָ וְעַתְּדָהּ בַּשָּׂדֶה לָךְ אַחַר וּבָנִיתָ בֵיתֶךָ:

Mishlei 24:27
Prepare your work outside and ready yourself in the field; then build your house.

Major Questions / Difficulties
  1. Why does the pasuk focus on "preparing your work" instead of "doing your work"
  2. What type of "preparation" is it talking about? Likewise, what does it mean to "ready yourself in the field"?
  3. Why the emphasis on "outside"? Obviously, if you're working in the field, then you'll be doing your work outside! 
  4. What does it mean by "building your house"? Is it talking about the physical construction of the walls, or the income needed to run the household, or starting a family, or something else?
  5. What are the consequences of building your house before "preparing your work" and "readying yourself in the field"? Usually Shlomo ha'Melech gives us some inkling of what happens to those who ignore his advice. 
Methodology Tips
  • When approaching pesukim like this, it is tempting to immediately dive into metaphor. But we must remember a cardinal rule of our approach to Mishlei: always take the pasuk as literally as possible unless you are compelled to interpret it otherwise.
  • It is often helpful to ask the question: To whom is this pasuk addressed? For example, we can assume that the person to whom this pasuk is addressed has enough money to "build his house" before "preparing his work outside" and "readying himself in the field" - and that is why Shlomo ha'Melech is telling him to do the opposite. 

Four-sentence Summary of the Main Idea
When a person settles in a new location, it is tempting to prioritize building a house, which is the ultimate source of emotional and physical security. However, if a person desires real security, he will prioritize his livelihood over everything else, making sure that he has the ability to earn a steady income, for without an income, his house will not provide the security he seeks. This is a subtle crossroads, since the person who builds his house will be able to claim that he is engaged in “long-term planning.” In truth, he is seeking security in that which is immediate and concrete, rather than what will actually ensure his long-term survival; he engaged in short-term long-term planning. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mark Twain: On Olam ha'Ba

This was one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, way back in May 2007.

Mark Twain: On Olam ha'Ba

I can’t help but smile whenever I chance upon a fundamental Torah idea eloquently expressed by a non-Torah thinker. I'd like to share with you an idea from the uncensored collection of Mark Twain's writings entitled Letters from the Earth.

In his essay, The Damned Human Race, Mark Twain cynically portrays man as the most inferior and corrupt creature on earth:
I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the “lower animals” (so-called), and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me. For it obliges me to renounce my allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals; since it now seems plain to me that the theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one, this new and truer one to be named the Decent of Man from the Higher Animals.
In the last paragraph, after his cynical diatribe against human nature, Mark Twain makes a single concession to Man, which he follows with a related critique of religion:
He has just one stupendous superiority. In his intellect he is supreme. The Higher Animals cannot touch him there. It is curious, it is noteworthy, that no heaven has ever been offered him wherein his one sole superiority was provided with a chance to enjoy itself. Even when he himself has imagined a heaven, he has never made provision in it for intellectual joys. It is a striking omission.
Interestingly enough, the vision of the afterlife of which, according to Mark Twain, has never been envisioned by man is precisely the notion of the afterlife promised by the Torah. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 8:2) writes:
There are no physical bodies or physical things in Olam ha’Ba (the World to Come), but only the souls of tzadikim (righteous people), without a body – like the ministering angels. Since there are no bodies, there is no eating, drinking, or anything which human bodies require in Olam ha’Zeh (This World). None of the bodily occurrences which happen to bodies in Olam ha’Zeh can happen in Olam ha’Ba – such as sitting, standing, sleeping, death, pain, humor, and other things like that. This is what the Early Sages said: “In Olam ha’Ba there is no eating, no drinking, and no relations – rather, the tzadikim sit, with their crowns on their heads, and derive enjoyment from the radiance of the shechinah (divine presence).” 
It has been made clear to you that there are no bodies there, since there isn’t any eating or drinking there. That which was said, “the tzadikim sit” was said by way of metaphor; it means to say that the tzadikim exist there, without toil and without exertion. Likewise, that which they said, “and their crowns on their heads” means that the knowledge they know, by which they merited life in Olam ha’Ba, exists with them, and is their crown, as Shlomo said, “with a crown that his mother crowned him with” (Shir ha’Shirim 3:11). And it is said, “the eternal joy is upon your head” (Yeshayahu 35:10; 51:11) – and “joy” isn’t a physical object, such that it could rest on a head; thus, the “crown” which the Sages spoke about here is knowledge. 
And what is this which they said, “and derive enjoyment from the radiance of the shechinah”? – this means that they know and apprehend the reality of the Holy One, Blessed is He, in a manner which they could not know while they were in dark and lowly bodies.
According to the Rambam, the ultimate "reward" promised by the Torah is Olam ha'Ba: an entirely non-physical afterlife in which disembodied intellects derive pleasure contemplating the reality of Hashem. Even the Ramban, who argues with the Rambam and maintains that Olam ha'Ba is physical, nevertheless maintains that the essential reward is the intellectual contemplation of knowledge of Hashem (see Shaar ha'Gmul 357).

Mark Twain was right: Religious Man never envisioned an intellectual afterlife. But, as is often the case, Religious Man was wrong.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tishah b'Av 5775: Woe Unto Us!

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Artwork by Bud Cook

Tishah b'Av 5775: Woe Unto Us!

I am writing this on Tishah b'Av, after reciting kinnos in shul. This year I focused on Kinnah #17. Here is Artscroll's translation, with a few changes here and there. Warning: this kinnah is not for the faint of heart - especially those who have children of their own.
If women ate the fruit of their own [womb], 
the babes of their care -

     woe unto me! 
If compassionate women cooked [their own] children
whom they had so carefully measured handbreadth by heandbreadth -

     woe unto me!
If the locks of their hair were torn from their heads 
when they were tied to fleet horses -

     woe unto me! 
If the tongue of the nursing babe 
would adhere to its palate through unmitigated thirst -

     woe unto me! 
If one [mother] cried out to another, 
"Come, let us cook our screeching children!" -

     woe unto me! 
If [after devouring one of their babes] the two met 
[and the mother of the eaten child said], 

"Give your son!" but he was already cut to pieces 

and hidden away [for his mother to enjoy alone] -
     woe unto me! 
If fathers' flesh was waiting for [their] sons 
[to eat] in caves and ditches -

     woe unto me! 
If daughters were condemned to die 
in their mother's bosom, swollen [with hunger] -

     woe unto me! 
If the spirits of infants soared from their swollen corpses 
[which were lying] in the city's streets -

     woe unto me! 
If women were weighed down by miscarriage of womb 
and dryness of breast, and that mother 

[lamented] over dying sons -

     woe unto me! 
If eight hundred [young Kohanim who bore decorative gold] shields 
were trapped; in Arabia [they fell to] foul decay -

     woe unto me! 
If their breath was set on fire with a variety of salty foods 
and [they died while trying to drink from] wineskins 

[deviously] inflated with [hot, stale] air -

     woe unto me! 
If they were decimated from one thousand to one hundred, 
from one hundred to ten, until but one [remained

 - a source of terrible sorrow -

     woe unto me! 
If eighty thousand fledgling Kohanim 
fled to the sheltering Sanctuary

     woe unto me! 
If all those souls were burned there 
like dry thorn cuttings -

     woe unto me! 
If the souls [of the starving defenders] were swollen 
and stricken by the [tantalizing] aroma of the fruits of the field 

[that they could not attain] -

     woe unto me! 
If heaped on one stone 
were nine kab-measures of children's brains -

     woe unto me! 
If three hundred suckling babes were hung [to die], 
stretched out on a single branch -

     woe unto me! 
If delicate, pampered women were seen in iron chains, 
under the hand of the chief butcher -

     woe unto me! 
If the daughters of distinguished royalty 
took their rest on the open roadsides -

     woe unto me! 
If young maidens and young men fainted 
from the dehydrating thirst -

     woe unto me! 
But the Holy Spirit raged back at them:
     "Woe unto all my wicked neighbors!

Those [tragedies] which befell them, they publicize,

     but that [evil] which they perpetrated, they do not publicize.
If women ate the fruit of their own [womb],
     they let it be heard,
but if they murdered a Kohen-Navi in God's Sanctuary,
     they did not let that be heard!"
It is difficult to read this kinnah without recoiling at the horrific atrocities described therein. When we read about starving mothers eating their own children and Kohanim being murdered in cold blood, we cannot help but join in with the kinnah's refrain: "woe unto me!" With each and every stanza, the intensity of the tragedy increases, as does our rage against the enemies who brought this suffering upon us.

But then, in the final stanza, the paytan (author of the poem) throws us a curve-ball: 
But the Holy Spirit raged back at them:
     "Woe unto all My wicked neighbors!

Those [tragedies] which befell them, they publicize,

     but that [evil] which they perpetrated, they do not publicize.
If women ate the fruit of their own [womb],
     they let it be heard,
but if they murdered a Kohen-Navi in God's Sanctuary,
     they did not let that be heard!"
When the Holy Spirit (i.e. the voice of God, as depicted in this kinnah) speaks up, we expect a condemnation of our wicked enemies. Instead, the Holy Spirit turns around and points an accusatory finger at us - the victims of these barbaric acts. We are referred to as "wicked neighbors." We are criticized for focusing on publicizing the evil which befell us (e.g. women eating the fruit of their own womb), and concealing the evil which we perpetrated (e.g. murdering Zechariah in the Beis ha'Mikdash instead of heeding his call for teshuvah). 

In light of this conclusion, we reflect back on the source of the phrase "woe unto me!" and realize its source in Torah she'bi'Chsav. That source is none other than Iyov, who said:
If I have sinned and You scrutinize me, then do not cleanse me of my transgression. If I have been wicked, woe unto me! And if I am innocent, I should not raise my head, [for I am] satiated with disgrace, and see my misery. It has become important [to You]: You hunt me as if I were a lion's whelp, and You repeatedly judge me severely. You always bring new witnesses against me, and You magnify Your anger against me. The legion takes turns with me (Iyov 10:14-17).
We see from its context that the phrase "woe unto me!" is not a reaction of sorrow over the tragedies that befell us. Rather, it is a reaction to the cause of those tragedies - namely, our own sinfulness and wickedness. Were it not for our own corruption, these terrible misfortunes never have happened. Thus, the "woe" truly is "unto me," as Yirmiyahu ha'Navi lamented: "Of what shall a living man bemoan? Each man for his own sins" (Eichah 3:39). We are our own worst enemies.

The recognition that we are to blame for the catastrophes that have befallen us is the very reason why these catastrophes continue to befall us, as the Rambam writes at the beginning of Hilchos Taaniyos:
1:1 - It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and to sound the trumpets on every tzarah (catastrophe) that befalls the community, as it is stated, “[When you wage war in your land] against the afflicter who afflicts you, you shall sound the trumpets, [and you shall be remembered before Hashem, your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies]” (Bamidbar 10:9), meaning to say: anything that afflicts you - such as drought, epidemic, locusts, and the like - cry out on them and sound [the trumpets]. 
1:2 - This principle is one of the darchei teshuvah (ways of repentance), that at a time of the onset of an affliction, and [people] cry out and sound the trumpets, everyone will know that it was because of their evil conduct that this bad occurrence befell them, as it is written, “Your iniquities have turned away these things [to you], and your sins have withheld good from you” (Yirmiyahu 5:25), and this will cause them to remove the affliction from upon them
1:3 - But if they do not cry out and do not sound the trumpets, but instead say, “This is a natural event which befell us, and this affliction is a chance occurrence” - behold, this is a derech achzarius (way of cruelty), and will cause them to cling to their evil conduct, and [this] affliction and others will increase. This is what is written in the Torah, “[And if, with this, you do not listen to Me,] and you walk with me with chance, then I will walk with you in the fury of chance, [and I will also chastise you, seven times for your sins]” (Vayikra 26:26-28), meaning to say, when I bring an affliction upon you to cause you to do teshuvah, if you say that it is chance, then I will increase upon you the fury of that “chance.”
The Rambam writes that the purpose of our communal fast days is to bring us to this same recognition:
5:1 - There are days on which all of Israel fasts because of the catastrophes that occurred on them, in order to awaken the hearts [of the people] and to open the paths of teshuvah. This will be a remembrance of our corrupt actions and the corrupt actions of our fathers that were like our actions today, which ultimately reached the point that [these corrupt actions] caused these catastrophes for them and for us. Through the remembrance of these things we will return to do good, as it stated, “they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers” (Vayikra 26:40).
Six years ago I wrote a blog post about Yom ha'Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) (which I have yet to re-post on this blog). After citing these same halachos from the Rambam, I stated my objection to the institution of a secular Holocaust Memorial Day:
According to the Torah, the proper response to tzarah (catastrophe) is zaakah (i.e. tefilah) and teshuvah. Chazal reinforced this idea by setting up specific zmanim (times of the year) to reflect upon the national tzaros which have occurred throughout our history. These zmanim were established as ymei taanis - days of reflection, introspection, and teshuvah. They are structured with specific halachic institutions designed to remind us that the tragedies that befell our fathers were caused by foundational cheit (i.e. the distorted notion of the Good which pervades the entire Jewish community). Through their observance, we are meant to realize that we are still locked into the same trends of cheit and that we will be subject to the same tzaros unless we engage in foundational teshuvah. If we observe these memorial days properly, in accordance with the halachos and teachings of the Torah, then we will merit to remove these tragedies from our midst. 
To establish a secular memorial day for a national tragedy such as the Holocaust, outside of the system of Torah and its mitzvos of zaakah, teshuvah, and ymei taanis, is a distortion destined for harm. It is a distortion because, as a secular memorial day, it divorces the tragedy of the Holocaust from its true context - the realization that this tzarah is part of a series of tzaros which are the consequences of national cheit. It is destined for harm because, as the Torah states and the Rambam elucidates, the more we fail as a community to use these tzaros as opportunities for teshuvah, the more tzaros will befall us as a result.
I received a severe backlash to this blog post - one of the harshest reactions I have received to any blog post I have written. The major objection was to "my" claim that the Holocaust was brought about by the sins of the Jewish people. (I refer to it as "my" claim - in quotation marks - because I was merely citing the Rambam, who is far more knowledgeable about such matters than I will ever be.) And this wasn't the only time I have met with this objection. I have brought up this point on several occasions throughout my career as a high school teacher, and have faced the same type of vehement opposition from students. Jews - especially the descendants of Holocaust survivors - do NOT like to be told that national catastrophes befall the Jewish people because of our own actions. 

Unfortunately, this problem has plagued us since the time of the first Churban. The entire Sefer Yirmiyahu - and indeed, many of the other prophetic books - is filled with countless examples of the Jewish people refusing to acknowledge their own accountability for the catastrophes that befell them. As the paytan says here, we prefer to focus on publicizing what happened to us instead of how we caused it to happen. It is easier for us to cope with the Holocaust by preaching "Never Forget" to the rest of the world than to look at ourselves and say, "Remember Hashem."

Perhaps is why the paytan wrote this kinnah in the manner that he did: getting the reader all riled up with anger and indignation about the terrible suffering we endured, and then doing a sudden 180 and pulling a Nosson ha'Navi maneuver, saying, "You are that man!" (II Shmuel 12:7)

After reading and discussing this kinnah in shul today, my chavrusa asked, "Do you think we (i.e. the Jewish people) are ready to talk about the Holocaust in this way yet?" My answer is: "If not now, when?" (Avos 1:14). We conclude Eichah by asking, "Why do You ignore us eternally, forsake us for so long?" (Eichah 5:20) - as if the answer rests entirely in His hands. That is simply not true, as the very next pasuk says: "Return us to You, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old." If we make the effort to return to Hashem, He will help us in our teshuvah process, and restore us as in days of old. 

But if we are unwilling to even think of ourselves as having any culpability for our own fate, then what hope do we have? If year after year, and Tishah b'Av after Tishah b'Av go by, and we persevere in our unwillingness to look at ourselves and assess the ways in which we are at fault for our own suffering, then "woe unto us!"

May we all merit to use our Tishah b'Av's - along with all of the other fast days, and other mitzvos - in accordance with their intended purpose, so that we may return to Hashem, and be renewed as in days of old. 

The Execution of a Prophet

Originally posted in July 2013.

Artwork: Public Execution, by Anthony Palumbo
The Execution of a Prophet

Sefer Yeshayahu begins with an account of his 86-year prophetic career:
The vision of Yeshayahu ben Amotz, which he saw concerning Yehudah and Yerushalayim, in the days of Uziyahu, Yosam, Achaz, and Yechizkiyahu, kings of Yehudah (1:1).
In truth, Yeshayahu prophesied during the reign of a fifth king: the evil King Menashe, son of the righteous King Chizkiyahu - or "Yechizkiyahu," as the pasuk calls him here. Menashe's mother was Cheftzi-bah (II Melachim 21:1), the daughter of Yeshayahu (see Rashi on Bava Basra 15a, d"h Chizkiyah v'siyato). In other words, Menashe was Yeshayahu's grandson.

Seeing as how Yeshayahu was alive when the kingship passed from Chizkiyahu to Menashe, why doesn't the introductory pasuk mention that Yeshayahu prophesied into the beginning of Menashe's reign? Factually speaking, the answer is simple: because he didn't prophesy during that time. But why didn't he prophesy during Menashe's reign? Certainly, there was a need for a navi at that time!

Rashi, on our pasuk, provides the shocking answer: because Menashe killed him! That's right: the grandson killed his own grandfather, who was also one of the greatest neviim of all time! The source of this tragic report of Yeshayahu's end is a midrash in Yevamos 49a:
Menashe killed Yeshaya. Rava said: He brought him to trial and killed him. He said to him: "Moshe, your teacher, said: ‘For man cannot see Me and live’ (Shemos 33:20) – and yet you said: ‘I saw Hashem sitting on a throne, high and lifted up’ (Yeshaya 6:1). Moshe, your teacher, said: '[For which is a great nation that has a God Who is close to it,] as is Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him!' (Devarim 4:7) – and yet, you said: 'Seek Hashem when He can be found; call upon Him when He is near' (Yeshaya 55:6). Moshe, your teacher, said: ‘The number of your days I will fill’ (Devarim 23:26) – and yet, you said: ‘I will add fifteen years to your life’ (II Melachim 20:6)."

Yeshaya said [to himself]: “I know that whatever I answer to him, he will not accept, and that if I do answer him, I would only cause him to be an intentional [murderer].” Thereupon he uttered [God’s] Name and was swallowed up by a cedar tree.

So [Menashe's men] brought the cedar tree and split it [with an axe]. When [the axe] reached [Yeshayahu's] mouth, he died. [His death was brought about by a blow to the mouth] because of what he said: "and I dwell among a people of impure lips" (Yeshaya 6:5). 
I will admit right up front that I don't know what Chazal intended to teach in this midrash. I acknowledge that what I am about to say might be (or at least, border on) drash rather than pshat. Still, I'd like to express the thoughts that I had when I first read this midrash because I believe they have value, whether or not they reflect Chazal's intent.

According to this Gemara, Menashe didn't openly attempt to murder Yeshayahu. Instead, he put him on trial, accused him of heresy, and supported his allegations with "proofs" from Torah. Even more astounding is the Gemara's assumption that Menashe's arguments were not merely a pretext. Apparently, Menashe genuinely believed that Yeshayahu's words contradicted Torah - as is evident from the fact that Yeshayahu considered him to be a shofech damim b'shogeg (an unintentional murderer).

When I considered all of these points, I couldn't help but notice the parallels to the predicament we face today. Just as Menashe, the political leader of the Jewish people, brought charges of heresy against Yeshayahu, who embodied the true ideas and values of Torah, so too, there are respected leaders within the Jewish community who strive to discredit those who strive to teach and live according to the true Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu. It has gotten to the point where yesodei ha'Torah are regarded as apikorsus (heresy), and are the cause of accusations against those who hold these views.

And just as Menashe brought "proofs" from Torah to substantiate his claims against Yeshayahu - extremely flimsy "proofs" that any intelligent Torah-educated Jew could easily refute - so too, there are many vocal individuals who believe that their own notions about Judaism represent the true dvar Hashem, and who attempt to support their claims with counterfeit "proofs."

And just like Menashe, whose destructive behavior was b'shogeg (unintentional), the same is unfortunately true of many of the Jewish leaders today. A friend of mine once lamented that ours is a generation of baalei batim lead by baalei batim.

When I thought about our current state of affairs and the grim parallels to the midrash about Menashe, I couldn't help but wonder how we will ever survive. How can the true Torah be resurrected? "Can these bones come to life?" (Yechezkel 37:3). If actual neviim were censored - and, in Yeshayahu's case, murdered - by the wicked leadership in their day, while the Beis ha'Mikdash still stood and the Sanhedrin was still extant and the Mesorah was still intact, what hope do we have?

There is only one source of hope we can draw upon: the prophetic promises of the ultimate geulah, repeated throughout the neviim - especially by Yeshayahu, himself. Were it not for the prophetic assurances of redemption, I would be completely convinced of our impending doom. I am reminded of the famous midrash in Makkos 24b:
Another time they (Rabban Gamliel, R' Elazar ben Azariah, R' Yehoshua, and R' Akiva) were going up together to Yerushalayim. When they reached Har ha'Tzofim they rent their garments. When they reached Har ha'Bayis (the Temple Mount) they saw a fox coming out of the place where the Kodesh ha'Kodashim (Holy of Holies) had been located. They began to cry, but R' Akiva laughed.

"Why are you laughing?" they asked.

"Why are you crying?" R' Akiva retorted.

They answered, "The place about which the Torah says, 'Any foreigner who approaches it shall die' (Bamidbar 1:51) has now foxes treading on it - shouldn't we cry?

Replied R' Akiva, "This is why I am laughing. It was written: 'I appointed trustworthy witnesses for myself: Uriah ha'Kohen and Zechariah ben Yeverechyahu' (Yeshaya 8:2). Now what does Uriah have to do with Zechariah? Uriah lived during the time of the first Mikdash and Zechariah lived during the time of the second Mikdash - and yet, the verse makes the [later] prophecy of Zechariah dependent on the [earlier] prophecy of Uriah! In the [earlier] prophecy in the days of Uriah it says, 'Therefore, because of you, Tzion will be plowed over like a field' (Michah 3:12). In Zechariah it says, 'Thus said Hashem, Master of Legions: "Old men and old women will once again sit in the streets of Yerushalayim"' (Zechariah 8:4). As long as Uriah's prophecy had not been fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah might not be fulfilled; now that Uriah's prophecy has come true, I am sure that Zechariah's prophecy will also come true."

At this they said to him, "Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!"
Perhaps we can draw comfort in a similar manner from the prophecies of Yeshayahu. Yeshayahu prophesied about our nation that "the wisdom of its wise men will be lost, and the understanding of its understanding men will be concealed" (Yeshaya 29:14). We have seen this prophecy unfold over the past two millennia, and it is truer today than it ever was before. But rather than lose hope, we can take solace in the fact that just as Yeshayahu's dire prophecies have come true, so will his prophecies about the ultimate redemption: "They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My holy mountain, for the world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, like water covering the sea bed" (Isaiah 11:9).

Today is the 10th of Av. On this day, thousands of years ago, the Beis ha'Mikdash was still burning. It continues burning today. May the words of Yeshayahu, and all of the neviim who prophesied about the ultimate redemption, speedily be fulfilled in our days.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Parashas Devarim: Abominable Judgment

Artwork: Corrupted Conscience, by Jason Chan

Parashas Devarim: Abominable Judgment

Moshe Rabbeinu's opening speech in Sefer Devarim is mostly a recap of Klal Yisrael's 40-year sojourn in the Wilderness. One of the first incidents that Moshe reviews is the appointment of shoftim (judges) to assist him in his governance of the nation:
So I took the heads of your tribes, distinguished men, who were wise and well known, and I appointed them as heads over you ... I instructed your judges at that time, saying, "Listen among your brethren and judge righteously between a man and his brother or his litigant. You shall not show favoritism in judgment; small and great alike shall you hear; you shall not tremble before any man, for the judgment belongs to God; any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it." I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do (Devarim 1:15-18).
Chazal expound upon each of these qualifications and requirements, in accordance with Torah she'baal Peh. In this short dvar Torah, we will focus on the statement "small and great alike shall you hear." The following two explanations are given in Sifrei:
"the small and the great alike shall you hear": Perhaps you [the judge] might have said, "Since it is a mitzvah for this rich man to support this this poor man, I will vindicate the latter [in judgment], thereby enabling him to be supported in a respectable manner." Thus, the verse teaches, "the small and the great alike shall you hear." 
Another interpretation of "the small and the great alike shall you hear": Perhaps you will say, "How can I blemish the honor of this rich man over a single dinar (i.e. a small sum of money)? [Instead] I will vindicate him [in judgment], and when he goes outside I will say to him, 'Give [the poor man] the money, for you are [actually] liable [to pay him].'" Therefore, the verse teaches, "the small and the great alike shall you hear."
It is easy to understand why a judge might be tempted to favor the poor or the rich in one of these scenarios. After all, these motives seem reasonable - even noble. And as long as the end result is in line with justice and righteousness, why does it matter how that result was brought about? Moreover, isn't it the judge's job to promote justice and righteousness? What's wrong with him using his position to facilitate this through "meta-legal" means?

Shlomo ha'Melech offers one answer to this question in Mishlei: "One who vindicates an evildoer [in judgment] and one who vilifies a righteous person [in judgment] – both are an abomination to Hashem" (Mishlei 17:15). The major question on this pasuk is: In what sense are both perversions of justice considered to be "an abomination to Hashem"? 

In the Sefer Mishlei, the term "toeivah" (abomination*) is used for actions which might not necessarily be so harmful as particulars, but nevertheless pose a threat to the system as a whole - often in an insidious manner. This is why the emotionally charged word "abomination" is used: one would naturally be inclined to view these actions as harmless, since the consequences are not readily apparent; therefore, a harsher term is needed for added deterrence. 

I believe this is why the term "abomination to Hashem" is used in our pasuk: the particular instance of perverting justice might be justifiable in a vacuum, but nevertheless, it poses a threat to the greater system. The question is: How?

Here is the main idea. People have an intuitive "sense of justice" which ultimately boils down to one principle: “those who do wrong should be punished, and those who do no wrong should not be punished.” Within any system of law, situations will arise in which the adjudicators and law enforcers will be tempted to pardon those who violate the law or punish those who adhere to the law. For example - an example from outside for the legal system - a teacher might pardon the penalty of student in order to “give her second chance,” or he might punish an entire class in order to create a social stigma around the violation**. 

The lesson of this pasuk is that no matter how reasonable or noble these motives are, they will be perceived by the members of the system as undermining justice. This, in turn, will cause the overall commitment to justice to deteriorate within the society (e.g. the teacher who repeatedly pardons guilty students or punishes innocent students, they will soon lose respect for the class rules). Thus, whenever a law enforcer is tempted to make one of these "exceptions to the rule," he should recognize the detrimental ripple effect of his actions on the entire system. He must consider whether it is worthwhile to jeopardize the whole system for the sake of an individual. 

One might object and argue that this detrimental effect on the system would only come about if people are aware of the judge's malfeasance. Theoretically, if nobody knows about it, then there would be no problem! However, upon the slightest scrutiny, this objection falls flat on its face. In the vast majority of cases, there will be at least one person who knows that the judge perverted justice, namely, the recipient of the judge's manipulation of the system. And even in cases where the judge manages to conceal his subterfuge, it is unlikely that his secrecy will last. Eventually, people will find out - especially if he perverts justice on multiple occasions. The truth will ultimately come out, and when it does, the system will suffer.

In his introduction to the Mishnah, the Rambam states that Avos was written primarily for judges, and only secondarily for laymen. He explains:
[The subject] of Avos is that of the ethical exhortations expounded upon by each of the Sages (peace be upon them) so that we may learn the good character traits from them. Now, no one needs this section more than the judge. If a layman doesn't learn mussar (ethical perfection), this will not be harmful to the masses, and will only harm himself. However, if a judge does not possess ethical perfection and discipline, he will harm not only himself, but all of the populace as well! 
The prohibition in our parashah is a perfect example of this. An ordinary individual who bends the rules for the sake of an individual will cause little or no harm, but that same behavior for a judge can unravel the fabric of the society. It is for this reason that the Torah holds its judges to the highest standards. 

* I have been meaning to dedicate an entire post to the term "toevah," in which I present the sources and proofs, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. When I do, I'll go back and link it in this post.
** I do NOT endorse this practice; it's just something I've seen teachers do.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mishlei 13:1 - Listening to Authority

משלי יג:א
בֵּן חָכָם מוּסַר אָב וְלֵץ לֹא שָׁמַע גְּעָרָה:

Mishlei 13:1

A wise son [listens to] the discipline of his father, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.

Questions / Difficulties
  1. Why does the pasuk emphasize the ben chacham (wise son) listening to the discipline of his father, specifically? Wouldn't the ben chacham listen to discipline from anyone? Moreover the second half of the pasuk talks about how the leitz (scoffer) reacts to any rebuke - not just the rebuke of his father. Why the asymmetry?
  2. Why does the pasuk have to tell us that the leitz doesn't listen to rebuke? This is part of his very definition! There are many pesukim in Mishlei which highlight this quality of the leitz: "One who chastises the leitz acquires shame for himself" (Mishlei 9:7), "Do not rebuke a leitz, lest he hate you" (ibid 9:8), "A leitz does not like being reproved; he will not go to the wise" (ibid. 15:12), and more. What does our pasuk add? 
  3. Why does the pasuk us the word "gaarah" for rebuke? Usually I'm not bothered by such nuances in the words, but in this case, it's strange. Ordinarily, Mishlei would use more conventional terms, like "tochahah" or "mussar" or even "eitzah." The weird thing about the word "gaarah" is that it means "rebuke" but it also means "shouting" or "shrieking." What does this mean? 

Four-sentence Summary of the Main Idea
All human beings harbor a certain degree of resistance to authority. The ben chacham is able to rise above this resistance even when being disciplined by his father - the supreme psychological authority - and learn from what he has to offer. In contrast, the leitz's psychological resistance is so pronounced that he hears all rebuke as if the rebuker is yelling at him; consequently, his mind will be completely closed to criticism. The only way to get through to the leitz is to bypass his psychological resistance and get him to see the consequences of his actions with his own mind; as long as these consequences are framed in practical terms rather than superego terms (e.g. "bad" "sinful" "evil"), there is at least a remote possibility that he will listen.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pink Hair, the Derech ha'Yachid, and Compulsory Piety

Pink Hair

As many of you know, I am a full-time teacher at a Modern Orthodox Jewish high school. Yesterday we had our end-of-the-year faculty meeting. One issue that came up - and which comes up in every faculty meeting - was tznius (modesty). Almost all Jewish schools have a tznius-based dress code, and all of them have at least some degree of trouble enforcing it. Our school is no different.

I zoned out during the initial discussion of the usual issues (i.e. skirt length, sleeve length, penalties, responsibility of enforcement). Thank God, male teachers are not responsible for enforcing the dress code, since this, itself, would be contrary to the values of tznius. But my ears perked up when this issue was brought to the table:

Note: the girl pictured above is not one of our students,
though it is an accurate depiction of the attitude displayed by some.
Apparently, towards the end of the year, one of our students dyed the tips of her hair pink. The question was raised at the faculty meeting: Should we add a "girls may not dye the tips of their hair" clause to the school's dress code?

The difference in opinion was drastic. Some faculty members were staunchly in favor of the proposed policy, others were vehemently against it, and a variety of reasons were given on both sides:
  • We should ban dyed tips because it's an outright violation of tznius
  • We shouldn't ban dyed tips because it doesn't violate tznius
  • We should ban dyed tips because if one or two students did it, then who knows how many more will follow suit? 
  • We shouldn't ban dyed tips because it was just one or two students; if we ban this, then many more will follow suit! 
  • We should ban dyed tips because people in the community will see our girls and get a bad impression of our school. 
  • We shouldn't ban dyed tips because we've taken away enough forms of personal expression from the girls; since this doesn't violate halacha and isn't immodest, why shouldn't they be able to do this? 
  • We should ban dyed tips because there must be a certain look of professional propriety among students: just as teachers are required to dress for work and the boys in Modern Orthodox schools are required to be clean-shaven, so too, our girls shouldn't be permitted to engage in radical forms of fashion. 
  • We shouldn't ban dyed tips because the girls already view the dress code as oppressive, which causes them to develop a negative attitude toward the value of tznius in general; by crossing the line to banning something as "innocent" as dyed tips, we're just adding fuel to the fire. 
In my opinion, the most outrageous argument for banning dyed tips was made by a well-meaning faculty member who said, "There might not be anything halachically problematic about dyed tips, but I just feel like it's not tznius!" That was the sum total of her objection. I wanted to say, "The stone-throwers in Meah She'arim also legislate tznius based on their feelings," but I held my breath.

My intent in this post is not to discuss the halachos or philosophy of tznius, nor do I wish to delve into the various considerations that go into school policy legislation. I want to discuss one issue, and one issue only: mandating conduct which is lifnim mi'shuras ha'din (beyond the letter of the law). Before we can discuss this, we need a framework. For that we will turn to Rabbeinu Avraham ben ha'Rambam.

The Derech ha'Yachid

Rabbeinu Avraham ben ha'Rambam wrote a sefer entitled Ha'Maspik l'Ovdei Hashem (which was published by Feldheim as a disappointingly loose translation). He begins his work with a general statement about the derech ha'Torah (path of Torah): 
[The derech ha’Torah] is comprised of two paths: the Derech ha’Am (Path of the Nation) and the Derech ha’Yachid (Path of the Individual). 
The Derech ha’Am consists in the fulfillment of the explicit mitzvos – doing the positive ones and avoiding the negative ones – in accordance with the obligation of each Jew ... The adherent of Torah needs to understand what God has commanded in His Torah to do as well as what God has prohibited to do. He must examine how the laws apply to him, and he must accept upon himself to fulfill what is incumbent upon him and to avoid what is prohibited to him. If he does not know what he has been commanded, his derech will not bring him success ...  
Thus, if a person knows what he is obligated to do and he does it, then he is considered to be walking on the straight path which Hashem has placed before him to follow. One who follows the Derech ha’Am in the fulfillment of mitzvos is called “tzadik,” “tam,” “yashar,” and “sar me’rah.” The most accurate of these terms is “tzadik,” which implies “justice” and “fulfillment of one’s obligations,” for the fulfillment of the obligatory mitzvos is the duty to which we are duty-bound by Him (may He be exalted), like the duty of a servant to fulfill the commandment of his master ...  
One who is lax regarding these statutes is called “rasha,” “poshe’a,” “rah,” and “merah,” and other terms which are self-evident and clear. Each of these terms applies to a person in accordance with the severity of his sin and his intention, his laxity or his lack of integrity. The most accurate of these terms is “rasha,” for he commits an injustice by not fulfilling his obligations towards his Master, and he does not supply his rational soul with its proper due. 
Simply put, the Derech ha'Am is what we refer to as "following halacha." However, the Derech ha'Yachid goes beyond halacha:
The Derech ha’Yachid is a way of life directed towards the objectives and underlying ideas behind the mitzvos, and in accordance with the implicit goals of the Torah and the ways of the prophets and the virtuous and the like. One who follows the Derech ha’Yachid is called “kadosh,” “chasid,” “anav” and the like. The most precise of these terms is “chasid,” which is derived from the term “chesed” meaning “voluntariness,” for he voluntarily does what he is not obligated explicitly to do in the Torah.
Avraham ben ha'Rambam expands upon his explanation of the Derech ha'Yachid by contrasting it with the Derech ha'Am and explaining why we refer to each derech by its name:
We say as follows: One who eats matzah and refrains from eating chametz on Chag ha’Matzos, and one who dwells in a sukkah and takes a lulav on Chag ha’Sukkos, and refrains from work on Shabbos and Yom ha’Kippurim, and from eating and drinking on Yom ha’Kippurim, and from laborious work on Yom Tov, and wears tzitzis and puts on tefilin and refrains from prohibited foods and prohibited sexual relations as explicitly stated in the Torah, and strictly observes the positive mitzvos in which he is obligated and does not transgress the negative mitzvos – we say of such a person that he is following the revealed Derech ha’Am
We say “ha’Am” (“of the nation”) because it is the same for the most distinguished members of the Jewish people as well as the masses. Just as Yehoshua bin Nun is prohibited to work on Shabbos and is obligated to dwell in a sukkah on Chag ha’Sukkos, so too, all Jews are prohibited to work on Shabbos and obligated in sukkah-dwelling on Chag ha’Sukkos – those who have already passed on from this world and those who are to come after them, until the end of the generations. We refer to it as “revealed” because every person is capable of understanding it, and therefore, all who willfully transgress it are punished
Beyond this we say that one who understands the underlying idea of Shabbos and its purpose, and fulfills [this underling idea and purpose] through contemplation and involvement in the study of cosmology and physics on Shabbos, and focuses his mind on physical science, and in so doing, connects to inner kedushah; and one who understands the underlying idea of tzitzis and, through wearing them, remembers the mitzvos of Hashem in order to save him from the state of forgetting towards which he is drawn, and in so doing, ascends to the true level of inner kedushah, as it is stated, “and you shall be kedoshim to your God” (Bamidbar 15:40); and one who understands the underlying idea of the prohibited foods, and consequently reduces his intake of permitted foods and is content with eating only that which is beneficial and necessary; and likewise, one who understands the underlying idea of the sexual prohibitions and accepts upon himself to fulfill that which he understands – we say of such a person that he is following the inner Derech ha’Yachid.  
We say that it is “l’yechidim” (“for individuals”) because it is a level which is not reached by every adherent of Torah. We refer to it as “inner” because its obligation is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, and one who disregards it will not be punished by human courts. 
The Derech ha'Am is binding on and accessible to every member of the nation. The Derech ha'Yachid is neither. Only those who dedicate themselves to the study of mitzvos will be able to understand their underlying objectives and be able to refine their keeping of halacha in accordance with their knowledge. This leads to Avraham ben ha'Rambam's next point: 
It should be obvious from this that the Derech ha’Am is not subject to different levels, for there is no intermediate level between one who eats prohibited food and one who does not eat it, or between one who desecrates Shabbos and one who does not desecrate it; rather, each and every Jew either fulfills this Derech ha’Am or deviates from it.  
The only way there could be a differentiation of levels is regarding the number of mitzvos one violates, or the number of times he transgresses a particular mitzvah. For example, one who neglects many positive mitzvos and violates many prohibitions is a greater transgressor than one who neglects few mitzvos and violates few prohibitions. Likewise, two people who violate the same mitzvah would be on different levels depending on how frequently each of them repeats the action. One who did not make tzitzis for his tallis that he wears every day, or one who continually shaves the corners of his head, cannot be compared to someone who donned a garment obligated in tzitzis without tzitzis once in his life, or shaved the corners of his head one time. In this manner there can be a differentiation of levels in the Derech ha’Am.  
When I said above that for the most part there are not different levels, I implied that some explicit mitzvos actually are subject to different levels. This is because the mitzvah of yirah (fear of God), the mitzvah of ahavah (love of God), and the mitzvah of avodas ha’leiv (“service of the heart” i.e. prayer) are general mitzvos, yet are subject to a great differentiation of levels. Everyone can fulfill them on a basic level, but in their ultimate goals they split off into the two paths: the Derech ha’Am and the Derech ha’Yachid. The action-based mitzvos, on the other hand, are not subject to a differentiation of levels in their performance.  
But as regards the Derech ha’Yachid, the range between the extremes is very broad, as broad as the distance between East and West. Those who follow it are on many distinct levels, even with regards to a single mitzvah, and even a single instance.
Avraham ben ha'Rambam concludes with a beautiful example of keeping one mitzvah on different levels:
For example, consider the Shabbos-observance of three highly perfected individuals. The first person follows the Derech ha'Am, which is to keep Shabbos and to refrain from desecrating it, but adds a derech ha'yachid: namely, through reflecting, in a general way, upon the purpose of Shabbos and contemplating the creation of the universe by remembering that the heavens and earth and all of their array were created during the six days, and that there did not exist any first cause with no prior cause except for the Creator (may He be exalted and glorified), Who gave us the Shabbos.  
The second person’s derech ha'yachid is as follows: he will contemplate these matters in all of their details; he will reflect upon everything that the first person did, but in addition, he will contemplate the entirety of existence and the components he can apprehend in particular, from the center of the earth to the far reaches of the cosmos; he will delve into the wisdom of the Creator (may He be exalted) as manifest in the creation, and he will focus specifically on that which was created on the first day, then the second day, and all the other days, in accordance with that which was stated in the section of Bereishis. 
The third person’s derech ha'yachid is as follows: he will contemplate everything that the second person did, but will delve so deeply into his scientific analysis and study that he will ascend to the level of true kedushah; he will rejoice in his Maker, due to the radiance of the shechinah with which illuminated him in his studies; he will attain proof of His Greatness from the greatness of His creations; he will comprehend the bonds between himself and his Creator, the bond of his intellect and the bond of the mitzvos, which is [one of the intended objectives] of his Creator in our observance of Shabbos, as it is stated, “It is a sign between Me and between Bnei Yisrael forever” (Shemos 31:17); he will diminish his involvement in anything which weakens this bond, and therefore, he will refrain from any eating and drinking on Shabbos which interrupts him from his studies, and he will refrain from off-topic conversation, and certainly from idle chatter. Ultimately, through this derech, he will attain an inner fear of Hashem and love of the Heavens and such a strong yearning for the Living God that even when his limbs crave nourishment, he will not sense hunger, since his soul is fattened with its portion which it has attained, as David stated, “My soul is sated as with fat and abundance” (Tehilim 63:6); sounds will resonate in his ears, but he will be too preoccupied to hear them; perceptible items might pass before his eyes, but he will not see them, as if his eyes are covered. Through his derech he will reach the realm of his desire and the hope of his soul, as it is stated, “Your Name and the remembrance of You are the desire of the soul” (Yeshaya 26:8). Without a doubt this third derech of observing Shabbos is different from the second, as the second is from the first. And certainly, there is an enormous difference between the third and first. 
According to this example you will be able to explain the other darchei ha’yechidim (paths of the unique individuals). One whose derech ha'yachid regarding prohibited foods only affects him to the point where he refrains from gorging himself on meat or becoming drunk with wine is far from one who has reached the level were “a kav of carobs was sufficient for him from one erev Shabbos to the next” (Berachos 17b). 
The same is true of the other darchei ha’yechidim: the distance between their different levels is tremendous and the difference between their followers is great.
Avraham ben ha'Rambam's presentation of the Derech ha'Torah revolutionized my view of the Torah system. Perhaps I will elaborate on that at a later time. For now, let us return to the more pressing matteres of life: should my school add "dyed tips" to its dress code?

Compulsory Piety

Let's go back to the faculty member who said, "There might not be anything halachically problematic about dyed tips, but I feel like it's not tznius." Let us assume, for the moment, that this teacher is correct, and that an argument can be made that a girl who goes out of her way to dye the tips of her hair pink is not conducting herself in accordance with the ideal of tznius. I could see myself agreeing with that.

What I cannot agree with is the ongoing trend in the frum world to force derech ha'yachid standards and practices upon the general populace. The Torah was designed with a derech ha'am and a derech ha'yachid for a very good reason. As Avraham ben ha'Rambam pointed out, the derech ha'yachid is a derech of chesed ("voluntariness"). As a person's understanding of Torah and mitzvos develops, he or she will gradually "volunteer" to supplement his or her observance of halacha with the additional strictures that are dictated by the philosophical objectives of the system. To make these strictures compulsory is to transform this derech chesed into a derech achzarius (path of cruelty).

Other policy-making factors aside, the teacher who "feels" that dyed tips are not tznius is more than welcome to impose this restriction on herself, in accordance with her own understanding of the character and purpose of tznius. It is one thing for a school to enforce halacha, but to enforce the derech ha'yachid is an entirely different matter.

Imagine what would happen if we started enforcing the derech ha'yachid in kashrus, prohibiting people from eating kosher food for pleasure or "merely" for bodily health and only permitting them to eat if we can ensure that they are eating in order to be involved in Avodas Hashem! Or imagine if we required every Jew to spend the entire Shabbos day involved in the study of physics, with minimal eating, drinking, and socializing. The derech ha'am would collapse under the weight of the enforced derech ha'yachid. People wouldn't be able to take it, and would abandon the derech ha'am altogether.

Sounds crazy, right? But this is exactly what is beginning to happen in many other areas of halacha. I don't know when this trend of standardization of middas chasidus started, but there are examples of this everywhere - not just in the world around us, but in the halachic codes which are the foundation of mainstream practice. 

For instance, let us compare the codification of a middas chasidus practice in two halachic works: the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, and the Shulchan Aruch of R' Yosef Karo. The Rambam devotes Chapter 5 of Hilchos Deos to discussing the behavior appropriate to talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars). He opens the chapter with an introduction:
Just as a chacham is recognizable in his wisdom and character traits and is differentiated from the rest of the nation, so too, he needs to be differentiated in his actions: in his eating and drinking, in his sexual intercourse and the manner in which he uses the bathroom, in his speech, in his manner of walking, in his clothing, in the content of his words, and in his business dealings. All of these actions must be refined and perfected to a very high degree. 
The Rambam then goes on to specify how a chacham should conduct himself in each of these categories of activity. We will focus on a seemingly trivial behavior: walking. The Rambam writes in 5:8:
A talmid chachamim shouldn't walk with an upright posture and an outstretched neck, as it was stated: “walking with outstretched necks and winking eyes” (Yeshaya 3:16); nor should he walk daintily, heel to toe, like women or those who are haughty, in the manner described: “walking with dainty steps, jingling with their feet” (ibid.).
It is clear from the introduction to this chapter that this halacha about walking is lifnim mi'shuras ha'din. These instructions are for talmidei chachimim - not for average Jews. An regular Jewish fellow who walked with an outstretched neck might not be praiseworthy, but he certainly isn't involved in any halachic transgression. 

Compare this to R' Yosef Karo's formulation in the Shulchan Aruch: "It is prohibited to walk with an upright posture" (Orach Chayim 2:6). Period. End of story. If a person were reading the Shulchan Aruch, he or she would walk away with the impression that this requirement is not not just for talmidei chachamim, but for everybody - and it isn't just a lifnim mi'shuras ha'din guideline, but a full-fledged prohibition. 

There are countless other examples of mandating middas chasidus throughout the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema, not to mention the later halachic codes - and that's not even taking into account the advent of Chassidus, the rise of Chareidim, the surge of yeshivish culture, and all of the other sects and factions in the Orthodox world which push lifnim mi'shuras ha'din standards. 

[Note: R' Yosef Karo, himself, discouraged the practice of reading the Shulchan Aruch without having studied the Beis Yosef first. Those who followed R' Yosef Karo's advice would be much more informed, and would most likely be able to differentiate between shuras ha'din and lifnim mi'shuras ha'din. I am merely pointing to the fact that the popularity of the Shulchan Aruch has, unfortunately, helped to spread the notion that these middas chasidus practices are part of the Derech ha'Am - just like eating matzah and keeping Shabbos.]

I am also reminded of the Rambam's statement in Shemoneh Perakim: 
Once in a while, though, some pious individuals would tend toward an extreme, such as fasting, staying awake all night, doing without meat and wine, separating from women, wearing course wool and sackcloth, dwelling on mountainsides, or withdrawing to the desert. But the only reason they did any of these things was to heal themselves, as we have explained ... 
Now, when some fools who had no idea why the pious were acting this way saw them do these things, they thought that was a good way to act, and they did likewise, in the belief that they would thus become like them. They afflicted their bodies in all kinds of ways and believed they would thus achieve personal virtues and were doing good, since (in their minds) that was how a person draws close to God - as if God is the enemy of the body, and wants to destroy it and annihilate it! 
They never realized that those were in fact bad things to do, and that they would acquire flaws that way [instead]. 
They would be like some fool who knew nothing about medicine who saw expert practitioners giving cathartics to dangerously ill patients and not allowing them to eat, and through this they were healed and their lives were quite dramatically saved. The sort of fool we are referring to would say to himself, "If those things can heal a sick person, they would certainly keep a healthy person well and even make him healthier!" And he would start to take them regularly and to do the sorts of things those ill people were doing - but would become ill instead.
The case of which the Rambam speaks here isn't exactly the same as the issue at hand, but the fool's mistake is, in my opinion, analogous to the mistake being made by those who seek to impose derech ha'yachid strictures as mandatory. Lifnim mi'shuras ha'din practices are good, but not for every person at every stage of his or her development. 


I see that my strong feelings on this topic have caused me to turn this blog post into somewhat of a rant. That's okay. I needed to at least start getting these thoughts out in writing, and I think I've done just that. To wrap it up, let me summarize the take-away points:
  1. The derech ha'Torah is comprised of the derech ha'am (i.e. halacha) and the derech ha'yachid (i.e. keeping halacha in accordance with the objectives of the mitzvos and the Torah as a whole).
  2. The derech ha'am is uniformly obligatory on all Jews, whereas the derech ha'yachid is to be taken on voluntarily by each individual in accordance with his level of understanding, his capacities, and his circumstances.
  3. To impose to the derech ha'yachid onto individuals not only conflates the two drachim, but in many cases, will actually harm the individual. That individual's adherence to halacha might be compromised, since he or she will tend to view halacha as more oppressive than it actually needs to be. In the long run, this effect will spread to the society (or community) as a whole.
  4. When legislating halacha-based school policies, we would be wise to take this phenomenon into account. A girl who dyes her hair pink might not be on a high level of tznius, but the Torah intends for her to come to that conclusion on her own, and to modify her practice at her own pace, in accordance with her own understanding. It is not our place to coerce her into keeping lifnim mi'shuras ha'din standards of tznius. This will only breed resentment towards halacha, and will very likely impede her developmental progress towards true tznius
I firmly believe that if we educators successfully established Avraham ben ha'Rambam's framework as the foundation of our students' view of Torah and mitzvos, we could avoid many of the problems which plague our students, our fellow Jews, and ourselves.