Thursday, June 30, 2016

Footnote 4

The following is a large excerpt the famous "Footnote 4" from Halakhic Man, by the Rav (a.k.a. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik). It stands out in my mind as one of the most impactful footnotes I've read. The language and references are obscure, but there is still what to be gained, even if not all of it is comprehensible upon the first reading (or two, or ten). 

This excerpt deals with the nature of the religious experience and the religious journey. I present it here without further commentary, for you to take it in on its own terms.

Footnote 4

[T]he antinomic structure of religious experience, which was revised and refined by Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy, give[s] the lie to the position that is prevalent nowadays in religious circles, whether in Protestant groups or in American Reform and Conservative Judaism, that the religious experience is of a very simple nature – that is, devoid of the spiritual tortuousness present in the secular cultural consciousness, of psychic upheavals, and of the pangs and torments that are inextricably connected with the development and refinement of man’s spiritual personality. This popular ideology contends that the religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate; it is an enchanted stream for embittered souls and still waters for troubled spirits. The person “who comes in from the field, weary” (Gen. 25:29), from the battlefield and campaigns of life, from the secular domain which is filled with doubts and fears, contradictions and refutations, clings to religion as does a baby to its mother and finds in her lap “a shelter for his head, the nest of his forsaken prayers” [H.N. Bialik, “Hakhnisini tahat kenafekh”] and there is comforted for his disappointments and tribulations. This ideology is partially embedded in the most ancient strata of Christianity, partially rooted in modern pragmatic philosophy; but mainly it stems from practical-utilitarian considerations. The advocates of religion wish to exploit the rebellious impulse against knowledge which surges from time to time in the soul of the man of culture, the yearning to be freed from the bonds of culture, that daughter of knowledge, which weighs heavy on man with its questions, doubts, and problems, and the desire to escape from the turbulence of life to a magical, still, and quiet island and there to devote oneself to the ideal of naturalness and vitality. This Rousseauean ideology left its stamp on the entire Romantic movement from the beginning of its growth until its final (tragic!) manifestations in the consciousness of contemporary man. Therefore, the representatives of religious communities are inclined to portray religion, in a wealth of colors that dazzle the eye, as a poetic Arcadia, a realm of simplicity, wholeness, and tranquility. Most of the sermons of revivalists are divided in equal measure between depicting the terrors of hellfire and describing the utopian tranquility that religion can bestow upon man. And that which appears in the sermons of these preachers in a primitive, garbled form, at times interwoven with a childish naïveté and superficial belief, is refined and purified in the furnace of popular “philosophy” and “theology” and becomes transformed into a universal religious ideology which proclaims: If you wish to acquire tranquility without paying the price of spiritual agonies, turn unto religion! If you wish to achieve a fine psychic equilibrium without having to first undergo a slow, gradual personal development, turn unto religion. And if you wish to achieve an instant spiritual wholeness and simplicity that need not be forged out of the struggles and torments of consciousness, turn unto religion! “Get thee out of thy country,” which is filled with anxiety, anguish, and tension, “and from thy birthplace,” which is so frenzied, raging, and stormy, “to the land” that is enveloped by the stillness of peace and tranquility, to the Arcadia wherein religion reigns supreme. The leap from the secular world to the religious world could not be simpler and easier. There is no need for a process of transition with all its torments and upheavals. A person can acquire spiritual tranquility in a single moment. Typical of this attitude is the Christian Science movement.

It would appear to me that there is no need to explain the self-evident falsity of this ideology. First, the entire Romantic aspiration to escape from the domain of knowledge, the rebellion against the authority of objective, scientific cognition which has found its expression in the biologistic philosophies of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spengler, Klages, and their followers and in the phenomenological, existential, and antiscientific school of Heidegger and his coterie, and from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct, the desire for power, the glorification of the emotional-affective life and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity, the lavishing of extravagant praise on the faustian type and the Dionysian personality, etc., etc., have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world. And let the events of the present era be proof! The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another, rather than pledge its troth to beclouded, mysterious ideologies that grope in the dark corners of existence, unaided by the shining light of objective knowledge, and believe that they have penetrated to the secret core of the world.

And, second, this ideology is intrinsically false and deceptive. That religious consciousness in man’s experience which is most profound and most elevated, which penetrates to the very depths and ascends to the very heights, is not that simple and comfortable. On the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous, and tortuous. Where you find its complexity, there you find its greatness. The religious experience, from beginning to end, is antinomic and antithetic. The consciousness of homo religiosis flings bitter accusations against itself and immediately is filled with regret, judges its desires and yearnings with excessive severity, and at the same time steeps itself in them, casts derogatory aspersions on its own attributes, flails away at them, but also subjugates itself to them. It is in a condition of spiritual crisis, of psychic ascent and descent, of contradiction arising from affirmation and negation, self-abnegation and self-appreciation. The ideas of temporality and eternity, knowledge and choice (necessity and freedom), love and fear (the yearning for God and the flight from His glorious splendor), incredible, overbold daring, and an extreme sense of humility, transcendence and God’s closeness, the profane and the holy, etc., etc., struggle within his religious consciousness, wrestle and grapple with each other. This one ascends and this one descends, this falls and this rises.

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments. Yes, it is true that during the third Sabbath meal at dusk, as the day of rest declines and man’s soul yearns for its Creator and is afraid to depart from that realm of holiness whose name is Sabbath, into the dark and frightening, secular workaday week, we sing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters” (Ps. 23), etc., etc., and we believe with our entire hearts in the ultimate destination of homo religiosis, not the path leading to that destination. For the path that eventually will lead to the “green pastures” and to the “still waters” is not the royal road, but a narrow, twisting footway that threads its course along the steep mountain slope, as the terrible abyss yawns at the traveler’s feet. Many see “the Lord passing by; and a great and strong wind rending mountains and shattering rocks . . . and after the wind an earthquake . . . and after the earthquake a fire” but only a few prove worthy of hearing “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). Out of the straits of inner oppositions and incongruities, spiritual doubts and uncertainties, out of the depths of a psyche rent with antinomies and contradictions, out of the bottomless pit of a soul that struggles with its own torments I have called, I have called unto Thee, O Lord.

And when the Torah testified that Israel, in the end, would repent out of anguish and agony [cf. Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 7:5], “In your distress when all these things are come upon you . . . and you will return unto the Lord your God” (Deut. 4:30), it had in mind not only physical pain but also spiritual suffering. The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence. He arises from the agonies, purged and refined, possessed of a pure heart and new spirit. “It is a time of agony unto Jacob, but out of it he shall be saved” (Jer. 30:7) – i.e., from out of the very midst of the agony itself he will attain eternal salvation and redemption. The spiritual stature and countenance of the man of God are chiseled and formed by the pangs of redemption themselves.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

We're ALL Sick

I must acknowledge at the outset the possibility that some will find this blog post to be offensive. To those people, I am sorry - for whatever preemptive apologies are worth. I don't know how to express these musings in a way that avoids any chance of upsetting people, and I am aware that by posting this, I might be putting my foot in my mouth. The best I can do is this offer little disclaimer. 

Artwork: Mind Bend, by Mike Dringenberg

We're ALL Sick

Over the past three weeks I have stumbled upon three different online discussions about three different "mental/psychological conditions" (for lack of a better term) - the type of condition that affects a minority percentage of the population. In each of these discussions, one party spoke of the condition as an illness, and the other party was offended and responded by saying something to the effect of, "How DARE you speak of this condition as though it were an illness! Keep your bigotry to yourself!" (I'm not going to identify which conditions were discussed, since that would likely sidetrack us with the same type of argument.)

Witnessing these online altercations led me to think about how mental illness is regarded in our present day American society. I am happy about the recent movement to destigmatize mental illness. People have become increasingly open to talking about mental illness, there is a greater awareness of how many lives are affected by it, and - most importantly - people are beginning to realize that there is no shame in seeking help when confronted by these issues. In this sense, things are moving in a good direction.

But when it comes to talking about mental illness, things become complicated.

On the one hand, insofar as terms like "illness," "sickness," and "disease" are heavily stigmatized, I can sympathize with the efforts of those who want to rid our vocabulary these words, since their usage can be harmful and hurtful. There is definitely merit in finding the most positive or neutral terms possible (e.g. "she has a developmental disability" vs. "she's mentally retarded,"  or "he is struggling with addiction" vs. "he's a junkie").

On the other hand, one must be careful not to go too far in the opposite direction. Treating terms like "illness," "sickness," and "disease" as horribly taboo can contribute to the stigma, instead of diminishing it. To react to the phrase "mental disorder" with "How DARE you!" and "Don't SAY that!" is to treat mental illness as a reprehensible thing that shouldn't even be uttered. There is a similar risk with those types of euphemisms mentioned in the preceding paragraph: when they are pushed to the point where they become contrived, phony, or see-through, they can backfire (e.g. I am sure that there are kids with Down Syndrome who do not want to be called "special," just as there are kids in wheelchairs who dislike being called "differently-abled").

