Category Archives: Jewish

Conscience Versus Superego, Continued

A while ago, I authored a piece entitled “Frankl’s Conscience Versus Freud’s Superego”, which, for whatever reason, has been the most read post on this blog.  I left off with the following thought/question:

But then, the question, which appears in my mentor Dr. Teria Shantall’s book The Quest for Destiny (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003) is: how do you differentiate between an experience of true conscience (i.e. according to Frankl’s model) and superego-type pressures? In other words, how do you know that you are not simply acting out of guilt or because of demands, but are responding to a call to meaning where your desire to do what is right is authentic?

It seems to me that if we are to be able to answer this question, we would have to subvert some basic paradigm assumptions that we customarily make about life. Also, the difficulty in answering this question on highlights just how deeply embedded Freud’s model is in the subconscious of the average Westerner.

I want to suggest that there is a litmus test for a “conscience” versus “superego” experience.  I have found, in my study of Torah, that there are many concepts I have learned therein that are simply anti-intuitive.  Take the commandments of shaatnez and kashrus, for example.  The first is a prohibition against wearing garments comprised of an admixture of wool and linen, as well as deriving benefit from other products with this combination.  Manufacturers today and for many centuries past have made fabrics out of wool and linen, because the addition of linen makes the product feel lighter, while the wool’s weight enables linen to lay better.  Why on earth would one forgo the luxury or convenience that can come from such an alloy of materials?

The second consists of many laws that render certain types of animals unfit for consumption, but with no reason given.  The fact that a Jew may not eat pork is not because at one point refrigeration did not exist and therefore people had to contend with the problem of trichinosis; the prohibition against pork is not a public health mitzvah.  In fact, there were methods used to preserve meat in the ancient world, such as salting (which is why hard salami keeps for extended periods of time); why not just salt the pork, if the problem is trichinosis?  Rather, the reason why these animals are prohibited is because the Torah designates them as such.   But why?

Both of these aforementioned mitzvos fall under the category of chukim, statutes for which there is no rationale other than “that is the law”.  These are laws that must be followed without knowing G-d’s reason for them.  Furthermore, the tension between a person’s desires and the Torah’s parameters ought to be experienced and even preserved, according to some authorities.  Rambam, for example, states that a person should not say that he does not desire something forbidden to him by the Torah; rather, he should say that, in fact, he does desire the forbidden item, but desists because the Torah forbids it to him.  Does this imply that the Torah is supposed to operate upon us from the realm of the superego, like another–although divine–moral message?

To be continued…

Tagged , , ,

Tisha B’Av 5770: Where is the Love?

This morning during kinnos, I found myself spacing out, my thoughts blurring together as my eyes lit upon themes of destruction, starvation, crusades, and devastation. I have been to many shiurim over the years about the kinnos, and I am informed as to the historical background of each one, who Rabbi Elazar HaKalir was, and what the Jewish communities of Worms and Mainz had to endure. Yet, every year, reciting the kinnos is a very difficult avodah for me.

There is a concept of being “mosif tzar”, increasing one’s pain and mourning on Tisha b’Av, and undoubtedly the kinnos were composed to facilitate this. When one reads about the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, it should be impossible not to feel pain. If this is not your reaction, you should check yourself out. On the other hand, if one’s sole reaction to reading about these events is anger and resentment–if one comes away simply gnashing his or her teeth at Romans, crusaders and Nazis, may the memory of them be obliterated–he or she is missing the point.

Our sages have stated clearly in the Talmud that there is no pain or punishment without sin. In order to understand the perspective from which the kinnos were composed, we have to consider the Hebrew word אבל, which is normally used like the conjunction “but”. In the text of Tachanun, the supplication prayer that follows the amidah, we find the following introduction:

אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ. תָּבוא לְפָנֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ וְאַל תִּתְעַלַּם מִתְּחִנָּתֵנוּ. שֶׁאֵין אָנוּ עַזֵּי פָנִים וּקְשֵׁי ערֶף לומַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ צַדִּיקִים אֲנַחְנוּ וְלא חָטָאנוּ. אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ וַאֲבותֵינוּ חָטָאנוּ:

Our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, let our prayer come before You and do not ignore our supplication, for we are not so brazen and stiff-necked to say, our L-rd and G-d of our forefathers, that we are righteous and have not sinned. Truly, we and our forefathers have sinned.

