Wednesday, September 26, 2007
This post and this post, both of which compare and contrast Pesah and Sukkot, are also newsworthy today. As you can see, the latter post leaves a cliffhanger that was never resolved. I will attempt to blog on it over the holiday.
Sorry for the delay in bringing this material to your attention. Moadim Lesimha!
Thursday, July 26, 2007
New posts on Vesom Sechel and Ask The Rabbi should be appearing over the next couple of days - stay tuned.
By the way, the posts on Maimonides have been written for publication in a weekly newsletter disseminated by the Maimonides Heritage Center, an organization with which I have recently become affiliated.
This explains the startling regularity of their appearance, at least compared to the more sporadic posting trends that are generally seen on my other blogs.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
“Take words with you, and return to Hashem...” (Hosea 14:3)
As we enter the period of the Three Weeks each year, the theme of self-improvement becomes one of the focal points of our thought. We are strongly encouraged to involve ourselves in the process of teshuva, or repentance, at this time. The Jewish notion of repentance, however, is by no means simple or self-evident. What exactly is teshuva, and how does one go about doing it?
The Torah provides precise guidelines for the fulfillment of all of its commandments; thus, if we intend to observe the commandments correctly, it is incumbent upon us to consult these guidelines as a matter of course. The commandment to repent of our sins is no exception to this rule - it encompasses a host of halakhot and principles that are indispensable to its proper performance. Therefore, before we can repent in a halakhically meaningful way, we must take up the study of the Torah’s unique approach to teshuva.
The Rambam’s Introduction - The Mitzvah of Teshuva
Without question, if we wish to develop a better understanding of the subject of repentance, we must turn to the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. The Rambam was the first of our Sages to provide us with a systematic and comprehensive treatment of the topic of teshuva, and his accomplishment in this area remains unequaled to this day. Careful attention to the Rambam’s formulation of the Laws of Repentance is sure to reward us with valuable insight into their deeper significance. As an introduction to these laws, the Rambam writes:
“This section contains one positive commandment, namely, that the sinner should repent before Hashem and confess.”
This brief statement raises a powerful question: what sense does it make for the Torah to institute a commandment to repent? If a person who has transgressed one of the laws of the Torah subsequently decides to repent, he will simply go back to keeping the original commandment he violated. He does not need to be commanded to heed a commandment that already exists! If, on the other hand, he has not yet resolved to abandon his sin, there is no reason to think that an additional commandment will help him. He can choose to neglect the commandment to repent just like he opted to neglect the mitzvah he has already violated!
It is also noteworthy that the Rambam uses an apparently superfluous phrase to describe repentance, calling it repentance before Hashem. Of course, the Rambam is not alone in using this kind of terminology. The Tanach often refers to repentance as returning to Hashem. Nevertheless, this concept is very difficult to comprehend. When a person repents, it appears that he is attempting to return to the observance of a particular commandment, not to Hashem! The association of teshuvah with standing before Hashem does not seem like an accurate depiction of what occurs in real repentance where one’s conduct, rather than one’s God, is the center of focus. Simply put, how is the notion of being in the presence of God relevant to the process of repentance?
Repentance and Confession
As our investigation of the Rambam’s teachings progresses, further difficulties begin to emerge. The first chapter of the Laws of Repentance commences with these words:
The first feature of this passage that requires some explanation is the repetitive clause “when he repents and turns away from his sin.” Isn’t repentance and turning away from sin the same thing? The Rambam appears to be repeating himself unnecessarily here.
The concept of viduy, or confession, is also difficult to understand. Ostensibly, in requiring us to repent, the Torah’s primary objective is that we stop behaving in ways that violate its laws. One can certainly make a firm decision to change one’s behavior for the better without verbalizing it; in the end, it is what a person does that should matter, not what a person says.
Yet, it is clear that the Torah sees confession as indispensable to teshuva. The Rambam reflects this by counting teshuva and viduy as a single, unitary commandment as well as by mentioning repentance and confession together throughout his treatment of the subject. Hence, we must ask, what benefit do we gain by translating our repentance into words? How does this make our teshuva more complete?
Additionally problematic is the Rambam’s recommendation that the sinner elaborate on his confession as much as possible. What room is there for elaboration in a viduy? Seemingly, once the sin has been identified, remorse has been expressed, and a resolution to change has been adopted, there is nothing left to say. Whether one’s confession is long or short, what we are most interested in is whether the sinner discontinues his inappropriate behavior. There should be no room for differences in degree - either a person has abandoned his error, or he has not.
In order to resolve these difficulties, we must examine the concepts of sin and teshuva more carefully. Specifically, we must consider the fact that a person who violates one of the commandments is doing a lot more than acting inappropriately. His sin is not a random occurrence that can be viewed separately from his personal beliefs and convictions. On the contrary, through his action he is demonstrating something about his entire value system: he is making a statement about what he envisions - or does not envision - as his purpose in life.
An example will better illustrate this point. The Torah demands that we restrict ourselves to the consumption of kosher food. Eating kosher is instrumental to our development as human beings because it keeps us aware of our spiritual objective in life even as we are involved in taking care of our physical needs. Observance of kashrut demonstrates our belief that eating cannot be significant in its own right unless it is a means to our ultimate goal - the service of our Creator.
Hence, an individual who succumbs to temptation and consumes non-kosher food has not simply committed a technical violation of Torah law. He has indicated through his action that he is not fully dedicated to the philosophical principles of Judaism. He has not adopted an unequivocal set of life priorities - he remains torn between the lure of instinctual gratification for its own sake and his desire to develop his mind and soul. In a moment of weakness, his baser drives grabbed hold of him and overpowered his intellect, leading him to neglect an important commandment. The violation itself, however, was only a symptom of a more basic conflict within his personality.
When we become aware that we have committed a sin, then, this should serve as a stimulus to deeper reflection on the purpose of our existence. We should not write it off as a fluke but should perceive it as a sign that we have moved too far in the wrong direction philosophically, that we have not sufficiently clarified our ultimate priorities in life. We should realize that our action indicates that we are ambivalent about some aspects of the Torah’s values and directives, and that, as a result, we still struggle with them in practice. This in turn should motivate us to immerse ourselves in Torah study in order to gain a clearer sense of the purpose of our existence and to increase our awareness of how important its teachings and mitzvot are for our development. We will emerge from this quest with a more definitive set of principles and priorities to guide our lives - and, as a natural result, we will feel compelled to abandon our misguided ways. This, in fact, is the reason why the Rambam uses the double language “when a person repents and turns from his sin” when he introduces the mitzvah of doing teshuva. It is the internal, transformational process of self-reflection, value clarification and study that constitutes true teshuva - the behavior change is, as it were, a by-product of this monumental effort.
Teshuva - A Unique Commandment
Now we are in a better position to understand why repentance must be counted as an independent commandment. It is not equivalent to simply resuming the observance of the mitzvah that has been neglected. Even if the Torah had not included a mitzvah to repent, a person who ate non-kosher food would be expected to return to a kosher diet as soon as possible in order to avoid further violations of the formal laws of kashrut. This change in behavior alone would be expected as a function of the original commandments to keep kosher, with or without an additional commandment to repent.
This change in behavior, however, would not constitute real teshuva. The commandment to do teshuva requires a complex set of operations that transcend the realm of behavior and focus on the values and beliefs of the sinner. When we commit a transgression, we are obligated to delve into our personal convictions and correct the philosophical error(s) that led to the sin. We are commanded to refine our understanding of our purpose in life and the choices we must make if we are to achieve that purpose.
Although the person who decides to resume his observance of kashrut will do his best to avoid future kashrut infractions, he will still be required - as a function of his past violations - to engage in the more introspective process of teshuvah at some point in time. By introducing a separate mitzvah of teshuvah, the Torah teaches us that we have not fully repented for our transgressions until we have taken the time to explore the depth of their significance. Superficial changes in our habits are not enough to satisfy the Torah’s requirement of teshuva.
The Role of Confession
The new insights we have developed can also help us to explain why confession is such a central feature of repentance. Human speech is a reflection of the ability of human beings to think conceptually. Indeed, from the way an individual communicates an idea it is easy to measure the coherence and precision of his understanding. When a person cannot put what he is thinking into words, we tend to assume that his musings are not yet developed enough to be expressed in speech. Said simply, the use of language is intimately related to the use of the mind.
If teshuva were synonymous with bettering our actions, confession would have no intrinsic relationship to it. Repentance would be a matter of the body while confession would be a matter of the soul. One would theoretically be possible without the other. However, now that we see that teshuva is, in reality, a process of thought and analysis, it follows that - if we have truly completed the process - we should be able to summarize our conclusions in a final declarative statement.