Terminology is a tricky balancing act, to say the least, as is the case with most things that fall into the zone of potentially offensive speech. 

These musings led me to ponder what Judaism would have to say - not on the topic of what mental illness is, but on how to deal with the stigma of mental illness in the way we talk about it. My thoughts went to the words of the Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Deos, Chapter 2:
Those who are physically ill taste the bitter as sweet and the sweet as bitter. Some of these sick individuals desire and crave as food things which are inedible, such as dirt and coal, and detest healthy foods, such as bread and meat – all according to the severity of the illness. 
So too, there are people whose souls are sick; they desire and love bad character traits, and they hate the good path and are lazy to follow it, and it is very burdensome upon them, based on their sickness. Thus, Yeshayahu says about such people: “Woe onto those who proclaim the bad as good and the good as bad, who treat darkness as light and light as darkness, who regard the bitter as sweet and the sweet as bitter” (Yeshayahu 5:20). Concerning these individuals it is said: “They abandon the paths of uprightness to walk in the paths of darkness” (Mishlei 2:13).
It was at this moment that I an "aha!" moment: we are ALL sick. Well, maybe not ALL of us, but certainly most of us. How many people can say that they don't want to engage in the behaviors associated with a bad character trait, or feel some resentment towards some aspect of the good path, or experience some degree of laziness and/or burden in following the good path? I don't know about you, but I am certainly guilty of regarding "the bad as good and the good as bad" in some areas of my life. 

To be clear: I am NOT categorically equating "DSM-5 classified" mental disorders with the "sicknesses of the soul" that the Rambam is discussing in Hilchos Deos. There may be some overlap, but that is not my intention in this comparison here. 

Rather, my point is that according to the Rambam, "sickness of the soul" is part of the human condition - just as much as "sickness of the body." In fact, these sicknesses are universal and congenital. We all begin life with this kind of sickness (with the exception of the mythical "perfect child" whose value system lines up perfectly with the True Good) and we must grow out of it as we develop our minds and our ability to properly exercise our free will.

Based on this, I would like to suggest the following approach: instead of trying to pretend that mental disorders are NOT disorders and excising all pathological terminology from our vocabulary, perhaps we would be better off broadening our concept of mental disorder to include those sicknesses of the soul that plague the general populace. 

I believe that awareness of the ubiquity of these types of illness can help us to further destigmatize mental illness. By recognizing that we all suffer from some form of sickness - whether physical, mental, or moral - it makes it that much easier to have empathy for our fellow human beings, even if the particular form of sickness they suffer differs from our own.

... or maybe I'm wrong, and this is yet another instance of me calling something good when really it's bad. Let me know what you think! 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Am I Qualified to Write this Blog?

I have tried to cut down on the number of "personal" posts I write here, compared to the old blog. Nevertheless, I have found that "learning" and "my relationship with learning" are so inextricably bound together in my mind that I can't help but write posts on the latter. This is one of those posts.

Artwork: Reckless Scholar, by Steve Prescott

Am I Qualified to Write this Blog?
“Not everything that is thought should be said, not everything that is said should be written, and not everything that is written should be published.” 
I have seen this quotation attributed to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, Rav Yisrael Salanter, Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, and possibly others. But the last time I heard this was a couple of years ago, when someone gave me some unsolicited advice which basically amounted to: "you shouldn't be blogging." 

This fellow went on to explain that Briskers (read: "such as ourselves") were known for being extremely reluctant to commit any of their Torah to writing, and when they did, they only published it after much deliberation and countless revisions. Based on this, he then went on to chastise me for my prolific blogging and suggested that I only publish something after extensive and complete analysis, and thorough review (preferably by my peers), until I reach the point where I am absolutely certain about what I am writing. He certainly would not approve of my summer plan of publishing one blog post every weekday. 

It is at times like these that I question whether or not I should be blogging altogether. After all, I can't exactly say that this guy was wrong about any of his points. Am I too quick to write and publish? Should I really be "thinking out loud" in writing, or should I keep my ideas to myself until they are fully developed and refined? Am I really qualified to be writing on Torah topics? Maybe I should stop ...

But whenever I have moments of self-doubt regarding my decision to write, I recall the words of Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda. In his introduction to Chovos ha'Levavos (Duties of the Heart) Rabbeinu Bachya recounts the train of thought which led him to write this book. After stating all the reasons why he should write the book, he tells us why he almost didn't write the book:
But when I thought of proceeding to carry out my decision to write this book, I saw that a man like myself is not fit to compose a work like this. I estimated that my ability was insufficient to properly divide its parts, for subject was too daunting in my eyes, my knowledge too inadequate, and my intellect too weak to grasp the concepts. Furthermore, I am not an expert in the subtleties of the Arabic language which it would need to be in, due to this being the easiest language for most of my contemporaries to grasp. I feared that I would be toiling excessively at a task and that I would thus be exceeding the proper bounds [of my own limitations]. I therefore, told my soul to retract the thought and to draw back from what it had resolved on. 
Rabbeinu Bachya deemed himself to be inadequate on multiple levels. He felt he was intellectually unqualified, that the subject matter was too vast and daunting, and that he lacked the proper skills as a writer. He worried that his efforts would be misplaced, and that he would be toiling in vain.

These doubts resonate with me as well. Although I do not share Rabbeinu Bachya's hesitation about writing in the native language of my country of residence, I definitely feel under-qualified as an authority on Torah. When I compare myself to my peers - and certainly my rabbeim - I cower in recognition of the paucity of my Torah knowledge and intellectual abilities. Who am I to represent Torah in a public venue? Is what I know worthy of sharing with the world? Am I doing more harm than good by expressing my thoughts and ideas in writing? 

And then I recall Rabbeinu Bachya's response to his own self-doubting:
When I then decided to relieve myself of the burden of this toilsome burden and give up my plan of composing this work, I again suspected my soul of having chosen tranquility, to dwell in the abode of laziness, in peace and quiet. I feared that perhaps this decision to abandon the project stemmed from the desire for pleasure, and that this is what had inclined me to the way of peace and tranquility, to decide to abandon this in order to sit in the company of laziness. 
I knew that many [works of] intelligence were lost due to fear, and many losses were caused by concern. I remembered the saying: "part of caution is not to be overly cautious." I told myself, if every person who ever composed a good work or who ever taught the upright and proper path had waited until all his wishes were fulfilled, no person would have ever uttered a word after the prophets, whom God had chosen as His agents and strengthened with His divine help. If every person who had wished to attain all good qualities but was unable to attain them, had abandoned whatever he could attain of them, then all human beings would be devoid of all good and lacking all excellencies. They would have been perpetually pursuing after false hopes, the paths of righteousness would have been desolate, and the abodes of kindness would have been abandoned.  
I understood that while men's souls lust greatly to attain evil ends, they are sluggish to toil in the pursuit of what is noble. They are lazy in seeking the good, and always walk in the paths of laughter and rejoicing. If a vision of lust appears to them and beckons to them, they invent falsehoods so that they may turn to it. They bolster up its arguments to make its deception seem upright, to strengthen its lies, to make firm its looseness. But when the light of truth invitingly shines before them, they make up idle pretexts to refrain from turning to it. They argue against it, declare its courses misleading and contradict its assertions, so as to make it appear inconsistent and thus have an excuse to part from it. Every man's enemy is between his own ribs, unless he has an aid from his God, a rebuker always ready for [rebuking] his soul, a powerful governor, that will harness his soul with the saddle of service, and will muzzle it with the bridle of righteousness, strike it with the stick of discipline; and when he resolves to do good, he should not delay, and if his heart entices him to a different path, he should scold it and overpower it.  
Therefore, I found myself obligated to force my soul to bear the task of composing this book, and resolved to expound its topics with whatever language or analogy would make the matters readily understandable. Among all the duties of the heart, I will only mention those which suggest themselves to me, and will not trouble to expound all of them, so that the book will not be too long. I will, however, cite among the things necessary for the clarification of each of its roots in the section allocated to it. And from God, the true Unity, may I receive aid. On Him, I place my trust and to Him I ask to teach me the right path which He desires, and which is pleasing and acceptable to Him, in word and deed, in inner and outer conduct. 
Rabbeinu Bachya realized that even if his reasons for not writing were valid, it is likely that he was just rationalizing his laziness and his pleasure-seeking. Despite his inadequacies, the work that he set out to do was extremely important, and it would be a tragedy if his abundance of caution prevented him from bringing this work to light. He recognized that if everyone with any deficiencies refrained from committing their Torah knowledge to writing, then we would be left only with the books of the prophets and nothing more. And with that, Rabbeinu Bachya threw caution to the wind (as an act of caution), trusted in God, and set himself to the task of writing the book he knew he had to write - in spite of his shortcomings.

