Sunday, September 30, 2012

upside down esrog

Stop reading this -- go prepare for Yom Tov, print it out and read it later.  I shouldn't be writing either, so this will be brief.

1. Chag haSukkos ta'aseh lecha -- as the Bnei Yissaschar explains, we have to let the chag penetrate and make us (lecha) into something different than we were beforehand.

2. Just two Shabbosos ago in Parshas VaYelech we read about the mitzvah of hakhel that was done every post-shemita year on the holiday of Sukkos.  Why was the ceremony done at that time of year in particular? Ralbag explains (Toeles 13) that Sukkos being the culmination of all the three regalim is the pinnacle of spiritual heights that one can achieve during the year.  Pesach and Shavuos and even Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur was just a warm up to get to this point. 

He adds another reason: Sukkos is the harvest season and the abundance of newly harvested crops might entice one to feel overly self-satisfied and drift away from Hashem.  Therefore, we need to inject ourselves with an added dose of yiras shamayim this time of year. 

Even in years where we lack the added kedusha of a previously experienced shemita year and the added pomp of the king reading hakhel (Ralbag opines that the Kohen Gadol or a nasi could do the reading as well -- see the Minchas Chinuch who raises this as a safeik) the Ralbag's observations hold true.

3. Everybody is familiar with the idea of turning the esrog upside down before saying the bracha of al netilas lulav so that you get the bracha in right before doing the mitzvah, over l'asiyasan.  But things are not so simple as they seem.  No where does the gemara say to do this -- all we know from the gemara are two facts, one about the mitzvah of lulav, one about birchos hamitzvah in general: 1) Once you pick up the lulav, you have already done the mitvah of netilas lulav; 2) A birchas hamitzvah is usually recited before performing the mitzvah act.  So now we are stuck.  If you say the bracha before having anything in hand, that is considered too removed from being over l'asiyasan.  If you already have the lulav in hand, the mitzvah is over and you can't say the bracha.  How do you balance two mutually exclusive rules?

The Beis Yosef's solution (based on the Rosh) is that even though the gemara doesn't say it, we have to modify how we do the mitzvah of netilas lulav.  We turn the esrog upside down (or don't pick it up or have in mind not to be yotzei yet) until after the bracha so it is over l'asiyasan.  The focus is completely on working around fact #1 that we mentioned above.

It's the GR"A that reminds us of fact #2, and the simple reading of the gemara seems very much in line with his approach.  The gemara (Pesachim 7) has a discussion of whether we should say birchas hamitzvah using the nusach of "al..." or "l...."  At the end of the day some brachos are formulated one way, some the other, and the Rishonim all try to come up with rules and explain away the exceptions.  At the heart of the debate is whether the nusach of "al..." refers to an action that is going to be done, i.e. the mitzvah about to be performed, or whether "al..." only refers to past events, and hence should not be used for a birchas hamitzvah which must be recited before doing the mitzvah.  Asks the gemara:
 מיתיבי העושה לולב לעצמו מברך שהחיינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה נטלו לצאת בו אומר אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על נטילת לולב
Doesn't the fact that we say the bracha of "al netilas lulav" prove that a birchas hamitzvah can be formulated using the nusach of "al..." and not just "l..."?

Answers the gemara:
שאני התם דבעידנא דאגבהה נפק ביה
Lulav is different, as one is already yotzei once the lulav has been taken in hand.

In other words, you can't prove anything about other birchos hamitzvah from the bracha on lulav because lulav is a unique case -- it is one of the exceptions to the rule where Chazal allowed for the bracha to be said after the mitzvah has already been done!  It's fact #2, the over l'asiyasan rule, that is modified (by Chazal) when it comes to lulav, not fact #1, how we do the mitzvah.

Tosfos on the spot (d'h b'idna) wants to have their cake and eat it and writes that the gemara does not negate the rule of over l'asiyasan because you still have na'anu'im in hallel to do.  The implicit assumption is that na'anu'im is part and parcel of the mitzvah of netilas lulav and not a separate kiyum, but that a different discussion that I don't have time for now.

Chag Sameiyach!

