Creating a Mikdash Narrative-Shabbat Chazon

by Rabbi David Silverstein, Orayta S’gan Rosh Yeshiva

Before I began the Semicha program at Yeshiva University, I spend a brief stint working as a corporate analyst at an investment bank. One day, a group of senior employees decided to take the junior analysts out for a special lunch. Knowing that I observed the laws ofkashrut, the senior members of the group reassured me that we would be going to a glatt kosher restaurant in the center of Manhattan. Since the lunch outing took place during the nine days, we were greeted at the restaurant by large signs announcing a special “nine days” menu. Immediately upon our arrival, one of my co-workers leaned over to me and innocently asked “what are the nine days?” I tried to give a superficial answer to the question but my friend was insistent; she wanted to know more about the Temple that we were mourning.

As I left work that day, I began to reflect on my experience and wondered whether my attempt at providing a superficial response to my co-worker’s question reflected my own superficial relationship with the Mikdash itself? Did I really yearn for its restoration? If so, why was I hesitant to talk about it?

            In this weeks’ Parsha, the Torah begins with a formulation that is unique to the biblical narrative. Classically, Parshiot open with God issuing a directive to Moshe. In Parshat Devarim, however, it is exclusively Moshe who is doing the talking. The image of a highly verbal Moshe seems to be contradicted by Moshe’s own famous assessment that he is “not a man of words” (לא איש דברים אנכי).  In fact, the Midrash Tachnuma depicts a cynical nation openly questioning Moshe’s sudden verbosity. Rabbi Yitzchak (cited in the Midrash) answers the peoples’ cynicism by noting that Torah study can serve as remedy for speech difficulties. In Moshe case, by learning the entire Torah he was able to cure his own verbal limitations.

            However, a further investigation into the Moshe’s own assessment of his speech problems in Sefer Shemot indicates that there was something far more complex underlying Moshe’s psyche when he uttered these words. Initially upon hearing God’s commission to serve as a divine agent, Moshe hesitates and responds that he is not worthy of such a task (מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה…). After receiving divine reassurance that God would accompany him on his mission, Moshe reformulates his refusal to serve as a divine agent by claiming that his mission is doomed for failure since the people of Israel will not believe his claim (והם לא יאמינו לי). God responds by demonstrating His ability to perform supernatural activities thereby reassuring Moshe that God’s presence will be clear to all. As a last attempt to evade responsibility Moshe appeals to his limitations as a communicator.

            What becomes evident is that Moshe’s inability to communicate is based on his own theological and existential doubts about his mission. At his core, he fails to understand that human beings are all messengers of God. He doesn’t realize that his unique set of talents allow him to serve as the appropriate leader who could take a group people out of bondage. Philosophically, he lacks the confidence in God to believe that his mission will be a success. In fact, God’s anger is most evident when Moshe still refuses after receiving divine reassurance that God, the creator of speech, will instruct him what to say. His last attempt[1] to convince God about his own inadequacy is based on his previous two attempts. Had he been confident in himself and more importantly, God, his speech limitations would not have been an issue.

            From this analysis, it becomes clear that a person’s inability to express himself stems from much deeper issues affecting one’s confidence in the subject that he cannot express. If we are unable to talk openly and articulately about the Mikdash, then we have to reexamine our own belief and relationship with its rebuilding. However, the aforementioned Midrash also teaches us that engaging in learning and discourse about our own insecurities can help restore our confidence. The goal should be to use Shabbat Chazon as an opportunity to learn and discuss the values and intricacies of the Beit Hamikdash in order to ensure that lessons of Tisha B’av will be internalized appropriately.

 


 

[1] Admittedly, he does try one last time to evade responsibility in verse 13. However, in that verse no argument is presented, only a direct attempt to avoid the mission.

Getting our Spiritual Vitamins

by Rav Keith Flaks

Chapter 3 Mishna 4

Rabbi Shimon says: Three people who eat on one table and have not spoken words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from dead sacrifices…But three who have eaten on one table and have spoken words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the table of God, as it says …this is the table which is before Hashem.

Questions:

A few of questions jump into my head:

  1. Dead Sacrifices! That’s pretty intense! Granted Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of this Mishna, was an intense guy…but why does he attach such importance to bringing Torah to the meal? Just because I didn’t say Torah at the table, I am now eating dead carcasses! Seems a bit harsh. And on the flip side, just by saying a cute vort at the table (Moshe spelled backwards is Hashem!), I am now sitting at the table of God!  What’s the Pshat?
  2. Halacha Lmaysa, is this something we are obligated to do? Or is it just nice advice…

 

Halachically speaking:

The Aruch Hashulchan (170:1) and the Chayey Adam write that minimally one is obligated to say Shir Hamaalot or Al N’harot Bavel before Benching and thereby  one fulfills his obligation of saying Divrei Torah at the meal. Note, that this obligation is also relevant on weekdays, not just on Shabbos!

The The Shlah Hakodosh (Rav Isaac Horowitz in Shar Ha’osios 62a “V’efshar) writes that while one elevates his meal above the level of “Zivchey Metim” when he says Shir Hamaalot, one only raises the meal to the level of “this is the table before Hashem”, if we actually learn Torah, i.e  Mishna, Halacha, Aggadah, or Mussar at the table.  That makes a lot of sense. The more seriously we take this, the more schinah consciousness we bring into our meal.

The Bartenura holds that Birkat Hamazon itself can also elevate a person’s meal above the level of “Zivchey Metim” as there are many Torah concepts included in Birkat Hamazon.   Of course, this is assuming that we actually pay attention to the words we say in Birkat Hamazon, instead of just “Baruchatahhashemkeynumelechhaolaming”!

I have heard it brought down in the name of Rav Aaron that ideally Rav Shimon does not envision us sitting down talking about the Heat game, when someone gets up and says a random 10 second Dvar Torah, at which point we go back to our discussion about Lebron. Instead the intention is that the discussion at our meals should be about meaningful and Torah-related topics!

With that said, I do think that just the act of someone getting up and saying a Dvar Torah can infuse the meal with a spirit of kedusha, and remind us to try to direct our topic of discussion towards Torah-related topics.

 

                                     Why is talking Torah at a meal such a big deal?

My heillege wife Nili explained to me the hippy trippy Kabbalist perspective (After all, who is the author of our Mishna? Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, who survived for 12 years off of carob trees!). At each meal, not only do we get our physical nourishment, we also  must get our spiritual vitamins that we need that day! Just as we need the right amount of fruits, vegetables, carbs, proteins…in order to feel healthy, our soul also needs the right amount of spirituality in order to feel alive and connected to God.

Rabbi Shimon teaches us that speaking Torah at our meals reminds us that the Torah should be the goal of our life, and not the food! As Rav Binny explains, if we are eating a hamburger just for the sake of the taste of the hamburger… essentially we are just eating dead animals (Zivchey Metim)! But if we eat our food with the intention of channeling the energy  the food provides us to bring Torah and light to the world, we are elevating our food to the level of a sacrifice before Hashem! Speaking Torah at our meals is there to remind us of that.

My wife and I have a friend named Esther who was a hidden Jew in India. They couldn’t practice Judaism openly, but there was one practice her family would do which kept their Judaism vibrant. Every morning before they ate their meal they would stop and do the following:

  1. Remind themselves of the Passuk spoken when the Jewish people received the Manna that (Devarim 3:8) “Not by bread alone does man live, but by what proceeds from the Lord”.
  2. Before the food arrived at the table they would ask God for their daily portion of Manna.
  3. Ask for the humility to hear God’s word.
  4. Learn a piece from the Torah and try to decipher the message God was sharing with them.
  5. Ask themselves if there was anything about themselves they hade to change.
  6. Bless, bringing down blessing to all of Am Yisrael.
  7. Eat!

Wow! What a beautiful custom.

I know many of us have been searching for ways to support our brothers on the front lines. Personally I have been searching for a way to strengthen myself for the sake of my brothers. Trying to more consistently speak Torah at meals is a simple, but powerful idea.

When I was in the army, I never had a special gun to carry, besides the regular M16. My job was to bring a washing cup and a Dvar Torah to each meal. Sometimes we’d have three minutes to eat our tuna, but we’d always squeeze in some Torah.

And so, personally I am taking upon myself, bli neder, to be stronger in this mitzvah of bringing Torah to my meals. I invite you to join me! Infact, I will be transcribing food-related meditations, explanations and Halachot, which can be learned and shared at your tables. If you’re interested in receiving them, let me know (keithflaks@gmail.com).

All of Am Yisrael are connected, and so when do mitzvot with the intentions of sending that energy out to protect our friends, we can achieve amazing results. Missing you guys and thinking of our brother’s on the battlefield.

 

The Pirke Avot Project Continues…Reflect Upon Three Things

The fighting in Gaza rages on, and Orayta continues to stand together as a yeshiva and learn Torah with our holy soldiers and Am Yisrael in mind,

We continue this week in Pirke Avot with Chapter 3 and a thoughtful essay by Orayta Alumni Levi Morrow; we’ll have more pieces from Rav Keith and myself later this week.


Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came—from a putrid drop; where you are going—to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting—before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. (Mishna Avot 3:1)

 

In the first mishna of Chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot, Akavia Ben-Mehalel presents a meditation intended to keep a person free from misdeeds. The meditation consists of three statements, one about a persons past, which is putridity, one about their future, surrounded by worms and maggots, and one about before whom they will in the future need to justify their actions, the King of Kings, ‘א himself. Upon superficial examination, this reflection might be summarized as “You’ve alway been crummy and you’ll always be crummy, so you better try really hard not to screw up. And if you do screw up, you’ll pay big time.” This is far from encouraging, to say the least. However, reading the text a little closer demonstrates that this mishna actually intends the an almost opposite message, about the great potential of our deeds.

The mishna makes a statement about a person’s past, and then about their future, and we would naturally expect the last statement to be about a person’s present. Instead, the third statement is about “before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting”, and the answer is, “before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” This statement is seemingly also about the future. However, the accounting that will be given is for actions done in the present. Thus this third statement is about the present, but only inferred from the future. Specifically, it’s about the lasting effects and ramifications of the present in the future. And not only do a person’s actions matter for the future, they matter to the King of Kings, the loftiest of judges. By casting the tense into the future, Akaviah Ben-Mehalel takes this from being a statement about a person’s actions right now, and focuses it on the ripples and waves those actions create.

In addition to breaking the pattern of the tenses, the third statement of this mishna also breaks with the first two in how it depicts the quality of humanity in the statement. The first two statements are very clear, people come from grossness, and to grossness they will return. The third statement, however, says no such thing. In fact, it does not say anything about the positive or negative content of Mankind or their actions. All it says is that their actions are important before the Creator of the World. This is in line with the nature of Man as depicted in Tanakh, where Man is created in the Image of ‘א (Bereishit 1:27), but his first great act is the violation of ‘א’s command (Bereishit 3). Man has the potential to be great, but the greatness can be manifest in benevolence or tyranny.

The final way in which the third statement breaks from the first two is in what exactly it speaks about. The first two statements speak about the innate quality of a person, in their origins and in their ultimate fate. People come from grossness, and to grossness they will return. In contrast, the third statements speaks of the giving an accounting for actions, not for a person’s nature. While a person came from nothing and goes to nothing, their actions right now are not determined, and thus the mishna leaves open the possibility of greatness, stating only the seriousness of a person’s actions.

Upon reflection, the mishna is not a making a negative statement about man at all. Rather, taken as a unified conception of man’s place in the world, these three statements depict the possibility of greatness, but greatness found in a person’s actions, not in a person’s inborn nature. People are not born great, and no one is great after they are dead. What is important is not where we come from, nor where we are going. What is important is what we do here in the present. And it is important not because it gives us personal glory in the here and now, but because our actions reverberate before the God of History, in whose eyes we can be the very pinnacle of creation (Bereishit 1:31), or its undoing (Bereishit 6:5-6). We are not control of who we are born, nor of what happens to us at the end of the day. What we can control is our actions, and what this mishna is telling us is that it is those actions that count. Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression: It is not where you come from that makes you great, nor where you end up, but that your actions matter before ‘א. So make sure they’re great ones.

Pirke Avot Chapter Two: The Strength of the Community

Rav Yonatan Udren, Orayta Alumni Director

Says Hillel: Don’t remove yourself from the community, and don’t believe in yourself until the day you die, and don’t judge your friend until you’ve dealt with his situation, and don’t say “that could never happen,” because in the end, it could happen, and don’t say that when I have free time, I will learn Torah, lest you never find free time (Pirke Avot Ch. 2, Mishna 5).

The Maharal of Prague in his work on Pirke Avot titled Derech Chaim explains this mishna as follows: “The communal is fundamentally sound, as opposed to the individual, because the individual is in a state of constant change. But the community stands, since it is not subject to constant change.”

The theme that the Maharal sees in the teaching of Hillel is the juxtaposition of the individual in relation to the communal. As is true throughout Derech Chaim, each lesson is viewed as a complete teaching, meaning that each lesson deals with the totality of the human spiritual structure. Here Hillel reveals all aspects of the changing spiritual nature of the human, and how the greater unit of the community does not suffer the same consequences.

The first aspect of change is taught in the statement don’t believe in yourself until the day you die, and relates to the physical nature of the person. The very nature of the human being, which is a composite of the spiritual and the physical, is destined to change. This is because the physical in its essence is always changing. We can see this throughout nature, as well as in our own psyche. There are times when we feel strong internally and able to fight any battle, and there are times when we feel weak and vulnerable. Since we are in a constant state of emotional/spiritual instability, Hillel teaches not to disregard the nature of physicality, a component of our makeup which is always in a state of flux.

The second aspect of change is taught in the statement don’t judge your friend until you’ve dealt with his situation and relates to changing circumstances. Because of the constant state of change inherit within the human condition one should not think that he would have acted differently than his friend. No, says the Mishna, we all are products of change, and because of that, we also could have fallen prey to such actions if they had been thrust upon us in the same way. Don’t think that you would have acted differently than your friend because you are also a victim of circumstance and might have stumbled as well.

The third aspect of change is taught in the statement don’t say “that could never happen,” because in the end, it could happen, and relates to the element of time. Here the Maharal gives an example of a very wealthy person who never takes business advice from those around him because he relies on his wealth as a constant that will not change. If you told him that he will lose his wealth if he does not heed the advice, he would laugh and ignore the comment since he is so secure in his financial success. Don’t put too much stock in the status quo, says Hillel, because tomorrow everything can turn upside down. And when you hear something that sounds implausible, don’t say “impossible.” Times change, and what yesterday seemed impossible can today be painfully true.

The fourth aspect, taught in the statement don’t say that when I have free time, I will learn Torah, lest you never find free time relates to unpredictability. The normal, small constant changes and unforeseen issues that come up every day are a part of the changing nature of the physical world. One should never feel confident that in an hour or two he will be free, since inevitably something unpredictable will arise. If he waits for a moment in the future free from unforeseen issues, he will never find time for Torah learning. With all the factors in flux around him– the human being, the physical world, and time itself– unpredictability must be anticipated and accounted for. Nothing that we experience in this world is static, and tomorrow new changes are always waiting.

Yet as the “headline” to the mishna teaches, don’t remove yourself from the community. The community is a structure that is immune to in inherent unrest in the world around us. When a person removes himself from the community, he loses the steadfast element, and becomes subject to the constant changes that are inherent in the spiritual makeup of the world.

Judaism does not preach that a person should embrace the community to the extent that he loses his individuality. The individual plays a very important role in a Jewish lifestyle. However, here we are seeing the importance of being connected to the greater community; it keeps us from falling prey to our constantly changing nature and circumstances that are out of our control, and strengthens us towards achieving our spiritual goals.

Pirke Avot Chapter Two: One who Increases Torah, Increases Life

By Rav Noam Himelstein, Orayta Mashgiach Ruchani

Massechet Avot Chaptor 2 Mishna 7 (or 8, in some editions …)

הוא היה אומר, מרבה בשר מרבה רימה, מרבה נכסים מרבה דאגה; מרבה עבדים מרבה גזל, מרבה שפחות מרבה זימה; מרבה נשים מרבה כשפים.  מרבה תורה מרבה חיים, מרבה ישיבה מרבה חכמה.  קנה שם טוב, קנה לו לעצמו; קנה דברי תורה, קנה חיי העולם הבא.

He (Hillel Hazaken) would also say: One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry; one who increases wives, increases witchcraft; one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who increases man-servants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah, increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases peace. One who acquires a good name, acquired it for himself; one who acquires the words of Torah, has acquired life in the World to Come.


Massechet Avot contains many Mishnayot which are comprised of several brief sayings grouped together. The Parshan must ask two questions: What is the meaning of each saying – in its own right; and is there a connection between the teachings that are quoted one after the other. Here too, we must explain each separate statement of Hillel – after all, he did not give any explanations. We must also ask if there is any connection between them, or did he simply give general advice about negative and positive excesses, but not in any particular order. We may also ask if there is a parallel between the first half (negative excesses) and the second half (those which are positive).

Rabbi David HaNagid (Cairo, 1212-1300, the Rambam`s grandson) explained that Chazal referred to four types of people who pursue this world`s pleasures, and listed their opposites as well. For example, there is one who eats meat in excess, which leads to unhealthiness and death (“worms”); the opposite is one who increases Torah, increases life. One might run after money which causes stress – the opposite is one who studies in the Bet Midrash, which causes happiness, etc. According to this approach, the Mishna clearly refers to four types of individuals, listing negative excesses and their opposites. However, there does not seem to be any intrinsic order in which these individuals are listed.

Rabbi Moshe Almoshnino (Saloniki, 1518-1581) reads the Mishna as advising to stay away from destructive traits, and to adhere to those which promote growth, in three spheres of man`s life: How the individual conducts himself; how he conducts his home; and how he conducts his state.

The Rashbatz (Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, Algiers, 1361-1441) explains that there is an order in the Mishna: First a man dresses himself up and eats meat and drinks; then he wishes to have many possessions; when he acquires these possessions and realizes that he can support many women, he does so; and when he has many wives, each one needs a maidservant to serve her; and when his household contains so many people, he needs fields and vineyards to provide for them all, and therefore must have many servants …

The emphasis is on stages; each negative move necessarily drives him forward to another negative action.

To this last point I would like to add an important idea that I heard recently from Rabbi Chaim Sabato. He made several distinctions between a Mitzva, something that one is required to do; and a Minhag Chassidut, something that one is not required to do, but one takes it on as an extra spiritual push. One difference is that generally speaking, one does a Mitzva without thinking of long term consequences – he simply does the Mitzva, and that is it. However, the whole essence of Minhag Chassidut is to take into consideration how this extra action of yours will have ramifications. You may think that what you are doing at this moment is incredible and worthwhile, but if it leads to negative results down the line, it is definitely not appropriate.

May we always strive to develop ourselves positively; stay away from negative traits; and think ahead of all consequences of our actions!