The same is true regarding me and my blog. I am not the best writer, and I am nowhere near the most qualified Torah scholar or thinker. Nevertheless, I believe that I do have some meager Torah knowledge to offer the world, and if I refrain from writing on account of my feelings of inadequacy, this benefit will be lost. Enough people have expressed their appreciation for what I write to convince me that the good I am doing outweighs any of the harm, and as long as that remains true, I will continue to write.

If you are a reader of this blog, and have any thoughts to share on this topic, I would appreciate your input! Thank you for letting me vent my thoughts on this matter. 


While we're here, there is one more point I'd like to make. For a while I struggled with what type of language to use in my blog, and what kind of audience to write for. Should I allow myself to use jargon and write for an advanced audience? Should I cater to those who know very little, and provide background information in detail? 

Ultimately, I settled on approach similar to the one Rabbeinu Bachya chose:
I propose to take the most direct (easiest) method of arousing, teaching, and instructing, using language clear, direct, and familiar, so that my words will be more easily understood. I will refrain from deep language, unusual terms, and the arguments in the way of "defeat" (nitzuach), which the logicians call in Arabic "Algidal", and likewise for remote inquiries which cannot be resolved in this work, for I only brought such arguments as are satisfactory and convincing according to the methods proper to the science of theology.
Likewise, I have decided to write in the plainest, clearest, and most direct manner possible for a lay audience, but on a range of topics that spans many different audiences. Some of my posts are on basic points and are geared towards beginners. Others are for the more enfranchised members of the Torah community. And some posts I write primarily for myself, because the ideas are of interest to me and I wish to clarify them by expressing them in writing. 

I hope that my decision to write in this manner has enabled me to reach the broadest audience possible, but to make my readers feel that I my blog posts are addressed to someone like them. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

How to Deal with an Uncontrollable Yetzer

Originally posted in July 2013.

Artwork: Lose Calm, by Justin A. Engle

How to Deal with an Uncontrollable Yetzer

Elai ha'Zaken's Statement

One of the most astounding Gemaras can be found in Kiddushin 40a:
Rebbi Elai ha'Zaken said: "If a person sees that his yetzer (inclination) is overpowering him, he should go to a place where they don’t recognize him, put on black clothes and cover himself in black, and do what his heart desires, and not cause a chillul shem shamayim b'farhesya (public desecration of God's Name)."

[The Gemara asks:] Is this true? Wasn't it taught in a Braisa: “If a person does not have mercy on the glory of his Creator, he’d be better off not being born”? To whom does this refer? Rabbah says: "to a person who stares at a rainbow." Rav Yosef says: "to a person who transgresses in private." [According to Rav Yosef, this Braisa contradicts Elai’s statement!]

This is not a contradiction: [the Braisa refers to a situation] in which it is possible for him to control his yetzer, whereas [Elai’s statement refers to a situation] in which it is not possible for him to control his yetzer.
The same statement of Elai ha'Zaken can be found in Chagigah 16a:
[As] Rebbi Yitzchak said: "If a person transgresses in private, it is as if he trips the legs of the shechinah, as it is stated, 'Thus said Hashem: The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool' (Yeshaya 66:1)." 

Is this true? Didn't Rebbi Elai ha'Zaken say: "If a person sees that his yetzer is overpowering him, he should go to a place where they don't recognize him, put on black clothes and wrap himself in black, and do what his heart desires, and not cause a chillul shem shamayim b'farhesya"?

This is not a contradiction: [Rebbi Yitzchak's statement referred to a situation] in which it is possible for him to control his yetzer, whereas [Elai's statement refers to a situation] in which it is not possible for him to control his yetzer
There is one major problem with Elai ha'Zaken's statement: How can he encourage someone to intentionally sin?

Understanding Elai ha'Zaken's Statement

The Rishonim address this question in their interpretations of the Gemara. The most conservative approach is that of Rabbeinu Chananel, which is cited by the Baalei Tosafos (Chagigah 16a d"h v'yaaseh mah she'libo chafetz) as follows:
God forbid that [Elai ha'Zaken] would permit a person to commit an aveirah (transgression)! Rather, this is what he is saying: he should don black clothes and go to another place, since the wearing of black clothes and lodging [in different locations] will break his heart, and he will not come to transgress, and from that point and on he can do what his heart desires, for [at this point] his yetzer will certainly not overpower him!
The version of Rabbeinu Chananel printed in our version of the Gemara is quite different:
God forbid that Elai ha'Zaken permitted the transgression of any aveirah at all! Rather, this is what he said: If a person sees that his yetzer is overpowering him with regards to eating, drinking, and partying, and he fears that he will become drunk and come to transgress, [Elai] permitted him to go to another location and to dress in black - all in order to break his yetzer, since the heart of a traveler is broken ... Once he does this, his heart will be broken and he will automatically refrain [from sinning]. But to transgress an aveirah, or even to drink wine amid music which brings one to simchah - this is prohibited! And all the more so to do what is worse than this. All of this (i.e. Elai's advice) only applies to a situation in which he isn't able to control his yetzer ... and only where there is no aveirah.
In spite of these differences, both versions of Rabbeinu Chananel's opinion reflect his view that (a) Elai ha'Zaken was not talking about about doing an aveirah, and (b) he intended his advice to be deterrent, rather than permissive.

The Baalei Tosafos (ibid.) maintain that Rabbeinu Chananel's reading is forced and incorrect. They interpret the Gemara in the most straightforward manner possible:
"and do what his heart desires" completely, which implies that it is better for a person to carry out his desires in private than in public - not like Rabbeinu Chananel. 
Rashi's view (Kiddushin 40a d"h yilbash shchorim) is somewhat of a hybrid of the two interpretations. He writes:
"he should don black clothes" so that he doesn't view himself with dignity - perhaps this will cause his heart to become softened; furthermore, if he does sin, people won't pay attention to him since he will not appear distinguished in their eyes; therefore, he should wear black. 
In his comments on the Gemara in Chagigah, he simply writes:
"in which it is not possible for him to control his yetzer" it is better for him [to sin] in private than in public. 
In other words, Rashi learns that Elai's advice was intended as both a deterrent and as a form of damage control, in the event that the deterrent fails. Like Rabbeinu Chananel, Rashi learns that wearing black and going to a different location is likely to subdue the person's inclination, causing him to lose his resolve to sin. Like Tosafos, and unlike Rabbeinu Chananel, Rashi maintains that Elai is talking about a case involving a temptation to do an actual aveirah, and is recommending that the sinner opt for the lesser of two evils.

Implications of Elai ha'Zaken's Statement

This Gemara has some eye-opening implications, which I'd like to point out in a concise form:

Implication #1: Chazal held that some urges cannot be controlled.

We see from this Gemara that there are two states of hisgabrus ha'yetzer (being overpowered by one's inclination): one in which the person can control himself, and another in which he can't. This goes against the opinion of the many frum Jews out there who believe that we all have the ability to control our yetzer ha'ra in every situation, or that God wouldn't give you a desire that you can't control. Elai ha'Zaken would beg to differ.

Implication #2: Not every "overpowering urge" is actually uncontrollable.

We are expected to be able to tell the difference between the two states of hisgabrus ha'yetzer. There are many people who minimize or ignore this distinction, especially the Jews who are born and raised in American-galus. They point to people who are challenged by their instinctual urges, saying, "What do you expect these people to do? They can't help themselves!" Elai ha'Zaken would disagree: just because a person is overpowered by his yetzer doesn't necessarily mean that he can't control himself. It is entirely possible to be faced with an overwhelming urge, and to resist its demands. Addicts who are in recovery manage to do this every day.

Implication #3: A person who is overcome by an uncontrollable urge still has free will.

To my mind, the most amazing implication of Elai ha'Zaken's statement is this: even when a person finds himself in the grip of an uncontrollable yetzer, and he is definitely going to sin, the Torah still expects him to be able to exercise enough self-control to travel to a different location and put on black clothing before he indulges. In other words, "uncontrollable" just refers to the fact the need to act on one's urge; he is still expected to be able to control how he acts on it. This is the premise of Elai ha'Zaken's statement.

Implication #4: Chazal had a realistic view of the challenges of the yetzer.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, Chazal were realistic! They know that "There is no man on earth who is a tzadik who does [only] good and does not sin" (Koheles 7:20). We are human beings. We are not perfect, and we can't always live up to the ideal. Some of us will consider this point to be obvious, but, as we mentioned before, there are those who claim that the Torah doesn't make any demands of a person which he can't handle. Elai ha'Zaken definitely would not agree. 

Implication #5: The Torah still has advice for those who are going to transgress its laws

Chazal use the term "lifnim mi'shuras ha'din" (a.k.a. "beyond the letter of the law") to describe actions which go beyond the demands of the halacha, and are in line with the Torah's ultimate objectives. The term "shuras ha'din" (a.k.a. "the letter of the law") refers to the minimal requirements of halacha. 

I'd like to coin a new term: "me'achorei shuras ha'din" ("behind the letter of the law"). This refers to a person who, for whatever reason, must violate halacha, but wishes to do so in accordance with the Torah's principles to the greatest extent possible. This category is a very important one to keep in mind, especially when dealing with individuals who (for whatever reason) feel they must compromise the observance of halacha. 

There are so many Jews who have an "all or nothing" attitude when it comes to halachic observance. This is ridiculous. Don't get me wrong: from a philosophical, halachic, and metaphysical standpoint, Torah is an "all or nothing" system. You can't pick and choose which halachos to keep. At the same time, realistically speaking, not every person is able to keep every halacha in every case. But the Torah has advice even for these people. The Torah doesn't just say, "To hell with you. Do whatever you want. See if I care." 

This is highlighted very clearly in Elai ha'Zaken's teaching. He is essentially telling this person: "I understand. You can't control yourself in this case. Your own observance of this halacha will be compromised. But there is still the consideration of chillul shem shamayim, and you should at least retain that consideration as a priority." 

I once taught a group of "rebellious teenage boys" at a Modern Orthodox Jewish high school. They refused to daven, and had done so for years. I asked my rebbi what I should do. My rebbi asked me if I was sure that they weren't going to daven, and I answered in the affirmative. He then asked, "What if you told them just to say the Shema and daven shemoneh esrei - could you get them to do that?" I told him that I think I have a way. Guess what? It worked! For the rest of the year (at least), they said shema and davened shemoneh esrei every day. 

Some would look at this and say, "How dare you deviate from Chazal's prescribed tefilos! You have no right!" But to view it this way would be to miss the point entirely. There were two options here: continue to face the problem of these boys not davening at all, or at least get them to fulfill their de'oraisa obligations. To choose the former over the latter is to mix up one's priorities. That was my rebbi's cheshbone (calculation), and I agree with him. I believe Elai ha'Zaken's would also approve. 


Needless to say, this Gemara is not a halachic matir (license) for a person to indulge whenever he wants. I wouldn't even consider this to be a matir, even according to Tosafos, since it is meta-halachic, rather than halachic. In other words, the Gemara isn't saying, "It is mutar (permissible) for such a person to go and fulfill his heart's desire." Rather, the Gemara is saying, "It is definitely assur (prohibited) for a person to go and fulfill his heart's desire, but in this case, that is what he should do in order to minimize chilul shem shamayim."

Moreover, the Gemara is clearly talking about an isolated instance of being overpowered by his yetzer. If a person finds himself scheduling regular "yetzer ha'ra indulgence" weekends, then I'd question whether such a person is actually "overcome by an uncontrollable yetzer" or whether he's just faking himself out.

I've seen some people mistakenly claim that this Gemara is talking about a case of oneis (i.e. being compelled against one's will to transgress halacha). I don't think that's the case. According to Tosafos, the person that Elai ha'Zaken is talking about is still committing an aveirah b'meizid (intentionally), and the aveirah still "counts" and he still needs to do teshuvah. This isn't a "freebie." 

Obviously, if a person found himself in a situation of an uncontrollable yetzer and decided to follow Elai ha'Zaken's advice, he should do so in a practical, cautious, intelligent way - unlike so many public figures. This goes hand in hand with the "you still have free will" point: just because you can't control yourself with regards to one instinctual urge doesn't mean you should throw caution to the wind and behave like a Mishleic fool. 

I'm sure there's a lot more to say about this Gemara. Although I am interested in your questions, insights, and critiques on all of my posts, I am particularly interested in what you have to say about this Gemara.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Parashas Behaalosecha: The Non-Symbolic Trumpets

Parashas Behaalosecha: The Non-Symbolic Trumpets

This week's parashah features the unusually multifaceted mitzvah of the chatotzros (trumpets). This mitzvah has a number of functions. Here are the pesukim, with my own paragraph divisions between the categories of functions: 
Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: "Make for yourself two silver trumpets - make them hammered out, and they shall be yours for the summoning of the assembly, and to cause the camp to journey. When they sound a tekiah (long blast) with [both of] them, the entire assembly shall assemble to you, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. If they sound a tekiah with one, the leaders shall assemble to you; to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When you sound teruah (short blasts), the camps resting to the east shall journey. When you sound teruah a second time, the camps resting to the south shall journey; teruah shall they sound for their journeys. When you gather together the congregation, you shall sound a tekiah but not a teruah. 
The sons of Aharon, the Kohanim, shall sound the trumpets, and it shall be for you an eternal decree for your generations. When you go to wage war in your Land against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound short blasts of the trumpets, and you shall be remembered before Hashem, your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies. 
On a day of your gladness, and on your festivals, and on your new moons, you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt-offerings, and over your feast peace-offerings; and they shall be a remembrance for you before your God; I am Hashem, your God.
The trumpets served four functions: (1) summoning the assembly and the leaders, (2) signaling the camps to move, (3) causing us to be remembered before Hashem at a time when we are oppressed or afflicted, and (4) accompanying the korbanos (offerings) on joyous holidays. The first two functions were only relevant when Bnei Yisrael were encamped in the Midbar (Wilderness). The second two functions apply for all generations, as long as the Mikdash (Temple) still stands. 

Two basic questions arise from these facts: 
  1. Why are trumpets the instrument of choice? What is their significance? Moreover, why not use the Torah's other mitzvah instrument: the shofar? After all, the same types of blasts are sounded: tekiah, teruah, tekiah. Not only that, but in the Mikdash, a shofar accompanied the two trumpets during these blasts, so it's not as though the shofar is irrelevant here. 
  2. What is the common denominator between these four functions? What do these four things have in common, such that they are unified by this mitzvah?
Now, it is tempting to answer question #1 by searching for some sort of symbolism in the trumpets and their blasts, and then use that symbolism to answer question #2. There are a number of details about the trumpets which lend themselves to this approach: the fact that they had to be hammered out of silver and no other type of metal, the fact that there can never be fewer than two trumpets and never more than 120, the fact that they were only sounded in the Mikdash, the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu made the first set of trumpets and no one else was permitted to use them - even to the point where they were put into genizah when Moshe died - etc. etc.

That is certainly a fine approach, and I have no doubt that it can yield good results. However, I would like to share a simpler approach which is often overlooked, due to its simplicity.

The Sefer ha'Chinuch explains:
At the root of this precept lies the reason that at the time of a korban they had to intensely focus their thoughts on its purpose, for as is it is known, it could become disqualified through certain specific thoughts. Moreover, an offering required perfect concentration of intention before the Lord of all, Who commanded us about it. Similarly, at a time of trouble, a man needs great concentration when he pleads before his Creator that He should have mercy on him and rescue him from his misfortune. Therefore they were commanded about sounding the trumpets at these times. For man, insofar as he is a physical being, requires a great arousal to matters. For human nature, with nothing to arouse it, will remain asleep. And nothing will stir him like the sounds of melody - it is a known matter - and especially trumpets, the blast of which is the strongest sound among all musical instruments. 
And there is another benefit to be found in the blast of the trumpets, as it would seem, apart from the arousal to proper intention. For by the force of the sounds, a man will remove from his heart the thought of other affairs of the world, and he will pay attention at that time to nothing but the matter of the offering. But why should I go on at length, when this is evident to anyone who gives ear to hear trumpets and the peal of the shofar with proper intention? 
See what I mean by "simple"? The Sefer ha'Chinuch's answer to the first question (Why trumpets?) is "because trumpets are loud, and they help you focus." His answer to the second question (What do these functions have in common?) is "they all require focus." (Technically, he didn't explain the two Midbar functions, but it is reasonable to assume that he would apply his explanation there as well.)

This explanation of the trumpets certainly isn't glamorous, but it is conservative and cogent. It explains the reason for the mitzvos without positing anything other than what the facts, themselves, suggest. It eschews the perils of metaphor and symbolism-speculation. Last but not least, it helps us to understand the mitzvah on its most basic level, which is a necessary step before moving on to a more advanced understanding. 

In my opinion, the Sefer ha'Chinuch's explanation here should serve as a paradigm for analyzing the reasons for all mitzvos. Start with the basic structure of the mitzvah and develop a theory from the bottom and up, making the minimum number of assumptions possible. The navi's admonition to "walk humbly with your God" (Michah 6:8) applies as much to methodology in learning as it does to life.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Torah Study as Natural Discovery

I originally wrote this post in February 2009, towards the end of my time in graduate school. It was then that I discovered the writings of Jerome Bruner, whose insights into education dovetailed nicely with the revolution in my Torah paradigm from Rabbi Y.S. over the two preceding years. I would eventually go on to write my final paper on the relationship between Bruner and the Rambam. This blog post was the starting point of that train of thought.

Artwork: Natural Order, by Terese Nielsen

Torah Study as Natural Discovery

I am currently taking an amazing class in graduate school called "Curriculum Development" - a subject near and dear to my heart. Thus far, each and every reading and writing assignment has been thought-provoking and enlightening. Today I came across a short essay entitled Structures in Learning, by Jerome S. Bruner, a famous psychologist and educational philosopher. 