At the culminating point of our introspection, we are challenged to demonstrate the clarity of our newfound convictions by expressing them verbally. If we cannot rise to the challenge, our repentance is by no means complete - our thought is not yet clear enough to be articulated. We must continue to seek a better understanding of our personal issues until we have a firm grasp on them, until we can use language to describe them.
By the same token, when we have made real progress in our soul-searching, our confession would be expected to mirror the profundity and complexity of our self-analysis. This is why the Rambam states that a confession has the potential for a great deal of expansion and elaboration. The more thoroughly we have delved into the significance of our transgressions and the examination of our life priorities, the richer and more descriptive our confessions will be.
Returning “Before Hashem”
At this stage it becomes clear why doing teshuva is always described as returning to, or before, Hashem. It is true that the immediate stimulus to repentance is usually a specific violation of Torah law that occurs at a particular time in a particular place. However, the process of repentance moves beyond the superficial features of a transgression to an analysis of its underlying causes and a reflection on the ultimate purpose of our lives. Teshuva culminates not merely in the rejection of incorrect values but in the sinner’s rededication to the highest human priority - the quest for knowledge of Hashem.
As a result of his soul-searching, the penitent’s awareness of his true position in the Universe has deepened tremendously; thus, he now stands in the presence of Hashem, humbly refocused on the meaning of his own existence.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
As most of the readers of this blog probably already know, I was involved in extensive blog-debates over the past couple of weeks, several of which revolved around the validity of the FC Proof. I defended the argument and maintained that most of the challenges raised against it were based upon misunderstandings of its premises. In order to clarify my position, I will present the traditional form of the proof and then offer some additional commentary. The proof runs as follows:
All material entities are dependent upon external causes that account for their existence. However, an infinite chain of dependent entities is impossible. Therefore, there must be an entity outside of the chain of material entities upon which the material chain as a whole is dependent. This entity would of necessity lie outside of the framework of space and time.
Two objections are typically lodged against this formulation:
1. It is not true that material entities all have causes. Although we see that the changes that occur to matter and energy are caused, that tells us nothing about the origin of matter itself. Maybe it was always here.
2. If we are going to posit that "something" is ultimately uncaused, why not simply say that the first material entity was uncaused? Why assume the existence of something outside of the material realm altogether?
Since I believe that I have already addressed the second objection satisfactorily in the past, I will set it aside for now and focus on the first. I may return to discuss the second issue in a future post.
The first objection is based upon a misconception that unfortunately plagues most discussions of these issues. The hidden assumption underlying #1 is that the definition of a "cause" is an agent that brings a certain object or entity into existence at a particular time. Therefore, if matter is eternal and therefore never "came" into existence, then this means that there is no need to assign it a cause.
This interpretation, however, is not what the philosophers intended when they proposed the First Cause proof. In fact, many of the thinkers who subscribed to the proof actually believed that the Universe was eternal! They simply employed the term "cause" differently than we do.
We tend to think of causes in a mechanistic, temporal sense. The bat causes the ball to fly through the air. Ingestion of the medicine causes the body to heal. This model of causality is derived from Descartes and is a product of relatively modern thought. It is not compatible with the framework in which the classical thinkers operated.
Causality, as understood in the classical context, means that upon which a thing's existence or nature depends. We are all the results of myriad "causes" that explain the fact that we exist and account for the way in which we exist. These factors may be genetic, environmental, or even cosmic in substance.
When we trace the chain of causality back far enough, we eventually hit a dead end. We come upon the most elementary entity, the basic building block that served as the cause for everything else in the Universe, yet the question remains - why does it exist and have the properties it has? By definition, in order to "explain" the first material entity's nature, we must make recourse to something beyond it.
This is why I would suggest that rather than utilizing the word "cause", we consider using the word "reason" instead. "Reason" doesn't have the same mechanistic overtones as "cause."
The proof would then run like this: Every material entity has a reason for its existence that is external to itself. That reason, in turn, has a reason for its existence. Yet an infinite chain of explanation is impossible. Therefore, we must conclude that there is a first entity whose reason for existence is inherent.
An example may clarify my point. The arrangement of molecules in a particular stone is attributable to numerous causal factors external to the stone. Those causal factors - local environmental conditions, for instance - wound up that way due to more fundamental, geological determinants that pertain to the makeup of the Earth's core. These geological determinants themselves are the product of broader astronomical determinants, etc.
But there is a limit to how far back we can trace the chain of "reasons" that account for the molecules in our stone. Ultimately, there must be a reason why the first determinant - the point from which everything else in the Universe initially emerged - existed precisely the way it did to begin with. The determinant of matter/energy itself can only be found outside of the framework of the material world.
It is important to note that, even if all of the causal factors or "reasons" existed simultaneously and from all eternity, the interdependence and hierarchical structure of the various entities would still be apparent. There would still be determining factors and determined factors. There would still be a need to account for the very first determined factor, by finding a determining factor external to space and time.
I feel that, by refining our use of language in this manner, our discussions of the First Cause Argument can proceed more thoughtfully and constructively.
Admittedly, this post is being completed off the top of my head rather late in the evening, so further installments will be necessary before any treatment of this subject can even approach comprehensiveness.
However, since I will be unable to post again until Wednesday at the earliest, I thought I should contribute something to the debate that can serve as food for thought in the interim.
Friday, June 22, 2007
I hope to post the final draft on Saturday night.
My belief is that the approach taken in the new piece has the potential to bring further clarity to the whole discussion.
Perhaps some of the misunderstandings will be laid to rest once and for all, and more fruitful analyses of the merits and limitations of the proof can begin.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Stay tuned...I hope to complete a post defending the First Cause Proof for God's existence later today.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
As he explains in the concluding section of the piece, his interpretation of the text corroborates the Rambam's understanding of Moshe's error at Merivah.
You can read an abridged version of his essay translated into English here.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
The essential thrust of the Argument from Design is this: The Universe exhibits a remarkable complexity, lawfulness, and order throughout. In the biological realm, the appearance of intentional design manifest in the harmonious functioning of living organisms is unmistakable. It seems profoundly unreasonable to attribute these phenomena to mere happenstance. Thus, we must infer that an intelligent Being is in fact responsible for them.
Enlightenment Period skeptics, beginning with David Hume, have challenged the Argument from Design on many counts, and their objections have been reviewed and rebutted by more recent thinkers. However, bad habits die hard, so moderns frequently declare that the Argument has been debunked, and tend to recycle even the most dubious of Hume's critiques as if they were beyond reproach. Perhaps the most talked-about contemporary atheist who has levelled Humean attacks against the Argument from Design is Richard Dawkins, whom our own favorite blogger-skeptic has borrowed from in his discussion of the topic.
The truth of the matter is that the objections to the Argument from Design are not very impressive philosophically. Many of them are flawed so seriously that they are naught more than chains of fallacy in disguise. In this post, we will confine ourselves to those counterarguments deemed by our friend to be worthy of an appearance on his blog. His anti-Argument-from-Design is formulated there as follows:
If you say you need an N+1 creator to design an N, then God is even more amazing than the universe, so you have simply pushed the question back one level, and now you have the problem of who designed God. And if you want to say that God doesn’t need to be designed for some incomprehensible reason, then you can say the same about the universe, for some incomprehensible reason.
Now, if you are philosophically inclined, reading this may already have given you a serious headache. But let's examine the argument he is presenting and attempt to define why it is flawed.
Basically, the counterargument proceeds like this: The Universe is incredibly complex, amazing, etc. This leads us to think a Creator must be behind it. But this Creator, in order to have produced such an amazing Universe, must Himself be even greater than that Universe. So, if we are going to ask how the Universe could be so intricate in the absence of a Creator, then we must ask the same about God - how could a Being so amazing possibly exist without a Creator?
The error in reasoning here is simple. When we observe the Universe's breathtaking harmony, we are faced with two options - either this order is a mere accidental grouping of blind material forces into lawful patterns, or it is an intentional design expressing itself through matter. The former seems terribly unlikely and forced, so we choose the latter.
But it is crucial to understand why the first option is counterintuitive - it is because we don't expect inert, brute matter to become organized into patterns of its own accord. There is nothing in pure physicality that suggests that it should have to or would tend to conform to any kind of intelligible principle whatsoever. So we naturally conclude that this must be the result of an external cause who designed the Universe on purpose.
God, on the other hand, is not something we believe to have emerged "by accident" from the chaotic motions of physical particles. He is a metaphysical Being devoid of any material properties - the source of order as opposed to an ordered entity. Wondering who designed God is like wondering who "designed" a concept - the term is simply inappropriate, since ideas are not constructed from raw materials; they are discovered or perceived. Attempting to apply the notion of design to God is ultimately an exercise in futility.
Considering an example of design drawn from our earthly experience will clarify this point. An architect formulates a coherent layout for the construction of a new home. That model is, so to speak, "imposed upon" the wood, brick, plaster, etc., by workmen who implement the instructions of the architect, and the result is a house that physically embodies the conceptual plan. Neither the materials alone, nor the architectural scheme alone, would ever bring anything particularly impressive into existence by themselves. It is only when the vision in the mind of the artisan finds expression in a physical medium that we see "design" manifesting itself.
So the question of the design of the Universe, which is comprised of matter, is legitimate, while the question "who designed God" is not.
Our good friend continues:
Now some people will argue that God is simple, and hence He fulfills the N-1 option above. But what kind of ‘simple’ is this? Not any kind of ‘simple’ that we can comprehend. Basically it’s just playing a word game, calling something simple when by any normal human standard we would call it complex.
This part of the argument betrays hazy thinking in the domains of theology and science. The premise underlying it is that whatever is responsible for the Universe must be as complicated, if not moreso, than the Universe itself.
Upon reflection, however, it should be obvious that this is not the case. Scientific theories aim to explain the complex phenomena observed in the world through the use of simple, general constructs that have the ability to account for an enormous number of particulars. Time and time again, science has revealed that what manifests itself to our senses as staggering complexity presents itself to our minds as the expression of a small set of fundamental principles. In fact, scientists' ultimate dream is to formulate a single Theory of Everything that will elegantly account for all observed phenomena in the material world.
If the skeptic's reasoning were correct, then this objective would be deemed absurd or even impossible from the get-go, since any theory of such grandeur would of necessity be more cumbersome and intricate than the subject matter it explains.
To summarize, then, we see that the concept of positing God as the ultimate source of the harmony in the Universe is actually quite logical - it is the natural culmination of the process of understanding our world. At first we take in a wealth of sensory information and feel overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of our environment. Then we slowly but surely move from the material details to the realm of the theoretical and conceptual, and begin to see myriad phenomena as expressions of an underlying set of rational principles or laws of nature. As we transition from experience to principle and from data point to concept, we similarly transition from complexity to simplicity and from chaos to order. This process of simplification and unification eventually leads us to the recognition of the Source of the majestic system of physical law itself - the Creator of the Universe.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Some things I am on the fence about. Some things I am off the fence. Sometimes I am on the fence and then get off. Sometimes I get off and then get back on. Sometimes I am off the fence, but then have a chnage of heart and jump over to the other side of the fence. Sometimes I am on the fence, and fall off unintentionally. Sometimes I am on the fence but think I'm off it, but really I'm on it. Sometimes I think I'm on the fence, but really I'm off it.
This reminded me of a famous statement in the second chapter of Maimonides' Laws of Idolatry:
We are commanded not to consider any thought that might lead us to uproot one of the fundamental principles of the Torah. We should not turn our minds to it, reflect and be drawn after the imaginings of our hearts. Because a person's mind is limited, and not all minds are capable of grasping the truth accurately. And if just any individual were to be drawn after the musings of his heart, he would end up destroying the world on account of his limited intellect.
How so? Sometimes he will occupy himself with idolatry, and other times he will reflect upon the oneness of the Creator - maybe it is true, or maybe not; [or he will muse about] what is above, below, before or after the Universe. Sometimes he will consider prophecy - maybe it is authentic, maybe not. Sometimes he will think about the Torah - maybe it is divine, maybe not. Yet he does not know the principles by which to judge these matters such that he should grasp the truth properly, thus he eventually becomes a heretic.
About this, the Torah states, "do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes." That is to say, everyone should not follow the inclinations of his limited intellect and imagine that his thinking process has led him to the truth.
Certainly the Rambam does not intend to discourage thinking. What he is emphasizing is that an individual who wishes to investigate the most basic questions of religious meaning must be a person of profound humility who possesses the requisite background knowledge and the necessary training to succeed in his quest. Even someone with all of these qualities will fail unless he exercises extreme caution throughout the process, and carefully distinguishes between issues he is prepared to tackle and those for which he is not yet ready.
One who doesn't have the prerequisite qualifications for this course of study is bound to fail. He will move back and forth between different ideas based on their intuitive appeal - "maybe it is true, maybe not" - and will be unable to arrive at secure conclusions. As Maimonides explains in several places in the Guide for the Perplexed, the reason for this flip-flopping is a reliance - conscious or unconcious - on untrained intuition.
A person with an extensive background of study in a field of knowledge will develop an intuition grounded in reality. His gut feeling about an idea will carry weight because it is rooted in authentic intellectual cognition. This is why great physicists, mathematicians and Talmudists often legitimately and successfully employ their intellectual intuition in the course of theorizing about problems in their respective subject areas.
In one famous incident, Rabbi Soloveitchik z"l, known as the Rav, was asked for evidence to support a legal ruling he had offered. He responded that his conclusion was intuitive; nonetheless, he observed, "my intuition is halacha." Having been immersed for countless years in the wisdom and methodology of the Talmud and Codes, the Rav harbored no doubt that, when a specific formulation of a Torah concept appealled to him, this appeal had a rational basis and was not merely subjective.
A novice, on the other hand, has only his imagination and his emotions from which to draw intuitive guidance. Naturally, these agencies are among the most fickle and unreliable in the human psyche. They can provide the appearance of certainty one moment, only to replace it with doubt and skepticism in the next. Unfortunately, our innate desire to arrive at the truth and to investigate the mysteries of existence often causes us to overestimate our competence and delve into subjects that are beyond our ken. With nothing but shaky intuition leading us, we have a very slim chance of success.
This is where the benefit of mesorah, authentic intellectual tradition, comes in. All human civilizations transmit a cultural mesora of some sort to their citizens. This tradition shapes the values, practices and beliefs of the members of that civilization from earliest youth. Similarly, the mesorah of Judaism provides us with a system of metaphysical principles and mitsvot that serve as a basic framework for a lifetime of intellectual and spiritual growth. In its absence, the vast majority of people would either spend their lifetimes in philosophical perplexity, or be overwhelmed by the pressures of instinct and devote themselves to hedonism or materialism.
Of course, skeptics will question the tradition and wonder why they should accept it to begin with. I have already discussed this point on Vesom Sechel in the past, and hope to revisit it again soon.
Here it is in a nutshell: Judaism offers a systematic, rational approach to meaningful living. Its principles and structure are unique, profound and coherent. And the authenticity of its mesorah is rooted in the historical experience of an entire nation rather than resting upon personal testimonials alone. I think this makes it by far the most reasonable choice available to a thinking individual who is interested in conducting his or her life prudently, consistently and reflectively.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
In this week's Parasha we read about the famous incident of the spies. Moshe sent twelve representatives of the Tribes of Israel on a fact-finding mission to the Land of Canaan. As we all know, the would-be spies utilized their trip as an opportunity to orchestrate a quasi-rebellion against Moshe and, as a result, the Jews were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years.
The commentaries debate whether Moshe sent spies because it was appropriate to do so, or whether this choice was actually a concession to the weakness of the Jewish people who needed reassurance before their entry into the land.
The Ramban argues that it stands to reason that Moshe would have sent spies regardless of the feelings and attitudes of the people. Although the Jews were charged with the responsibility of conquering the Land of Israel, Hashem expected them to conduct this campaign prudently and not to rely on miracles. As a part of normal military strategizing, Moshe would certainly have sent agents to gather data that would help him formulate a swift and efficient approach to capturing the Land. Moshe would have proceeded like any other political leader in this respect and would not have blindly and simplistically placed his trust in Divine intervention.
The Ramban's interpretation, however, raises an interesting difficulty. In Parashat Lech-Lecha, the Torah tells us that, immediately after Abraham arrived in Canaan, there was a famine in the land and he was compelled to relocate to Egypt. Although most commentaries regard this choice as appropriate and wise, the Ramban is an exception. He criticizes Avraham for lacking the faith necessary to remain in Israel despite the scarcity of food. Since Hashem had instructed him to settle in Canaan, Avraham should have trusted that he would be well taken care of even during a period of hardship.
In another post, I discussed the more traditional view of this narrative about Avraham and the lessons we can derive from it. It is certainly possible (and, in my opinion, more intuitive) to read the story of Abraham's trip to Egypt differently, and not to construe it as a failure on his part. Nonetheless, this is how the Ramban interprets Avraham's choice in this matter - as an error of major proportions.
The question, then, is clear. In the case of Avraham, the Ramban suggests that unwillingness to rely upon Divine intervention is a defect. By contrast, when it comes to the story of the spies, the Ramban states that, as a matter of course, a person should not rely upon miracles, and that it would have been incumbent upon Moshe to dispatch spies on an investigative mission before leading the Jews into Israel. Why does the Ramban distinguish between these two circumstances? Is reliance upon Divine aid praiseworthy or inappropriate?
I believe that the Ramban would answer as follows: Avraham was (ostensibly) commanded by Hashem to dwell in the Land of Canaan. Remaining there was, in and of itself, fulfillment of a Divine decree, and Avraham should have been willing to take risks in order to do so. There was no excuse for him to leave and thereby contravene Hashem's instructions. Avraham had reason to assume that God would provide for him in Israel no matter what, since he was involved in the performance of a mitzvah that could not be completed otherwise. Put simply, being in Israel was the mitsvah.
On the other hand, the commandment given to the Israelites in the desert was to conquer and settle in the Land of Canaan. But making decisions about how they would accomplish this objective was their responsibility entirely. Because it was only a means to an end, the process of conquest and settlement had to be carried out with careful forethought, extensive planning and thorough deliberation. There was no guarantee of miraculous assistance unless the Jewish people did their part to make the mission a success. Divine intervention would be experienced on an as-needed basis only!
Monday, May 21, 2007
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
You can also download the PDF version of an original baby naming prayer I composed over two years ago when my daughter, Zehara Yehudit, was born.
(Also note the thoughtful constructive criticism there from my friend David G.)
Hazaq U'varuch to him for taking a strong and principled stand on what is unfortunately a very sensitive issue.
(The comments are worthwhile perusing as well.)
In the previous post, we identified five noteworthy characteristics that Shavuot and Shemini Atseret have in common. What is the reason for their strong resemblance?
The Ramban, in his commentary to Leviticus 23:36, offers a cryptic explanation for the holiday of Shemini Atseret:
According to the way of truth: For in six days did Hashem create the Heavens and the Earth; the seventh day is Shabbat and has no partner, and the Congregation of Israel is its partner, as it is written "and the Earth"; and behold, she is eighth. "It is an Atseret", for there everything is stopped (Heb. netsar hakol). And He commanded regarding the Festival of Matsot seven days with holiness before and after them, for they are totally holy with Hashem in their midst, and count from it forty nine days, seven weeks like the days of the world, and sanctify the eighth day like the eighth day of Sukkot - the counted days in between are like the Intermediate Days of the festival between the first and eight days of Sukkot - and that is the day of the giving of the Torah on which He showed them His great fire and they heard His voice from the fire. Therefore, the Rabbis always call Shavuot "Atseret", because it is like the eighth day of Sukkot which the Torah calls "Atseret"...
This statement of the Ramban is quite mysterious, but I believe we can still derive a tremendous insight from it. The key distinction he introduces is between the number seven - which, as he points out, is a reference to the seven days of creation in Genesis - and the number eight, which he understands as a symbolic reference to the Congregation of Israel.
Although he is deliberately obscure, it seems that the Ramban is therefore suggesting that the holidays that fall on "eighth" days - i.e., Shavuot and Shemini Atseret, which follow the seven-day holidays - are associated with the metaphysical identity of the Jewish people, whereas the seven-day holidays themselves are linked to the material world.
This simple observation has the potential to account for several of the unique properties of Shemini Atseret and Shavuot that we mentioned in the last post. But let us begin by considering the implications of this theory for the seven-day holidays that precede them.
Both Pesah and Sukkot relate primarily to our physical lives. On Pesah, we consume a new form of bread, and on Sukkot we eat and sleep in a new 'home' environment. Both holidays address our bodily existence and elevate our awareness of Hashem through the introduction of special mitsvot that "interfere" with our normal, physiologically-based routines. It is not unreasonable to say, then, that both Passover and Sukkot are holidays rooted in the "seven days of creation"; that is, they address us insofar as we are biological creatures, parts of the broader framework of the natural world.
By contrast, Shavuot and Shemini Atseret are related to the "Congregation of Israel" - our metaphysical, spiritual identity as human beings that distinguishes us from the rest of the created order and allows us to rise above it. The ultimate manifestation of this uniquely human capacity is the experience of revelation whereby we become cognizant of God's infinite wisdom. The product of that Divine encounter is the Torah, which is the focal point of both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret. Put simply, these holidays are related to the spiritual rather than the physical dimension of our existence.
This is the concept of the Jewish people being the "partner" of Shabbat. The universe displays Divine Wisdom with breathtaking elegance. However, absent a group of people who are dedicated to observing and reflecting upon that wisdom, it would never become fully actualized; it would remain, as it were, undiscovered. The Jewish people literally 'complete' the Universe by contemplating the beauty of its design every Shabbat.
Thus, we see that the Torah institutes two seven-day holidays, each of which is followed by a one-day "Atseret". The seven day holidays heighten our awareness of God by implementing changes in the physical aspects of our lifestyle - what or where we eat, etc. For these adjustments to really have an impact, they must be extended over an entire week's time. Sitting in a Sukkah or abstaining from leavened products for only one day would not make a significant difference in a person's life. Internalizing the message of these holidays is a gradual process; it takes a while for our minds to absorb the implications of what our bodies are doing.
However, the ultimate goal of all of these concrete behaviors is to prepare us for the apprehension of Hashem's truth with our highest faculties - our minds. When we reach this final stage, embodied in Shavuot and Shemini Atseret, we celebrate the actual achievement of a new intellectual plateau - either the experience of revelation at Sinai or the completion of our annual course of Torah study - rather than focusing on the gradual process of reaching that plateau. Consequently, these holidays are observed for a single day only, just like Shabbat. It goes without saying that no physical rituals are associated with these days because their theme is, by definition, metaphysical in nature.
In summary, then, Pesah and Sukkot serve to lay the material groundwork for the more transcendent celebrations of Shavuot and Shemini Atseret. And, of course, both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret center on our holy Torah, which represents the intellectual interface between human beings and their Creator.
Two major questions still remain. First of all, being that Shavuot and Shemini Atseret both revolve around Torah knowledge, celebrating both of the seems redundant. Why do we need two holidays dedicated to the same theme?
Second, if they are indeed so similar, why is Shavuot separated from Pesah by a stretch of 49 days? We know that, unlike Shavuot, Shemini Atseret is directly appended to the seven days of Sukkot - it is literally the eighth day of the holiday. What is the reason for the disparity between the structure of Passover-Shavuot and the structure of Sukkot-Shemini Atseret?
Stay tuned - in a post to follow shortly, I will suggest an answer to both of these questions that I think sheds light on the nature of the Jewish Holiday cycle as a whole.
Monday, May 14, 2007
What do Shavuot and Shemini Atseret have in common? A brief consideration of these holidays reveals that they bear an unmistakable resemblance to one another on a variety of levels:
1) Both are observed for a single day only (two days in the Diaspora).
2) Both are "appended", as it were, to seven day holidays - Shavuot is the culmination of the Omer count begun on Pesah, and Shemini Atseret represents the culmination of Sukkot.
3) Both are referred to as "Atseret" - Shemini Atseret is designated as such by the Torah itself (hence its name), whereas, in Rabbinic parlance, "Atseret" is the term used for Shavuot.
4) Both holidays lack any concrete ritual expression or seasonal commandment (outside of the special offerings brought in the Temple, that is). Unlike Passover, which is associated with the consumption of matsa, and Sukkot, which revolves around dwelling in the Sukkah and waving the Four Species, Shavuot and Shemini Atseret do not obligate us in any positive mitsvot at all.
5) Both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret are thematically linked to the study of Torah. Shavuot commemorates the Revelation at Sinai, while Shemini Atseret is "Simhat Torah" - the day that we celebrate our completion of yet another annual cycle of Torah readings.
What is the reason for these remarkable similarities?
Stay tuned for a fascinating answer based upon a cryptic commentary from Nachmanides.
Meanwhile, of course, educated guesses are welcome in the comments to this post.
The second exciting event scheduled for this Sunday is the wedding of one of my dear friends and congregants here in Rockville. Mazal Tov!
Because of all the positive energy in the air today, I have been in a singing mood. I channelled that into the preparation of recordings of various upcoming Torah and Haftara selections.
