Friday, April 24, 2020

Rosh Chodesh, and Becoming Legend

ראשי חדשים לעמך נתת, זמן כפרה לכל תולדותם" - מוסף לראש חודש"

This phrase from the Mussaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh poetically describes the beginning of the Jewish months as a special time for renewal. But we need to "learn it up" to appreciate its beauty, particularly the wording at the end "לכל תולדותם." The word , תולדות (toldot or toldos) is primarily translated in one of two ways: either offspring, or chronicles. It's root is ולד, baby, as in the word הולדה, birth, and יום הולדת, birthday. It's also found as in the verse:

"אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ בְּהִבָּרְאָם בְּיוֹם עֲשׂוֹת יְקוָק אֱלֹקים אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם"  

(These are the chronicles of heaven and earth upon their creation, on the day Hashem the Lord made earth and heaven.)

The connecting line between the word's two meanings is something profound. Briefly, it is the incredible power human beings have to produce something eternal in this world. When a person bears offspring, he is in a sense extending his life in the world. His children carry on his legacy, and so do their children after them and so on. But that is not the only way we live on. Our actions also take on a life of their own and become immortalized. One source for this idea is a Rashi on the following verse:

"אלה תולדות נח. נח איש צדיק" 
(These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man):

Rashi: "To teach you, that the main ,תולדות of the righteous are good deeds."

The offspring, the main thing which comes out of a righteous person that lives on forever are his good deeds. The actions he does daily, and the way he uses his time in this world takes on an independent existence that endures.

That's what we want to renew on Rosh Chodesh. The word Chodesh, חודש, comes from the word חדש, new. So Rosh Chodesh is a time given to the Jewish people to create the world anew.3 The source is  the verse:

"החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים"
(This month is for you the head of all months.)

The Rabbis expound upon this verse's words "for you" as the source for the halachic obligation to declare the first day of each month based on astrological observation. As opposed to the days of the week, and Shabbos, which initiate automatically, the new month does not start unless it is declared by the Jewish people.5 That means, the 7 days of the week are Hashem's creation, but the monthly cycle of time is the Jewish people's creation. That's why our verse, "This month is for you the head of all months," is referring to Nissan, the month when the Jews left Egypt. It marks the birth of the Jewish Nation.

Rashi startlingly says on the first word of the Torah, בראשית, that if it were not for certain lessons for all people from the beginning of the Torah, it should have started instead with החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים "This month is for you." Until then there was Hashem's history. From then began another time line, the chronicles of the Jewish people.6. 7.

It's nearly impossible to express in words where or how these actions become legacy. Even the smallest deeds which seemingly go unnoticed, uncelebrated, and even forgotten to memory. Who can say where they keep the stuff of legend. Those untold stories, and stories that even once uttered by human lips leave so much lacking. As for me, I venture to say we know, somehow. 

And so says the Mussaf prayer, as we face our creator each month and declare...

"ראשי חדשים לעמך נתת, זמן כפרה לכל תולדותם"
(Heads of the Months You gave to Your Nation, a time to start clean for all of their תולדות.)

1. בראשית ב ד
2. בראשית ו ט
3. על פי מה ששמעתי מרב משה שפירה זצק"ל. וכן התיחס את זה למה שדרשו רבותינו אין כל חדש תחת השמש; אבל למעלה יש, על ידי תורה ומצות
4. שמות יב ב
5. ראה ס’ "שבת מלכתא" על קבלת שבת, שמסביר ההבדל בין הכנסת שבת לי"ט
6. מהרל, דרוש נאה לשבת הגדול
7. הזכיר לי חבר בן תורה) בן עזאי אומר זה "זה ספר תולדות האדם" זה כלל גדול בתורה)
    [ב"ר כ"ד ז]

Friday, April 10, 2020

A Very Pesach Quarantine

Personal Space in Psychology: Definition, Cultural Differences ...

Let's try to learn something about Pesach that can help us in our current situation. The most basic message of the Pesach story is: Hashem wants something from us. Indeed, this point is so crucial that Hashem first so to speak 'introduces' Himself to the Jewish people as a whole at Har Sinai by the title of "I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of Egypt."1 That was Hashem's choice, as opposed to Creator of the universe, or the King of Kings, or The Omniscient. He wants to be known as the one who miraculously broke through nature to set us free from the worst situation. Why? because our mission is more important than all of creation.2

And there is a Mitzvah to relive the redemption once a year, and to recall it every day. It cuts to the core of our humanity and requires constant reinforcement. Everyone, without exception, feels that it's easier to believe Hashem is out there somewhere, in an abstract sense, than when it comes to our personal lives and the way we use our time on this earth; there it's a different story.

But we are supposed to have this issue. Man was created to experience his personal world as hidden from Hashem's objective reality. That personal space is undetermined, giving a sense of power and independence, and also of longing or even desperation. It is what drives us to create.

Here's one source for this idea. In Bereshis,3 after each day's creation, the Torah says "it was good", טוב. Only after the creation of Man something is added: "Behold, it was very good" והנה טוב מאוד. The Torah doesn't use the word "very" too often. When Hashem calls something good, it means exactly and absolutely good as much as it's possible for the subject described. So when He does say "very good," it requires extra explanation. The Midrash says the following:4

 'והנה טוב מאוד' - זה יצר הרע. וכי יצר הרע טוב מאוד. אתמהה. אלא שאלולי יצר הרע לא בנה אדם בית ולא נשא אישה ולא הוליד ולא נשא ונתן
('And Behold, very good' - this is the evil inclination. Is the evil inclination really very good? Rather, the intent is, if it were not for the evil inclination, Man would not build a house, Man would not marry and have children, Man would not engage in business...)

Perhaps as perplexing as it is explanatory, the Midrash says that the words "very good" appear after the creation of Man, not because of his intellect, talent, or sociability, but because of his יצר הרע, commonly translated as "evil inclination."

The root word יצר means to create. So יצר הרע actually means a creative power in Man for evil. As we began to explain above, Man's desire to create comes from the unique experience of his personal world as something undetermined and independent of everything else. Without conscientious direction, this limitless freedom to create leads to evil. In a world totally open to influence, you can change any rules or priorities, put yourself in the center, etc.

But it's actually a double-edged sword.We create our own reality, so it can be virtual and ephemeral, or sublime and heroic. That's what is "very" about Man. In Man there is more, so to speak than the good solely from Hashem's creation because there's also room for Man's creation.

The key to using this sword the right way lies in the message of Pesach. The Jewish people had been enslaved for several generations, immersed in a culture that negated their most fundamental principles, under circumstances where it was impossible to see Hashem's guiding hand. In that world, Hashem peeled away every layer of the screen that separated us from Him and clearly demonstrated His complete investment in us.

But we have a choice. We can choose to see our personal world as impenetrable, that given our issues we can't be held responsible or be expected to rise to the occasion, and that what matters for us is only relative to our perspective. But we can also consider the consequences of those choices, and we can ask what the significance of our little personal world is if it's isolated from the bigger picture.

We are taught that the word for man, אדם is purposefully the same letters as the word for very, מאד. In addition, אדם in gematria is 45, equivalent to the word מה, meaning 'what'. To be "very," to be מאד is essential to being human.But in order to live up to our mission, we must ask, as Hillel does in Pirkei Avos,7 כשאני לעצמי מה אני, "When I am just to myself, what am I?" When Man sees his independence and his power to create with humility and asks "מה?" what am I, what significance does my little world have? Hashem tells him, I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of Egypt, I am invested in you. And then he can truly create.

Rather than scrambling to ask 'Why is this happening?' 'What does Hashem want from me?' and becoming anxious and ineffective (or whatever your tendency for dysfunction may be), let us ask 'Does Hashem want something from me?' and כשאני לעצמי מה אני, "When I am just to myself, what am I?" The stronger our answers to those questions, the more we'll use our quarantine to become a different אדם.
1. שמות כ ב
2. מהרל דרוש נאה לשבת הגדול/כוזרי
3. בראשית א לא
4. בראשית רבה ט ט
5. "עיין מהרל באר הגולה, באר שני "חרב שתי פיפיות
6. מהרל דרוש נאה לשבת הגדול
7. אבות א יד

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Where Are We Headed These Days? (Purim)

Many people think life is simple and easy as a religious Jew. You've got all the rules set up for you black on white, and if you'd like to know G-d's plan, or why bad things are happening... Your Rabbi will conveniently throw down some Torah wisdom for you to naively accept on faith.

Nothing challenges this point of view more than the Purim story. At first glance it sounds like every other Jewish story: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat! But when you really line up the facts the complexity of the Megillah is almost unbearable. For example, while Esther and Mordechai go down in history as the righteous who brought about the redemption of the Jewish people, they themselves lived tragic lives. Esther was orphaned as a child, married to Mordechai according to one opinion, and then forced to marry a merciless cutthroat politician who was not Jewish, Achashverosh, and bear a child from him who would also never consider himself Jewish, while Mordechai watched and assisted her. And Mordechai was scorned by other leading Rabbis of his generation for his involvement in politics after the events of the Purim story. And the national experience likewise carried tragic elements. For one, those elders who had been alive to see the First Temple in its splendor cried upon seeing the Second because of its notable lack of Heavenly Presence and miraculous intervention. The Jews were very far from complete redemption and would only continue to drift further for over a thousand years, to this day.

This complexity is part and parcel of the miracle and message of Purim: The individual's utter joy and connection to the Jewish People's destiny and to Hashem even amongst the darkest of times. The Megillah begins with the words, ויהי בימי אחשורוש, and it was in the days of Achashverosh. The Midrash says the words ויהי בימי connotes anguish. The Maharal explains (אור חדש פ א) "and it was in the days..." is the experience of time passing without past or future. It is painful because it means constant change without certainty or direction. It is in this setting that the story takes place, from start to finish. Purim was established as a holiday for all generations because it reveals a masterful hidden design of events within darkness and confusion. Through the Megillah, the Jewish People received a supernatural strength to experience complete confidence and happiness on the inside amidst apparent lack of hope and direction on the outside.
שניתן לחוות את זה שהזמן עצמו הוי זימון והכנה לקראת תכלית בלי הוספה של דעת ליעד מסוים כמו אצל שאר מועדים

The life of a Jew is sublime, but not simple in practice. Although we believe there is always a direction and an answer, to see it and understand it is something else altogether. However, what we can and must do is look around at the chaos and darkness and courageously say "I don't know," while we rejoice like a disoriented drunkard on the inside as we witness the secret workings of Destiny, to which our role is absolutely essential.


Friday, November 23, 2018

אהבת חסד Loving Kindness

Rav Eliyahu Dessler elucidates something counter-intuitive in the nature of human relationships. Normally we think love happens when you find common ground with someone and identify with them. Only after that you love them and automatically give to them. But it's actually just the opposite. Love which is stable happens through giving - meaning, when you give to someone, you identify with them because of the investment you made in them, and then you love them in a stable way. This concept, says Rav Dessler, is expressed in the word אהבה which can be broken down in Aramaic to א - meaning "I", and הב, meaning "give". 

But we learn from the Chafetz Chaim that חסד, or giving, is about more than being an investor. He points out that the Torah's requirement of חסד is different than other Mitzvos. While we don't find it saying anywhere that you have to love tefillin or love matzah, when it comes to חסד the prophet Michah says Hashem requests אהבת חסד, to love giving.

Truly expanding your self-love to include someone else takes more than "investing." That would still be selfishness, essentially, and it may not produce the effect Rav Dessler wants. Part and parcel of genuine giving is אהבת חסד, loving חסד and being happy about the fact that love works this way.

The human need to identify and connect with others, which must be fulfilled by becoming other focused and giving, reveals that giving and goodness are built into the foundations of the world - עולם חסד יבנה. It shows that the world Hashem created is fundamentally good. That's why a real giver doesn't just love the feeling of expansiveness he gets from seeing all the people he has contributed to, rather he loves to see anyone give to anyone because it reveals this beautiful secret about the world.

It's built into every aspect of life, psychologically, economically, etc. that it is not good for Man to be alone לא טוב היות האדם לבדו. But once Man rises above living only for himself, it not only gets rid of the לא טוב, the "not good" of being alone and having unfulfilled needs. It becomes "And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good" "וירא אלהים את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאוד"

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Discover Happiness in the Sukkah

People think the pursuit of happiness justifies everything. As long as you're not obviously hurting someone else, liberal ideals say go right ahead, as long as it makes you happy. It's an inalienable right, and our misfortune is that we can't get it without having to pursue it. As Will Smith's character  reflects in the in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, 'how did the founding fathers know to call it the "pursuit" of happiness, and not just happiness?' Perhaps this misfortune exposes the randomness of humanity - pursuing happiness makes us competitive, constantly having to strive for more. It's like we're chasing a carrot on a stick, and the evolutionary advantage of it makes it natural even if noone knows what's so great about this carrot and why we're always chasing after it.

From this point of view, the festival of Sukkos is utterly unintelligible. It's all about being happy - it includes a special mitzvah to constantly be happy for 7 days and it is called the "time of our happiness." But instead of rewarding ourselves with a luxury vacation or reminiscing on the good times when we were settled in our land or something like that, we build frail huts and live in them for 7 days and remember wondering in the desert. All of the eating and drinking and family time is not the central Mitzvah of the holiday, only living in a sukkah and shaking a "Lulav". It even says the festival of Sukkos lands at the beginning of winter as opposed to spring just to clarify that we're not doing it to enjoy the weather (even though originally the Jews actually started living in Sukkos in spring, when they left Egypt).

Happiness, which is called "Simcha" שמחה in the Holy Tongue, is the experience of something called שלימות, or completion. You can have a limited kind of Simcha in any completion of a goal, but real inner Simcha is in the completion of your purpose for living. You have to know the purpose of being Jewish is very big. Because there is no end to a Jew's potential your completion is by definition outside of yourself. You cannot reach it. But what you can do is much greater. You can be a dreamer. You can set yourself up to be in a state of going beyond your nature and reaching for your purpose. And if you do that, the process becomes just as special as the end goal. 

That is what Sukkos is. It's not our right to just have happiness, it's our job and privilege to pursue completion and recognize how our heart finds happiness in that. Wandering the desert for 40 years was no piece of cake, even with miraculous protection. We could never get comfortable, ready to move at a moments notice to be with the divine presence. Encampments spanned everywhere from years to just days. The Mitzvos of Sukkos in all their halachic detail imprint on the subconscious of the Jewish soul the need to avoid being lazy and stagnant in order to jump on opportunities for completion as soon as they arise. And in that mode, you can realize happiness is not a carrot on a stick. Happiness is there in your heart when you notice the crazy stuff you do for a higher purpose.    

("מהר"ל ע"ז דף ג; ספר החינוך; ר' ירוחם ,שיבבי דעת "עליון שמתה מעונך)


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Back to Eden: Days of Judgment

The 10 days of repentance can be the most intense time of the Jewish year. From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur we stand before our Creator in judgment which determines our fate for the coming year. Life and death hang in the balance.
For the unlearned onlooker, it may seem like this is not a ritual of spiritual growth, but of backward thinking and extreme self-punishment. What kind of god is this that cruelly demands his people to lower themselves and beg for their lives? 
Let us understand.

In Jewish thought, strictness and judgment, what's called מדת הדין always follows loving-kindness or מדת החסד. The world at its point of inception is pure חסד. Hashem had no reason whatsoever to create the world, other than to have an "other" to give to. And all of life flows outward from that source. In the deeper holy books it is called the "River that goes out from Eden (as in the garden of Eden)". But in order to protect this heavenly flow of life and goodness, Hashem created דין in the world so that we should not be embarrassed by receiving free gifts and so that the light should not be tarnished. (ועיין דעת תורה בראשית פז' שכל הדינים בתורה הם ככלי זיין ששומרים לחסד)  

Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, is called "Rosh" which means "head" because just like the rest of the body follows the head, the rest of the year follows this initial power of thought. Every year is a microcosm of creation, and its inception parallels the initial thoughts and deliberation with which Hashem created the world: Pure עיין מביט, קמה) חסד). Like we say in Davening זה היום תחילת מעשך זכרון ליום ראשון This day is the beginning of your actions, a remembrance of the first day. 

On Rosh Hashanah we read the Torah portion about Sarah Imeinu miraculously giving birth in old age after having become barren. The Shaarei Orah ('שער ט) says that we see in this portion a hint to the concept of Eden as a source of renewal in Sarah's words, "היתה לי עדנה" meaning that my menstrual cycle returned to me. Notice that she uses the word "עדנה," like Eden. Connecting to the source of life from its inception means no boundaries can limit the power of renewal.

Since דין has to be there to protect the חסד, the closer you get to the boundless חסד at its source, the stronger the דין has to be. In Jewish life, wherever you see intense judgment, you know there is a special opportunity for closeness. For example, when the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Gemara says the Babylonians found the two angelic figures that usually rested on the arc, which would normally either face toward or away from each other depending upon the Jewish nation's relationship status with Hashem. Amazingly, they found them embracing!

In halacha, those appointed to inflict punishment are required to be physically weak and exceedingly wise. Physically weak to reduce the intensity of the punishment, and exceedingly wise because they must understand that the punishment is only a secondary means of expressing the love and concern for the person being punished, and those intentions should be palpable in the punishment as well! (רמבם פ' ט"ו, סנ", ועיין פחד יצחק ראש השנה קונת' החסד מאמר ג' פ' ב-ג). 

These days are about going back to the love and kindness behind judgement. That's why this time of judegment is extended for 10 days and the easiest time for forgiveness. More than us begging Hashem, Hashem is begging us to wake up and allow Him to give to us.     

Friday, August 10, 2018

Choosing Life

I took a class in college called "social constructionism," that ironically ended up being one of my best experiences there. The theme of the class was that the way we relate to what is normal, real, or essential, is determined by social framing and custom. I say "ironically" because the take-away for most of the students was that everything is subjective and relative, and people can't be held responsible by any particular standard.

We watched some of the videos probably everyone with a liberal-arts education has seen - the Stanford Prison Experiment, hidden camera footage of unsuspecting subjects facing socially unsusual situations like people facing the wrong way in the elevator, and other similar footage. We spoke about things like Einstein's theory of relativity (without much scientific understanding of its content), nature and scientific classification, gender and gender roles.

It struck a chord. Subjectivity and social convention really play a central role in the way we relate to everything in our lives. But instead of sherking responsablitiy and casting doubt, I felt that if so much is relative then I'd better be careful about choosing the framework things are relative to. I felt relativism was the beginning of free-will, not the end. For example, if my perception of a prison gaurd will automatically influence me to behave in a certain way in that role, I have to decide carefully what that role means to me. If advertising can get me to think something is cool, I have to decide how I will relate to advertising. But how will I know I'm choosing the way things should be and not just falling into another predetermined kind of fallacy?

Years later, I discovered how the Torah reveals the depth of this question. Rabbenu Yona, a contemporary of Maimonides, wrote in his famous exposition on repentance, The Gates of Teshuva, that free will is among the higher qualities people can reach in spiritual growth. A puzzling statement, considering that free-will is a basic axiom of all Jewish thought. How can there be reward and punishment for average people if free-will is a special higher quality?

The answer is free-will itself is also relative. You can be an average person that mostly follows what is socially constructed, except for a small area that is left ambiguous for you to determine for yourself, or you can be a social constructionist and challenge the frames your society has set up. And  to rise above 'norms' and be an adjent of your own life you have to be more conencted to something which is higher than where you are at.

The way the Torah describes free will is much more than choosing between good and evil. It says "See, I have placed before you life and good, death and evil... Choose life." (Devarim 30, 15-16). Normally we think of "life" as something that just happens to us, not something we choose, and its defined by a period of time between birth and death that we don't control. But as usual, the Torah boldy teaches something we would not fully grasp otherwise.

The Maharal says "life" really means something fresh that constantly renews itself. The term Mayim Chaim, or "living waters" always means a water source which constantly renews itself because it's directly connected to its source. Our life comes from the Source of Life, and its by definition fresh and never just there because it was there before.

But Hashem empowered us to choose: Follow physical instincts and social influences, or choose life, base life on a chosen reality and not a circumstantial, passive one. With free-will you align your personal perspective with a Torah framework and G-d's vision for the world so to speak. And because Torah goes beyond any local paradigms, there's no pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and there are levels upon levels, as infinite as anything.