Here, the word אבל is used in its true sense to mean, “truly” or even “alas”. The composers of the kinnos did not intend to voice a complaint in doing so, like “how, G-d can You have done this to us?”  Rather, the kinnos are a confirmation that what has been prophesied in our Torah has come to pass: unfaithfulness to G-d’s Torah leads to destruction.  Alas, we see the fruit of our straying away.  Interestingly enough the Hebrew word for a mourner is composed of precisely the same letters, even written the same way: אבל.  Perhaps we can learn from this that the essence of one who is in mourning is a person who is confronted with an undeniable truth, an ultimate message, and can do nothing else but acknowledge it.

There is no doubt that the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash are basic articles of Jewish faith, two major items that Jews have yearned for more than two millennia.  The very fact that you and I merit to be a part of the nation that have maintained this sacred yearning for so long should be the cause of great joy.   But let’s not neglect our responsibility for the continuation of the Exile and the delaying of Moshiach’s coming.  What we should be mourning today is our contribution to these things.

I mentioned before that our sources state explicitly that unfaithfulness to G-d’s Torah leads to destruction.  Remember, friends, that a large percentage of the mitzvos are categorized as bein adam lechavero, “between man and his fellow”.  Take inventory at the end of a day, and try to discern whether on the interpersonal level we have made this world a better place or not.  Did you engage in the most basic acts of kindness? Did you smile at someone, wish them a good morning (or a “good Shabbos” [!!]), hold a door for someone, try to determine where you could be of help?  Did you encourage anyone today? Did you use your words to create peace in the world? If you cannot answer “yes” to any of these questions, and you find that your behaviors reflected the opposite of these things, do not go to sleep until you have rectified the situation.  Modern technology obligates us; you can always send an email, leave a voice message, write an encouraging letter or greeting card–even after hours.

G-d allowed the Beis HaMikdash to be destroyed, but He left us standing.  It was a show of kindness from Him that He took His wrath out on the “wood and stones”, and not the Jewish nation in its entirety.  The Beis HaMikdash was G-d’s home amongst us as it were.  But our behavior towards each other was so saturated with hate that it was no longer a comfortable place for Him.

If we invest our energy in caring for each other the way He cares for us, if we try to see the preciousness of every soul and the tenderness of every heart, we will merit a similar reaction from the One Who loves us all, and see the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash–G-d’s dwelling place in our world–speedily and in our days, amen.

Gimmel Tammuz 5770: Remembering the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztvk”l

There are certain people that I wish I had met personally. It frustrates me to no end that I was born and raised mere blocks away from 770 Eastern Parkway, but did not have the presence of mind or the awareness–and hence, not the desire–to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. It’s as if I had entered the proverbial room just after he’d left it. It amazes me to think that I was born in Methodist Hospital on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, swung my Louisville Slugger for the Saint Francis Xavier little league in Prospect Park, and spent hours in the candy store on Ninth Street in front of a Pac Man machine, while a few steps away, someone was changing the world.

Last night, as the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit swept in, I pulled the Sefer Tanya off the shelf and flipped it open to the place where I had left off a while ago.

On that page, the Alter Rebbe gave a deep explanation of the verse, כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ “for this thing (the Torah) is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). Incidentally, this is the key verse upon which the first section of Tanya is based, and serves as the source for the three-tier model of thought, speech and action–three main areas where a person’s spiritual work lies.

There, the Alter Rebbe quoted the Zohar in explaining that “to do it” refers to the “fuel” that keeps the flame of G-d burning on one’s head, the holy fire of the soul. What is this fuel? Ma’asim tovim, good deeds and actions. This is the purpose and mission for which the pure and perfect soul’s descent into the corporeal realm, which is fraught with so much darkness, is justified: so that goodness will be wrought in the physical world.

Upon reflection, I don’t know what could sum up the essence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe more accurately. The Rebbe lived this teaching so concretely, always placing the emphasis on the doing. Even though Chabad has an enormous proprietary system of mikvaos, yeshivos, seminaries, batei din, and hechsherim–all of the things required to sustain a worldwide community of Lubavitcher Chassidim, this was not enough for the Rebbe. The Rebbe could not be satisfied with a following of chassidim observing the mitzvos while the rest of the Jewish people languished and atrophied spiritually. He sent his people everywhere to help their brethren “do it”: learn Hebrew, learn Torah, daven, put on tefillin, light Shabbos candles, give tzedakah–actualize the Torah in their lives, and hence, in the world.

But lest one think that this is merely the stupendous account of a successful kiruvmagnate–think again. The Rebbe’s efforts flowed forth from a deep and genuine sense of caring about other people, from a desire to transform this into a better and more meaningful world for all of its inhabitants (the Rebbe’s outreach efforts went beyond the Jewish people to non-Jews as well), and from an unquenchable thirst for closeness to G-d Himself. This is evident in the interactions he had with everyone with whom he came into contact. This genuineness and caring is such a rare and precious commodity, as hard to find as common decency and honesty in our own age.

