Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Field of Dreams- Experiencing the joy of Pesach

Do we realize how fortunate we are? Are we cognizant of the fact that, living in this time in Jewish history, it is so much easier to say, no, to sing Hallel, than it was for so many of our ancestors? Perhaps by focusing on the words of a farmer, we can appreciate the opportunity that we have, and gain something for our understanding of Pesach.

In telling over the story of the Exodus from Egypt, you would think we would make use of the text of the Sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus. Instead, as we recite the maggid section of the haggadah, we tell the story as found in the Sefer Devarim, in Parshat Ki Tavo. There, we find the story of the farmer who is bringing his first fruits, the bikkurim, to Yerushalayim. After joyously bringing his fruits up to the Mikdash, he recites a declaration, which tells the story of the Jewish people. Beginning with Yaakov Avinu’s oppression at the hands of Lavan, the farmer, in only several sentences covers the slavery of Egypt, the exodus, the arrival of the Jews in Israel, and the building of the Mikdash. Why do we choose the farmer’s words, with the very brief mention of leaving Egypt, over the more detailed story from Sefer Shemot?

For the vast majority of us, it is hard to relate to the life of a farmer. Even when we eat the food that he grows, it is so removed from his life, that we rarely give much, if any thought. to all the farmer’s toil. If we look back historically, before technology made things easier, although by no means easy, for the farmer, we see that a farmer’s life, and the life of his family, was one of great toil and worry.

Imagine the joy that the farmer felt when all the effort that he and his family expended on their farm came to fruition. Try to picture what it must have been like as he thought back to the beginning of the planting season, and all of the backbreaking labor that the whole process involved. It’s difficult, but try and taste the sweetness as he literally tasted the fruits of his labor. Who better could express the long process of Jewish history? Who else would have a better understanding of how planting with sweat, if not also tears, can lead to harvesting in joy?

If we try and appreciate the farmer’s story, perhaps we can put ourselves in his shoes as we recite the haggadah. Maybe, as we move on to Hallel, we can joyously express our thanks that we appear on the scene of Jewish history, so late in the story. If we are not yet quite at the point of bringing the bikkurim to Yerushalyaim, we are not too far off. While our ancestors literally and figuratively planted in tears, we get to experience the joy that they could only dream of, as the first fruits start to blossom on the trees. Perhaps, if we adopt this perspective at the seder, we will experience the Pesach Seder with a level of joy appropriate to our great fortune.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Words and Language- Can we truly communicate with ourselves and others?

I’ve been thinking a lot about words. Not any ones in particular. Just words, and what they mean, and what we mean when we use them, and how we use them to try and communicate our thoughts and feelings, to others and to ourselves.

My questions are not new ones. They’ve been asked for more than 2,000 years. We think we know what words mean. We speak to, with, and at one another and are under the impression that we have conveyed our intent, no, not just conveyed, but made our thoughts fully clear. As with colors, we believe our perception to be reality. Words, after all, have meanings, and we are speaking the same language. Only we’re not. Not just when we try to communicate with someone who actually speaks a different language, but even when we speak with someone who speaks the same language. We don’t though. The idea that our words mean something objective is just an illusion. Throw in symbolic language and things get even more complicated. Shake hands with another person after a conversation and you have a deal. Or you’ve at least come to understand each other clearly. Maybe you’re just saying goodbye.

Think too much about this and it gets depressing. We each speak our own language, acquired and formed through personal experience. It is just another way that we differ. One more way that, on some level, we are alone, never able to truly and fully connect with another. Maybe it’s even worse than that. Can words express to ourselves what we feel inside, what we experience as we move through this world? Perhaps we express ourselves most truly when our emotions pour out; our tears, laughter, or primal screams expressing that which is most real about ourselves.

Yet we dare not, can not, must not let these thoughts paralyze us. We use words as a way of reaching out, a means of connection, in the hope that, somehow, we might, imperfectly, connect to another, and to ourselves. Even as we know we can not fully be successful, we forge forward, creating a bridge, however temporal it might be, from our deepest inexpressible experiences, to the world around us. In so doing we express the hope and prayer that our words not fail us, at least this one time.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Golden Glow- Does philosophy help our Avodas HaShem?

I can’t deny the irony of what I am about to write. For many years I have been studying Jewish philosophy, and this focus has only increased over the past two years. Piles of philosophy books cover my night table, as I continue to try and make sense of things. Still, I keep on thinking about a chance meeting I had in Tzfat this past summer.

I didn’t know this rabbi well, but when I first met him 17 years earlier, he had a Jewish outlook quite similar to my current approach. He had learned at YU and Gush and was a serious thinker. Somehow, since that time he and his wife had moved to Tzfat and become  Breslover chassidim. For many outsiders, Breslov brings to mind dancing Na-Nachs, but this rabbi was anything but that. He wore a long gold bekkishe, and had a streimel on his head, and, at the risk of sounding a bit like I drank the Tzfat kool-aid that Shabbos, he also had a look of contentment on his that one rarely sees. As we talked, I asked about what brought about the change. We also discussed some of my own evolution and questions. He told me how one day, he had taken all of his philosophy books, brought them to a used bookstore in Yerushalayim, and traded them all for one of Rav Nachman’s sefarim. I was fascinated by our discussion, and have thought about it from time to time.

I’ve long wondered about the prohibition that Judaism places on studying texts that challenge Jewish beliefs. I’ve heard people ask why a religion that believes in truth would prohibit one from trying to discover it. Still, having studied Kant, and seen where modern and post-modern philosophy have gone, I wonder how much philosophy is really about trying to discover truth. If anything, the conclusion that has been reached is that we, as humans, can never know if we have found the truth. So now what?

For those of us who, despite all challenges, have decided to live a religious life, we might be wise to study the words found in Avos where we are told to weigh the gain of doing a sin versus the cost. I do not mean to imply that the study of philosophy is (inherently?) sinful. Rather a cheshbon is needed. Just as a person who is married would be wise to strengthen his marriage rather than thinking about the other choices he might have made, as we study philosophy, are we not, on some level doing the same thing? Might we not be weakening our belief system?

It is here that I come back to the irony, because even as I ask these questions, and even as I recognize that I daven best, when I philosophize less, I plan on continuing to work my way through those piles of books. Still, as I do so, I might wonder from time to time whether I am bringing myself closer to or farther from my goal.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Seeing Double?- Explaining the seeming redundancies of the end of Sefer Shemot (audio shiur)

Many people think of this week’s parshiyot, Vayakhel and Pekudei, as a mere recap of parshiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh. In this week’s shiur we discuss the seeming repetition of the design and building of the mishkan and the bigdei kehunah in the two double-parshiyot. We show that, in fact, there were two different conceptions of what the mishkan needed to be, one before the Cheit HaEigel, and one after. We explore how the two versions of the aron, along with the two sets of luchot, reflect two different perspectives.

This shiur can also be accessed on YouTube by clicking here.

Running time: 39 minutes

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Prisoner with No Bars- A review of "Pete Rose- An American Dilemma" by Kostya Kennedy

What if your greatest strengths were also your greatest flaws? What if the very traits that made you great, and famous and loved, were the same ones that led to your biggest failures and caused people to dislike, or, maybe even worse, pity you? How about if you only knew one approach to life, one that made you a hero in one part of life, and a failure in so many others?

As a baseball fan, for as long as I can remember, and an avid reader for a little less than that, I’ve read more than my fair share of baseball books. The ones I’ve always enjoyed the most are the ones that, while outwardly about baseball, are really about life. “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” by Kostya Kennedy fits the bill, and is one of the best baseball books I have ever read. Of course, it is much more than just a book about baseball. It is a book about a very flawed man, whose one-size-fits-all approach to life, leads to a story that reads like a Greek tragedy. Kennedy, who many sports fans will recognize from his writing for Sports Illustrated, tells the story masterfully, showing who Rose was and is, on and off the field, and who he seems destined to be until the day he dies.

Pete Rose, who early in his career was dubbed “Charlie Hustle”, played the game the way it was meant to be played. In a sport where even the greatest players take it easy at times, Rose played every game, exhibition or regular season, as if it was his last, and as if he was still trying to prove himself to his father. This single-mindedness made him a star, but also led to his being a poor husband, father, and sibling. It was as if the only way he could live was by ignoring everyone else’s needs. Ultimately, it led to his banishment from the game of baseball and the hall of fame, for gambling on baseball.

Kennedy tells Rose’s story and shows how those who loved him, including his two ex-wives, children and siblings, and those who rooted for him, ignored or even embraced his biggest flaws, as part of the Faustian deal of being part of his life. Given this tolerance for his flaws, along with the help he received in protecting him from the consequences of most of his decisions, one could almost say that Rose never had a chance at coming clean and taking responsibility, after his gambling addiction led to his banishment from the game he loved. Even when confronted with thousands of pages of evidence, Rose remained defiant, convinced that he could talk his way out of this problem as well. Kennedy powerfully shows how the people involved in the investigation, including the literally larger than life lawyer John Dowd, and commissioners Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent, stood up to Rose and his handlers, showing him and them that, for one of the few times in his life, he would have to pay the price for his actions.

By the time one reaches the later part of the book, he knows that Rose will fail to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. By this point, the reader will be familiar with the many missed opportunities for Rose to right his life, and even wonder whether he wants to. While Kennedy poignantly shows a few too brief moments where a more introspective Rose appears to recognize what he has wrought, he also shows that for Rose, there can be no second chances, in a life lived with lots of hustle, but no brakes.

Americans will give a second chance to almost anyone, provided that they are willing to apologize sincerely or not. Most of the time, a publicly issued mea culpa will make up for almost any sin. Kennedy notes the irony that a man as real as Pete Rose, a man who can not be anyone other than the man he is, no matter the circumstances and consequences, has never been able to offer even a somewhat convincing admission of guilt for what he has done. More than that, Kennedy shows that the very approach that led to Rose being one of the greatest players in baseball history, is the same approach that has cost him so dearly. In the end, it is hard for the reader to muster much sympathy for a man who seems incapable of looking at himself in the mirror, a man who still doesn’t realize that he is is own worst enemy.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hello, Old Friend

I met up with an old friend the other day. I’d spoken with him fairly recently, but it had been a while since I'd seriously opened up to him. I’m not really sure what made this time different, other than the fact that I’d been drinking. Still, for the first time in way too long, I felt heard, as if he was seriously listening. I spoke in that  non-self-reflective way, opening up in a manner that I can truly do, only when speaking with close friends.

It felt good, but as I spoke, I had this terrible gnawing feeling. I started thinking about the fact that soon our meeting would be over. I began to  become self-conscious of the fact that I better say everything I had to say, as I was unsure when the circumstances that had led to this conversation might happen again. I don’t know who  is responsible for our recent divide, although I can’t deny that I am far from blameless.

So there I was, with a combination of the joy that came from opening up to a friend, combined with the recognition that I better not waste a moment of our time together. Then, it was time to go. Reluctantly, I parted, sadly taking my leave. Without turning my back, I bowed and took three steps back.

Yihiyu l’ratzon imrei pi v’hegyon libi lifaniecha, HaShem Tzuri v’Goali.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Second Chances- How the Jews of Shushan came to re-accept the Torah

In what is one of my favorite midrashim, Chazal suggest that Bnei Yisrael’s initial acceptance of the Torah, in the time of the Exodus was flawed, and was only corrected in the time of Purim. I’ve always been fascinated by the imagery and idea of God holding a mountain over the heads of Bnei Yisrael and forcing them to accept the Torah, as well as the recognition that this type of acceptance was inherently flawed. What could this mean, and how can we suggest that the Torah was re-accepted in the time of the Purim story, at the time when the Jew’s lives were literally threatened.? I’d like to suggest that the answer might be found in a poem.

In Renascence, a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay nearly 100 years ago, the story is told of a person who discovers  the grandeur of the world in which she lives:

I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity

Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,

Bent back my arm upon my breast,

And, pressing of the Undefined

The definition on my mind,

Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass

Until it seemed I must behold

Immensity made manifold

Later, she discovers that extant within that grandeur, there also exists a world of pain and suffering

A man was starving in Capri;

He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,

And knew his hunger as my own.

I saw at sea a great fog bank

Between two ships that struck and sank;

A thousand screams the heavens smote

Unable to see and, even more, feel and bare the pain, she asks to die and is given her wish, and thus, freed from her pain

Long had I lain thus, craving death,

When quietly the earth beneath

Gave way, and inch by inch, so great

At last had grown the crushing weight,

Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,

And sank no more,—there is no weight

Can follow here, however great.

From off my breast I felt it roll,

And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust

It is only when she hears the rain fall upon her grave that she comes to realize that she will never again witness the beauty and grandeur of the world

I would I were alive again

To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine

Of every slanting silver line,

To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze

From drenched and dripping apple-trees.

For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun

Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth

Until the world with answering mirth

Shakes joyously, and each round drop

Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top

She prays and is given back her soul, and with it, a second lease on life

Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I

And hailed the earth with such a cry

As is not heard save from a man

Who has been dead, and lives again.

About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground

Given a second chance, she discovers the Godliness that has existed in the world all along, ready to be seen by those who will only open their eyes

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide;

Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.

The heart can push the sea and land

Farther away on either hand;

The soul can split the sky in two,

And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart

That can not keep them pushed apart;

And he whose soul is flat—the sky

Will cave in on him by and by.

Let’s apply this to the aforementioned midrash.

When Bnei Yisrael received the Torah, they existed in a bubble where God’s grandeur could not be ignored. They owed their very existence to God’s miracles, and could not have survived in the wilderness without them. Awestruck, they had no choice but to accept the Torah. Still, such an agreement is inherently lacking. How can an acceptance based on an unworldly experience count, for those who would soon be thrust into a world of pain? Would they not have tremendous remorse when they discover all of the suffering that exists within the natural world? One could certainly argue that their acceptance was based upon a faulty understanding.

The Jews who lived at the time of the Purim story, were living in a very different world. Their world was one where 10 of the of the 12 tribes had been driven off, perhaps, to never return again. Theirs was a world where God’s very existence seemed to be open to doubt, as He had allowed thousands of men, women and children to die, and allowed His holy abode to be destroyed. One could not blame the Jews of that generation for wishing to give up; to metaphysically die, and stop having to deal with the struggles of theodicy.

Then, they are given their wish. They are told that the chosen nation will no longer have to live with the struggles, or, in fact, live at all. A genocidal maniac is ready to destroy them all. On the cusp of destruction, after coming together and praying, they are given a second chance. This time, they accept their relationship based not upon miracles, but upon a realization that, even when He appears absent, that God can be seen by those are willing to look.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Middle Ground- Listening to, learning from, and respecting those with whom we disagree

Do we have the ability to listen, really listen, to those with whom we disagree? Are we able to seriously consider our opponent's words, or do we pause, just to be polite, before we can again express our view? What about compromise and finding the middle-ground? Are we willing to be mostly, or only partially correct?

Rav Benny Lau is a creative thinker and a compelling speaker. In addition to the sefairm that he has written on different sifrei Tanach, he has also written a number of books on the chachamim. Recently, he started Project 929, his most ambitious project yet. Project 929 is a program where all of the citizens of Israel, religious, traditional or secular are encouraged to learn one chapter of the 929 chapters of Tanach each day. As I have written elsewhere, I am very impressed by the whole project. Thousands of Israelis have embraced this project, including some, who are learning Tanach for the first time.

Still, the project has not been without some controversy. Some of the essays on the website have been written in a way that some consider to be extremely disrespectful. Some rabbis, including those who  are generally open to bringing Torah to the people, have written articles that are critical of the project. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Project 929 be stopped. Still, despite the criticism, and some bumps in the road, the program continues to flourish.

Last night, I  heard Rav Lau speak for the first time. He is a charismatic and entertaining speaker. The shiur was about how throughout history, there has been a dispute over whether the Torah should be brought to the people, or kept exclusively within the walls of the beit midrash. Beginning with Ezra HaSofer’s opposition to the decision of the Kohanim to keep the Torah in the Beis HaMikdash, and continuing through the fight between the misnagdim and the chassidim, Rav Lau showed how there has always been a dispute over who controls the Torah and where it belongs. It was interesting, and thought-provoking shiur. And yet.

When Rabbi Lau moved to the discussion about Project 929, he branded those who disagree as the modern Kohanim, a phrase that was not meant positively. Even when he was encouraged to view those who disagree in a more positive light, he stuck to that term. I have no doubt that some of his opponents have said things that are hurtful and counter-productive. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering whether he might have expressed things differently. Especially considering the fact that his audience was clearly sympathetic to his position, I thought about what might have happened had he, in the spirit of Hillel, expressed in more nuanced terms the position of his opponents. Much would have been gained had he suggested that he respects his opponents passion and love for the Torah.

There are many issues that divide the Torah-observant community. If we are to make peace with one another, we need to listen to what is being said, both spoken and unspoken, by those with whom we disagree. Even if we are certain that we are correct, no especially when we are certain that we are correct, it is imperative that we not demonize, and instead take the time to listen.