Wednesday, March 28, 2007

NEW: Read The "Haggada of the Jewish Idea" Online!


Now for the first time the Haggada of the Jewish Idea by Rav Binyamin Zev Kahane is being made available free online!

Visit the Haggada of the Jewish Idea website www.hameir.org/haggada, or scroll down to the growing collection of links to online books further down the page.

Finally the Haggada of the Jewish Idea is ever more accessible to a world that the Israeli government wanted to rob of it!

Baruch HaShem!

Chag Kosher Ve'Sameach!

Passover: Who is Free?


The main theme of the Passover holiday is, undoubtedly, freedom. But we must understand what this freedom is all about. Does it refer simply to the end of Egyptian slavery? Is it only political freedom - a luxury which has eluded the Jewish people for most of their 4,000 year existence?

True to Our Inner Essence

The difference between a slave and a free person is not merely a matter of social position. We can find an enlightened slave whose spirit is free, and a free man with the mentality of a slave.

True freedom is that uplifted spirit by which the individual - as well as the nation as a whole - is inspired to remain faithful to his inner essence, to the spiritual attribute of the Divine image within him. It is that quality which enables us to feel that our life has value and meaning.

A person with a slave mentality lives his life and harbors emotions that are rooted, not in his own essential spiritual nature, but in that which is attractive and good in the eyes of others. In this way, he is ruled by others, whether physically or by social conventions.

Vanquished in exile, we were oppressed for hundreds of years by cruel masters. But our inner soul is imbued with the spirit of freedom. Were it not for the wondrous gift of the Torah, bestowed upon us when we left Egypt to eternal freedom, the long exile would have reduced our spirits to the mindset of a slave. But on the festival of freedom, we openly demonstrate that we feel ourselves to be free in our very essence. Our lofty yearnings for that which is good and holy are a genuine reflection of our essential nature.

[adapted from Ma'amerei HaRe'iyah, Celebration of the Soul, pp. 141-143]

Psalm 112: No Fear!


The Frightened Student

The Talmud [Brachot 60a] relates that Rabbi Ishmael ben Yossi was once in the market of Zion when he saw one of his students walking behind him.

Rabbi Ishmael noticed that the student looked frightened. "You must be a sinner," he remarked, "for it says, 'The sinners in Zion are afraid' [Isaiah 33:14]."

"But is it not written," countered the student, "'Fortunate is the person who is always afraid'?" [Proverbs 28:14]

Rabbi Ishmael, however, rejected this proof-text. "That verse refers to Torah study," he explained. Regarding Torah, it is proper to be vigilant lest we forget our learning. This concern ensures that we constantly review.

Why should fear be a sign of sin? Why is this emotion only appropriate with regard to Torah study?

Trust in God

When teaching about the trait of bitachon, placing one's trust in God, the Sages quoted Psalm 112. This chapter describes the righteous individual with an unwavering faith in God, whose life is free of fears and worries:

"He will not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast in trusting God." [Psalms 112:7]

The Sages explained the first part of the verse - "he will not fear evil tidings" - in two ways. This lack of fear is an expression of his genuine trust in God, and it is also a reward for his righteousness. The famous scholar Hillel, we are told, lived according to this verse. He once returned from a journey when he heard sounds of trouble and commotion in the city. Hillel remarked, "I am confident that it is not coming from my house" [Brachot 60a].

What is the source of this bitachon and fearlessness?

This inner confidence is based on the knowledge that even that which appears to be evil should not unduly trouble us. We recognize that all events in this world are Divinely ordained. If one's heart is genuinely "steadfast in trusting God," there is no place for fear and anxiety, since everything is from God and nothing can be truly evil.

The most debilitating aspects of hardships and suffering are not physical, but psychological in nature. For a person who can see the world as it is, and still his heart remains full of trust in God, even his afflictions are not true afflictions. Such a person is happy with his portion in life, and is able to face life's challenges with grace.

But for the individual who is accustomed to being discontent with the world, troubles await him at every corner. One cannot be at peace and feel contentment and happiness without learning to flow with life and accept the conditions of reality.