I'd like to share an excerpt from this essay because I believe it contains profound insights into the proper approach to education. If you would like to read the full essay (which isn't much longer than the excerpt I've posted), click here. As usual, the emphases in bold are my own.
Structures in Learning - by Jerome S. Bruner 
Every subject has a structure, a rightness, a beauty. It is this structure that provides the underlying simplicity of things, and it is by learning its nature that we come to appreciate the intrinsic meaning of a subject.  
Let me illustrate by reference to geography. Children in the fifth grade of a suburban school were about to study the geography of the Central states as part of a social studies unit. Previous units on the Southeastern states, taught by rote, had proved a bore. Could geography be taught as a rational discipline? Determined to find out, the teachers devised a unit in which students would have to figure out not only where things are located, but why they are there. This involves a sense of the structure of geography.  
The children were given a map of the Central states in which only rivers, large bodies of water, agricultural products, and natural resources were shown. They were not allowed to consult their books. Their task was to find Chicago, "the largest city in the North Central states."  
The argument got under way immediately. One child came up with the idea that Chicago must be on the junction of the three large lakes. No matter that at this point he did not know the names of the lakes - Huron, Superior, and Michigan - his theory was well reasoned. A big city produced a lot of products, and the easiest and most logical way to ship these products is by water.  
But a second child rose immediately to the opposition. A big city needed lots of food, and he placed Chicago where there are corn and hogs - right in the middle of Iowa.  
A third child saw the issue more broadly - recognizing virtues in both previous arguments. He pointed out that large quantities of food can be grown in river valleys. Whether he had learned this from a previous social studies unit or from raising carrot seeds, we shall never know. If you had a river, he reasoned, you had not only food but transportation. He pointed to a spot on the map not far from St. Louis. "There is where Chicago ought to be." Would that graduate students would always do so well! 
Not all the answers were so closely reasoned, though even the wild ones had about them a sense of the necessity involved in a city's location.  
One argued, for example, that all American cities have skyscrapers, which require steel, so he placed Chicago in the middle of the Mesabi Range. At least he was thinking on his own, with a sense of the constraints imposed on the location of cities.  
After forty-five minutes, the children were told they could pull down the "real" wall map (the one with names) and see where Chicago really is. After the map was down, each of the contending parties pointed out how close they had come to being right. Chicago had not been located. But the location of cities was no longer a matter of unthinking chance for this group of children.  
What had the children learned? A way of thinking about geography, a way of dealing with its raw data. They had learned that there is some relationship between the requirements of living and man's habitat. If that is all they got out of their geography lesson, that is plenty. Did they remember which is Lake Huron? Lake Superior? Lake Michigan? Do you?  
Teachers have asked me about "the new curricula" as though they are some special magic potion. They are nothing of the sort. The new curricula, like our little exercise in geography, are based on the fact that knowledge has an internal connectedness, a meaningfulness, and that for facts to be appreciated and understood and remembered, they must be fitted into that internal meaningful context. 
This approach to education did not originate with Bruner, but with Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu's method of teaching Adam ha'Rishon in Gan Eden: 
"Now, Hashem-Elokim had formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. And the man designated by name all of the cattle and the birds of the sky and every beast of the field" (Bereishis 2:19-20). 
The essence of this method is that it is geared towards the tzelem Elokim - man's natural seeking of insight into the principles of lawfulness underlying the phenomena he observes in his environment. Instead of bombarding children with a barrage of meaningless facts, lifeless formulae, and rote analytical procedures, we must cater to their natural curiosity and intuitive ability to sense order and structure in the phenomena they encounter. Bruner elaborates on this in his explanation of the three virtues of intellectual potency, intrinsic motivation, and techniques of inquiry: 
For the child to develop intellectual potency, he must be encouraged to search out and find regularities and relationships in his environment [read: "to discover lawfulness in his environment, like Adam ha'Rishon"]. To do this, he needs to be armed with the expectancy that there is something for him to find and, once aroused by this expectancy, he must devise his own ways of searching and finding. 
Emphasis on discovery in learning has the effect upon the learner of leading him to be a constructionist - to organize what he encounters in such a manner that he not only discovers regularity and relatedness, but also avoids the kind of informational drift that fails to keep account of how the information will be used.  
In speaking of intrinsic motives for learning (as opposed to extrinsic motives), it must be recognized that much of the problem in leading a child to effective cognitive ability is to free him from the immediate control of environmental punishments and rewards [read: "to release his soul and its faculties from the control of the nefesh ha'bahami (animal-psyche)"].  
For example, studies show that children who seem to be early over-achievers in school are likely to be seekers after the "right way to do it" and that their capacity for transforming their learning into useful thought structures tends to be less than that of children merely achieving at levels predicted by intelligent tests.  
The hypothesis drawn from these studies is that if a child is able to approach learning as a task of discovering something rather than "learning about it" he will tend to find a more personally meaningful reward in his own competency and self-achievement in the subject than he will find in the approval of others.  
There are many ways of coming to the techniques of inquiry, or the heuristics of discovery. One of them is by careful study of the formalization of these techniques in logic, statistics, mathematics, and the like. If a child is going to pursue inquiry as an eventual way of life, particularly in the sciences, formal study is essential. Yet, whoever has taught kindergarten and the early primary grades (periods of intense inquiry) knows that an understanding of the formal aspect of inquiry is not sufficient or always possible.
Children appear to have a series of attitudes and activities they associate with inquiry. Rather than a formal approach to the relevance of variables in their search, they depend on their sense of what things among an ensemble of things "smell right" as being of the proper order of magnitude or scope of severity.  
It is evident then that if children are to learn the working techniques of discovery, they must be afforded the opportunities of problem solving. The more they practice problem solving, the more likely they are to generalize what they learn into a style of inquiry that serves for any kind of task they encounter. It is doubtful that anyone ever improves in the art and technique of inquiry by any other means than engaging in inquiry, or problem solving. 
The question I had when I finished this article is: How can we apply this principle to our own Torah learning? I'm not just talking about chinuch for younger children. I'm talking about me and my own learning! I have found, especially in recent times, that my learning is severely lacking in the quality present in Adam ha'Rishon's learning. My learning has become exceedingly removed from the process of naming phenomena in my real-world environment. The formalistic dimension of Talmud Torah, while absolutely necessary, is supposed to be built upon a solid foundation in real-world naming. Without this foundation, the formal definitions are artificial skeletons which fail to illuminate the life of mitzvos. 

This problem needs a solution, but at the moment I do not have one, nor do I fully understand the multifaceted nature of the problem. However, I have complete faith that our Mesorah contains such a solution. My two best leads are the Rambam and the Pesach Seder. I will keep you posted as the quest continues. For now, let us ponder the problem.

Update: Thank God, in the seven years since I wrote this blog post, my learning and teaching have become more in line with the ideal of natural discovery. There's still a lot to think about here, but improvement is possible!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

What to Do When You Are Lost in the Woods

This is a combination of two old blog posts: How to Cope with Panic (April 2012) and On Being Lost in the Woods (February 2012). The two posts belong together, so why not unite them? I still approve of my original decision to write exclusively about the nigleh and not the nistar, since the former is valuable in its own right, and the latter is something that each person must grapple with on his or her own.

What to Do When You Are Lost in the Woods

One highlight of my recent cabin retreat was the opportunity to revisit the highly enjoyable Complete Book of Camping, by Leonard Miracle and Maurice H. Decker. Take a gander:

As you can tell from its cover, this book is not written in recent times. The hardcover edition at the cabin was published in 1961, and the age shows in the writing style. I discovered the book sitting on one of the shelves covered with a thin layer of dust on my first trip to The Cabin. I initially picked it up just to flip through the table of contents, but I soon found myself engrossed in its pages. Since then, I've read through much of it several times, and I am always delighted by the gems I find.

For the record: I am by no means an outdoorsman. I have never been camping "for real" (i.e. without such luxuries as electricity and running water), nor do I foresee myself doing so in the near future. Nevertheless, I gain a tremendous amount of pleasure and benefit from reading what the frontiersman authors of this book have to say about the multifaceted art of camping.

