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Parshat Pekudei: Time, Space, and Man

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Publishers, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Time, Space, and Man*

In our traditional Jewish literature, especially our Kabbalistic literature, all of life, experience, and existence are conceived of as consisting of three dimensions: olam, shana, and nefesh. Literally, these mean world, year, and soul. Actually, what is intended by these terms is Space, Time, and Man.

One of the distinguished rabbis of the State of Israel, Rabbi Shelomo Yosef Zevin, sees this triadic structure in the opening verses of today’s sidra. We read, “vayak’hel Moshe et kol adat Benei Yisrael,” that Moses assembled the entire congregation, and there he taught them the commandments of the Shabbat and Mishkan, the construction of the Tabernacle. The act of assembling all of Israel represents the element of nefesh of Man. The Mishkan is that which occupies a specific place. And Shabbat recurs every week, and hence represents the dimension of time.

It should be understood that this is not merely a way of describing the world or experience. It is a framework that has high spiritual significance, for it means that Judaism considers that these three elements interpenetrate each other and are interdependent.

This view teaches that, on the one hand, man needs the awareness of time and space; that is, he needs the spiritual implications and the consciousness of the spiritual potentialities, of both history and geography, the realms of shana and olam. Thus, Judaism speaks of kedushat hazeman, the sanctity of time, as in the celebration of Shabbat and the various festivals. And Judaism speaks too of kedushat hamakom, the holiness of place, as, for instance, the Mishkan or, today, the synagogue.

On the other hand, both time and space are significant in the divine economy only because of man, because of nefesh. Thus, Shabbat, which is a symbol of time, requires the participation of man (nefesh) in order to make it meaningful. According to the Torah, on the seventh day of Creation, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it; nevertheless man was commanded, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” i.e. man too must sanctify the seventh day. It is not enough that time be sacred on

its own; it requires the affirmation of man, the participation of his nefesh.

The same holds true of the category of space. The holiness of the Sanctuary is contingent upon the initiative of man. In the very commandment in which God makes known His will that we make a sanctuary for Him, we read: “ve’asu li mikdash veshakhanti betokham,” “and let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Rabbi Moshe Alshikh observed that the expression is “betokham,” “among them,” and not “betokho,” “in it.” In other words, God did not want a Sanctuary because He was homeless and needed someplace to live. Rather, the Sanctuary, symbol of the sanctity of space, is important only because it allows man the opportunity to have God dwell within him, “betokho.” Thus, both time and space depend upon man. Olam and shana require nefesh.

This same pattern of Time, Space, and Man may be observed not only in our regular Torah reading for today, but also in the special reading for Parashat haĤodesh. We read this morning, “haĥodesh hazeh lakhem rosh ĥadashim,” that this month of Nisan is to be for us the chief of months. This means that Nisan is Rosh HaShana.

But do we not have another Rosh HaShana, one which begins on the first day of Tishrei? What then is the difference between the Rosh HaShana of Nisan and the Rosh HaShana of Tishrei?

The answer is that Rosh HaShanah of the fall, of Tishrei, is that of olam or Space, whereas the Rosh HaShana of spring, of Nisan, is that of shana or Time. In Tishrei we celebrate the anniversary of creation, of geography; this is the day on which God created the natural world. In Nisan we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. We commemorate a great historical event, something that occurred in time and that made a difference for all time.

In both of these, Man, the possessor of nefesh, plays a crucial role. The two Rosh HaShana’s are not merely birthdays of mute nature, or anniversaries of some impersonal historical event. Rather, the Rosh HaShana of Tishrei emphasizes the element of din in which man is brought to the bar of divine justice. At this occasion we are told that man has within himself the capacity to overcome the limitations of the natural world, to transform the inexorable fate determined by the blind laws of nature. Thus, at the height and climax of our Rosh HaShana service in Tishrei, we proclaim, “uteshuva utefilla utzedaka ma’avirin et ro’a hagezera,” that by the exertion of his moral nature, by repentance and prayer and charity, man can actually change the decree of his future, the natural result of his conduct and misconduct in the past. So too, the Rosh HaShana of Nisan is not mere mechanical memorialization of some remote detached occurrence. It is a time of redemption, and therefore a signal for us that we are to strive for redemption during this month. Perhaps that is why we recite the “mi she’asah nisim” every Sabbath that we welcome or bless the new month. For the regular appearance of the new moon, on any month, now becomes the occasion to recall human redemption. Moreover, as the Rabbis pointed out, the Torah specifically tells us that, “haĥodesh hazeh lakhem rosh ĥadashim,” this month is “lakhem, “to you,” that is, the human court has the right to set the calendar and therefore to determine when the month of Nisan will fall. This is symbolic of the fact that the human element prevails, that man can determine what to do with his time, and hence with his fate and with his destiny. He can fashion his own history. In Judaism, Time, Space, and Man are inextricably bound together. This thesis has received remarkable confirmation by one of the most brilliant men alive today, Prof. R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, in a recent address reprinted in the latest issue of The American Scholar. Prof. Fuller points out that for many years now scientists have maintained that the entire universe is running down. The energy within the world is dissipating into a kind of randomness, which means that everything is becoming successively more disorganized and chaotic and therefore the world, physically, must come to an end. Prof. Fuller points out, however, that there is an opposite tendency to this physical dissipation of the world, this “increase in entropy” – that is the activity of men on earth, and intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, who by their intellectual and spiritual capacity constantly organize their lives, their thought, and their experience more and more sharply. This tendency to organize runs counter to the disorganization tendency within the material universe. Man, by his systematic intellect and his creative spirit, represents the opposite of the chaotic and the destructive. Hence, even from the point of view of a distinguished scientist, Man, through the exertion of his nefesh, may yet be the one who will save and redeem the world of olam and shana, of Space and Time!

It is a pity that we do not recognize that fact with sufficient force in our daily experience. Too often we underestimate the role of man in the world, the significance of nefesh in our universe. Symbolic of this failure is what happened a couple of years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark. A television station received many protests when it scheduled a program of bull-fighting. Many irate citizens wrote in that this was an example of cruelty which they resented. Thereupon the television station substituted for the bull-fighting program a film on war, consisting of naval battles. This time no one called in to protest!

The same is true of many of our humane societies who agitate for public acceptance of human laws – which is as it should be. Unfortunately, however, the same people who are so concerned about the welfare of animals, are totally oblivious to man’s cruelty to man – especially when the man who is the victim happens to be a Jew.

A more heartening example of the creative role of man in the world came in recent weeks when an Israeli citizen decided to make a dramatic gesture for peace by flying a small plane to Egypt to see President Nasser, and thereafter proceeding to Rome to see the Pope, then to Paris for President de Gaulle, and then probably on to the United States. It matters little whether or not his effort was motivated

by self-glorification, cheap publicity, or a general flair for self-projection. The important thing is that in this terrible Cold War, with great power blocks and stubborn nations locked in deadly hostility, controlled by giant bureaucracies, one single human individual was able to emerge from anonymity and obscurity to make his presence felt and move the hearts of his fellow men. The nefesh somehow prevailed, even momentarily, over the olam and the shana.

The time is long past for us to take a good, long, and deep look at Jewish education from the point of view of this triadic structure of Time, Space, and Man. I believe that the failure of so much of Jewish education to date is a result of the fact that there is olam and shana, but no nefesh. There is a place called “school” to which children are sent, and a certain time limit which they must serve, generally to Bar Mitzva. But there is all too little of the one element which can redeem the entire procedure and make it more meaningful and effective; the child, his nefesh, his own interest and heart and soul. Too often children feel that they merely “take up space” and “do time” as if they were juvenile convicts condemned to the agonizing boredom of Jewish education. What is needed is nefesh – and that can be provided by parents who understand that school is not a place to send children but to bring them, and that the home must serve not as a counter-pressure to school, but as a model laboratory where the principles and ideals taught in the Jewish school are carried out in practice. The teachers, too, must re-emphasize as never before the elements of the child’s own nefesh. A great deal of research is needed in Jewish education if all the investment we have put into it and all the dreams we have dreamed for it are to come true. Much too much of Jewish education today is irrelevant. It is simply a matter of relearning and re-teaching new techniques of instruction and pedagogy. What a pity if in this age of technological and methodological progress in so many fields Jewish education should remain backward and retrogressive. Parents, teachers, and the community at large must bring back nefesh to the Jewish educational world of olam and shana.

Finally, all three elements merge together in one paean of praise to Almighty God as we welcome the new month of Nisan this coming week. Man, indeed, has a positive function as a new season of the year comes about in which nature is aroused to life once again. The Talmud put it this way: When a man goes abroad in spring, and notices the trees blossoming and the first green blades of grass pushing their way through the crunchy earth, he ought to make a blessing to his God. He should say, “Blessed are thou O Lord, King of the Universe, shelo ĥisar be’olamo kelum, uvara bo beriot tovot ve’ilanot tovot, lehitanot bahen benei adam, who has made His world perfect, lacking nothing, creating therein beautiful creatures and wonderful trees, in order to grant thereby pleasure and joy and benefit to the children of men.”

With the coming of Nisan and spring, the fullness of God’s beautiful world, His olam, and the onset of the most delightful of His regular seasons of the shana, must be sanctified by the dedication and gratitude of human beings who, each possessed of a true nefesh, will offer to Him a berakha, and themselves be blessed thereby.

* March 19, 1966

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Parshat Ki Tisa: Stubbornness

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern


It was Rabbi Simcha Zissel, one of the giants of the Lithuanian Mussar movement, who pointed out an unusual aspect of God’s reaction to the worship of the Golden Calf by the Israelites. The divine wrath was kindled at the people of Israel not for idolatry, not for faithlessness, but because “hinei am keshei oref hu,” “because it is a stiff-necked people.” Evidently stubbornness is, in God’s scheme, more deserving of anger than idolatry. The Torah regards an obstinate character as more evil than a pagan soul. The calamities that followed the Golden Calf were due more to bad character than bad theology.

Certainly this is a valid point. The man with the stubborn streak has a rigid will. His mind is frozen, and so he cannot learn. His soul suffers from a rigor mortis which prevents him from communing with the Source of all life. Brazenness, ignorance, a closed mind, and a dead spirit – these are the prices of obstinacy and the casualties of stubbornness. A stubborn people will persist in its evil ways and never learn the ways of God. A stiff-necked people cannot raise its head above the Golden Calf.

And yet the matter cannot be dismissed so simply. A blanket condemnation of stubbornness does not fit in with the complicated facts of today’s sidra. For while, on the one hand, God points to stubbornness as the root of the sin of idolatry, and while he blames obstinacy for His withdrawal from Israel (“I will not go amongst you because you are a stiff-necked people”), on the other hand, it is this very characteristic that Moses presents as a reason why God should rejoin the camp of Israel! In his second prayer of intercession, Moses says “Let God go with us because we are a stiff-necked people!” The very reason God gave for abandoning Israel is the one Moses presents for His accepting them! If stubbornness is an unconditional evil, an absolute sin, then how can Moses point to Jewish obstinacy as a virtue deserving of God’s attention?

Obviously, then, stubbornness is a virtue as well as a vice, a mitzva as well as an aveira. To be unbendingly evil is worse than idolatry; to be unbendingly Godly is the greatest virtue. What is dogged obstinacy in the service of a bad cause, is valorous constancy in the service of a good one. Stubbornness depends upon what you do with it and how you wield it. There is an immoral stubbornness that insists, despite all signs of divine faithfulness, that “halo tov lanu shuv Miztrayima,” that it is better to live like an Egyptian slave than to die free under God in the desert (Numbers :). But there is a moral stubbornness that, despite all reports to the contrary, doggedly insists with Caleb that “alo na’aleh veyarashnu otah,” we can reach the Promised Land and build it up. Our Arab cousins practice an immoral stubbornness when they refuse to face the facts of a divinely guided history and recite daily over Radio Cairo the banal nonsense about pushing the Jews into the sea. But there is a moral stubbornness which refuses to concede that Jews behind the Iron Curtain are lost, and so it waits and prepares until they start to come; a moral obstinacy that will fight tyranny on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, and hills; a lofty stiff-neckedness that will not let freedom’s light darken.

Patriots in peace, assert the people’s right

With noble stubbornness resisting might.

( John Dryden, Epistle the Thirteenth)

This lovely and blessed tenacity which made the quality of “keshei oref” worthy of divine pleasure, is that which enabled the Jew to face up to the countless challenges thrust upon us by our persecutors throughout the ages. We are a stubborn, stiff-necked, obdurate people. We will not give up our national existence, our faith, our Torah, our God.

That is why we are alive to this day. That same quality that made us insensitive to the word of God and caused us to dance about a Golden Calf has been sublimated, and has made us strong, powerful people of God. That is what Moses meant in his prayer to God. The same characteristic that made them blind to you, O God, will keep them a holy nation though trial and temptation, through persecution and pogrom once they have accepted You. In every condition and under every circumstance, though ridiculed and laughed at, they will say proudly and stubbornly, “asher baĥar banu mekol ha’amim” – God has chosen us, and we must teach His word to the world. With principled obstinacy we shall bend the world toward God.

And if we need to convince ourselves further of the worthiness of the right kind of stubbornness, let us turn to the haftara where we are given the immortal picture of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel, challenging the priests of the idol Baal, swaying his people to him and away from Baal by the miraculous fire from heaven which consumes his sacrifice. What was Elijah’s purpose in this dramatic moment? To prove God’s existence? Is it possible or even proper to prove God by this kind of histrionics which could possibly be duplicated by a skilled magician? Not at all. What Elijah proposed in his sudden appearance out of the desert was to change the character of the people from the spiritual flabbiness of fence-sitting religiosity and wishy-washy faith back to the toughness of “am keshei oref.” Remember the challenge the prophet flung at this uncertain people, wavering ’twixt God and Baal? “Ad matay atem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” how long will you waiver between two opinions, how long will you keep jumping from one branch to the other like a bird that cannot decide where it wants to go? How long will you postpone the hard and tough choice: either God or Baal? The prophet was tired with the softness of the Jewish spirit of his day. He wanted to do away with the jelly-fish spirit. He longed for the “am keshei oref,” for a flint-minded, stiff-necked people whose head could not be turned by the glitter of golden idols and whose heart would not be turned to the temptations of petty pagan customs.

How interesting is the biblical idiom for stubbornness – “keshei oref,” “a stiff neck.” A man who has a stiff neck finds that his body and head must face in the same direction. In the evil, wrong kind of stubbornness, his head follows his body and his mind justifies his material cravings. In the right kind of stubbornness, his body follows his head, and he disciplines himself to follow his principles. When there is “posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” when there is flabbiness, then head and body face different directions – the mind expresses the best of intentions, while the body indulges in the worst kind of deeds. God condemned the wrong kind of stubbornness. Elijah condemned all kinds of moral flabbiness. Moses praised the right kind of stubbornness – where the principles prevail and body must follow mind.

That this teaching of Judaism is as important today as always goes without saying. Our fight for freedom against tyranny, for Jewishness against assimilation, for the moral life against degeneracy – all these depend, in the end, on how properly stubborn we are. But today allow me to mention very briefly but one element of Jewish obstinacy that we must reaffirm urgently. We are a people who have never allowed our poor and unfortunate to become public charges. We have always taken care of our own. It is a wonderful tribute to our stiff-neckedness that we New York Jews, in keeping with this tradition of tzedaka and caring for our fellow Jews, have always supported the central, over-all agency for such purposes: The Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The Federation cares for people in our city, through hospitals, orphanages, family and vocational guidance, summer camps, and Jewish education. It is the source of percent of Jewish sponsored care in this city. Last year, the Federation suffered a $2 million deficit. This year it faces the alarming deficit of $4 million. The Federation now faces a crisis in maintenance – it needs no less than $18 million this year just to continue its work without any expansion or improvement. We are called upon, we of the Jewish Center, to show our moral and ethical strength, to rally to the call of tzedaka, to reaffirm our insistence that we take care of our own, that no Jew ever be forced into the humiliation of the public ward. It is a peculiar feeling, and we are stubborn about it – but it is part of our moral heritage. Let us not stand accused of Elijah’s jibe “ad matayatem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim.” How long will we remain ambivalent and uncertain whether we will practice tzedaka or not? Let us brace ourselves, and support the Federation even if it hurts a bit. For we are “am keshei oref.”

The Halakha teaches us that an animal whose spine is broken is tereifa – it is not kosher. And if we are in doubt, the Halakha prescribes this interesting test: grasp the spine at its base. If it leans over at the side, that is the sign of a fracture, and the animal is a tereifa. If it stands erect, then the spine has its natural hardness and it is kosher.

If we want to be kosher Jews, Jews who are genuine and authentic heirs of the Torah tradition, we must possess strong backbones and stiff necks. We must show spine and stubbornness in the face of adversity and challenge. We must not bow before persecution; we must not bend the knee for any of the modern idols. We must stand proudly and straight upon our sacred principles. Then we shall be kosher Jews. Then we shall not have reason to fear Elijah’s taunt. Then we shall prove worthy of Moses’ prayer and God’s affirmative answer to that prayer: “yelekh na Hashem bekirbenu ki am keshei oref hu” – let God go amongst us, for we are a stiff-necked people.

*February 28, 1959

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Parshat Tetzaveh: Channeling Change

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers


One of the main and most fundamental contentions of all moralists of all ages is that human nature is not basically unchangeable.Ask any teacher of religion whether change is possible in Man, and his answer is inevitably “certainly.” And yet, my friends, if you were to ask me that same question I would have to qualify that assertion. Is change possible? Yes and no. If by “change” you mean the transformation of the entire character essentials, the metamorphosis of the basic qualities of the soul, the God-given talents and personality attributes, the answer is “no.” there are certain properties of the soul with which you were born, and which you cannot change, willy nilly.

Yet that is not the end of the matter. Because if by “change” you mean not the basic change of the koĥot hanefesh, the powers of the soul, but the salvaging of them; not the scrapping and subduing of the fundamental drives of Man, but their redirection and channeling, the answer is a resounding and wholesome “yes.” A man may not be able to rid himself of the trait of stubbornness, but he can certainly direct his stubbornness to desired and beneficial directions. Simpler still, a man may not be able to cure himself of insomnia. But he can himself determine whether these waking hours be spent counting sheep or studying Torah.

The Jewish ethical literature has two names corresponding to these two types of change, and there are two schools propounding these opposing theses. One group claims that the highest goal is shevirat hamidot, the breaking and crushing of the evil drives of man. The objectionable trait must be broken and destroyed. The other group believes this unnecessary and impractical. Rather, it proposes tikun hamidot, the correction and redirection of these dark forces, the channeling of them from the destructive ends for which they had been employed to new and constructive ends. Redirection, not breaking and destruction, is the highest aim of ethical development. And Hasidim, who were great believers in tikun hamidot, used to object to the other school’s theory and say that shevirat hamida, the breaking of one evil trait, often results in two new evil traits.

It is a remarkable fact that considering the contemporary emphasis on education, our parents and grandparents, who were probably more successful than us in this field, rarely mentioned that word. Education in Hebrew is “ĥinukh.” And that word was uncommon in the homes and academies of the most learned and devoted elements of European Jewry. Rather, the emphasis was always on “hadrakha.” That word comes from “derekh,” which means “way,” and “hadrakha” therefore means direction, guidance, and channeling. Take, for instance, that characteristic known as kina – jealousy, or envy. In its usual manifestations it is a terribly destructive and antisocial expression. How many homes have been broken and how many reputations ruined all because of jealousy! And Solomon properly exclaims “kasha khiShe’ol kina,” “jealousy is as hard and cold as the grave.” And yet, surprisingly, the Talmud exclaims with equal conviction “kinat sofrim tarbeh ĥokhma,” “The jealousy of scribes increaseth wisdom.” Well, which one is it – leading to the grave or leading to wisdom? Obviously, it is a matter of direction. If you express it by envying your friend’s Cadillac or his home or his wife’s mink coat – then it is “kasha khiShe’ol.” If, however, you envy his learning, his piety, his sincerity, or honesty, then “tarbeh ĥokhma.” The same jealousy, the same envy. Only the direction has changed.

The Talmud tells a remarkable story which is a sharp illustration of our theme. The great sage Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan one day when there suddenly appeared a man known and feared, by the name of Resh Lakish, a man who was the head of a gang of robbers. He was a man of uncommon strength and determination. With one huge leap he spanned the Jordan and came to the side of Rabbi Yochanan intent upon either robbing or kidnapping him. When the sage witnessed this remarkable demonstration of power, he exclaimed “ĥelekh le’orayta,” meaning, “O, if only such power were used for the study of Torah.” This Herculean bandit subsequently turned to Torah and, as the student and later the brother-in-law of Rabbi Yochanan, redirected and rechanneled this extraordinary might so that he ultimately became the great and beloved sage Resh Lakish, second only to Rabbi Yochanan himself. You see, Resh Lakish originally knew that he could never rid himself of this extreme expression of power, and thought himself doomed to a life of banditry. It was Rabbi Yochanan who introduced him to the idea of tikun hamidot, direction and channeling.

In more recent times there is also such a case. My teacher of Talmud at the Yeshiva, the great scholar Rabbi Soloveitchik, recently told of an interesting conversation between his grandfather, the worldfamous sage and eminent talmudist, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, and his son, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father, Reb Moshe. Said Reb Chaim to Reb Moshe, “My son, I was not always the person you know me to be. I was born with mean and destructive tendencies. I was granted diabolic powers, and I have had to struggle all my life to turn these very powers to constructive ends, to redirect these urges and drives from the evil to the good.”

And in a way, my friends, the holiday of Purim commemorates this very element of tikun hamidot. Mordecai, the hero of the Megilla, was not heir to pink-cheeked angelic qualities. He was a hard, practical man, a man who had tasted exile, who was intimately familiar with the intrigues of the court of Ahaseurus and who had a staunch, unbreakable spirit. Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman, his brilliant execution of the plan to ensnare the anti-Semitic tyrant and his adamant refusal to concede defeat mark him a bold spirit. Now boldness is a thing which is not always good. Mordecai’s boldness was an inheritance from his ancestor, Shimi. Shimi was the bold and disrespectful insurrectionist who disparaged King David to his face and publicly accused him of being a bloody murderer. It was boldness indeed, and a libelous, false, evil type of boldness, for he besmirched the good name of the saintly author of the Divine Psalms. Yet this same boldness which he transmitted genetically to his descendant Mordecai was used by Mordecai for entirely different purposes. It was used to vanquish a Haman, not to insult a David. It was not the boldness of empty invectives, not the effrontery of disrespectful vituperation; but it was nevertheless boldness. Only it was used in the service of God, in the saving of a persecuted people, in the altruistic service of a high and glorious ideal. No wonder the Rabbis applied to him the verse from Job, “mi yitein tahor mitameh,” “who can bring a clean thing from an unclean thing?” Mordecai was the clean one who came from the unclean. He inherited a certain set of dynamic qualities which had been used for evil, but which he redirected and channeled to holiness.

Our national scene today could learn a bit from Mordecai’s determined boldness in the right direction. The two paramount issues in our national capitol these days are the issues of Communism in government and corruption in government. The main ire of our elected representatives has been spent trying to dig up incontrovertible proof that certain individuals, who once were distantly related to the government, wrote poison pen letters of a leftist nature when they were in knee pants. The witch-hunt has been marked by the parallel features of uncontrolled boldness and increasing stupidity. Meanwhile, the search into vital matters of national morals and ethics has gone unattended except for occasional blasts of publicity. What is needed is a shift in emphasis, a redirection. We must switch our emphasis from the silly boldness of the McCarthys and the McCarrans² to the boldness of seeking out corruption, or, if I be permitted the pun, a new boldness supporting Mr. Newbold Morris in his determined drive to seek out the sources of ethical degeneration in our government.

And, my friends, not only destructive urges, but also talents and gifts wasted unnecessarily must also be channeled, must also experience tikun hamidot. Many of us, thank God, are not possessed of exceptionally destructive tendencies. But many of us have been blessed with natural abilities which we often allow to go to waste. These two must be captured and harnessed to productive ends. To our talents we must also say, as Rabbi Yochanan said, “ĥelekh le’orayta,” let this strength be for Torah. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and social critic, tells that he never plays chess, because when he was a child he was fanatically devoted to the game, and he came to realize that if he were to pursue it he would eventually become the world’s greatest chess-player. But then he pondered, and saw that his life would thus be wasted, for chess is, no matter how respectful a game, only a game. Harmless – but of no great benefit to humanity. And so Russell stopped playing chess and instead went into mathematics and logic and philosophy and so was ultimately able to become the co-author of Principia Mathematica. Modern man, because of his increased leisure time, has taken to hobbies on a grand scale. There is no doubt a criminal negligence involved in the human genius utterly wasted on golf, football, crossword puzzles, and bridge. A hobby is good up to a certain point. Then it becomes waste. Athletics is wonderful, hygienic. But after a certain limit it becomes a travesty. We must learn to channel and direct these forces and use them profitably and constructively.

The experience of Mordecai from Shimi is a universal one and an eternal one. Its message transcends the provincial borders of ancient Persia of that century and like a beacon whose rays are a blessing to those in the distance, we of today bask in the enlightening thoughts of yesteryear which prove an inspiration and lesson to us.

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Parshat Bereshit — Reflections on the Divine Image

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Genesis, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern


Derashot Ledorot front cover

Parashat Bereshit teaches us one of the most fundamental concepts of our faith. It is something we speak of often, and that is perhaps why we frequently fail to appreciate its depth and the magnitude of its influence. The concept of man’s creation betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, is one of the most sublime ideas that man possesses, and is decisive in the Jewish concept of man.

What does it mean when we say that man was created in the image of God? Varying interpretations have been offered, each reflecting the general ideological orientation of the interpreter.

The philosophers of Judaism, the fathers of our rationalist tradition, maintain that the image of God is expressed, in man, by his intellect. Thus, Sa’adia Gaon and Maimonides maintain that sekhel, reason, which separates man from animal, is the element of uniqueness that is in essence a divine quality. The intellectual function is thus what characterizes man as tzelem Elohim.

However, the ethical tradition of Judaism does not agree with that interpretation. Thus, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his Mesilat Yesharim, does not accept reason as the essence of the divine image. A man can, by exercise of his intellect, know what is good – but fail to act upon it. Also, the restriction of tzelem Elohim to reason means that only geniuses can truly qualify as being created in the image of God. Hence, Luzzatto offers an alternative and perhaps more profound definition. The tzelem Elohim in which man was created is that of ratzon – the freedom of will. The fact that man has a choice – between good and evil, between right and wrong, between obedience and disobedience of God – is what expresses the image of God in which he was born. An animal has no freedom to act; a man does. That ethical freedom makes man unique in the creation.

But how does the freedom of the human will express itself? A man does not assert his freedom by merely saying “yes” to all that is presented to him. Each of us finds himself born into a society which is far from perfect. We are all born with a set of animal drives, instincts, and intuitions. If we merely nod our heads in assent to all those forces which seem more powerful than us, then we are merely being passive, plastic, and devoid of personality. We are then not being free, and we are not executing our divine right of choice. Freedom, the image of God, is expressed in the word “no.” When we negate that which is indecent, evil, ungodly; when we have the courage, the power, and the might to rise and announce with resolve that we shall not submit to the pressures to conform to that which is cheap, that which is evil, that which is indecent and immoral – then we are being free men and responding to the inner divine image in which we are created.

The late Rabbi Aaron Levine, the renowned Reszher Rav, interpreted, in this manner, the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (3:19) which we recite every morning as part of our preliminary prayers. Solomon tells us, “Umotar ha’adam min habehema ayin,” which is usually translated as, “And the preeminence of man over beast is naught.” Rabbi Levine, however, prefers to give the verse an interpretation other than the pessimistic, gloomy apparent meaning. He says: “And the preeminence of man over beast is – ayin, ‘no.’” What is it that gives man his distinction? What is it that makes man different from the rest of creation, superior to the rest of the natural world? It is his capacity to say ayin, his capacity to face the world and announce that he will not submit to it, that he will accept the challenge and respond “no”. An animal has no choice – no freedom – and therefore must say “yes” to his drives, to the world in which he lives. But a human being can say “no” to that which is unseemly and beneath his dignity. And when he says “no” to all that is ungodly, he is being Godly. He is showing that he was created in the image of God.

Adam and Eve had to learn this lesson, and their descendants forever after must learn from their failure. We are nowhere told in the Torah that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was in any way different from the fruit of the other trees in the Garden of Eden. Yet when she was tempted by the serpent, Eve looked at the fruit, and in her mind’s eye its attractiveness grew out of all proportion to reality. It looked more luscious, it looked more juicy, it looked more appetizing. She even imagined that this was some kind of “intelligence food.” Her instinct bade her to do that which was in violation of the divine command. But counter to this she had the capacity, as a free agent created in God’s image, to say ayin, to say “no” to her instinct and her temptation. But she forfeited her opportunity. The first human couple did not know how to say “no.” This was the beginning of their downfall.

Abraham was a great Jew – the first Jew. Yet in our tradition he is not famous so much for saying “yes” as he is for saying “no.” Abraham was the great iconoclast. It was he who said “no” to the idolatries of his day, who said “no” to his father’s paganism, who was the one man pitted against the entire world, shouting “no!” to all the obscenities of his contemporary civilization.

Moses was a great teacher. He gave us 613 commandments. When you investigate the commandments, you find that only 248 are positive – commanding us what to do. But 365 of them are negative – they say “no” to our wills and our wishes. For when we learn to say “no,” we are being free men and women under God. The famous Ten Commandments have only three positive laws; the other seven are negative. Indeed, it is only through these negatives that we can live and survive and thrive at all. Without “You shall not murder,” there can be no society. Without “You shall not steal,” there can be no normal conduct of commerce and business. Without “You shall not commit adultery,” there can be no normal family life. Without “You shall not covet,” the human personality must degenerate and man becomes nothing more than an animal, a beast.

“And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin” – it is this which gives man greater dignity and superiority over the animal – his power to say “no.” It is this freedom of the human personality taught by our Jewish tradition that we Jews must reassert once again in our own day.

The author Herman Wouk told me some time ago that a number of years earlier he was boarding a ship to go on a trip overseas. Several hours after he boarded, a cabin boy brought him a note from the apostate Jewish author Shalom Asch, asking Wouk to come to his cabin. There Asch complained to him and said, “I don’t understand you, Mr. Wouk. You are a young man – yet you are observant and Orthodox. When my generation of writers was young, we were rebels, we were dissenters. We rejected tradition, we rejected authority, we rejected the opinions of the past. What happened to you? Why do you conform so blandly?” Wouk gave the older man an answer that I believe is very important for all of us to know. He answered, “You are making a terrible mistake, Mr. Asch. You seem to forget that the world we live in is not a paradise of Jewishness. You seem to forget that the world we occupy has become corrupted, assimilated, emptied of all Jewish content. In a world of this sort, one does not have to be a rebel at all in order to ignore the high standards of Judaism. If you violate the Sabbath, if you eat like a pagan, if you submit to the cheap standards of morality of the society in which we live, then you are being a conformist; you are merely allowing your own animal instincts to get the better of you. Today, if I and some of my contemporaries are observing the Jewish tradition, then it is because we are the dissenters, the nein-sagers. For we are the ones who say ‘no’ to the desecration of the Sabbath, ‘no’ to the creeping assimilation that ridicules all of Judaism and threatens its very life, ‘no’ to all the forces that seek to degrade our people and diminish the uniqueness of Israel that is its dignity and its preeminence. You are the conformist.”

This is the kind of force, the kind of courage, the kind of conviction that has sustained us throughout the ages. It is that which has given us the power to say “no” to the threats of Haman, the cruelties of Chmielnicki, the genocide of Hitler, as well as the sugarcoated missionizing of more enlightened enemies of Judaism. We demonstrated the image of God when we exercised our freedom and said “no” to all this.

I am not suggesting that we ought to be destructively negative. It is, rather, that when we fully exercise our critical functions and faculties, then the good will come to the fore of itself. It is because I have confidence in the innate powers of the good that I suggest we concentrate on denying evil. “Depart from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15). If you put all your energies into negating evil, then good will be done of its own accord.

It is this power to say “no” that we must exercise in our relations with our fellow Jews in the State of Israel. For, in addition to all our constructive efforts on behalf of the upbuilding of the land, we must also be able to call a halt to the creeping paganism that plagues it.

When we find that in our own Orthodox community in Israel certain things are done which serve only to desecrate the name of God, we must not be shy. We must rise and as one say “no” to all those forces which would compromise the sanctity of the Torah and the sanctity of the Holy Land.

In our own American Jewish community, we must, here too, be the critics. And when, to mention just a seemingly trivial matter, certain artists and entertainers who are Jewish, and who rely upon the community as such for acceptance of what they have to offer, elect to entertain on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we must say “no.” We must realize that it is no longer the domain of one’s own conscience, when the matter is a public demonstration of contempt for American Jewry. “And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin” – we must not sheepishly go along with everything that “famous people” are willing to tell us. We must be men, we must be human beings, we must use the freedom that God gave us when He created us in His image, and learn when to say “no.”

I conclude with the statement by one of the greatest teachers of Judaism, a man who indeed showed, in his life, that he knew the value of “no.” It was Rabbi Akiba, the man who was able to stand up to the wrath and the might of the whole Roman Empire and say “no” to tyranny and to despotism, who taught us, “Beloved is man that he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:18). Beloved indeed, and precious and unique and irreplaceable is man when he has the freedom of will that is granted to him by his Creator. And furthermore, “Hiba yeteira noda’at lo shenivra betzelem” – a special love was given to man by God, it is a special gift when man not only has that freedom but when he knows that he has that freedom – and therefore uses it to combat evil and to allow the great, constructive forces of good, innate in himself, to come to the fore so as to make this a better world for all mankind.

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Parshat Ki Tavo: Selihot – The First Fruits of the New Year


Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press, YU Press, and Maggid Books; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Derashot Ledorot--Deuteronomy


At the beginning of today’s sidra we read of two institutions which were legislated for our ancestors by Moses. The first is the bikurim, the commandment to bring the first fruit to the kohen (priest). The second is the ma’asrot, the various tithes which were obligatory for the Jew – a tenth of one’s income to the Levite every year and, on alternate years, additional contributions to the poor and underprivileged, and the bringing of one’s fruit to Jerusalem and eating them there joyously. There are a number of similarities between bikurim and ma’aser. For one thing, both are compulsory contributions. Further, each of them is accompanied by a set recitation. And finally, both of them became effective only upon the entrance of the People of Israel to the Holy Land.

But even more significant than the similarities are the differences between these two great institutions. In introducing the recitation that is to accompany the giving of the tithes, the Torah merely says, “And you shall say” (Deuteronomy 26:13). Before the recitation for the first fruits, however, the Torah prefaces the words, “And you shall call out (ve’anita) and say” (26:5). That extra word “ve’anita,” “and you shall call out,” was interpreted variously by our Rabbis (Sota 32b). Thus, they said that the first fruits are to be brought and the recitation is to be read in a loud voice, whereas the recitation for the tithes is to be pronounced in a whisper.

Furthermore, the recitation for the first fruits must be in Hebrew, whereas the recitation for the tithes may be read in any language. A third difference involves the terminology used: the bikurim recitation is called “mikra,” a reading or proclamation; whereas the ma’asrot reading is called “viduy,” which means a “confession.” And then there is also a historical difference between the two. The first fruits were offered in the Holy Land as long as the Temple was in existence. The reading for the tithes, however, was interrupted in the middle of the Second Common­wealth by Yohanan the High Priest (see the last mishna in Ma’asrot).

Why this apparent discrimination favoring bikurim over ma’asrot? Why did both Halakha and history give preference to the institution of first fruits over tithes? We will discuss three answers.

The first relates to the difference in mood and temperament between these two mitzvot. When a man brought his bikurim, he spoke of his and his people’s low origins. He said, “Arami oved avi,” a wandering, or perplexed, Aramean was my forefather Jacob. In contrast to the origin traditions of Israel’s neighbors, there is no myth here of people being descended from a sun-god! Our ancestors were not great conquerors; instead, we were slaves who were persecuted and driven from one indignity to another. It is only because of God’s intervention that we were saved – it was God who took us out of Egypt. It was only because of Him that we came to this marvelous inheritance of the Land of Israel: “And He gave us this land” (v. 9). Without the Almighty we would have remained a slave people, crushed in between the millstones of degenerate Egyptian civilization, so that by this day nothing would have been left of us. All of the mikra bikurim, is, therefore, an expression of thankfulness and gratitude based upon the acknowledgement of our own helplessness without God.

The ma’asrot recitation is in a completely different category. One can easily misunderstand this string of verses as reflecting a sense of complacency and smugness. The donor recites the words, “I have paid all my debts to the Sanctuary. I have also given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me.” I have taken care of my obligations; I have done nothing wrong. I am a pious man and I am a good Jew. This was a speech that accompanied the bringing of the ma’aser. An innocent bystander might have expected that, at this point, the worshipper would remain silent, waiting for a divine pat on the back!

Now, whereas the facts mentioned in this recitation may be true and accurate, it is certainly unbecoming to pronounce them aloud. The facts may be correct, but the publicity given to them is by no means right. The feeling that one has given enough, done enough, observed enough, should remain just that – a feeling, nothing more. Because if it is not kept to a whisper, but is proclaimed in a loud voice, then devoutness degenerates into superciliousness, righteousness into self-righteousness, and piety into pomposity. The mark of the Jew, however, is that he is a bayshan, a shame-faced person; we are a unique people whose high morality has often been mistaken for masochism. We have traditionally underplayed our achievements, while publicly acknowledging our guilt and our faults. Our prayers speak of how “because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” We accept the blame upon ourselves for our exile; it was caused by our moral failures. And our Scriptures are largely the record of our failures and insufficiencies. What a contrast to the atmosphere of political conventions, to which we have been subjected these past weeks, in which orator after orator points with pride to the virtues of his own party exclusively and views with alarm the faults of his opponents!

Perhaps it is time that we Jews in the contemporary era were now mature and bright enough to apply the lessons of the recitation of bikurim to the State of Israel in the kind of image we are trying to present to the world. We may be justifiably proud of Israel’s achievements in science and in industry, in security and housing and economics. But instead of publishing this record in a loud voice – overexposing it so that non-Jews will say: “Yes, Israel is that country of those inventive and ambitious Jews” – the weight and burden of our image ought to be the presentation of Israel as the land of the Bible, where an ancient divine promise to our forefathers was redeemed in our day. For this is the theme of the bikurim. A holy people never blows its own horn. Indeed, the only time it does so is at the teki’at shofar during the period leading up to Rosh HaShana – and the sounding of the shofar then reminds us of our errors, not our greatness.

A second answer as to the difference between the first fruits and the tithes concerns the nature of our religious orientation. The man who brought bikurim expected nothing in return for his pious gesture. On the contrary, in offering gratitude, he implied that what he had received heretofore was undeserved. Therefore he offered his thanks and expected nothing more – although he might have hoped for it with all his heart.

Contrariwise, the giving of the ma’asrot was concluded by a short prayer, beginning with the words, “Look forth from Your holy habitation, from Heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the land which You has given us” (v. 15). How easy to misinterpret this beautiful passage as, “I have done my duty toward You, O Lord; now it is up to You to reciprocate and do Your duty towards me! I have fulfilled my obligations; now, O God, pay me back.” This is the kind of feeling that informs a person who, in conditions of distress and adversity, will complain that he is deserving of much better from God, and when he revels in prosperity and plenty, never entertains the thought that maybe he is undeserving of all this bliss and blessing. Now, it may be just that he is deserving – who are we to judge our fellow human being? But while it may be just, it certainly is not authentic piety. A mature religious person does not exact payment from God, just as a mature married couple does not base its life upon an exchange of duties legally exacted and juridically delimited. There is a danger that this concluding prayer of the recitation of the ma’aser can be misunderstood by the donor as a kind of quid pro quo, an attempt to strike a bargain with God and demand immediate payment. Compared with the mikra bikurim, the viduy ma’aser can be characterized as a kind of crass commercialism, a deal with the Deity. When a man speaks thus, and intends this, it is indeed a viduy, a “confession” that he does not understand the Torah and that he does not understand man’s destiny in the face of God.

Whereas the recitation for bikurim is called a mikra, a proclamation of maturity, because man knows his shortcomings and appreciates that he deserves nothing, the reading for ma’asrot is viduy, a confession of misunderstand and failure. That is why the bikurim was recited only in Hebrew, leshon hakodesh (the holy language); for the entire concept which one enunciated bespeaks a holy wisdom – whereas the business-like attitude towards God reflected in the viduy ma’aser is recited in any language, for it reflects the vulgar jargon of the market-place.

And there is a third and final difference between these two institutions – the difference in timing. The reading for the tithes was done at the end of the third year of the triennial cycle, after all else had been done. As Deuteronomy 26:12 says, “When you finish giving your tithes, then you must recite the following…” The ma’aser itself was offered towards the end of the season; only after all else had been done, then one would give God and His charges their contributions. Now, tithes are certainly generous – they involve over 10 percent of a man’s earning – and far better than nothing. But how much greater and more generous of the spirit is the giving of the bikurim. For even if a man could afford no more than a kol shehu, even a pittance, still he gave it joyously and enthusiastically – the very first fruits, the symbol of a person’s achievement, one’s triumph, and one’s success were devoted to God, thereby indicating the sense of gladness and joy in which he gave to his Lord.

These, then, are the three reasons why the bikurim were more cherished and emphasized. And all these three are present and stressed in the Selihot prayer which we shall recite tonight. They are, for one, thing, the very opposite of self-righteousness. For we shall say at the very beginning of our Selihot service, “lekha Hashem hatzedaka, velanu boshet hapanim,” “You, O Lord, are just, whereas we are ashamed of ourselves.” Second, we will acknowledge that we do not deserve any special favors: “lo behesed velo bema’asim banu lefanekha,” “We do not come before You boasting of great deeds or great acts of love on our part.” And, instead of a business-like trade, we announce “ki al rahamekha harabim anu betuhim,” that we can rely not upon our deeds, but only upon Your great mercies. And finally, as Rabbi Yitzhak Arama tells us, the Selihot too are offered at the beginning – at the beginning of the season when the nights grow longer, so that, as he puts it, “It is pleasant for man to serve God at the beginning of this time of the lengthening nights, devoting them to prayer and supplication, so that thereby all the nights of the year may be sanctified and hallowed.”

As the old year draws to a close and a new year is about to begin, ushered in by the Selihot prayers, may we learn to approach our maker, the God of Israel, in true humility and in the spirit of gratitude of the bikurim. And may we be privileged to fulfill especially the concluding words of the mikra bikurim: “And you shall be happy in all the goodness that the Lord Your God has given you and your household.” Amen.

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Parshat Re’eh – Absent Presence: A Personal Retrospective

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


By rabbinic mandate, the section of Parshat Re’eh detailing the agricultural and festival cycle of the Jewish year1 is among the Torah passages read in synagogue on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Shmini Atzeret (the independent holy day attached as an eighth day to the Succot festival).


While the rabbinic decision to read this section of text on the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot is readily understandable, one fact makes the mandate to read this passage on Shmini Atzeret abundantly strange: the Torah reading chosen by the rabbis for public reading on Shmini Atzeret makes no direct mention of Shmini Atzeret at all.

Why would the rabbis deliberately choose to read on a specific holiday a section of biblical text that excludes any direct reference to that holiday?

To make matters even more troubling, the omission seems to be deliberate. Although this section of Parshat Re’eh clearly references the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals), including the holiday of Succot, it is described as a seven-day festival, with no clear allusion to an eighth day. This, in spite of the fact that Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day, is directly referenced in other biblical passages discussing the Succot festival.

The question is, of course, even more basic. In its review of the holiday cycle in Parshat Re’eh, why does the Torah fail to mention the festival of Shmini Atzeret? Why omit this significant festival from the list of pilgrimage festivals?



For me, this issue is informed by a powerfully painful personal experience that recently touched my life. As mentioned in the introduction to our volume on Bamidbar, my mother passed away a little over two years ago. Our family lost a warm, loving, wise and courageous matriarch and life teacher whom we all miss deeply.

At the age of seventy-nine, a few years after my beloved father’s passing, my mother made aliya to Jerusalem, Israel, where she lived for ten wonderful years. Her funeral, therefore, was conducted in that holy city. Having experienced funerals in Israel before, albeit not so personally, I was prepared to encounter ceremonies vastly different in feel from those to which I had become accustomed in America. In Israel, the entire experience surrounding death is simpler, more austere and, I believe, healthier, than it is elsewhere. In Israel, there is no cushion created by pomp and circumstance. The emotional distance between the living and the stark reality of their loss is almost nonexistent.

One ritual during the proceedings, however, took me completely by surprise. As we left the modest chapel on the cemetery grounds where the eulogies were delivered, our journey to the grave was abruptly interrupted by a member of the chevra kadisha (literally “holy society”), the group of volunteers tasked with the burial arrangements. Without a word of explanation this stranger blocked my path, hurling a piece of pottery to the ground, shattering it into shards. I was stunned and bewildered by this dramatic yet puzzling act, and a sobering phrase from the High Holy Day liturgy came unbidden to my mind: mashul k’cheres hanishbar, “[man is] likened to shattered pottery…” Clearly, I reflexively reasoned, this graphic, destructive ritual was designed to underscore the finality of my mother’s passing from this world; the totality of her absence from our lives.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself returning over and over again to that moment in my mind, reassessing my initial reactions.

Is this what we really believe? Is an individual’s physical departure from this world truly “total” and “final,” or is the transition at the moment of death actually more nuanced? Death is a shift, after all, not from presence to absence, but, rather to a unique state that can only be called “absent presence.”

As anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can testify, a person may be physically absent, yet remain present in the most powerful ways.

One could actually argue that the most important chapter of my mother’s life in this world began when she “passed away.” At that moment the true test began. What of my mother’s life remains behind? How has the world changed because she was here? What lasting legacy did she leave in the hearts and minds of the many whose lives she touched?

As Jews, we believe in “life after death,” a spiritual afterlife in a world that we can scarcely begin to comprehend. We also recognize as equally important, however, the continued absent presence of an individual in this world – a world forever changed because of the life that person lived. The pottery may be shattered, but its imprint remains.


None of this, of course, was totally new to me. As a rabbi, I had shared similar ideas with countless families, counseling them at times of loss. Never, however, had the formulation been sharper in my mind. My thoughts inexorably led me towards another conclusion that, at least for me, broke new ground: while the transition to absent presence is clearest at the time of death, we actually deal with the phenomenon of absent presence throughout our lives.

In the arena of childrearing, for example, we train our children primarily towards the moments when we are absent. We hope that the morals, ethics, principles and values that we instill in and model for our children will be present in their lives even when we are not. Thus the parents of young children ask, “How did our children behave at someone else’s house?” The parents of older children worry, “Will our children maintain their commitment to Jewish observance on the college campus and beyond?” And the parents of young adults wonder, “Who will our children choose as life partners? What will their homes be like? Will those homes mirror the ideals that we hold dear?”

School, as well, is designed to teach our children to deal with the world outside the classroom, when teachers are not present to guide them. Friendships and marriages are tested by the loyalty and fidelity we show when our partners are not present. Even our relationship with God is often defined by our struggle to discern His presence in a world where His absence often feels pronounced.

Every sphere of our lives is marked by the challenge of making our presence felt in the lives of others even when we are physically absent. Death thus becomes another step in a natural process, the ultimate iteration of a test that we have faced over and over again, throughout our lives.


We can now return to our original questions concerning the omission of Shmini Atzeret from the passage outlining the holidays in Parshat Re’eh.

Shmini Atzeret is the most “absent” festival of the year, a holiday that in many ways is simply “not here.” The very character of the day remains unclear, the nature of the celebration elusive. Attached as an eighth day to the Succot festival, it is, nonetheless, a “festival unto itself,” independent of Succot. Alone in the Shalosh Regalim cycle, this festival commemorates no historical or agricultural event. Rabbinic sources define the festival only in general terms, as marking the relationship between God and His people. Shmini Atzeret is absent not only from the Torah reading of the day. Instead, the day seems to be strangely “absent” in character and focus as well.

Yet perhaps that is the point. Shmini Atzeret marks not only the culmination of the Shalosh Regalim cycle, but the culmination of the High Holy Day period at the beginning of the Jewish year, as well. In that position, as the year begins, Shmini Atzeret serves as a day of transition to a state of absent presence in our relationship with God.

Each year, with the passage of Shmini Atzeret, the majestic observances associated with the holiday season come to a close and the true test begins. Will the year to come be shaped by the introductory experience of the High Holy Days and Succot? Will the lessons learned during our encounter with the Divine remain with us even when God’s presence is not so keenly felt? Will the resolutions and commitments that we have made while in the rarefied atmosphere of the festivals take hold once we enter the everyday world? Will God be present in our lives even when we must work to seek Him out?

Shmini Atzeret moves us along, preparing us for the challenges ahead – a final holiday, perpetuating our relationship with God. Remain with Me one more day, the rabbis picture God telling His children, your parting from Me is too difficult to bear.8 As God and His people start to pull away from each other, only this day remains – one last day in each other’s presence, a celebration of the relationship itself.

Yet even now, on this final holy day, subtle changes begin to emerge, as God moves a small step away and becomes a bit more “inaccessible” to us. With no special rituals to guide us, no unique holiday traditions to illuminate our path, Shmini Atzeret – the very celebration of our bond with the Divine – forces us to find our own way, to define our own relationship with God. And if we make use of this last day of yom tov in this way, we will be better able to extend that relationship to the times of God’s absent presence throughout the year, when God’s apparent distance will challenge us to find His continuing presence in our lives.


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Parshat Va’Etchanan: The Dialogue of Prayer

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers 



Although a distinct, separate obligation, the mitzva of Kriat Shma is not performed in isolation. Instead, the three paragraphs of the Shma are woven into, and recited as part of, central sections of the morning and evening prayer services.


Why is the mitzva of Kriat Shma incorporated into the daily liturgy?

At first glance, the paragraphs that constitute the Shma can hardly be classified as prayer. Within these passages, man does not speak to God at all. God, instead, speaks to man. The Shma consists of instructional verses, chosen from countless others in the Torah text, informing the nation of its responsibilities. Whatever benefits might accrue from the daily recitation of the Shma, they would seem to be separate and distinct from the experience of prayer.

Even if a practical argument can be made for attaching this mitzva to the prayer service as an expedient way to ensure its performance, the weaving of the Shma into the most central sections of the tefilla remains difficult to understand. Why didn’t the rabbis append the recitation of the Shma to the conclusion of the service? Why insert these biblical passages at a point in the prayers where they would seem to be an intrusion, breaking the flow of each prayer service as it moves towards a crescendo. What connection is there between the mitzva of Kriat Shma and the experience of prayer?



Our search for answers begins with the prayers that surround and weave the Shma into both the morning and evening services. Known as the Birchot Kriat Shma (Blessings of the Kriat Shma), these prayers are thematically connected to the passages of the Shma and are clearly referenced in the Mishna: “In the morning, one recites two blessings before [the Shma] and one after it. In the evening, one recites two blessings before [the Shma] and two after it.”

The Gemara and later halachic works identify these seven blessings as follows:

  1. Yotzer ohr, “He Who forms light” (said in the morning, before the Shma), describes and praises God’s creation of the physical world, beginning with His creation of light and darkness.
  2. Ahava raba, “abundant love” (said in the morning, before the Shma), praises God’s bestowal of the Torah upon the Jewish people and requests the wisdom to appreciate and understand that gift.
  3. Emet v’yatziv, “true and certain” (said in the morning, after the Shma), praises God’s faithfulness across the generations, with particular focus on the miracles of the Exodus.
  4. Hama’ariv aravim, “He Who brings on evenings” (said in the evening, before the Shma), praises God’s control of the passage of time, with emphasis on the transition from day to night.
  5. Ahavat olam, “eternal love” (a shortened version of the morning prayer, said in the evening, before the Shma), praises God’s bestowal of the Torah and its commandments upon the Jewish people.
  6. Emet v’emuna, “true and faithful” (said in the evening, after the Shma), praises God’s protection of the Jewish nation from its enemies, with particular focus on the Exodus.
  7. Hashkiveinu, “lay us down to sleep” (said in the evening, after the Shma), requests God’s protection from danger.


A puzzling statement in the Mishna forces the later Talmudic authorities to scrutinize the technical relationship between these blessings and the Shma itself.

After establishing that the appropriate time for the recitation of the morning Shma ends when three daylight “halachic hours” have passed (or in other words a quarter of the day), the Mishna asserts: “If one recites [the Shma] from that point on, he has not lost; he is like an individual who reads from the Torah.”

The Mishna’s halachic position is clear. Upon missing the appropriate time for the recitation of Kriat Shma in the morning, an individual loses the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva properly. Nonetheless, the Shma may yet be recited at any point throughout the day. One may, after all, always read passages from the Torah.

Less clear, however, is the meaning of the puzzling Mishnaic statement “he has not lost.” If this individual has lost the opportunity to perform the mitzva properly, what then, has he not lost?

In a striking move, the scholars of the Gemara quote sources from the Mishnaic period that connect this phrase to the blessings surrounding the Kriat Shma. If, on any particular day, an individual fails to recite the morning Shma in its appropriate timeframe, he has not lost the opportunity to recite the Shma’s blessings. These blessings may still be recited, together with the biblical passages of the Shma, even after the time for the mitzvah has passed.


Following the close of the Talmud, however, rabbinic disagreement develops as to the extent of this allowance concerning the Shma’s blessings. Until what point of the day, the authorities query, may these blessings yet be recited?

Taking the Mishna at face value, the Rambam is among those authorities who maintain that the Birchot Kriat Shma can and should be recited whenever the Shma itself can yet be said, throughout the entire day.

Numerous other scholars, however, including the towering fourteenth century halachist Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh), adamantly disagree. The blessings of the Shma, these authorities argue, are not governed by the time frame that governs the Shma. Instead, these blessings may be recited only within the appropriate time frame for the morning prayers. This time frame, also established in the Mishna, extends one daylight hour after the temporal endpoint for the mitzva of Kriat Shma, namely until one third of the day has passed.

If an individual misses the appropriate time for the morning Shma, these authorities thus conclude, he can yet recite the Shma itself at any point during the day. The Shma consists of biblical verses, and the recitation of biblical verses is always allowed. The Shma’s blessings, however, may only be recited for one more daylight hour, until the time for the morning prayers has passed. Past that point, the recitation of these blessings is prohibited and an individual who recites them transgresses the sin of “saying God’s name in vain.” This latter position is codified as law by Rabbi Yosef Caro in the Shulchan Aruch and is accepted as normative practice today.


The normative position outlined above concerning the Birchot Kriat Shma seems confusing. What exactly is the nature of these blessings?

If these blessings are, as their title indicates, “Blessings of the Kriat Shma,” why then are they governed by the time frame for the morning prayers and not by the time frame for the Shma itself? Logically, one of two other options should be chosen. Either the recitation of these blessings should be prohibited once the optimal time for Kriat Shma has passed, or the recitation should be allowed as long as the Shma can still be recited, throughout the day.

And if, conversely, these blessings are considered part of the morning prayers and are, in fact, governed by the rules of those prayers, why are they referred to as the “Blessings of the Kriat Shma”?


The tension mirrored in the above ruling may well be a product of a fundamental internal tension in the nature of the blessings themselves.

On the one hand, a review of the content of these blessings quickly reveals that, unlike the Shma itself, the blessings are prayers in the full, formal sense. Upon reciting these blessings we find ourselves in the familiar territory of classical tefilla, where man reaches out to his Creator with majestic words of tribute and heartfelt appeal.

At the same time, however, the blessings are clearly connected to the Shma. Carefully and consciously, the rabbinic authors of these brachot rework and expand upon the themes of the Shma, fashioning them into prayer. To cite a few examples:

1. While the Shma proclaims God’s oneness, the blessings of the Shma lead the supplicant to praise the unity of God’s physical and philosophical creations.
2. The commandment of Torah study repeatedly embedded in the Shma is transformed in the blessings into a request for the wisdom to engage in such study.
3. The Shma’s focus on God’s hand in history leads to appeals in the brachot for “a new light shining upon Zion” and an ingathering of the exiles from the “four corners of the earth.”

The blessings of the Shma move from one realm to the next. Thematically rooted in the paragraphs of the Shma, they transform the themes of those biblical passages into classical prayer. Although they retain their identity as Birchot Kriat Shma, therefore, these blessings are ultimately governed by the laws that regulate the morning prayers, as a whole.


The unique rabbinically designed bridging role of Birchot Kriat Shma may help us understand how the scholars view the inclusion of Kriat Shma itself in the prayers. Far from an alien intrusion, Kriat Shma and its surrounding blessings enable a two-way, man-God conversation to unfold at the core of the morning and evening prayer services. At the center of this exchange lies the Shma itself – Torah passages through which God daily conveys His aspirations for and challenges to His people. At the conversation’s peripheries lie the blessings of the Shma, the people’s contribution to the discussion: each supplicant wrestles with the themes embedded in God’s words, transforming them into personal prayers of praise and request.

The Shma thus helps shape the very paradigm of Jewish prayer: a dialogue, not a discourse. Just as certainly as man speaks to God during prayer, God speaks to man.

Three times daily, as the Jew approaches his Creator in prayer, God draws near, as well. An intimate conversation unfolds. Hopes, expectations, requests and challenges are freely exchanged, and an agreement to sanctify the world in partnership is renewed. The parties then part ways, with an implicit promise to return shortly, armed with additional life experience, for further conversation and dialogue.

Points to Ponder

The story is told of a security guard serving at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. Over time, he takes note of one elderly man who arrives at the wall each day at the same time, prays with obvious devotion for an hour and leaves.

Finally, after decades of witnessing this scene, the guard stops the man and asks him, “Excuse me, sir, but I have taken note of the constancy of your commitment. Can you please tell me what you have been praying for each day over these many years?” “Well,” answers the man, “for years I have approached the Kotel to pray to God that He grant our people peace, security and the wisdom to deal with each other with sensitivity and respect.” “And now,” continues the guard, “as you look back on all these years of fervent prayer at the Western Wall, how do you feel about the experience?” “I feel,” answers the man, “like I’ve been talking to a wall.”

Tefilla is tough. We find ourselves locked in a continuing struggle. Can we breathe new life into the same words recited day after day? Can we continue to regularly approach a mysterious God, only to be answered with silence, never quite knowing if, when or how our prayers will be answered? Can we, who live in a world governed by intellectual search, learn to open our hearts to an unfathomable God?

Like most of my colleagues, I have shared, over the years, a multitude of ideas with my congregants and students as to how we might more meaningfully experience tefilla (all the while speaking to myself as much as to them). I have counseled concentration, the study of the prayers, introspection, arriving to synagogue on time, a cessation of conversation with our neighbors during the services and much more.

As important as all those steps may be, however, I would argue that another potential action can have even more far-reaching consequences upon our search for more meaningful tefilla.

We can decide to listen, as well as to speak, during prayer.

So many voices, after all, clamor for our attention as we engage in

tefilla: the voices of our earliest progenitors – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – whose own search for God at the dawn of our history leads them, according to Talmudic tradition, to establish the three basic daily prayer services, Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv; the voice of King David, whose impassioned Psalms take us on a journey through the turbulent events that marked his life and thus through the myriad human emotions that color our own; the voices of scholars and sages across the ages, whose contributions to the prayer services preserve in perpetuity their struggles, priorities and dreams; and above it all, the voice of God, speaking to us of His hopes for His people, individually and collectively, and of the tasks that we must fulfill if we are to bring about their realization.

And if we listen hard enough, we might even hear the voice of our own hearts, urging us to reflect upon our own place in this rising crescendo. Who are we to approach God in prayer? What aspirations do we have for ourselves and how do they relate to the dreams of those who came before? How can we shape our priorities so that they reflect an understanding of the truly important things in life? As we wrestle with these and other critical issues, we naturally turn to God in heartfelt prayer, asking that He aid us in our search for direction.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the root of the Hebrew verb l’hitpallel, to pray, is pallel, literally, to judge. The verb is conjugated reflexively. L’hitpallel, to pray, thus means to judge oneself. “Jewish praying, says Hirsch, “is not from within outwards, but from without inwards.… Hitpallel means to penetrate oneself, ever afresh again, with eternal, essential lasting truths and facts.”

If the tefilla experience becomes a process through which we gauge our lives and our actions against the backdrop of our nation’s ongoing search for God and God’s reciprocal search for us, then our thrice-daily approach to the Almighty will acquire new and powerful meaning.


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Parshat Shelach: Having Self-Respect

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Numbers , co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; Edited by Stuart W. Halpern


There is an old proverb, in the finest and juiciest vernacular, which expresses a great and unfortunate truth – “As the Gentile goes, so goes the Jew.” This pointed and biting comment on the Jew in exile is amply attested to by our history. The Canaanites worshipped idols – and later the Israelites did. In the middle ages, the Christians developed ascetic sects – and then some Jews propounded a form of asceticism which smacked of Christianity. The Poles and Cossacks wore a certain type of clothing, and then the Jews adopted and sanctified it and continued to wear it – even long after it had passed out of style. Whether culturally or sociologically or religiously, the Jew has often fallen prey to this form of mimicry which calls for adopting and adapting the least attractive forms and features of other peoples.

Our Sages, in the beautiful homilies they usually employ, underscore this point. In this week’s biblical portion we read of the twelve meraglim (spies) who were sent to the Promised Land by Moses. Their mission was clear and to the point. They were to spy out the land and report their findings to Moses and the people. Two of these special investigators, Kaleb and Joshua, were profoundly impressed by the beauty of the land, its great possibilities and the tremendous potentials of the Israelites in developing and thriving in that country. The other ten spies, however, did not take such a sanguine approach. They were cowed by some giants they had encountered. They brought back reports which sound like a biblical version of Jack and the Beanstalk. Disconcerted, discouraged, and disheartened, they submitted a gloomy and pessimistic report. Now pessimism is a highly contagious disease, and soon they infected most of their fellow Jews. The results were tragic and the wrath of God was incurred. But what caused this state of affairs? The meraglim must have undergone some special experience which contributed to this campaign of fear and hysteria which they engendered. The Rabbis (as cited by the Ba’al HaTurim on Numbers 13:33) supply the “missing link” in the biblical narrative. One giant, they relate, ate a pomegranate and then threw away the shell. And then the meraglim climbed into that shell to seek shelter in it.

What our Sages want to indicate with this story is that the meraglim were people who had no self-respect. They were “golus Jews” or “shtadlanim” even before the Jews settled in Israel. Some Jews, they mean to tell us, will accept even a hollow shell, as long as it was once used by a non-Jew. They are willing to accept it even after it has been emptied of its life-giving pulp and after it has been discarded. Indeed, “as the Gentile goes, so goes the Jew.” Twelve staunch princes of their people seeking shelter in a second-hand pomegranate shell! What a shame and disgrace; what a notorious self-debasement! And the Bible itself does not fail to predict the results of an attitude of this sort. By their own testimony, the meraglim indict themselves when they say, “And we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Certainly! For if a man thinks of himself as no more than an insignificant insect, it is the inviolable law of nature that his fellows think of him as being no more than a mere grasshopper. If a man is willing to cringe in the pomegranate shells thrown to him, then thrown to him they will indeed be.

That lesson of self-respect, of not accepting the shells of strange ideologies, of not dancing to someone else’s tune, is something which must be impressed upon us with all firmness. A glaring example of that lack of self-respect we Jews display on occasion happened some short while ago when a Jewish mayor of a Jewish city in the Jewish state visited this city. The bus driver of that mayor’s city demanded of him, legitimately, that they be granted their one day off on Shabbat. The mayor of Haifa agreed that they deserve a one-day-a-week respite – but not on Shabbat! Any day, but not Shabbat! Here is a man who has done his utmost to keep the streets of his city clean and the avenues of his soul muddy. And leaving aside the fact that the voices raised in protest were few and far between, the committee selected to lay out the welcoming mat to this mayor, saw fit to do him honor with a non-kosher reception. Again the protests were feeble when a storm should have been raised and when every pulpit in the country should have thundered against this unmitigated chutzpah and brazen effrontery and presumptuousness.

Why was there no open and clear repudiation of this sort of arrogant audacity? Because, I firmly believe, we had buried our heads in the empty shell of nationalism thrown to us by others. Nationalism can be Jewish too. But only when it is vested with the holiness and sanc­tity and spirit which is typical of our people. Nationalism without these elements – secular nationalism – is only a hollow shell of an idea which was already out of vogue and being discarded by others when we picked it up. The real lovers of Zion were those who did protest this travesty. The others were, and are, not. How can we expect the respect of others for our people and our religion, if we do not manifest any respect for them?

One can cite example after example of Jews, especially American Jews, indulging in sycophantic mimicry and imitation of everything which tastes of non-Jewish sophistication. This month of June is par­ticularly appropriate for mention of some of the more flagrant examples of Jews adopting Christological ceremonies and features and integrating them in the marriage ceremony. The notorious “double-ring” cer­emony, for one, is a Gentile ritual which seems to have some fascination for some Jews. Or take some modern authors – and here I have in mind one of the finest books on Judaism expounded in modern terms ever to appear – who mar otherwise excellent remarks by constant and consistent reference to a “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Here too one detects an attempt, however unconscious, to cringe and beg acceptance from the non-Jew by hiding in the discarded shells of their pomegranates.

One wonders what happened to our Jewish pride and self-respect. We appeal not for vanity, but for self-respect; not for the negation of others, but for the affirmation of ourselves – for the free expression of our desire to pick our own fruit and not grovel in the waste baskets of others for mere shells long discarded. When that day comes, Israel will be ours indeed in the fuller, more meaningful sense. Then we will have gained more than a land – we will have won back ourselves.

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Parshat Beha’alotecha: A Definition of Anivut

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Numbers 

Our sidra this morning introduces us, rather casually and incidentally, to one of the most important and highly celebrated virtues in the arsenal of religion – that of anivut. We read in today’s portion, “And the man Moses was the most humble (anav me’od), above all the men that were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Whatever may be the particular translation of the Hebrew word anav, the idea that is usually imparted is that anivut is humility, a feeling by the individual that he lacks inner worth, an appreciation that he amounts to very little. Indeed, the author of Mesilat Yesharim, one of the most renowned works on Jewish ethics in all our literature, identifies the quality of anivut with shiflut – the feeling of inner lowliness and inferiority. According to this definition, then, the Torah wants to teach each of us to see ourselves in a broader perspective, to recognize that all achievements are very trivial, attainments mere boastfulness, prestige a silly exaggeration. If Moses was an anav, if he was humble and able to deprecate himself, how much more so we lesser mortals should be humble.

However, can this be the real definition of this widely heralded quality of anivut?

We know of Moses as the adon hanevi’im, the chief of all the prophets of all times, the man who spoke with God “face to face” (Exodus 33:11). Do the words, “And the man Moses was the most humble” mean that Moses himself did not realize this? Does the anivut of Moses imply that he had a blind spot, that he failed to recognize what any school child knows? Does a Caruso2 have to consider himself nothing more than a choir boy, and an Einstein merely an advanced bookkeeper, in order to qualify for anivut? In order to be an anav, must one be either untruthful or genuinely inferior?

To a very great extent, modern psychology is concerned with the problem of inferiority. Deep down, people usually have a most unflattering appraisal of themselves. Many are the problems which bring them to psychologists and psychiatrists; yet all so often the underlying issue is the lack of self-worth. Are we, therefore, to accept the Jewish ethical prescription of anivut as an invitation to acquire an inferiority complex?

In addition, the definition of anivut as self-deprecation and humility does not fit into the context of today’s sidra. The identification by the Torah of Moses as an anav is given to us as part of the story in which we learn of Aaron and Miriam, the brother and sister of Moses, speaking ill of Moses behind his back. They criticize him harshly because of some domestic conduct in his personal life. They are wrong, and they are punished by the Almighty. But what has all this to do with the humility of Moses? The substance of their criticism, namely, the domestic relations of Moses, is as unrelated to Moses’ humility as it is to his artistic talents or his leadership ability.

Furthermore, the Talmud relates an exchange that is all but meaningless if we assume that anivut means humility. The Talmud (Sota 49a) tells us that when Rabbi Judah the Prince died the quality of anivut disappeared with him. When this was stated, the famous Rabbi Joseph disagreed. He said, “How can you say that when Rabbi Judah died anivut vanished? Do you not know that I am still here?” In other words – I am an anav!

Now, if anivut really means humility, does this make sense? Can one boast of his humility and still remain humble? Is it not of the essence of humility that one should consider that he possesses this virtue in himself?

It is for these reasons, and several more, that the famous head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, popularly known as the Netziv, offers us another definition of anivut (in his HaAmek Davar) which, I believe, is the correct one. I would say that the definition the Netziv offers means, in English, not humility, but meekness. It refers not to self-deprecation but self-restraint. It involves not an untruthful lack of appreciation of one’s self and one’s attainments, but rather a lack of arrogance and a lack of insistence upon kavod, honor. To be an anav means to recognize your true worth, but not to impose the consequences upon your friends and neighbors. It means to appreciate your own talents, neither over-emphasizing nor under-selling them, but at the same time refraining from making others aware of your splendid virtues at all times. Anivut means not to demand that people bow and scrape before you because of your talents, abilities, and achievements. Anivut means to recognize your gifts as just that – gifts granted to you by a merciful God, and which possibly you did not deserve. Anivut means not to assume that because you have more competence or greater endowments than others that you thereby become more precious an individual and human being. Anivut means a soft answer to a harsh challenge, silence in the face of abuse, graciousness when receiving honor, dignity in response to humiliation, restraint in the presence of provocation, forbearance and a quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.

With this new definition by the Netziv, the statement of Rabbi Joseph becomes comprehensible. When he was told that with the death of Rabbi Judah the Prince there was no more meekness left in the world, he replied with remarkable candor and truthfulness: You must be mistaken, because I, too, am meek. There is no boastfulness here – simply a fact of life. Some people are meek, some are not. If a man says, “I am humble,” then obviously he is not humble; but if a man says, “I am meek,” he may very well be just that. In fact, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Joseph was at least the equal in scholarship of his colleague, Rabba, but that when the question arose who would head the great Academy in Babylon, Rabbi Joseph deferred to Rabba. And furthermore, all the years that Rabba was chief of the Academy, Rabbi Joseph conducted himself in utter simplicity, to the point where he did all his household duties himself and did not invite any artisan or laborer, physician or barber, to come to his house. He refused to allow himself the least convenience which might make it appear as if he were usurping the dignity of the office and the station occupied by his colleague Rabba. This is, indeed, the quality of meekness – of anivut.

And this meekness was the outstanding characteristic of Moses as revealed in the context of the story related in today’s sidra. Here were Aaron and Miriam, both by all means lesser individuals than Moses, who derived so much of their own greatness from their brother, and yet they were ungrateful and captious and meddled in Moses’ personal life. A normal human being, even a very ethical one, would have responded sharply and quickly. He would have confronted them with their libelous statement, or snapped some sharp rejoinder to them, or at the very least cast upon them a glance of annoyance and irritation. But, “The man Moses was the most meek, more so than any man on the face of the earth.” Although aware of his spiritual achievements, of his role as leader of his people, even of his historical significance for all generations, Moses entertained no feelings of hurt or sensitivity, of injured kavod. There was in his character no admixture of pride, of arrogance, of harshness, of hyper-sensitivity. He had an utter lack of gall and contentiousness. He was, indeed, an anav, more so than any other individual on the face of the earth. And he was able to write those very words without self-consciousness! Hence he did not react at all to the remarks of his brother and sister. Therefore, God said that if Moses is such an anav that he does not defend himself against this offense, I will act for him!

The quality of anivut, as it has been defined by the Netziv, is thus one of the loveliest characteristics to which we can aspire. One need not nourish feelings of inferiority in order to be an anav. Indeed, the greater one is and knows one’s self to be, the greater his capacity for anivut, for meekness. It is the person who pouts arrogantly and reacts sharply and pointedly when his ego is touched who usually reveals thereby feelings of inferiority and worthlessness, of deep shiflut. The individual who feels secure and who recognizes his achievements as real can afford to be meek, to be an anav.

For it is this combination of qualities – inner greatness and outer meekness – that we learn from none other than God Himself. The Talmud (Megilla 31a) put it this way: “Wherever your find mentioned the gedula, the greatness, of God, there also you will find mentioned His anivut.” Thus, for instance, where we are told that God is mighty and awesome, immortal and transcendent, there too we learn that God is close to the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the sick, all those in distress, those overlooked, ignored and alienated from the society of the complacent. God’s anivut certainly does not mean His humility or self-deprecation! It does mean His softness, gentleness, kindliness – His meekness.

Here, then, is a teaching of Judaism which we can ill afford to do without. When we deal with husband or wife, with neighbor or friend, with children or students, with subordinates or employees – we must remember that the harsh word reveals our lack of security, and the impatient rejoinder shows up our lack of self-appreciation and self-respect. It is only when we will have achieved real gedula, true inner worth and greatness, that we shall learn that remarkable, sterling quality of anivut.

Let us leave the synagogue this morning aware of that mutual, reciprocal relationship between greatness and meekness. If we have gedula let us proceed to prove it by developing anivut. And if we doubt whether we really possess gedula then let us begin to acquire it by emu­lating the greatest of all mortals, Moses, and the immortal Almighty Himself, and practice anivut in all our human relations. If this anivut does not succeed at once in making us truly great, it at least will offer us the dividends of a better character, a happier life, more relaxed social relations, and the first step on the ladder of Jewish nobility of character.


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Parshat Naso: A Jewish Definition of Power

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Numbers co-published by OU Press,Maggid  Books, and YU Press;  edited by  Stuart  Halpern

A Jewish Definition of Power*

Our haftara this morning tells of the birth of one of the most colorful personalities in biblical history, Samson. He is the only biblical figure known in Jewish literature as a gibor, a hero or strongman. His power was proverbial.

This would not be remarkable if Samson were only a rare specimen of brute force who could slay a lion with his bare hands, throw fear into the hearts of his enemies, smite them with the jawbone of an ass, and cause a great building to collapse by pulling down the pillars. But Samson is also known to us as one of the shoftim, the “judges.” He experienced hashra’at haShekhina, divine inspiration and prophecy. And he was, from before his birth, consecrated as a Nazirite, one who for reasons of saintliness abstains from wine and the cutting of his hair. Does this not indicate something unusual about him? Indeed, are we not here offered a new insight into the whole concept of gibor and gevura, a new Jewish definition of power?

Our question is: What is that definition? What, in the context of the Jewish tradition, is gevura, strength or heroism? It obviously is not mere brawn. What then?

For an answer to our question, let us turn to the Kabbala, that infinitely rich mystical mine of Jewish ideas and ideals. The Kabbala understood creation not as a single event, but as a two-step process. The first step was hitpashtut, an overflowing or emanation of God, a flood of divine creativity released at the moment He determined to create the world. However, this alone is not enough. For when an infinite God creates, the creation too tends to be infinite – there is too much, it proceeds without limit, and hence a real world cannot exist. Therefore there must be a second step to counteract this ever-spreading emanation from God, and that is tzimtzum, divine restraint, God’s self-limitation. Thus, God calls a halt to His own creative endeavors. He limits, as it were, his own impulse to keep on producing world upon world.

The first step, the divine effusion, His overflowing and emanation, the Kabbalists referred to the attribute of chessed, loving-kindness, and because true love knows no bounds, it always seeks to increase, grow, and intensify. However, while we call it chessed, the same idea of expansion can refer to any drive or will or passion.

The second element, that of restraint and self-limitation, is referred to by the Kabbalists as the quality of gevura, strength. Gevura thus means the ability to limit oneself, for it certainly takes moral strength to know when to stop.

This, then, is essentially the definition of power or heroism: self-restraint, self-contraction. And as with God, so with man: gevura means not brawn, not grasping for more and more, but on the contrary – self-limitation, self-control. True strength is not the passion for power, but knowing when, and when not, to use it; not the quest for bigness, but recognizing when big becomes too big; not in growth, but in retrenchment; not in dominating others, but in dominating oneself. Gevura consists of knowing when to call a halt to man’s outgoing and outreaching drives.

This is, of course, true in every aspect of life. Growth is good, but not too much or too fast. The body’s cells which proliferate without end are the cause of cancer. An economy which rises too quickly and without inner controls is liable to collapse in the long run. A child who grows but grows without limits is actually sick. A teacher who tries to impart all his knowledge to his charges without modifying his information to fit the child will be a failure.

Even the desire of knowledge, meritorious as it is, must be controlled by man’s moral principles. The chessed of increased knowledge of the world, as it is expressed in modern science and technology, can no doubt be a good thing. We are all beneficiaries of the constantly ongoing programs for unlocking the secrets of nature. But if we moderns also are threatened with sudden and calamitous extinction it is because we have not merged gevura with chessed; because we have not exercised moral restraint in directing the goals and purposes of our scientific research. If more nations were to learn how to make atomic bombs, as they surely will, and each of them were to conduct atmospheric tests, there is no doubt that the function of chessed would be achieved – more scientific knowledge would be accumulated. But because of the lack of moral heroism in self-control and denying one’s self this increased scientific information, the whole world may destroy itself or, at the very least, irrevocably cripple all future generations. Chessed without gevura, in science as well as in the formation of the world, leads to destruction and not to creation.

Consider another example, a more personal one, of the moral courage called gevura. Love is a wonderful thing. But it sometimes can be so overdone that it destroys the object of affection – reminding us of the bitter observation of Oscar Wilde that, “Every man kills the thing he loves.” I refer to too much love expressed by parents for children, love given in such excess that it becomes possessive and interferes in the life of a child. This kind of unrestrained chessed has rightly been called “smother love.” All parents know this instinctively. More sophisticated ones are aware of it consciously. Yet it bears repetition and reminder. Too much paternal and maternal affection can lead to making too many decisions for the child so that he never learns to think for himself, choose for himself, or decide for himself. An overdose of chessed can make a child’s personality permanently immature. A parent whose heart overflows with tender affection for a child needs the divine quality of gevura, of moral courage to discipline, control, and guide his parental love – or at least the expression of it – for the good of the child. Unless a parent controls his outgoing love for a child, unless he limits it intelligently and at the right times, the child will never learn that life has its harsh aspects, that without discipline one cannot live in a civilized society, that one must be prepared to deal with people who will view him critically and objectively and not always with unthinking admiration and affection.

The problems of Jewish education are also affected by the combination of chessed and gevura. As a rabbi, I have heard every good and legitimate reason for a loving parent not to subject a child to the regimen of the study of Torah: there is too little time for fresh air, there is too great a competition for getting into better high schools and colleges, there are so many other things that one must learn in order to achieve a “rounded personality.” And so parents often love their children so much that they deny them the opportunity to learn the meaning of life, the roots of their people, the history and destiny of their own spirit.

Perhaps it is for this reason that in Yiddish, a wealthy man of decent instincts is often called a gevir, a word which is derived from gevura, meaning heroism and strength. True wealth, in the Jewish sense, is the exercise of gevura as we have defined it: moral restraint, refraining from ostentation, self-indulgence, or domination of others; ethical control in acquiring riches and character control in spending them; a quality of graciousness and generosity. This is true heroism, true gevura. This kind of man is never nouveau riche; he is a true gevir.

In today’s sidra we read the commandment of God that the priests should bless the Children of Israel with the three-fold blessing. The first one is: “The Lord bless you and keep you.” Blessing, or berakha, has always been understood in our tradition to mean: hosafa, increase, growth, expansion. It is a quality of chessed. “Keeping,” shemira, always refers to moral control and ethical limitation, as in “hishamer lekha pen…” (see, for instance, Genesis 24:6). Thus, the priests extend to us the blessing of God: May you have a great deal, more than you have now. But may your berakha be graced with shemira. May you learn how to keep your naturalness and humility intact, regarding your money and your wealth as a trust; may you learn how to retain your dignity and suppress arrogance and haughtiness so that you will achieve true blessing.

Indeed, the quality of gevura is a fundamental prerequisite for the religious life of the Jew. What distinguishes the Jewish religion is not the holidays – for other people have them too; not a synagogue – other people have their churches or mosques; but rather, the Halakha, the Jewish regimen which extends into every aspect of a person’s existence. A life of Jewish law, of mitzvot, is an expression of the moral courage we have called gevura – for it means that the Jew must learn to restrain himself and his appetites in every phase of life. His desire to eat indiscriminately must be curbed by the inner strength that comes from observing the rules of kashrut. His desire to exploit nature, by means of industry or farming or doing business, must be curbed by the inner discipline that causes him to rest on Shabbat in the manner decreed by Jewish law. His lust and his passion, what the Torah in one place has called chessed and Freud has called the libido, must be restrained by the gevura of the Torah’s code of sexual morality. The discipline life of the Jew is his greatest strength. “Ein giborim ela giborei Torah,” “There are none as heroic as the heroes of Torah” (Avot DeRabbi Natan 1:23). Physical strength is transitory; military power is ephemeral; political influence is impermanent. Only the moral strength of Torah is abiding and everlasting.

Now, I believe, we may understand why one of the most cherished of biblical characters is called Samson the gibor, the man of strength, the hero. If Samson had only possessed ko’ach, brute physical power, he would have been no better than any Philistine. But he was charged to keep his great physical strength secondary and subordinate to his gevura, his spiritual power and moral courage. His greatness lay in that he was consecrated to exercise greater power over himself than over others.

Unfortunately, Samson was not consistently successful. At a crucial moment in his life when he failed, when he forfeited his moral gevura and became a spiritual weakling – allowing himself to be tempted by Delilah – his physical power proved to be useless and insignificant too. The strength of Samson lay not in his muscles, but in his morals; not in his biceps but in his spirit. When the spirit and the morals failed, all else was valueless.

No wonder that Samson was commanded to be a Nazirite, to abstain from wine, as were his parents from the moment that – as recorded in today’s haftara – they were informed by the angel that they would have a child. For wine releases inhibitions, it weakens one’s self-control; it makes a man effusive and gives him a feeling of limitlessness and omnipotence. He becomes all chessed, no gevura. The abstention from wine was therefore both a symbol and charge to Samson to exercise the moral self-limitation which is the gevura of a religious man.

Perhaps all this can be summed up in the words of the Rabbis in Avot (4:1): “Eizehu gibor, hakovesh et yitzro,” “Who is strong? He who suppresses his [evil] inclination.” The word for inclination, yetzer, derives from the Hebrew yetzira, creation. The passions and inclinations of man are directed towards self-aggrandizement, reaching out for more power, more conquest, more insight, more affection, more influ­ence. The first impulse of creativity, with man as with God, is yetzira or yetzer – the centrifugal movement, the outward expansion of force, character, desire, and interest. But a world cannot exist with this alone. It needs the quality of gevura, of limitation. And therefore: Who is the gibor, the true hero or strong man? He who can suppress his yetzer, his chessed, his desire to go and grow farther and faster.

We conclude with the words of David (I Chronicles 29:11): “Lekha Hashem hagedula vehagevura vehatiferet” – “To you O God, is the greatness and the strength and the beauty.” The Kabbala has taught that when both tendencies, that of expansion, called chessed or gedula, and that of contraction, called gevura, are united in the proper proportions, the result is tiferet – beauty, harmony, majesty. From God’s example we human beings may learn the great secret of combining chessed and gevura to produce tiferet. May we and all the world be blessed with the quality of tiferet – beauty of life, majesty of ideals, and nobility of destiny.

  • June 16, 1962