The Haftara of Bemidbar with Syrian/Yerushalmi Cantillation
The Haftara of Bemidbar with Moroccan Cantillation
Parashat Nitsavim (First Aliya) with Yerushalmi Cantillation
You will probably notice some minor grammatical and perhaps even musical errors in my reading. Please excuse me; I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet this morning.
If you are very perceptive (i.e., a nudnik), you will notice systematic differences in Hebrew pronunciation between the Haftarot and the Torah reading. The reason for this is that the Parasha was prepared for an actual Bar Mitsvah student; as a result, I tried to read in a more conventional Sephardic Hebrew than I am normally accustomed to using.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Moments ago, the number of votes to its credit was drastically reduced, leaving only 83. Vesom Sechel suddenly fell into a distant and rather precarious Second Place position.
I suspect that the process of vote-authentication being employed by the JIBs staff is far from objective, and that this caused Vesom Sechel to lose many of the votes it had rightfully earned.
Please make sure to cast your ballot if you haven't already!
Thursday, May 10, 2007
In Pirqei Avot last week, we read the famous Rabbinic dictum "Who is mighty? He who conquers his evil inclination." Most people take this statement in a metaphoric sense. Really, they assume, the quality of "gevurah" (mightiness) means just that - the possession of brute, physical strength. But, they claim, the Rabbis transformed the concept into something spiritual in order to put a more positive spin on it, and to make it seem more worthy of admiration.
I disagree with this approach. I think that the Rabbis are providing us with a tremendous insight into gevurah that is intended quite literally.
The average person goes to great lengths to appear powerful and "in control" of his life. When we reflect upon the epitome of "coolness" in our culture, we envision an individual who is unswayed by environmental influences - he calls the shots, so to speak, and others carry out his bidding, while he remains consistently detached, calm and collected.
Yet beneath that veneer of mastery he exhibits in the outside world lies a turbulent inner life, dominated by passions and emotions that are very much in the "driver's seat" of that individual's decision making processes. He is not as powerful or well-put-together as he would like us to believe. His desire for instinctual and psychological pleasures of all kinds rages within him and influences his conduct on an almost constant basis. Whereas the external elements of his life appear orderly and well managed, his soul is a bundle of petty emotions that are his true "masters" in life. Only a person who has command over his internal world is really in control.
We encounter examples of this dichotomy in the media all the time. Recently, right here in the Washington, DC area, several high profile businessmen and politicians were disgraced when their names were found on the customer list of an upscale escort service. These purportedly mighty individuals are in reality putty in the hands of their instinctual drives. Once their indiscretions become public knowledge, it is difficult for them to regain the respect of the masses - respect that, it seems, was predicated on an illusion from the outset. These characters were admired because people believed they embodied genuine gevurah; the dispelling of this misconception is a source of great humiliation for all involved.
This insight into the concept of gevurah can also help us to explain a fascinating occurrence at the beginning of the Book of Joshua. When Joshua sends spies to Jericho to assess the morale of the locals, they stop in at the home of Rahav, the proprietress of an inn which also functioned as a 'house of ill repute'. The Midrash tells us that Rahav was not just any member of the world's oldest profession - she was the equivalent of the premiere "upscale" escort in Biblical times, who enjoyed relationships with all the rich and famous of Canaan.
The question is often raised - why did these righteous men see fit to lodge in a place of immorality and prostitution? Couldn't they have stopped in a more wholesome location?
In light of our analysis, the answer seems clear. The powerful leaders of Canaan had no problem maintaining a public image of coolness and detachment before their constituents. The common people may have been blissfully unaware of the private insecurities and deficiencies of their kings and princes. But Rahav saw these influential figures for who they really were - weak men, addicted to and enslaved by base pleasures and fantasies, who nonetheless sought to present themselves as larger-than-life heroes worthy of admiration.
Like many prostitutes and "adult entertainment" workers, Rahav had no respect for her customers and may even have despised them. She became disillusioned with the culture of falsehood and deception created and perpetuated by these lustful and immature men. Her recognition of the hypocrisy of the smooth-talking politicians of Canaan enabled her to appreciate the truth of the Torah's message and inspired her to cleave to the Nation of Israel.
We can see, then, that the Jewish spies selected their destination based upon a sound knowledge of psychological principles. They realized that the person who would be able to provide them with the most accurate assessment of the morale of the Canaanites would be Rahav. Because of her profession, the madame of Jericho had countless opportunities to interact with the most influential personalities in the region when their guard was down and their true colors were on display.
Although the leaders of Jericho appeared mighty on a superficial level, they lacked true gevurah. Their artificial image of confidence and control obscured the fact that, in truth, they were not the masters of their own destiny at all. These ostensibly powerful men allowed themselves to be enslaved by the most ignoble elements in the human psyche.
Visiting Rahav gave these men the chance to drop the charade, step out of character and be themselves for a while. And during these moments of weakness, they found comfort in sharing their hidden insecurities and fears with their professional paramour. Rahav was disgusted with the disingenuousness of the Canaanite power brokers and was more than happy to reveal what she learned from them to the invading Israelites.
The Rabbis teach us that mastery over one's environment is no substitute for gevurah. Only a person who rises above his passions and makes his decisions with wisdom and forethought is truly in control of his life.
Friday, April 27, 2007
Shoshanat Yaaqov includes practical halachic guidelines on an introductory level, as well as a philosophical perspective on the meaning and significance of these laws.
As it has not yet fully been edited and is still a work in progress, I would very much appreciate your feedback and constructive criticism.
You can download Shoshanat Yaaqov here.
The Rambam famously explains the incest restrictions from a practical standpoint. We grow up in close proximity to our relatives and spend a great deal of time with them throughout our lives. Were sexual relationships among siblings or between parents and children allowed, the constant availability of these individuals to us would encourage excessive involvement in sensual pleasure. The Ibn Ezra likewise adopts this explanation of the laws.
Nachmanides objects vigorously to the Rambam's analysis on several grounds. He points out that a man's wife lives with her husband and is regularly available to him as well, yet the Torah sets few limits on intimacy within the framework of marriage. Moreover, the Torah allows a man to take numerous wives, which would seem to defeat the whole purpose of minimizing access to sensual pleasure.
The Ramban therefore rejects the notion that the basis for the incest prohibition is related to diminishing the extent of a person's pursuit of instinctual gratification. Instead, he explains the incest restrictions from the perspective of Qabbalah. According to the Qabbalistic tradition, the children of certain marital unions are spiritually defective. These problematic relationships are the ones barred by the Torah.
The position of Maimonides, however, demands our consideration. How would he respond to the challenges levelled against him by Nachmanides?
I believe that the Rambam's understanding of the harmful nature of incest reveals his profound grasp of human psychology. When a person is growing up, it is important for him or her to experience home and family life as something safe and non-threatening. The household environment must be a forum for learning, exploration and development. If a child were to be viewed by his or her own relatives as a sexual object, or were to view his or her relatives as potential sexual partners, the whole structure and focus of family life would be undermined.
Modern literature on sexual abuse and incest fully supports this idea. Homes in which siblings and/or children and parents engage in physically intimate activities with one another are never healthy homes. Parents cease acting in the roles of teacher and mentor and are transformed into predators. Children are treated not as helpless creatures in need of nurturing and guidance but as tools for the personal gratification of more powerful adults. The results are profoundly disturbing; being raised in such a household never fails to scar an individual for life.
A family is supposed to serve as an educational resource and a wellspring of inspiration for its children, preparing them for a healthy existence in the "real world". An incestuous family dynamic moves in the opposite direction. Its energies are occupied with its own immediate satisfaction rather than any transcendent objective or ideal . Members of such a family become steeped in the selfish pursuit of instinctual pleasure - and the youngsters reared in this environment internalize these values, lacking the maturity to "rise above" them.
Anna Freud, in her book Psychoanalysis for Teachers and Parents, discusses this problem at length. She cites one instance in which, from earliest youth, a particular young boy's sexual interests were never allowed to be frustrated. He experienced unlimited gratification whenever he wanted it. The situation evolved over time to the point that, as a teenager and well into his adult years, the "child" maintained an exclusive sexual relationship with his mother.
Anna Freud observed that many people might expect this person to be very happy and productive - after all, he was provided with unlimited, unrestricted sensual pleasure throughout his formative years, and never had to experience the pain or frustration most people endure. However, the opposite turned out to be the case. The boy never developed emotional or intellectual maturity - he was totally stagnant as a human being. He was not capable of succeeding in school or contributing to society. His life was a tragic failure.
