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Foundation of Faith: Chapter 4, Verse 1

Excerpted from Foundation of Faith: A Tapestry of Insights and Illumination on Pirkei Avot based on the Thought and Writings of Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Gibber Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dratch, co-published with Ktav Publishing

Chapter 4, Verse 1

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every person. As is stated (Ps. 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.” Who is strong? He who controls his passions. As is stated (Pr. 16:32): “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.” Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated (Ps. 128:2): “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you”; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you” in the World to Come. Who is honorable? He who honors his fellows. As is stated (I Sam. 2:30): “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who despise me shall be demeaned.”

Inspirational Judaism

The Mishnah gives us a series of definitions by the renowned Ben Zoma. However, surprisingly, the Gemara, Kiddushin 49b, gives us completely different answers, and does not even mention our Mishnah. The Talmud discusses the interesting question of the man who marries a woman conditionally. What is the law, the Gemara asks, if a man marries a woman “al tenai she’ani ḥakham, on condition that I am a wise man”? What is the definition of ḥakham so that we may decide whether or not a valid marriage has been contracted? The answer is that it is sufficient that he be kol shesho’alin oto devar ḥokhmah bekhol makom, one who can conduct himself intelligently in any field of discourse. Note that all that the Gemara requires is that he be bright; no mention is made of Ben Zoma’s definition of the wise man as one who retains the capacity to learn from everyone. The next case is the one who marries a woman al menat she’ani gibbor, on condition that I am a strong man. Here the definition is kol sheḥaveirav mityarin mimenu mipnei gevurato, he must be such that his friends fear him because of his power and influence. Again, there is no mention of the Mishnah’s definition of strength interpreted as self-control. Finally, if a man marries a woman al menat she’ani ashir, on condition that I am rich, the marriage is valid if he is one of those kol shebenei iro mekhabdin oto mipnei oshro, whose townsfolk respect him because of his wealth – and not merely one who is satisfied with what he has.

How do we account for these changing definitions? The answer that R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein, the renowned author of Torah Temimah, gives is that the Gemara speaks of the act of marriage, an act which is essentially a kinyan, a contract freely arrived at by two people who must mutually agree upon the proposal. In such a case, we must estimate the understanding that the man and woman probably had at the time they came to an agreement. As a contract, we must consider only their interpretation, their understanding, and their values. The Mishnah gives us the values of Ben Zoma. He gave us the standards that became the ideal of Judaism. The Gemara’s criterion goes by the count of most people; the Mishnah’s criterion goes by the people who count most.

It is also possible to suggest that the Talmud offers the halakhic, legal, answer, while the Mishneh in Avot offers an aggadic, inspirational and aspirational, answer. The Rav, R. Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l, observed that Halakhah alone is minimal Judaism, the quintessential but basic requirements of Jewish life. Avot inspires us and challenges us to expand our characters, our vision, and our spiritual capacities.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his God in Search of Man (p. 336), wrote,

Halacha represents the strength to shape one’s life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Agada is the expression of man’s ceaseless striving which often defies all limitations. Halacha is the rationalization and schematization of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system. Agada deals with man’s ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halacha deals with details, with each commandment separately; agada deals with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halacha deals with the law; agada with the meaning of the law. Halacha deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; agada introduces us to a realm which lies beyond the range of expression. Halacha teaches us how to perform common acts; agada tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halacha gives us knowledge; agada gives us aspiration.

Kibbush HaYetzer

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that the Mishnah’s statement, “Who is strong? He who controls his passions” is a minimalist, not a maximalist position. The higher achievement is not the suppression (kibbush) but the sanctification (kiddush) of the yetzer.

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Parshat Va’etchanan: Why Not?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Why Not?


As the curtain rises on Parshat Va’etchanan, Moshe recounts his unsuccessful pleas to God to reverse the divine decree prohibiting him from entering the land of Canaan:

And I beseeched God at this time, saying: “My Lord, God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.… Let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.”
But God turned angrily against me for your sakes and He did not listen to me; and God said to me: “It is too much for you! Do not continue to speak to Me concerning this matter. Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise your eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and see with your eyes, for you will not cross this Jordan.”

The tragedy of Moshe’s fate, the fulcrum upon which the entire book of Devarim turns, continues to haunt us across the centuries. This humble, reluctant leader, who has patiently and painstakingly brought his people to the very edge of their dreams, will, as a result of divine mandate, not realize those dreams with them.

Why does God reject Moshe’s supplications? Is Moshe’s sin so great that he must be denied forgiveness? Are the gates of prayer and repentance truly closed to our most sainted leader? If so, what hope have we that God will hear our prayers?

We have previously noted the struggle of the commentaries to identify  the exact sin of Moshe and Aharon at the scene of Mei Meriva, the waters of strife, where God issues His decree concerning the fate of these great leaders. The suggested possibilities for Moshe and Aharon’s failure include deviation from God’s instructions, unwarranted anger against the nation, assumption of credit for a divine miracle, and more (see Bamidbar: Chukat 3, for a full discussion).

Whatever the catalyst for God’s verdict against Moshe at Mei Meriva, however, why can’t that verdict be set aside now?


Deeply troubled by God’s continuing rejection of Moshe’s pleas for forgiveness,  numerous rabbinic sources suggest that God is actually unable, as opposed to unwilling, to forgive Moshe. These authorities note the use of the term lachen (therefore) in God’s original verdict at Mei Meriva. According to Midrashic tradition, the presence of this term invariably indicates that an oath has been enacted. At the scene of Mei Meriva, God actually swears that Moshe and Aharon will not enter the land. This divine oath, once taken, cannot be abrogated.

Building on this approach, the Sifrei suggests that Moshe’s entreaty to God at this time is based upon a misapprehension of the extent of God’s original vow. Once Moshe sees that he has been allowed to participate in the battles for the conquest of the Transjordan, he assumes that the divine oath decreeing his fate has been abrogated and that he will now be allowed to participate in the subjugation of Canaan, as well. God, however, informs him that the vow remains in place and that Moshe’s entry into the land remains prohibited.

The Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot offers a poignant Midrashic play on God’s rejoinder to Moshe, “Rav lecha, it is too much for you.” Departing dramatically from the pshat of the text, the Tosafists note that the words rav lecha can be interpreted to mean “[Moshe,] you have a master.” The Tosafists postulate that, in the face of God’s rejection of his pleas, Moshe argues: Master of the universe, please release Yourself from Your vow – as You have released me from my vows, in the past. God responds: Moshe, rav lecha, you have a master, Someone above you Who can release you from your vows. I, in contrast, have no master. No one, therefore, can annul the vows that I take upon Myself. They must remain in place.

Other authorities focus on Moshe’s puzzling claim, “God turned angrily against me for your sakes.” This statement mirrors an equally troubling comment made by Moshe in Parshat Devarim where, in recounting the sin of the spies, he states, “With me, as well, did God become angry because of you, saying, ‘You, too, shall not come there [into the land of Canaan].’ ”

Can it be that Moshe, at these critical moments, tries to evade responsibility for his own past failures? Why would God reject Moshe’s pleas “for the sake of the Israelites” or “because of the Israelites”?

This puzzle is solved, the Abravanel argues, if we accept his claim that the events at Mei Meriva do not truly determine the fate of Aharon and Moshe. As previously noted, the Abravanel maintains, contrary to the apparent evidence of the text, that these great leaders are actually punished for earlier offenses: Aharon for his involvement in the sin of the golden calf and Moshe for his participation in the sin of the spies (see Bamidbar: Chukat 3, Approaches A). In each of these cases, the actions of these great leaders are well intentioned; and yet in each case they inadvertently contribute to the national disasters that ensue.

God, therefore, calibrates His responses carefully. In order to protect the reputation of both Moshe and Aharon, He does not punish them immediately, together with those guilty of intentional rebellion. He instead waits for them to commit an intentional sin, however minor, in order to punish them for their original transgressions. When Moshe deviates from God’s commandment at Mei Meriva, by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, God seizes the opportunity to exact retribution upon these leaders for their previous, more substantial failings.

Now, as he recounts his unsuccessful attempts to overturn God’s decree, Moshe turns to the nation and declares: I am being punished “for your sake.” Because of your flawed reaction to the report of the spies, I must now pay the price for my initial involvement in that tragic episode.

Moving in a different direction, other commentaries suggest that Moshe is forbidden from entering the land at least in part because of the powerful effect that his presence would have upon the people’s ultimate  fate. According to these authorities, this great leader literally suffers “for the people’s sake.”

The Sforno and the Kli Yakar, for example, maintain that Moshe wants to prevent, through his towering presence and personal involvement in the conquest of Canaan, any possibility of the nation’s eventual exile from the land. Moshe’s plan, however, runs counter to God’s intentions. God knows that, in the future, the people are destined to sin and that their ultimate exile will be both unavoidable and necessary. He therefore ensures that the conquest of Canaan takes place only after Moshe’s death, under the weaker leadership of Yehoshua. Consequently, the Israelites’ continued possession of the Land of Israel will not be assured but will forever remain dependent upon their own merits.

Combining aspects of the approaches of the Abravanel, on the one hand, and of the Sforno and Kli Yakar, on the other, the Malbim makes a revolutionary claim. God’s decree concerning Moshe is not the result of any sin on this great leader’s part at all. Moshe’s fate is instead sealed by the failings of the nation. Under God’s original plan, the Israelites were to conquer the land of Canaan under Moshe’s continuing leadership. Moshe’s very involvement would have resulted in a miraculous chain of events. No physical battles would have been fought, as God would have miraculously destroyed the nation’s enemies before them. Moshe would have supervised the building of a Temple destined to stand in perpetuity. And, finally, the messianic era would have been reached. The realization of these miracles, however, remained dependent on the nation’s continuing faith in God…

When the nation, through the sin of the spies, tragically demonstrates itself to be unworthy of God’s supernatural intervention, God has no choice but to ensure that Moshe will not enter the land. He decrees that the generation of the Exodus will perish in the desert, clearly excluding only Yehoshua and Calev (the two spies who withstood the evil counsel of their colleagues) from the decree. For their part, Moshe and Aharon are to share the fate of the rest of their generation.

One last chance for redemption, however, remains. If the next generation, the generation that matures in the wilderness, can prove the strength of its commitment to God, the decree sealing Moshe and Aharon’s fate can yet be reversed. These great leaders will be able to lead the nation into the land and all of the promised miracles will still unfold.

These final hopes, however, are dashed at the scene of Mei Meriva. There, once again, as they “gather against Moshe and Aharon,” the people prove unworthy of God’s trust. Moshe, in addition, affected by the turmoil, misses the opportunity to fully sanctify God’s name by speaking to the rock. Consequently, the original decree against Moshe and Aharon is reaffirmed and raised to the status of a divine oath that cannot be subsequently reversed. Moshe and Aharon will perish “for the sake of ” and “because of ” the people.

One final approach to Moshe’s contention that his prayers are rejected “for the people’s sake” can be offered by reinterpreting, yet again, the events at Mei Meriva. Adapting the insights of Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky, a brilliant teacher and my community rabbi during my teenage years, we have previously suggested that Moshe’s failure at Mei Meriva consists of an inability to transition from the leadership of one generation to the leadership of the next (see Bamidbar: Chukat 3, Approaches H).

The first generation of Israelites with whom Moshe deals, the generation of the Exodus, relates to God only through the primitive emotion of fear. When, therefore, shortly after the Exodus, this generation finds itself without water at a location known as Refidim, God commands Moshe to speak to the people in the only language that they will understand. Strike the rock, He commands, and let the Israelites recognize the power of their heavenly master.

Forty years later, however, at Mei Meriva, Moshe stands before a generation that has come to relate to God through the more mature dimension of love. God therefore commands Moshe: Take the staff. Show the people that you can use it, but that you deliberately will not. Instead, speak to the rock and, in doing so, “speak” to the people. Demonstrate to them, at this critical moment, that the power of love is infinitely stronger than the power of brute force.

Moshe, however, slips…

Confronted again by the bitter complaints of the Israelites, he flashes back to Refidim. He sees before him not the Israelites of the day, but their parents and grandparents of yesteryear. And in that one fateful instant, as Moshe lifts his staff to strike the rock, he fails to transition with his people from one generation to the next, from one relational level to another. This failure seals his fate. He and Aharon (who makes no move to stop his brother) will remain forever part of their generation, consigned to perish in the desert without entry into the land. “For the sake of the people,” Moshe cannot enter the land. A new generation needs a new leader – one who will be able to transition with his people in their march towards a glorious future.

The above interpretations, however, create an opening for a powerful question. If Moshe’s fate is sealed “for the sake of the nation,” because his leadership would somehow compromise the people’s destiny, why can’t he enter the land as a common man? This humble leader has already requested that God appoint a successor in his stead and, at God’s command, has publicly appointed Yehoshua as that successor. Surely Moshe would now agree to join in the conquest of Canaan under the stewardship of his trusted student. Why doesn’t God simply pass the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua without insisting on Moshe’s death in the Transjordan?

The Mechilta imagines a powerful conversation in which this argument among others, is actually raised by Moshe to God: Master of the universe, when You initially decreed my fate You stated: “Therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land…” Since I cannot bring the people into the land as a king, please allow me to enter with them as a commoner.

God’s response, the Midrash continues, is short and to the point: A king may not enter [the land] as a commoner.

Elaborating on this Midrashic approach, the Abravanel suggests that God’s declaration to Moshe in Parshat Va’etchanan, “Rav lecha, it is too much for you…,” can be reinterpreted as a rhetorical question. Rav lecha? Would it really be appropriate, God asks Moshe, for Yehoshua to teach while you sit and watch? Would it really be appropriate for Yehoshua to be your teacher (rav) and master? Having risen to the grandeur of leadership, Moshe cannot now descend from its heights.

The poignant picture painted by the Midrash and the Abravanel highlights the powerful challenges that often emerge at times of personal transition and change. When an individual must step aside from a specific life arena and allow someone else to “take his place,” the questions often abound.

What can I hold onto; what must I let go? How will I feel when he does things differently? Can I stay, or must I leave? How much space does my successor need in order to be his own man?

Through the rabbis’ eyes, we watch Moshe struggle with these questions after over forty years of extraordinary personal investment and sacrifice. As he does so, our own potential struggles come to light, as well.

Finally, in a telling observation elaborated upon by many later authorities, the Talmud overturns our original assumptions concerning the opening narrative of Parshat Va’etchanan. From the point of view of the Talmudists, the text does not emphasize God’s rejection of Moshe’s prayers, but, rather, His acceptance of those prayers – at least, in part:

The power of prayer is greater than the power of good deeds – for no one was greater than Moshe in good deeds, yet he was only answered through prayer. As the text relates: “Do not continue to speak to Me concerning this matter. Ascend to the top of the cliff [and raise your eyes]…”

Here, then, is a very different take on the results of the dialogue between God and Moshe. Moshe’s prayers are answered, after all. His words do have an effect, as God relents. Although this great leader will still be prohibited from entering Canaan, he will now be allowed to view the land from afar. Sometimes the answers God provides to our prayers are painted in shades of gray, rather than in black or white.

Point to Ponder

Three powerful ancillary lessons emerge from the rabbinic conversation surrounding Moshe’s interchange with God at the beginning of Parshat Va’etchanan.

1. Our word is our bond. The suggestion that God may be bound by the strictures of His own vows underscores the seriousness with which we should view our own spoken commitments. If an almighty deity will not
stray from the path determined by His word, how careful must we be to fulfill the verbal obligations that we take upon ourselves?

2. It’s not all about us. The contention that Moshe’s fate is decreed, at least in part, for the sake of others sensitizes us to the fact that an individual’s destiny is determined not only by his own needs but by the valid
needs of others, as well. As we have previously noted (see Bereishit: Noach 4, Approaches A), this idea is dramatically underscored during the Covenant between the Pieces enacted by God with Avraham at the dawn of Jewish history. In predicting the eventual return of Avraham’s descendents to the land of Canaan, God states: “And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Emorites will not be complete until then.” You will not be able to acquire the land of Canaan until the indigenous inhabitants deserve to lose it.

There are times when what is “best” for us is not “best” for those around us. God will factor our competing needs and rights into the equation as He determines our respective destinies.

3. It’s never too late to pray. The proposition that Moshe changes God’s mind through prayer marks this incident as one of a number of occasions in the text where Moshe’s prayers seem to sway God’s judgments. This
phenomenon, however, highlights a fundamental philosophical problem. How can an all-perfect God be moved to “change His mind” by the words of man? God is, by definition, not capable of error. Whatever He decides
is correct, or He would not decide it. What is the mechanism by which such prayer works?

We have noted before (see Bereishit: Toldot 3, Approaches A) that, according to some authorities, the roots of this phenomenon can be traced to the words that launch Jewish history. God’s initial promises to the patriarch
Avraham include the phrase “And you will be a blessing.”22 The Midrash interprets this phrase to mean, “Blessings are given to your hand. Until now they were in My hand. I blessed Adam and Noach. From this time on, you
will bless whom you wish.”

By granting man the power to bless, God withdraws and deliberately limits His own power. As part of a divine partnership agreement with humanity, God will respect the words spoken by man and reckon with them when He makes his decisions. Man thus acquires the power of blessing and prayer. God Himself grants effectiveness to our prayers, both on behalf of ourselves and for the welfare of others.  Other authorities suggest that the effectiveness of prayer and repentance in swaying God’s judgments can be viewed from an entirely different perspective. Prayer, these scholars argue, transforms the supplicant. An individual who engages in heartfelt prayer and in true repentance emerges from the experience a different person than he was before. In effect, therefore, the subject of God’s original decree no longer exists. God has not changed His mind; man has changed himself.

Whether as a mechanism for changing God’s mind or as an experience through which a supplicant changes himself, prayer remains, for the Jew, a tool that never loses its potential effectiveness. “Even if a sharp sword lies upon his neck,” the Talmud maintains, “an individual should never refrain from [asking for God’s] mercy.”

While we recognize that God’s answer to our requests may well, at times, be no, Moshe’s poignant supplications at the beginning of Parshat Va’etchanan remind us that it’s never too late to pray.

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Tisha B’Av: The Veil of God

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays 

The Veil of God*

Tish‘ah be-Av is more than the commemoration of the five specific historical events mentioned in the Talmud, foremost among them the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem six centuries apart. It is even more than the national threnody for a string of tragedies, beginning from the earliest times and extending through the ninth of Av, 1492—the expulsion of Jews from Spain—and the same date in 1942, the signing of the extermination order against Polish Jewry by the unmentionable leader of Nazi Germany. More than these alone, Tish‘ah be-Av is a condition of the divine-human dialogue; it is a quality of the relations of God and the people of Israel.

Man does not always perceive God uniformly. Sometimes, He appears close to us, nearby, concerned, sympathetic, involved in our destiny, a loving and forgiving Father. “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him” (Ps. 145:18). It is a source of joy and comfort to man when he perceives God in this fashion. But sometimes God appears infinitely remote, distant, faraway. It seems almost as if He has vanished from the world, without leaving a trace. God appears aloof, unapproachable, forbidding, uninterested, and ready to abandon man to eternal solitude. There is no greater agony for man than when God thus veils His presence, when He performs hester panim, the “hiding of His face” from mankind. When God, as it were, withdraws from the world and leaves man to his own resources, forsaken and at the mercy of the impersonal and brutal forces of nature and history, man’s life is worse than meaningless. It is this latter condition that is described in Tish‘ah be-Av.

That black day was the beginning of the long, ages-old epoch in which God and Israel disengaged from each other, when a seemingly impenetrable veil cruelly separated them. The culmination of Jeremiah’s Lamentations sound this very note: Lammah la-netzah tishkahenu, ta‘azvenu le-orekh yamim (Lam. 5:20), “Why do You forget us for an eternity, forsake us for so long a time?”

But if so many generations were born and died under the heavy cloud of this veil, this hester panim, since that disaster 1,895 years ago initiated this agonizingly long separation, then we are faced with two questions: First, how is it that we have not disappeared as a people? According to all the laws of historical determinism, we should have disappeared long ago. If there is no longer any relation between God and Israel, how can we account for the mystery and miracle of Israel’s persistence? And second, how can we pray? Is it not futile to try to arouse One who in advance resists any communication? Moreover, how can we speak of such matters as ahavah rabbah ahavtanu, of God’s great love for Israel?

For an answer to these questions and a solution to the whole problem of hester panim and Tish‘ah be-Av, we may turn to a remarkable insight offered by two of the earliest giants of the Hasidic movement. The Hasidic classic, the Benei Yissaskhar, records two questions asked of R. Pinhas of Koretz, the disciple-colleague of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, and the one answer that both gave to the two questions. (See Ma’amarei Tammuz-Av, #3.)

The first question concerns the well-known tradition that the Messiah is born on Tish‘ah be-Av (Midrash Eikhah Zuta [Buber ed., version 2] 1:2). Is it not unreasonable to assert that the purest of all souls, the exalted agent of the Almighty in the long-awaited redemption of Israel, would come into this world on the very day distinguished for infamy and grief? Is not this the single most inappropriate day for such an historic event? Second, the Talmud records a most marvelous tale. It relates that when the enemy broke into the sacred precincts of the Temple and laid low its walls, they entered the inner sanctum wherein there stood the two Cherubim, the statuettes resembling the faces of young, innocent children, and from between which the voice of God would issue forth. When the enemy beheld these Cherubim, the Talmud relates, they found that the two figurines were facing each other (Yoma 54b). Now this is most unexpected, because according to Jewish tradition, the Cherubim faced each other only when Israel was obedient to God (osin retzono shel Makom); when Jews did not perform the will of God, the Cherubim turned away from each other. The destruction of the Temple was certainly the result of Israel’s disobedience and rebellion. One would expect, therefore, that they would turn their faces away from each other. Why, then, were they facing one another, the sign of mutual love between God and His people?

The answer is a profound insight into the nature of love and friendship. The attachment between two people is always strongest just before they part from each other. Two friends may continue their friendship with each other on an even keel for many years. Their loyalty requires of them no outward expression, even if they do not take each other for granted. Then one of the two prepares to leave on a long, long journey. How poignant does their friendship suddenly become! With what longing do they view each other! Similarly, husband and wife are involved in the daily struggles and trivialities that cloud their true feelings for each other. But when one is about to leave for a protracted vacation or sick leave or business trip, and they know they will not be near and with each other for a painfully long period, then they suddenly rise to the very heights of mutual love and dedication, and they behold each other with new warmth and yearning and sweet sorrow. Indeed, the Halakhah declares this to be a mandatory expression of the right relationship between husband and wife: Hayyav adam lifkod et ishto be-sha‘ah she-hu yotzei la-derekh (Yevamot 62b), when one is about to take leave for a long journey, he must be especially tender and loving toward his wife.

Now the love between God and Israel follows the same pattern as genuine human love. Tish‘ah be-Av was the beginning of the hester panim, the parting of the lovers. God and Israel turned away from each other, and the great, exciting, and immensely complicated relationship between the two companions, begun in the days of Abraham, was coming to an end. But before this tragic and heartbreaking moment, there took place a last, long, lingering look, the fervent embrace of the two lovers as they were about to part. At the threshold of separation, they both experienced a great outpouring of mutual love, an intense ahavah, as they suddenly  realized the long absence from each other that lay ahead of them; in so brief a time, they tried to crowd all the affection the opportunities for which they had ignored in the past, and all the love which would remain unrequited in the course of the future absence. That is why the Cherubim were facing each other. Certainly the Israelites were rebellious and in contempt of the will of God. But they were facing each other; God and Israel  looked toward each other longingly and in lingering affection before they were pulled apart. And from this high spiritual union of God and Israel was created the soul of the Messiah! Mashiah was conceived in intense and rapturous love!

From this exquisitely intensified relationship before the long separation, we may gain a new insight into the relationship of God and Israel during this prolonged period of hester panim initiated by the destruction of the Temple. True and devoted friends never forget each other even if anger and offense have caused them to separate from one another. Of genuine friends it may never be said that “out of sight, out of mind.” Where there was once deep and profound love between husband and wife, some spark of it will always remain, no matter how sorely their marriage has been tried. Absence, indeed, may make the heart grow fonder, and the old love may well be reawakened. Those who deal with marital problems have observed that often a couple will undergo legal separation, and that very absence from each other will make them realize how they need and yearn for each other—and thus lead to reunion. A father may be angry with his son, so angry that they no longer speak with each other. But the father’s heart aches, his sleep is disturbed, and his heart lies awake at night waiting for his son to call, to write, to make some small gesture toward reconciliation. All these are instances of separation tense with love striving for reunion.

Such indeed is the hester panim that separates us from our Father in heaven. We are exiled from Him—but not alienated. We are so far—yet so close. We are separated—but not divorced. God’s face is hidden, but His heart is awake. Of course, the divine love for Israel has not expired. It is that and that alone that accounts for our continued existence to this day. Certainly “with a great love hast Thou loved us”—for though we are banished, we need but call to Him and He will answer. Like a wise parent, the Almighty may punish, even expel, but never ceases to love His child!

Have we any evidence of this phenomenon in the history of Israel in our own times? I believe we do, but I approach the subject bi-dehilu u-rehimu, with trepidation. If one were to ask: was it worth experiencing a Holocaust which decimated one-third of our people in order to attain a State of Israel?, then not only an affirmative answer but even the very question is a blasphemy. Only a cruel, heartless jingoist could ever allow such thoughts to poison his mind. Yet the past is done and cannot be undone. History is irrevocable. We may protest it and bemoan it and regret it, but it is there despite us. A tremendous paradox emerged from the paroxysms of our times, and we must strive to understand it: during one lifetime, we have witnessed the nadir of Jewish history, the descent into the very pit, and the rebirth of Jewish independence in pride and glory.

The Holocaust was the most intense, the most dismal hester panim we have ever experienced. God abandoned us to the vilest scorpions that ever assumed the shape of man. From our agony and our dishonor we cried to heaven, but our cries could not pierce the metal veil, which only reflected our shrieking back upon us to mock us in our terrible loneliness and torment. Auschwitz was the device of human genius as God turned aside. Buchenwald was built by human toil and intellect as God closed His eyes.

Yet we survived the experience: crippled, maimed, decimated, disgraced, we yet trudged back from the death camps and displaced-persons camps, from the fury and the wrath, and from the shameful silence of the onlookers, to a land promised us 3,500 years ago. Providence did not allow us to be utterly destroyed. The veil of God ensconced us in misery; but through it, mysteriously, there shone a vision of love. In retrospect, right before the hurban of European Jewry, the State of Israel was being providentially prepared so that the survivors might emerge into new dignity. God too followed the Halakhah: Hayyav adam lifkod et ishto be-sha‘ah she-hu yotzei la-derekh. Before He “walked out on us,” before He forsook us and turned away from us, He provided for our perpetuation, for a new generation and a new life and a new spirit.

Job taught us a long time ago that there are no easy answers to the mystery of suffering. Certainly the unspeakable agonies of a whole people cannot be easily explained, much less explained away. But from the hints left to us by our Sages in the folios of the Talmud about the birth of Messiah and the position of the Cherubim, we may begin to search for direction and understanding and meaning of the history of our times and the mysterious relationship between God and Israel.

Even while intoning the sorrowful lament of Jeremiah, Lammah la-netzah tishkahenu, ta‘azvenu le-orekh yamim, bemoaning God’s aloofness and our forlornness, we recite the same prophet’s words in the same Book of Lamentations as he senses intuitively that hasdei Hashem ki lo tamnu, ki lo khalu rahamav (Lam. 3:22), “the love of the Lord has not come to an end, His compassion has not ceased.”

*Shabbat Hazon 5725 (1965)

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Birkat Yitzchak – Shelach

Excerpted from Rabbi Menachem Genack’s Birkat Yitzchak Chidushim U-ve’urim al HaTorah

פרשת שלח

המרגלים ומצות ציצית – החטא ותיקונו

פרשת שלח פותחת בענין המרגלים וחטאם, וסופה נחתם במצות ציצית. והמעיין בלשון הכתוב יראה ששני ענינים אלו שייכי אהדדי. הנה במרגלים כתיב: “ויתורו את ארץ כנען” (יג, ב), ובציצית כתיב: “ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם” (טו, לט). במרגלים כתוב: “וראיתם את הארץ” (יג, יח), ובציצית כתוב: “וראיתם אותו” (שם טו, לט). ובדברי רש”י מבוארת ההשוואה אף יותר, שהביא מהמדרש תנחומא (ד”ה ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם), וז”ל: “כמו ‘מתור הארץ’ (לעיל יג, כה), הלב והעינים הם מרגלים לגוף, ומסרסרים לו את העבירות, העין רואה, והלב חומד, והגוף עושה את העבירות”, עכ”ל.

ונראה ביאור הדברים, שמצות ציצית היא התבלין והתיקון לחטא המרגלים, והקב”ה נתן את מצות ציצית בעטיו של חטא המרגלים. חטא המרגלים היה שהביטו על ארץ ישראל בראיה מצומצמת ושיטחית, ולא ראו את חמדת הארץ, שהיא ארץ סגולה; ומנגד, תכליתה של מצות ציצית היא לרומם את ראיית האדם. ולכן הלשון ‘ציצית’ הוא מלשון ‘ציץ’, דהיינו לראות, וכמו “מציץ מן החרכים” (שה”ש ב,ט), שמשמעותו ראיה חודרת ועמוקה [וכ”פ במצודת ציון (יחזקאל ח,ג) את המילים “בציצית ראשי – ר”ל שער ראשי כי כל דבר היוצא מן הגוף קרוי ציץ, וכן תנו ציץ למואב (ירמיה מח,ט)”. והיינו: יציאת דבר לגילוי קרויה הצצה], ובמיוחד זוהי מצות תכלת שמרוממת את הסתכלות האדם. כי תכלת דומה לעשבים, ועשבים לים, וים לרקיע, ורקיע לכסא הכבוד (ירושלמי ריש ברכות).

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The Return to Zion: Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future

Excerpted from The Return to Zion: Addresses on Religious Zionism and American Orthodoxy by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future*

The Jews sanctified the Land of Israel twice, the first time in the days of Joshua and the second in the days of Ezra. When one compares the two eras from a secular-historical standpoint, from a political-economic perspective, the second entry into the land, Ezra’s sanctification, is no more than a pale reflection, a weak echo, of a great and glorious epoch, such that the comparison itself arouses gloom. In the days of Joshua, the nation was young, filled with an aggressive, militant spirit, and pounced on the Land of Israel like a youthful desert lion, defeating thirty-one kings, claiming one victory after another. Nature itself helped the young Jewish people forge its destiny: “Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon!” (Josh. 10:12). “They conquered the land in seven years and divided it among the tribes in seven years” (Zevaim 118b). They were proud and youthful, pugnacious and courageous, filled with all the romanticism of a nation stepping out onto the historical stage and enjoying the respect, awe, and admiration of its neighbors. “Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you” (Josh. 2:9).

In the days of Ezra, the ten tribes were entirely absent, having been exiled to Halah and Habor (see I Chron. 5:26) or, in the words of the Jewish aggadah, “beyond the Sambation River” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10:5). A segment of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin wanted no part in the return to Zion, the Second Temple, or the redemption. They were happy sitting by their fleshpots in Babylon, Persia, and Media. Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and the other kings altered their edicts seven times a day, each new declaration repealing the previous one: one moment immigration was allowed, the next, they issued a White Paper halting entry. Even with someone positioned as close to the monarchy as Esther, the Land of Israel could not be mentioned: “At the wine feast, the king asked Esther, ‘What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled’” (Esther 5:6). “‘Half the kingdom,’ but not the whole kingdom, and not something that would serve as a barrier to the kingdom. And what is that? The building of the Temple” (Megillah 15b). “Sanballat and Tobiah, and the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites” (Neh. 4:1), Samaritans, enemies, informers, hateful broadsides, defamation and behind-the-scenes plots, fear of violent excesses and pogroms. “The basket-carriers were burdened, doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon. . . . that we may use the night to stand guard and the day to work” (Neh. 4:11, 16): with one hand, we have to extract water from the Negeb of the Land of Israel; with the other, we have to protect ourselves from Arab hooligans. And the internal situation? Economic hardship and spiritual impoverishment, intermarriage and ignorance, lack of language and tradition. And above all, “we have become a mockery” (Neh. 3:36): we have become objects of shame and derision.

Nevertheless, Maimonides, the great Jewish teacher, the pillar of the halakhah, comes along and rules that “the first sanctification . . . was in effect in its own time but not for all time,” whereas the “second sanctification is in effect forever, both in its own time and for all time” (Hilkhot Terumot 1:5). You hear? Joshua’s sanctification via capture and military victory, undertaken in an unbridled, gushing, enterprising spirit of conquest, when proud prophets, warriors, elders, students of our teacher Moses, and heroic legions seized the Land of Israel, was no more than a temporary phenomenon: Nebuchadnezzar abrogated it. But Ezra’s sanctification, which came about through daily, small-scale, unheroic, painstaking work, through disappointments and despair, intercession with and requests from the authorities, insults and humiliation – that remains forever: neither Titus nor Hadrian, neither Islam nor the Crusades, neither Turkey nor even the [British] Colonial Office can undo it.

Maimonides explains this halakhic paradox using the same philosophical idea: “Why do I maintain . . . that [the first sanctification] was not in effect for all time with respect to the rest of the Land of Israel vis-a-vis the sabbatical year, tithes, and so on? The reason is that . . . the requirement to observe the sabbatical year and the tithes depended on the land being conquered by the people, so that once it was taken away from them, their conquest was negated” (Hilkhot Beit ha-Beirah 6:16). Joshua’s sanctification was not the result of hardship but of historical success during glorious moments of Jewish history – none of which is forever. Ezra’s sanctification, by contrast, came about through occupation, settling the land, through the word of God, through adversity, martyrdom, spiritual pain and despair, mockery and derision. Ezra’s sanctification emerged from crisis, tribulation, and subjugation. Redemption born of suffering, the messiah born following birth pangs, are eternal – sanctification for all time!

How beautiful are the words we read in today’s haftarah: “The angel who talked with me came back and woke me as a man is wakened from sleep” (Zech. 4:1). The angel of redemption rouses Zechariah, the prophet of the return to Zion:

Prophet! Despair not, deliver your prophecy, spread the Torah of redemption, of the messiah, of the building of the Temple! Do not give up hope because of the pitfalls and obstacles on the road; because of the external Sanballats, Samaritans, and Arabs and the internal Satans dwelling in the houses of the Kohanim Gedolim; or because of the “filthy garments” (Zech. 3:3) worn by Joshua the Kohen Gadol, who was supposed to lead the people toward God! Deliver your prophecy, proclaim redemption, and awaken the people’s hearts so that they hear the steps of the messiah.

Look, Zechariah! “A lampstand all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left” (Zech. 4:2–3). You see such a great vision of light, anointing oil, priesthood, and kingship; you see the great drama of the End of Days that can result from this movement! Inform the people, tell them about the golden Menorah with its fount of oil, about the clear light radiating from its seven branches, about Jewish anointing oil, sanctity, purity, ethical ideals, and historical hopes. Talk to them, inspire them!

However, the prophet does not understand how the great light of the golden Menorah can be born of such modest circumstances, such political bankruptcy, such a disgraceful national condition, such a state of disintegration and disharmony. At most a small community will emerge, not any sort of epoch-making event. The angel asks him, “Do you not know what those things mean?” and he responds, “No, my lord” (Zech. 4:5): I do not understand! At that point, the angel reveals to him the great secret of suffering, adversity, and sacrifice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power” (Zech. 4:6). For the Second Temple will be built not with happiness and joy, not with the support of neighbors and great kingdoms, but in spite of the enemies, insults, and disruptions, in spite of the enmity and disdain exhibited by the rest of the world. Through adversity and hardship will the holy light of the golden Menorah shine forth, and eternity will prevail.

*This excerpt is taken from an address delivered by Rabbi Soloveitchik to the Emergency Conference of the Mizrachi National Council on June 2, 1945.

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Birkat Yitzchak – Yitro (Shavuot)

Excerpted from Rabbi Menachem Genack’s Birkat Yitzchak Chidushim U-ve’urim al HaTorah

שבחן של ישראל

וכל העם רואים את הקולות (כ, טו).

איתא במכילתא: “רבי אומר להודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה היו שומעין את הדבור ומפרשין אותו שנאמר יסובבנהו יבוננהו יצרנהו כאישון עינו שמכיון שהיה הדבור יוצא היו מפרשין אותו. ולהודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה שלא היו בהן סומין שנאמר וכל העם רואים, מלמד שלא היו בהן אלמים שנאמר ויענו כל העם, מלמד שלא היו בהן חרשים שנאמר כל אשר דבר ה’ נעשה ונשמע”. עכ”ל.

והנה צ”ב כונת המכילתא, איזה שבח של ישראל אמור כאן, ולכאורה היה צריך לומר “להודיע שבחו של הקב”ה שריפא לכל הסומין ואלמים וחרשים”. והביאור בדברי המכילתא נראה, שהנה אדם קולט ידיעות דרך חושיו, ולכן אם היה חסר אחד מן החושים היה חסר בתפיסת דבר ה’ בסיני. וכיון שישראל קדושים לא רצו שיעכב שום דבר בתפיסתם את האמור בסיני, לפיכך זכו שנתרפאו בכך שדבר ה’ נכנס בתוכם וריפא אותם ונתרחב כח חושיהם להבין דבר ה’, וזהו “שבחן של ישראל”.

ולכן מאמרו של רבי במכילתא פותח בלהודיע שבחן של ישראל – שהבינו כל דבור וקלטו אותו מיד, וההמשך עוסק ברפואתם של בעלי המומין מישראל, כי רצונם של ישראל להבין דבורו של ה’ בכל תוקפו הוא זה שגרם לרפואתם, וגם זה הוא שבחן של ישראל.


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On the Look-Out

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Torah Beloved: Reflections on the Love of Torah and the Celebration of the Holiday of Matan Torah, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers 

On the Look-Out*

Two mountains loom large in the history of our people and the traditions of our faith. One is Mount Sinai, from which Moses came down with the Ten Commandments. The other is Mount Moriah which Abraham ascended in order to bind his son Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice until God bade him stop at the last moment. Both these mountains are prominent in the history of the civilized world. And yet one wonders at the difference between them. One wonders, why, when it came to building the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, it was Mount Moriah which was so honored and which became sacred in Jewish law and life, whereas Mount Sinai retains only historic significance but is of no importance religiously. Why is it that Mount Moriah has become the geographic center of Judaism, the place to which we turn in our prayers, and Mount Sinai is just another little hill in the great barrenness called Sinai Desert?

In the answer to that question lies a whole philosophy, the essence of the Jewish approach to God and the kernel of the Torah world-view. The answer, in fact, can be expressed in a parallel study of two historic personalities whose names are associated with these mountains. They are Moses and Abraham. The name of Moses is inextricably bound up with Sinai, and Abraham with Moriah.

Moses, of course, is the prophet par excellence of Judaism. He is the lawgiver and the man whom God chose to redeem Israel from Egypt. He reached the highest rung any man can ever hope to reach. But the early history of Moses is one of ease and facility. There are struggles, but not great struggles. There are difficulties, but no tormenting ones. He was a man who was chosen to lead and to prophecy, and his very birth was accompanied by signs of greatness. He was tending his flock in the land of Midian one fine day when he heard a voice call out of a bush, which burnt but was not consumed. It was the voice of God summoning him to his great role in history. It happened so suddenly, so quickly. It seemed that he just “had it in him.” And when, years later, he assembled his people about the mountain called Sinai, they too seemed just “naturals” for the word of God. There is even a tradition that they slept late that historic day and had to be awakened to hear the Ten Commandments issued by the divine voice. With folded arms they stayed at the foot of the mountain, while the Torah was given to them. That is the character of Sinai – a passive awaiting of God’s word. Man waits while God seeks him out.

Abraham represents the exact reverse. He was a precocious tot of three – or, according to Maimonides, a man of 43 – when he first conceived of the idea of one God. God did not reveal Himself to Abraham. But Abraham, having come to the conclusion that there must be such a personal transcendent God, began to look for God. He spent the better part of his life trying to reach him. He braved the ridicule and the mockery of his idolatrous society because of his belief in and search for an invisible God. Not once in many years did God make himself available to the searching patriarch. Only after many heart-breaking decades did the word of God come to Abraham: lekh lekha. . . . and then he was 75 years old! It was a successful and vindicating venture, this search for God, but only because it was a search – difficult, hard, often frustrating.

But if this long search was a hard one, how much more so Abraham’s trek up Mt. Moriah. Here he was, in his old age, a father of one son born to him in his late years. And now God had called upon him to sacrifice this son atop the mountain. His religious nature responded affirmatively at once. His humanitarian side rebelled. His only real son, the one and only to his old mother. And yet, torn by this inner conflict, Abraham climbed the mountain, every step filled with pain and foreboding with a fire raging in his soul. He climbed up to God, and he finally reached the summit – he was going to follow the Godly voice! And he did, until the angel ordered him to desist, and told him that he had passed the test. That is the character of Moriah – a powerful looking for God, a dynamic active search by man for God.

That is what accounts for the holiness of Moriah and the religious insignificance of Sinai. Holiness is not a generous gift bestowed by God on prima-donna souls. It is wrested from God by the sweat of the brow and the mighty wrangling of the heart. A Temple is not built by religious wall-flowers. It is sanctified by searchers, by men always on the look-out for God. That is why Mount Moriah is crowned by the Holy Temple, whereas Sinai has nothing Jewish associated with it; on the contrary, on  its summit today there is a Christian monastery.

Those who pray carefully might sometimes wonder: we often refer to God as Elokei Avraham, never as Elokei Moshe. Why? Because it was Abraham, not Moses, who searched the harder. And Elokei Avraham means the God of Abraham in the possessive sense, that Abraham actually “owns” a part of God. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers an interesting halakhic explanation. The halakha discusses the case of one who finds an object in the street, an object of value but which has no identifying marks. In such case, the law is “finders keepers.” But what is the legal reason for the transfer of the property from the previous owner to the finder? The reason, according to the Talmud, is ye’ush baalim, the fact that the previous owners (knowing that it bears no identifying marks) renounce ownership because they despair of its return. In the same way, so to speak, did Abraham become possessive of God. There was no one who had any prior claim on God. Men had despaired of reaching Him. There was ye’ush baalim. But Abraham went on the lookout. He searched for this Divine metzia, and he found Him; hence, Elokei Avraham, the God of Abraham. Abraham looked for God, and so God was Abraham’s. But God was the one who looked for Moses and found him, and so he is known as Moshe eved Hashem, Moses the servant of God (Deuteronomy 34:5). Moses was found by God and hence belongs to God.

It was only long after Sinai, after the Tablets there delivered were broken, that Moses changed his approach to God, that he announced “har’eni na et kevodekha” (Exodus 33:18), God, I am out to discover Your glory. It was only then that Moses rose to his eminent position in the history of humanity.

It is the same in religion as in all life, except more so. You never get something for nothing. In Torah it is even deeper: you must work much harder, but the returns are much greater. Those who have not experienced true simḥa shel mitzva, the ecstatic joy of spiritual achievement, have not lived.

I sometimes wonder at some of our Jews. I wish they would take their business shrewdness into the synagogue proper, not only to board meetings. Which businessman would trust an agent who tries to sell him stock that supposedly requires very little investment, involves no risk and gives tremendous windfall profits, without a thorough examination? And yet, these same people, so circumspect in finances, come into the synagogue and expect to invest three or visits a year, no risks of spiritual creativity and hardship, and expect God to jump every time they snap their fingers, expect to be “inspired.” There is only one difference. In business, such speculative fly-by-night investment can cost you your shirt. In religion, you can lose your soul. Torah does indeed offer terrific spiritual profits, but not without heavy capital investment – investment of your time and energy and faith and money and prestige. It requires being constantly on the look-out for God, being a Mount Moriah Jew, not a Sinai Jew.

I wish people would not come into this synagogue to “be inspired” as one goes to a show to be entertained or to a steam-room to be massaged. This is neither a theatre nor a service agency. The rabbi is not an actor, nor does he aspire to be a masseur. This is a workshop, a workshop of the human soul where you are both the artisan and the vessel, where God is both the boss who demands and the customer who must be satisfied, and where the rabbi is just another poor, hard laborer who merely seeks to give some friendly advice. No one can find God without looking for Him, and it is just that the synagogue is the best place to look.

It is told of the great Hasidic teacher, Reb Baruch of Meziboz that his grandchild once came crying to him, and complained that he had been playing hide-and-seek with friends, and that he was hiding but his friend did not come to look for him. “Ahh,” exclaimed the Rabbi, “but God has the same complaint. No one comes to look for Him.”

If we religious Jews had taken that to heart fifty and sixty years ago in greater numbers and with more enthusiasm, the State of Israel today might have more genuine Jewishness in it, in place of the offensive secularism which sometimes tears at the heart. If only we had known then that Messiah would not come looking for us if we remained with folded arms. Messiah comes only when he is sought out, when he is looked for. Only then does one find atḥalta degeula. The Hebrew song, Yerushalayim, has one beautiful refrain: me’al pisgat har hatzofim shalom lakh Yerushlayim, from the summit of Mount Tzofim, peace unto you, O Jerusalem. Those who know Hebrew know that “tzofim” comes from the word which means to look, to search out. Only when Jews will begin to look for Jerusalem with love and devotion, when they will put their lives into the striving for the City of Beauty will peace come unto Jerusalem.

If parents would understand this difference between Moriah and Sinai, between Abraham and the early career of Moses, they would not be satisfied with the pitifully little they give their children. Parents who are happy with a three-day-a-week education for their children are not providing them with the equipment with which to undertake the long and tough search for meaningfulness and holiness in life. Those who give their children a two-hour-a-week fling in things Jewish are not only not providing them, but I dare say are blindfolding their own children; if one of these ever finds meaningfulness it is sheer luck. Those parents who give their children full, maximum education, those who give them – let us not be afraid to say it openly – a good day-school education if it is available, they are the ones who help their children. That kind of teaching means providing children with spiritual binoculars in the search for God.

“And from there shall you seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you will search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul. In your distress, when all these things come upon you” (Deuteronomy 4:29–30), when man is troubled by the sheer emptiness of his life, when he is worried and pained, when he feels caught in a vise and tossed about recklessly in the tempests of life, when in distress, then God calls out, seek God, look for Him, and you will most certainly find Him. “For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not fail you, not destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore unto them” (Deuteronomy 4:31).

*May 28, 1955

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With Liberty and Justice: Day 29 – Interpreting the Commandments

Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Day 29: Interpreting the Commandments

In the Book of Deuteronomy (4:2; 13:1), Moses twice instructs the Israelites and their descendants that they can never add to nor subtract from the words of God that he brought down from Sinai.

But the commandments were general statements of principle given more than three thousand years ago. From the outset, the people needed interpretation and guidance about how to apply them. In the years since, as the world has moved from the agricultural age to the industrial age and, more recently, to the information age, the need to adapt and change is even more acute. God, and Moses, understood there would be a need for a judicial process that would interpret and apply the law over time, as recorded in the Bible:

If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, leprous marks, [or any other case] where there is a dispute in your territorial courts, then you must set out and go up to the place that God will have chosen, and appear before the Levitical priests [and other members of] the supreme court that exists at the time. When you present your case, they will declare a verdict. Since this decision comes from the place that God shall choose, you must scrupulously obey all their instructions to you, carefully following their every decision. [Besides this, in general,] you must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you, and follow the laws that they legislate for you. Do not stray to the right or left from their words. (Deut. 17:8–11)

A process was thereby established for permissible analysis and development of the law by credible authorities. What was prohibited was adding mitzvot, “commandments,” and claiming that these were the word of God transmitted at Sinai. Anyone who claims a divine mandate to add to or subtract from the law is, according to the Torah, a false prophet.

An additional basis for ongoing human input into Torah law is found in Leviticus: “You shall safeguard My statutes” (Lev. 18:30). This command became a mandate to “erect a [protective] fence around the Torah” (Mishna Avot 1:1) and establish rules that keep people as far as possible from violating God’s commandments and statutes.

The seminal compilation of Jewish oral law known as the Mishna preserved hundreds of years of rabbinic discussions regarding the interpretation of law and the creation of “protective fences,” from the early years of the Second Temple until approximately the year 200. These rabbinic discussions were analyzed, supplemented, and reapplied by Torah scholars over the next three hundred years, and resulted in the Talmud, “learning,” or Gemara. Both the Mishna and the Talmud were transmitted orally for generations, until the vicissitudes of exile and persecution placed the entire system in jeopardy. Eventually, the Oral Law was transcribed and the rabbis of every generation were entrusted with making contemporary applications of ancient law. This serious subject has been the object of Jewish humor. There is a story of a rabbi of old who had been asked many questions about how to apply a particular provision of the kosher laws. He prays to God for assistance and is shocked to hear the Voice of God (VOG) respond:

VOG: How can I help you, my dear rabbi?
Rabbi: Almighty God, many of my congregants have asked me about the commandment in Your Law that we should not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother. Does that mean we can never eat meat and milk together?
VOG: You shall not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother.
Rabbi: Does that mean we have to wait hours after we eat meat to eat milk products?
VOG: You shall not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother.
Rabbi: Does that mean we have to have separate milk and meat plates, utensils, pots, and pans?
VOG: (After a pause) OK. Have it your way!

This joke makes an important point. Without the interpretation of the law by scholars and rabbis that began after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the Jewish people were forced into exile, the Jewish people might not even have survived to return to Israel as they did in the last century. And if Ezra and Nehemiah had not stepped forward to lead, legislate, and apply the commandments during the Exile, the Torah would surely not be as vibrant and relevant as it is today.

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The Akeidah: Setting the Stage for the Akeidah

Excerpted from The Akeidah: The Epic Confrontation of Din and Rachamim by Michael Kaiser; co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Setting the Stage for the Akeidah

וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלקִֹים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם וַיּאֹמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי (בראשית כב:א)

In a nutshell, the Akeidah is the dialectical tension between the majestic forces of Din and Rachamim. This tension originates in the very first three words of the Torah – בראשית ברא אלקים – as Rashi there explains:

.(ברא אלקים – ולא נאמר י״י, שבתחלה עלה במחשבה לבראותו במדת הדין, ראה שאין יכול להתקיים, הקדים מדת רחמים ושתפה למדת הדין. היינו דכתיב: ביום עשות י״י אלקים ארץ ושמים (בראשית ב׳:ד׳

To encompass the colossal and far-reaching implications of this “partnership” between Din and Rachamim, the Torah coined a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-used-again expression: וַיעֲַּקֹד. Neither the word ויַעֲַּקדֹ nor any derivation of it appears ever again in Tanach, which confirms its significance. The simple translation of עקד – bound – fails to capture its full import.

After establishing that the opening backdrop to the Akeidah story is Middas HaDin, we can resolve one of our first questions in this book: Rashi (21:33 ד״ה ויקרא) states that at every meal Avraham hosted, he strived to promote the idea of the Creator to his guests. Yet Rashi (22:1 ד״ה אחר) quotes the Satan’s accusation that Avraham ignored God’s presence by neglecting to make a sacrificial offering whenever he partook of a meal. How can we reconcile these two conflicting viewpoints stated by Rashi?

