Wednesday, August 17, 2016

When an Act of Speech Really Is One

The term “Act of Speech” is, from the point of view of Halachah, an oxymoron. Speech is neither fully an act nor merely a thought, but something in between, something which, in many ways, mediates between the two. So how to do we parcel out words and sentences, utterances and soliloquies? When is a break in the continuum of speech merely a pause and when does it indicated that an utterance is complete?

The halachic notion of “Toch K’dei Dibbur” – within enough time to say something – is used in many contexts to determine whether a pause separates two utterances or should be ignored. To illustrate: If I say “This animal is a burnt-offering…a peace-offering”. If the ellipsis is a pause less than the time it takes to say, “How are you doing?” (there are fine points we’ll ignore for now), then it may well be that my utterance is meaningful and I’ve made my animal a mixture of the two kinds of offerings (with all the problematics that causes). But if the ellipsis is longer than that, we ignore the latter utterance, the first one is complete, it takes effect and the animal is a burnt offering.

This tool of parsing utterances is used in all areas of halacha, for all purposes – to obligate or exempt, to render pure or impure, to forbid or permit – except in four situations. Here’s what the Gemara says in Nedarim 87a:
“The law is that “Toch K’dei Dibbur” is just like saying something (i.e., we ignore that short pause) except for the cases of the blasphemer, the idol-worshipper, one who betroths a woman and one who divorces a woman”.

What do all four of these cases have in common? I suggest the following:

Speaking, in these cases, does not merely communicate information. Speaking here is language fully realized, it is creative (or destructive) in a manner similar to how language original functioned, in the creation of the world (and destruction of worlds – Midrash Bereshit Rabba 3:9). Speaking binds one to one’s other half (Berachot 61a and various places in midrash), or severs that unity with all sorts of cosmic implications (see the end of Gemara Gittin). On a spiritual level, the blasphemer “divorces” him/herself from Hashem (and even implies such a division within Hashem – see Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5) and the idol-worshipper attempts to bond to the object of his/her devotional utterance (one violates the prohibition of idolatry merely through speech – Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:6).

In all four cases where speech reassumes its original power as creative or destructive act, pauses have no impact. One cannot condition, modify, or retract a statement which is not suspended in that “void” where most speech hovers, between thought and action – these are not mere words, they are Acts of Speech.

Would that we treated the constant patter that issues forth from our mouths as though every utterance had the power bind us to the divine spark in our interlocutor or sever the connection between us forever. We would invest much more attention to our speech, and, of necessity, our thoughts and actions – and we would bind ourselves to the Divine Presence everywhere waiting to be revealed.

Inspired by the Daf Yomi shiur of Rav Shalom Rosner on Bava Kama 73 (5776) – all mistaken associations, sources or expressions are mine and mine alone.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The One (People) Who Must Not Be Named

Just as Balak brings Bil’am to consider his enemy from various vantage point, likewise does Parashat Balak allow us to view ourselves from the vantage point of others. The main story in Balak is of a single piece, and Am Yisrael appear only as foils for the central story – the interaction of Bil’am with Hashem. What is curious is that not only does Am Yisrael not appear as a real character in the story, we don’t even get a mention. Every time Balak or Bil’am refer to Am Yisrael in the non-visionary passages, they employ indirection: “this people”, “my enemies”, but never Yisrael. It almost feels that they are avoiding speaking the name, one which Bil’am, at least, employs so beautifully in his prophetic speeches.

Now, recalling that this story of the interaction of other nations with Am Yisrael is being told in the Torah, I think the message is this: Yisrael is our name in the context of our covenantal interactions with Hashem, just as Hashem’s real name is used only in the context of His covenantal interaction with Am Yiisrael. It’s not that it wasn’t known to the outside – archeology has shown otherwise. It’s  just that OUR sense of the function of the name given us by Hashem when we struggled with the angel is that it is one which bespeaks intimacy with Hashem. Others may employ the name in a technical sense, but it falls flat. When Hashem uses it, we come alive. Reward or punishment, it makes no difference, for the inner essence of the name Yisrael is that intimacy which can only come from a struggle born of closeness. After all, as Hashem says (Amos 3:2): “Only you do I know thoroughly and intimately, from all the families of the earth”.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Et tu, Rabbi Akiva? (Bava Kama 41b)

In the Daf Yomi (41b) we read the following: Shimon HaAmasoni (some say Nehemiyah HaAmasoni) would (expansively) interpret all the occurrences of the word 'et' (direct object indicator; also means "with") in the Torah. When he came to the verse, "Be in awe 'et' G-d",  he withdrew (from his interpretive activity regarding the word 'et'). His students said to him, "Master, what will become of all the other instances of 'et' which you interpreted"? He replied, just as I received reward for the act of (expansively) interpreting, so I shall receive reward for withdrawing from interpreting.... (and things stayed that way) until Rabbi Akiva came and taught, "Be in awe 'et' G-d" comes to include the Sages (as objects of awe).