This is a perfect example of what the Rambam is saying about incest. Sexuality cannot be a part of the home environment of a youngster. If interactions with relatives cross the boundary of what is appropriate, a child will have great difficulty developing into a mature, sensitive and intellectually attuned human being in the future.
Thus, the Rambam was not simply suggesting that incestuous relationships would allow for too much sexual activity. It is not a matter of quantity alone, as Nachmanides rightly observed in his critique. What the Rambam really means is that incestuous behavior - precisely because it occurs within the confines of a family and cannot be regulated or controlled - stands in the way of the development of a child's personality, and derails the holy objective for which Jewish households are established.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Since Pesah, many of us have spent our Shabbat afternoons reflecting upon Pirke Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers. One of the key themes of Pirke Avot is the incomparable value of Torah knowledge and the importance pursuing it wholeheartedly. Although we all attach great significance to Torah wisdom, few people take the time to seriously consider practical strategies for acquiring it effectively. We have a tendency to simply "dive" into the texts of the Torah or Talmud without too much forethought.
In order to enjoy the most enriching Torah Study experience possible, we must turn to the masters of our tradition for guidance as to the proper method of learning. An examination of the words of our Sages reveals that they placed an unusually strong emphasis on the importance of hazara, review. Remarkably, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) asserts that "anyone who learns Torah but does not review is considered like one who sows seeds but does not harvest his crop."
Obviously, no farmer who has spent long hours tilling, sowing and fertilizing his field would pass up the opportunity to profit from his investment. Indeed, the reason for all of his toil is his desire to eventually benefit from the produce of his land. If a farmer neglects to reap what he has sown, all of his efforts are retroactively rendered meaningless. Intriguingly then, the metaphor that the Rabbis employ suggests that one who diligently engages in the study of Torah but fails to review his studies has literally labored in vain.
Certainly no one would question the practical, mnemonic value of review - without review, one is likely to forget at least some of what one has learned. When a student reviews material, he revisits information and ideas that he has explored in the past so as to improve his capacity to remember them in the future. This repetition does not contribute anything to what he knows; he is simply making use of a strategy that will help him hold onto the knowledge he has already acquired. Nevertheless, the Rabbis maintained that if a person does not review his Torah studies, his process of learning itself is somehow incomplete. In their view, hazara does not simply reinforce our memories - it adds a crucial element to our understanding of Torah.
By definition, though, review involves the rehashing of facts and concepts we have already learned. How can this possibly contribute something novel to our body of knowledge?
The answer to this difficulty lies in a clarification of the Torah’s concept of review. A person who wishes to expand his Torah knowledge must begin somewhere. He selects a specific set of laws or halachic topic to research and analyze, and progresses carefully from one aspect of this subject to the next. The only way to explore a Torah topic systematically is to consider its component parts in detail, one by one. By the time he has concluded his investigation, he may have accumulated a vast array of meaningful insights - each fascinating in its own right - that have offered him a glimpse of the inscrutable depth of the Torah’s wisdom.
However, the collection of novel points he has discovered, as beautiful as it might be, remains just that - a collection, loosely knit and lacking unity. Unless the student opts to revisit these insights and synthesize them into a meaningful whole, he will not have reaped the ultimate benefit of his Torah study - the chance to perceive the magnificent conceptual structure that underlies all of the smaller hidushim he has toiled to develop and perfect. It is this search for the "big picture", this process of reevaluating and integrating the results of one’s Torah learning in order to reveal abstract principles of ever more stunning elegance, that constitutes genuine review.
With this in mind, we can better understand the value that our Rabbis attached to the review of Torah learning. What Hazal advocated was not the mechanical repetition of memorized facts or ideas but a fundamental transformation of the way we understand and conceptualize the knowledge we have acquired.
After we have thoroughly acquainted ourselves with a topic of Torah study and have subjected its details to careful analysis, we are presented with the chance to take our comprehension of the wisdom of Torah to an even more profound level. It is now the time for us to review the insights we have gained with the hope of identifying a broader, more penetrating theoretical formulation that will further integrate and illuminate them. We mull over our previous discoveries not as an aid to memory, but as a stimulus to qualitatively deeper intellectual breakthroughs.
Now it is clear why a person who learns but does not review is compared to a farmer who works tirelessly to plant but never harvests his crop. Through his toil, the student has placed himself in a position where he can avail himself of the most precious of opportunities - the opportunity to unlock a whole new realm of Torah wisdom and knowledge of God.
If he fails to review his learning and thereby move beyond his current level of understanding, his comprehension of Torah will never reach its zenith. In effect, he will have abandoned the most delectable fruits of his labor, leaving new vistas of Torah knowledge unexplored.
On the other hand, one who performs hazara in this unique manner experiences the breathtaking beauty of the Creator’s wisdom with an added dimension of clarity. From this new vantage point, the student gains a deeper awareness of the infinity of God’s knowledge as it is revealed in His Torah. Having perceived the untold richness, complexity and sophistication of the Torah’s wisdom in such an exquisite way, he is sure to echo the words of King David, "for every pursuit I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly vast."
Monday, April 23, 2007
I am honored to have been nominated, especially in view of the fact that my communal obligations have prevented me from posting on a regular basis for the past couple of months.
Of course, I plan to resume my every-other-day posting schedule as soon as I possibly can.
Thank you to my readership for your kind support.
Friday, April 06, 2007
Passover and the Problem of Timing
The Pesah Sacrifice stands out from among all other sacrifices in several respects. The first unusual characteristic of the Pesah that is noteworthy is its timing. Holiday sacrifices are typically offered on the Yom Tov when they are supposed to be eaten. Not so the Qorban Pesah, which is carried out the day before the holiday of Passover.
(Indeed, the Torah assigns the name "Pesah" to the 14 of Nissan, the day we refer to as "Erev Pesah", and calls the 7-day holiday "Hag Hamatsot" instead of "Pesah". That is to say, the 14 of Nissan is treated as if it were a holiday in its own right that revolves around the offering of the Paschal sacrifice. We are indebted to Rabbinic parlance for the change in terminology. )
Furthermore, the Temple obeyed a general rule that forbade sacrifices from being offered in the late afternoon. No sacrifice was allowed to be brought after the fixed Afternoon Offering (Tamid) was completed. The regular communal offering was supposed to be the final sacrifice each day. Remarkably, the Qorban Pesah is governed by the opposite rule - it must be offered after the Tamid sacrifice on the 14th of Nissan!
The problem of timing is compounded by the laws regulating the consumption of the sacrifice. Although the Qorban Pesah is offered in the Temple on the calendar date of 14 Nissan, one is not permitted to eat of its meat until the nighttime, i.e., until the 15th of Nissan! This is quite unusual. As a rule, offerings are to be consumed as soon as possible. Different sacrifices have different halachic deadlines that specify the amount of time within which they must be eaten. However, we almost never find a sacrifice that is offered on one day for the purpose of a meal on the next day.
One more striking feature of the Qorban Pesah deserves mention. In ancient times, prior to the construction of the First Temple, individual and local altars were still allowed to be used for sacrifice. Only communal offerings had to be brought to the national altar that was housed in the Tabernacle. The Paschal Sacrifice, however, despite the fact that it was a personal offering, could not be completed at a local altar - it had to be offered at the national sanctuary. Indeed, the Torah tells us in Parashat Re'eh:
You may not slaughter the Passover Offering in one of your gates which the Lord, your God, gives you. Rather, to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to rest His name - there shall you sacrifice the Passover in the evening; when the sun goes down, it is the Holiday of your exit from Egypt.
Ironically, though, once the 15th of Nissan rolls around and the issue of eating the Paschal lamb comes up, communal seders are prohibited, and individualism is the rule:
In one house it shall be eaten - do not bring any of the meat outside of the house...
The Qorban Pesah is not the only mysterious element of Passover. The prohibition of hametz is also formulated in a way that seems counterintuitive. The Torah explicitly forbids the consumption of hametz during the seven days of Passover. The Torah also tells us that the Passover sacrifice may not be offered "on hametz". Our Rabbis teach us that this means that hametz must be removed from our domains beginning with midday of the 14 of Nissan, i.e., Erev Pesah.
An obvious technical question thus presents itself. Why does the Torah formulate this as two distinct prohibitions, one for half a day on the 14 of Nissan, and one for a full seven days during Passover proper? Why not simply command us to abstain from hametz from midday on the 14 through the end of the 21st?
Exodus - National and Individual
In order to better understand the significance of the 14th and 15th of Nissan, respectively, we must consider the dual function of the Exodus experience. One objective of the offering of the Qorban Pesah was the constitution of a new nation dedicated to the service of Hashem. This was accomplished through the communal participation in the sacrifice "the entire community of the congregation of Israel shall do it." The fourteenth of Nissan is a day on which every individual Jew demonstrates his identification with the Jewish people and its mission. This is reflected most clearly in the fact that the Qorban Pesah, although a personal offering, must be brought in a national setting.
As important as the events of the 14th of Nissan were for establishing the unity of the Jewish nation, they were only one step in the process of creating a holy community. Every household had to implement the concepts of Pesah in its own framework and apply them to its function. This process was initiated through the consumption of the Qorban Pesah in the home. Through carrying the sacrificial meat from the national sanctuary to one's private domain, an individual showed his intention to bring the message of the offering into his personal life.
Indeed, the seven day holiday of Passover can actually be construed as our "response" to the fundamental lesson of the Qorban Pesah. Through the Paschal Sacrifice, we demonstrate our rejection of the materialism of idolatry and our commitment to a spiritual, transcendent purpose in life. This shift in thought should yield a commensurate shift in behavior - an abandonment of leavened bread, the bread of luxury, and its replacement with matsah, the bread of servitude. Our recognition of the metaphysical basis of existence leads us to spurn the pursuit of wealth and pleasure and to dedicate ourselves to the service of a higher objective - knowledge and imitation of the ways of God.
There is a beautiful proof for this idea in a curious verse in Parashat Re'eh which presents the law of the Paschal Sacrifice:
You shall not eat any hametz on it; seven days you shall eat on it matzot, the bread of affliction.
There is an obvious difficulty with this verse. We understand that hametz may not be eaten "on" the Paschal Offering. We also know that hametz is prohibited during the seven days of Passover. But why does the Torah say we should eat matsot "on" the Qorban Pesah for seven days? After the first night, the Paschal Sacrifice is gone!
In light of what we have already explained, the verse makes perfect sense. The seven day holiday of Passover is in fact integrally linked to the Paschal Sacrifice - it represents our response to the spiritual challenge that the Qorban Pesah lays at our feet. Thus, we are actually eating matsot "on" - that is, in the wake of, or by dint of - the Passover Offering, for seven days.
We can now appreciate why the Passover sacrifice had to be brought after the Tamid offering, not before. Although it is offered during the daytime of the 14th of Nissan, its ultimate goal is only realized in the evening, where its consumption becomes a fundamental part of the observance of the Festival of Matsot. The fact that the sacrificial procedure is delayed until the conclusion of the daily order of offerings shows that it is in fact not related to that order of offerings - it is tied to the upcoming night's festivities. The national offering of the Paschal Sacrifices on the 14th of Nissan sets up the theological framework for the observance of Passover in each and every Jewish household on Pesah night.
The difficulty we raised with regard to the prohibition of hametz can now also be resolved. The Passover Offering cannot be completed unless its owners have already divested themselves of hametz in anticipation of the Festival. This is over and above the requirement to avoid hametz during the seven day "Hag Hamatsot" that begins in the evening. Our separation from hametz on the 14th of Nissan demonstrates that, even before we offer the Qorban Pesah, we are already prepared to bring it into our homes on the Seder Night. Thus, through abstaining from hametz on the 14th of Nissan, we underscore the connection between the offering of the Qorban Pesah in the Temple and its function as the "stimulus", as it were, for the Holiday of Passover proper.
We should not overlook the subtle and elegant manner in which the Torah formulated the holiday of Pesah. The central event on Passover is the Seder, which, in contradistinction to most of our holiday observances (Shofar, Lulav, etc.), takes place at night. Nighttime has a dual identity in Jewish Law. From the perspective of Shabbat and Holidays, the evening precedes the morning - "and it was evening and it was morning, one day" - so our holy days always begin the 'night before' their calendar date. From the perspective of the Laws of Sacrifices, however, the daytime is viewed, in the conventional sense, as preceding the nighttime. Offerings brought on a given day are eaten or burned during the night that follows.
The Seder Night, then, embodies both facets of nighttime. It is simultaneously the "end" of the 14th of Nissan - the date of the Paschal Sacrifice - and the beginning of the 15th of Nissan, the first day of the Passover Holiday. The Pesah Offering is consumed at the conclusion of the 14th of Nissan from the vantage point of the Temple's regulations, while serving as a key component of the meal that marks the beginning of the Festival on the 15th. Hence, it is through the night of the Seder that Biblical "Passover" and the "Festival of Matsot" are linked!
Finally, we may now be in a position to understand why the Rabbis chose to refer to the "Festival of Matsot" as "Pesah", despite the fact that this contravenes Biblical usage. Through adopting this terminology, the Sages emphasize that "Hag Hamatsot" ultimately derives from "Pesah". The Jews' ideological commitment, reflected in the Paschal Sacrifice, generates the impetus for the lifestyle change adopted on the Festival of Unleavened Bread. This lifestyle change, in turn, is a manifestation of the Jews' dedication to internalizing the ideas represented by the Pesah Offering. Thus, in a very real way, the "Festival of Matsot" embodies the message of Passover in its fullest form.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Rabban Gamliel used to say: Anyone who fails to mention three things on the night of Passover has not fulfilled his obligation. And what are they? The Paschal Sacrifice, Matsa and Maror.
The simplest interpretation of Rabban Gamliel's statement is that he is referring to the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus on the first night of Passover. Rabban Gamliel informs us that, unless the mitsvot of the Paschal offering, Matsa and Maror are discussed, one has not discharged one's obligation to speak about the Exodus. It is imperative that we identify the purpose of each one of these rituals on the Seder night.
This, however, poses an obvious problem. The mitsvot we are doing on the Seder night are not a part of the story! If Rabban Gamliel had insisted that anyone who forgets to mention the Ten Plagues has not done justice to the Exodus narrative, we would understand why. If he had ruled that anyone who fails to draw attention to the harshness of Pharaoh's oppression or the swiftness of the redemption had not captured the essence of the dramatic tale, we would accept it.
But explaining the commandments that we are about to perform on the night of Pesah - though important - is not a component of telling the story. Why should skipping that part of the Haggada invalidate our discussion of God's deliverance of His people from bondage?
Fascinatingly, this difficulty is not limited to the statement of Rabban Gamliel. There are several noteworthy instances in which the Haggada appears to value the discussion of the mitsvot of Passover more than the discussion of the Exodus itself. For example, consider the Haggada's instructions on how to respond to the query of the Wise Son:
You shall tell him the Laws of Passover, that we do not have dessert after the Paschal offering.
What happened to the story of the Exodus? Why are we entering into a conversation about the rules and regulations of Pesah, when it seems we should be focused on gaining insight into the most fundamental event in our nation's history?
(Another memorable example is the discussion of the Rabbis in Bene Brak, which revolves around a practical halachic issue only tangentially related to Pesah).
I believe that the answer to this basic problem is surprisingly simple. It is contained in the language of the Torah itself:
When your son asks you tomorrow, saying, 'What are the testimonies, the statutes and the ordinances that Hashem our God commanded you?' And you shall say to your son, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. And Hashem placed signs and wonders - great and terrible - in Egypt, against Pharaoh and his entire household before our eyes. And we He took out from there...And Hashem commanded us to do all of these statutes, to fear Hashem our God; for our benefit all of our days...
A close examination of the Bible reveals that the mitsvah to retell the story of the Exodus is always mentioned in conjunction with the performance of the commandments of the Torah. A parent is typically portrayed as justifying his commitment to the halachic system based upon the historical experience of oppression and redemption in Egypt.
This indicates that the function of discussing the Exodus on Passover is not to entertain the family with historical trivia or midrashic tales. The Seder is not meant to transport us into the ancient past so that we can reminisce about a bygone era. Rather, the objective of Passover night is to draw from history so as to shed light on the reasons for our current observance of Judaism.
This is precisely the message Rabban Gamliel is sending us. Our exploration of the Exodus must revolve around deepening our sense of commitment as Jews in the here-and-now. Otherwise, the dramatic narrative is reduced to an historical relic. The ultimate goal of Pesah is to revitalize our dedication to God each year through the performance of the mitsvot of the holiday. In order for this to happen, we must delve into the historical genesis of these commandments and reflect upon their relevance to the experience of our ancestors in Egypt.
The offering of the Paschal Lamb represented the Jews' rejection of the idolatrous worldview of the Egyptians, who worshipped the sheep as a god. The consumption of unleavened bread was a demonstration of our forefathers' rejection of the materialistic value system of Egypt. The Egyptian culture revolved around bread, the staple food of the wealthy man who lived luxuriously. Slaves, on the other hand, were sustained by unleavened products that were easier and less time-consuming to prepare. Through eating the "bread of affliction", our ancestors expressed their desire to live a life of service to God rather than a life of self-indulgence. Although free, they still saw themselves as dedicated to a purpose nobler than that of sensual gratification.
