Thursday, June 29, 2017

Breath the Air

Bava Batra 158b
A house falls upon a mother and son, rachmana litzlan, the woman’s heirs claim, “he died first, then she died, so we inherit her property”; the man/boy’s heirs claim, “she died first, then he died, so we inherit her property”. Although in previous similar cases (a man and his son, a husband and wife) Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed as to who gets the property, with Beit Shammai ruling that the groups of heirs split it, and Beit Hillel ruling that the property remains in the presumptive possession of whoever's hands it was in previously – HERE, the anonymous first opinion of the Mishnah claims that Beit Hillel concedes to Beit Shammai’s position. Rabbi Akiva, however, says that, no, also here, Beit Hillel disputed with Beit Shammai and maintained their position. Ben Azzai observes to Rabbi Akiva “we are dismayed over the previous disputes, and you come to foment dispute where there is (a report of) agreement?
The Gemara then takes up Rabbi Akiva’s position and asked, “in the presumptive possession of whom?”. Rabbi Ila says, of the mother; Rabbi Zeira says, of the son. When Rabbi Zeira came up to the Land of Israel, he took up Rabbi Ila’s position. He said, this shows that the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise!”
What does that wisdom consist of? The Rashbam, whose commentary “takes Rashi’s place” in Bava Batra, explains, “since I’ve come to the Land of Israel, I’ve set my mind upon leaving my original position and determining the truth of matters”.
This is SUCH a powerful piece. Notice how many layers of dispute precede Rabbi Zeira. The two contesting parties (who have no proof of their claims), Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, Tana Kama and Rabbi Akiva, and finally, Rabbi Ila and Rabbi Zeira.
What Rabbi Zeira left behind upon coming to the Land of Israel is the necessity to establish one’s being against a hostile world by asserting and arguing for one’s positions as though one’s life depended upon being right. But, upon ASCENDING to the Land of Israel, he made a concerted effort to stop doing that, to leaving behind the whole notion of establishing one’s position, a fortified, entrenched position, an initial position which, born of one’s own insights and ingenuity, just MUST be right because it is a product of one OWN, and therefore, a veritable homunculus of one very self.
In the Land of Israel, one is part of something much larger, literally, a member of the tribe (or “a tribe”, as the gemara goes on to point out) one need not be right to be, worthy is indelibly present as part of the vital, eternal people upon the land, and therefore, one is freed (or must free oneself, if habituated otherwise) to seek, find and acknowledge truth, G-d seal, wherever it is to be found.
Oh, the great Rabbi Zeira (whose name means “small”)! Oh, the wondrous air of the land! Where do we find such people, where do we breathe such air today?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Mechitza on the Mizbeach


Usually, the division of the aliyot in a parashah, while driven by a number of factors, is decided by where it ends. There is a fairly iron-clad principle to end an Aliyah on a positive note, and not on a negative note. This week’s parashah gives us plenty of opportunities to do so, since many of the sub-sections end on a positive note.

That being the case, one would think that the fifth aliyah would encompass all of the sin-offerings (Chatat), covered in Vaykra, chapter 4, while the sixth aliyah would open with the beginning chapter 5, which deals with the guilt-offerings (Asham). But, instead, the fifth aliyah ends with 4:26, leaving two last Chattat offerings to be read with the Asham offerings. Why?
Here’s an idea: all the animals offered in the fifth aliyah as it stands are males, and all the animals offered in the sixth aliyah are females.

On the fifth and sixth days of creation, animals and humans - male and female - were created. When they sinned so egregiously that a flood was brought to cleanse the earth of the stain of their sins, both (some) humans and animals rode out the atoning, purifying procedure in the ark, separated by gender. As Rashi explains: when they entered the ark, men and women were listed separately, indicating that they refrained from relations; when they left, they left as couples, indicating the resumption of relations.

Sacrificial offerings may seem to us as mere rituals, but to our forebears, they were highly charged moments of drama, filled with life and death, punishment and its expiation both hovering above the heads of the trembling, anticipating people. Sin was palpable, and it was not a time for even the suggestion of something which might arouse the incessant depredations and suave persuasions of the Yetzer HaRa.


Therefore, I suggest, we recreate a bit of this drama by breaking the Torah reading where we do. May this reenactment have the desired effect of bringing us ever closer to Hashem such that we truly need neither Chattat nor Asham but rather the offerings of joy and exultation of Oneness emerging from the altar in the inner chambers of our hearts.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Uprooting a Pernicious Ayin and Restoring a Precious Honor


During Havdalah each week, we recite a verse taken from the Megillah:
“Layhudim hayta orah v’simchah v’sason vicar”.  ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר  

Many, perhaps most, people mispronounce the last word. While it should be “vee-kar”   ויקר-“and honor”, usually people say “v’eekar” ועיקר. It’s a case of substituting a more familiar word for a less familiar one. People know the word עיקר, “root” or “main principle”, and are not familiar with the word יקר, taken here from the Aramaic cognate of the Hebrew כבוד, or “honor”.

“Honor” as a meaning of both כבוד  and יקר is derivative of their primary meaning – weight, heaviness, substantiality. Now, in the Megillah, both the word כבוד  and the word יקר are used. But whereas the former is used only in connection with money and material wealth, the latter is reserved for honor emanated upon one by the king. Our honor as Jews is derived from the notion that our very existence points toward the King of Kings, and, in fact, in the gemara, all four words of the verse above are interpreted to refer to Mitzvot which express that relationship:  אורה - Torah, שמחה - holidays, ששון - circumcision and יקר  - tefillin.

We are not “the main principle”, we are not “rooted” in and of ourselves. Any honor we as Jews might be due is derived from being a people that stands for and points toward Hashem in how we lead our individual and, especially, our collective lives. In that sense, we can aspire to be “G-d’s vicar” (pun intended, of course), in the sense of “a nations of priests”.

So let’s uproot that guttural, all-too-substantial (for this context) Ayin and glide into the precious honor of pointing beyond ourselves through our acts: Vee-kar.

Walled and Unwalled Jews

In chapter 9 of the megillah, the violent encounters between those seeking to wipe out the Jews and the Jews seeking to defend themselves and take the battle to their would-be annihilators is described. It seems that while the Jews throughout the realm achieved victory in a single day, on the 13th of Adar - the day slated by Haman for their destruction - the Jews of Shushan needed an additional day. This is what Esther asked of King Achashverosh and this is what was granted. So, the relief and celebration that is natural and automatic upon such a sudden turn of events came for the Jews throughout the realm on the 14th, but for the Jews of Shushan, only on the 15th. Then follows this verse:

Esther 9:19
“Therefore, the unwalled Jews (see the kri/ketiv distinction there), dwelling in the unwalled cities, make the 14th day of the month of Adar [a day of] joy and drinking-feasts, holiday, and sending portions to one’s fellow”.

After this, Mordechai sends letters to the Jews throughout the realm enjoining them to [continue to] mark these days. In his letter, he indicates that the Jews are to celebrate on the 14th and the 15th (the days of relief from battle for the Jews of the realm and those of Shushan, respectively). There is no distinction based on location in the megillah, the details are learned out in the Gemara.

Why doesn’t the megillah mention the initial celebration of the Jewish of walled Shushan on the 15th, as it did regarding the celebration of the 14th, referenced above? One take is that, they didn’t celebrate that first year! Perhaps they were too shell-shocked, needing an extra day to dispense with their would-be destroyers? But wouldn’t that be even a greater motivation for them to release all the pend-up angst and fear? And why didn’t Mordechai make it clear in his letter who should celebrate when?

I believe the key can be found in the verse cited above. What are “unwalled Jews”? Why does the verse need to characterize them, since it goes on to indicate that they are “living in unwalled cities"? Because, there are unwalled (or better “wide-open”) Jews and there are walled Jews. Or deeper: we all have our wide-open aspects and our walled-off aspects. Perhaps our personalities, what we show to the outside world, or even only to ourselves, are only a part, perhaps only the tip of the “I-ceberg”. 

If we are really going to unified the revealed and hidden, which is the ultimate message of the megillah, we need to access the walled-off parts of ourselves. It’s (relatively) easy, natural, to rejoice, to celebrate, to be thankful on the outside, or even on the outside of the inside. But what about deep inside, where lie those realms so recondite, so estranged from our normal consciousness that we just don’t go there? What terrifying, powerful, untamable forces lie there?

We need to go there, at least once a year. Because Hashem “went there”, everywhere present in His awesome hiddenness, so as to bring forth the beauty, the justice, the love and the symmetry of the megillah into our lives. This is what is spoken of only in Mordechai’s letter, in the verse (9:22) which echoes the one above, but adds the critical words “and gifts to the desperately poor”. We need to give our inner, inner selves the gift of being there.

Today is Shushan Purim. Drunkenness – the shedding of outer boundaries, is for yesterday (well, for most of us). Today is for giving ourselves, and thereby, the world, the gift of no fear as we penetrate the walls of the Chamber of Secrets to discover that, there too, Hashem is waiting for us.


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.