Fear and Sin

What is the connection between fear and sin?

Fear is the result of a state when the soul does not match or fit with the general reality. We do not fear that which is normal and expected. One who is unburdened with sins and maintains a healthy connection to the social order will not suffer from excessive worries and fears.

One whose life is darkened with immoral ways and corrupt values, on the other hand, has abandoned the proper path and his place in society. Due his alienated lifestyle, such a person will constantly feel anxiety and apprehension.

In addition, one living an ethical life is following the moral dictates of his intellect, while one who leaves the path of reason is subject to the whims of his imagination and its terrifying fears.

Never Enough Torah

Why did Rabbi Ishmael teach that there is one area where fear is appropriate - regarding Torah? Why should we be afraid of losing our Torah knowledge?

There is no reason to fear that we might lose something that we deserve, as long as we act appropriately. But when aspiring to acquire qualities that are beyond our natural level - such as the Torah, which is elevated above the ordinary human level - here there is room for concern. Even one who lives with integrity, and follows his intellect without the frightening shadows of the imagination, may reasonably be concerned lest he lose this extraordinary gift.

Unlike other fears, however, this concern need not disturb our mental equilibrium, since there is an obvious method to neutralize it - through dedicated efforts at study and review.

Only with regard to Torah study is dissatisfaction a positive trait. This feeling motivates us to work towards greater spiritual perfection - a goal that can never be attained, since there is no end to spiritual growth. As long as we recognize that this sense of discontentment is meant to prevent spiritual stagnation and stimulate continued growth, this fear will not darken our spirits and discourage us. Rather, it will help us overcome any traits of laziness, ensuring that we are not satisfied with spiritual acquisitions already acquired. With this awareness, our spirits will be full of joy and resolve, and we will continue to grow and succeed in our spiritual endeavors.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II pp. 324-325]

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Psalm 34: Amen - the Response of the Soul


Amen is an ancient Hebrew word that has been adopted by many languages and cultures. What does it mean, and how should it be said?

The Sages taught an insightful lesson about Amen from the following verse, familiar from the call of the chazzan as the Torah is returned to the ark:

"Declare God's greatness with me, and we will exalt His Name together." [Psalm 34:4]

What is the difference between the two halves of the verse, between "declaring God's greatness" and "exalting His Name together"?

Outward Speech and Inner Thought

This verse describes a kind of spiritual dialog. There is the one who declares God's greatness, and there are those who listen and join in.

We use our faculty of speech to express to others our inner awe of God. This declaration starts, as the verse says, "with me." We openly express these sentiments in order to awaken others to join us in sensing God's greatness.

The second half of the verse, on the other hand, depicts a different stage. "We will exalt His Name together." Together we acknowledge the sanctity of God's Name. Concurrently we acknowledge the infinite kindness in God's elevated rule.

This second level requires no outward expression - just the contemplations of a pure heart, the inner feelings of the human soul. Speech is a vehicle to inform those who do not know. This stage, however, belongs to the future era when there will be no need to teach others, a time when an inner awareness of the truth will fill the world.

A Quiet Amen

The Sages saw in this verse the dialog between the one initiating with a blessing and the one responding with Amen. The response, they stressed, should be recited as described in the verse - 'together' - no louder than the original blessing [Berachot 45a]. What is so terrible about an extra-loud Amen?

We first need to determine: what does Amen mean?

By answering Amen to a blessing, we indicate our agreement. Amen means that our inner understanding is at one with what we have heard. It is not a form of public communication, but an inner response of the soul. We confirm that the sentiments that we have heard resonate with our own thoughts and feelings.

If Amen is said more loudly than the original blessing, this would indicate that our Amen is coming to add our own emotions to those already expressed in the blessing. This is not a negative act — due to our physical nature, we are influenced and emotionally moved by external speech and actions - but speech is only a vehicle to awaken inner enlightenment. A true Amen is not a loud outburst of emotion, but rather the quiet reflection of agreement and inner awareness.

The blessing calls out, "Declare God's greatness with me!" It is a public cry to awaken inner awareness in others.

And we respond with Amen. "We will exalt His Name together." We exalt God's Name, with inner recognition, above and beyond all language. Unlike the blessing, expressed openly in speech, Amen belongs inside the mind. The blessing is the means, and Amen is the goal.

Short in Letters, Long in Thought

The Sages wrote [Shabbat 119b] that the word Amen is an abbreviation for "El Melech Ne'eman" ('God, faithful King'). This is another sign that Amen belongs to the realm of thought, where speech is brief and reflection is extensive. Like an iceberg, only a small part of this response is revealed; its true content is hidden within.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II p. 202]

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ki Tisa: The First and Second Luchot

Breaking the Tablets

"As he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses was angry, and he threw down the tablets that were in his hand, shattering them at the foot of the mountain." [Ex. 32:19]
Why did Moses need to break the luchot? He could have set them aside for a later time, when the Jewish people would be worthy of them. The Torah does not record that God criticized Moses for destroying the holy tablets. According to the Sages, God even complemented Moses for this act - "Yashar Kochacha that you broke them" [Shabbat 87a]. Why did they have to be broken?

The question becomes stronger when we note the unique nature of these luchot. They were "the handiwork of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the Tablets" [Ex. 32:16]. The second luchot did not possess this extraordinary level of sanctity. When God desired that a second set of tablets be prepared, He commanded Moses, "Carve out two tablets for yourself" [Ex. 34:1], emphasizing that these tablets were to be man-made. Furthermore, unlike the engraved writing of the first luchot, God said, "I will write the words on the tablets" [ibid]. The letters were written, not engraved, on the second tablets, like ink on paper. Why were the second luchot made differently?

Beyond Human Morality

The two sets of luchot, Rav Kook explained, correspond to two distinct paths in serving God.

The first path is when we utilize our natural capabilities to live an ethical life. We perform the mitzvot out of a natural sense of justice and morality.

However, God meant for the Jewish people to aspire to a much higher level, above that which can be attained naturally, beyond the ethical dictates of the human intellect. It is not enough to help the needy, for example, because of natural feelings of compassion. This is praiseworthy; but the higher path is to help those in need because, through this act, one fulfills ratzon Hashem, God's will.

Any ethical achievements that are the product of human nature and intellect are like the feeble light of a candle in the bright midday sun when compared to the Divine light that can be gained through these same actions. The loftier path is when the light of Torah is the light illuminating one's soul. One does not follow the Torah because its teachings match one's sense of justice and morality, but from the complete identification of one's soul with the Torah, which is ratzon Hashem.

The Sages hinted to this level in the Haggadah, "If God had brought us near to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would be enough (to praise him)." What was so wonderful about being near Mount Sinai? At that time, God planted in the souls of the Jewish people a readiness to fulfill His will. This preparation was similar to the natural inclinations of upright individuals to perform acts of kindness.

This understanding sheds light on a difficult verse in Mishlei: "Charity will uplift a nation, but the kindness of the nations is a sin" [Proverbs 14:34]. The Talmud explains [Shabbat 146a], "Charity will uplift a nation" refers to the Jewish people, while "the kindness of the nations is a sin" refers to the other nations. What is so terrible about the kindness of the nations?

Performing acts of kindness and charity out of a natural sense of compassion is certainly appropriate and proper for other nations. For the Jewish people, however, such a motivation is considered a chatat - it 'misses the mark.' The path meant for the Jewish people is a higher and loftier one.

Under the Mountain

Before the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people were like angelic beings [Ps. 82:6, Shmot Rabbah 32:1]. So clearly did they feel the ways of God, that their desire to do good came, not from positive character traits, but because of the light of God and His will to be found in such acts. Their souls completely identified with the light of Torah.

At that point in time, they deserved the first set of luchot. There tablets were the work of God, just as their natural inclinations matched ratzon Hashem. And the writing was engraved in the tablets themselves, not a separate material like ink on paper. So too, their souls were united and identified with God's will.

Their state was so elevated, their holiness was so intrinsic, that they were almost at a level beyond sin, like natural objects that cannot change their ways. This is the meaning of the Talmudic statement that the Jewish people stood literally "under the mountain" [Ex. 19:17], i.e., that God coerced them to accept the Torah as He raised the mountain over their heads. This metaphor alludes to a state whereby their inner connection to the Torah was so strong, they did not have true free will whether to accept the Torah.

The Golden Calf

But for the Erev Rav, the mixed multitudes of nations that left Egypt with the Israelites, this elevated service was simply too lofty. They felt it sufficient to aspire to the regular level of ethical perfection, based on human emotions and intellect. Therefore, the Erev Rav demanded a physical representation of God; they wanted a service of God rooted in that which one can feel and sense, the natural feelings of human compassion and kindness.

Sadly, the Erev Rav succeeded in convincing the Israelites to abandon their sublime level. Even worse, as they relied on their natural sense of morality, this level too was lost due to undisciplined desires. They descended into a state of complete moral disarray - "Moses saw the people were unrestrained" [Ex. 32:25] - and transgressed the most serious offenses - idolatry, incest, and murder.

After Israel left their elevated state, they required a new path of Divine service. But as long as the covenant of the first luchot existed, no other covenant could take its place. Moses realized that they would not be able to return to that lofty state until the end of days. The first luchot needed to be destroyed in order that a new covenant be made.

Interestingly, the Torah specifically mentions that Moses destroyed the tablets "under the mountain." The first luchot belonged to their unique spiritual state of "under the mountain," when God's will was so deeply set in their souls that they had little choice but accept the Torah.

The Half Shekel

The covenant of the second luchot signifies a lower path of serving God, one closer to our natural faculties. Thus the second tablets combined both man-made and heavenly aspects. The stone tablets were carved out by Moses, but written upon with Divine script.

God nonetheless desired to give us at least some residual form of the loftier service. For this reason we have the mitzvah of donating a half-shekel coin to the Temple, in this way connecting every Jew with the holy service in the Temple. The donation, the Torah emphasizes, must come from the shekel hakodesh, from the highest motives, for God's sake alone - "an offering to God" [Ex. 30:13]. The Torah introduces this mitzvah with the words, "When you will raise the heads of the Israelites," indicating that this mitzvah raises up the Jewish people to their original holy level, when they encamped near Mount Sinai.

[adapted from Midbar Shur pp. 298-305]

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Hidden Hope Which Lies in the Hidden Message of Purim

Written in 1997 by Rav Binyamin Zev Kahane hy"d

Translated from Hebrew by Lenny Goldberg

Two points in Megilat Esther are not clear. Firstly, what brought on the decree to destroy all the Jews, and secondly, what suddenly happened that caused the decree to be canceled? To understand this, we will look at the story of Purim.

Like a bolt of lightning, the decree "to destroy to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day" fell upon Persian Jewry. The reaction of the Jews to this edict was quite puzzling. The Megilah says that the "City of Shushan was in consternation". Consternation? Certainly, a more normal reaction would be to shout or cry. But "consternation"?

But if we take a glimpse at the of situation Persian Jewry at the time, we would see that consternation is the reaction we might expect after all. For it never entered their minds that such a thing could ever happen. They were the biggest patriots! They were the most loyal to Achasverosh! That is why when Achashverosh (nine months earlier) sent out invitations for the 180-day feast, the Jews were the first ones to confirm their attendance. All this despite the protests from the "extremists" such as Mordechai, who warned against their participation in such a feast, since it's intention was to make the Jews assimilate. But the Jews wanted to prove that they are not different than the rest. Thus the reaction of consternation upon hearing the shocking decree.

But then the Megilah continues: "And Mordechai knew all that was done..." He had no illusions, and understood fully what caused the decree. He knew that the assimilation - precisely what the Jew thought would ease anti-Semitic tensions, was the very cause of the decree! For the rule was learned since our days in Egypt: Whenever the Jew tries to water down his Judaism and be accepted by the gentile, the latent hatred (which is always there) of the gentile towards the Jew outwardly manifests itself.

If so, why was the decree annulled? Because immediately upon receiving word of the decree, Mordechai, as we mentioned, knew the reason for it, and did not give up. He also did not go on a boot-licking campaign to plead the case of the Jews to the king or his cabinet, despite the fact that he was no stranger to the palace and had connections there. What he did was to undergo a last-ditch effort to awaken the Jews to understand the real cause of the problem - that precisely their effort to shed their uniqueness as Jews and to blur over their Jewish identity and be like goyim is what brings upon them bad times.

Indeed, it is not easy to convey such a message to a Jew, when he is so caught up in having the goy love him. Because such a message seems to contradict all logic. But in Shushan, a great miracle occurred, and it is the real hidden miracle of Purim - the Jews did "Teshuva"! And not just "Teshuva" of talking without backing it up, but rather one of deeds. Instead of continuing to grovel to the Persians and bring down barriers as most Jews naturally react, they made themselves subservient to the truth of Mordechai only, admitting to their original mistake of participating in the forbidden banquet. This was the significance of the mass fast which was declared. It signified a genuine "Teshuva" to G-d.

By the way, now we can see why the Name of G-d does not appear in Megilat Esther, despite the fact that the theme of the story is "Tsh'uva to G-d". It is to tell us that when there is distress, one should not just rely on G-d to solve our problems in some miraculous fashion. Rather, we must prove by our actions that we understand the reason for the distress, and then do the right thing, even if it appears to be "illogical".

This should give us encouragement for today. For the problem of today is the same: Our need to copy the gentiles, to blur over our uniqueness as a people, and our absolute dependency on the world. At times it seems there is no hope. Can our people ever understand that America won't save us? And behold, we have a precedent in our history where from great distress, the Jewish People were able to wake up and to cling to the truth of Hashem. May we see the same awesome "Naha-Fochu" (a turning of the tables) quickly.

Why Did They Build The Temple?


BS"D

YESHIVAT HARA'AYON HAYEHUDI
Jerusalem, Israel
HaRav Yehuda Kroizer SHLIT"A, Rosh Yeshiva

PARSHAT TETZAVEH/ZACHOR
13 Adar 5767/2-3 March 2007



WHY DID THEY BUILD THE TEMPLE?


Historical Backround:

Upon the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel after the destruction of the First Temple, the exiles from Babylon went right to work to rebuild the Holy Temple. This was in the year 3390 from Creation. The first returnees found life in the Holy Land quite hard. First of all, only some 42,000 Jews returned home, about 20 percent of Babylonian Jewry at the time. The great majority of Jews, who were business people and scholars from the upper classes, decided that this was definitely not Hashem's wish that the Jews return, so they stayed in the golden medina of Babylon. Secondly, the non-Jewish neighbors in Israel at the time, after being prevented from partaking of the building of the Temple with the Jews, informed the king that the Jews, in building the Temple, were rebelling against him. He immediately sent a stop order and all construction of the new Temple was halted. That king who gave this stop order was, of course, our very own Achashverosh.

So the story of Purim begins to unfold. The Jews of Israel decided to send a delegation to the king to persuade him to let them continue to rebuild the Temple. The non-Jewish neighbors, seeing that the Jews sent a delegation to the king, also decided to send one of their own to the king to persuade him of the dangers of the Jews rebuilding the Temple. Representing the Jews was none other than our own Mordechai HaYehudi, who had returned to Israel from Babylon years before, when permission was first granted to the Jews by King Cyrus of Persia. Representing the non-Jews was none other than our arch-enemy Haman, who was part of the foreign tribes installed in the Holy Land by king Sennacherib of Assyria when he exiled the ten tribes.


The Question:

The question that we must ask at this point is: Why? Why did the Jews go to so much trouble to rebuild the Temple? Not only did they have a very small community at the time, making upkeep of the Temple very difficult, but also, the danger of the non-Jews who lived in the Land at the time and who were threatening to the Jews would seem to make this a matter of "pikuach nefesh" - endangering lives - so that danger should override the rebuilding of the Temple. Anyway, isn't it coming down from Heaven as many rabbis today state, and all we have to do is wait and look up carefully and watch that it won't fall on us on its way to the Temple Mount? Why, then, did they go though all of the trouble to rebuild the Temple, when the community in Israel at the time was so fragile and the majority of the Jews were just not ready for it, anyway?

The answer is so simple but so removed from our conscience that it seems light years away. They went to so much trouble to rebuild the Temple because it is a positive commandment to build a Temple, as the Torah teaches us: "You shall build Me a Sanctuary, that I might dwell within". From here the Rambam derives that the commandment to build a Temple is applicable to every generation, a place where one can offer sacrifices to Hashem.

In this spirit, the Or HaChayim also writes that the commandment to build a Temple was not just incumbent for the generation in the desert, but for every generation. And that is why the Jews who returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile set out to rebuild the Temple right away. Without excuses, without fanfare, because of its importance and the central role it plays in daily Jewish life.

And so, when Mordechai HaYehudi finally disembarked from his long journey to Shushan from the Land of Israel, imagine his horror to find that in spite of his purpose for being in Shushan - to convince the king to reinstate the construction work for the Temple - he finds, instead, that not only can he not get to the king, but his own fellow Jews were running here and there to partake of the great banquet that king Achashverosh was throwing. And just what was the good king celebrating? That the Temple was not rebuilt, and the Redemption of the Jewish people was not fulfilled, as the prophet Jeremiah had prophesied that the Jews would return to their own Land after 70 years.

Hashem, Master of history, had other plans for his people, though, and if they did not want to come home and rebuild His House, then He had many messengers at His disposal to help us along, as in the unfolding story of Purim, with Haman and his evil decree.

Today, too, the Land is awaiting its sons to return and to rebuild Hashem's House. If we don't move along with His program, then the Master of history will know how to bring it about one way or another. That is what is happening today in our still-unfolding story of Purim. Do we dare make the wrong choice and miss the boat?

With love of Israel,
Levi Chazen

Purim in Volozhin


Purim: Purim in Volozhin


The Purim Gabbai

In 1885, the year that Rav Kook studied in the famed yeshivah of Volozhin, he was unanimously chosen to lead the Purim revelry as Purim gabbai. The most important students in the yeshivah lit the streetlights along the road from Rav Kook's lodgings to the yeshivah. This created a festive atmosphere, as Rav Kook was led to the yeshivah and to the home of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Naftali Tvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netziv.

Efraim Teitelbaum, Rav Kook's roommate, related that when the Rav reached the home of the Netziv, he recited the usual verses poking fun at the administration and at events that had occurred in the yeshivah. However, instead of composing his doggerel in the vernacular Yiddish, he did so in Hebrew and Aramaic.

One of his quips was, "Berlin will sink and Berlin will rise." That is, the haskalah of Berlin (the 'Enlightenment' movement that advocated integrating into European society) will sink, while the Torah of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Berlin, will rise. Several students in the yeshivah had studied the haskalah literature and had been enticed by it. When they expressed their delight and amazement at the Rav's mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic, the Netziv turned to them and remarked, "Not only does he excel in Torah and yirat shamayaim (fear of heaven), but even in this subject you do not reach his ankles."

Measure for Measure

In delivering his Purim compositions, Rav Kook imitated the Netziv's manner of speech and enunciation. But he was repaid in kind many years later by the great-grandson of the Netziv, Rabbi Yitzchak Charif, who was chosen to be the Purim rav in Rav Kook's own yeshiva, Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.

Rabbi Yitzchak, having internalized every word that he had heard Rav Kook speak, proceeded to make a Purim speech in precise imitation of the Rav's style and cadence. In his speech, he analyzed his position of Purim rav. Did it encompass only the rabbinate of Jerusalem, or did his nomination entitle him to officiate as the chief rabbi of all of Eretz Yisrael?

The scholarship and mental agility which he brought to his speech amazed all those present. Rav Kook was also impressed by Rabbi Yitzchak's address. He admitted that he had been unaware of the rabbi's greatness in Torah. "Now I am getting my due," Rav Kook noted. "The great-grandson is repaying me here in Jerusalem for that which I said to his great-grandfather in Volozhin."

[based on "Celebration of the Soul" by R. Moshe Zvi Neriyah, translated by R. Pesach Jaffe, pp. 123-124]