From the Daf Yomi shiur of Rav Shalom Rosner (errors and omissions are mine): If Rabbi Akiva could figure out how to interpret this 'et', (and was not overly bothered by associating something with Hashem), then why was Nehemiyah HaAmasoni, master interpreter of 'et', not able to come up with this acceptable interpretation? The answer: (quoting in the name of Rav Gifter Zt"l of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland): Rabbi Akiva had something that Nehemiyah HaAmasoni did not have - he had Nehemiyah HaAmasoni! Someone so devoted to truth that he was willing to throw away his life's work for its sake.

This beautiful understanding inspired me to look for something deeper, and here's what strikes me: Derishah is expansive interpretation, the very purpose of human life as understood from a Torah perspective, because everywhere we come up with new interpretations (which pass muster with our peers), we are bringing about the manifestation of divine will, wisdom and, therefore, presence, in a previously untouched part of the universe. But expansiveness, conquest - that is our nature as finite creatures whose urge is to break out of our bonds of finitude and limited capability. We do that in the material world, to both great profit and great destruction, and we certainly can and do do that in the abstract and spiritual worlds, to the same results.

The Ari teaches us: When Hashem wanted to create the world, Hashem had to first withdraw, to "make space" (literally, and figuratively, and probably in more ways as well). To contract in order to allow for the possibility of the other is divine. Nehemiyah HaAmasoni withdrew, for he didn't dream of impinging on Hashem's glory by associating another with Hashem's awe. Yet into precisely that 'et' space which he left, Rabbi Akiva entered, understood what had been done by flesh and blood, so counter to our natures, and honored his teacher and his Maker by filling even that newly created, as-yet-unexplored "vacuum" with expansive Torah wisdom and Divine presence.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Let's Split

Why does the Torah tell us about the Splitting of the Red Sea, but only hints about the Sealing of the Mountain Pass?
"Huh", you ask, "what's the Sealing of the Mountain Pass?" See Rashi on B'midbar 21:15. There he relates what actually transpired as Am Yisrael north on the "Jordanian" side of the Jordan valley, near the Dead Sea: There was a narrow cleft in the Mountains of Edom, one of many running east to west along the extent of the valley. The many caves and crevices make excellent hiding places, and the Amorites hid there, intending to fall upon the unsuspecting Israelites as they passed through. But as they were hiding there, and before Am Yisrael arrived, Hashem made the two sides come together, such that a protruding rock on one side fit perfectly into a recess on the other, crushing the enemy to death in their thousand hiding places, and saving Am Israel from certain destruction. The only way we knew what happened was afterwards, when we saw the stream red with blood at the foot of the restored cleft.
Both this and this are miraculous intercessions on the part of Hashem, changing nature in a seemingly impossible way. Both saved the Jewish people and enabled them to pass on. So why tell of one and not the other?
On a simple level, one could say that lots of miracles happened during the transit, the Torah doesn't relate them all, and the splitting of the Red Sea just after the emergence of Am Yisrael from Egypt, right when everyone, upon seeing the pursuing Egyptians, is ready to abandon everything which has been achieved - and who could blame them? - is much more dramatic, and obviously had a lasting impact, as evidence by the Song of the Sea (but see there in B'midbar - there was another song that reference that later event).
But I think we can say more: Closing the unclosable and opening the unopenable are both equally astonishing, but only one serves as an example and metaphor for our journey in life. As Jews, we are bidden to repeatedly pull open our ever-encrusting natures, in order to move on, in order to allow a new flow of divine life-creating stuff into the world. What we've achieved remains, but becomes a substrate for the next outflow of burning, glowing lava, which will add its energy and substance, until it cools and congeals and nature reasserts its dominance.
Opening, passage and long-overdue punishment (Egypt) inspires faith and models a way of being, and thus its account is trumpeted publicly; closure, blockage and preemptive punishment (Edomites), though indispensable the larger scheme of things, need not be modeled for imitation for us finite creatures who are all too given to acting in this mode, as we gain our being, identity and justification from separation and constriction. Hashem, in His wisdom, performed "behind the scenes" and left it for us to re-discover and apply ever so judiciously.
May we, tonight, see the Great Hand of Hashem set against Egypt, and awestruck, may we trust in the miracle that it is possible to serve the Infinite One of Israel! Chag Sameach.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Whose Knees?

