Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I Hate Sukkah (in a Good Way)

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My Dinner with Andre (1981)

I Hate Sukkah (in a Good Way)


I hate the mitzvah of sukkah.

"Whoa there, buddy!" one might object. "Hate is a strong word!"

Yes - and it is a strong feeling I have towards the mitzvah of sukkah ... but only at very specific times, under a narrow set of conditions.

I love the mitzvah of sukkah at the onset of Yom Tov, when we first make kiddush and say the berachah of leishev ba'sukkah. I love the mitzvah of sukkah the first night, when I sleep beneath the s'chach under the stars. I love Yom Tov afternoons when the air is cool and the sun is warm and I curl up with a nice book in my sukkah and read the afternoon away. In fact, I love the mitzvah of sukkah for most of the holiday. 

But when do I hate it? Usually on the 4th or 5th night, at around 10pm, when I'm ready to go to sleep, and the forecast says 15% chance of rain between 11pm and 2am, and it's warm inside and it's cold outside, and I haven't gotten a restful sleep for days, and it's windy but not windy enough, and I want to catch a cold so I'm patur (exempt) but I'm not actually sick yet, and I haven't taken my usual Yom Tov nap because then I'd have to sleep outside, and the vast majority of the people I interact with over the holiday don't sleep in their sukkot because they don't know it's obligatory or they think they have a heter (halachic license to get out of the obligation) or they actually have a heter, but regardless of the reason I must suffer my sukkah-angst in isolation from most of my fellow Jews, and everyone is talking about how nice the weather has been and all I can wish for is torrential rain and meteorological misery so that I can spend the rest of the holiday safe and sound in my own bed indoors, and I am filled with religious guilt for having such a hostile attitude towards one of the 613 mitzvos, and then I am filled with philosophical guilt over my religious guilt, and then I am filled with existential grief over the fact that I am a pathetic psyche-laden intellect in a physical body in a physical universe obligated in a physical mitzvah designed to help me transcend my attachment to the physical and all I can do is complain about my discomfort. 

That is when I hate the mitzvah of sukkah.

But I call this hatred a "good" hatred because it is by design, and it was designed for my benefit - as is the case with all mitzvos. 

Sukkah as a "Skillful Frustration"

I have written on previous occasions about Bruce Lee's concept of "skillful frustrations." Bruce Lee taught that "People have to grow by skillful frustrations – otherwise, they have no incentive to develop their own means and ways of coping with the world." In these articles I have explained how the entire system of mitzvos can be thought of as a regimen of "skillful frustrations" which facilitates each person's development as a tzelem Elokim (truth-seeking intellect).

The mitzvah of sukkah is a perfect example of this. Let us review the basic halachos, as codified by the Rambam in Hilchos Shofar, Sukkah, v'Lulav:
6:5 – What is the mitzvah of sukkah? That a person should eat, drink, and dwell in a sukkah for all seven days, both by day and by night, just like he dwells in his home during the other days of the year. For all seven days a person should make his home temporary and his sukkah permanent, as it is stated: “In sukkos shall you dwell for seven days” (Vayikra 23:42) How? His attractive utensils and attractive bedding [should be brought] to the sukkah. His drinking utensils - i.e., his cups and crystal pitchers - [should be brought] to the sukkah. However, utensils used for food - i.e., pans and plates - [may be left] outside the sukkah. A candelabra [should be brought] to the sukkah. However, if the sukkah is small, it should be left outside the sukkah.

6:6 – We eat and drink and sleep in the sukkah all seven days, both by day and by night. And it is prohibited to eat a meal outside of the sukkah for all seven days, unless he ate a “temporary eating” of a k’beitzah or less or a little more. And we do not sleep outside of the sukkah, even a nap. It is permissible to drink water and eat fruits outside of the sukkah, but someone who is strict with himself and doesn’t even drink water outside of the sukkah is praiseworthy.

6:7 – Eating on the first night of Sukkos is obligatory, and even if one only ate a kazayis of bread, he has fulfilled his obligation. From then and on it is optional: if one wants to eat a meal, he must eat it in the sukkah, but if he only wants to eat fruits or nuts for the entire seven days, he may heat outside of the sukkah - just like the law of eating matzah on Pesach.

6:9 – Throughout the seven days [of the festival], a person should read in the sukkah. However, when he attempts to comprehend what he reads in depth and appreciate its details, he should do so outside the sukkah, so that his mind will be settled. When a person prays, he may pray inside the sukkah or outside the sukkah, as he desires.
As you can see, the mitzvah of sukkah takes all of the activities of our daily existence - eating, drinking, sleeping, learning, praying - and skillfully frustrates them by either forcing us to do them in the sukkah, or by forcing us to analyze whether we need to do them in the sukkah. Halacha makes it impossible to fall back on our habits.

This reminds me of a scene from the movie My Dinner with Andre (1981), in which Andre tells Wally about a friend of his named ROC who would implement his own "skillful frustrations," just to change things up. This topic leads them to a broader discussion which parallels our analysis of the mitzvah of sukkah. I will underline the most pertinent passages for emphasis:
ANDRE: But ROC used to practice certain exercises, like, uh, for instance, if he were right-handed, all today he would do everything with his left hand. All day, eating, writing, everything ... opening doors ... in order to break the habits of living. Because the great danger, he felt, for him, was to fall into a trance, out of habit. He had a whole series of very simple exercises that he had invented just to keep seeing, feeling, remembering. Because you have to learn now. It didn't used to be necessary, but today you have to learn something, like, uh ... are you really hungry or are you just stuffing your face because that's what you do, out of habit? I mean, you can afford to do it, so you do it, whether you're hungry or not. 
ANDRE: You know, if you go to the Buddhist Meditation Center, they make you taste each bite of your food ... so it takes two hours, it's horrible, to eat your lunch. But you're conscious of the taste of your food. If you're just eating out of habit, then you don't taste the food, and you're not conscious of the reality of what's happening to you. You enter the dream world again. 
WALLY: Now, do you think maybe we live in this dream world because we do so many things every day that affect us in ways that somehow we're just not aware of? I mean, you know, I was thinking, um, last Christmas, Debbie and I were given an electric blanket. I can tell you that it is just such a marvelous advance over our old way of life, and it is just great. But, uh, it is quite different from not having an electric blanket and I sometimes sort of wonder, well, what is it doing to me? I mean, I sort of feel, uh, I'm not sleeping quite in the same way. 
ANDRE: No, you wouldn't be. 
WALLY: I mean, uh, and my dreams are sort of different and ... and I feel a little bit different when I get up in the morning. 
ANDRE: I wouldn't put an electric blanket on for anything. First, I'd be worried I might get electrocuted. No, I don't trust technology. But I mean, the main thing, Wally, is that, I think that that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way
WALLY: You mean ... 
ANDRE: I mean, if you don't have that electric blanket, and your apartment is cold, and you need to put on another blanket, or go into the closet and pile up coats on top of the blankets you have, well, then you know it's cold. And that sets up a link of things. You have compassion for the per ... well, is the person next to you cold? Are there other people in the world who are cold? What a cold night. I like the cold, my God, I never realized. I don't want a blanket, it's fun being cold, I can snuggle up against you even more because it's cold. All sorts of things occur to you. Turn on that electric blanket, and it's like taking a tranquilizer or it's like being lobotomized by watching television. I think you enter the dream world again
ANDRE: I mean, what does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons, or winter, or cold don't in any way affect us? I mean, we're animals, after all. I mean, what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we're living in a fantasy world of our own making
WALLY: Yeah, but I mean ... I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre, I mean, because, uh, New York is cold in the winter, I mean, our apartment is cold. It's a difficult environment, I mean, our lives are tough enough as it is, I'm not looking for ways to get rid of the few things that provide relief and comfort, I mean, on the contrary, I'm looking for more comfort because, uh, the world is very abrasive, I mean, uh ... I'm trying to protect myself because, really, there are these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look. 
ANDRE: Yeah, but, Wally, don't ... don't you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable, and I like to be comfortable, too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility. I mean, my mother knew a woman, Lady Hatfield, who was one of the richest women in the world, and she died of starvation because all she would eat was chicken. I mean, she just liked chicken, Wally, and that was all she would eat, and actually, her body was starving, but she didn't know it cause she was quite happy eating her chicken, and so, she finally died. 
ANDRE: See, I honestly believe that we're all like Lady Hatfield now, we're having a lovely, comfortable time with our electric blankets and our chicken, and meanwhile we're starving because we're so cut off from contact with reality that we're not getting any real sustenance ... cause we don't see the world. We don't see ourselves. We don't see how our actions affect other people.
Herein lies one of the key features of the Torah regimen. Andre and Wally recognize the dangers of our comforts, our habits, and our tendency to isolate ourselves from reality - and yet, Wally admits: "I would never give up my electric blanket." But that is exactly what the Torah forces us to do - not permanently (like ascetic monks), not arbitrarily (like ROC's personal routine-changes), but skillfully, in a manner calculated to lead us towards specific fundamental insights about ourselves and reality.

But what I like about the comparison between My Dinner with Andre and the mitzvah of sukkah is how it highlights the fact that even if a person didn't know anything about the purpose of this mitzvah or the themes of the holiday, the very act of observing this mitzvah would nevertheless lead to insights which trigger personal growth. 

A Personal Sukkah-inspired Insight

I'd like to share one of the insights I had a few years ago. Before I do that, I'll present the background ideas which made this insight possible.

In the Moreh ha'Nevuchim 3:43 the Rambam explains that Pesach and Sukkos share a common moral theme:
As for the moral lesson, it is that man should always remember the days of bad amid the days of good, so that his gratitude to God should become great and so that he should achieve humility and submissiveness. Accordingly, matzah and maror must be eaten on Pesach to remind us of what happened to us. Similarly, we leave [our] houses and dwell in huts, as is done by those who toil in deserts and wastelands, in order to remember that this was our situation in times before: "that I made the Children of Israel dwell in huts, etc." and that we were moved from this [situation] to dwell in richly ornamented houses in the best and most fertile places on earth, due to Hashem's kindnesses and His promise to our fathers, inasmuch as they were perfected people in their philosophical outlook and in their moral character; I am referring to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. For this, too, is one of the pivots of the Torah, I mean the belief that every benefit that will be or has been granted is due to the zechus Avos (merit of the Forefathers), since "they kept the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice" (Bereishis 18:19).
Sukkos is first referred to in the Written Torah as "the Festival of the Gathering at the close of the year, when you gather in your work from the field" (Shemos 23:16). In an agricultural society, this is the time of year when we would be most prone to feelings of haughtiness and entitlement, as if we were the sole causes of our own success. In this state of abundance, indulgence, and self-congratulation, we would be prone to forgetting our humble origins as impoverished slaves in a tyrannical and abusive regime. We would forget that we owe all of our thanks to Hashem - and His promise to the Avos - for taking us out of that wretched situation and ultimately enabling us to reach the state of prosperity that we now enjoy.

Not only are we enjoined to remember our impoverished past, but we are commanded to take responsibility for the impoverished members of our own community - during Pesach, Sukkos, and every Yom Tov meal, as part of the mitzvah of simchah (rejoicing). The Rambam writes in Hilchos Shevivas Yom Tov:
And when he eats and drinks [at his holiday meal] he is obligated to feed the convert, the orphan, and the widow along with the other downtrodden poor. But someone who closes the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks – he, his children, and his wife – and doesn’t provide food and drink for the impoverished and embittered: this is not the simchah of mitzvah, but the simchah of his belly. These are the people about whom it is said: “their sacrifices will be to like the bread of mourners, of which all who partake are defiled, because their bread is for themselves” (Hoshea 9:4). Simchah like this will be a disgrace for them, as it is said: “and I will scatter filth upon your faces, the filth of your festive offerings” (Malachi 2:3).
In other words, if a person attempts to rejoice on the holiday without caring for the poor, his mitzvah of simchah is transformed into a self-indulgent travesty. 

Okay. Now we are in a position to appreciate the insight I had on Sukkos several years ago.

It was the 4th or 5th night of Sukkos at around 10pm. The forecast was uncertain: there was a chance it would rain between 11pm and 2am, but the probability wasn't high enough to wait it out. I was sleep-deprived, moody, and resentful of the mitzvah. I waited until I was too tired to resist, and then I started getting ready for bed. As I dragged my mattresses and blankets out into the cold night, I hoped that it would rain so I could finally get a good night's sleep indoors. Lo and behold, at around 12pm, I awoke to the pitter-patter of raindrops. I rejoiced! Finally, I could go in.

And then it hit me: I can go indoors ... but there are countless human beings out there who can't. I thought about the millions of people who are homeless, who sleep out in the cold every night, and cannot go indoors because they have no place to go. 

The idea from the Rambam about "remembering the days of bad amid the days of good" and the halacha about caring for the poor as part of our rejoicing on Yom Tov suddenly clicked. My childish gratitude for being allowed to go inside shifted into a true gratitude for all of the good in my life: that I have a home, a family, a bed, clothing, electricity, water, financial security - and more importantly, that I have the system of Torah, with all of the moral and intellectual perfection it has helped me to attain, which made this moment of insight possible. 

Was this a “new idea”? Of course not. I knew that homeless people exist, and that they have nowhere to go. But it was only via the observance of this mitzvah that I encountered this insight in such a visceral way, during a time of the year (i.e. an opulent holiday filled with food and drink) that I wouldn’t have otherwise given any thought to anyone but myself? Not only that, but because this moment of insight was so powerful, it altered the way I view and interact with poor and homeless people in general, for the better. 

Concluding Thoughts

As Andre told Wally, the electric blankets and the chicken act like tranquilizers, creating a cocoon of comfort which muffles the harsh realities of the outside world. But thanks to the mitzvah system, we are compelled - often against our will - to temporarily and strategically deprive us of these comforts. Whether it's giving up the "electric blankets" of our houses on Sukkos or giving up the "chicken" of our chametz on Pesach or kashrus or niddah or Shabbos or tefilah or shaatnez or any of the other 613 mitzvos - there is no shortage of "skillful frustrations" to spur our personal development. 

And it is this thought which makes my periodical animosity towards the mitzvah of sukkah bearable - and indeed, a discomfort for which I am deeply grateful. 

Have a chag sameach, filled with skillful frustrations! 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom ha'Kippurim 5778: Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim

This post reflects my take on ideas I heard from Rabbi EF and Rabbi YT (via his chavrusa, DR). I wrote it in haste this Erev Yom ha'Kippurim, and didn't have time to edit it or condense it as much as I'd have liked. I hope you still find it to be beneficial!

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Sonmi 451, from Cloud Atlas

Yom ha'Kippurim 5778: Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim

Mitzvas Vidui vs. Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim

The Rambam lists vidui (confession) as one of the 613 mitzvos. He begins Hilchos Teshuvah Chapter 1 by defining this mitzvah:
All of the commandments in the Torah, whether a positive commandment or a negative commandment, if a person violates one of them, whether intentionally or unintentionally – when he does teshuvah and returns from his sin, he is obligated to confess before God (blessed is He), as it is stated: “When a man or a woman does any of the sins of man … they shall confess their sin which they did” (Bamidbar 5:6-7) – this refers to a verbal vidui, and this vidui is a positive mitzvah. 
How does one do vidui? He should say: “I beseech you, Hashem: I have erred, I have corrupted, and I have rebelled before You, and I have done such-and-such. Behold! I have regretted and been ashamed of my actions, and I will never return to this thing.” This is the essence of vidui, but the more a person engages in vidui and elaborates on these matters – the more praiseworthy.
We will refer to this as "Mitzvas Vidui."

