Monday, June 30, 2014

Dark Day

Guest Contributor

While the Nazis turned the Jewish dead into soap, we are equally guilty of turning them into soapboxes. 
    I’m cringing thinking about the person that uses this tragedy to push an agenda. Whether a Rabbi implementing his favorite chumra, an Askin trying raise money, the self absorbed music-star-want-to-be  writing a song in "honor" of it, or those that write  “BDE”s on their Facebook pages (why not put in a emoticon while your at it). – it’s time to start growing up again as individuals and a people.  
    The tragedy is not ours but theirs, give it the respect it deserves and please do not add to the exploitation this tragedy is bound to endure.
     There seems to be a love affair between people and an unchangeable contained tragedy. A sort of relishing in the act of turning off  the complexities and reality of the everyday and focusing on a symbol that is simple and clear cut, creating a focal point that is so undisputed and universal, people can't help but rally around and connect with and thru it. The pattern is always the same tho, people rally, connect, cleanse their conscious with their tears, feel cleansed and then move on. (Lieby Kletzky who?) Just a ride in the emotional amusement park of life.
       We must be honest and identify and separate our horror, anger  and our fear from feelings of loss and true empathy. If we were are so empathetical as people why are we not out feeding the hungry and visiting the sick on a daily basis?  Why are we not more understanding of those living around us and more patient to those that annoy us? Why is it that we open our hearts so readily to the dead who do not infringe on our greater selves, our lifestyle or our steak dinner? Is it empathy we feel, or the new age idol of to feel enthused, alive and connected in any way we can as long as we control the relationship and its obligations. 
       There is no lofty virtue in connecting with the tragedy of an untimely death. We completely remove the individuality of the dead – there is not interplay between the I and the other – just two totally independent beings one the victim and the other the survivor- that is their only relationship, what value is there in that?  If we could be empathetical to those who remain around us in the land of the living on a day to day level, on an individual level, on a personal level,  that would be something.
        All our hearts are broken, this does not make us better this makes us humans on the most basic level, thank G-d we still have that. – Please think about this while you go back to playing candy crush after posting “BDE”.  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shavuos Afterthoughts: The Secret Book of Names

Published in Nitzachon, the Adas Torah journal

The story is well known. When Moshe arrived atop Mt. Sinai, the angels were aghast.
“What is a human being doing up here?”
“He has come to receive the Torah,” Hashem replied.
“You want to give to flesh and blood the precious treasure that was hidden nine hundred and seventy-four generations before creation?! What is a human that You should think of him, or a son of Adam that You should consider him...?”
Hashem instructed Moshe to respond.
Moshe didn’t want to argue with angels. “I am frightened lest they burn me with their breath.”
“Take hold of My throne,” said God, “and answer them!”
“Master of the World,” declared Moshe, “the Torah that You are giving me, what does it say?”
“I am Hashem your Lord Who took you out from the land of Egypt.”
Moshe turned to the angels. “Did you go down into Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours?”
“What else does it say?” asked Moshe.
“You shall not have other gods,” replied God.
Moshe turned to the angels. “Do you live among nations who worship idols?”
“What else does it say?”
“Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it.”
“Do you work that you are in need of rest?” 
“What else does it say?”
 “Do not take God’s name in vain.”
“Are any of you in business [that would require the taking of oaths]?” 
“What else does it say?”
“Honor your father and your mother.”
“Do you have a father and a mother?”
 “What else does it say?”
“Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal.”
“Do you suffer from jealousy? Do you have negative drives?” 
The angels admitted that Hashem was right, as the verse states, מה אדיר שמך בכל הארץ, “Hashem our Master, how mighty is Your name upon all the earth…” (Tehillim 8).
Cf. Shabbos 88b-89a
The Radvaz (1479-1573) asks the obvious question. What were the angels thinking? Moshe's response is self-evident; the Torah was clearly written for human beings. Why are the angels surprised that Hashem is giving it to its intended audience?
The Radvaz bases his answer on a mystical Midrash: “The Torah in its entirety consists of the names of the Holy One, blessed be He.” The Ramban cites this Midrash in the introduction to his Torah commentary and he explains that the primordial Torah had no spaces between words, allowing it to be read as an uninterrupted string of divine names.[1] The angels were only familiar with this original, spiritual version of Torah. Far more adept than humans at understanding the mystical nature of God’s names (cf. Nefesh HaChaim 1:10), the angels naturally wondered why Hashem was giving the Torah to Moshe (Teshuvas Radvaz 3:643).[2]
The Radvaz’s explanation allows us to understand why Hashem did not answer the angels Himself and instead instructed Moshe to respond. Hashem wanted to the angels to hear firsthand what the Torah looks like from a human perspective. Moshe explained to the angels that people don’t read the Torah the way they do; we see it differently. For us it is the Book of the Jewish People. To human eyes, the spiritual Torah of the angels – the list of divine names – appears as a practical guide for the elevation of man and the forging of an intimate relationship with God.
For what, after all, is in a name? All names allow for personal identification and facilitate interaction with others, but Hebrew names run deeper than that. To call someone by their real name can be an intimate act[3] because Hebrew names are not mere arbitrary labels, they define and describe the hidden inner reality. To give an early example, light is not just called ohr; light is ohr. Hashem said, “Let there be ohr” and there was light. The same is also true for people. A Jew is his name.[4]
If names describe reality, what then does it mean for God to have names? Although God is obviously different – we cannot know the infinite God and His names do not describe Him – nonetheless, a divine name is a divine revelation; an expression of the Creator’s will to connect to His creation and sanctify our world (cf. Nefesh HaChaim 2:2-4). In other words, Hashem’s names describe His relationship with us.
This then is Torah. Every verse is a revelation. Better said, every revelation is a verse. As the Zohar puts it, Hashem and the Torah are one (cf. Nefesh HaChaim 4:6,10).
This gives us a new understanding of Moshe’s rebuttal to the angels. To paraphrase his response:
“As spiritual beings, you may understand the nature of God and His names better than humans ever will, but ultimately, the Torah is not for you. Hashem’s names are about Hashem’s desire to connect with people, not angels. How else can you explain the extraordinary fact that the divine names of Torah are not just names, they are mitzvos!”
The angels had no choice but to admit the truth: “Hashem our Master, how mighty is Your name upon all the earth!”

Revelation & Reverence
The essence of every mitzva is a divine name, a revelation of Hashem.[5] This is why the giving of the Torah came with the trauma of Maamad Har Sinai. To receive Torah is to encounter God and to encounter God is terrifying.[6] 
This is not just an interesting piece of biblical history. Torah always comes with a Sinai experience. Unsurprisingly, this reality is embedded into the very mitzva of Torah study.
The mitzva of teaching Torah and the mitzva of remembering Sinai are twins; they appear in the Torah side by side. The verse “You shall make [the Torah] known to your children and to your children’s children” (Devarim 4:9)[7] is immediately followed by the mitzva of remembering “the day that you stood before Hashem your Lord in Horeb” (ibid 4:10).[8] From this association the gemora infers a frightening lesson:
Just as there [at Sinai] it was with terror, fear, trembling and sweat, so too here [when you teach Torah] it should be with terror, fear, trembling and sweat.
Berachos 22a
The gemora is saying that learning is a reenactment of Sinai and should always be done with the requisite terror. יראת ה' היא אוצרו, “Fear of Hashem is the storage facility [for Torah]” (Isaiah 33:6).[9] It should be obvious that without fear and reverence, our relationship with Hashem is skewed and we are unable to properly receive His teachings. But the development of a healthy fear is not just something that we do for Torah. The Torah has the power to do this to us. 
After Matan Torah, Hashem had a single wish:
“Who could assure that their hearts would remain this way, fearing Me and observing all of My commandments for all time, for their benefit, and for their for children's [benefit], forever?”
Devarim 5:26
It sounds like a fantasy, but Hashem actually has a solution to the problem. He gives the order to Moshe.
“Go and tell them to return to their tents. Then you will stand here with me and I will tell you about all the mitzvos, decrees and laws so that you can teach it to them...”
Ibid 5:27-28
How does Hashem ensure that the fear of Sinai won’t fade? By teaching us Torah! For Torah is a divine name and a divine revelation, and our daily Torah study is thus nothing less than an awe-inducing encounter with God on par with the revelation of Sinai. As the Mirrer Mashgiach, Reb Yerucham Levovitz z”l, put it, “Torah is the thermos that keeps Maamad Har Sinai warm.”
In sum, fear of Hashem is a prerequisite for receiving Torah and the Torah itself preserves and engenders this fear. It is exactly as the sages said, אם אין חכמה אין יראה, ואם אין יראה אין חכמה, “If there is no wisdom, there is no fear, and if there is no fear, then there is no wisdom” (Avos 3:17).

Birchas HaTorah & Torah L’shmah
One of the few precious biblical mitzvos that we are privileged to perform every morning is Birchas HaTorah, the blessing on the Torah. The gemora (Berachos 21a) tells us that the origin of this mitzva is Moshe’s command to the people in Parshas Haazinu:
כי שם ה' אקרא הבו גודל לאלהינו
“When I call out the name of God, ascribe greatness to our Lord” (Devarim 32:3).
There is no mention of Torah here; only the “name of God.” How then does this verse teach us to recite a beracha before we study Torah? In light of all we have learned, the answer is obvious. “Name of God” is a codename for “Torah.” Moshe was telling the people, “When I call out the name of God,” i.e., when I teach Torah, you should “ascribe greatness” to our Lord, i.e., recite a beracha (Maharsha ad loc.).[10]
Knowing the source for Birchas HaTorah gives us a new appreciation for its text: 
כולנו יודעי שמך ולומדי תורתיך לשמה
May all of us know Your name and learn Your Torah for its own sake.
The wording could not be more explicit: knowing Hashem’s name and knowing His Torah are synonymous. This extraordinary statement appears in both the source for and in the text of Birchas HaTorah for it is the spiritual nature of Torah that motivates us and obligates us to recite this blessing.
The next step is a small one for a writer, but a giant leap for the Jewish People. We have arrived at a new understanding of the lofty ideal of תורה לשמה. Typically understood as Torah study “for its own sake,” it literally reads, “for its name” – and now we know that those two things are actually one and the same. For its own sake is for its name. Learn Torah l’shma, for the sake of knowing the Name! 

Birchas Kohanim & Hashem’s Smile
After we recite the beracha on the Torah every morning, we must follow through with some Torah study. Of all the thousands of Torah verses, which were chosen for the fulfillment of this great daily mitzva?
יברכך ה' וישמרך
יאר ה' פניו אליך ויחנך
ישא ה' פניו אליך וישם לך שלום
May Hashem bless you and safeguard you.
May Hashem shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.
May Hashem turn His face towards you and grant you peace.
As the words used by Kohanim to bless the nation, these lines are among the most well-known in all of scripture, but finding them here comes as a surprise. Although any and every verse certainly qualifies for Torah study, these verses are prayers, not teachings. If we were in the market for prototypical Torah, we would expect something more basic. The Torah’s first verse or first mitzva would be a reasonable choice. Why Birchas Kohanim?
The key to the answer lies in the unusual reference to Hashem’s הארת פנים, “shining face.” What does it mean for Hashem to shine His face towards us?
The same expression appears in the final beracha of Shemone Esrei:
כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה' אלהינו תורת חיים
Hashem our Lord, with Your shining face You granted us a living Torah…
Fascinating. Hashem’s “face” was “shining” when He gave us the Torah. In his commentary on the Siddur,[11] Rabbi Aryeh Lieb Gordon[12] explains:
The expression “a shining face” refers to showing a love or a desire for something. Signs [of these feelings] are evident on the face, for one directs a happy and shining face toward the object of their love…  
In other words, Hashem gave us the Torah with a smile. We know this well.
אהבת עולם בית ישראל עמך אהבת. תורה ומצות חקים ומשפטים אותנו למדת.
“With an eternal love You have loved Your nation, the House of Israel. You taught us Torah and mitzvos…” (Siddur).

Achieving the Impossible
Before we return to Birchas HaTorah, we need to address a more fundamental question. If the giving of the Torah was an act of divine love, if Hashem was smiling, why were we so terrified at Mt. Sinai?
The answer (or non-answer) is that there is a basic dichotomy at the heart of the God/man relationship. We address the paradox in our daily prayers: יחד לבבנו לאהבה וליראה את שמך, “Unify our hearts to love and to fear Your name.” Love and fear. Closeness and distance. Our Father, our King. The list goes on. Sometimes we speak to Hashem in first person and sometimes in third, and oftentimes we violate grammar and use both forms in the same sentence.[13] The point is, when it comes to Hashem, the conflicting emotions of love and fear are experienced simultaneously. As we have seen, it was the revelation at Sinai that forged this unique relationship.
In its original form, the Torah was not a book of commandments. It was a book of God’s names; an expression of His desire to dwell among us. Torah doesn’t change; this is what Torah was and this is what Torah is today. How then, pray tell, does the Infinite Being achieve the impossible and relate to mortals? The answer is simple: by giving us the Torah. Through Torah we gain an awe and reverence for Him, and through Torah Hashem is enabled to bless us with His Presence, protect us, shine His face upon us, and gift us with peace. This is why the verses of Birchas Kohanim were chosen for the place of honor after Birchas HaTorah. For more succinctly and more explicitly than any others, these verses express precisely what we stand to gain from Torah study.
When a person buys an object, does he also acquire the seller? But the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to the Jews and He said to them, “It is as if you are getting Me.”  
Shemos Rabba 33
We may not always recognize it as such, but Torah is Hashem’s way of sharing Himself with us. It is not for naught that when we get an Aliyah and are called up to the Torah, we are called up by name. It is a personal invitation to connect with Hashem, name to Name.
Shavuos is more than a commemoration of a historic event and the Torah is more than a how-to book of Jewish living. If we do it right, our learning will bring the reverence, the revelation, and the relationship of Sinai into our lives every single day of the year. 

[1] This is why, writes the Ramban, even a seemingly inconsequential missing letter will render a Sefer Torah passul.
[2] The Radvaz uses this idea to explain why there are no vowels (nekudos) or punctuation (trup) written in a Sefer Torah. Although we do have spaces between words, we preserve the “spiritual version” of Torah by allowing for an alternate reading.
[3] Cf. Rashi to Bereishis 22:11, 46:2
[4] This is clearly evident when it comes to biblical names. According to Rebbi Meir, it is true for everyone (cf. Yoma 83b). 
[5] It is for this reason that the mishna will refer to a mitzvah as a “shem,” a name, e.g. Makkos 1:3; Meilah 4:4 (Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Maaseh Avos Siman L’Bonim, vol. I, pg. 20). 
[6] It was so terrifying, it was life-threatening. The Jews trembled, retreated to a distance and begged for it to stop (cf. Shemos 20:15-16). “If we continue to hear the voice of Hashem our Lord any longer, we will die” (Devarim 5:22).  According to the gemora, the Jews were actually killed by the revelation at Sinai and then resurrected (Shabbos 88b).
[7] The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:2) cites this verse as the source for the mitzva to study Torah.
[8] According to the Ramban (Shikchas HaLavin 2) this phrase obligates us to teach our children about Maamad Har Sinai.
[9] Cf. Shabbos 31a; Nefesh HaChaim 4:5
 [10] יש הוסיף דזכינו בזה להבנה מחדשת בדין קדיש דרבנן הנאמר לאחר דברי תורה, כדאיתא בגמ' ואלא עלמא  אמאי קא מקיים אקדושה דסידרא ואיהא שמיה רבא דאגדתא (סוטה מט ע"א), ולהרמב"ם "דאגדתא" לאו דוקא ואומרים קדיש זו לאחר כל לימוד תורה שבע"פ (עיין סדר התפילות בסוף ספר אהבה), די"ל שבקדיש יש קיום דין "כי שם ה' אקרא הבו גודל לאלוהינו", והיינו "יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבה", ודו"ק. ועיין יומא לז ע"א דיש דין הבו גודל גם לאחר קריאת השם. 
עוד זכינו בזה לביאור חדש במה שנכתב באברהם אבינו, ויקרא בשם ה' (בראשית יב:ח), וכן, ויקרא שם אברם בשם ה' (יג:ד). דהנה אברהם אבינו זקן ויושב בישיבה היה (יומא כח ע"ב), ודמשק אליעזר דולה ומשקה מתורת רבו לאחרים (שם), ומעתא י"ל דהיינו דכתיב ד"קרא" אברהם "בשם" ה', דקריאת השם הוא תלמוד תורה כנ"ל, כמבואר בקרא, כי שם ה' אקרא - הבו גודל לאלהינו, ודו"ק. 
[11] Otzer HaTefilos, Iyun Tefilah, Vilna 1928
[12] No relation
[13] This violation exists in the standard formula for the blessing on mitzvosברוך אתה... אשר קדשנו במצותיו , Blessed are You… who sanctified us with His mitzvos (cf. Teshuvos HaRashba 5:52). It is fascinating that the dichotomy of closeness and distance we experienced at Sinai is manifest in the daily performance of mitzvos. This same dichotomy is also regularly experienced during Torah study. There are always aspects that we understand and are comfortable with, but there are also other aspects of the very same issues that humble us with their inscrutability.