Have a look at the authors and their bios and you'll get a better sense of who we're dealing with: 

The authors of this book are eminently practical men. Their writing reflects the same quality of craftsman's artful simplicity that I admire so much in Bruce Lee, only with a more rugged edge. Take, for instance, the opening paragraphs of Chapter 3 "On Bedding":
It should be established at once that it is the ignoramus, not the expert, who says that he will merely roll up in a blanket and spend the night under the stars. You will never hear such talk from men who know. 
The experienced camper knows that, to get a good night's sleep that will keep him healthy and efficient, he must have a bed that is warm, dry, level, and reasonably well padded.  
Youngsters and other novice campers get misleading ideas about outdoor sleeping from many Hollywood movies. Movie cowboys, for example, often doze off on the bare ground, their heads on their saddles. They sleep in their clothes, with a slicker or a saddle blanket as their only covering. At dawn they stand up refreshed and virile - ready to wrestle steers or bad men. But - make no mistake about it - such sleeping habits work only in the movies.  
Such professional outdoorsmen as forest rangers, big-game guides, and western sheepherders use air matresses, down-filled sleeping bags, and canvas ground cloths. The make their beds under a tent or some kind of waterproof roof when there is the slightest chance of rain or snow. Many of the wiser and more grizzled heads rest on pillows plump with waterfowl down. They are as finicky as rich brides about each item of camp bedding.
This excerpt exemplifies a theme that runs through the entire book: slapping some horse sense into the minds of young whippersnappers and city slickers who have been deluded by motion pictures into a highly romanticized view of the great outdoors. Almost every chapter begins with a refutation of commonly held notions which, after the fact, are clearly childish. For example, here is the opening of the section entitled "Choosing a Pack-Trip Horse":
Many novices given the chance to choose their own mount from a string of gentle saddle horses make the mistake of selecting by color. Fiction of one kind and another has spread the belief that a white horse, for example, will be of pure and dauntless spirit and of gentler nature than the coal-black steed. The strawberry roan is supposed to be wild and woolly. A buckskin horse is tough and durable. The palomino and the pinto are thought to have special virtue because of their unusual color. 
All this is pure fancy. Color by itself is no indication of a horse's speed, temperament, or any other ability. Disregard color, and choose a compact, short-backed horse with clean-cut legs and head. An excess of speed and spirit can be a hazard in a horse that will be ridden at a walk over rough, narrow trails with steep drop-offs. Leave the jumpy, highstrung mounts for flatland riders, and choose a horse that is alert but calm. Pass up the round-backed, big-bellied horse. It is awkward to straddle and possibly soft and lazy, and a saddle turns too easily on that balloon-shaped torso. The gaunt, long-legged horse is also a poor choice as a rule. It may be a poor rustler of feed in mountain meadows and is likely to be nervous and jumpy, lacking the steady power and stamina a trail horse needs.
See what I mean? No nonsense. Nothing but practicality.

Okay, enough about the authors and their general style. On to the topic at hand.

Artwork: Lost in the Woods, by Matt Stewart

My favorite chapter in the book is the chapter entitled "Plan to Get Lost." As you may have guessed, this chapter is about what to do when you get lost in the wilderness. The chapter begins with a vivid depiction of the scenario:
Thus, the cautious and meticulous route planner, trail marker, and compass checker rarely gets lost. His pessimistic caution, however, is foreign to the nature of most campers, so we deal now with the exuberant majority - the people who never think of back trails and compass bearings while the breeze is fresh and the sun is warm and the vale ahead full of promise. 
The crucial moment with 90 per cent of all persons lost in the woods comes in that instant when they first realize they are lost. One minute the wanderer is merely puzzled, perhaps irritated at the delay in locating a trail or landmark. A second later the words "I'm lost!" flash through the mind - and they panic the novice beyond all reason. This is the point where intelligent thought can be swamped. There is an irrational urge to run after the missing trail as if it were a live thing that must be recaptured by headlong pursuit. The friendly forest is abruptly full of stalking phantoms, and flight is your only escape. The fresh breeze is a cold wind now, the yellow sun paler and plummeting toward dusk and darkness. Walk faster, faster! Run! 
You will feel this panic the first time you are lost in big woods. Perhaps it sounds improbable as you read about it in your own living room, but some sense of panic at being lost is as normal as shivering when you are cold. Be prepared to cope with it. 
Although I have never been lost in the woods, this seems like a pretty good description of the state of mind. What would you do if you realized you were lost? I would probably try frantically to retrace my steps. I might use what little knowledge I have about how to find my bearings, such as the North Star or the thing about moss growing on the north side of trees (which, apparently, isn't always true). Maybe I would start shouting for help, depending on how desperate I was.

But this is not the approach advised by our authors. No sir. There is a reason why they begin with a description of the "I'm lost!" state of mind: in their expert opinion, the state of mind is the root of the problem. Thus, their first piece of advice:
Stop traveling the instant those words, "I'm lost" take shape in your thinking. If you are standing, sit down. If you smoke, light up. If you wear a pack, take it off. Get out a sandwich or candy bar if you have one. All of these are simple tricks to keep you rooted where you are until that urgent hurry, hurry mood passes. If you feel you are in serious trouble, build a fire. Nothing will calm and reassure you more quickly than to get a cheerful blaze going. The work involved keeps your mind from spinning aimlessly, and the fire gives you an established base. With the fire going, you have a camp right where you are, and the only problem now is to plan the best route back to the camp or trail you left in the beginning. In a sense you are not lost any more: that urgent need to escape is gone. 
The first step is to address the mental state of panic. Only then should you focus on regaining your bearings. The authors continue by providing some suggestions on how to do this, all while continuing to reassure the mind of the lost camper:
You are now in shape to use your head rather than your feet. Where were you last definitely on the right track? Think back step by step. Chances are your mistake will come to mind as vividly as the sudden realization that you were lost. You took the wrong fork in the trail, perhaps, or turned down the wrong slope of the ridge. Maybe camp is upriver, and you clung to the notion it was downstream from the point where you hiked out of the brush. The man who sits down and calms himself with familiar distractions such as pipe loading, eating, and fire building can nearly always think himself back to base camp.  
When the solution is immediately and positively clear to you, put out your fire, gather up your gear, and be on your way. You are not lost at all. If you have the slightest doubt, however, mark your trail as you go so you can easily find your way back to the point where you stopped to collect your wits and directions. That is the closest spot to camp or trail that you know for sure.  
Unless you see your mistake at once, do not move from the little camp you have established. Get out your map and compass. The map will show that horseshoe bend in the river below you. That tallest peak beyond the river bend is due west, your compass shows. The peak is on the map, too, and so is the road you are aiming for. It is about a mile south of the peak and river bend. You are just on the wrong side of the ridge. Climb to the saddle 200 yards south of you, and you will see the road in the valley beyond. Pack up and go there. 
Lacking map and compass, try drawing a map of all you can remember in the dirt with a twig, with pencil and paper if you have them. No help? Climb the little butte to your right, marking a foolproof trail as you go, and look for something familiar from that vantage point. Listen for any sound in a known direction - say, the noon whistle of the sawmill in the valley to the east, the rumble of the ore train from the mine where your car is parked.  
Still no luck? Well, you will now have to settle down to being lost overnight. 
The authors then go on to recommend procedures for how to set up an impromptu camp and how to send emergency signals. At the very end of the chapter - a subsection entitled, "Why Worry?" - the authors reiterate their fundamental insight:
The first and final thing to remember about being lost is that 99 per cent of the real danger is from panic - unreasonable fear that causes intelligent people to injure or deplete themselves in their own foolish stampedes ... 
There is considerable danger to anyone lost in such extreme climates as Death Valley or the Arctic. Even those formidable areas can be mastered by the standard traveler who calmly rigs a good shelter and uses emergency signals efficiently.  
The great majority of people who get lost are out in temperate climates and only a few miles from a good road or trail. With calm planning, this garden variety of "lostness" is no more than an inconvenience.  
As the following chapter will explain, the average man can get by without most of the things he considers necessities in his everyday life. The city-pampered gourmet will eat a rabbit raw after two hungry weeks in the wilds. The man who considers two flights of stairs a hardship can carry a pack over a mountain pass if he has to. And the fellow who shivers each time his home furnace falters can survive in a lean-to in weather far below freezing. There is a tough and adaptable animal just beneath the pampered skin of modern man.
And that, in short, is a sound approach on how to cope with the panic of getting lost in the woods. Let's summarize the steps:
  1. Calm your panicked state of mind; recognize that your hope lies in a calm state of mind.
  2. Mentally retrace your steps to see where and how you deviated from the proper course.
  3. Once you have a clear idea of how you lost your way, start retracing your steps - but mark your trail so you can find your way back.
  4. Map your route to the best of your ability, use all of the tools at your disposal, and stick to the most certain knowledge available - all while maintaining a keen awareness of your surroundings in order to pick up any clues that might help you to find your way.
  5. Remember that you have the ability to adapt, and be prepared to do so. 
Pretty sound advice, right? Now for a real challenge: see if you can apply this to the nistar application as well. Rather than spell it out, I will leave you with a poetic bridge from the nigleh to the nistar in the form of an excerpt from "Walden" (1854), by Henry James Thoreau:

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. Often in a snow storm, even by day, one will come out upon a well-known road, and yet find it impossible to tell which way leads to the village. Though he knows that he has traveled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it, but it is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia. By night, of course, the perplexity is infinitely greater. In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round -- for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost -- do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
I hope that if you someday become lost, that you will be able to cope with the panic, and that you emerge as a found person. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Walk-through of Mishlei 15:5

I thought it might be a good idea to follow up yesterday's How to Learn Mishlei: a Step by Step Guide post with an example of the method in action. I was going to write up a new blog post when I remembered that I wrote a walk-through of a Mishlei pasuk back in 2012. I reread it, concluded that it has withstood the test of time, and decided to edit it for re-posting today. Enjoy!