On Yom ha'Kippurim we recite a lengthy version of vidui. The core of this vidui is a list of "al cheit" ("for the sin of") statements, in which we confess to a litany of sins corresponding to the letters of the Aleph-Beis. We will refer to this as "Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim."

The Rambam codifies our obligation in Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim in the context of his presentation in Hilchos Teshuvah Chapter 2:6-8:
Even though teshuvah and crying out [in prayer] are always appropriate, they are even more appropriate during the ten days between Rosh ha’Shanah and Yom ha’Kippurim, and [they are] immediately accepted, as it is stated: “Seek Hashem when He is to be found; call out to Him when He is close” (Yeshayahu 55:6). To what does this apply? To an individual – but for a community, any time they do teshuvah and cry out [in prayer] with a whole heart, they are answered, as it is stated: “[Which nation has a god] like Hashem, our God, [Who answers us] whenever we call out to Him” (Devarim 4:7)
Yom ha’Kippurim is a time of teshuvah for everyone, for the individual and the community, and it is the last [opportunity in the year] for forgiveness and pardon for Israel. Therefore, everyone is obligated to do teshuvah and vidui on Yom ha’Kippurim. The mitzvah of Vidui Yom ha’Kippurim begins on the eve of the day [of Yom ha’Kippurim] before one eats – maybe he’ll choke on his meal before he does vidui. And even though he did vidui before eating, he must do vidui again on Yom ha’Kippurim night, and again at Shacharis, and at Mussaf, and at Minchah, and at Neilah. Where should one do vidui? The individual [does vidui] after his tefilah, and the congregation leader [does vidui] in the middle of his tefilah in the fourth blessing. 
The vidui that all of Israel is accustomed to do, “but indeed we have sinned etc.” – this is the essence of vidui. The transgressions on which a person did vidui this Yom ha’Kippurim, he must go back and do vidui on them again next Yom ha’Kippurim [and the next, and the next], even though he remains in his teshuvah, as it is stated: “For I know my offense, and my sin is before me always” (Tehilim 51:5).
One might assume that the Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim of Chapter 2 is merely a special case of Mitzvas Vidui of Chapter 1. However, there are a number of differences between the two viduim which make this assumption untenable:
Difference #1: The obligation of Mitzvas Vidui is triggered upon completion of the teshuvah process, whereas the obligation of Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim emerges from the kedushas ha'Yom (Sanctity of the Day) of Yom ha'Kippurim itself. In other words, a person is only obligated in Mitzvas Vidui if he or she did teshuvah, whereas every person is obligated in Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim regardless of whether or not he or she engaged in teshuvah.
Difference #2Mitzvas Vidui is only performed once, at the end of one's teshuvah, whereas Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim is performed six times each Yom ha'Kippurim, and annually every year thereafter - even if he or she remains steadfast in teshuvah.
Difference #3: The Rambam very clearly defines the "essence" of the Mitzvas Vidui formula in Chapter 1, but this differs drastically from the "essence" of Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim which he references in Chapter 2. The most notable difference is that in Mitzvas Vidui one must say, "and I will never return to this [sin] again," whereas no such statement is made in Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim.
Difference #4Mitzvas Vidui is said in the first person singular ("I have erred, I have corrupted, I have rebelled ... I have done such and such ... I have regretted ... I will never return to this thing again") whereas Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim is said in first person plural ("But indeed, we have sinned ... we have become guilty, we have betrayed ... for the sin that we have sinned before You uncontrollably and willingly, and for the sun that we have sinned before You through hardness of the heart, etc.")
Difference #5: Mitzvas Vidui is only said for sins we have actually committed, whereas Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim is said even if we didn't do the sin for which we are confessing. For example, on Yom ha'Kippurim every person must confess, "For the sin we have sinned before You in business dealings" even if he or she has never engaged in any business dealings; every person must confess, "and for the sin we have sinned before You through sexual immorality" even if he or she has never engaged in transgressions of sexual immorality; even a blind man must confess, "for the sin we have sinned before You through prying eyes." 
Difference #6: It would seem that Mitzvas Vidui can only be performed by the repentant sinner himself, whereas Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim is said by both the repentant sinner and by a shliach (agent) of the community - whether it be the Kohen Gadol during the time when the Beis ha'Mikdash stood, or the prayer leader in today's shuls.
One thing is clear from these differences: Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim is not merely a particular instance of Mitzvas Vidui which has been allocated to the day of Yom ha'Kippurim; rather, it is a distinct type of vidui with its own unique character. The question is: What is Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim?

The Individual as a Product of the Community

In order to answer this question we will need to revisit a halacha stated earlier in the Mishneh Torah, in Hilchos Deos 6:1:

It is the nature of man to be drawn after the character traits and actions of his associates and friends, and to behave like the members of his society. Therefore, a person must befriend tzadikim (the righteous) and to sit with chachamim (the wise), so that he can learn from their actions; and he must distance himself from reshaim (the wicked), who walk in darkness, so that he does not learn from their actions. This is what Shlomo says: “One who walks with the wise will become wise, but one who befriends fools will be broken” (Mishlei 13:20), and [David] says: “Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, and has not stood on the path of sinners, and has not sat in a session of mockers” (Tehilim 1:1).
We tend to think of ourselves as individuals. The harsh reality is that most of us are not. We are products of our society. We believe what we believe based on the people we surround ourselves with. Our likes and dislikes stem from the value system of our society - the local society of our friends and family, the larger society of our community, the even larger society of our region, our ethnic group, our political group, our country, and more. We live within numerous, concentric, overlapping circles - "bubbles," as they are called these days - each with its own view of tov (good) and ra (evil), its own assumptions about reality, and its own set of veils.

True, there are individuals who truly live as individuals - but most of us are not on that level. Even those individuals would not be who they are without being shaped by their communities. I do not believe that an honest individual can to look at himself and truthfully say, "I would be who I am regardless of the community in which I live." I do not think that a person with even a small degree of self-knowledge could say about herself, "Had I been born, raised, and exposed to completely different community during my formative years, I would still hold the same beliefs, ideas, and values that I currently hold."

But since a community is nothing more than an aggregate of individuals, we must also recognize the flip side of this reality. Just as the value systems of our communities impact our decision-making, so too, our decision-making impacts the value systems of our communities. The individual and the community are interdependent, but due to its size and force, the community exerts a greater influence on the individual in most cases.

In order to express this point with more eloquence than I can presently muster, I am going to quote an excerpt from R' Yosef Dov ha'Levi Soloveitchik's book, Halakhic Man (which I have previously quoted the last time I brought up Hilchos Deos 6:1, in Parashas Korach: Lessons in Hashgachah). As you read, focus on the Rav's description of what he refers to as "species man." The Rav writes, with my emphasis underlined:
The gist of Maimonides' view [of Divine Providence] is that man occupies a unique position in the kingdom of existence and differs in his ontological nature from all other creatures. With reference to all other creatures, only the universal, not the particular, has a true, continuous existence; with respect to man, however, it is an everlasting principle that his individual existence also attains the heights of true, eternal being. Indeed, the primary mode of man's existence is the particular existence of the individual, who is both liable and responsible for his acts. Therefore, it is the individual who is worthy of divine providence and eternal life. Man, in one respect, is a mere random example of the biological species - species man - an image of the universal, a shadow of true existence. In another respect he is a man of God, possessor of an individual existence. The difference between a man who is a mere random example of the biological species and a man of God is that the former is characterized by passivity, the latter by activity and creation. The man who belongs solely to the realm of the universal is passive to an extreme - he creates nothing. The man who has a particular existence of his own is not merely a passive, receptive creature but acts and creates. Action and creation are the true distinguishing marks of authentic existence. 
However, this ontological privilege, which is the peculiar possession of the man who has a particular existence of his own, a privilege that distinguishes him from all other creatures and endows him with individual immortality, is dependent upon man himself. The choice is his. He may, like the individual of all the other species, exist in the realm of the images and shadows, or he may exist as an individual who is not part of the universal and who proves worthy of a fixed, established existence in the world of the "forms" and "intellects separate from matter" [Maimonides, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 4:9]. Species man or man of God, this is the alternative which the the Almighty placed before man. If he proves worthy, then he becomes a man of God in all the splendor of his individual existence that cleaves to absolute infinity and the glorious "divine overflow." If he proves unworthy, then he ends up as one more random example of the biological species, a turbid and blurred image of universal existence ... 
Man, at times, exists solely by virtue of the species, by virtue of the fact that he was born a member of that species, and its general form is engraved upon him. He exists solely on account of his participation in the idea of the universal. He is just a member of the species "man," an image of the universal. He is just one more example of the species image in its ongoing morphological process (in the Aristotelian sense of the term). He himself, however, has never done anything that could serve to legitimate his existence as an individual. His soul, his spirit, his entire being, are all grounded in the realm of the universal. His roots lie deep in the soil of faceless mediocrity; his growth takes place solely within the public domain. He has no stature of his own, no original, individual, personal profile. He has never created anything, never brought into being anything new, never accomplished anything. He is receptive, passive, a spiritual parasite. He is wholly under the influence of other people and their views. Never has he sought to render an accounting, either of himself or of the world; never has he examined himself, his relationship to God and his fellow man. He lives unnoticed and he dies unmourned. Like a fleeting cloud, a shadow, he passes through life, and he is gone. He bequeaths nothing to future generations, but dies without leaving a trace of his having lived. Empty-handed he goes to the grave, bereft of mitzvah performances, good deeds, and meritorious acts, for while living he lacked any sense of historical responsibility and was totally wanting in any ethical passion. He was born involuntarily, and it is for this reason and this reason alone that he, involuntarily, lives out his life (a life which, paradoxically, he has "chosen!") until he dies involuntarily. This is man as the random example of the biological species. 
But there is another man, one who does not require the assistance of others, who does not need the support of the species to legitimate his existence. Such a man is no longer a prisoner of time but is his own master. He exists not by virtue of the species, but solely on account of his own individual worth. His life is replete with creation and renewal, cognition and profound understanding. He lives not on account of his having been born but for the sake of life itself and so that he may merit thereby the life in the world to come. He recognizes the destiny that is his, his obligation and task in life. He understands full well the dualism running through his being and that choice which has been entrusted to him. He knows that there are two paths before him and that whichever he shall choose, there must he go. He is not passive but active. His personality is not characterized by receptivity but by spontaneity. He does not simply abandon himself to the rule of the species but blazes his own individual trail. Moreover, he, as an individual, influences the many. His whole existence, like some enchanted stream, rushes ever onward to distant magical regions. He is dynamic, not static, does not remain at rest but moves forward in an ever-ascending climb. For, indeed, it is the living God for whom he pines and longs. This is the man of God. 
The fundamental of providence is here transformed into a concrete commandment, an obligation incumbent upon man. Man is obliged to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of the individual providence that watches over him. Everything is dependent on him; it is all in his hands. When a person creates himself, ceases to be a mere species man, and becomes a man of God, then he has fulfilled that commandment which is implicit in the principle of providence.
The Rav was speaking about the archetypal extremes. In reality, most of us fall somewhere in between - but in all likelihood, we are more towards the side of "species man," which is why the Rambam formulated his statement in Hilchos 6:1 as the rule, rather than the exception.

Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim Reexamined

With this concept of the relationship between the individual and the community in mind, we can now understand the unique character of the teshuvah and vidui of Yom ha'Kippurim. The Rambam gave us the key in his introduction to the mitzvah of Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim:
Yom ha’Kippurim is a time of teshuvah for everyone, for the individual and the community, and it is the last [opportunity in the year] for forgiveness and pardon for Israel. Therefore, everyone is obligated to do teshuvah and vidui on Yom ha’Kippurim. 
Every day is a day for individual teshuvah, but Yom ha'Kippurim is a day for communal teshuvah. This doesn't mean that Yom ha'Kippurim is a time for individuals to come together to do personal teshuvah simultaneously. Rather, Yom ha'Kippurim is when we are expected to broaden our egocentric perspective and face the fact that our identity as individuals is determined by our membership in the community. We reflect on our role as part of the fabric which constitutes our society, and with that recognition, we - the entire nation - engage in a truly communal teshuvah.

With this in mind, we can understand some of the differences between Mitzvas Vidui and Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim. First and foremost, this explains why Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim is stated in the plural. This day isn't about my sins and my flaws, but our sins and our flaws as a community. This also explains how Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim can be said by a shliach of the community. Indeed, we now see why it should be said by a shliach of the community.

This also explains how we can say vidui for sins which we have not personally committed. How? Because even though we may not have violated a particular halacha, we influence and are influenced by the value systems of our community which allow those transgressions to take place. For example:
I may not have engaged in a sin in business dealings, but where do such sins come from? From our society's overvaluation of money and material possessions; from our society's latent feeling that "it's not wrong if you don't get caught"; from our society's prioritization of my needs, my desires, and my rights over the needs, desires, and rights of my fellow. Can I honestly say that I do not partake of those corrupt values? Can I honestly say that I do not strengthen these values through my own actions, even if not by actually cheating in business dealings?
I may not have engaged in a sin of sexual immorality, but what is the source of such sins? From our society's elevation of sexual pleasure and fantasy as ends to be desired in and of themselves; from our societal failure to recognize the value of kedushah (transcendence of our animalistic nature), and our laxity in promoting behaviors which strengthen the value of kedushah in our communities; from our society regarding other human beings as tools and objects for our gratification rather than seeing them as fellow tzelem Elokim citizens with the same value as ourselves. Can I honestly say that I am not influenced by these perverted values? Can I honestly say that I do not actively promote these values in how I talk, speak, and think about sexual matters?
A blind man is incapable of the sin of "prying eyes," but what causes those who can see to commit such sins? Is it not because we regard our own privacy as sacrosanct but regard the privacy of our neighbor as merely an obstacle standing in the way of our entertainment? Is it not because we preoccupy ourselves with the dirty secrets of others in order to avoid facing our own inner pockets of shame and darkness? Is it not because we crave affirmation of our own superiority to the extent that we seek out evidence of this in the faults of our friends and neighbors? The blind man's eyes cannot pry, but his mind can - and in so doing, he is both a symptom and a cause of the illness of "prying eyes" in our society.
All of the other "al cheit" statements are to be understood in a similar manner. Some of these sins we have committed, and others we haven't, but we are all interwoven into the communal cloth that is stained by these sins. Therefore, the Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim serves as a universal tool for communal introspection on how we shape and are shaped in turn by the value systems of our communities.

This also explains why the Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim doesn't contain the statement, "I will not return to this sin." From a practical standpoint, such a statement would be absurd: not everyone can actually say this and mean it, and not everyone has actually committed each of these transgressions. But there is another reason we don't pledge to never return to the sin again: unlike Mitzvas Vidui, which can only be done after teshuvah, the Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim is designed to commence the teshuvah - starting on a communal level, and being propelled forward by individuals for the coming year. This is how the kaparah of Yom ha'Kippurim works (as I explained in What is Kaparah?).

The other differences between Mitzvas Vidui and Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim can be explained in a similar manner. Unfortunately, my Yom ha'Kippurim starts in two hours, and I need to finish this post.

Teshuvah-ripples Through Time

This understanding of the teshuvah and vidui of Yom ha'Kippurim brings to mind the words of  Sonmi 451, a character from Cloud Atlas. Sonmi gives a speech which concludes with the following declaration:

Our lives are not our own.
From womb to tomb
we are bound to others,
past and present,
and by each crime
and every kindness
we birth our future. 

The first line captures the central concept of Hilchos Deos 6:1, and the essence of Vidui Yom ha'Kippurim: "our lives are not our own," for we are products of our society. The "I" is inextricably bound with the "us" - and even the "them" - in a symbiotic dance of mutual influence, each impacting upon the other and being impacted in turn. This relationship of being "bound to others" occurs not only during the brief span of our lifetime, "from womb to tomb," but is continuation of "past and present." We are who we are now because of the actions of our predecessors. Likewise, "by each crime and every kindness we birth our future." Our actions affect not only the community of the present, but the communities of future generations as well.

This, I believe, is the meaning of the mashal (allegory) mentioned by the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4:
Therefore, each and every person must see himself for the entire year as though he is half exonerated and half liable; likewise, the entire world is half exonerated and half liable. If he commits one sin, he tips himself and the entire world to the side of liability and causes destruction for them. If he does one mitzvah, he tips himself and the entire world to the side of exoneration, and causes them salvation and rescue. This is the meaning of that which is stated, "The tzadik is the foundation of the world" (Mishlei 10:25) - this refers to the person who makes himself righteous ("mi she'tzeedek es atzmo"), thereby tipping the entire world [to the side of exoneration] and saving it. 
I don't think this is fluff, or hyperbole, or metaphysical scare-tactics. I think the Rambam means this literally: a single "crime" or a single "kindness" can literally change your life for salvation or destruction in this world. And since you are intertwined with every other member of the community, and with humanity as a whole, your action can tilt the entire world for good or for bad.

Conclusion (for Now)

The hour is late, and Yom ha'Kippurim is upon us. I wish you all the best for this year's teshuvah, as an individual and a community. May we all be sealed in the book of life.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Parashas Shoftim: How to Say Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha

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Artwork: Devout Invocation, by David Palumbo
(Note: If this is what you think you're doing when you say Tehilm, then you're doing it wrong.)

Parashas Shoftim: How to Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha


Broadly speaking, there are two ways to say Tehilim (Psalms) for the sick: one which is halachically permitted and in line with Hashem's will, and the other which is halachically prohibited and is considered by Hashem to be an "abomination."

In Parashas Shoftim Moshe Rabbeinu warns Bnei Yisrael:
When you come to the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you, you shall not learn to act according to the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who causes his son or daughter to pass through the fire, a kosem kesamim (diviner), a meonein (astrologer), a menachesh (omen-reader), a mechashef (sorcerer), a chover chaver (one who recites incantations), one who inquires of Ov or Yidoni, or one who consults the dead. For anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem, and because of these abominations Hashem, your God, banishes [the nations] from before you. You shall be whole with Hashem, your God. For these nations that you are possessing - they hearken to astrologers and diviners; but as for you - not so has Hashem, your God, given for you. (Devarim 18:9-14)
The Torah prohibition we will be discussing is chover chaver with a focus on its application to reciting Tehilim for the sick. In Part I we will examine the Sefer ha'Chinuch's treatment of the topic. In Part II we will summarize the various halacha l'maaseh (practical halacha) views.

Part I: Sefer ha'Chinuch on Chover Chaver

The Sefer ha'Chinuch [1] defines chover chaver as follows:
We are prohibited from making incantations about any matter. By this we are referring to a person who will recite words and tell people that those words cause benefit or harm in a certain matter. About this it is stated, “There shall not be found among you … a speaker of incantations” (Devarim 18:10-11). The Sifri says: “whether one charms a snake or a scorpion,” meaning to say, one who recites words upon them so that they will not bite him – according to his view. So too, if one recites words over an affliction in order to gain relief from the pain, etc.
According to this definition it would seem that if a person recites Tehilim and believes that the words themselves will have a beneficial effect on a choleh (sick person), then this would be a violation of chover chaver

The Sefer ha'Chinuch anticipates this question and addresses it head-on by citing a Gemara which ostensibly endorses the practice of reciting Tehilim in order to save a person from harm:
Now perhaps, my son, you will pose a question to me from what we read in the second chapter of the Talmud tractate Shevuos (15b): 
"The psalm against afflictions is with lutes and harps; and one says, 'He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,' until 'For You, Hashem, are my refuge' (Tehilim 91); then he says, 'Hashem, how many are my foes,' until 'Salvation belongs to Hashem' (ibid. 3)." 
In other words, [the Talmud seems to indicate that] the recitation of these psalms works to provide protection from harm. And it was stated in the tractate Berachos (3a): "R. Yehoshua ben Levi would say these verses before going to bed [to protect himself from harm]."
The Sefer ha'Chinuch answers this difficulty by making a distinction. In doing so, he instructs us in how to say Tehilim in a manner which has a beneficial effect on our physical well-being without straying into chover chaver territory:
However, this matter is not similar to the matter of chover chaver that we mentioned, God forbid! Long ago, the Sages of blessed memory said in this regard (Shevuos 15b): "It is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah." Yet they mentioned to say these psalms since they contain words that inspire the soul that knows them to shelter in Hashem, to take security in Him, to establish a reverent fear of Him firmly in his heart, and to rely on His kindness and goodness. As a result of this inspiration, he will be protected from every harm, without a doubt
Therein lies the answer. If a person says Tehilim, believing that the words themselves will have a beneficial effect on the physical world, then - according to the Sefer ha'Chinuch - he or she has violated the Torah prohibition of chover chaver, and is considered on the basis of that act to be an abomination to Hashem, as the Torah unequivocally states: "for anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem." However, if a person recites Tehilim, understands the meaning of what he is saying, and is inspired to trust, fear, and rely on Hashem, then he will not be in violation of halacha, and he will be protected from all harm.

The Sefer ha'Chinuch reinforces this distinction by quoting the Gemara's formulation of this same question, and the answer given there, which he explains in accordance with his view:
This is what was answered in the Talmud in this regard, for it was asked there: "But how could R. Yehoshua do this (i.e. recite these chapters of psalms against afflictions) when R. Yehoshua, himself, said it is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah?!" and the reply was given: "to protect is different." In other words, the Torah did not forbid a person to say words of Torah so as to inspire his soul in a good direction, so that this merit should shield him to protect him [but rather, the Torah only prohibited the recitation of words of Torah in order to heal].
The Rambam [2] codifies this distinction as halacha:
One who recites an incantation over a bodily affliction and reads a verse from the Torah, and likewise one who reads [Torah] over an infant so that he not be frightened, and one who places a Torah Scroll or tefilin on a child so that he will sleep – it is not enough that such people are included among the chovrim (incantation-sayers) and menachashim (omen-readers), but they [are also] included among the kofrim ba’Torah (the deniers of Torah), for they utilize words of Torah as remedies for the body, whereas they are truly only remedies for the soul, as it is stated, “[the words of Torah] shall be life for your soul” (Mishlei 3:22). But if a healthy person reads Scriptural verses and chapters from Tehilim so that the merit of their reading will protect him and save him from suffering and harm, this is permissible
It is reasonable to assume that the permissible type of Tehilim reading ("so that the merit of their reading will protect him") qualifies as using words of Torah as "remedies for the soul," as described by the Sefer ha'Chinuch. In other words, if a person reads Tehilim with the intention of "inspiring his soul in a good direction" and making an effort to internalize what he reads, then this will bring him merit, and save him from suffering and harm. 

Part II: Practical Halacha

While it is usually the policy of this blog to stay away from commenting on matters of halacha l'maaseh, I fear that some will read this post and feel at a loss about whether their own way of saying Tehilim constitutes a violation of halacha. They would then either cease saying Tehilim altogether, which would be detrimental insofar as this would deprive them of a means of connecting to Hashem, or else they would continue saying Tehilim, thereby running the risk of violating a Torah prohibition.