In another two days, I am scheduled to see my surgeon, who, if all is well with my knee, will allow me to remove the brace which has kept it straight as a ruler for six weeks and begin relearning how to bend.
It is therefore more than a bit auspicious that the parashah which we read today, Vayechi, contains two mentions of “knees” (of the four in all the Torah). The latter mention, “Also the sons of Machir, son of Menashe, were born on Yosef’s knees”, is clearly not be taken literally. Rather, as Rashi writes, it means Yosef raised them, or, perhaps, as this grandpa has experienced, they grew up knocking around his knees, and thus got to know their great-grandpa.
Not so the former mention. There, in the midst of the complex and confusing dance which is Yaakov’s blessing to his two grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim, it states, “And he (Yosef) removed them (the grandsons) from between his (Yaakov’s) knees and he prostrated himself, face to ground”
Ibn Ezra writes that this verse belongs later, in reference to the end of the blessing process, as a parting withdrawal and gesture of obeisance. Radak differs, asserting that the verse is referring to a rearrangement of the initial approach of the grandsons to enable the proper formalities of the blessing. Either way, the verse highlight the problematic logistics of the approach, right, left, forward, backward, in anticipation of the blessing.
And how was it that the boys were between their dying grandfather’s knees? Shadal tells us – when earlier in the parashah, Yaakov hears that Yosef is coming, he rallies his strength and “sits on the bed”. Shadal envisions Yaakov swinging his legs over the bed as he rises into sitting position. Thus, his knees, those child-raising knees, are ready to receive the two boys. And, in fact, when, much later, Yaakov has concluded all his blessing to his twelve sons, Shadal reminds us, Yaakov “gathers his legs to his bed and expires”.
And yet, perhaps a figurative interpretation is alluded to as well. Knee and blessing share the same consonantal root in Hebrew. Yaakov tells Yosef he is effectively adopting his grandsons as sons, in order that they will have the same status, vis a vis inheritance and tribal affiliation, as his own sons. In order for this to be effective, Yosef must withdraw his claim to his own sons. Yaakov tells Yosef as much, when he says, “Take them to me, please, and I will bless them”. Note: not “bring”, but rather “take”. The work “take” is the standard word for formal, legal acquisition. Thus, when it says, “and he brought them forth from with (lit.) his knees”, perhaps it’s referring to Yosef, removing them from his natural parental claim (compare Chanah and Shmuel) represented by the knees, removing them from his blessings (“birkav” understood creatively as “his blessings”), and then, prostrating himself in submission to his own father.
The proud, erect ruler of Egypt, at the height of his powers, on his knees before his wizened, nearly blind and close to death father, relinquishing his own sons and the power to bless them… only to get it all back in a double portion of bounty and blessing. Has there ever been a more profound bend of the knee from son (Yosef) to father? Has there ever been a more enveloping, though seemingly indirect, blessing from father (Yosef) to son(s)?

The angels cannot bend their knees and they do not bless. They are forever upstanding, forever enlightened – not so us humans. I’ve had a partial taste of ramrod straight-leggedness these past six weeks, and I yearn once more to bend the knee, perhaps to fall, but then, with effort, belief and perseverance, to raise myself toward my Maker on that universal joint that blesses us with, and teaches us through, its flexibility.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I Swear I'll Shut My Mouth

The various sacrifices presented in Parashat Vayikra are well-organized, making it easy not only to remember them, but also to reflect upon their deeper meaning. The following table makes this structure immediately apparent:

Type of Sacrifices Presented
Olot – Burnt Offerings
Menachot – Grain Offerings
Shelamim – Peace Offerings
Chata’ot – Sin Offerings
Ashamim – Guilt Offerings

Of course, things are not entirely this simple. Grain offerings include both those which are effectively identical to Burnt Offerings, as well as those which are similar to Peace Offerings and Sin Offerings. And some of the Guilt Offerings may well be considered forms of Sin Offerings. The differences between the various offerings draw our attention and produced deep insights into the meanings of the offerings.

