Tag Archives: mussar

The Choice Challenge

Every week I am reading Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah and in his second essay on parshat Va-’era’ Held once again demonstrates the depth of his scholarship and the breadth of his reading.  In discussing the age-old question of how the biblical God could harden Pharaoh’s heart yet maintain Judaism’s belief in our God-given right to freedom Held makes a suggestion.

Held suggests that freedom is not so much:

… a fact, but it is also—and perhaps primarily—an aspiration. Real freedom requires, R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–93) writes, “a continuous awareness of maximal responsibility by man without even a moment’s inattentiveness.” [Soleveitchik, On Repentance p. 143] Mindfulness and constant, exquisite attention are necessary for freedom to flourish. Freedom needs to be nurtured and attended to, not taken for granted.

R. Shlomo Wolbe (1914–2005) adds that “freedom is not at all part of humanity’s daily spiritual bread. It is, rather, one of the noble virtues which one must labor to attain. It is not lesser than love, and fear, and cleaving to God, acquiring which clearly demands great effort. We can acquire freedom, and therefore we must acquire it.” [Wolbe, Alei Shur p 155]

Freedom is, in other words, a spiritual project. In order to thrive, it must be brought into awareness (Soloveitchik) and actively cultivated (Wolbe). Then, and only then, can we soften our hearts. Shai Held. The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus

Joseph Soloveitchik is widely known, especially within the modern-orthodox world as the head of Yeshiva University and scion of a famous Lithuanian Rabbinic Dynasty, but R. Shlomo Wolbe is hardly known outside of the haredi (ultra-orthodox) world which he joined at the tender age of 19.  Wolbe transferred from the University of Berlin and ended up at the Meir Yeshiva in Poland. Wolbe, who passed away in 2005 was considered the last of the great mussarniks, he was also my rebbe during the two years I studied at Yeshivat Beer Yaakov where he was the mashgiach ruchni (spiritual guide).

Rabbi Wolbe lectured and wrote extensively primarily for the “yeshiva world” on subjects such as a progressive approach to education for children and adolescents and intense introspection for adults. But there was one singular point of departure that ran through all of Wolbe’s teachings. Never take the easy road.

If he saw a yeshiva bachur (student) who had previously concealed his tzitzit, wearing them exposed, or a previously clean-shaven student, sporting a pious beard, he would call the student over and ask: “What happened to you… did you become a tzadik (saint)?” For Wolbe there were no shortcuts to piety, certainly not by a superficial change in outward appearance. The higher level of spiritual consciousness of the mussarnik could only be reached by the hard work of the heart (hovot halevavot) and the sweat of the soul.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe once asked a pupil: “Did you ever say the Shema Yisrael?” “Of course!”, said the student. “Did you say it with kavana (intention and attention)?” The pupil replied, “Yes, of course, Rabbi.” Said Rabbi Wolbe, “Tell me, while you were saying the Shema did you follow the teaching of the sages and accept the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven?” “Of course” answered the exasperated student. “And did you feel a hint of rebellion against God?” “Chas v’shalom,” replied the pupil, “God forbid, of course not… never.” “Then you have never said the Shema” replied the Rabbi. [This is how I remember the story… for a more toned-down version see a Nice Patch of Grass by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair]

Such an unvarnished challenge to religious caution and timidity lies at the heart of Rabbi Wolbe’s concept of choice insightfully cited by Rabbi Held.

But the few pages allocated to his weekly essay  does not permit Held to expand on the depth of Wolbe’s challenge and his explicit critique of his coreligionists.

I have posted the complete text below from Wolbe’s book Alei Shur, and you can follow the Hebrew text and listen to Rabbi Yoram Bogacz read and translate here (start at minute 10:38) with a great South African accent!

Permit me to provide a further excerpt.

Wolbe writes:

“It is possible that an individual can live out his days and never make a choice! Imagine a person with a pleasant disposition, who has not moved from the upbringing that he received at his parents home, he fulfills the commandments … as he was taught, his predispositions strengthen him in his [rote] behavior (he is considered a tzadik – righteous person) and no trials occur [to shake him up]. Amazingly, he could live out his days, with  good name and without him having actually chosen a path through independent intellectual review!”

Wolbe continues:

“Its an extreme example, but if we are honest with ourselves, it is on rare occasion that we make choices in our lives.  “Everything is foreseen, and freewill is given” [Ethics of the Fathers 3:15] but in truth we are governed by our natural disposition, our education, habits and biases both in terms of the fateful decisions in life and also the small day-to-day decisions… and where is the choice?” ואיה הבחירה

Between Rav Wolbe and Rav Held, we are fortunate to have teachers who challenge us to choose… and now the choice to choose is all ours!

ale shor 3

aleih shor 2

aleih shor 1

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Judaism, mussar, Religion, social commentary, Torah, yeshiva

be still


parshat Shemini

What’s the original sin? Eating fruit of the forbidden tree… Well not exactly. The first sin was that Eve fell for the oldest trick in the book.. adding, embellishing, improving on God’s laws.