Thankfully, I found a tshuvah (responsa) by the Tzitz Eliezer [3] which summarizes six different views on how to (and how not to) recite Tehilim, in practice. Here is my summary of his summaries (i.e. I didn't go back and learn through all of the primary sources; I just paraphrased the conclusions as stated in his tshuvah). I've appended the psak (ruling) of my Rosh ha'Yeshiva to the end of this list, since this is the view I follow, and since it wasn't mentioned by the Tzitz Eliezer:
(1) Rambam / Shulchan Aruch [4]: It is prohibited to read Tehilim - indeed, any pesukim from Tanach - for the sake of healing a choleh, but it is permissible for a healthy person to read pesukim so that the merit of their reading will protect him (i.e. the healthy person) from harm.
(2) Meiri [5]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if it is being relied upon as the primary remedy, but if the choleh is also taking medicine or undergoing medical treatment, then it is permissible to supplement this medical care with the recitation of Tehilim. 
(3) Maharsha [6] / Toras Chayim [7]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if they are recited in the manner of an incantation, but if one uses Tehilim as a vehicle of tefilah (prayer) or learns Torah for the sake of learning, and requests from Hashem that the merit of this tefilah or learning should heal a choleh, then this is permitted. [8]
(4) Ritva [9] / Ohr Zarua [10] / Rabbeinu Yeshaya [11]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if there is a physically manifest bodily affliction, but to relieve a non-manifest pain (e.g. a headache) is permitted. 
(5) Tzitz Eliezer #1: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if one selects specific Tehilim (or pesukim to say), but if one chooses Tehilim at random or follows one's normal routine (e.g. reciting Tehilim daily), then this is permitted.
(6) Tzitz Eliezer #2: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if said exclusively for a choleh, but if it is also said for the sake of those who are healthy, then this is permitted, since it demonstrates that the Tehilim are being said for the sake of merit and protection, as the Sefer ha'Chinuch described. 
(7) My Rosh ha'Yeshiva [12]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if only Tehilim (and/or pesukim) are recited, but if one adds a tefilah (e.g. Mi she'Beirach) before or after the Tehilim, then this is permissible, since in this case, one is using the tefilah as a vehicle of beseeching God - as opposed to relying on the words of the Tehilim themselves. 
I hope that this list provides solace and guidance for those who choose to recite Tehilim for the sake of healing. While I advise those who plan on reciting Tehilim for the sick to consult their own posek (halachic decisor), that the Tzitz Eliezer can serve as a backup option for those who have not yet asked a shaila (halachic inquiry).

Concluding Thoughts

I think that the widespread practice of saying Tehilim for the sick is a good thing. I believe that most people relate to Tehilim exactly as they relate to tefilah, and that their recitation of Tehilim for the sick is in line with the view of the Maharsha and Toras Chaim cited above. 

Nevertheless, I think it is also important for people to be aware of the halachic and spiritual perils of relating to the recitation of Tehilim for the sick in the wrong way. There are definitely people out there who mindlessly recite Tehilim, in the manner of an incantation, without any idea what they're saying, and who relate to the Tehilim as a sort of magic charm. These are the people whom the Rambam condemned, and about whom Chazal said: "one who says an incantation over a wound has no portion in the World to Come" (Shevuos 15b; Sanhedrin 90a).

I believe it is important for all people - especially those just described - to be educated about the topic of chover chaver and to be informed of the Sefer ha'Chinuch's method of using Tehilim as a legitimate way to become closer to Hashem, in order to take refuge "in the [protective] shade of the Almighty" (Tehilim 91:1).

[1] Sefer ha'Chinuch, Mitzvah #512
[2] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha'Mada, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:6. It should be noted that whereas the Sefer ha'Chinuch defines chover chaver as "a person who will recite words and tell people that those words cause benefit or harm in a certain matter," the Rambam defines it as "a person who speaks words which do not belong to any language and have no meaning, but he – in his foolishness – imagines that those words produce a beneficial effect." And yet, the Rambam writes in our halacha that one who uses words of Torah to heal is included in the category of chover chaver
[3] Ha'Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 17:30 
[4] Ha'Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch: Yoreh Deah 179:8
[5] Rabbeinu Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, Beis ha'Bechirah: Shabbos 67a
[6] Ha'Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha), Chidushei Aggados: Shabbos 67a
[7] Ha'Rav Abraham Hayyim ben ha'Rav Naftali Tzvi Hirsch Schor, Toras Chaim: Shevuos 15b
[8] The Tzitz Eliezer learns that this is also the view of the Sefer ha'Chinuch, who only differentiated between the manner in which the Tehilim are being said, but didn't distinguish between a healthy person and a sick person.
[9] Rabbeinu Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (Ritva), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[10] Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Moshe (Ohr Zarua / Riaz), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[11] Rabbeinu Yeshaya di Trani (I think?), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[12] I heard this verbally, but do not know whether an audio or written source is available. However, the Tzitz Eliezer cited the Mishnas Yaakov as suggesting an answer along these lines. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Four Phases of Learning a Sefer in Nach

This post actually began as a preface to another post I'd like to write on "How to Learn Tehilim." Eventually I realized that this preface was long enough to be its own post. 

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Artwork: Pore Over the Pages, by Magali Villeneuve

The Four Phases of Learning a Sefer in Nach

On average, I teach a new sefer of Nach each year. Some of these sefarim I've learned on my own before teaching them; others I teach and learn for the first time, at the same time. Thus far I've taught eleven out of the thirty sefarim of Nach.

Whenever I learn a sefer of Nach, I typically proceed through the following four stages:
Phase #1 - Floundering in Chaos: When I learn a sefer for the first time, I feel like I have no idea what it's about or how to approach it. Maybe "no idea" is an exaggeration; for example, I knew Sefer Yirmiyahu is about the destruction of the Beis ha'Mikdash, and that Sefer Yonah is about Yonah's prophetic mission to Ninveh, and that Sefer Daniel is about Daniel's life in Bavel. What I mean is that I don't know what the purpose of the sefer is - or how it fits into the Torah regimen - and I certainly don't know how best to approach the sefer in order to achieve that purpose. 
Phase #2 - Discovery of Order and Direction: Eventually, after immersing myself in the sefer on a bekius and b'iyun level for an extended period of time, I gradually begin to sense order in the chaos. Usually I'll find one or two meforshim who point to the purpose of the sefer and give me enough to work with to be able to start learning the sefer in a consistent manner. By following their guidance and my intuition, I'll eventually be able to work out some concrete method of approaching the sefer - enough to be able to "test it out" and get results. At this stage I still have a healthy sense of doubt about the soundness of my approach, but the only way to test these doubts is to forge ahead and test out my theories. 
Phase #3 - Development of Method and Purpose: After much trial and effort, I'll arrive at the point where I am confident that my understanding of the purpose of the sefer is on the right track (even if not spot-on) and that my method of approaching the sefer is a valid one (at least, insofar as it gets good results). At this point I'll set aside my lingering doubts and proceed on the assumption that I am correct. My aim switches from the question of "Is this the right approach?" to "What can I learn from this sefer by using this approach?" I take the method as far as it can go, learning as much as I can while working out any leftover kinks and gaps in the method. 
Phase #4 - Refinement of Method and Purpose: The line between Phase #3 and Phase #4 isn't always clear, but I usually know when I'm in Phase #4. Usually I'll arrive at this phase after successfully teaching the sefer for a semester or a year at Phase #3, or after learning the sefer at Phase #3 for a year or two. I feel confident enough to give shiur on this sefer to a more advanced audience, and to advise others on how to learn and teach the sefer.
Phase #5 - Reboot: (What? Phase #5? I thought this post claims that there are only four phases?) I decided to acknowledge Phase #5 because I know it exists, even though I can't say I've gotten there yet with any sefer. Phase #5 occurs when a person's current theoretical framework reaches the point where the questions, difficulties, and/or insights lead to a complete revolution of understanding - the same way this happens with any scientific theory. When one's level of comprehension reaches this stage, it's time to set aside one's paradigm, return to the drawing board, and start from scratch - through fresh eyes, with a fresh mind. 
[Similarly, I've seen the meforshim (e.g. Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, Malbim) write in the introductions to their commentaries things like: "I've studied the commentaries of my predecessors and found that none of them have done a satisfactory job of explaining this sefer in accordance with its true meaning. For this reason, I have seen fit to write my own commentary with my own approach." I'm sure that most (if not all) these meforshim proceeded through Phases #1-4 with the help of their predecessors, and only after "completing" Phase #4 using a "tested method" arrived at their conclusion that this method was lacking. While you could argue that this should all be included in their Phase #2 or Phase #3, it is certainly possible that was experienced by them as a Phase #5.]
Here are a few examples of sefarim I've taught in my classes, and which phase I am currently at for each:
Phase #4 - Mishlei, Koheles, and Iyov: These are the sefarim for which I am the most confident in my approach. I've learned them and taught them for years, and I have enough confidence in my understanding and in my methods to "have a shitah" on what these sefarim are about, what their main ideas are, and how to approach them - even though I haven't learned through these sefarim in their entirety yet. 
Phase #3 - Yonah, Tehilim, Daniel: I feel comfortable enough in my understanding of these sefarim to teach them, and to feel that I've done them justice. Either I have a methodology of my own with which to approach them, or I have a solid handle on one of the meforshim's approaches to be able to know my way around the sefer.
Phase #2 - Yirmiyahu, Melachim II, Esther: I can definitely teach these sefarim, but unlike the sefarim in Phases #4 and 3 which will be perceived by my students as unified and purposeful, these Phase #2 sefarim will feel like a series of loosely connected ideas. Don't get me wrong: the ideas I have learned from these sefarim are solid, but I don't feel that I've gotten to the core of the books themselves. I can't say: "This is the real purpose/message/theme/methodology of Sefer _____."  
Phase #1 - Shir ha'Shirim and Yeshayahu: These two sefarim have been classified as Phase #1 for different reasons. In the case of Shir ha'Shirim I have a sense of what it's about and how it fits into the Torah regimen. I just haven't found any inroads yet. Whenever I try to learn it, I feel paralyzed - especially since the whole thing is an allegory, and I am at a loss to know how to approach it. The meforshim make things even more confusing, since each of them seems to have a different take. Yeshayahu, on the other hand, is more accessible in the particulars. There are pesukim, paragraphs, and even whole chapters that I feel I have a handle on. But as for the sefer as a whole? - I'm totally lost. Ditto for the methodology. 
Being aware of these four phases is helpful for me, even if it's not always clear "where I'm holding." Having a sense of where I'm at helps me to better plan how I am going to teach the material. 

For example, if I know I'm going to teach a sefer at Phase #2, I'll incorporate the element of discovery into the way I teach. I might begin the semester by presenting several theories from different meforshim for what the sefer is about, and revisit these theories as we move through the sefer in an effort to figure out which theory fits best. Alternatively, I might treat the question, "What is this sefer about?" as one of the main missions of our learning. And when, over the course of teaching the material, I begin to discover an answer to that question, I share that experience of discovery with my students, and they love it!

If I'm at Phase #3 then I know my job will be to spend that year of teaching honing and tweaking my approach to the point where I'll be at Phase #4 by the next time I teach it.

And if I'm still at Phase #1 I'll ask my principal if I can do a broad overview of the sefer the first time I teach it, rather than trying to teach the material in-depth and "failing." 

Anyway, I just thought I'd share this with you in case you found it useful. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Parashas Re'eh: When Mitzvos Are Curses

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Artwork: Cursed Scroll, by D. Alexander Gregory

Parashas Re'eh: When Mitzvos Are Curses

Vegan Tefillin

A few weeks ago I came across a post on a Jewish Facebook group by a woman inquiring whether there is an option to use "vegan tefillin" (i.e. tefillin made from non-animal products). When asked what prompted her question, she responded: "How could I wear the skin of a dead animal?! The thought of leather tefillin absolutely disgusts me! I'd only put on tefillin if I could find a vegan version." 

There are many things to discuss here - too many for a single post. I'm only going to focus on one angle: this woman's disgust at the thought of mitzvas tefillin k'hilchesa (i.e. the mitzvah of tefillin as defined by halacha).

Disgusted by Mitzvos

The first thing I associated to was one of the opening pesukim of the tochahah (Rebuke) in Parashas Bechukosai: "if you are disgusted by My decrees, and if your very being is repulsed by My ordinances, so as not to perform all My commandments, so that you annul My covenant - then I will do the same to you etc." (Vayikra 26:15-16). If a person is "disgusted" and "repulsed" by the mitzvos - sentiments which this person on Facebook openly expressed about the mitzvah of tefillin - then Hashem will be "disgusted" and "repulsed" by that person. 

What does it mean for Hashem to be "disgusted" by someone? And why is this the "punishment" for being disgusted by Hashem's decrees and ordinances? The Sefer ha'Chinuch [1] addresses both points in his commentary on the Chumash's use of the term "abomination":
[The Torah states:] "and you shall do none of these abominations" (Vayikra 18:26); this includes all these matters which are an abomination to Hashem, meaning that anyone who engages in these activities becomes distanced from the good and removes himself from Hashem's providence. This is the meaning of "abomination to God" in every instance, according to what I have heard.  
So likewise, what is written at the end of the matter: "for all these abominations the men of the land did who were before you and I abhorred them" (ibid. 20:23). Its sense is to convey that the quality is most ugly; every unusually bad and repulsive thing, Scripture describes as though Hashem detests it, all along the lines that we have stated, and in the vein of what the Sages of blessed memory said in every instance: in order to convey intelligibly to the ear what it is able to hear. 
According to the Sefer ha'Chinuch, when the Torah calls something "an abomination," this means that a person who engages in this behavior is "distancing himself from the good and removing himself from Hashem's providence." Just as a person distances himself from that which he finds repulsive, so too, Hashem "distances Himself" from those who do actions which He regards as "abominations."

To have difficulties and struggles with keeping a mitzvah is natural (for everyone except Moshe Rabbeinu). It is even natural to feel "disgusted" by certain mitzvos. But if a person embraces this disgust to the point where he or she modifies, neglects, or delegitimizes the mitzvos, then this person has actively chosen to distance himself or herself from Hashem's beneficence. In other words, Hashem's statement "then I will do the same to you" should not be understood as a retaliatory "tit for tat" punishment, but as a natural consequence of this person's free-will decision.