However, when all is said and done, this historical background must serve as a springboard for us to understand the significance of the mitsvot for our families today. What modern forms of idolatry must we liberate ourselves from in this day and age? What are the symptoms of our own attachment to the decadence of Western culture and its deification of pleasure, wealth and power? What steps can we take to root it out?
If we walk away from the Seder table with beautiful new explanations of the Haggada text but without a better sense of why the Paschal Lamb, Matsah and Maror are relevant to our lives, then we have not fulfilled the mitsvah of discussing the Exodus. The experience has entertained us but has not tranformed us.
This is why the more advanced a child is, the more we divert our attention from the story and spend time analyzing the Laws of Passover in depth. A wise youngster who is capable of appreciating the beauty of the mitsvot and their purpose will discover that the concepts, values and ideals expressed in the Exodus narrative manifest themselves in the mitsvot that we perform on Passover and all year round. The themes of the story are not vague philosophical notions about God or platitudes about freedom; rather, they are profound, highly practical ideas that are translated into rigorous halachic form and "lived" in realtime. A child who is the beneficiary of such a sophisticated Seder will have a qualitatively different experience of Pesah observance and of Jewish life in general.
The upshot of this analysis of the Haggada is that the ultimate aim of the Seder is the enrichment of our observance of Judaism. We cannot allow the annual retelling of our ancestors dramatic Exodus to be reduced to an historical study. Our goal should be to utilize the Haggada as a means of enhancing our family's appreciation of the eternal significance of the mitsvot of Pesah.
In an upcoming post, I hope to discuss additional aspects of Pesah observance and their deeper meaning.
"My yearly guide to the Essential Laws of Passover is now available online in PDF format. You can download a copy by clicking here.
If you are interested in receiving a version of the guide that includes extensive Hebrew footnotes and sources, please email me and I will gladly forward you a copy."
P.S. Keep checking back here. B'ezrat Hashem, there will be a new Pesah-related post on Vesom Sechel by the end of today.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Because of their common theme, we might expect these two "sets" of parashot to appear consecutively in the Torah. Instead, the thematic flow of the parashot is "interrupted" after Parashat Tetsaveh by the dramatic narratives in Parashat Ki Tissa. Why does the Torah structure its presentation of the Mishkan in such an unusual manner?
Our difficulty is complicated even further by the traditional view - accepted by Rashi and Seforno, among others - that the entire concept of the Mishkan was not actually introduced to Moshe until after the sin of the Golden Calf, i.e., after Parashat Ki Tissa. Logically, then, it would have made sense for the Torah to have placed all four of the relevant Parashot after Ki Tissa, rather than starting the discussion of the Mishkan with Terumah and Tetsaveh only to be sidetracked by the story of the Calf.
I believe that a "bird's eye" view of the structure of the past five Parashot, beginning with the end of Mishpatim, can offer us a compelling explanation for why the discussion of the Mishkan is divided up the way it is. Near the end of Parashat Mishpatim, a rather bizarre incident occurs that is only briefly described in the text:
"And Moses and Aaron went up; Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel; and beneath His feet was like the work of sapphire stone and like the essence of the heavens in purity. Yet against the nobles of Israel He did not strike; and they beheld God, and ate and drank."
The Rambam, in the Moreh Nevuchim, explains the deeper significance of this vision:
But the Nobles of the Children of Israel were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under His feet.," etc., and not merely, "And they saw the God of Israel"; the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal - a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared. They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except for Nadav and Avihu who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the Congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition.
In the Rambam's view, as a result of the revelation at Sinai, the elders overestimated their closeness to God and wound up reaching distorted conclusions about His nature. They attempted to translate Divinity into concrete terms, into a form they could relate to even in the midst of eating and drinking. The possibility that the Revelation might lead to this kind of mistake was anticipated by God from the outset. Immediately after the event, He told Moshe:
"...So shall you say to the Children of Israel - 'You have seen that I spoke to you from the fire. Do not make anything with Me; gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make."
This concept was emphasized by Moshe when he recounted the experience at Sinai to the generation that was preparing to enter the land:
"You heard the sound of a voice, but you saw no picture - only a voice. Lest you become corrupt and make for yourselves a graven image..."
Returning to the vision of the Elders at the end of Parashat Mishpatim, we must ask ourselves a simple question: Is it mere coincidence that, a couple of Parashot later, we read:
"Get up and make us gods that will go before us...And they got up in the morning, and they sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they got up to engage in revelry."
The sin of the Golden Calf includes the same basic elements we observed in the vision of the elders. The Jews felt the need to create a tangible representation of God's presence, and they celebrated their newfound "intimacy" with God in a similar manner: through eating, drinking and partying.
Taking a step back and looking at the progression the Torah displays to us, we notice a fascinating pattern in the text. The spiritual high point of Revelation and the solemnization of the covenant is punctuated by the distorted vision of the Elders. Immediately after the transgression, Moshe is summoned to Mount Sinai as a sign of reconciliation and the Laws of the Mishkan are presented.
Moshe's period of separation on the Mountain - the high point of his prophetic experience - is similarly interrupted by the incident with the Golden Calf. The situation is resolved through the return of Moshe to Mount Sinai for a second stint of forty days and forty nights. After rapproachment is achieved, the Mishkan is finally constructed.
By tying both the vision of the Elders and the idolatrous worship of the nation to the Mishkan, the Torah intimates that there is a conceptual connection between the mistake of the leaders and the grave error of the people. The relatively minor metaphysical distortion in the Elder's conception of God predisposed them - and the people of Israel, who depended upon them for spiritual guidance - to fall into the disastrous trap of outright idol worship.
The desire to make God something tangible, present in a subtle form in the minds of the wise elders, developed into a full blown, irrepressible obsession among the people. The primitive impulse to "see God" derived from the Israelites' attachment to the realm of the physical in general; hence the association between idolatrous tendencies and "eating and drinking" - the indulgement in pleasures of the body - in both cases.
The Rambam hints to these issues himself in his subsequent remarks about the vision of the Elders:
If such was the case with them, how much more it is incumbent upon us who are inferior, and on those who are below us, to persevere in perfecting our knowledge of the elements, and in rightly understanding the preliminaries that purify the mind from the defilement of error...The Nobles of the Children of Israel, besides erring in their perception were, through this cause, also misled in their actions; for in consequence of their confused perception, they gave way to bodily cravings....
We can now appreciate that the monumental sin of the Golden Calf was, in reality, a direct result of the intellectual immodesty and spiritual imperfection of the Elders. In the end, the seemingly minor errors of the leaders exterted a major influence on the perspective of the Jews and brought them quite literally to the brink of destruction.
What is the connection between these sinful thoughts and actions and the eventual construction of the Tabernacle? The Mishkan, according to many commentators, is designed to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. A simple consideration of its significance reveals how it accomplishes this objective. The Mishkan serves as a concrete reflection of God's presence among the Jewish people, while categorically forbidding any representation of Hashem Himself. It satisfies the human need for concreteness but disallows the attribution of physicality to the Creator proper. In this sense, it functions as a compromise between the emotional attraction to idolatry on the one hand and fidelity to the Jewish concept of God on the other.
By linking the respective mistakes of the Elders and the Nation to the Mishkan, the Torah shows us exactly how the institution of the Sanctuary helped to address the psychological need for a tangible representation of the Divine Presence. After the sin of the Elders, the Laws of the Mishkan were detailed. Just as their mistake existed only in the realm of the intellectual, so to did its "remedy", the Tabernacle, come into existence intellectually, in the form of commandments and instructions.
However, the sin of the Golden Calf took place in the realm of action - the Jews carried the philosophical error of the Elders to its ultimate conclusion, and physically engaged in idolatry. As such, it is followed up with the actual construction of the Mishkan; that is, the concrete implementation of its abstract laws and guidelines, the realization of its design in the material world.
Of course, the more general lesson here cannot be overlooked. Ideas and concepts are much more powerful than we tend to assume. An incorrect notion is not a harmless triviality; it can be a dangerous thing. The way we think about God, the world and ourselves can have the effect of tainting or even derailing our personal, communal and religious development. Wrongheaded teachers and leaders pose an especially serious threat, because the influence they exert on their followers is extraordinarily potent and can lead to destructive consequences of major proportions.
Sadly, we need not look too far to find contemporary examples of such phenomena in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts.