Winning by Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 26, 2018

nizchuni banai, nizchuni banai

My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me. (Bava Metzia 59b)

I hope these thoughts begin a conversation.

I have been thinking about winning and losing lately. The build up to the midterm elections and their aftermath provide examples of just how far people are willing to go to win.

Personal attacks against candidates and their family members, unverified claims of voter fraud and election tampering are just some of the examples of what candidates and citizens are willing to do.

We know that love and hate can cause people to act in ways that are out of the ordinary or even destructive.  We know this, perhaps, from our own actions, or from watching others. The Midrash (Lechach Tov) and the Gemara (San. 105b) put it well when they state that love and hate corrupts normal behaviour.

במדבר כב, כא ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו תנא משום רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אהבה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מאברהם דכתיב (בראשית כא, יד) וישכם אברהם בבקר שנאה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מבלעם שנאמר ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו

  • It is stated: “And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey”(Numbers 22:21). It was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: Love negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Abraham, as it is written: “And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3). Atypically, he saddled the donkey himself and he did not wait for his servants. Likewise, hatred negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Balaam, as it is stated: “And Balaam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21).

Jewish Law teaches us that there must be other factors that we consider other than getting what we want, even when the stakes are high and the cause noble. Rabbi Soloveitchik makes this point when he talks about retreat regarding sexuality and ultimately claims that the greatest hero is the person who lives in a dialectic between advance and retreat. What is so unfortunate is that people accept this mode of living in their religious life, but not in politics, national, local or communal.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816 – 1893) uses the episode of Shimon and Levi’s revenge for Dina’s rape to powerfully illustrate how people can go overboard when fighting for even the noblest of causes.

He admits that there was an important reason to punish the people involved in the attack, yet, he also notes this:

:ומ״מ מאש כזה ג״כ יש להזהר הרבה לכוין המקום והזמן. ובל״ז היא מקלקלת הר

“Nevertheless, from such a fire (a righteous cause) one must also be careful to choose the proper time and place otherwise it can lead to great destruction.”

Later in Bereishit, the Netziv adds:

:שע״י כעס נעשה דברים זרים יותר מהנדרש לצורך הענין ובזה יהיה קלקולו יותר מתיקונו

“Because of anger, strange and exaggerated actions are taken, which result in more destruction than repair.”

The Netziv’s marshals a Gemara in Massechet Taanit to make root his approach in the teachings of Chazal.

ואמר רבא האי צורבא מרבנן דרתח אורייתא הוא דקא מרתחא ליה שנאמר (ירמיהו כג, כט) הלא כה דברי כאש נאם ה’ ואמר רב אשי כל ת”ח שאינו קשה כברזל אינו ת”ח שנא’ (ירמיהו כג, כט) וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע

  • And, incidentally, the Gemara relates that which Rava said: This Torah scholar who grows angry, it can be presumed that it is his Torah study that angers him. Therefore, he must be given the benefit of the doubt, as it is stated: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29). And similarly, Rav Ashi said: Any Torah scholar who is not as hard as iron, but is indecisive and wavers, he is not a Torah scholar, as it is stated in the same verse: “And as a hammer that breaks rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29).

Yet, the, despite this rabbinic praise of the toughness of the Torah scholar, the Talmud then offers a counterbalance.

אמר רבינא אפ”ה מיבעי ליה לאיניש למילף נפשיה בניחותא שנאמר (קהלת יא, י) והסר כעס מלבך וגו

Ravina said: And even so, one is required to teach himself to act gently, as it is stated: “And remove anger from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh” (Ecclesiastes 11:10).

We are living in a time when we do not appreciate the value of retreat even if the only way forward leads to, as the Netziv noted, more destruction than repair. We pay a high price for this and it erodes our social fabric.

It is interesting that the Netziv did not question the ethics of Shimon and Levi’s actions (as much as we may find their killing of every mail difficult to explain), his point is much more subtle and has nothing to do with legality. The Netziv reminds us that even if we act in accordance with the law , there are still things that we might do for a good cause that are not worth the ultimate price we pay.

We can learn from God who surrendered to the Rabbis in the case of the Tanur Shel Achnai. Of course, God was “right” and has a just cause, yet, He practices retreat for the sake of the greater good.

 

Advertisements

What Is Torah For? By Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 10, 2018

One of the more beautiful and meaningful Jewish customs is the practice of  starting the Torah again right after we complete it on Simchat Torah. The reason we do this is so not to give the appearance that once done with the Torah we no longer have interest in it, that we have lost our love for the Torah.

At first glance, it does not seem to be a realistic fear. After all, before we read the Torah, we will dance with the Torah, hold the Torah close and even kiss the Torah. Such intimacy seems to be enough to remove the suspicion of losing our love for the Torah.

Rabbi Avraham Pam suggests that while all of the affection we show the Torah is lovely, it may not be enough.

He points to a fascinating midrash that talks about,  of all things, kissing.

אָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה, כָּל נְשִׁיקוֹת שֶׁל תִּפְלוּת הֵן, חוּץ מִשָּׁלשׁ, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרִישׁוּת, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרָקִים.

(Shmot Rabbah 5:1)

Our Rabbis of blessed memory have said: All kisses are silly, save three: The kiss of greatness, the kiss of parting, the kiss of meeting.

The midrash goes on to give examples of each type of kiss.

The Kiss of greatness refers to when Samuel anointed Saul as king. The Navis says that after he anointed him, he kissed him. 

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א י, א): וַיִּקַּח שְׁמוּאֵל אֶת פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן וַיִּצֹּק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וַיִּשָּׁקֵ

The kiss of parting refers to when Orpah kissed her mother in law goodbye once she decided to part after he husband had died.

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרִישׁוּת (רות א, יד): וַתִּשַּׁק עָרְפָּה לַחֲמוֹתָה

The kiss of reunion refers to Aaron going out to greet Moshe. 

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרָקִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ בְּהַר הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּשַּׁק לוֹ

Each three of these types of kisses is valued by our tradition as can be seen by the midrash.

Yet, there is one that seems to rise above the others – that is the kissing of greatness – נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה. 

According to the Malbim this type of kiss is meant to transfer or to share some aspect of one person with the other.

When Samuel kissed Saul, says the Malbim, he conveyed some of sanctity to Saul.

The kisses of greeting and parting leave the recipient in the same state as they were before the kiss. The kiss of greatness elevates the recipient to greater heights.

Rav Pam continues that on Simchat Torah, all of the kissing may be misunderstood to be either the kissing of greeting or the kissing of parting.

Beginning to read the Torah again, right after we have finished it, defines the kissing of the Torah that we did as a Nishika shel Gidula -a kiss wherein we feel the Torah kiss us back and we absorb some of its greatness. We declare that as we danced , hugged and kissed the Torah, we will never be the same.

This is not only a lovely image, it is advice as to how to approach Torah study. Each time we study Torah, we should do it, not only with an eye towards mastering the material, but also towards absorbing ohw the messages of the Torah influence and alter our worldview.

We will never look at the world the same way again, We will never look at other people the same way again. Our outlook on life will be forever filtered through the lens of the Torah .

This is the plain meaning of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (6:1) that states:

שָׁנוּ חֲכָמִים בִּלְשׁוֹן הַמִּשְׁנָה, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁבָּחַר בָּהֶם וּבְמִשְׁנָתָם

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה… וּמַלְבַּשְׁתּוֹ עֲנָוָה וְיִרְאָה, וּמַכְשַׁרְתּוֹ לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק וְחָסִיד וְיָשָׁר וְנֶאֱמָן, וּמְרַחַקְתּוֹ מִן הַחֵטְא, וּמְקָרַבְתּוֹ לִידֵי זְכוּת, וְנֶהֱנִין מִמֶּנּוּ עֵצָה וְתוּשִׁיָּה בִּינָה וּגְבוּרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ח) לִי עֵצָה וְתוּשִׁיָּה אֲנִי בִינָה לִי גְבוּרָה. וְנוֹתֶנֶת לוֹ מַלְכוּת וּמֶמְשָׁלָה וְחִקּוּר ,

The Rabbis taught in the language (style) of the Mishnah: Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake…He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgement…

When we look at the world via torah tinted lenses, everything is different. Chance meetings becomes opportunities for kiddush hashem, eating becomes an opportunity to elevate what is seemingly plain in life to sanctified act. Even politics can be an opportunity to exercise the Torah value of V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha, and to activate the true meaning living in a society where everyone’s Tzelem Elokim – Godly image –  is recognized. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it beautifully when he wrote: “The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence…The secret of every being is the Divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event”

If we truly connect ourselves to the Torah and take seriously the messages of the Torah then each encounter with it changes our life – like a nishika shel gedula – like the kiss of greatness.


Fixing Sinai: Purim and Jewish Conscience: Barry Gelman

March 8, 2017

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai. (Shabbat 88a. Thanks to Sefaria for providing the translation – https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.88a.5?lang=bi)

This account of what happened at Sinai is very different from what we read in the Torah. Besides the question that the Rabbis raise themselves – “ From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah”, this account raises another question.

The great Na’aseh V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen) moment, when Bnei Yisrael accepted the torah unconditionally, is undermined by the Rabbinic version.

Why would the Rabbis offer this alternate account that makes Bnei Yisrael out to be reluctant to accept the Torah? Additionally, how were matters actually remedied on Purim?  Read the rest of this entry »


Can a Smoker Serve As A Witness?

January 3, 2016

6a00d83451b71f69e201774376c635970d-400wiRabbi Eliyahu Abergel (pronounced Aberjel) has taken an unprecedented step in practically applying the ban on smoking.

(See below for other considerations of this ruling, including applications to agunot)

After ruling that smoking is against Halacha, as many other poskim have done, he proceeds to take it one step further and bans a smoker from serving as a witness (Techumin Journal #33).
Rav Abergel’s  road to this conclusion is pretty straightforward.
He starts with the obligation to protect our well being.


שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות מאכלי עובדי כוכבים סימן קטז
סעיף ה
צריך ליזהר מליתן מעות בפיו, ג שמא יש עליהן רוק יבש של מוכי שחין. ולא יתן ז] פס ידו תחת שחיו, שמא נגע ידו במצורע או בסם רע. ח] ולא יתן ככרלחם תחת השחי, מפני הזיעה. (ד) ולא יתן (ה) תבשיל ד ולא משקים תחת המטה, מפני שרוח רעה שורה עליהם. ולא ינעוץ סכין בתוך אתרוג או בתוךצנון, שמא יפול אדם על חודה, וימות. הגה: ט] וכן יזהר מכל דברים המביאים (ו) לידי סכנה, י] כי סכנתא חמירא מאיסורא ויש לחוש יותר לספק סכנה מלספק איסור, יא] ולכן אסור לילךבכל מקום סכנה כמו ה תחת קיר נטוי יב] או יחידי בלילה, יג] וכן אסרו לשתות מים מן הנהרות בלילה יד] או להניח פיו על קלוח המים לשתות, כי דברים אלו יש בהן חשש סכנה (רמב”ם). טו] ומנהגפשוט ו שלא לשתות מים <ד> בשעת (ז) התקופה, וכן כתבו הקדמונים, ואין לשנות (אבודרהם ומרדכי ס”פ כל שעה רוקח סימן ער”ה ומהרי”ל ומנהגים). טז] עוד כתבו שיש (ח) לברוח מן העיר כשדברבעיר, ויש לצאת מן העיר בתחלת הדבר, יז] <ה> ולא בסופו (תשובת מהרי”ל סי’ ל”ה /מ”א/). וכל אלו הדברים הם משום סכנה, ושומר נפשו ירחק מהם יח] ואסור לסמוך אנס או לסכן נפשו בכל כיוצאבזה. (ועיין בחושן משפט סימן תכ”ז).
He then moves on to the disqualification of a willful sinner from being a witness.
שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות עדות סימן לד
עדים הפסולים מחמת עבירה, ובו ל”ה סעיפים
סעיף א
א }א{ רשע פסול לעדות, ב א) א’] ואפילו עד כשר, שיודע בחבירו שהוא רשע, ואין הדיינים מכירים רשעו, <א> אסור לו <ב> להעיד עמו, ג א{ אע”פשהוא <ג> עדות אמת (ל’ הרמב”ם פ”י מעדות). }ב{ ואצ”ל עד כשר שהוא יודע בעדות לחבירו, וידע שהעד השני שעמו עד שקר, שאסור לו להעיד.
סעיף ב
א] איזהו רשע, <ד> כל שעבר עבירה }ג{ שחייבים עליה מלקות; א’) ואצ”ל אם חייבים עליה מיתת ב”ד. ל”ש אם עבר לתיאבון, ל”ש אם עבר להכעיס.הגה: [א] ב] עבר עבירה ב) <ה> שאין בה מלקות, <ו> ב’] פסול מדרבנן (רבינו ירוחם נ”ב ח”ד).
סעיף ג
היתה עבירה <ז> שעבר מדרבנן, (א) }ד{ <ח> פסול מדרבנן. הגה: ג] וי”א בדבר מדבריהם, ב{ בעינן שעבר }ה{ ג’] משום חימוד ממון (ר”י נ”ב ח”ד ותוס’ פ’ איזהו נשך ועיטור).
Rav Abergel continues as follows:
One interesting aspect of the smoking in Halacha discussion is to follow the progression of the poskim on this issue.
In 2006 the Rabbinical Council of America published a teshuva prohibiting smoking. The Teshuva does a good job examining the reasons why Rav Feinstein did not forbid smoking and explaining why his reasoning no longer applies.
In the interim period, many poskim have declared smoking to be forbidden, including –  Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg and Rav Ovadia Yosef.
So we have gone from smoking being healthy to, while not good for you, not forbidden.
Finally, we come to Rav Abergel and his continuation of the process – from healthy, to not recommended, to forbidden but without practical consequences, to forbidden and therefore considered willfully sinful behavior.
Other considerations:
  1. This ruling would have interesting ramifications in terms of invalidating a witness, for example, in the case of a woman who is unable to secure a Get.
  1. For more on non observant witnesses, see here, pg. 135. Of course, if a non observant person is an acceptable witness, then so is a smoker and the point above is moot.
  1. We see here an example of a ruling that follows logic (if smoking is prohibited, then a smoker is a willful sinner and cannot serve as a witness), and can be used to achieve desirable goals (#1 above), perhaps being undone by another important ruling (#2).

Read the rest of this entry »


What Is Chanukah?

December 7, 2015

Everyone loves Chanukah – the secular, the religious and, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, even the communists.

He cites an amusing episode in: The Everlasting Chanukah (pg. 125) found in the Days of Deliverance volume.

“That same Hanukkah, I happened upon another curiosity…I chanced upon a copy of the Moscow newspaper Der Emes (Truth), the newspaper of the yestvektsiya, the Jewish  department of the notorious NKVD (the strong arm of the Soviet Union Secret Police). The newspaper also had an article on Hanukkah and the Hasmoneans. With every means at its disposal, the article argued that Hanukkah was actually a communist holiday, and the Jewish bourgeoisie and clerical world had no right to celebrate Hanukkah. Judah the Maccabee was the first Yesvekstsiya member.”

But, what is Chanukah? As the Talmud asks, “Mai Chanukah”? What is the nature of the day?

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein begins with a well known understanding of the holiday

“We tend to perceive the miracle of Chanukah as the restoration of past glory: the success of the Jewish nation in surviving – both physically and spiritually; in preserving its character, and in maintaining its values and its tradition.

This perception is well grounded in the “al ha-nissim” addition to the Amida prayer and to Birkat Ha-mazon, where we emphasize that the Hasmoneans “purified Your Temple.”

The miracle of Chanukah [follows the same model: it] consists essentially of destroying impurity, removing the idol from the Temple, and restoring Israel to its original state and status. This approach understands Chanukah as a holiday of restoration.

But, Rabbi Lichtenstein then offers us a warning not to misunderstand Chanukkah.

“However, closer examination of the name “Chanuka” and its root (ch-n-k) reveal that its essence is…the creation of a new framework and its implementation.  “ This approach is rooted in the etymology of the word Hanukkah – which means to be newly consecrated or dedicated.

Read the rest of this entry »


Davening With Kavanah – Thoughts on the challenge and some solutions. Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 19, 2014

Praying with Kavvanah (concentration) is very difficult.

Lest we think this is a modern problem reserved for the common person, think again.

Said R. Hiyya the great, “In all my days I never concentrated [properly on my Prayer.]One time I wanted to concentrate [properly]. So I meditated. And I said to myself, `Who goes up first before the king? The Arkafta [a high dignitary in Persia]  or the Exilarch?'”

Samuel said, “I count birds.”

R. Bun bar Hiyya said, “I count rows of bricks.”

Rabbi Matna said, “I am grateful to my head for when I arrive at the Modim prayer, it bows on it’s own.”

[Y. Berakhot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 4.]

Rabbi Hiyya, Samuel and Rabbi Bun. bar Hiyya all tried to concentrate on prayer, but their thoughts wandered, one to politics, one to nature and one was so bored that he simply started counting the bricks in the wall. Rabbi Mata’s expression of thanks to his head testifies to another common challenge to praying with Kavvanah – rote action. Often our mouths are saying things that are disconnected from our mind.

When we read this passage we should feel a sense of common struggle – everyone struggles with prayer, even the greatest of religious figures.

But, we should also realize that despite their struggles we do not find that these rabbis gave up on prayer.

How can we overcome some of these struggles? How can we succeed in praying with Kavanah.

While there are many strategies, I would like to start with two (I plan on writing more about this).

One of the biggest challenges to prayer is that people are often not “in the mood” to pray. Some may not be feeling particularly grateful, others many not be in an introspective state of mind and others may simply be too busy.

The key here is to use prayer to make us feel prayerful. There is no doubt that it is hard to instantaneously get in the mood to pray. It is also true that the text of the prayers are there to move us. Words like, “Blessed are You, Lord, who forms the radiant light”, are there to awaken us to the marvels of the world. “You have loved us with great love, Lord our God, should move us to gratitude for the special relationship between God and the Jewish people as expressed by the Torah. Each and every prayer can be viewed as a means to rouse us to new and deeper understanding and appreciations of life. Do not wait to be in the mood to pray, use prayer to put you in the mood.

The second strategy is to realize that prayer is a cumulative experience.

Each prayer experience is a layer in the prayer career of an individual. Insights gained at one time lead to and add to the next prayer experience. As such, prayer gets better, more focused and richer the more we do it.

In this way, prayer is like many other aspects of life. Human relationships (marriage, friendships, family) grow and flourish from one experience to the next.  Viewing the events of our lives as disconnected incidents robs us of the ability to grow from the wisdom of accumulation.

To take advantage of this reality, we need to pray with consistency.

Inconsistent praying simply does afford the same cumulative experience and leave us feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, tightly connected prayer opportunities can lead to an overall feeling of satisfaction and meaning in prayer.

Try these strategies for a few weeks. I think they will work. They work for me.


Reflecting on Reflecting – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 24, 2014

The only way we can discuss prayer is on the basis of self-reflection, trying to describe what has happened to us in a rare and precious moment of prayer. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; The Insecurity of Freedom: Prayer as Discipline pg. 255)

 

This is the great paradox of prayer. As Rabbi Heschel says a few lines later: “You  cannot, of course, analyze the act of prayer while praying.” Doing so would be to violate the sacred nature of prayer as total immersion (See pg. 255 in the Essay Prayer as Discipline for more on this). On the other hand, we cannot afford not to spend time self-reflecting on our prayer experiences. Like anything else in life, events that we let go by without contemplation, leave little impact on us.

So, we have no choice but to find time after we have prayed to try our best to recollect how we were feeling when we prayed. Maybe this is the companion to Adonai Sifatai Tiftach….” said before we pray. That statement is actually a request for help that we pray with Kavannah.

After we have prayed, we should look back to see if it worked. Was there a particular time during Tefilla that I felt moved? Was there a particular time I felt distracted? How can I duplicate the times i found moved and minimize the distractions?

We should also do this institutionally. if there was a particular teffila that had the community engaged, consider the elements and see if they can be duplicated on a regular basis. And, if there are elements of tefilla that do not engage the people, it may be time to envision a different approach.

Meaningful prayer is so difficult. We can attain success in prayer more often if we take time to reflect on how we pray, what works and what does not.