Mitzvos as Curses

This week I came across an idea which took this insight even further. The idea is from the Abravanel's commentary on the first pasuk in our parashah, which reads:
See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow other gods, that you did not know. (Devarim 11:26-28).
Rashi [2] understands the "blessing and curse" in our pasuk to be referring to the blessings and curses on Har Gerizim and Har Eival, which are stated much later on in Parashas Ki Savo (Devarim 27:11-26). His interpretation is based on the fact that the very next pasuk states:
It shall be that when Hashem, your God, brings you to the Land to which you come, to possess it, then you shall deliver the blessing on Har Gerizim and the curse on Har Eival. (ibid. 11:29).
The Abravanel [3] challenges Rashi on this matter, based on the following argument:
[Moshe] stated here: "See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse." He did not say this about the blessings and curses that were given on Har Gerizim and Har Eival; since [those blessings and curses] were not given "today," how could  he say "that I  place before you today"
The Abravanel then gives a creative and convincing interpretation:
Rather, Moshe stated that these mitzvos which he gave before them today would be as if he presented them with a blessing and a curse.  
How could the same thing be a blessing and a curse, which are two opposite, contradictory things ...? Namely, [the mitzvos] will be a blessing if [Bnei Yisrael] hearken to them, but they will be a curse to the person who doesn't hearken to them. For even though the mitzvos are good in and of themselves, they [differ] depending on the recipient: sometimes they are a blessing, if they are hearkened to, and sometimes they are a curse, for when they are not fulfilled, they will be for them like a snare and a curse. 
This is in line with what the navi (prophet) said: "for the ways of Hashem are upright: tzadikim (the righteous) walk in them, but posh'im (sinners) stumble in them" (Hoshea 14:10). In other words, they themselves are upright and good; however, on account of the recipients, they can be either good and proper to follow from the standpoint of the tzadikim, but from the standpoint of the sinners they are regarded as a bad path of stumbling. 
This type of thing also happens with good food, like bread, meat, and wine: they are beneficial forms of nutrition in and of themselves, and when a healthy man takes them, he will be sustained, and strengthened, and his health will increase; however, if a sick man [4] takes them, they will harm him or even kill him - not because of the nature of the food, but because of the nature and corruption of the recipient. 
In this vein, [Moshe] said to all of Klal Yisrael - or to each and every one of them, according to the Ibn Ezra - "See, I place before you etc." This means to say: "See through the eyes of your intellect that I am placing before you etc." - not that this blessing and curse is verbal [such that it would be "heard" rather than "seen"], but rather, [both the blessing and curse] potentially exist in the mitzvos, and either blessing or curse can proceed from them, without any in-between state. For if "you hearken to the mitzvos of Hashem, your God, that I command you etc." then I have given you a blessing, for they are good in and of themselves, and they will be a blessing for you - but if you don't hearken to them, they will be considered a curse for you. It is in this sense that I have placed a blessing and curse before you today, in that I have given the mitzvos, which will be a blessing or a curse depending on the recipient. 
This is why [Moshe] made this statement before reminding [Bnei Yisrael] of the mitzvos [throughout the next four parshiyos]. He even said at the end [after reviewing all of these mitzvos]: "See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the bad" (Devarim 30:15), and he explained how He has given them these things by saying: "to keep His commandments" (ibid. 30:16) - for by commanding them He has given them "the life and the good" if they hearken to them, but "the death and the bad" if they do not hearken to them and do not observe them. 
The Abravanel's interpretation flows directly from a literal reading of our pesukim: "See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem." Hearkening to the mitzvos is the blessing - both the cause and the effect. Not hearkening to the mitzvos is the cause and the effect of the curse.

The first instance in Chumash of the mitzvos being a blessing to those who keep them and a curse to those who don't keep them is the very first sin: Adam and Chava eating the fruit of the Eitz ha'Daas Tov v'Ra (Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad). Hashem commanded them not to eat from this tree for their own benefit: "for on the day you eat from it, you shall surely die" (Bereishis 2:17). But once the nachash (snake) talked its way into Chava's head, she began to view this mitzvah as a curse rather than a blessing. She viewed this mitzvah as holding her back from the real good.
The nachash said to the woman: "You will not surely die, for God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and bad." And the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the three was desirable as a means to wisdom, etc. (ibid. 3:4-6).
The Rambam [5] explained that both the cause and effect of the sin of Adam and Chava was the fact that they gave in to the distorted world of subjective values, which tainted their perception of objective truth and falsehood and objective good and bad. (For a detailed explanation, see this post. Also, for the record, I think that the Abravanel's insight sheds light on the curses which resulted from the sin of Adam and Chava ... but that would take us beyond the scope of this post.)

This "warped view of good and bad" is the basis of the blessing and curse in our pasuk, as explained by the Abravanel. To the extent that we set aside our personal, subjective, flawed notions of "the good" and "the bad" and allow ourselves to be shaped by our adherence to the system of Torah, we will move towards an increasingly accurate view of objective reality. We will then be able to recognize the inherent good of the mitzvos, and will regard them as "a blessing," and will actually receive the blessings (i.e. the increase of objective good) that result from their observance.

But to the extent that we cling to our preconceived notions of "the good" and "the bad" and allow our personal value system to compromise our adherence to Torah, we will be held back from clarity and knowledge of objective reality. We will then perceive the the mitzvos as "a curse" and will actually be cursed (i.e. suffer harmful consequences, both objectively and in accordance with our subjective value system) when we neglect their observance.

The Emptiness Comes from Within

To the woman who insisted on only using "vegan tefillin," Moshe Rabbeinu (according to the Abravanel) might offer guidance along the following lines: "I understand and sympathize with your feeling that the use of animal leather in tefillin is inhumane and immoral. However, the fact that the Creator requires tefillin to be made from leather means that He does not share your view - and since His view is objective reality, then there must be some flaw in your thinking. I encourage you to learn from Torah she'bi'Chsav (the Written Torah) and Torah she'baal Peh (the Oral Torah) to try to understand wherein lies your error. Yes, this does mean that you will have to give up your personal view, but if you succeed in arriving at a true understanding, you will come to recognize that all of the mitzvos - including tefillin - are 'for your benefit' (Devarim 10:13), and you will then regard them as 'a blessing' and they will be a blessing."

Chazal midrashically express this approach by expounding on the pasuk: "for [the Torah] is not an empty thing for you (lit. "from you"), for it is your life, and through this matter shall you prolong your days on the Land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess it" (ibid. 32:47). The midrash (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1) states:
"for [the Torah] is not an empty thing from you (ki lo davar reik hu mi'kem)" - and if you find it to be "an empty thing" (davar reik), then it is "from you" (mi'kem hu).
It is natural to perceive "emptiness" (or "deficiencies") in Torah. The question is: Where do we go with this perception? If we regard our own views as the objective reality and conclude that the Torah is flawed, then we are mistaken. Rather, we must recognize that the perceived flaw stems from our own ignorance, and we must search for a true understanding which reveals the holes in our thinking.

To the uninitiated this might sound like a form of intellectually dishonest religious apologetics, but to those who understand the relationship between science and Torah and the place of the proof of Torah mi'Sinai, this is no different than the scientist who must set aside his or her personal opinion in light of the empirical data. Just as we wouldn't accuse the scientist of "apologetics" for subordinating his or her personal opinion to the scientific data, so too, we shouldn't consider it to be "apologetics" when subordinating our personal opinion to the data of Torah she'bi'Chsav and Torah she'baal Peh.

I feel like this post should end with a conclusive "takeaway" message. In that spirit, I would say the following: we all want to be "blessed" by Hashem, and we know that according to the Torah, observance of mitzvos results in "blessing" - but what Moshe Rabbeinu intends to teach us (according to the Abravanel) is that the mitzvos are the blessing. Hence, it's not as though we do the mitzvos and have faith that Hashem will bless us. Rather, by doing the mitzvos, we are guaranteed to receive the blessings which are inextricably bound up in the mitzvos themselves.

Nobody said it better than the Malbim [6] in his commentary on Iyov (which I wrote about in these posts). We will conclude with his analogy:
This may be compared to the following: an ill patient doesn't seek out a reward from his physician [in payment] for obeying his instructions to safeguard his health, nor does the physician punish the patient if he fails to heed his warnings, for the reward and punishment are consequent upon the action itself. If he obeys [the physician’s instructions], he will be healed from his sickness, and that is his reward. If he doesn't obey, he will die, and that is his punishment. [This reward and punishment are not meted out] by the physician, but by [the patient] himself.  
Similarly, the reward [for good actions] is the good path itself, since he acquires perfection of his soul [by following it]; and if he does good for others, he will enjoy benefits from the society [in which he lives]. Conversely, “one who does evil corrupts his soul and his flesh” (Mishlei 11:17), and if he does evil to others, he will suffer from the wickedness of the society. 
If we want Hashem's blessings, then we must see that He has placed them before us, today, in every mitzvah we observe.

[1] Sefer ha'Chinuch, Mitzvah #118
[2] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:11
[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel ("The Man"), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:11
[4] The Abravanel here specifies two types of sickness: "מחלת הצד" and "מחלת המוקדח", but since I wasn't sure which sicknesses he was referring to, I omitted them from my translation.
[5] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Moreh ha'Nevuchim 1:2
[6] Ha'Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Iyov 35:8