Artwork: Despise, by Todd Lockwood

Walk-through of Mishlei 15:5


This post is intended as a sample analysis of an "average" pasuk in Mishlei, using the five-step method outlined in How to Learn Mishlei: a Step by Step Guide. I say "average" because in truth, there is no average pasuk in Mishlei. Each pasuk is a little, unique, self-contained world of insight. I hope that this post succeeds in giving you a sample of that flavor. 

Without further ado, let us commence with the first phase!

Phase #1: Reading and Translation

Here is the text of our pasuk:

משלי טו:ה
אֱוִיל יִנְאַץ מוּסַר אָבִיו וְשֹׁמֵר תּוֹכַחַת יַעְרִם:

I'll begin by translating the unequivocal terms into English, but I'll leave the ambiguous phrases as transliterations for now. Here is the first attempt at translation:
An eveel will despise the discipline of his father, but a shomer-rebuke will gain ormah.
If I had to settle on a working translation at this point, it would probably look something like this:
A fool will despise the discipline of his father, but one who guards rebuke will become cunning.
But we must remember that this is only a working translation. It is important to remain flexible as we proceed through our analysis, and constantly revisit the original Hebrew to modify our translation. 

Now that we've read and translated our pasuk, it's time for the real analysis to begin!

Phase #2: Questions 

For the sake of thoroughness, I am going to spell out all of the questions in as much detail as I can. In addition to formulating the questions concisely (in bold), I will elaborate on all of them and try to explain the import of each one. As I see it, there are seven major questions: 
  1. What is an "eveel"? Shlomo ha'Melech is the taxonomist of fools par excellence. His book features a whole cast of fool-characters, each plagued by a different type of foolishness: eveel, pesi, leitz, ksil, boor, chasar leiv, naar, atzel etc. Sometimes these terms are used in a technical sense with a specific definition; other times they are used generically and interchangeably. Sometimes the definition can (and should) be derived from the specific context; other times it must be derived from elsewhere in Mishlei. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary to know the definition of the fool in order to understand the main idea of the pasuk; other times, the fool is just being used to highlight one of his specific features (e.g. a particular habit he has, or an action he does, or an emotion he experiences), and it is not necessary to understand his nature in order to get the main idea of the pasuk. As you can see, there are no rules for how to approach this type of question. Follow your intuition, and hone it over time.
  2. Why does the pasuk focus on the eveel's rejection of mussar av (his father's discipline), specifically? The second half of the pasuk seems to be talking about all rebuke, not just rebuke from one's father. If so, why does the first half of the pasuk zero in on rebuke from such a specific source?
  3. What is the meaning of "shomer tochachah"? The word "shomer" means "to guard," "to keep," and "to watch over." It is an unusual term to use in relation to rebuke. One would expect the pasuk to say something like, "one who listens to rebuke" or "one who accepts rebuke." 
  4. What is ormah? Just as Shlomo ha'Melech classifies fools, each according to their particular type of foolishness, he also classifies chachamim (wise people) according to their intellectual virtues. There are as many words for chachamim in Mishlei as there are for fools: chacham, navon, meivin, ish tevunos, yashar, arum, ish mezimos, etc. The "sometimes" and "other times" guidelines stated above (in Question #1) apply to these terms as well. In our pasuk, however, it seems that the meaning of ormah is central to the main idea, and we will need to precisely define what it means.
  5. How does being a shomer-tochachah cause a person to gain ormah? Our pasuk posits a cause-and-effect relationship: if a person is a shomer-tochachah, he will gain ormah. How does this work? For example, let's say you rebuke me for being a reckless driver or for waiting until the last minute to study for tests. I can see how I would benefit from such a rebuke, but that benefit would be in terms of avoiding traffic accidents and bad grades - not in terms of "gaining ormah," which seems to be a much broader quality.
  6. How is a shomer-tochachah the opposite of an eveel who rejects his father's discipline? This brings us to a huge methodology principle in Mishlei. The vast majority of Mishlei pesukim are to be viewed as a contrast in opposites; the content of the first half of the pasuk will, in some sense, be the opposite of the content of the second half. Sometimes it is obvious how the two halves are opposites, but in other cases, it seems that the two halves are slightly "off." In some cases, the first half seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the second half. When this happens, our goal is to figure out how to understand the pasuk such that we can grasp the oppositional symmetry. In our case, we can assume that the shomer-tochachah who gains ormah is the opposite of the eveel who rejects his father's discipline. The question is: How?
  7. What is the subject of the pasuk? Every pasuk is about a specific subject, and unless you can identify that subject, you will not fully understand the pasuk. In this case, it is clear that the subject has something to do with rebuke, but it is unclear whether the subject is more specific than that. (Oftentimes the subject of the pasuk will emerge from thinking about how the two halves of the pasuk are opposites, but it's still a good idea to ask this question separately.) 
There is an eighth question that some people might wonder about: What is the difference between tochachah and mussar? I won't say that this is a bad question per se, but it's not the type of question I concern myself with. Almost all meforshim disregard such questions. The only exception is the Malbim, whose entire derech hinges on such subtleties of the pasuk's language. The other meforshim have no trouble with the notion that Shlomo ha'Melech employed synonyms, since that's the way normal people talk (a la dibrah Torah ki'lshon bnei adam - "the Torah speaks in the language of man"). For this reason, I don't treat questions like this as "major questions," nor do I assume that the main idea will emerge from scrutinizing such subtleties. Instead, I keep these types of questions in the back of my mind while I learn the pasuk. If they trigger my intuition, so be it. If not, no problem. If, after arriving at the main idea, I can see an added dimension reflected in the subtlety of the lashon, then that's great. If I can't, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. 

[At this point in the original blog post I wrote a blurb about Mishlei methodology. I wish I had remembered this blurb when writing yesterday's post, since yesterday's post covered much of the same material. In order to spare the regular readers of my blog from redundancy, I took this part out. If you're interested in reading it, I've included it as an addendum at the end of this post.]

Phase #3: Thinking

Much of this step is intuitive, which makes it hard to capture in writing. I will do my best to share the steps I took in my analysis of this pasuk to arrive at the main idea.

Three out of the seven questions we raised are "definition questions" (#1, #3, and #4), and since it is impossible to understand what the pasuk is saying until we understand what it is talking about, it seems like these questions are the logical place to start. 

I knew that out of all of Mishlei's terms for fools, "eveel" (lit. "fool") is the most generic. I sensed that for our purposes we wouldn't need to define the nature of the eveel. All we would need to know about the eveel is that he despises all discipline - a fact which is clear from many pesukim in Mishlei. For example: "Fear of Hashem is the beginning of knowledge, but eveelim scorn wisdom and discipline" (1:7) and "The way of the eveel is upright in his own eyes, but one who listens to counsel is wise" (12:15). Notice how this strengthens our Question #2. Considering the fact that the eveel, by definition, despises all discipline, then why does the pasuk specifically refer to his rejection of his father's discipline? 

The next step was to define "ormah" (lit. "cunning" or "cleverness") which I had done previously in my Mishlei learning. My working definition of "ormah" means knowledge and awareness of how emotions distort thinking. How did I arrive at this conclusion? By inferring the meaning of "ormah" and "arum" from their opposites: "pesayus" and "pesi," which refer (respectively) to a specific type of foolishness and the fool it characterizes, respectively. Let's do a quick overview of this type of foolishness.

Shlomo ha'Melech begins his book by stating that Mishlei is designed "to provide pesa'im with ormah" (1:4). Likewise, "When the scoffer is struck, the pesi gains ormah" (19:25). Throughout Mishlei, the pesi is contrasted with the arum. For example: "A pesi believes everything, but an arum understands every step" (14:15) and "An arum sees evil and hides, but the pesa'im transgress and are punished" (22:3). It is reasonable to conclude that by understanding who the pesi is and the type of knowledge/intelligence he lacks, we will understand ormah and what it means to become an arum.

Rabbeinu Yonah (on Mishlei 1:4), paraphrasing Chazal (Eiruvin 19a), defines pesi (lit. "one who is seduced") as "one who is mispateh b'yitzro" (lit. "seduces himself with his own inclination"). In other words, a pesi is someone whose convictions are heavily influenced by his emotions. To a pesi, what feels good is good, and what feels true is true. He is "seduced" by his psyche into thinking that his feelings and first impressions reflect reality, and he is oblivious to how his emotions distort his thinking. Rabbeinu Yonah (on Mishlei 1:22) says that if the pesi were aware of the distortion-capacity of his own emotions, he would not be so quick to jump to conclusions, and he would be much more careful in his thinking.

Thus, if "ormah" is what a pesi lacks and if an arum is the opposite of a pesi, it follows that ormah refers to knowledge and awareness of how emotions distort one's thinking. This quality of ormah can be used for the good, as it is throughout Mishlei, or it can be used for evil, as in the case of the snake in Gan Eden: "and the snake was more arum than all the beasts of the field" (Bereishis 3:1). The nachash used its ormah - its knowledge of how human emotions distort thinking - to lure Chavah into eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. 

Back to our pasuk. The most mysterious phrase here is "shomer tochachah." I thought about the clues I discovered when formulating the questions, namely: 
  • We'd expect Mishlei to say "listens to rebuke" or "accepts rebuke," so "shomer tochachah" must mean something above and beyond that. (Question #3)
  • Whatever "shomer tochachah" means, it must somehow lead to ormah. (Question #5)
  • The shomer-tochachah who gains ormah is the opposite of the eveel who despises his father's discipline. (Question #6)
  • If the eveel despises all rebuke, why does the pasuk focus on his rejection of mussar av (his father's discipline) in particular? (Question #2)
It was then that I had my "EUREKA!" moment - like the "click" on a luggage combination-lock - and the main idea rapidly unfolded from there. 

I realized that mussar av evokes a different type of emotional resistance than all other mussar, due to the special place that a father holds in a one's psyche. (I don't feel the need to support this with evidence or explanation; anyone who has been rebuked by his father knows what I'm talking about.) The eveel is oblivious to the uniqueness of this emotional reaction. Even though he reacts much harsher to his father's discipline than anyone else's, he will give no thought to this difference. Why? Because he lacks awareness of his own emotions - or, in Mishlei terminology, he lacks ormah. I realized that that is the subject of the first half of the pasuk: not the eveel's rejection of mussar in general, but rather, the eveel's lack of ormah as evidenced by the nature of his rejection of his father's mussar in particular. (Yeah, ya might want to read that sentence a few times.)

It follows, then, that the shomer-tochachah is someone who does have an awareness of his own emotions. A good sign that we are correct is that this is exactly what the pasuk says: "The shomer-tochachah will become an arum." In other words, the shomer tochachah will gain self-awareness and knowledge of own his emotions and their power to distort his thinking. This is when I knew I was on the right track.

I realized I was now in a position to define "shomer tochachah." How can a person relate to tochachah in a manner that will gain him an increased awareness of his own emotions? It must be by watching over his own emotional reactions to the tochachah he receives. By monitoring his inner world, he will gain knowledge and awareness of his own emotions (i.e. ormah). In other words, the shomer-tochachah doesn't just look to the tochachah as a way to improve his life in the localized area of decision-making which was the subject of the tochachah. Rather, he looks at the tochachah as a tremendous opportunity to learn about himself by analyzing his own reactions to being rebuked. This type of knowledge will benefit him in all areas of decision-making; awareness of his own emotions will help him to guard against distortions in his thinking, and he'll be more in tune with his own psychological needs and will be able to know what to pursue in his decision-making, thereby leading to healthier and more realistic decisions. 

I then realized that the root SH.M.R. here is not being used in the sense of "guard," "protect," or "keep," but in the sense of "examine," "watch over," or "monitor," as in "ve'haya lachem l'mishmeres ad arbah asar yom la'chodesh ha'zeh" (Shemos 12:6) which means "[The Pesach lamb] shall be yours for examination until the fourteenth day of this month." Thus, I decided to translate "shomer tochachah" as "one who monitors rebuke," meaning, "one who monitors, examines, and analyzes his own emotional response to the rebuke that he receives."

This is when the subject of the pasuk came clearly into focus. The subject of this pasuk is: rebuke as an opportunity for self-knowledge. The fool misses out on this opportunity, in addition to missing out on the benefit of listening to the rebuke itself. In contrast, the shomer-tochachah seizes this opportunity, in addition to implementing the rebuke in action. 

Phase #4: The Main Idea

Now we are in a position to concisely formulate the main idea. In this phase I try to do what I ask all of my students to do: state the main idea in 1-4 clear sentences. Here is my post-analysis translation of the pasuk, and my summary of the main idea, which became clearer once I began formulating it:
Mishlei 15:5: A fool rejects the discipline of his father, but one who monitors rebuke will become cunning.  
In order to successfully heed rebuke, one must approach it from two angles: (1) practicality (i.e. figuring out how to correct your actions and/or decision-making) and (2) psychology (i.e. continually monitoring and managing your emotional reaction to the rebuke in order to overcome the internal resistances to accepting it and implementing it). One who places the emphasis on the practical dimension of the rebuke will improve his life in that specific area of decision-making, but one who goes beyond that and focuses on the psychological dimension rebuke will gain the additional benefit of becoming cunning; that is to say, he will gain self-awareness and knowledge of his own psyche, which will benefit him in all areas of decision-making. In contrast, the fool not only “scorns [all] wisdom and discipline” (Mishlei 1:7), but he is so out of touch with his own emotions that he fails to recognize the nature of his own psychological resistances, as evidenced by the especial disdain he harbors towards his father’s discipline in particular. Consequently, he will suffer the localized consequences of ignoring the rebuke, as well as the widespread consequences of his lack of cunning. 
Now, if we stopped here, we would - at the very least - have a nice idea. But our goal is not only to learn nice ideas, but to learn from the teachings of Shlomo ha'Melech. In order to make sure we've accomplished this goal, we must conclude our analysis with the final phase.

Phase #5: Testing the Main Idea

Here is where we do our final check-over to see if we have actually understood the pasuk
  • Does the idea make sense? Check. Not only does it make sense, but it resonates with my real-world experience, as all true ideas (ideally) should. 
  • Did I answer all of the major questions? Check. 
  • Does the pasuk read smoothly according to this idea, in a manner that expresses the idea without feeling forced? Check. 

And that, my friends, is a walk-through of a typical Mishlei pasuk! I hope this was helpful not only in understanding how I arrived at this particular idea, but in demonstrating my approach to Mishlei in general. Let me know what you thought of this idea, and the "walk-through" format of this blog post. If this is something people want, maybe I'll do more in the future!

Addendum: Methodology - How to Learn Mishlei

Before we analyze our pasuk, I'd like to state a brief preface about methodology in Mishlei. My Mishlei rebbi once told me that the purpose of methodology serves two purposes: (1) to set up the facts prior to thinking, and (2) to avoid logical mistakes in thinking. However, when it comes time for the actual thinking itself, "You should think as though there is no method." In other words, your mind should be totally free to explore and to be creative. In The Evolution of Physics, Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld describe the transition from the stage of fact gathering to the stage of thinking: 
In nearly every detective novel since the admirable stories of Conan Doyle there comes a time where the investigator has collected all the facts he needs for at least some phase of his problem. These facts often seem quite strange, incoherent, and wholly unrelated. The great detective, however, realizes that no further investigation is needed at the moment, and that only pure thinking will lead to a correlation of the facts collected. So he plays his violin, or lounges in his armchair enjoying a pipe, when suddenly, by Jove, he has it! Not only does he have an explanation for the clues at hand, but he knows that certain other events must have happened. Since he now knows exactly where to look for it, he may go out, if he likes, to collect further confirmation for his theory.
That is exactly how I experience the learning of Mishlei. First comes the fact-gathering step, in which the focus is on understanding how to read the words in the pasuk. This is followed by a question step, in which the major questions and problems are identified and clearly articulated. Sometimes these steps are sequential, and sometimes they overlap, but both are necessary at the beginning, before the analysis can commence. Otherwise, one runs the risk of projecting preconceived notions onto the pasuk and missing out on what Shlomo ha'Melech is trying to teach. Also, if you don't take the time to articulate your questions in advance, you run the risk of getting so caught up in your idea that you fail to realize that you've neglected to answer a glaring problem in the pasuk

After the initial steps of "the facts" and "the questions" are done, now comes the period of thinking. How the thinking and analysis plays itself out is unpredictable and highly individualized, based on the intuition of each thinker. Once your mind sees a possible idea or approach, explore that idea freely and see where it leads. If it helps, you can think about the idea in conjunction with the pasuk. Personally, I find that it's best to temporarily forget about the pasuk and develop the idea on its own terms.

Once your mind is on the trail of an idea and you've found a good possibility or even a partial possibility (a "kernel" or a "glimmer of an idea," as I sometimes say), you can then return to the pasuk to see whether you have, indeed, figured out what Shlomo ha'Melech is teaching in the pasuk. At this point, it is beneficial to see which of your major questions you have answered and which remain to be answered. You may also find that you'll need to rework the facts in light of your idea. Be prepared to change the entire manner in which you initially read the pasuk

The interplay between facts, questions, thinking, and testing can go up and back and around in cycles. That's totally natural and fine. The main thing is to make sure that you've covered all four bases: that your facts are solid, your questions are precise and answered, your idea is clear and makes sense, and that it flows from the words in the pasuk without being forced.

Once you have succeeded in arriving at a clear idea which naturally flows from the pasuk and answers your major questions AND you can clearly see the application and relevance of this idea to real-world decision-making (which is the subject of Mishlei), then you can say: "I understand this pasuk." And if you can clearly summarize your interpretation of the pasuk in four sentences or less and provide an actual real-world example, then you would receive an "A" in my high school Mishlei class!