Thursday, October 30, 2008

Noach - an ark of words

There is a short vort of the Tiferes Shlomo on this week's parsha that needs some background elabortion to appreciate. The countless essays, books, poems, and blog posts composed by the great minds of the ages all share the aim of trying to explain, describe, and understand a reality that exists "out there". The intellectual world of words and ideas is a representation of this reality -- a means of grasping some small measure of the larger picture which lies outside the mind.

The B"esht taught exactly the opposite. "B'dvar Hashem shamayim na'asu" -- the true reality is the reality of words; what is "out there" in the physical word is the mere physical representation of deeper truths. G-d uniquely enpowered humankind over this dimension of words and granted us the ability to be a "ruach m'malela" (as the Targum puts it), a creature endowed with the power of speech, or, in other words (excuse the pun), a creature endowed with the power over words.

The beautiful landscape causes the poet to reflect and put words to paper; the tzadik's words of Torah and tefilah that draw G-d into the world cause the beautiful landscape.

Of course, it would be nice to know how to make beautiful landscapes and other beautiful things out of words. Is there some celestial scrabble board with letters that we can re-arrange to get the desired results? Unfortunately, that discussion will have to wait. It's enough for now to appreciate the basic shift in perspective.

Before jumping into the Radomsker's torah on the beginning of the parsha let me just throw in my own two cents with an observation on the end of the parsha. If the physical world is impacted by the power of words, the relationship between the ultimate failure of the dor hapalagah (--for you language purists; dor haflaga for others) to build their castle to Heaven and the devolution of language becomes that much more poignant. The failure of language is not just a practical impediment to building, but reflects an existential failing of mankind to be builders in a positive sense.

Getting to the opening of the parsha, Noach's charge to build a teivah taken on a double-meaning -- teivah means ark, but it also means "word". The Tiferes Shlomo comments on "tzohar ta'aseh la'teivah" that Noach's true task was to transform words, to make "tzarah" to "retzeih" -- meaning, to transform the presence of G-dliness manifest in the world from a force of punishment to a force of munificense. Noach unfortunately failed at that task. He could only transform "tzarah" into "tzohar", which Rashi explains to mean a diamond or window that allowed light into the ark. Noach could draw the light of G-d into his own life, but could not use that light to influence and benefit others.

Rashi describes Noach as "m'ketanei amanah", of little faith, a description seemingly at odds with the Torah's praise of Noach as a tzadik. The Radomsker explains that Noach the tzadik did not lack for faith in G-d, but he lacked faith in himself. He transformed himself, but did not believe he could influence the words and world around him.

This play on words reveals something of Noach's character and his mission, but it is not the complete story. Noach is described as a "tzadik… b'dorosav", which Rashi explains that some interpret to mean that his righteousness stood out only in his generation, but had he lived in Avraham's time he would be thought of as nothing. Chazal teach that "Yiftach b'doro k'Shmuel b'doro", that we must accept each leader on his/her own merits irrespective of their rank compared with other leaders in other generations. What purpose is there in engaging in such speculative comparisons of which tzadik is greater, Avraham or Noach? Is there a ranking system that we need to formulate?

Here too, a torah of the Radomsker sheds light on Rashi's meaning. Rashi does not mean to compare Noach to Avraham, but to reveal Noach's inherent potential. For all the greatness of Avraham, even after the test of the akeidah, he as able to say to G-d that he was "afar v'eifer", dust and ashes -- the embodiment of humility. Had Noach lived in Avraham's time he would indeed have been nothing -- not because of any ranking or comparison, but because he would also have been able to achieve that height of tzidkus and embody the same trait of nothingness!

I think putting these two torahs of the Radomsker together gives a more of a complete picture of Noach. Noach's lack of belief in his ability to rescue his generation, or at least ask G-d to mitigate punishment, was not a mark of humility. Quite the contrary. Noach did not lack a sense of self-worth; he did not think of himself as nothingness in the way that Avraham did. I would suggest that it is precisely because Noach did not have this trait of "afar v'eifer", he was not the most humble of men in the way Avraham was, that led to his failure to speak out. Who but someone who is completely self-effacing would be willing to stick his/her neck out for the sake of the residents of Sdom or the generation of the flood?