The solution to this problem lies in understanding the difference between perek 21 and perek 22, between Avraham who reached the pinnacle of Chesed and Avraham who now faced a final test at the height of Din. The end of perek 21 finds Avraham at the successful completion of nine nisyonos, ensconced at the apex of the Chesed pyramid. He is an undoubtedly a superstar in the realm of Chesed. But the Middas HaDin, in its realm, is unimpressed. The Middas HaDin contends that generosity with one’s possessions presents no challenge for some individuals. He demands that God intensely ratchet up the stakes to test Avraham’s faith; thus, the Satan’s charge: כל הנסיונות שנסית לאברהם היו בממונו. נסהו בגופו, יקריב לפניך בנו.

In Chapter 21, Rashi is discussing Avraham’s achievements in the realm of Chesed, represented by serving his guests and introducing them to the true Source of Chesed. But the Satan was after something else. And so begins the grand finale, the Akeidah, where Avraham must transform himself yet again, now under the auspices of Middas HaDin, to pass the tenth nisayon and finally prove his mettle.

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Bridging Traditions: 40 Days of Selihot

Excerpted from Rabbi Haim Jachter’s Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Forty Days of Seliĥot

One of the most well-known differences between Sephardic minhag and Ashkenazic minhag relates to when the recitation of Seliĥot begins. The Sephardic practice is to recite Seliĥot beginning the day after Rosh Ĥodesh Elul. The Ashkenazic practice, in contrast, is to start saying Seliĥot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashana, unless Rosh Hashana falls out on Monday or Tuesday, in which case Ashkenazim begin Seliĥot two Sundays before Rosh Hashana. What is the basis for the differing practices?

Geonim, Rishonim, Shulĥan Aruch, and Rama
The practice of reciting Seliĥot is not mentioned in the Talmud.1 The Rosh (Rosh Hashana 4:14) records that a number of Geonim had the minhag of reciting Seliĥot during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, while others said them from Rosh Ĥodesh Elul because that is when Moshe Rabbenu was on Har Sinai receiving the second luĥot (see Rashi, Devarim 9:18). Although the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) follows the minhag of the Geonim, the Shulĥan Aruch (Oraĥ Ĥayim 581:1) writes that the Sephardic minhag is to say Seliĥot from Rosh Ĥodesh Elul. The Rama records that the Ashkenazic practice is to start saying Seliĥot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashana, unless Rosh Hashana falls on Monday or Tuesday.

The Classic Explanations for the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Customs
The Mishna Berura (581:6) explains that the reason for the Ashkenazic custom is that some had the custom to fast for ten days prior to Yom Kippur. However, since it is not permissible to fast on the two days of Rosh Hashana, Shabbat Shuva, and Erev Yom Kippur, to fulfill this custom, one begins Seliĥot four days prior to Rosh Hashana. The Mishna Berura offers another reason based on the halacha that four days are required to inspect a korban (sacrifice) for blemishes (Pesaĥim 96a). Since on Rosh Hashana we offer ourselves to Hashem as a metaphoric korban, we should “inspect” ourselves with the recitation of Seliĥot for a minimum of four days before Rosh Hashana.

The Vilna Gaon (Bi’ur HaGra, Oraĥ Ĥayim 581:1) notes an explanation presented by the Ran (Rosh Hashana 3a in the Rif ’s pages, s.v. b’Rosh Hashana): Although human beings were created on Rosh Hashana (according to the view of Rabbi Eliezer, cited in the Pesikta, piska 23), the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul. Therefore, Ashkenazim begin Seliĥot near this date.

The Vilna Gaon cites the Rosh’s explanation of the Sephardic practice to begin reciting Seliĥot on the second day of Elul as a reenactment of Moshe Rabbenu’s forty days of praying for forgiveness for the ĥet ha’egel. This is a most compelling reason, since Yom Kippur (as Rashi notes, Devarim 9:18) is the date upon which Moshe Rabbenu descended with the second luĥot, signaling that Hashem granted us atonement for this grievous sin.

A New Explanation for the Sephardic Practice
I would suggest another reason for the Sephardic practice based on Yona’s call to Nineveh, “In forty days Nineveh will be overturned” (Yona 3:4). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the word overturned (nehepachet) has two potential meanings – it means that the city will either be destroyed or improved for the better. Yona is essentially communicating that if the residents of Nineveh do not change their ways, they will be destroyed.

I suggest that the Sephardic practice reflects this warning: Either we improve during the forty days between Rosh Ĥodesh Elul and Yom Kippur or Hashem will decree upon us an unpleasant future. Indeed, the Sephardic Seliĥot service begins by echoing the words of the captain of the ship upon which Yona sailed: “Ben Adam, mah lecha nirdam?!” (Yona 1:6). How can you be sleeping in the middle of a storm?! Wake up and cry out to your God! This liturgical poem also warns us, “ufĥad me’asonim,” to fear catastrophes that might (Heaven forfend) strike if we do not improve. Thus, the Yona motif certainly fits with the themes of Sephardic Seliĥot.

Why the Number Forty?
Why is the number forty chosen as the amount of time for the people of Nineveh – and for us – to do teshuva? Perhaps it is because the number forty evokes thoughts of the forty days of destruction during the Mabul and the forty years in the Midbar when the older generation was eliminated. The number forty is associated with total destruction and elimination, regarding which we are forewarned to repent and avoid.

Rav Zvi Grumet argues that the number forty in Torah literature expresses an opportunity for rebirth:

In the Bible, Moses is on the mountain for forty days and emerges as a man reborn with a radiant face. The spies enter the land as princes and forty days later return with the self-image of grasshoppers. The Israelite nation spends forty years in the desert and is transformed from a fractured nation of refugees into a unified nation of conquerors… In Rabbinic literature, there are forty minus one categories of prohibited (creative) work on Shabbat, a child is considered to be “alive” in the womb after forty days, and pregnancy lasts for forty weeks.2

We may add to this list that grape juice ferments into wine forty days after it is squeezed from the grape (Eduyot 6:1), and bet din administers “forty minus one” malkot, as they are intended to spur the emergence of a new personality after the traumatic experience. Similarly, the goal of Seliĥot is to emerge as a new and improved person by Yom Kippur.

The number forty conveys a similar message as the double-entendre word nehepachet: It can refer to utter destruction or rebirth. From Rosh Ĥodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, every Jew – like the people of Ninveh – is faced with the same stark choice as to which path we will choose – falling into the abyss or redeeming ourselves and restarting our lives.

  1. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that although the Talmud does not mention this practice, this does not necessarily mean that Seliĥot were not recited in the time of the Talmud. It is possible that the Geonim did not institute Seliĥot, but rather recorded a practice that was existence already since the Talmudic era. Rav Soloveitchik argues that the fact that the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) mentions that all Jews maintain this practice indicates that this was practiced from Talmudic times. The Rambam (in his introduction to his Mishneh Torah) mentions that only the Talmudic sages enjoy unquestioned authority (in contrast to the Geonim), since the Amoraic sages were accepted by all of Israel, whereas the Geonim were not. Rav Soloveitchik asserted that whenever the Rambam uses the term “all of Israel,” the practice to which he refers dates back to the Talmudic era, when all of Israel was concentrated in a relatively limited geographic area and consented to the authority of the Talmudic sages.
  2. Genesis ( Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2017), pp. 86–87.