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October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘wisdom’

The Wisdom Of Kotzk

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

So what was a born and committed mitnaged (me) doing several weeks ago at the grave of Rav Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the celebrated Kotzker Rebbe?

Kotzk is a small village in central Poland, where the Kotzker Rebbe set up his chassidic court in the second quarter of the 19th century, and our Heritage tour stopped there and visited the tiny Jewish cemetery where his grave is located.

Indeed, the Kotzker is the rebbe whom mitnagdim can most appreciate, because he favored the primacy of Torah study above all and disdained the traditional trappings of the chassidic court, the claims of miracles and wonders, and even the customary veneration of the rebbe.

At his grave, I shared and explained some of his more famous aphorisms, all of which contain wisdom and insight that can benefit Jews today as well. Here are some of my particular favorites.

* “The middle of the road is for horses.” Human beings have to ascertain all the facts as best they can, and then decide. This is especially true of leaders, spiritual and/or political. One can choose the right side or the left side, but one must choose, at least in theory.

These days, only the theory remains. So-called leaders are prone to nuance, obfuscation, endless debates, and committees, seeing all sides and then choosing none, one compelling reason why malaise and apathy are so prevalent.

Decisions are often avoided so as not to offend anyone – echoing Disraeli’s famous quip: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” – with anarchy and ineptitude the general result.

The Kotzker had it right, as did General Patton (“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way”), but it is a hard sell in a world where “leaders” live in fear of laity, are forced to follow and then pretend they are courageously blazing new trails.

(A distinguished rabbi who was with us explained the Kotzker’s statement as referring to the Rambam’s “golden mean,” which is not the midpoint between two extremes – the realm of the horses – but similar to the third vertex of a triangle that draws from the other two. That could be, but I still prefer my interpretation.)

* “Where is God to be found? Wherever you let Him in.” Jews have suffered for centuries from approaches to Torah that seek to confine God to comfortable places that will not impinge on our desires or that sought to conform the Torah to modern, Western values that are often antithetical to Torah but, strangely, are perceived by many people as superior to those of the Torah.

Thus the ongoing efforts to legislate certain sins out of existence or re-define Jewish law and lore so that they satisfy modern sensibilities. Such endeavors are often presented as attempts to bring us closer to God but they are more accurately understood as feats of self-worship, with references to the Deity as a flimsy and transparent cover. God can be found in surrender to His Torah, in the voluntary abnegation of our desires that conflict with His stated will. And that is “letting Him in” – to our minds, hearts, and deeds.

* “I could probably revive the dead but I prefer to revive the living.” There is no greater wonder than the resurrection of the dead – but reviving the living might be more challenging. Habit, the great strength of the committed spiritual life, is also its bane.

If we do something today – pray, wear tefillin, eat kosher, etc. – simply because we did it yesterday, then our spiritual life has ossified and teeters on the brink of irrelevance. Such religion by rote can lead people who are observant in their private lives or synagogue activities to lie, steal, commit other crimes – and think nothing of it.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

Redeeming Relevance: The Wisdom of Withdrawal: Parshat Behaalotecha

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

Last week I wrote about the spiritual barrenness of abstinence. But that is not the whole story.

Towards the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah presents us with a most unusual back-story. The complaint that Miriam and Aharon make about Moshe’s marriage is hard to decipher. It is hard to identify the specific issue they are referring to and perhaps just as hard to understand what it has to do with being a prophet, the topic that ends up being discussed. Many questions are answered, however, by the rabbinic understanding that Moshe’s siblings were being critical of his separation from Tzipporah.

Yet the rabbinic approach here brings up the question of where was Tziporrah in all of this. Even without the rabbinic denouement, the careful reader cannot but ask, “What happened to Tziporrah?” She plays a clear role in Moshe’s early life but once Moshe returns to Egypt and leads the Jews through the desert, we almost never hear about her again. And it is not as if she dies or truly disappears. Moreover, there are certain places we would downright expect to hear about her. According to the approach mentioned above, this week’s parsha should be one of them: Miriam and Aharon speak up about her and on her behalf. Surely we would expect to hear her response or at least, to hear things that she might have said to spur them on to action. Indeed, the midrash fills in this lacuna by having Tzipporah complain as well (Sifrei 99).

We certainly, could understand it if Tziporrah was less than enthusiastic about the arrangement, and may have let that out when not on guard, as suggested by the midrash. But had she really been actively opposed to such a status, we would expect the Torah to report it. After all, it clearly did not shy away from reporting the disputes between the forefathers and their wives. The fact that the Torah does not report open discord leads us to the conclusion that it was not there.

As God makes the argument to Miriam and Aharon, Moshe was not just a prophet. He was in a category all his own. True, he was not born that way and, so, needed to get married. But once he became God’s servant par excellence, it was no longer desirable for him to live a normal married life. Tzipporah had a choice to fight this, since it is almost certainly not what she signed up for. Or she could acquiesce to it, knowing that her sacrifice would bring great benefit to the Jewish people, and to mankind as a whole. The Torah’s not telling us that she fought it would appear that she chose the latter.

Sometimes the greatest challenge is to realize the best thing we can do in a certain situation is nothing at all. As with the matriarchs before her, Tzipporah must have felt that she had an important role to play in Moshe’s life. By doing so, she would give of her best talents and characteristics to the Jewish people. No doubt, she did exactly that, so long as she was together with Moshe. But at a certain point in Moshe’s life, there was more to be gained from her withdrawal than her continued participation in his life.

Tzipporah’s apparent withdrawal from center stage was nothing less than epic. In it, she reminds me of the tanna, R. Shimon HaAmoni, who withdrew his major life teachings because of a singular case that seemed to disprove his theory. Most of us would do whatever we could to avoid such a withdrawal. But Rav Shimon’s belief that people would be disserved by a false theory outweighed his personal interests. And so he sounded out the famous words, doubly true in the case of Tzipporah, “Ke’shem she’kibalti sechar al ha’derisha, kach ani mekabel sechar al haperisha” – the same way that I received reward for action (literally, biblical interpretation), so too will I receive reward for abstinence.

If Moshe was the greatest man that ever lived, his truly silent partner deserves much of the credit for it. And through this, the nobility of Tzipporah’s silence rings forth for all eternity.

Rabbi Francis Nataf

Permutations & Combinations

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Originally published at Chabad.org.

By Elisha Greenbaum

Some people just don’t appreciate gematria.

In our synagogue I try to find something to say during the pauses in the Torah reading every Shabbat. We’re fairly eclectic in our tastes, and you might find us flitting between an ethical teaching, a play on words, a chassidic interpretation, or a piece of numerology during the break between one reading to the next.

Many of our regulars question my occasional use of gematria or other types of numerology.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. Aleph = 1, bet = 2, etc., and adding up the letters gives you the unique numerical value, or gematria, of each word and phrase. Comparing and contrasting the relative value of different words and phrases often affords surprising insight into the text and allows us to correlate seemingly unconnected Torah topics.

I admit it does sometimes seem somewhat random. One congregant of mine frequently observes, often after I’ve just introduced a particularly obscure piece of numerology, that you can read whatever you wish into numbers, and if you try hard enough you could probably find a tenuous connection between most topics.

He’s right, in a way. These methods are described as parparaot la-chochmah, the condiments of wisdom. They’re not the main meal of Judaism, just the seasoning that gives Judaism its taste. Torah is Godly and infinite, and all wisdom is contained within her words. You’d never decide a law on the basis of gematria; but, used properly, they can help give a new and deeper appreciation and understanding of the text.

Take one of the most famous examples of word and number play in the Torah. As Jacob leaves his father-in-law’s house on his journey back to Israel, he sends a message to his brother, Esau. Im Lavan garti, I have lived with Laban.

Rashi pointed out that the gematria of garti is 613, which is also the number of commandments in the Torah, and thus interprets Jacob’s message to be saying, “Throughout the years that I lived with the evil Laban, I kept the 613 commandments.”

But would my friend be convinced? So the word garti equals 613; it’s surely not the only word in the Torah with that value. Where do you get mitzvahs from “I have dwelled”? Why would Rashi assume that Jacob is doing more than just describing his living arrangements for the last 20 years, and is rather making a metaphysical point about his commitment to the commandments?

Gematria is more than random wordplay. Legitimate tools of Torah interpretation treat the text as a living document: an interplay of content and context, with each letter, word and phrase redolent with meaning. In our example, the correlation between garti and mitzvah observance is deeper than just adding up the letters; rather, the context leads to the conclusion.

The word garti, from the root ger, “stranger” or “convert,” is unusual. Had Jacob just wished to say “I lived with Laban,” there are other, seemingly more appropriate verbs that he could have used. Garti has connotations of “I was a stranger”; I was different, I never fit in with the wicked people because I lived and acted differently than they. Jacob was saying, “The whole time I was away from home, I stayed true to the lessons that I learned in my parents’ home.”

It was in this context that the rabbis observed that there is also numeric support for this supposition. “I was able to keep the 613 mitzvot, even in Lavan’s house, because I remained a stranger to their way of life.”

Wherever a Jew is, no matter how far from home he may have traveled, he can always maintain his connection to the words and letters of Torah by appreciating the value of each letter and word of Godliness and seeking out the underlying purpose of each phrase and phase of life.

Chabad.org

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/permutations-combinations/2013/11/13/

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