Noach was certainly a tzadik, but his words were directed inward more than outward perhaps because he believed that only he was capable or worthy of hearing those words. The teivah closed to the outside world may have kept the rains out, but it also kept in the light that might have dispelled some of the outside gloom.

What does this all mean for us? A few things:
1) An ark of words, concepts, ideology is what keeps the physical ark afloat -- not vica versa. You can lock yeshiva students in an ivory tower ark for 16 hours a day, but unless they absorb the words of Torah, physical barriers against secular culture are of little use.
2) G-d's presence is always immanent. It is up to us to determine whether it is manifest as ratzah, tzarah, or something in between.
3) Even if Torah permeates your life through your tzohar, your job is not done until the outside world shares those values.
4) The lack of belief in one's ability to help others may be a mask for a simple lack of belief in other's potential for redemption. The best cloak for ga'avah is the mantle of humility.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

hachanos for mitzvos - how NOT to buy an esrog or build a sukkah

The Sefas Emes quotes a question from the Ta"z that I have been unable to find, but here it is anyway: the Midrash writes that when Hashem sees us building our sukkah and preparing lulav and esrog he promptly forgets all our past sins. Only with the start of the actual first day of Sukkos, when our preparations have ended, do our sins start to count against us. This is why the Torah calls this day "yom harishon", the first day [of Sukkos], as it is the first day "l'cheshbon avonos", for counting transgressions. How can it be, asks the Taz, that during these intervening days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, when we are engaged in mere preparations for mitzvos, we are protected from sin, while during the actual days of Yom Tov when we are engaged in the mitzvos themselves we are prey to aveiros?

The yesod that we see from here is that hachanos, preparations, are even more valuable than mitzvos themselves. A mitzvah is like lulav or sukkah has its week or day of performance, but the preparation for the mitzvah has no shiur limiting it in time or duration. It is an endless bounty of schar available for the taking.

Last night I went to do my hachanos and buy a lulav and esrog. Standing in front of me was a man maybe in his upper-20's, with a beard, peyos, nice black yalmukah and white shirt, and he was assisting his father, a slightly older clean shaven man wearing a little cap, a man who did not seem to be a baki in hilchos lulav, which is maybe why he had his son along. The conditions were crowded, it was late, and everybody seemed to be in a rush. So this young man quickly looked over every esrog out on display, grabbed the one he wanted, and then thrust it toward the seller and yelled, "Now make me a lulav to go with it" (or something along those lines), whereupon his father added in a loud voice, "Please". The son was "nishtomem k'sha'ah chadah" and then in a slightly abashed voice added, "Yes, please".

Baruch Hashem we live in times where a clean-shaven working man from the previous generation who knows he needs a lulav but perhaps never learned or never had an opportunity to learn the halachos of lulav can have a son who grows up to be a yeshivishe-looking Jew who is yodei'a sefer. But shouldn't that growth in yediyas haTorah also mean a growth and greater sensitivity in the realm of derech eretz [which is kadma laTorah!]?

So why do we do often witness the opposite?

It is relatively easy to find an esrog which meets the criteria of mehudar at least according to some shitos Rishonim. And when you walk around in shul with an esrog that everyone admires because of your eye for hiddur and the fact that your wallet can tolerate it, or when your guests admire the beauty of your sukkah, by all means feel proud of your mitzvah observance.

But there is a much harder hiddur to fulfill, and that is the hiddur of derech eretz. Did you buy a lulav without pushing the guy next to you in line (assuming there is a line and not a chaotic mob scence)? Did you build your sukkah without screaming at your kids who are tossing parts and decorations all over and are underfoot while you are dangling from a ladder? Did you decide to pull out your power tools at 11:30PM to work on your sukkah enhancements irrespective of your neighbor's desire to get some sleep (thank you to which ever one of my neighbors was doing construction around that time last night)?

If you are makpid on these hiddurim, your neighbors may not know, your buddy in shul may not know, your sukkah guests may not know. In fact, let's not pretend otherwise - by being Mr. Nice Guy you may get pushed to the back of the line and get a less than perfect esrog yourself! And then you come home and your wife says, "This is what took 2 hours in the seforim store for?". And in shul everyone thinks you cheaped out on a chinuch set or something, or maybe you grew that wilted thing in your own backyard.

But it seems to me that if these hiddurim are the ones you are makpid on, if this is how you are medakdeik in the hachanos for your mitzvos, then you can rest assured that your "yom harishon" will indeed begin with a clean slate, with all aveiros forgotten. Indeed, your lulav and esrog is a chinuch set -- an sterling example that will educate your children and grandchildren as to how a Jew should live with derech eretz and middos tovos, an esrog with a hiddur so beautiful that it cannot be purchased for any money in the world.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Gmar chasimah tovah

Gmar chasima tova and easy fast to all. If anyone was offended by posts during the year, please do me a favor and have me in mind in your tefilah zakah when you get to the part about forgiving everyone.
Hashem should give me and you and everyone in klal yisrael koach and ability and time to learn more and more Torah in the coming year and to share it via blogs, e-mail, or maybe even to meet in person in Yerushalayim b'bias goel tzedek and to talk in learning there.

Monday, October 06, 2008

how does tshuvah undo the past? - amazing chiddush of the Sefas Emes

The Rishonim ask how the process of teshuvah can undo the past -- e.g. the Sefer haIkkarim writes that if you smash an object into pieces, no amount of regret will cause the object to reconstitute itself, so how does the regret of tshuvah cause our past mistakes to be wiped away?

I saw a comment of the Sefas Emes (in the likkutim at the end of the sedfer) that perhaps opens a new approach to answer this question. The S.E. quotes Rashi's famous statement that Hashem's judged Yishmael "ba'asher hu sham", based on his conduct up until that historical point in time, irrespective of his future actions or those of his descendents, which were undoubtedly already known already to G-d. The S.E. extrapolates an amazing chiddush. From Hashem's perspective past and future are one and the same. If Hashem chooses to ignore the future and judge a person based only on the facts of the moment, the same principle should dictate that Hashem ignores the past and judges based only on the facts of the moment! So what are we klapping al cheit for?!

The Sefas Emes explains that events of the past leave a roshem, an impression, a mark that is part of who we are at the present moment. We are not judged on past events, but we are judged based on the roshem that remains and is part of who we are at the present moment.

Based on this, I would suggest that tshuvah need not undo the past -- the question is misplaced, as the past has no bearing on how Hashem judges us. What needs to be undone in the roshem past events have had on our neshomos, a roshem that is part of our existance in the present but which can be cleaned though the process of viduy and charatah.

standing for viduy and shome'a k'oneh

The Mechaber 607:3) paskens that if you are present when the shat"z says viduy you have to stand. Rama adds that you have to recite viduy with the shat"z. The implication is that the Mechaber holds that even if even if you are not saying anything along with the shatz you still have to stand (which is how the mishna berura explains it). Why should that be true? If you are not saying viduy, why do you have to stand?

I don't think it is a din in shome'a k'oneh, and nothing to do with any chovas hagavra to say viduy or stand while saying it. It's a seperate din in the definition of viduy -- the cheftza of viduy is something recited in the context of a tzibur which is standing.

Speaking of shome'a k'oneh and viduy, the Rosh in the last perek of Yoma (#25) quotes the view of Rav Amram Gaon that on Erev Y"K the shat"z should recite viduy out loud in chazaras hashat"z to be motzi someone who is aino baki and does not know how to say viduy him/herself. The Rosh and most opinions disagree. I would guess that shome'a k'oneh does not work to be motzio somepne in viduy because although the ma'aseh mitzvah of viduy is a recitation of sins, the kiyum mitzvah is only effective if there is a corresponding sense of regret in one's heart. Shome'a k'oneh does not work where there is a ma'aseh mitzvah but no kiyum. For example, one cannot rely on shome'a k'oneh for the mitzvah of kri'as shema (see Shnos Eliyahu of the GR"A on the first Mishna in Brachos) because the recitation alone is not the full mitzvah; it must be accompanied for a kabalos ol malchus shamayim which is done b'lev.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

kilkul b'shir and the ideal of a makom mikdash

The Mishna in R"H tells us that one time the witnesses who saw the new moon came late in the day, after the usual time at which the afternoon korban tamid was offered, and this led to niskalkilu haLevi'im b'shir, there was some confusion in the Beis haMikdash as to what to do -- the gemara discusses whether the shira accompanying the korban was omitted, or the wrong shirah was recited -- whatever happened, something was wrong. In response to this event a takana was made that if the witnesses arrive too late, even though their testimony would mean that the day should be declared the beginning of a new month and year, we do not accept their late testimony and instead hold the witnesses over and declare the new year as starting from the next day.

Over Yom Tov I heard an insightful comment in the name of R' Chait, the R"Y of Yeshiva Bnei Torah. R' Chait explained that it was davka because this kilkul, this confusion ,took place in the Mikdash itself, that caused the need for a legislative intervention and creation of takanos. The Mikdash is supposed to inspire all who enter within its walls and serve as a model of holiness and an example of the Torah ideal. For confusion and halachic uncertainty to exist in the very place we hold up as a model of perfection is intolerable. If our model of perfection has such flaws, what impression does that give of the Torah system as a whole? Therefore, the situation demanded remediation.

There is a natural mussar haskel from here (which I did not hear b'shem R' Chait, but I will say it anyway): in each of our little mikdash me'ats that we learn in and daven in every day, in our shuls and shteibelach and batei medrash, what takanos do we need to put in place to insure that these oases are models of perfection? What do we need to do to insure that someone who steps into a makom Torah feels insipred, feels drawn to Torah and its beauty, and does not witness kilkul b'shir?

R' Yosef Engel on "b'ficha u'b'levavcha la'asoso"

“Ki karov elecha hadavar me’od b’ficha ubelevevcha la’asoso”

1. The gemara (Nedarim 51) writes that if one took a neder from food which is “yoreid l’kedeirah” one cannot eat food cooked in an ilfas – the ilfas is used for the finishing stages of food preparation for items that were already “yoreid l’kedeirah”, previously cooked in a kedeirah, and therefore this food is prohibited. However, one who takes a neder from food “na’asah b’kedeirah” is allowed to eat food which is “na’asah b’ilfas”, and if one takes a neder not to eat “na’asah b’ilfas” one is allowed to eat food “na’asah b’kedeirah”. Why here don’t we say that food prepared in an ilfas was previously “na’aseh b’kedeirah” and therefore also prohibited?

Ran answers that the key here is the word “na’aseh”, which refers specifically to the final stage of food preparation. Food prepared in an ilfas was already cooked in a kedeirah, it was “yoreid l’kedeirah”, but it cannot be described as “na’asah b’kedeirah” because the finishing touches were done in an ilfas, not a kedeirah.

2. The mitzvah of tshuvah is multifaceted. Kiddushin 49 tells us that a rasha who is mekadesh a women on condition that he is a tzadik has accomplished effective kiddushin because we assume that a thought of tshuvah passed through his heart -- that fleeting thought of regret means he can no longer be called a rasha. Yet, on the other hand, the Rambam seems to define viduy, a verbal confession as integral to tshuvah if not the very definition of the mitzvah – “viduy zeh mitzvas aseh” (Hil Tshuvah 1:1). Rabeinu Yonah in Sha’arei Tshuvah goes into more detail describing many steps to the tshuvah process.

3. If we consider the many steps involved in complete tshuvah it becomes hard to understand how the mitzvah can be described as ki karov elecha, easy to do. It becomes hard to understand “Tashev enosh at dakah – at dikdukah shel nefesh”, how even till the last breath one can do tshuvah, when tshuvah emands "b'picha", a verbal expression of viduy to be effective.

Therefore, explains R’ Yosef Engel, the pasuk ends “b’levavcha la’asoso”. True, tshuvah with viduy done b’ficha is the ideal, but if we look at what is the most essential ingredient of tshuvah, the final, most crucial step in tshuvah, the “la’asoso” of tshuvah, as the Ran explain, the finishing touch, then we need only focus on the lev, "b'levavcha la'asoso".

Thursday, October 02, 2008

"brisker" shevarim: reflections on chumra and minhag

The Mishna (R”H 33) tells us that a tekiya is the same length as a teru’ah is and a teru’ah is 3 beats long. Rashi explains that the total length of the entire tu-tu-tu of a teru’ah is 3 beats; each individual tu sound is 1 beat long. According to Rashi one could blow a very short tekiya lasting only 3 beats long. Tosfos explains that each tu-tu-tu is 3 beats for a total of 9 beats, which is what our tekiyos and teru’os for the most part sound like. For more detail, see Jewish Worker’s post, but this nutshell suffices for the issue I want to discuss.

The issue gets thorny when it comes to blowing shevarim because the opinions of Rashi and Tosfos seem mutually exclusive. According to Rashi, each tu-tu-tu of the shevarim must be less than 3 beats, otherwise each would be the same length as a tekiya. According to Tosfos, since tekiya and teru’ah each need a minimum of 9 beats, three short shevarim just don’t cut it.

Rashi’s short shevarim would sound strange to most of our ears. When I lived in Passaic, R’ Sacks had the ba’al toke’ah blow the last 10 kolos with very short shevarim to be yotzei Rashi’s view, but all other shevarim were blown according to the usual practice.

There is another way to try to fulfill both views, and the way I heard it in yeshiva, this was R’ Soloveitchik’s chiddush that R’ Chaim approved of. There is no inherent reason why one is limited to blowing three blasts tu-tu-tu for shevarim and not more. R’ Soloveitchik suggested that one can blow short shevarim of about 2 beats each to fulfill Rashi’s view, but blow enough shevarim (i.e. 5 shevarim) to add up to more than 9 beats in total and thereby fulfill Tosfos’ view as well (just saw that Nefesh haChaim has a post on this also).

This R”H was the first time I actually heard this chiddush implemented in practice. To be fair, the minyan I daven at implements other Brisker / RYBS chumros, so this is just one more to add to the mix. I asked my son if he understood the logic of what was being done (either the rest of the minyan is used to this or not attuned to it) and he told me that in yeshiva the menahel had presented this view as a Brisker shita which they recently adopted for some of the tekiyos in the yeshiva minyan. Apparently Brisker chumros are getting more popular every day!

I’m not sure what to make of this development. The chiddush is wonderful in an academic way, but somehow (maybe I am just losing some Brisker-ness) it strikes me as anti-traditional to actually implement. Tekiyas shofar has been going on for centuries. If your grandparents asked their grandparents what a shevarim sounded like, I have little doubt that the answer would be the usual tu-tu-tu, not 5 shevarim and not really short shevarim. Leaving aside whatever mystical effect blowing these precise kolos may have, if this custom was good enough for centuries of G-d fearing Jews who knew how to learn a little gemara too, why should we change it because of a shtickel lomdus? Admittedly, my reaction here is emotional rather than intellectual, and inconsistant with my own acceptance of Brisker chumra in other areas.

Haym Soloveitchik in his essay “Rapture and Reconstruction” writes with respect to newly adopted chumros of larger shiurim for achilas matzah:

It was perfectly clear to all concerned that Jews had been eating matzot for thousands of years, and that no textual analysis could affect in any way a millennia-old tradition. The problem was theoretically interesting, but practically irrelevant.

And then a dramatic shift occurs. A theoretical position that had been around for close to two centuries suddenly begins in the 1950's to assume practical significance and within a decade becomes authoritative. From then on, traditional conduct, no matter how venerable, how elementary, or how closely remembered, yields to the demands of theoretical knowledge. Established practice can no longer hold its own against the demands of the written word.

One can only wonder what Haym Soloveitchik would make of his father’s 5 shevarim, or of those who follow in his holy footsteps. But perhaps it is my own concerns which are "theoretically interesting but practically irrelevant", to echo R' Haym's words, as for better or worse, academic chiddush has left its imprint on the world of halacha l'ma'aseh.