I was particularly intrigued this year by the first passage in Chapter 5. There, it speaks of four circumstances which occasion the bringing of a Guilt Offering which is called by the Sages a “Korban Oleh v’Yored”, a sliding-scale offering. This offerings, according to some not a true Guilt Offering but actually more akin to a Sin Offering, is practically unique among obligatory offerings in that what is brought depends on the means of the bringer – whether he is wealthy, poor, or “dirt-poor”, to borrow the terminology of the Sages. It seems as though the Torah is “going out of its way” to make sure no one can claim they simply do not have the means to bring this offering, should they run afoul of the circumstances. There is just one other offering in Jewish tradition which shares this characteristic to an extent – the Guilt Offering brought by the leper after he has been cured from an impurity so severe it cast him out of his town entirely, as part of a set of offerings which mark his return to purity and the community. It would seem that the impurity and ostracism imparted by these violations - the Sages speak of leprosy as coming in the wake of severe violations of the prohibition of evil speech - are so life-altering that a way back must be provided for members of every socioeconomic grouping.

But what is the nature of this sacrifice and what are the circumstances in which it is brought? Here, we should let the Torah speak:

1.       And if any one sin, in that he hear the voice of adjuration, he being a witness, whether he has seen or known, if he does not speak up, then he shall bear his iniquity;
2.       or if any one touch any unclean thing, whether it be the carcass of an unclean beast, or the carcass of unclean cattle, or the carcass of unclean swarming things, and be guilty, it being hidden from him that he is unclean;
3.       or if he touch the uncleanness of man, whatsoever his uncleanness be wherewith he is unclean, and it be hid from him; and, when he know of it, be guilty;
4.       or if any one swear clearly with his lips for harm, or for benefit, whatsoever it be that a man shall utter clearly with an oath, and it be hid from him; and, when he knows of it, be guilty in one of these things;
and it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that wherein he hath sinned; and he shall bring his forfeit unto the LORD for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him as concerning his sin.

What do these cases have in common that they are all included together? Note that the first and last concern what issues (or should issue) forth from a person’s faculty of speech, whereas the middle two deal with accidental violation due to unwitting impurity.                                  

The hallmark of the human is language, it’s what sets apart humans from animals. Despite the great strides made in research regarding use of something akin to language by animals, the gulf is so huge that the perhaps quantitative difference are actually quantitative. Humans need to speak to be human, and those deprived of the capacity for speech and communication, unless they can develop a replacement language, are condemned to a life that in some senses falls short of what it means to be human.
But “החיות בצוא ושוב”, living vitality ebbs and flows, and speech, especially as it issues forth from one and is directed to another, can be as perfect as the hammer blow which drives the nail and completes the vessel, or as cruel and destructive as the hammer blow which crushes the skull of a detested other. There are times when we must speak, and times when we must refrain from speech.

When a person can testify to something which can resolve a contested matter, whether civil or criminal, yet refuses to do so, that person has failed to use his human gift and definition to bring truth and justice into the world. Perhaps he was given the ability to speak precisely for that one moment of potential clarification, yet he remained mute and dumb like an animal. The productive flow of words, generative of the human in him, has been stopped up, he is impure, he must atone.

When a person need not say anything, when he should not join the mindless bantering of people’s chit-chat which serves to pass the time and draw one’s attention away from awareness of standing ever before G-d, that joyous yet unbearable intensity… and yet he does, and, deigning to impress others with his conviction and knowledge, he ups the ante and swears an oath that something is or isn’t the case, using G-d’s name for his own mundane and petty designs. That person has violate the sacred trust of speech, invoking the Holy Name by which G-d created all, which is being itself, he has run on at the mouth, his creative life-essence has overflowed by a surfeit of misplaced zeal, he is impure, he must atone.

We can sum up the Torah's presentation of this four situations as follows:

Verbal Impurity
Death of Speech
Animal Like
Physical Impurity
Death of Body
Physical Impurity
Overflow of Life-Imparting Liquids
Verbal Impurity
Overflow of Life-Creating Names
Human Like

Someone whose words have had great repercussions in our world is reported to have said, “It is not that which enters the mouth which renders one impure, but that which emerges from the mouth”. Was he or his listeners aware that the source for the correct latter part of this claim is to be found right here in Parashat Vayikra, with much greater depth and nuance?

