Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On the Direction We Face- Choosing between a focus on ruchniyus versus gashmiyus

There’s been a lot written about the high costs of raising a family in the Orthodox world. There have many articles and discussions about the tuition crisis in the Modern orthodox world. While these are certainly very real issues which require serious thought, I’d like to look at another issue involving wealth and the Orthodox world. To what degree does the pursuit of wealth and comfort interfere with, and even contradict, the desire and ability to live a life of holiness?

There is a gemara in Maseches Baba Basra on 25b which says that one who wants to be wealthy should face slightly towards the north when davening, while one who wants to be wise should face towards the south. This is based on the fact that in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash the Shulchan, which represents physical blessing, was to the north of the mizbeach, while the menorah, which represents wisdom, was to its south. A friend of mine once pointed out that from the gemara it seems clear that one must choose their loyalty, and that one can’t truly pursue both paths. This, of course, is not to say that there are not people who do not possess wisdom and wealth. Rather, to some degree, one can only be most loyal and desirous of one of them.

Having just completed Rav Soloveichik’s Lonely Man of Faith, I was struck by how prescient much of what he wrote half a century ago was in describing the Orthodox world of today. In particular, I was taken by his description of a level of observance which desires to get the benefits of religion without any sacrifices. He bemoaned the sense that religion is there to provide comfort to us, without asking anything of us in return. I found myself wondering what he would say about communities where Torah and Mitzvos sometimes seem to be just a topping on top of the main course of consumerist values.

A dear mentor has noted that when reading certain religious periodicals, he is unsure whether to concentrate on the peshat in the “gemara” in the middle of the page, where stories are told of the gedolim who lived simply as they pursued lives of ruchniyus, or on “Rashi” and “Tosefos” on the sides of the page, where there ads for Pesach in Switzerland, and gourmet supermarkets advertising also sorts of delicacies. Again, I must stress that this I am not suggesting that wealth and deep Avodas HaShem cannot go together. Tanach and Shas contain examples of those who in fact combined both. Still, I wonder whether we as a community are putting the emphasis in the right place, and providing the message that when we must choose, there is one obvious choice we should make.

While we are blessed, to live in a time where are surrounded by prosperity, we also face certain challenges. We run the risk of becoming observant of mitzvos, while failing to live by some of the values of the Torah. While we often talk of “tzniyus”, modesty is about much more that what one wears. In the Middle Ages there were takanos made about not being ostentatious in building expensive homes. While one could, mistakenly in my opinion, make the claim that we no longer need to worry about those outside of our community seeing our wealth, we do need to be concerned by those inside of our community, indeed within our families seeing how we live. It is not just about the differences between the haves and the have-nots. It is the message of what we value most that should also concern us.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Of Skies and Hearts Aflame- partnering with HaShem in creation

Still groggy, I started my car, and began to drive. As I looked up, I saw one of the most breathtaking things I had ever seen. The sky over New York City was a stunning color of red. It brought to mind a fire, but one that provides warmth, rather than one that consumes. Over the next few minutes as I drove, I snuck in quick glances to witness this beautiful scene, before sunrise would make it disappear. For me, it was a truly religious experience. As the sky grew lighter, and the color began to change, I felt a mixture of sublime joy at the sight, and sadness, knowing it would soon be gone. My eyes kept on hungrily drinking in the the scene, but then suddenly, the beauty was gone. A large, dirty highway sign announcing the next exit, blocked the horizon. This man-made blight had ruined my last opportunity to see the NYC sky aflame one last time.

I began to think of why the juxtaposition between the sky and sign had been so jarring. At first, I thought it might be the difference between nature and things made by man. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. Part of the beauty of the scene that I had glanced was the NYC skyline. The red sky by itself would have been beautiful, but with the skyscrapers beneath it, it was spectacular. Additionally, there are things in nature which are unpleasant, or even painful, to see. So what bothered me so much? Suddenly, I thought of a passuk from Parshas Bereishis. וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ- And HaShem said to them “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land, and conquer it etc.”.

What does it mean to conquer the earth? To me, conquering brings to mind the idea of violence. One conquers in war. Destruction occurs before the opponent, through surrender or death, is subdued. What does God ask of us when he says the word וְכִבְשֻׁהָ? Are we truly meant to defeat the land? Should we build, dig, and manufacture with no thoughts of the violence we bring about to the earth itself, as well as to our own need for beauty?

I’d like to suggest that, homiletically at least, the word וְכִבְשֻׁהָ comes from the word כבש, ramp. This word is found by the altar in the Beis HaMikdash. The purpose of the ramp is to allow human beings to go up to a place of holiness. Man builds a structure through which he can draw close to God. When HaShem says וְכִבְשֻׁהָ, he does not ask us to conquer, or even to subdue the world, but rather to use human creativity and ingenuity to build things which are ramps, objects through which we have the opportunity to reach a more lofty place of holiness. We are asked to partner with God in how we change the world. Build buildings, roads, and yes, road signs, but look for ways to make these things more than utilitarian. Man, through his building can help God build a fire of warmth, rather than one which consumes.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Letter to My Son as he Begins to Learn Gemara

[This is not an actual letter I’m giving to my son. It’s the means through which I am sharing some personal thoughts. Not that I would not want him to see this. I expect that at some point, we will discuss many of the topics included in this “letter”.]

Dear Ashi,

For the fourth and final time, I attended a program celebrating your taking your next step as you develop as a Jew and a learner of Torah. Unlike the first three times; when you got your siddur, received your chumash, and began learning mishna, each of which filled me with joy, this past Sunday’s program, marking the beginning of your gemara learning, left me with mixed feelings. I’ve been thinking about the reasons why, and I’d like to try and explain.

As I listened to the various speakers, and watched you and your friends, I began to think about what lay ahead. Whereas when it came to davening, and learning chumash and mishna I had a pretty good idea that the experience would be a pleasant one, something I’ve since seen confirmed, with gemara, I’m a little afraid. Not, God forbid, because you are not intelligent enough. It’s davka your intelligence which makes me concerned. I find myself wondering how you will do with a curriculum which is overwhelmingly focused on gemara, to the exclusion or limitation of chumash, nach, halacha, and hashkafa/philosophy. I particularly wonder about this, knowing that you are likely to learn little, if any, aggadeta in any yeshiva. Will you be motivated to progress in these areas on your own? Might you start to think of these areas of Torah as being irrelevant to you as a Jew, or think they are meant “only” for girls?

Of perhaps greater concern is whether you will find this learning to be religiously satisfying. I’ll tell you the truth. Although I teach gemara, and love learning it, it is not in gemara where I find the most religious meaning. For me, a serious Ramban on the chumash, a beautiful and profound chassidic idea, and a slow tefilla are some of the places where I find sipuk hanefesh. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you will have the same experience. Still, I wonder what happens if you are spending many hours a day on gemara and you don’t find it sufficiently connects you to HaShem.

Finally, as you heard from some of those who spoke, gemara is very challenging. There’s no punctuation, or nekudos, and much of it is in Aramaic. On top of that, the topics and discussion can often be very technical and challenging. In fact, until fairly recently, it was fairly rare for anyone to learn gemara at all. With your sensitive neshama, I wonder what will happen when you see some classmates who can’t keep up. I’m sorry to say, too often, those boys often feel like failures, and express their pain in all sorts of ways. I hope you’ll remember that each person has tremendous value in the eyes of HaShem, and remember that inside every one of these boys, there is a pure and holy neshama. Although I don’t expect, you might struggle as well. Remember to apply these same ideas to yourself.

Of course, at the same time, I’m excited for you. In just the last few days, I’ve already seen how excited you are to be learning gemara. I know you are in a wonderful yeshiva, and it was quite clear on Sunday how much energy your rebbe has, and how much he cares about each of you. I look forward to many wonderful days of learning with you. I just want to make sure you know that gemara is just one part of the Torah, and that there are many ways to experience God’s closeness and love.