Again, however, caring was not enough. Many of us spend time taking pride in the kol torah of our batei midrash and wondering what will be with our fellow Jews out there. The Rebbe built an army of caring soldiers committed to implementing his vision in every corner of the world–which is where you will find Lubavitcher sh’lichim(emissaries). Steven Covey, in his well-known self-development book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, writes in a section on pro-activity that one should focus on “be” and not “have”. The Rebbe went a step forward; he focused on “do”. His efforts continue to keep the holy flame of Jewish souls burning.

May his merits protect us.

Tagged , , , , ,

Names and Redemption: Shemos 5770

This week’s parsha begins with the phrase,ואלא שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה, “these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Mitzrayim”. Since the arrival of the bnei yisrael in Mitzrayim was already mentioned only six chapters before this one, it seems superfluous to repeat the idea as if was never stated.

Why does the Torah have to say this here?

The Ramban explains that this first verse in Shemos is actually a direct continuation from the topic begun earlier in Bereishis. There, we are told that, “Israel dwelled in the land of Mitzrayim, in the land of Goshen. They had a portion in it, were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” This sounds very positive. However, the Kli Yakar informs us that the verse is telling us something very negative. Despite the Jews’ original intention to live temporarily in Mitzrayim, i.e. for the duration of the famine, they became so ensconced there that G-d had to forcefully take them out with a “strong hand”.

A few verses later, in Parshas Vayechi, we read that after Yaakov Avinu passed away, the eyes of the Bnei Yisrael “closed” to their own pilght; they became unaware, like the mice in a mine shaft who cannot detect the subtle changes in the quality of the air available to them—until it is too late. What does this mean? It means that the golus Mitzrayim (the Egyptian exile) began way before a “new king arose in Mitzrayim” and enslaved the Jews; it began when everything was prosperous. But the eyes of Israel being closed also implies that whatever happened during the 210 years after the twelve tribes arrival in Mitzrayim was essentially tangential.

The Ramban refers to the book of Shemos as Sefer Galus v’Geulah—the book of exile and redemption. Not simply, “Exodus”, which refers only to leaving Egypt, but also geulah, being redeemed. It’s not enough to leave; you have to be redeemed. Leaving Egypt did not make us free. We did not only gain freedom from the enslavement of Egypt; we went towards the awesome responsibility of being servants of Hashem.

Exile, says the Ramban, would not be concluded until the Jews returned to their place and to the spiritual level of the forefathers. This was achieved through the milestones of Har Sinai and the building of the Mishkan, which created the context for an indwelling of the Shechinah. True redemption.

By dint of the fact that this section of the Torah has two names, “Shemos” and “Sefer Galus v’Geulah”, the Ramban is telling us that there is an intrinsic connection between names and redemption.

The Midrash tells us that one of the things that the bnei yisrael did not change while enslaved in Egypt was their names. This continued for the entire 210 year period of their servitude. If you stop to think about this for a second, very few of us can claim that type of Jewish continuity for that length of time, no matter where our families come from. Even in this country, where the language is Hebrew, many people do not have traditional Jewish names.

What is a name?

There are many views on this topic. Here, the words of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlit”a, are precise. The words shem and sham are interrelated. First of all, they have the exact same shoresh—even the same letters. What is the difference between sham and shem? We use the word sham to indicate where something is located or contained. In fact, the word shamayim is simply a plural form of the word sham; shamayim is the ultimate sham, the totality of sham. There can be no more sham-ness than the seemingly endless shamayim. Shem, on the other hand, is a word that indicates both the content of an item and its purpose.

Consider another word: shomem, which means both astonishing and desolate. When we describe a place in this way, we mean that there is no content and no purpose there; it is the exact opposite of shem. And it just so happens that the word Mitzrayim has the same gematria (numerical value) as the word shomem (380). Later in the parsha, when Paro is first told to release the bnei yisrael so that they could serve G-d, his response is, תכבד את העבודה על האנשים ויעשו בה ואל יעשו בדברי שקר, “increase the workload on these people, and keep them busy, and do not let them busy themselves with falsehood”. As if to say that the prescription for our lives was to be slaves, to work purposelessly for the duration of our miserable lives, without any deeper meaning. That is Mitzrayim. The Ramchal says that Paro’s response is the classic technique of the yetzer hara: keep the guy busy, so busy that he never has time or energy to take stock of his life.

Why was it so important for the bnei yisrael to retain their names?

A name tells us about the essential purpose and mission of the person to whom it belongs. The fact that the Sefer Galus v’Geulah begins with the names teaches us that people of the tribes of Israel, because of their names, were able to remember their mission even in the darkest stages of exile and slavery. The Midrash goes through each name, from Reuven to Binyamin, describing how each relates to the essence of that tribe, its tachlis, and a different aspect of geulah.

This applies each of us. When life seems purposeless, when we do not clearly sense our place in the world, we experience golus , exile, on a personal level. But that name brings us back; it tells us that we are needed in this world, that we each have a mission and a contribution to make. Sometime, a long time ago, we were welcomed into this world by our parents, and they delivered this message to us, the most affirming message possible: we wanted you here, and we have called you by name!

The Midrash tells us that this is precisely how Hashem feels about each one of us. שקולים הם ישראל כצבא השמים נאמר כאן שמות ונאמר בכוכבים שמות שנאמר מונה מספר לכוכבים לכוכם שמות יקרא, “Israel is like the stars in Heaven; here the verse mentions names, and there regarding stars, the verse mentions names”. מנא מספרם כמה היו ולפי שהם משולים לכוכבים קרא שמות לכולם, “He counted how many of them there were, and because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them.” I couldn’t figure out this Midrash; because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them? Are we being told that, just like Hashem knows about each star, He knows about each Jew? There would not be much of a chiddush here; He created everything, after all!

Rather, as Rashi statesלהודיע חבתן שנמשלו לכוכבים שמוציאן ומכניסן במספר ובשמותם שנאמר המוציא במספר צבאם לכלם בשם יקרא, “the Torah tells us here to inform us that we are beloved to Hashem; Israel is compared to the stars, as the verse states, ‘Who takes out the stars by the number of their host, He calls each one by name'”.

Why are stars so important?

The Malbim tells us, regarding that verse in Yeshaya, כל אחד יש לו שם מיוחד על פי פעולתו, “each one has a special name, in accordance with its purpose.” Now, we can understand the comparison, because each one of us has a unique name that hints at the awesome, unique mission each one of us has. And Hashem counts each one of us.

One other point: stars have a special quality of being points of light against the dark background of space. They glow even in the ultimate darkness, all the time. This is like klal yisrael, who, by tapping into the power of a name, are able to find light in the darkest moments, sparks of geulah that remind us that the true geulah is on its way, bimheira v’yameinu amen!

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Chanukah: Restoring Our Temple, Returning to One

CandlesRebbe Nachman, as recorded in Likutei Eitzos, Chanukah, makes a somewhat enigmatic statement: the selach na (“please forgive”s) that we utter on Yom Kippur enable us to partake of the holiness of Chanukah.

What is the connection?

In Likutei Moharan Tinyana 7:11, the Rebbe relates to the interaction between G-d and Moshe Rabbenu during the aftermath of the sin of the spies.  Moshe Rabbenu says to G-d, “please forgive this people for their sin in Your great kindness”.   In this case, Moshe Rabbenu was not only relating to the sin of speaking lashon hora about Eretz Yisrael, thereby causing an epidemic of bad faith amongst the Children of Israel; instead, he took the long view, and considered the sin in terms of its ultimate consequence: the future destruction of the Holy Temple.  The gemara (Taanis 29) states, “Hashem, may He be blessed, said to them, ‘you cried a crying for no reason.  I will establish a crying for all generations’.”  As we know, the lamenting over the idea of entering Eretz Yisrael occurred on Tisha b’Av, as did the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash.

Sin destroyed the Holy Temple.  The absence of the Temple is problematic in and of itself, because it was the primary mechanism in the expiation of sin for the Jewish people, both collectively and individually.  The verse (Yeshaya 1) states, “righteousness dwells in it”, and Rashi explains this to mean that this was possible because the morning tamid-offering cleared all of the sins from the previous night, while the afternoon tamid-offering cleared all of the sins from that day.  As long as the Beis HaMikdash was extant, it was possible for the Jewish people to be clean of sin.  Rebbe Nachman emphasizes here that this is all-important, because the Jewish people, due to their delicateness and high level of spirituality, cannot really bear the weight of sin, even for one day.  Without the Beis HaMikdash, there is no way to relieve ourselves of that crushing burden–and Moshe Rabbenu knew this.  Therefore, he said:

סְלַח-נָא, לַעֲו‍ֹן הָעָם הַזֶּה–כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ; וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה, מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד-הֵנָּה

Now, if you look at part of this phrase, namely:

הַזֶּה–כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ; וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה

You will notice that the roshei teivos (first letters), when arranged properly, spell out the word חנוכה, “Chanukah”.  Moshe Rabbenu asked specifically that the forgiveness of the Jewish people should involve an antidote to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash–a chanukas habayis (re-dedication of the house).  When the Maccabi’im entered the Beis HaMikdash and purified the altar, as we commemorate on Chanukah, this was an example of Moshe Rabbenu’s request for restoration made manifest for the benefit of the Jewish people.