Friday, February 27, 2009

What Do You Give to the G-d Who Has Everything?

Here we go! Five weeks in a balloon of intensive involvement with the construction of the Mishkan, starting now with Parashat Terumah. A balloon, it seems, since we’ve just been at Sinai and receive an entire corpus of civil and criminal law with which to found a society in Eretz Yisrael, and we’re told we’ll be accompanied by Hashem’s angel on the way, so you’d think the next stage would be to set off.

Not so fast! The Mishkan and all it entails and implies for the life of the people of Israel will be our subject clear through until the third parashah in B’midbar (!), when we finally do get going. This Mishkan, the most elaborate construction project undertaken by humanity to date as recorded by the Torah (the Tower of Babel was aborted, and the Egyptian store-houses merely required a huge supply of adobe bricks), allows us to fulfill our promise as created in the image of Hashem. Hashem creates a world, and we, imitating Him, create a symbolic world.

But for now, we’ll leave aside the powerful spiritual associations of the Mishkan and turn the focus on beginning of the parashah: the gathering of raw materials.

Hashem says to Moshe: Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an uplifted-donation; from each generous-hearted man you (pl.) shall take My uplifted donation.

That’s how the parashah begins, followed with a list of thirteen types of raw materials to be collected. At the end of the list, the dispensation of these materials is indicated:

And they shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them. In accordance with everything which I am showing you – the form of the IndwellingHouse and the form of its furnishings/utensils, and thus you shall do.

One might think that regarding something so central, so indispensible for the life of Am Yisrael, everyone, bar none, would be obligated to participate in its construct. And, at first, that’s how it seems: Speak to the children of Israel, that they take… No one is excluded. And yet, right afterward, we read: From each generous-hearted man whose heart volunteers him. Evidently, we were wrong; it’s only those moved by spirit who are tapped to give. No external compulsion is to be used, not even a Divine command.

In fact, the Talmud indicates there are actually three separated collections, reflecting the three usages of the word terumah in the opening verses – and the initial collection of the raw materials is the voluntary one.

But doesn’t that mean that some people will be left out, and will not have a part in the Mishkah? And what about us, who live at such a temporal remove from the Mishkan – what part can we hope to play in a construction which brings out the image-of-G-d within us?

Let’s look at what the term “generous-hearted”. The Hebrew is asher yidvenu libo. “whose heart volunteers him”. The heart is the core of the person. Whether we take it literally, to mean “heart”, or we understand it figuratively, to mean “mind”, or “spirit”, as it often does, there is no doubt that the heart is, well, the heart. It is the source of a person’s being, his will, his sense of self. So what the heart wills and wants IS the substance of one’s life. The heart can hardly want except for what it is – and so people always want for themselves. How can we want otherwise? It’s not just cynical to say that altruism is ultimately motivated by a selfish concern for our image, more real to us in some ways than our very bodies. So how can actually truly give anything to anyone, without some existential string attached?

On the other hand, what do we HAVE that we can give? If we are serious when we say that “The world and its fullness belongs to Hashem”, then, with David, we must say, “Give Him what is His, for you and what is yours is His”. So, what is it precisely that we own that we CAN give to Hashem?

When we give something truly, we’re really giving it back to where it ultimately belongs. Everything we have, everything we are, is on loan. When we acknowledge that everything is Hashem’s, and not ours, then that acknowledgement is a giving over of our very selves to Hashem. We thereby emulated Hashem, Who wills His overflowing essence to spill out into the beauty of creation. We can actually give anything of our own, except this spilling over into the acknowledgement of Hashem – and even THAT ability – that act of seeming free-will – is a gift of G-.d.

So we build the Mishkan NOT so much with gold and silver and copper, etc., but with and from our freewilling self-giving – the deepest, rawest material of the universe.

And that is why it says, at the end of the passage quoted above, “And thus shall you do”. Those dangling words, seemingly out of place, are explained by Rashi to mean “For future generations”. Rashi truncates the Talmud’s interpretations of those few words – there understood to include the making of the implements for the Temple in the time of Shlomo – to allow the following understanding:

When we give ourselves fully to one of Hashem’s mitzvot, when we pour into it our everythingness, WE become the raw materials, beyond the constraints of time and space, from which the Mishkan, that is, Am Yisrael, is ever being constructed.