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Posted By The Stash

Our parasha begins very dramatically: “Behold, I put before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing will occur when you listen to the words of the L-rd your G-d, and the curse will occur if you do not listen to the words of the L-rd your G-d which I command you today.” If only life were that simple and easily explainable! How to explain, as one book title puts it, why bad things happen to good people. Even the Talmud admits in Brachot: “we do not know why the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer”, though it goes on to presume that in Olam HaBa, the World to Come, all this will be rectified.

This religious and philosophical issue has not been ignored by post-war Jewish philosophy. Nor has Jewish philosophy ignored the disconnect between mitzvot and middot—between fulfilling the commandments and acting morally. Ramban famously observed long ago that it was very possible to be a “boor with the permission of Torah”—and condemned this in the strongest words. But the presence and even prevalence of these behaviours and questions of reward and punishment cannot be diminished by mere condemnation. More importantly, as we approach the Days of Awe, we need to begin to develop a Jewish frame of reference to honestly approach these issues, or else all our learning and praying will be for nought.

Enter mussar—ethical conduct—a type of Jewish philosophy dating back to the 18th century but presently undergoing a significant re-examination and revival through the work of Emanuel Levinas and his school of post-Holocaust Jewish philosophy. In short, mussar argues that the religious and ethical must co-exist because interpersonal relationships reflect our relationship with G-d. In one of his most famous comments, Levinas analyzed Moses’ meeting with G-d at Sinai when he was permitted to see “G-d’s back”. Levinas argues that Moses saw “the human side of G-d” and that this teaches that the highest form of holiness is achieved through interpersonal relationships and Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. In this vision of the world, there is evil, but not only is it separate from G-d, but it becomes a Divine imperative for all humans to erase evil from the world by dealing morally with each other.

Mussar realizes that the world can only be improved one person at a time, and therefore it focuses on self-improvement as the first goal of spirituality. The spiritual handbooks of the earliest mussar adherents read much like modern self-help books, with lists of desirable behaviours and exercises to improve self-control, patience, frugality, overeating, licentiousness, and especially: being mindful of how to speak and act interpersonally. This was given primacy over “religious mitzvot” such as prayer and ritual.

We will be exploring mussar in more detail in the coming weeks. It is a noble and ennobling way to look at being an Intelligent Jew—who prays, acts, and speaks in a way that makes the Divine visible—if only for a few moments—in our edgy world. We need to seek meaning for our existence beyond ourselves; Mussar provides a powerful antidote for the narcissism of society. Only by caring about others do we gain the true right to pray in the plural—so let us begin a quest for self-improvement and touching others so that the rays of the Divine can also touch us.

Posted By The Stash

Rabbi Yair Kahn has observed that the phrase “before your eyes” occurs—with only one exception—exclusively in Sefer Devarim, Deuternomy. Moses uses this phase or slight variants of it continually in his speeches. Indeed, the book’s (and Torah’s) final verse informs that Moses’ deeds will never be replicated “before the eyes of the Israelites.” It would be useful to enquire why this phrase is associated with Moses’ final words, his people and what we can learn from the answer.

Moses’ key goal was to teach the younger generation of Israelites, who had never experienced the giving of the Torah at Sinai, to follow the commandments and freely enter into a covenantal relationship with G-d. Like many good teachers, Moses chose to teach out of immediate experience. Therefore, he stressed what this new generation had seen and experienced: the wonders of the miracles in the desert and how G-d had helped them defeat mightier nations. He hoped they would turn what their “eyes had seen” into belief.

But does that negate the force of Sinai? How could the Torah declare that Sinai forged a covenant not only between “those of us who are here this day, but even with those not yet here?” Indeed, based on this statement—why does Moses even bother reminding a new generation of “what your eyes have seen” when he could simply have told them “never forget what your ancestors told you about Sinai?”

There is no contradiction because educating people requires various modalities. The modern term is “differentiating the curriculum” but Moses wasn’t concerned with “edubabble”—inculcating Torah was far more central than explaining the logic of his “curricular delivery”. Moses correctly “taught from previous knowledge” to those who lacked a direct link with Sinai. They may not have seen a smoking mountain or experienced the voice of G-d, but they had seen miracles with their own eyes, and seeing is believing. It was thus simpler for Moses to use this experiential education to draw a line to the covenant at Sinai. That is why Moses reminds the people of the details of the Giving of the Torah: every nation needs a common heritage, a mythos, a founding story to which to refer. The generation who came to adulthood in the desert could thus rely on their experiences to realize they were part of a greater collectivity that stretched back to Sinai and further back to Abraham. By embracing historical memory they tacitly agreed to be part of a greater chain, and be committed to its continuity.

We who are even further from Sinai face an even greater challenge. We have not seen the open miracles the generation of the desert witnessed; it requires keen sight to see the hidden miracles taking place today. We are often challenged by the apparent differences between what people claim to believe and their everyday behaviour. These are good challenges, especially with the High Holy days glimmering on the horizon. We need to decide as Intelligent Jews how much of our faith will be informed by experience and how much by historical memory, how much by culture, and how much by a belief in G-d. Each of us must mix a palette of feelings, knowledge, belief, culture, and ethnicity into a Jewish pigment. Every year, we must remix the colors and create afresh. This may be the true meaning of Rosh Hashana’s other name: the birthday of the world. To celebrate creation, we must constantly recreate ourselves, ever seeking the true color of the Creator’s image.

Posted By The Stash

We make much of the first verse of the Kriat Shma, the three paragraphs that begin with our most famous words “Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokaynu, Hashem Echad”, but we should live our lives thinking about the second verse. It states: “and you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your strength.” From this we see that ahavat Hashem—the Love of G-d—is a positive mitzva. But we also know that we are commanded L’yirah et Hashem—to fear G-d. This seems schizophrenic—how can we both love and fear G-d?

The cynic might respond that everyday life affords us ample opportunity to do both. We can love G-d for the good of the world and fear upsetting G-d, who is supposed to be Kail Nekamot—the G-d of Vengeance. Happily the cynic’s view is shallow and incorrect. G-d cannot be both loved and feared at once—these two emotions don’t run together. Yet, the Torah’s words are always true. We need to explore further.

The entire point of the Revelation at Sinai—G-d speaking to humans—was to enable the Israelites to become active members of a covenant that began with Abraham. The experience of Sinai was “experiential education”: the miracles the people witnessed convinced them of the authenticity of the Revelation. Simply put, the miraculous manner in which the Torah was given in front of a huge audience convinced the participants that G-d’s influence stood behind the Torah’s words. But the covenant is eternal and extends past Sinai. Indeed, a significant part of the Torah’s genius lies in the fact that it is written mainly for those of us who were not touched directly by the experience of Sinai. For us, the question is—why should we believe and why should we perform the mitzvot? One answer, suggested by Rashi, is that “love” and “fear” refer to levels of belief and observance. Rashi suggests that “fearing G-d” and “loving G-d” are two different reasons for doing the mitzvot. He suggests that fear is acceptable but love is by far the superior approach.

Being Jewish out of fear is something many of us are all too familiar with. It is a familiar theology that can be reduced to “if you don’t do mitzva X, terrible thing Y will happen to you.” If you recognize the voice of extremism and lack of intellectual analysis here, then you understand the dangers of this approach. Unfortunately, this approach is also far too common in the Chareidi (ultra-religious) world nowadays. Ultimately, fear is the bane of true religious belief. Fear fails to inspire or convince once the immediate threat is removed. Children who are warned that they will be punished by G-d are the first ones to try eating bacon to see what will happen to them. When nothing does, there goes the belief system.

But love is a more powerful and engaging emotion. Love is positive and inspires all those touched by it. But it is not always rational. Therefore, it is not easy to be an Intelligent Jew and simultaneously engage in the rational search for the meaning of our mitzvoth, and the sheer emotional pleasure of doing them out of a love for being Jewish and knowing that religious practice has a vital role in Judaism. Doing things you love makes it easier to honestly explain to others why you are behaving in a certain way and allows you to be honestly convincing and passionate. And in a world full of narcissistic cynicism—a nice dose of honest enjoyment and pride shines out. Serving with love brings us closer to G-d, a fine first step towards Rosh Hashana but seven weeks away.

Posted By The Stash

The Book of Devarim is very different from the rest of the Torah. So different in fact that there are many who suggest that it was written long after the other four books and later “added on”. It is a narrative, often written from Moses’ perspective in the first person, that contains the text of a number of major speeches that Moses gave to the Israelites before he passed away. Moses repeatedly shows great concern that the people will abandon G-d after they enter the Promised Land; his speeches seek to immunize the people against a lack of faith in the future.

Sefer Devarim thus reflects a great leader’s concern with his legacy. Moses believed that Israelite errors were a reflection on his leadership. And thus, there are many bitter passages in this book, especially in this week’s Torah portion. For example, Moses states in chapters 9 and 31 “you constantly murmured against the L-rd your G-d.” Indeed, he goes so far as to state that they acted like this “from the day that I first met you.” What can these harsh words teach us? Do they mean that the elderly Moses was a man consumed by bitter anger who deemed his mission a failure?

It is tempting to say yes by observing that Moses’ failure to curb his anger when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it. This set a poor example for the people. Indeed, we might argue that his words in Devarim seek to shift the blame to the Israelites. After all, they angered G-d with their inconsistent behaviour and lack of appreciation for all the miracles G-d did for them. How could Moses be blamed for championing G-d’s cause after the people failed to listen for so long?

It is more profitable to ask if sincere anger has an educational purpose. Maimonides famously answered in the affirmative by distinguishing (in Hilchot Deah 1:4 and 1:5) between anger as an emotion and as a teaching tool. Rambam said that on an emotional level “anger is an extremely evil trait which an individual should avoid at all costs to the furthest extreme. He should teach himself not to get angry, even over things that provoke anger." But a teacher was allowed to use anger as a tool for teaching, provided that “the teachers should only express a display of anger and not feel true anger inside.” He then argues, and the Shulchan Aruch further codifies, that applying this principle depends on the student. If a student truly does not understand the lesson, then the teacher must repeat it as many times as needed. But if the student is lazy, feigned anger may be used.

The fact that Moses was punished for striking the rock shows that the Israelites sinned out of psychological weakness rather than rebelliousness. They were ex-slaves and the Egyptian experience could not be quickly removed. In Sefer Devarim we see an “angry” Moses—now modeling the use of anger as a teaching tool. And teaching us all a lesson in the process. We often get upset or angry at our loved ones, but so long as we care about them deeply, that anger cannot cause hurt. It is only blind emotional anger which inflicts wounds that often can’t be healed. Tradition teaches that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Temple was “blind hatred”. As we commemorate Tisha B’Av on Monday night and all day Tuesday by fasting, we would do well to consider the deadly power of raw anger and begin to cleanse ourselves of it.




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