The main aspect of the holiness of Chanukah that we aim for is the very purpose of that Holy Temple: to know that Hashem Hu HaElokim, that the L-rd is G-d–specifically, that His attributes of kindness and judgement, which appear as separate, contradictory forces in the world, are aspects of His Oneness. We end Yom Kippur with this statement, this idea. And we re-invoke it on Chanukah. This knowledge can enable us to purify ourselves from sin.

In addition, as we gaze at the menorah’s warm radiance, and the candles burn on into the night, let us tap into that desire that lies deep within us, to carry this knowledge of holiness and purity forth to our children, for all generations.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, zt”l, the Bostoner Rebbe

The Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, of blessed memory, passed away this past Shabbos at 1:20 PM, at the age of 88.

Although the Rebbe zt”l was born in Boston, he moved with his family to Jerusalem while a young child. There, he merited to thrive as a young boy in its holy atmosphere, as a student at the Chayei Olam yeshiva.  His father, the Rebbe Reb Pinchas Duvid Horowitz, zt”l felt strongly about his connection to the land of Israel, and purchased a large amount of property in the area north of Jerusalem. This parcel was reclaimed by the Israel Lands Authority and not returned to the Bostoner Rebbe. However, the Rebbe was offered in exchange a portion of the Har Nof neighborhood which was then in the planning stages. The Rebbe created a thriving community of chassidim there, which exists until today, with a younger satellite community in Betar Illit.

Of course, this is only part of the story of a life dedicated to bringing Jews close to Torah and chassidus, advocating for the ill and unfortunate, and proclaiming truth in a world of falsehood. The community in Har Nof is comprised in large part of people who came into contact with the Rebbe and his family while attending or staffing the prestigious Boston-area colleges and universities. The Rebbe’s New England Chassidic Center in Brookline, Massachusetts was and continues to be a beacon of authentic Jewish light to Jews of all backgrounds. This was long before the concept of kiruv became a commonly accepted notion in the Orthodox Jewish world. In addition to all of his outreach efforts, the Rebbe served as the head of Agudas Yisroel in America, and as a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel in Israel.

The Rebbe accompanied many other prominent rabbinic leaders to Washington DC in 1943 to plead with then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt to intervene on behalf of the Jews of Europe imperiled by Nazi Germany’s systematic efforts to bring about their annihilation.   More recently, the Rebbe led a very tenacious protest against the expulsion of the Jews from Gush Katif, shedding tears on a daily basis at the prospect of the removal of Jewish families from their homes and the destruction of their synagogues and institutions by the enemy.

Amongst the Rebbe’s biggest accomplishments was the founding of Rofeh International, an organization that provides the infirm and their families with medical referrals to expert doctors and kosher meals and hospitality to Jewish patients in Boston-area hospitals.

I remember the first time I saw the Rebbe. I came to spend Shevi’i Shel Pesach in Har Nof, and went to the Bostoner Beis Midrash. When I entered, I was transported to a magical place where the awesome mystery of chassidic life unfolded before me. Amidst tall bleachers bearing his chassidim, the Rebbe, clad in a beautiful tisch bekeshe and shtreimel, led everyone there in niggunim. Some of these were his family’s own traditional songs originating in the Zidichover tradition from whence Bostoner chassidus comes. Others were old Sephardic melodies that the Rebbe had heard as a child in Jerusalem. The Rebbe was flanked by his sons, who lead the movement today. I remember the thrill of being given shirayim from the Rebbe’s table, a slice of orange. In successive years I was fortunate enough to join hands with the chassidim and dance with the Rebbe as he led those present in shiras hayam, recreating the moment of the splitting of the Red Sea. Living in the Rebbe’s neighborhood enabled me to provide my children with the experience of a real chassidiche hoif, a court, where they could witness these things in real time.

The funeral procession was large, the streets of Har Nof filled to capacity with people escorting the Rebbe on his journey to his resting place on Har HaZeisim. This was truly befitting the tzaddik who graced all of our lives and imbued the lives of those who knew him with grace. May his memory be for a blessing, and may he be a gutte beyter for all of Klal Yisrael, as he was in his holy lifetime.

Tagged , , ,
%d bloggers like this: