Thursday, October 19, 2017

Weinstein, Mayim Bialik and the Perils of Religious Instruction

I wrote the following for my Beit Midrash's weekly email, and on reflection I'd like to get feedback from a broader population, so I'm reproducing it here:

Two weeks ago, journalists revealed that Harvey Weinstein, a very influential Hollywood film producer, stands accused of many acts of sexual harassment and assault. The story has been given top coverage on every major news website.

Commenting on Hollywood's abusive culture, Orthodox Jewish actress Mayim Bialik wrote an apparently well-intentioned essay for the New York Times last week, describing her own experiences. Toward the end of the article, she stated, "I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy."

Ms. Bialik also wrote very clearly, "Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women." Nonetheless, she has been attacked by numerous victims of sexual abuse, who claim that she is blaming the victim. Ms. Bialik's message of 'I help protect myself by acting modestly' is understood as alleging that victims must not have acted modestly.

This is not what Ms. Bialik meant, as she has responded. However, I think the fact that people read her comments this way is important. As the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains, we are guilty of ona'at devarim [verbal abuse] if we convey to sufferers that they are responsible for their own pain, even if we don't mean that.

I think if we are to be honest, we must admit that ideas expressed in Torah can be seen as blaming the victims. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 2:6) associates Dinah's rape with the fact that she mixed among the people of Shechem. A well-known midrash (Psikta Zutrita to Shemot 2:12) links the rape of Shlomit bat Divri to her friendliness toward an Egyptian slavedriver. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21a) states that the sages reacted to the rape of Tamar, daughter of King David, by prohibiting seclusion of men with unmarried women. To my mind, these comments of our sages are meant to educate about hazards, not to claim that victims of abuse must have put themselves at risk. But if they are cited without context, or to a sensitive audience, or without complete explanation, these sources come across as indictments of rape victims.

We do need to learn and teach Torah, and halachic sexuality is certainly worth promoting. At the same time, we who learn/teach these texts are obligated to be very careful with our words. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) quotes King David, "One who commits adultery receives capital punishment, but he enters the next world. One who causes another person to blanch [in shame] in public has no share in the next world." May we learn from the events of the past two weeks; when addressing sensitive matters, even [or especially] when quoting Torah, let us choose our words with extra care.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Three Faces of Satan (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5778)

Critiques welcome - especially before Yom Kippur!

Like many Jewish children growing up in North America in the 1980’s, my only real exposure to Satan was via Dana Carvey’s Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. To me, Satan was a Christian concept, a red-skinned fellow with horns, a goatee, a tail, hooves and a pitchfork. You might read about his adventures in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In truth, Judaism does describe a Satan, but for most of the year we downplay it, barely mentioning it anywhere.[1] That is – until we arrive at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The Yamim Noraim seem to be the season for acknowledging Satan’s influence:
·         Why don’t we recite the monthly Birkat HaChodesh blessing in shul in advance of Rosh Chodesh Tishrei? Some say it’s to avoid alerting Satan that Rosh HaShanah is coming.[2]
·         Why do we stop blowing shofar one day short of Rosh HaShanah? According to some, it’s to confuse Satan.[3]
·         Why does the tokeia blow shofar out of the right side of his mouth on Rosh HaShanah? To combat Satan, who is described in Tanach as attacking on our right side.[4] Why do we blow shofar before musaf? To confuse Satan with multiple sets of shofar blasts.[5] And in some communities a Teruah Gedolah is sounded at the end of davening – you guessed it, to addle Satan.[6]
·         It’s not just Rosh HaShanah, either; our liturgy for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur mentions Satan, as the chazan pleads with Gd ותגער בשטן לבל ישטינני, to obstruct Satan lest it act against our prayers.
·         And who could forget the שעיר לעזאזל, the scapegoat which is at the heart of the Yom Kippur Avodah, which some interpret as associated with Satan?[7]
Clearly we have heightened concern for Satan at this time of year. Why?


First, we need to know what Satan actually is.

The Talmud[8] states, “הוא שטן הוא יצר הרע הוא מלאך המות” – “Satan is the Yetzer HaRa, and both of them are the Malach haMavet/Angel of Death.”
·         I know what the Malach haMavet does – it kills a person’s body, removing the soul.
·         I know what the Yetzer HaRa does – it kills a person’s actions, by tempting us to sin.
·         But what is Satan? What does Satan do?


A personal Satan appears in three stories in Tanach. If we look briefly at each of them, we will soon see a common thread which will first show us what Satan does, and then, second, answer the question of why Satan is so important at this time of year.

One story involves Dovid haMelech/King David.[9] After putting down a rebellion, Dovid haMelech initiated a military census and a mandatory draft. The Talmud[10] is aghast; how could Dovid haMelech make this basic mistake? Schoolchildren know we are not allowed to count individuals![11] But as Tanach records, ויעמוד שטן על ישראל ויסת את דוד למנות את ישראל. Satan arose and persuaded Dovid to count Israel. Satan told Dovid haMelech, “You have no allies anymore. They deserted you to follow one rebel, and they will desert you again. You cannot lead this nation.” And so Dovid created a military census and a draft.

The second story involves Iyov/Job. The celestial malachim are gathered before Gd, when Satan crashes the party[12] and declares before Gd, “Business is good! I can go wherever I want, and I am welcomed with open arms.[13]” Gd responds by defending the value of humanity, identifying a single champion, Iyov, who is pure in his relationship with Gd. To which Satan responds, “There are no pure human beings; Iyov is as venal and selfish as the rest of them. Take away his wealth, and he’ll blaspheme like everyone else.” This, of course, leads to the great test of humanity that is the Book of Iyov.

The third story involves Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol at the beginning of the second Beit haMikdash. The navi Zecharyah experiences a prophetic vision of this high priest standing before Gd, wearing stained clothing, and Satan stands on Yehoshua’s right, לשטנו, to block him. As Rashi and Malbim explain, Satan is there to accuse Yehoshua and his family of wickedness, to allege that Yehoshua is unworthy of leading the Jews who have returned to Israel.

Three stories, three faces of Satan, with one thread:
·         Dovid! You are not a legitimate king.
·         Iyov! You are not a legitimate tzadik.
·         Yehoshua! You are not a legitimate kohen gadol.
The word “Satan” means obstruction, and the creature lives up to his name. The Malach haMavet kills the body. The Yetzer HaRa kills the deeds. But Satan is the most sinister of all – by convincing us of our own worthlessness, Satan kills our souls. He robs us of faith in ourselves, he robs us of our sense that we are valuable.

At the moment of Creation, Gd formed a celestial entity[14] whose ongoing role is to challenge us by telling us what we can’t do, to stand on our right side, our best side in the language of Tanach, and to charge, “Is that the best you can do? You can’t cut it. You should just give up.”[15]

Undermining self-esteem may not seem that frightening, more like some watered-down, white-collar version of a devil-lite, but don’t kid yourself; this work of Satan is a global threat. Read what psychologists and sociologists say about 21st century humanity - about rates of suicide and depression among individuals, about entire societies that have imploded under the weight of insecurity and have consequently devolved into racism, xenophobia and death-worship. It all comes down to the same cause: this Satan is wreaking havoc on the lives of people and polities as it preaches its gospel of “You can’t!”


So now we know what Satan does. And to go back to our original question, at this time of year we emphasize Satan because we understand the existential spiritual threat he poses on our Day of Judgment and Day of Atonement:
·         As I listen to shofar on Rosh HaShanah, as I examine myself during the ten days of repentance, as I fast all day on Yom Kippur, I am not tempted by the yetzer hara to repeat my stupidities of the past year. This week, I have had no desire to hurt other people, to take Shabbos or kashrus lightly, to skip minyan.
·         But Satan telling me I can’t do any better, I can’t grow, I can’t change, I will always be a person of anger, I will always be a person of weakness, I will always be a person of inconsistency, I will always be too tired or too stupid or too easily intimidated or too feckless – that’s the threat at this time of year. Hashem promises to accept us back when we return,[16] and to purify us on Yom Kippur[17] – but am I going to take that step when Satan stands on my right side, arguing that I can’t return?
·         Indeed, the Talmud (Chagigah 15a) tells the tragic story of Elisha ben Avuyah, a sage who was lured away from Judaism by Greek theories and who became known as Acher, “the other”. He wanted to come back, but thought he had heard a Divine voice say “Return wayward children – except for Acher.” Acher – you can’t! You have no value! And so he never returned.[18]


But if we look back at those three stories in Tanach, then we will also recognize that Satan can be defeated, so long as we know our own value – not some artificially inflated sense of pride that makes us feel better, but our true value:
·         Yehoshua Kohen Gadol is challenged by Satan and wrapped in filthy garb, but Gd declares, יגער ד' בך השטן! Yehoshua’s valuable merit wins the day. Gd rebukes Satan, and orders the malachim to give Yehoshua pure, clean clothing, befitting his righteousness.
·         Iyov comes under the most furious attack, and he is pushed almost to the breaking point – but he doesn’t break, he wins his family back,[19] and he is identified by Gd at the end as the righteous victor in that terrible battle.
·         Dovid fell prey to insecurity, and carried out a census – but the tragic story ends with Dovid buying a threshing floor and building a mizbeiach for Gd there. Out of Satan’s obstruction, we gain the future site of the Beit haMikdash.

We can win – just as we did throughout Tanach. So even though on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we ask Gd, “ותגער בשטן לבל ישטינני, Don’t let Satan attack us,” the truth is that it’s in our hands.
·         We can set our goals in the heavens.
·         We can get our tempers under control, and we can start making people smile.
·         We can learn a masechta of gemara, or multiple masechtot. We can learn Hebrew. We can learn how to daven.
·         We can become people of mercy and benevolence, and stop undermining and putting down people around us to make ourselves greater.
·         We can take care of our parents. We can take care of our children. We can take care of our own health.
·         We can give tzedakah and we can raise tzedakah, for causes from which we benefit personally and for causes which benefit others.
·         We can break off destructive relationships, and establish the foundations of productive ones.
·         We can make that most unhumble commitment in Neilah שלא אחטא עוד, that we will never sin again!
We can be גוער בשטן. Satan is easily confused by resistance, and he has no teeth – Yehoshua and Iyov and Dovid kicked them in long ago! We just need to stop listening to him, and to recognize the value in ourselves that Satan tries to deny.[20]


Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski tells the following story regarding a patient of his, a woman named Sybil:[21]
Sybil was admitted for heroin addiction. She was a registered nurse who had not worked for six years because of her addiction. The reason she came for help was that she had used up all her veins and had none left for injecting heroin.
In the first interview, I noticed that she was wearing a locket. “Is that real gold?” I asked. When she answered in the affirmative, I asked, “How come you still have it and did not sell it to get heroin?”
“I’ll never sell this,” she said. “This was my mother’s.”
“Let me see it, please,” I said. Sybil handed me the locket, and I took the scissors lying on the desk and made as though I was going to scratch the locket.
“What are you doing?” Sybil said.
I said, “Don’t get upset. I’m just going to scratch it up a bit.”
“But that’s mine,” Sybil said.
“I promise I’ll give it back to you,” I said.
“But I don’t want it scratched up,” Sybil said. “It is beautiful and very valuable to me.”
I said, “So, if something is beautiful and very valuable, you don’t let it get damaged, right?” I took Sybil’s arms, which were marked by the unsightly tracks and scars of abscesses. “Can you read what that says?” I asked. “It says, ‘I am not beautiful. I am not valuable.’”
Tearfully, Sybil said, “I never thought I was any good.”
Sybil recovered from her drug addiction and became very active in helping other nurses with drug problems. She discovered that she had a desire to help others. Now Sybil knew who she was.

The Malach haMavet and the Yetzer HaRa are small fry; they go after our bodies and our actions. The true enemy, unmasked at this time of year, is Satan, enemy of our souls. But like Sybil, we know who we are, and we know we are valuable. May we, in our davening, capitalize on that knowledge and use it to propel us to unprecedented heights in the year ahead, and may our newfound commitment put Gd in the happy position of being justified in awarding us a גמר חתימה טובה.




[1] A notable exception: our daily prayer to Gd not to let the שטן המשחית harm our actions
[2] I thought it was בכסה, the overshadowing of Rosh Chodesh by Rosh HaShanah, but Taamei haMinhagim 691 co-opts that idea as part of confusing Satan.
[3] Taamei haMinhagim 693, Mishneh Berurah 581:24; note the other approach of distinguishing between customary shofar blowing and the actual mitzvah.
[4] Mishneh Berurah 585:7
[5] Rosh HaShanah 16b
[6] Mishneh Berurah 596:1
[7] See Maharam Rutenberg 4:513, although I must admit some reticence re: linking Samael with Satan
[8] Bava Batra 16a
[9] Shemuel II 24 and Divrei haYamim I 21:1; I am taking Malbim’s read. Somewhat differently, Abarbanel to Shemuel II 24’s suggestions include the idea that Dovid feared his army was too small
[10] Berachot 62b
[11] Indeed, Shaul specifically avoided the census by using בזק and טלאים to count troops in Shemuel I
[12] Moreh Nevuchim 3:22
[13] Daat Mikra Iyov pg. 11
[14] Abarbanel to Shemuel II 24 suggests that it is really Gd talking, but the attack is identified as השטנה - obstruction
[15] Ditto Satan attempting to dissuade Avraham from the Akeidah, and shaking the confidence of Sarah as well as the Jews waiting for Moshe to return from Har Sinai. Even Bilam’s encounter with a malach which is לשטן לו is consistent, although that malach was on our side.
[16] Devarim 30
[17] Vayikra 16:30
[18] Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4) writes that teshuvah requires me to say, “I am someone else, not the person who committed those deeds.” But how will I say that if I believe I can’t?
[19] A pshat read of Iyov 42:10
[20] And this may be the secret behind those rituals we reviewed earlier, which confuse Satan.
·         Some of those rituals take the route of lying low. If I don’t play up my desire to change, if I don’t announce that Rosh Chodesh Tishrei is coming, if I stop blowing shofar for a day, then the voice of “You can’t” won’t be awakened until it’s too late.
·         But more powerfully I can also steamroll my Satan directly, because like Dovid, Iyov and Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, I know what my value is, I know Satan is wrong, I know I am capable of teshuvah. So I can channel my inner New Yorker, interrupting Satan, drowning him out with the shofar. If he wants to stand on my right, then that’s where I will blow shofar. If he wants to shout against the shofar, I’m going to blow it before musaf, I’m going to blow it during musaf, I’m going to blow it after musaf, as long as he keeps talking, to proclaim that I am capable, that I can change.
[21] Without a Job, Who am I? pg. 36

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cracking the Cold (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah 5778)

Yes, I've neglected this blog, but here is my current draft of a Rosh HaShanah derashah. Please let me know what you think.


Over a period of 16 years, from 1833 to 1849, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a long poem in memory of his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. It’s called “In Memoriam A.H.H.[1]”. The best-known line from the poem is probably, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” But I want to focus on a different passage today. In describing his own faith in the face of this bereavement, Tennyson wrote:

Behold, we know not anything; 
         I can but trust that good shall fall 
         At last—far off—at last, to all, 
And every winter change to spring. 

So runs my dream: but what am I? 
         An infant crying in the night: 
         An infant crying for the light: 
And with no language but a cry.[2]

Tennyson describes his cry as that of an infant; he hears the voice of a baby in the emotions of a grown, worldly, sophisticated man grieving for his friend. Keep that image in mind, please, as we look at a very odd element of the mitzvah of shofar.


Shofar is a surprisingly vague mitzvah; the Torah describes the first day of the seventh month as יום תרועה, a day for trumpeting, but it doesn’t define what exactly a teruah is. How do we know what sound to make? The Talmud[3] deduces the nature of the shofar’s teruah based on the crying of a particular woman in Tanach.

More: We blow 100 shofar blasts each day of Rosh HaShanah, even though 60 should cover all of the possible permutations of sounds. Why 100? Tosafot[4] quotes the 10th century sage, Rabbi Natan baal ha’Aruch, explaining that we want to match the cries of that same woman in Tanach. She cried 99 or 100 times, depending on your version of this idea, and we cry as she did.

So there you have it. How do we know that teruah is a crying sound? That crying woman in Tanach. Why do we blow 100 blasts? Same woman in Tanach. And my problem is this: That woman in Tanach ranks as one of the coldest, most heartless human beings in Jewish history. That woman was the mother of a Canaanite general named Sisera.


Go back in time about 3200 years. After the Jews left Egypt and entered Canaan, Yehoshua led them for 28 years. After he died, we were governed by a series of Shoftim/Judges for centuries, during an up-and-down period in which we were often under the thumb of local tribes. About 120 years into this period, the Canaanites come to dominate us; they have iron, horse-drawn chariots, and they force us up into the mountains. Their lead general is a man named Sisera.

To make a long story short, our shofet at the time is a woman named Devorah, and she leads us in rebellion against Canaan. Miraculously, the Canaanite chariots are routed. The soldiers flee east, to go home; their general, Sisera, deserts and heads west, looking for shelter. He is intercepted by a woman named Yael, who kills him. Devorah composes a poem about the victory, and at the end of the poem she describes the scene back at Canaanite headquarters, where Sisera’s mother anxiously awaits her son’s return. To quote:[5]

“At the window, the mother of Sisera gazes out and cries at an ornately decorated window. She cries, ‘Why is his chariot delayed in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots late?’ The wise noblewomen answer her, and she also gives this statement to herself, ‘Have they not found and distributed spoils, a womb, two wombs to every man, spoils of dyed [fabric] for Sisera, spoils of dyed embroidery, dyed embroidery around the neck of the despoiler?’”

This is the mother of Sisera – a woman who comforts herself with the thought that her son is assaulting women and stealing spoils. And her language – a womb, two wombs to every man – it’s vulgar, obscene! How grotesque! What a mockery of maternity! Sisera’s mother may have cried for her son, but why in the world would I want to model my shofar on Rosh HaShanah on the grief of the most abominably cold-hearted human being imaginable?!


I’m not the only one with this question. Rav Eliyahu Ki-Tov asked this question in Sefer haTodaah, and decided that we are not looking at her villany, but at our own goodness. We are contrasting ourselves with Sisera’s mother. She wept with cruelty; we weep with humanity. There is a logic to this, certainly.

Another answer is to look past her cold villainy, and see her as a bereaved mother. As Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider wrote in a column on the OU website last year,[6][S]o great is the grief of any parent for the loss of a child, that we all are left completely bereft. The universality and commonality of suffering over the loss of a child transcends names and identities.” Rabbi Goldscheider knows what he is talking about; he lost a child. And I accept his point. But I don’t understand – do we really need to demonstrate our compassion for a bereaved parent by invoking this particular bereaved parent? Do we not have enough bereaved parents in our history, on whom shofar could have been modeled?[7]


I would suggest that the answer is not to ignore her villainy, but to embrace it, to understand that her lack of a heart is precisely the point. We invoke her because she is so unsympathetically heartless. This merciless human being, who reassures herself that all is well by imagining her son viciously violating prisoners – even she can crack.  And that unadorned cracking of the cold, yielding sincere emotion below, is what matters in shofar.

Rav Yehudah Amital[8] also emphasized the sincere cry, in an essay regarding Akeidat Yitzchak. He quoted a manuscript of the midrashic Avot d'Rabbi Natan[9] which describes the fateful scene on the mountain. In contrast to the classic image of the stoic father and son, pure in their devotion to Gd, in this version Avraham says to himself, “I am old, and he is young, perhaps Yitzchak could escape!” And Yitzchak says to himself, “Who will save me from my father? I have no aid other than Hashem!” Rav Amital explained, Avraham was no malach, and Yitzchak was no seraph; neither of them wanted to go through with this, and they were looking for something, pleading with Hashem, to prevent Yitzchak’s death. They cracked - and as we say in our Selichot, Hashem answered Avraham. It’s true that Hashem never wanted Yitzchak to die, but even had Hashem wanted Yitzchak to die, He would have halted the akeidah because of Avraham’s plea for Yitzchak’s life – because the most valuable prayer to Hashem is that simple, sincere cry, like that of Avraham, for that which we love the most.

This is what shofar is about – expressing the sincere cry. Returning to the beginning, I think this is what Tennyson described in his own grief for his beloved friend: “An infant crying in the night: An infant crying for the light: And with no language but a cry.” Simple. Sincere. Lacking artifice and style, and all the more beautiful for it. Even Sisera’s mother, at her moment of crisis, releases this pure voice from inside of her.


We may not like to admit it, but we nurture within ourselves the seeds of the cold brutality of Sisera’s mother - and for good reason. A soul open to every emotion, a heart with strings that can be plucked by every circumstance, would drown in a sea of passion. We would suffer depression at every hurricane and shooting and car accident and famine. We would ride a roller coaster of joy with every birth and marriage and success we saw on Facebook or Linkedin. We would spend our last pennies on helping people around the world in need. We would overload in reaction to every news headline and private conversation, and we would be left gasping for air, for emotional space, for survival.

So we develop a necessary shell, but we pay a price in doing it. I become much more at ease snapping my fingers to an upbeat tune than contemplating loss. I become more comfortable reading a book of intellectual essays about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur than intensely contemplating what I did for the past year, and why I did it. I would rather go home to a delicious lunch than remain here asking, a la Tennyson, whether spring will truly follow winter for me, for my family, for my friends.

But on Rosh HaShanah, with the shofar, we are meant to penetrate to just those fears that inhabit the pit of our stomach. To imagine what it would mean to lose that which we love and treasure more than anything on earth – and to cry like Tennyson’s infant. Toward that end we summon the image of the coldest, crudest human being imaginable, Sisera’s awful mother, cracking, and we know that if she can, then so can we. And our cry, at the moment when our cold is cracked, is gorgeous in its purity, in its simplicity, in its sincerity.


Along the same lines, the Talmud Yerushalmi[10] says we blow an animal horn because our own cry on Rosh HaShanah is that of an animal. The shofar has no words, only an animal, or perhaps infantile, sound that emerges with our breath, from our core. May we crack, and find that cry inside of ourselves this morning, for just a little while. May we call out to Hashem sincerely, for the sake of our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our friends, our children. And may Hashem respond to us, as HaShem responded to Avraham, with a verdict for a חתימה טובה, to be inscribed and sealed for a year of berachah and shalom.



[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Memoriam_A.H.H.
[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45341/in-memoriam-a-h-h-obiit-mdcccxxxiii-54
[3] Rosh HaShanah 33b-34a
[4] Ibid.
[5] End of Shoftim 5
[7] I.e. Sarah and Yaakov, when they believe their children dead. Of course, there are other answers, such as noting that R’ Akiva was her descendant, and invoking mystical ideas. Rav Soloveitchik has a particularly moving idea found in Pninei haRav pg. 158 and “Before Hashem you will be purified” pg. 10. See http://www.yna.edu/emails/newsletter/5771/Haazeinu/03_Shofar-_Recognizing_the_Emes-1.doc)
[9] Cited in Torah Sheleimah Bereishit 22 #92
[10] Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1

Monday, June 19, 2017

99999 or 100000?

Yesterday, my car went from

to


For some reason, the former was more exciting to me than the latter. Not sure why.

Either way, I brought the car in for the Check Engine light this morning, to find out this car isn't going to make it much further...

Sunday, June 11, 2017

And here's the derashah... (Behaalotcha 5777)

... from the aquarium billboard:

A couple of years ago, the Nova Scotia board of tourism posted a giant billboard on Bathurst. It featured a monster-sized, awesome picture of a diving whale off the Nova Scotia coast, and it said in tall letters, “We heard you have an aquarium. That’s nice.”[1]

I give the ad campaign a 10 for snark, and a 10 for content – it reminded me that I really, really want to see Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, I have a problem: minyan. Other than in Halifax, there aren’t too many minyan options in the Maritimes. Is a Jew – and especially a male, who has extra obligations – allowed to go to a cottage, to go on vacation, without a minyan?


Of course, going to Nova Scotia can have religious value. We can appreciate Divine creation, declaring מה רבו מעשיך ד'! Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “I almost believe that all you homebodies would one day have to atone for your staying indoors, and when you would desire entrance to see the marvels of heaven, they would ask you, ‘Did you see the marvels of Gd on earth?’ Then, ashamed, you would mumble, ‘We missed that opportunity.’”[2]

There is also religious value in charging our batteries, absorbing energy for future mitzvos. The Shulchan Aruch writes, “Eating or drinking for your own pleasure is אינו משובח, not praiseworthy. One should intend to eat and drink in order to live, to serve the Creator.[3]

But I’m not talking about going to Nova Scotia in order to appreciate Hashem’s creation, or to recharge for spiritual service. Yes! Admiring nature can be a spiritual experience, but I’m just talking about going as a human being. Human beings love to experience the new and different, we relish natural beauty, we dance to music, we expand our souls through literature and art. Is being human justification for missing minyan, or not learning another page of gemara, or not volunteering for an organization?

Of course, I’m not going to pasken here. First, because psak rightfully belongs solely with shul rabbis. Second, this is a simple, perhaps even a bit oversimplified, derashah; it’s not a shiur. So instead I’m going to focus on the underlying philosophical question: How do we look at sacrificing a mitzvah for the sake of being human?

Let’s review two stories from our parshah: The lashon hara about Moshe, and Pesach Sheni.


First, the lashon hara: As the Talmud[4] tells it, Moshe separated from his wife Tzipporah because he expected to speak with Gd at any time and he needed to be available, just as Jewish men and women separated from each other temporarily at Har Sinai. His siblings, Miriam and Aharon, were scandalized; after all, they were prophets too, but they had families! Hashem decisively declared Miriam and Aharon wrong about Moshe, and they were both punished with tzaraas.[5]

But here’s what people often miss in the story! Miriam and Aharon were right about everyone not named Moshe, everyone who did not speak to Gd “face to face”. Normal human beings are meant to pursue normal human life, with families! And as the sage Ben Azzai noted,[6] does not family life impose obligations which necessarily obstruct total commitment to the omnipresent mitzvah opportunity? Will not a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, a neighbour, an organization lay ineluctable claim to your hours, directly and indirectly? Will not participating in a family involve diapers and carpools, cameraderie and sympathy – in short, being human?

If Miriam and Aharon are correct, does that not mean that the Jew is supposed to be a human being, to recognize the limits of Covenant and honour human need?[7]

Rabbi Alex Israel of Yeshivat Eretz haTzvi eulogized Rav Yehudah Amital z”l, former Rosh Yeshiva in the Gush. He reported on the time when Rav Amital saw someone straining to fulfill the minutia of a ruling in the Mishneh Berurah. Rabbi Israel wrote, “Rav Amital saw him and gently said to him: “Danny. Be normal!” He believed that strict and full accordance with the Halakha was a way of life that demanded effort and work, but that it should not take a person away from the orbit of normal people, or regular living.[8]

So far, then, it seems that Miriam and Aharon are right, and it’s fine and appropriate to relax and take a few days in Nova Scotia. Be normal!


But there is another story in our parshah: Pesach Sheni.

At the start of their second year in the wilderness, the Jewish people brought the korban Pesach, but a small community was denied participation because they were tamei, ritually impure. According to the Talmud,[9] they were ineligible for the best of reasons – they were the chevra kadisha, carrying the bones of Yosef and his brothers. So they were exempt. They could relax. They were required to relax! While the rest of the nation went about their duties.

But that’s not what these Jews did; they came to Moshe in protest, למה נגרע, why should we lose out on this mitzvah? We don’t want an exemption! We don’t want to relax! We want to do the mitzvah! And although they did not receive exactly what they wanted, they are unquestionably admired for seeking greater duties, greater obligations![10]

And if I quote Rav Amital on one side, I must also quote Rav Asher Weiss, the posek of Shaare Zedek Hospital, on the other. He was asked about a thoroughly exhausted person, awake all night for a particular mitzvah, going to sleep at the end of the night, shortly before the time for Shacharis. Since he would be out cold come morning, our Sleeping Beauty would be exempt from davening when the time came. Rav Weiss replied, in part, “One who keeps himself from becoming obligated in a mitzvah, before its time arrives, has not ‘failed’ in the mitzvah. However, the desire of the Torah – רצון התורה – places an expectation upon people to make certain they will be able to fulfill mitzvot, and indeed pursue their fulfillment.[11]” The desire of Torah is that the exhausted individual push past his boundaries and achieve more!

So who is right, Rav Amital or Rav Weiss? Is rest and relaxation in Nova Scotia a fulfillment of the message of Miriam and Aharon, or a violation of Pesach Sheni?


Let’s go back to a problem at the start of Bereishis.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik noted[12] that plants, fish, birds, animals and human beings were created with shared language in the 10 Declarations of Creation:
·         אמירה, עשייה, בריאה – the same verbs create all of us.
·         We were all brought forth as miraculous life from dead matter.
·         Gd expressed a desire for all of us to bear fruit and multiply.
·         Both animal and human are vegetarian at the outset.
·         Adam was even named for the mud from which he and the plants and beasts were taken.
At first blush, to be human is to be a mobile plant, a fish with lungs, an earth-bound bird, a two-legged animal with opposable thumbs.

But first subtly, and then explicitly, Hashem differentiates the human being from all else by communicating with us:
·         The fish and birds are blessed with procreation, פרו ורבו, but humans are told פרו ורבו.
·         Gd tells the reader that animals are to eat plants, but Gd tells the human being directly to eat plants.
·         And then, most powerfully, ויצו! Gd commands us! As Rav Soloveitchik wrote, “Gd takes man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will.”[13]
Once Gd gives us not instinct but instruction, not physicality but spirituality, we enter into a relationship with Gd, our first and primary commitment, in which we must strive to prioritize that instruction above all else.

And to me, this is the big question of Bereishis, and our parshah, and I think of Nova Scotia as well:
·         When human beings “enter Gd’s confidence”, are we meant to shed our animal skin, to transcend the plant, fish, bird and beast, to bond with Gd and never look back?
·         Or is our spirituality meant to co-exist with our original, animal character, so that we are both human and pursuers of the Divine?

And I would suggest that the answer also appears right there in Bereishis. Right after ויצו charges Adam with spirituality, Gd charges Adam with sociality. Hashem declares לא טוב היות האדם לבדו – it is not good for the human being to be alone. And Gd searches the kingdoms of beasts and birds, who could have been mates of animalistic humanity prior to ויצו but who are now inadequate for the Commanded personality. And Gd finally separates the souls of Adam and Chavah into different bodies, to join with each other socially.

If ויצו meant that we were only to bond with Gd, then there would be no role for a mate and the demands of family. We would spend our lives seeking to grow out of our desires and become as superhuman as possible. No sports, no hobbies, no literature, no tourism, no artwork, no gourmet dining.

Of course, when Gd seeks a mate for Adam, when Gd creates the concept of community, Gd is undoubtedly looking for that mate to help Adam become a better spiritual person, become a better citizen of that ויצו mandate – but here’s the thing: Gd also implies a parallel mandate: Be a mensch! Be normal! You are to have spouses and children, and therefore you shall have parents and siblings and communities, and you will need those most human experiences and sympathies and goals. Live the life of a human being, feel the emotions of a human being, experience the pain and joy of the people around you!

If Gd desires for human beings to exist in the company of others, then ויצו must not supercede our humanity. We are charged with two competing and complementary aspirations: ויצו, to bond with Gd, and לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, to bond with man. We must aspire to be godlike and we must aspire to be human.

The challenge is for a human being, over the course of a lifetime, to feed both of these drives[14] – to excel in both arenas. To produce a mosaic of ten thousand occasions, a million instants when we learn a page of gemara or give tzedakah or go for a walk in the woods, we become ideal servants of Gd, fulfilling every mitzvah and spending our every moment in search of ways to grow closer to the Shechinah, and we become ideal human beings, living life, reading books, seeing Nova Scotia, playing games, visiting art museums, viewing plays, growing in our ability to be sympathetic, productive members of society.


The lesson of ויצו is that we must aspire to defy human weakness and draw close to Gd.
The lesson of לא טוב היות האדם לבדו is that we must aspire to be human.

Those aspirations must never be separated. The Jew who tours Nova Scotia or reads a novel must also make a siyum haShas. And the Jew who makes a siyum haShas must also go to Nova Scotia – or at least the Toronto Aquarium, nebach. The Jew who schmoozes with friends on Shabbos afternoon must also make time to learn. And the Jew who learns must also make time to schmooze. We can satisfy both, if we look at our lives not moment by moment, analyzing each decision in a vacuum, but as a whole, to gauge whether we are satisfying our duties in both areas.


These are our grand aspirations. The poet Cordelia Ray wrote of human aspiration,[15] “We climb the slopes of life with throbbing heart, and eager pulse, like children toward a star.” May our twin goals, spirituality and sociality, be the binary stars that make our hearts throb. We can never fully achieve either one while we yet stand on the slopes of life – but may our mission, and our passion, be to make that climb.





[1] https://thechive.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/screen-shot-2015-11-11-at-6-51-19-pm.png?w=600&h=450
[2] Collected Writings Vol 8 pg. 259 “From the notebook of a Wandering Jew”
[3] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 231:1
[4] Shabbat 87a
[5] Shabbat 97a
[6] Yevamos 63b
[7] Indeed, when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son came out of their cave after 12 years of non-stop study in hiding from the Romans, they could not deal with human beings; shocked to find people spending time plowing, they turned their gaze upon the fields and those fields were incinerated. Hashem rebuked them, “Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back into your cave!” They observed a year of mourning in the cave, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai emerged much chastened. (Shabbat 33b) Human beings are expected to live as human beings do.
אבא, בזמן השואה הכנת את עצמך למות על קידוש השם, ולאחר השואה המניע העיקרי של הרבה פעולות שעשית היה למנוע חילול השם; רצית למות על קידוש השם – אבל קידוש השם היה המניע העיקרי שלך בכל חייך, קידוש השם כפי שמגדיר אותו הרמב"ם בהלכות יסודי התורה: "עושה בכל מעשיו לפנים משורת הדין, והוא שלא יתרחק הרבה ולא ישתומם". המקור לענין שדברת עליו הרבה פעמים על הצורך להיות "יהודי נורמלי", לא להתנהג בצורה משונה וחריגה אלא דווקא כ"יהודי פשוט", גם הוא נמצא בדברי הרמב"ם הללו: "שלא יתרחק ולא ישתומם".
[9] Succah 25a-b
[10] It is as the Talmud (Sotah 14a) states regarding Moshe, that he longed to enter Israel not to enjoy the produce, but to fulfill mitzvot from which he was exempt!
[11] Minchat Asher II 9. Ditto Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on tiyulim and exemption from Succah, at the end of http://etzion.org.il/en/travelling-and-mitzva-sukka
[12] The Emergence of Ethical Man
[13] We are also צלם אלקים, and it fits, but I didn’t want to go into that here.
[14] חציו לכם וחציו לד' of Shavuos – Beitzah 15b
[15] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/aspiration