You know the joke:

Said God to Moses: “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses replied, “You mean you don’t want us to make cheeseburgers? “Said God, mildly shocked and bewildered, “I just said — not a kid in the milk of its mother!” Moses frowned, twirled his beard, and responded, “You mean, don’t even use the same plates for cheese & meat?” God’s face reddened. “Just don’t boil a kid in the milk of its mother”! Said Moses, “My God! You mean we have to wait six whole hours after eating meat before we can have some milk?” God threw the Divine Arms wide into the Cosmos: “Have it your own way, Moses!” And so we do. (quoted in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Down to Earth Judaism)

Well that was Eve’s sin… no joke. God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit but when the snake tempted her she said to the snake:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’ (Genesis 3:3)

According to the tradition, Eve unconsciously added a chumra (a stringency): “neither shall ye touch it” and when the snake pushed her against the tree and nothing happened she succumbed. Or as Rashi comments: “She added to the command [of God], therefore she ended up by reducing it, that is what is meant (Proverbs 30:6) “Add thou not unto His words.””

Moral of the story: If Eve had not been such a “frummer” we could still be in Paradise..

Typically, the overly zealous put up multiple “fences around the Torah” in order to assure that they not be tempted to sin. But there are incidents when in our excitement and adulation of the holy, we gets carried away and add to a mitzvah.. a positive commandment.

Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed:

You also know their famous dictum would that all dicta were like it. …. They have said: (Babylonian Talmud Berakhoth, 33b) Someone who came into the presence of Rabbi Haninah said [in leading the Silent Prayer – Shemona Esrei prayer]: God the Great, the Valiant, the Terrible, the Mighty, the Strong, the Tremendous, the Powerful. Thereupon [Rabbi Haninah] said to him: Have you finished all the praises of your Master? Even as regards the first three epithets [used by all Jews at the beginning of the Silent Prayer]

we could not have uttered them if Moses our Master had not pronounced them in the Law’ and if the men of the Great Synagogue had not [subsequently] come and established [their use] in prayer. And you come and say all this. What does this resemble? It is as if a mortal king who had millions of gold pieces were praised for possessing silver. Would this not be an offense to him? Here ends the dictum of this perfect one.

… Consider also that he has stated clearly that if we were left only to our intellects we should never have mentioned these attributes or stated a thing appertaining to them. Yet the necessity to address men in such terms as would make them achieve some representation – in accordance with the dictum of the sages: The Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man (Babylonian Talmud Yevamoth, 71a Baba Metziah 31b), obliged resort to predicating of God their own perfections when speaking to them. It must then be our purpose to draw a line at using these expressions and not to apply them to Him except only in reading the Torah. However, as the men of the Great Synagogue, who were prophets, appeared in their turn and inserted the mention of these attributes in the prayer, it is our purpose to pronounce only those attributes when saying our prayers. …

Thus what we do is not like what is done by the truly ignorant who spoke at great length and spent great efforts on prayers that they composed and on sermons that they compiled and through which they, in their opinion, came nearer to God. …. This kind of license is frequently taken by poets and preachers or such as think that what they speak is poetry, so that the utterances of some of them constitute an absolute denial of faith, while other utterances contain such rubbish and such perverse imaginings as to make men laugh when they hear them, on account of the nature of these utterances, and to make them weep when they consider that these utterances are applied to God, may He be magnified and glorified. ….

I have then already made it known to you that everything in these attributes that you regard as a perfection is a deficiency with regard to Him, … Solomon, peace be on him, has rightly directed us with regard to this subject, in words that should be sufficient for us, when he said: For God is in heaven and thou upon the earth; therefore let thy words be few (Ecclesiasticus 5:1)

Silence: The most apt phrase concerning! this subject is the dictum occurring in the Psalms, Silence is praise to Thee (Psalms. 65:2) which interpreted signifies: silence with regard to You is praise. …. Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate – just as the perfect ones have enjoined when they said: Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. (Psalms. 4:5)

(Guide for the Perplexed I 59)

Maimonides is clearly an early proponent of short Synagogue services … with an emphasis on silent meditation and concise sermons. Consistent with Maimonides’ belief that many laws (such as the Tabernacle) were commanded by God to accommodate our limited intellect (see previous post honor thy sources), so too are the theological references in our prayers and holy texts a necessary evil. Had they not been written we could not have written them. To Maimonides, all of religion and ritual is an unfortunate but necessary embellishment.

This critique of theology and ritual is actually a huge paradigm shift. It creates an entirely new way to look at God’s commandments. A commandment or Mitzvah is not so much an obligation imposed upon us by a divine decree as it is a permit by the divine to say or do something in the name of God. Just as… when we make a blessing before eating an apple.. we are actually getting permission to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation, so too, when we make a blessing on a mitzvah.. we are getting permission to indulge in a ritual.

By way of example, imagine if there was no command for tefillin and you saw an individual roll up a few scrolls, put them in little leather boxes and wrap them with straps around his or her arm and head… in the name of God Almighty. Such a person could be labeled a blasphemer, Idol Worshiper or just plain crazy. It is only because this very strange ritual is commanded in the Torah that we have the right to do such an act. With regard to prayer… had we not been commanded we would be forbidden to open our mouths… in other words… You literally can’t make this stuff up… you can only do it if you were commanded.

This bias explains the fate of Aaron’s sons:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was still. (Leviticus 10: 1-2)

The key phrase is “which He had not commanded them”. To create one’s own rituals is not simply superfluous, it is blasphemy.

But it goes one step further. Embellishing ritual is also the ultimate hubris. According to the R. Samuel David Luzzatto the sin of Nadab and Abihu was pride.

According to Luzzatto, the “strange fire” (aish zara) was simply fire that Nadab and Abihu brought with them from outside (zara as-in “outsider”)… they wanted to prove, in front of the whole community, that their offering was accepted.. and just in case God did not choose to send down the fire… they brought their own.

Understand… at its core, observing a Divine command is the ultimate hubris.

There is a profound lesson here. When a human being presents him/herself as complying with a divine commandment or living in accordance with a religious practice.. if there was no divine commandment then it is heresy… but even if it was commanded.. there is an overwhelming temptation to indulge in pride. Ironically, religion, which values humility, is itself, probably the oldest and most powerful source of hubris, especially if combined with outward success…. If your sacrifice is accepted.

I studied at a Mussar Yeshiva called Beer Yaakov, and if a student who had previously shaved, grew a beard and/or payos the Mosgiach (spiritual guide.. as opposed to the Rosh HaYeshiva), R. Shlomo Wolbe z’l would call him over and ask why he had all of a sudden become a tzadik. The phrase used in the Yeshiva was al tihye tzadik harbe… “don’t be such a tzadik”.

Although Rav Wolbe did not follow this school, there was a large but nowadays, largely unknown radical school of mussar known as Nevardok whose followers are called Nevardokers. This school, novelized by the great Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade in his book The Yeshiva, had a unique outlook on humility, stressing the wearing of tattered clothing and total negation of ego and the physical world.

It is widely reported that students of Novardok participated in deliberately humiliating behavior, such as going to a bakery and asking for a box of nails, or wearing a tie made out of hay (?). (see wikipedia: Novardok Yeshiva).

“What made Novardok unique in the yeshiva world was the emphasis on ‘working on values’ – not merely studying Torah but correcting imperfections of the soul. Pride was considered to be the worst imperfection, and our goal was a state of ‘indifference’ – remaining completely unmoved in the face of both praise and criticism.” (See Novarodok: A Movement That Lived in Struggle and Its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man, by Meir Levin (Sara Netanyahu’s father) and review in Haaretz)

Although I could not find a source… I recollect being told that some extreme Nevardokers would try to further embarrass and humble themselves by appearing to break a commandment… such as appearing to desecrate the Shabbat by stepping onto a street trolley (only to surreptitiously exit from the other side before the trolley moved). If this is true (reader: I’d be grateful for a source)… then the Nevardokers truly understood and attempted to neutralize the inherent hubris contained in living a Holy (let alone holier-then-thou) life.

We are reminded of all the great Hasidic stories that celebrate the simple, unlearned and many times, unobservant Jew for the purity of a simple moment of faith or action. We are reminded of stories of great Tzadikim such as Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement… who temporarily went under-cover to explore the world as a simple Jew. The Nevardokers went one step further…and followed in the footsteps of their founder, Yisrael Salanter (the other Yisrael), by living, on a day to day basis… an observant life… unobserved.

Nadab and Avihu and possibly Adam and Eve sinned and perished doing what most of us involved in religion, spirituality and anything ending in “ism” are guilty of…. Embellishing the ideal and succumbing to thoughts of enlightened superiority. The Nevardokers suggested an examined life with a goal of achieving true humility. Maimonides, and Aaron tragically got it right:

be still


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah