Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt"l - 35 years

A few years ago, as part of an application, I was asked to submit a brief essay describing the Torah personality of the last 150 years who has had the greatest influence on my life. In honor of his 35th yahrtzeit tonight, chuf Kislev, I am publishing my brief essay below:

Some people hang pictures of their heroes on the wall. Others stock shelves with their writings. Though my wall has his picture and my shelves host his writings, I looked in the mirror, at my thoughts and actions, to realize the influence Rav Yitzchok Hutner has had on my life. The content of his writings are inspirational: I can think of few Torah pieces which have changed my life the way his second ma’amar in Pachad Yitzchok on Shabbos have, and his well-known letters about living a broad life and not giving up fighting are constantly inspiring me. However, beyond the content of his words, the obvious character of the author has had an even greater effect.

Rav Hutner was elusive in being defined as Chassidic or Litvish. Though this too serves me well— I generally practice the Litvish brand of Judaism my father and grandfather have given over, yet find it difficult to abandon the customs of prior generations who practiced chassidus—I refer more to the parallel internal experience of practicing Judaism. Extreme Litvish behavior tends to focus almost
exclusively on the cognitive religious experience, especially the intellectual pursuit of Talmud Torah. This style has become nearly universal in contemporary Yeshivos. The cost of our Yeshiva system is the epidemic of many names—lack of spirituality, Orthoprax, etc.—but with a common theme: the lack of emotional experience. The alternative extreme is spirituality without religious structure. This may represent what the Vilna Gaon feared in the creation of chassidus. Rav Hutner mastered the balance between thinking and feeling. His pieces in Pachad Yitzchak reflect a genius understanding of the emotional religious experience. I was never able to articulate my love for learning machshava/agadita until I discovered a story about Rav Hutner quoted in Rav Ahron Lopiansky’s Time Pieces. On a Shabbos afternoon, Rav Hutner was learning hilchos Shabbos. He arrived at the halacha that forbids crying on Shabbos, except in scenarios such as Rabbi Akiva’s who cried out of love when he read Shir Ha’Shirim. When Rav Hutner read this halacha, he too was moved to tears. He built one of the finest Yeshivos in New York with a traditional style of learning, but he also felt his religious experience. As a rabbi and psychologist who studies the wisdom of the Talmud and learns to speak the language of the heart, Rav Hutner leads the way in embracing a full religious

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Lasting Legacy – Rachel’s Request

When the barren and emotionally devastated Rachel has finally seen enough of her beloved husband producing children from other wives, she confronts him with a plea, “hava li banim, v’im ayin mesah anochi,” give me children or give me death. The intensity of her feelings are certainly highlighted by the latter part of her statement, but the commentaries focus on what was her exact intention with those words. Although frustrated at the situation, we cannot simply assume that Rachel engaged in hyperbole to get Yakov’s attention; surely there must have been an actual death she feared should she remain childless.

Rashi addresses this issue by simply noting that the gemara lists a childless person as one who is considered dead. But the Netziv goes further, explaining both the logic of that comparison as well as Rachel’s specific choice of words to describe death, “meisah.”

We have discussed previously (see here) the gemara in Chagiga (12a) along with Rav Shimshon Dovid Pinkus’ interpretation. The gemara says that Adam Ha’Rishon was made from earth gathered from all across the Earth. Rav Pinkus explains that this process of creation serves as the source for man's innate desire to transcend time and space. Every person, despite knowing his own time limit on this Earth, strives in some way to create a legacy that will live beyond his lifetime.

The Netziv explains that a woman’s desire for children can be for one of two reasons: for pleasure or to create a legacy. Elkana, for example, thought his wife Chana wanted children for the former purpose; therefore, he hoped that his love for her was as enjoyable as having children. Chana responded by vowing to give her son to the service of the Temple, proving that her interest in a child was not hedonistic.

Similarly, Rachel was communicating to Yakov not only her desire to have children but also the reason. The Netziv suggests that the words “meisah anochi” are in contrast to another term used for death, “shechiva,” resting (see, for example, the death of the avos). When one dies through “shechiva,” the implication is that he has built a legacy and thus his death is merely a “rest,” not a permanent act. Thus, Rachel was conveying to Yakov that she was not simply pursuing the pleasure of having children; she feared that without them, she would simply die, “meisah anochi,” without feeling as though she has left generations to follow.

The Netziv goes further to suggest that this is also the meaning of the gemara in Yevamos discussing various claims a woman has to bear children (for example, in a divorce case against a husband who is unable to conceive). The gemara concludes that if a childless woman demands a child for the sake of “a stick in my old age,” she can divorce. The simple understanding is that this woman wants a caretaker for her older years, but the Netziv understands the stick as a metaphor, “to help her rise” from her resting position in death, “shechiva,” which she can only achieve through having children. Like Rachel, this woman wants to rise from her slumber, not in the literal sense, but in the feeling that even after her physical life ends, her spiritual life continues.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The First Date - Yitzchok and Rivka's Relationship

Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky was once basking in the glow of how his daughter, Rebbetzin Berkowitz of Baltimore had, to that point, made "400 shidduchim." "Oh Shmuel," his wife chimed in, "you add to that number every time you say it."

People often seem amazed at the "chutzpah" of rebbetzins. How can these women challenge, disagree with, or even playfully tease their spouses, Torah giants of our generation and among the most pious men alive.

According to the Netziv, the answer is quite simple: because their spouses were not Torah giants and supremely righteous individuals when they became their spouses. (Obviously, many of them were unique at a young age, but there remains a difference between a talented 22-year-old and 65-year-old Rosh Yeshiva). He uses this theme to explain the fundamental difference between the marriages of the three sets of avos and ima'os.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pinchas and Jewish Continuity - Remembering my Zayde Muschel z"l

Seven years ago, while in Israel for the year, I collaborated with my grandfather on a lengthy d'var Torah the week of Parshas Pinchas. Though I never published any part of it, I thought it would be appropriate to now share some of the highlights, as this year's Parshas Pinchas marks the first Shabbos of my life that I will not have my grandfather. Rabbi Nachum Muschel z"l passed away this past motzei Shabbos. Needless to say, these words are l'iluy nishmaso.

Pinchas begins where Balak ends. After several futile attempts to curse the Jewish people, Bil'am advises Balak to seduce the Jewish people into committing acts of adultery. As Bil'am says, "Elokeihem shel eilu sonei zimah," the Jewish G-d hates lewdness. Pinchas finds the greatest protagonist, Zimri, and publicly stabs him along with his adulterer Kazbi. At the beginning of this week's parsha, Hashem announces that Pinchas will be rewarded with the "brisi shalom" and the "bris kehunas olam." In addition to being reinstated into the kehunah, Pinchas receives the mysterious "peace covenant." What is this "bris shalom" and how is it the appropriate reward for Pinchas' actions?

To begin, we must understand the philosophy of Bil'am. This short space does not allow full elaboration, but in short, it is clear that Bil'am's fatal flaw was his belief that the Jewish people were subject to normal laws of time. He made several attempts to curse the Jewish people, predicated on his special insight into Hashem's "schedule." Bil'am believed that by using the precise moment ("yode'a da'as elyon"), he would succeed in cursing the Jewish people. His plan was thwarted because the Jewish people defy time. In one such hint, Bil'am's donkey warns him, through use of the words "shalosh regalim," that Bil'am cannot use time to uproot a nation that controls the clock. (My grandfather had a lengthy derasha on this exchange between Bil'am and his donkey, but that's for another "time").

At the end of the parsha, after his failed attempts to curse the Jews, Bil'am advises Balak to use immorality as the next best avenue to weaken the Jewish people. Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that this too was related to Bil'am's power over time. In its simplest sense, adultery is a waste of the future for the sake of the present (i.e. spoiling the unlimited potential of zerah for an ephemeral pleasure, v'ein kan makom l'ha'arich). By killing the leaders of the movement, Pinchas saved not only his contemporary Jewish peers, but he also preserved the Jewish future. He ensured once again that Bil'am's repeated efforts of using time against the Jewish people would fail due to the eternal nature of the Jewish people.

As a result, the most fitting reward for Pinchas' heroic act was for him to transcend time. On the pasuk of "brisi shalom," the Yalkut Shimoni says that "Pinchas hu Eliyahu," Pinchas is Eliyahu ha'navi. Since the story of his riding the chariot to Heaven, we know little about Eliyahu's existance. We do know that unlike any other, perhaps even greater prophet, Eliyahu was blessed with eternal life. To this day, he appears twice in Jewish ritual: the night of the seder and at a new child's bris milah.

By ensuring the future of the Jewish people on a micro and macro scale, Pinchas merited becoming the personality of Eliyahu who lives forever. Furthermore, he appears at the two events that most embody Jewish continuity. Performing the mitzvah of bris milah on a new baby immediately following its birth represents the continuation of generations; this baby will be an observant Jew like his parents. When we mark this passing of the torch, the creation of a new Jewish generation, Eliyahu sits there as a guest, honored that he helped preserve this endless chain of generations. His second visit comes on leyl ha'seder, a time when Jewish continuity is in the spotlight. As parents tell their children the story of our national Exodus in addition to their personal exodus (b'chol dor va'dor), Eliyahu again comes to participate in this special evening of Jewish continuity.

Not coincidentally, my Zayde pointed out, these two mitzvos, Pesach and milah, appear as another duo. Out of the 36 transgressions one can commit to deserve kares, only two are violations of positive commandments: not bringing a korban Pesach and not performing a circumcision. In light of the above, the reason is obvious. One who does not participate in the mitzvos of Jewish continuity, the mitzvos involving the immortal Pinchas/Eliyahu, deserves kares, being cut off from the Jewish people (either through premature death or death of children). Someone who does not inscribe his son with the Jewish seal or does not share the miraculous stories of G-d's abilities has no share in a people who are so deeply committed to tradition.

The story of Pinchas' heroics and appropriate reward is an idea I developed with Zayde Muschel several years ago. The idea is most fitting for his life, which was obsessed with Jewish continuity. He insisted on taking the Jewish education and tradition that he learned and experienced in Europe, and teaching it not only to his children and grandchildren, but also to the countless others who were associated with one of his many institutions, including HIRC and ASHAR. It was only this past week, through the week of shiva, that I began to appreciate just how many lives he touched. The entire Jewish community will miss him, but will most certainly be devoted to continuing his legacy. Yehi zichro baruch.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Once by Land and Once by Sea

The Chossom Sofeir points out that the day Moshe hit the rock to produce water was the same date as an earlier, more famous, incident involving Moshe and water. According to his calculation, Miriam died on the tenth of Nissan, they mourned until the 17th, and then went three days without water before complaining on the 21st of Nissan. Incidentally, the 21st of Nissan is well-known for another water-related incident that occurred on that day 40 years earlier: Kri'as Yam Suf.

There are countless explanations as to the precise nature of Moshe's sin at Mei Meriva (see for example here and here). Using the Chossom Sofeir's timetable, the Shemen Ha'Tov adds his own idea, pointing out what was lost when Moshe did not extract water from the rock as ordered. On the more famous 21 Nissan, in the year 2448, Hashem proved to the world that He can turn water into dry land. "U'vnei Yisrael halchu ba'yabasha bisoch ha'yam." Then, 40 years later, Hashem wanted to show that He can also reverse the trend, and turn a dry rock into fountains of water. Many magicians have been able to perform one-way tricks, transforming objects into new objects. Hashem asked Moshe to show Hashem's mastery over the world by creating opposite miracles on the same date; first He turned water to land, then he wished to turn land to water. In some small way, Moshe did not allow this perfect demonstration (see Rashi and other commentaries as to exactly how Moshe failed to achieve this goal).

With this, the Shemen Ha'Tov concludes by explaining a familiar paragraph from Tehillim (said as part of Hallel):
בצאת ישראל, ממצריים... מה-לך הים כי תנוס הירדן תיסוב לאחור.
ההופכי הצור אגם-מים חלמיש למעיינו-מים

The pasuk first poetically describes the water splitting when we left Egypt. But the last pasuk seems out of place: "He who turns rocks to water" seems irrelevant to the story of Yam Suf. But, explains the Shemen Ha'Tov, in light of his explanation, the pesukim flow perfectly. First, Dovid Ha'Melech alludes to the miracle of Kr'ias Yam Suf that occurred during yetzias Mitzrayim. Then, the paragraph concludes by describing Hashem's full range of "abilities," performing the exact opposite miracle on the same date.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Stay Away - Lessons from the Nazir

Commenting on the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated stories, Rashi shares the well-known wisdom of our Sages, "kol ha'ro'eh sotah b'kilkulah, yazir atzmo min ha'yayin," one who witnesses the disgrace of a sotah will abstain from wine. The parsha of sotah is followed by that of nazir because one who observes the gruesome sotah process will realize that alcohol was probably involved in the immorality that led to the process and will therefore abstain from alcohol consumption as a nazir.

One of the questions commonly asked about this simple wisdom is why a person who watched the entire episode unfold--an ordinary woman being humiliated, even removing her hair covering in front of the kohen--would need any extra assistnace in avoiding her route.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Living the Good Life - How to Help the Poor

When man was first created, he was described as possessing a “nefesh chaya,” a living soul. Onkelus famously defines this human soul as an ability to speak. Onkelus was clearly sensitive to the additional life granted to humans over animals. The Netziv, noting the same observation, writes a fundamental idea in defining the word “chaya,” life, in this context and many others.