Friday, September 28, 2012

don't delay the mitzvah

I don't have time to really write about it, so I'll just pass on the mareh makom: The Avnei Nezer has an interesting chiddush that when you have a Shabbos in between Yom Kippur and Sukkos (like this year), since you cannot build your sukkah on Shabbos, the week before and the week after count as two seperate time periods.  Therefore, if you fail to build your sukkah before Shabbos, you have violated the din of delaying a mitzvah.  LINK.

taking it personally

The Yerushalmi (Ta'anis 3:11) relates that there was once a drought and no rain fell.  What did R' Yochanan ben Zakai do?  He told his barber to go to the beis knesses and daven that R' Yochanan ben Zakai wanted to take a haircut and he couldn't because there was no water (I guess he got a wash with his cut).  Sure enough, after that tefilah it started to rain.

There were probably thousands if not millions of people impacted by that drought in all kinds of burdensome ways.  There was probably not enough water for drinking, for cooking, for bathing.  Yet, all that apparently made no impact in shamayim.  What made an impact is that fact that R' Yochanan ben Zakai was inconvenienced a little bit and could not get a haircut.  How do we make sense of this?!  Why should R' Yochanan ben Zakai's haircut matter more than the suffering of thousands or millions of others?

R' Elchanan Wasserman explained that this is exactly what the pasuk of "Hatzur tamim pa'alo... K-l emunah v'ain avel" in our parsha teaches us.  Hashem's justice is exact and precise.  For whatever reason, the population that suffered during the drought deserved that suffering.  There was no injustice in the din meted out whatsoever.  However, R' Yochanan ben Zakai did not deserve to be punished.  R' Yochanan ben Zakai did not deserve to suffer with everyone else.  He therefore had a right to say to Hashem, "It's not fair -- I'm suffering too."  And even if that suffering was trivial -- it's was just a haircut -- precisely because Hashem's justice is absolutely fair and R' Yochanan ben Zakai did not deserve it, the entire drought was cancelled. 

Aside from the lesson we learn from the Yerushalmi about the precision of Divine justice, I think we also learn something about tefilah.  I feel so strongly about what I've been writing about the past few posts I can't help but keep coming back to the same points.  Apparently had R' Yochanan ben Zakai just davened in general, or just davened that the population not suffer so much (I think it's safe to assume that he personally had enough water for drinking, cooking, etc. otherwise he would have mentioned those needs and not just his haircut), it would not have been enough.  R' Yochanan ben Zakai had to be able to say, "This drought bothers me."  He had to do something like schedule his haircut to make sure he aroused those feelings.  I think there is a twofold lesson here.  Firstly, one tefilah can make a difference.  Surely others besides R' Yochanan ben Zakai davened, but it was his tefilah that was the key.  Secondly, even for the great R' Yochanan ben Zakai, aino dome, there is no comparison between the tefilos uttered over the pain and suffering of others and the tefilos uttered when that pain and suffering hits home, even in a minor way. 

There are so many things that we need to daven for, but we tend to think of these things in the abstract.  Iran is a problem, the economy is a problem, people need refuah and yeshuos, etc.  I don't need to spell out the long list.  Yes, it's surely important to daven for Hashem to improve the economy or to help Eretz Yisrael have peace, etc.  But the question each one of us needs to ask is, "How does that effect me?"  It has to bother us; it has to make a difference in our lives.  Each of us needs to ask ourselves whether we can turn to Hashem and say, "I'm not just davening for the economy because my neighbor needs a job or my friend can't pay tuition -- I'm davening because, Hashem, even if I live in a mansion and have a chauffeur driving me around, it effects me too.  It's not just the pain of the tzibur that I'm davening for -- it's my pain."  Only then will our tefilos be real and meaningful.

While none of us is on the level of R' Yochanan ben Zakai, no one knows for sure whether it is not his or her personal cry that will make all the difference.  "Hatzur tamim pa'alo," and the entire Klal Yisrael can experience yeshuah and bracha to spare one individual from suffering unjustly.

Monday, September 24, 2012

the zechus of being able to feel the pain of the community

Dirshu Hashem b’himatz’o, kira’u’hu b’hiyoso karov – Chazal darshen this pasuk as referring to the aseres y’mei teshuvah, when Hashem is closest. The irony of course is that it’s when Hashem is far away that you need to call out to him. When Hashem is close, you shouldn’t need to seek and cry out – He is right here with us.  So why does the pasuk tell us to cry out precisely at this time?

The answer is that davka if you feel Hashem is close – your life is A-OK and you don’t need to change too much during these aseres ymei teshuvah – then davka you need to call out and seek Hashem the most, because sadly you haven’t even gotten to step aleph which is to realize just how far from Him you are holding and how much work you have to do.

I know before Rosh haShana I said I would discuss a R’ Elchanan, but I’ve given up on it. Writing here is just a hobby, so if putting finger to keyboard seems like a chore instead of something I feel inspired to do, I just don't have time for it. When the world is in the condition it is, it seems like splitting hairs over fine points in a difficult Rambam or sugya is like fiddling while Rome burns. It’s not the right attitude to take, but I wouldn’t be intellectually honest if I told you I felt otherwise or I preached to you to feel otherwise while not being able to do so myself. So much is not A-OK, so much derisha and kri’ah to Hashem is needed that the task seems overwhelming.

Another week gone by, another few Jews attacked.  Molotov cocktails were thrown at a kosher supermarket in France. Swastikas and "kill the Jews" were spray painted on buildings in NJ.  Terrorism is ongoing in Israel.  What do you expect? When the response to rioting is apology and appeasement, when threats to our existence are described as just “noise” not worthy of serious consideration, this is the natural result. We should expect no sympathy from the world, no media coverage beyond a passing headline. It’s just Jews being threatened or killed. Yawn.

Where is the outrage in our community? Where is the sense of urgency? Where is our cry for the world to do something about Iran? Where is the call for justice for our brethren being killed and discriminated against? It may in the end not help, we may be ignored anyway, but to let things slide without even a whimper…. ?

Rav Kook writes in Orot Teshuvah (ch 13., loose translation by me):
It is impossible to truly empathize with the suffering of the community unless one sanctifies his ways, perfects his character, and does complete repentance. To feel in one’s heart the suffering of the community is itself a reward (schar mitzvah) which only those pure, innocent souls who walk in the ways of Toras Hashem merit.
On the one hand, Rav Kook’s words make me feel a little better. It’s a zechus, a madreiga, to fell the pain of others, and obviously not everyone can be zocheh. But on the other hand, I think it would be a mistake to read Rav Kook as giving us a pat on the back and telling us not to worry if we don’t feel outrage because we yet a bar hachi. Aderaba, Rav Kook is telling us that it is our lack of teshuvah that is preventing us from feeling that pain. We should aspire and strive and do the teshuvah necessary to have those feelings if we yet lack them.

We said in slichos this morning (and we will say again at Ne’ila) – “Ezkira Elokim v’ahemya, b’rosi kol ir al tilah benuya, v’ir haElokim mushpeles at she’ol tachtiya.” Translated literally, the slicha calls for us to cry over the difference between Yerushalayim, “Ir haElokim,” which remains in ruins, and all other cities, which flourish and grow. The Chozeh m’Lublin (quoted in Shem m’Shmuel), however, homiletically explained the word “ir” as stemming from the same root as “uru,” awaken. Every other “ir,” every other movement and –ism manages to arouse and awaken its followers to champion the cause. However, “ir haElokim,” to be awakened and aroused for the sake of avodas Hashem, this somehow remains “mushpeles,” degraded, ignored, and in ruins. There is no one willing to step forward to champion our cause, and even our own people remain silent.

We seem communally to have a sense of apathy and indifference toward the dangers that face us as well as the overall plight of mankind these days, which is none too cheery.  Why is that?  I would suggest that in a word, what is lacking is vision. There is no end of hand wringing over details.  People are writing seforim hundreds of pages long not over sugyos like rov and chazakah, but over things like netilas yadayim.  I'm not suggesting this is a bad thing -- all Torah is great -- but it is but a fine, fine brush stroke in the larger paining of yahadus.  The problem is that no one -- and I mean no one -- is presenting a vision of what the larger painting is.  There is no attempt to articulate a broader philosophical framework that can translate into solutions to the many challenges -- economic, intellectual, political -- of modern life.  

There is much more to say on that,  but I'll cut myself short here.  I've been rewriting this various ways for an hour and keep cutting chunks out and I still don't know if I succeeded in doing anything other than ranting.  I apologize for being a little depressing here and ask your mechila as well for all the other posts you may have had complaints about during the year and any comments you didn't like.  May we all be zocheh this Yom Kippur to a gmar chasima tova, may Hashem opens our hearts and minds so we have that broader vision of what Torah is all about, may there be an end to the tzaros facing our communities, and may we merit a geulah sheleima.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

for every end there is a means

Rashi comments on the pasuk, "Ki hamitzvah ha'zos... lo ba'shamayim hi," (30:12) that were the Torah indeed found in shamayim, we would have to go up and learn it there.   In other words, the pasuk does not mean, "Torah is not in heaven..." but were it there, you would have a good excuse not to learn. Rather, it means, "Torah is not in heaven," and therefore you have it easy, because were it there, you would have to find a way to get to it -- there are simply no excuses.  That's quite a powerful message to take into the last Shabbos before the end of the year.

I am wondering what prompted Rashi to make this comment.  What in the pasuk indicates that the first pshat is wrong and the second one is correct?  I have an idea or two but nothing compelling -- what do you think?
The meforshei Rashi discuss this hava amina that we would have to go up to the heavens -- how would we get there? The Maharal explains that one can get to shamayim through nevuah. This fits perfectly with Rav Shteinman's interpretation (in Ayeles haShachar) of the word "hayom," in the admonition a few pesukim earlier (30:8), "V'atah tashuv v'shamata b'kol Hashem...asher anochi metzavecha hayom," as an allusion to the principle that "ain navi rashai l'chadesh davar" -- the Torah was complete on the day it was given; later prophets are not permitted to add new mitzvos. Torah is not a product of nevuah; it is a completely different cheftza.

The Shem m'Shmuel's explains that had the mitzvah of limud haTorah necessitated getting to shamayim, then Hashem would have given us a means to get there. Since Torah is the blueprint of creation, if there is a din in the Torah, it means there has to be built into creation the means of fulfilling it.  What the Sm"S is telling us is that Hashem has equipped us with the kelim to accomplish whatever it is he asks of us. 

To us, getting up to shamayim seems like a fanstasy -- something we could only dream of. It is hard for us to imagine doing such a thing even if Hashem demanded it. For some people attending tefilah b'tzibur, learning a daily seder, keeping Shabbos k'halacha, etc. seems just as impossible. The Torah doesn't come out and tell those people, "Who are you kidding -- it's not so hard." The message of the Sm"S is very different -- yes, it is hard. For you it's as hard as going to shamayim. But guess what -- if Hashem wants you to do it, it means he gave you the means and ability to make it happen. Now you have no excuse.

Posting has been light lately (both in kamus and eichus), but I bl"n I hope to get to a nice piece from R' Elchanan before Yom Tov, so watch out for it.  If not, maybe afterwards. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

two dinim in teshuvah

The gemara (B.K. 94b) writes that if a parent dies and the heirs discover easily identifiable stolen goods in the parent's estate, they must return the goods to the rightful owner because of the mitzvah of kibud av. Asks the gemara, but if their parent was a rasha, a thief, there is no mitzvah of kibud av! The gemara answers that the case being spoken of is where the parent did teshuvah. Again, asks the gemara, if the parent did teshuvah, why does he/she still have stolen goods in his/her possession-- he/she should have returned them! Answers the gemara, indeed the parent intended to return the stolen property, but died before being able to do so.

How does the gemara's answer resolve the question --- bottom line, the parent did not actually return the stolen goods?! Would've, should've, could've -- but he/she didn't actually make good and restore the property to its rightful owner? What good is regret alone without making restitution?
  There is a classic Brisker sevara (see Koveitz Shiurim) that postulates 2 dinim in teshuva: 1) To remove the status of rasha; 2) To rehabilitate the relationship between the person and Hashem.

An example: The Rambam implies at the beginning of Hil Teshuva that viduy is a necessary component to teshuvah. Yet, the gemara (Kid 49) tells us that kiddushin done on condition that a person is a tzadik works at least m'safeik because "shema hirheir teshuvah." Minchas Chinuch asks: How does hirhur accomplish anything without viduy? The Rogatchover answers that viduy is indeed necessary for the full rehabilitative effect of teshuvah to work, but simply to avoid the status of rasha, hirhur alone is sufficient.

Here too, so long as the parent is not categorized as a rasha, which can be accomplished by regret alone, there is a chiyuv of kibud av. Perhaps full teshuvah is lacking, but that is not the sugya's concern.

Rav Baruch Ber (see intro to Gittin) formulates the idea a little differently. (The Birchas Shmuel is cryptic; take a look at this piece in the Birchas Avraham for a clearer explanation.)  Why is every lav in the Torah not considered a lav hanitak l'aseh, as each and every lav requires that a mitzvas aseh of teshuvah be done to rectify the error? R' B"B answers that there are two different "flavors" or two different types of teshuvah: 1) Teshuvah on the ma'aseh aveira, the wrongful act; 2) Teshuva on the cheit itself, the spiritual pollution that is a result of the act of aveira. The definition of a lav hanitak l'aseh is a lav that is accompanied by an aseh which undoes the ma'aseh avierah.  When the Torah commands us to do teshuvah, the intent is more than that -- it is to undo the spiritual contamination that results from the aveira.

Returning to the sugya in B"K, even though the guilty parent failed to actually return the stolen property -- the undoing of the ma'aseh aveira was incomplete -- the parent still has properly fulfilled the mitzvah of teshuvah, as his/her regret over the wrongful act restores his neshoma and his/her relationship with Hashem to its prior state.   The sugya is not speaking about undoing the ma'aseh aveirah; it is speaking about undoing damage to the soul.

I don't like the way the gemara reads using either sevara.  If regret alone is sufficient to remove the status of rasha, what does the gemara mean by the follow-up question of why the parent still has stolen goods in his/her possession?  The implication is that getting rid of the goods is part and parcel of teshuvah, not just regret.  And the answer -- that the parent died before being able to make restitution -- does not seem to indicate that return of the property is not necessary, but rather it implies that even though return of the property is necessary, the fact that the parent died before being able to do so absolves him/her of resposibility.  According to either of the approaches above you would have to learn the shakla v'terya as a siman, not a sibah -- regret alone removes the status of rasha, and the gemara is questioning the sincerity of that regret given that the parent failed to return the stolen goods. 

On a completly different note: The Sefas Emes writes that there is a parallel between the 10 days of teshuvah, the 10 ma'amaros of creation, the 10 dibros, and the 10 makkos. I saw quoted in the name of R' Yonansan Eibshitz that we can understand very well why the first 2 days of Rosh haShana are considered kedusha achas based on the fact that the first two dibros of aseres hadibros were said together (this was a chiddush to me, but see Rashi Makos 24a "Achas dvar Elokeim...")

(If you are interested in this sort of thing R' Yosef Engel in his derashos has pages and pages which I've never managed to read through on the parallel between the aseres y'
mei yeshuvah and the 10 dibros.)

Israel, Iran, and laundry detergent -- the pressing issues

If there are any Jews out there left who plan to vote Democrat, please, just jump off a bridge or something.  If you are suicidal and want to do what is in our worst interest, at least do it privately so it has no effect on me.  The week in review:

* The Democrat party rejection of support for Jerusalem/Israel before one of the ringleaders overturned the vote (while the convention booed in response) to avoid political damage.

* The sonei yisrael in the White House refuses to meet Netanyahu (his schedule is full -- with fundraisers, campaigning, and golf.)

* The apology issued to those who broke into the embassy in Egypt and ripped the flag to shreds.  Sorry -- please excuse us for living.  Can we give you some Jews to kill to make up for it? 

This is on top of 3+ years of doing nothing about Iran, providing aid and comfort to our enemies, pushing us against the wall.  (And that's just viz a viz Israel.  There are plenty of other reasons to vote against Obama too.)

And where are our so-called Democratic Jewish friends?  Where is Chuck Schumer, the guy we Jews in NY run to vote for?  Why, he's busy giving press conferences to encourage clearer labels on laundry detergent.  What could be more important in these critical times than laundry detergent labels?  Where is senile Ed Koch, who so recently gave his vote of confidence to Obama on Israel?  Where is Debbie Wasserman-Schultz-Rumkowski, the court Jew?  And pray tell, where are all the major Jewish organizations and their political clout who always throw their weight behind Democatic candidates?  What a joke.

We are in for very tough times.  The saddest part is that Jews will keep pulling the level for D in the voting booth, that thousands of Jewish seniors will pull D because they have done so since the days of Roosevelt and Truman and thinking that's the ticket to their social security check, that thousands of others have no idea what is going on and don't care.

I'm sick of it all.