Audio classes now available

Yeshiva Ohr Avraham, under the guidance of Rav Mordechai Sher, has posted a number of talks which I delivered at the Yeshiva.  They can be downloaded at no charge at the following link:

Shiurim of Rabbi Ephraim Becker

Thank you, Ohr Avraham and Rav Sher!

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Remembrance and Asking the Right Question – the Holocaust and Purim

The Sabbath prior to Purim is designated as a Sabbath of Remembrance. The specifics of what is to be remembered is the vicious attack of the Amalekites on the nascent Jewish People as they miraculously emerged from Egypt. The attack is said to have ‘cooled the waters’ of the awe in which the Jewish People were held at that great time and is said to be the enabler and precursor to all subsequent attacks against the Jewish People.

The form that the attack took was not only physical. There was a specific philosophical attack in the battle between Amalek and the Jews. Amalek insisted that life could be lived without attributing anything to Divine cause and effect. Everything that happens in the world can and must be attributed to coincidence, nothing can be seen as Providence. The Amalekite attack was the attack of ‘happenstance.’ The ‘cooling’ effect that this attack had was not only in taking the Jewish People down from their invincible perch, but to cool the awe that had been generated by a world that stood witness to the fact that the Egyptian persecutors were punished, measure for measure, for having oppressed the Jewish People. Not only does the Almighty exist, He directs the affairs of mankind in the most precise and exacting way. This sense was dulled by the encounter with Amalek who forever stands in opposition to any inquiry into why events happen. There is nothing to ask because the world runs by happenstance, not by cause and effect. This is all packed into the few words of the text that describes the incident in Devarim 25

 זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקִים

After such a clear description of the nature of the attack, it might be surprising to find a moral analysis in the Talmud to understand how it was that the People could have been vulnerable to such an attack. The Rabbis discover a weakening in Torah study that left the People vulnerable.  In other words, the description of the Amalek attack is addressed on two levels. One level describes the evil of the perpetrator, and another analyzes the conduct that left the victim susceptible to the attack. In Jewish thought the one is unrelated to the other. Moral analysis is designed to help the victim learn the moral lesson that he is meant to learn in order to improve his future relationship with the Almighty. The moral culpability of the criminal is a result of his criminal intent. Each person is meant to learn his moral lesson. The criminal must accept his punishment in order to move forward, and the victim must address the breach that made him vulnerable in order to move forward. In this case, Amalek must undergo utter obliteration and the Jewish People must strengthen their faith with an unwavering diligence in the study and observance of the Torah. Amalek cannot make any claims to be the Divine rod to improve the Jewish People. Even, in the nearly preposterous case, had they had such intentions, they should not have volunteered themselves for the job.

This theme repeats throughout the Torah. By way of example, the Prophet Eliyahu is dispatched to the evil King Ahab with the famous rebuke ‘you have murdered and then claimed to be the heir’ after having schemed to kill Naval whose vineyard Ahab coveted. And at the same time as describing the horror of the crime, the Rabbis ask why is it that Naval fell prey to such a terrible murderer.  The Rabbis conclude that he once failed to share his gift, his beautiful voice, with the Jews of Jerusalem whose pilgrimage was traditionally highlighted by their enjoyment of his singing. The fact that Naval had a moral failing does not in any way excuse Ahab, and the analysis is not meant to mitigate the guilt of the evil king. Such moral zero-sum is the product of moral laziness. I don’t have to deal with my guilt because the victim has a moral accounting to do. This claim can never exempt a criminal. The rapist cannot claim exemption because of the immodesty of the victim.

And so it is that the Megilla starts at a point quite a bit prior to the political story of Haman’s ascendancy to power. We would have expected the story to begin when power began to shift. Haman came to power, Mordechai did not acknowledge Haman’s claims to be worthy of being worshiped, Haman became angry and swore to destroy not only Mordechai but the Jewish People and the People are saved from Haman’s evil decree through the intervention of Queen Ester. That would seem to sum up the story, from a perspective of political cause and effect.

However, the Megilla starts years earlier and opens with the festivities hosted by Achashverosh in which the Jews participated, against the ruling of Mordechai, the rabbinic leader of the time. It is there that the story really starts and it is there that the People became vulnerable to the vicious attack by the Amalekite descendant, Haman. While the People’s moral failure does not exempt Haman, it sets the stage for the more comprehensive moral discussion of what created the vulnerability in the first place.

This lengthy preface is needed in order to make the point of this piece with the hope of evincing a minimum of wincing, although I imagine that there will be some wincing nevertheless.

It seems that a new sin was born after the Holocaust. It is called the sin of introspection. Indeed it is an adoption of the Amalekite philosophy to never attribute anything to Divine cause and effect. In our horrific WWII brush with Amalek we adopted their position. Strangely, though the Allies won the battle, the Nazis won the philosophical war.

The rules of the new sin are clear. One is forbidden to ask the question regarding what moral shortcoming might have caused the Jewish People to be vulnerable to the Amalekite attack of the World Wars. Never mind that one may not actually ascribe the tragic loss of life to a specific transgression; one may not even entertain the question. To do so is sacrilegious, sanctimonious and subjects the questioner to the ultimate slur; he is to be labeled as a fundamentalist. Surely nobody would wish to be called such a lowly name. Calumny.

The prohibition reads as follows: Given that saintly people perished in the Holocaust, and given that the perpetrators are the embodiment of evil in the world, therefore be it known that nobody may entertain the thought that the Jews have anything to introspect about. We are perfect in light of the evil act of genocide.

And while we could all agree that we are perfect in comparison to the evil act of genocide, our moral compass would be off if we said that we are perfect because of the evil of genocide. The evil of the perpetrators is untouched by the moral inventory of the victims, for to say otherwise is to erase the moral message of history, something which Jews have never before allowed themselves to do.

The prohibition quickly spread to other similar enactments. One is not permitted to pause and reflect on the meaning of a financial reversal; on the moral causality of an embarrassment or a setback. Such reflections must be forbidden for if they are allowed, then it is only a small step to asking such questions about the Holocaust! Jews have always been mindful to build fences around prohibitions so as to prevent an integral breach of law. You may never think about any difficulty in your life and what moral message you are meant to draw from that difficulty, lest you come to think that the Almighty had something to say via the Holocaust, and thus you will desecrate the memories of the sacred martyrs and exempt the murderers.

I will not lay claim to having answers to the mighty moral questions that the Holocaust presents, but I similarly refuse to abide by the new prohibition against entertaining such thoughts. We must bow our heads humbly when tragedy strikes and introspect, reflect and improve until the moral failing, whatever it may be, has been thoroughly addressed. Had the Jewish People paused to introspect we might find ourselves in a very different space today; saddened by the tragedy and emboldened to raise the banner of Torah, fear of Heaven, and character improvement ever higher. The prohibition against asking the hard questions must be violated and a spirit of contrite introspection must begin. The introspection is not about finger-pointing (the other person is surely to blame for the tragedy), it is about using a tragedy as a stimulus to grow, to change, to improve and to come closer to the Almighty who guides the hand of history down to the tiniest details. We do not need to have the answers; we need to be relentless in asking the questions so that we never stop coming closer to our Divinely assigned mission.

It is told that the saintly Chofetz Chaim ordered that the Jews of Radin commit to a day of repentance and fasting when the banks of the Mississippi river overflowed in what is known as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. He understood that nothing in the world is meaningless. If the Almighty brought a great tragedy to that part of the world, then He must expect that the rest of the world will pause and listen to the moral message. Nothing happens for nothing and the Chofetz Chaim demanded of himself, as flawless as he was, to pause and improve in light of the tragedy.

Those who are willing to introspect when the Mississippi overflows its banks spare themselves and the world even more chilling reminders to improve. Those who write off the entire notion of such introspection even when considering the most unimaginable horror are simply cruel. I’d far rather be dubbed a fundamentalist with the Chofetz Chaim on my side than be a cruel person who invites ever more harsh moral reminders. Is there not enough sickness, terror ala ISIS and war in the world for us to each consider violating the prohibition against asking moral questions?

רמב”ם הלכות תעניות פרק א:א: מצות עשה מן התורה לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבא על הצבור שנאמר (במדבר י’) על הצר הצורר אתכם והרעותם בחצוצרות כלומר כל דבר שייצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן זעקו עליהן והריעו
הלכה ב: ודבר זה מדרכי התשובה הוא שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו עליה ויריעו ידעו הכל שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הורע להן ככתוב (ירמיהו ה’) עונותיכם הטו וגו’ וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם
הלכה ג: אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות הוא שכתוב בתורה (ויקרא כ”ו) והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי עמכם בחמת קרי כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה כדי שתשובו אם תאמרו שהוא קרי אוסיף לכם חמת אותו קרי

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Sudden Tragedies, Fear of Heaven and The deaths of the righteous

Fear of Heaven means that we are gripped with and by our awareness of our Creator and, by extension, we are moved to align our thoughts and actions with that ever-increasing awareness. The state called fear of Heaven is considered the most fundamental achievement for those who are on a spiritual ladder (Tehillim 11:10, Mishlei 1:7). Fear of Heaven is not a one-time accomplishment. It is rather a lifetime process and is often accompanied by ups and downs. In addition to the verses cited above, we should pay special attention to the verse in Koheles 3:14 wherein we learn that the Almighty causes that we should revere Him. The task of revering Heaven is so important that the Almighty helps us along.

The Talmud refers to two of the things that the Almighty does to prompt fear of Heaven; two things which inspire reverence and awe of Him. Those are (a) thunder; and (b) the tragic deaths of the righteous. As we will see, certain events have the distinct qualities of both triggers. Let us take a look at those triggers and how they are meant to be used.

In the Talmud Berachos 59a we are taught that the function of thunder is to straighten out bent hearts. A bent heart is the heart that has leaned away from belief in the Almighty. How does thunder accomplish this goal of straightening one’s heart? It combines fright, to get our attention, with the unknown, as the Maharsha comments, that we do not know what benefit comes to the world from the clap of thunder. This combination grabs our attention (fear) and points us to the fact that there is a great deal of reality that lies beyond the pale of our own awareness (unknown).

The other event that prompts awe and reverence is the tragic death of the righteous as cited in the Midrash. For those who keep track of such things, the Midrash is found in the portion of Toldos – the week coinciding with the tragedy that we are reeling from. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 65:22) relates that R’ Yosi b. Yoezer was being escorted on his way to his execution. He was bound and being carried on the boards that were to become his crucifixion. One of his escorts on that Shabbos day was his own nephew, Yakum, riding high on a horse in desecration of the Shabbos and in mockery of his saintly uncle. He jeered at his uncle saying ‘take note of the horse that I am riding on and the ‘horse’ that your Master has prepared for you to ride on.’ His uncle responded that if indeed those who anger the Almighty and flaunt His Will are granted such luxury as you are being granted, then all the more so will there be infinite reward and grandeur for those who adhere to His Will. To which Yakum continued, ‘is there anyone who has adhered to His Will more than you?’ To which his uncle responded, ‘if such is the strict judgment that is meted out even to those who adhere to His Will, then how much more so will there be infinitely strict judgment for those who flaunt His Will.’ The Midrash goes on to say that these words penetrated Yakum’s heart like the venom of a snake and he died in his grief and repentance, and actually preceded his saintly uncle to his eternal place (Gan Eden).

The idea that when the Almighty applies strict judgment to those who are close to him it brings forth awe and reverence of Him is stated explicitly in the Talmud (Zevachim 125b). The Talmud teaches that when the Almighty exacts judgment from the righteous, meaning that He exacts recompense for their minor infractions, then He is feared, exalted and praised. For if the slights of the righteous are not ignored, then how much more will the toll be for the egregious violations of those who set their own will ahead of His Will.

When a person does the math upon seeing or hearing of the judgment that is meted out to the righteous and he comes to a realization that he must strive to live in accordance with His Will, we can understand that the Almighty is feared and even exalted, but praised?! That seems incongruous with the moment of clarity that comes with such a calculation.

But if we put all of the Talmudic references together a clearer picture emerges. If a person does not believe that there is a reality beyond that which he can see, then he needs something to shock him. Something that is frightening and beyond his comprehension; something that points him to the fact that there is more going on than meets the eye. Something that points to eternity. The generic term for such a shocking event is thunder. But thunder can come in many forms, including in the heinous screams of axe-wielding jihadists and in the wails of the bereaved when the carnage is over. The thunder straightens out the crooked heart. The events are frightening and beyond our comprehension. They point us beyond.

Once a person is open to the existence of eternity and that which is beyond the narrow confines of his awareness, then he is in a position to start doing the math. If those who flaunt His Will receive grandeur for the tiny acts of goodness that they have performed in this world, then those who strive to uphold His Will and manage in even a small way to do so are set to receive reward 500 times that of the most wealthy, healthiest, powerful wish-fulfilled person in this world who is not striving to uphold His Will but who, willy-nilly did some good in the world. If he places this reality before his eyes then he will praise the Almighty for granting him such blessing. Even the slightest act of goodness done in the name of upholding the Will of the Creator carries infinite, eternal blessing. Praise indeed.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as powerful. If the righteous are held accountable for even the tiny infractions that they have committed during their saintly lives, then those who are not taking the game seriously at all had better stop and pause. The combination of thunder and the judgment of the righteous can be wrapped into one intense event. We must stop and pause lest the event miss its mark – and its mark is each of us. If we fail to internalize the take-home lesson from such a shocking tragedy then we invite a make-up test. This, says the Rambam, is why those who do not take heed when tragedy strikes are considered ‘cruel.’

May our understanding of the meaning of these tragic events inspire us to step up the level to which we take the game seriously and may that increase in fear of Heaven be a great source of merit to those who lost their lives and as a healing merit to those who lost their health in order to bring this message to us.

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Definitions of Maturity: The Torah and the Nickelodean Street

The TV company, Nickelodeon, recently wanted to promote a new TV series (Wendell and Vinnie) which features a man whose life circumstances force him into ‘maturity.’ In conjunction with the new series, Nickelodeon commissioned a study to find out what are considered the popular definitions of maturity and what is the assumed timing for men and women maturing. They found that in the popular view men mature much later (11 years later, in fact, age 32 versus 43). Five of the most commonly cited (of the 30 or so) definitions of maturity, or more accurately of immaturity, that emerged in the popular view were:

1. He finds humor in his passing gas and burping.
2. He eats fast food in the wee hours.
3. He plays video games.
4. He drives too fast or races other cars.
5. He snickers at rude words.

The list goes on, and hardly gets more profound. But there is hope; at some point the man seems to grow up and stops doing these things. In a word, at around age 43, men get serious (somewhat) while women ‘get it’ much earlier. In follow-up interviews conducted around the world it turns out that many men are not terribly excited about this thing called maturity. Maturity in this view could rather be summed up as becoming a bit stale and boring, losing a good deal of life’s gusto and fun. Some did not plan on, much less look forward to, maturing at all. Most thought that too much of this maturing thing could dampen even the best life.

The idea of the study was intriguing to me. As a student of the Torah’s model of maturity I asked myself if maturity can be summed up by simply slowing the engine down a bit. The answer is a resounding no. The Torah’s definition can be juxtaposed with the most secular definition which the Nickelodeon study puts forth. The top five features of the more mature person in the Torah are:

1. He has expanded the range of options at his disposal; not limiting himself to the responses that he was born with. He is able to be fun and serious, spending freely and be miserly, gracious and strict as the situation calls.
2. He has begun to make room for others; not only focusing on himself.
3. He has begun to consider the impact of his feelings, actions and thoughts (FAT) and does not suffice with the immediate ‘I want, I need’.
4. He is able to take more factors into account than one who is less mature.
5. He is more receptive to growth, more able to be wrong and more open to hearing other options and opinions than his less mature counterpart.

In the words of the Mishna, the wise, mature person is called a Chacham and is juxtaposed with the raw material of humanity, called Golem. The Golem is not some Frankenstein-like creature; he is the raw material, the immature side in each of us. The Mishna lists characteristics of the Golem:

1. He tends to speak out of turn, without deference to those whose opinions he should defer to, or those whose opinions he should be encouraging.

2. He interrupts.

3. He has an urgency to respond when spoken to or acted towards.

4. His questions and responses are not to the point of that which is being discussed.

5. He is not able to maintain order in his thoughts and actions.

6. He is unable to admit that there are things that he has not yet learned.

7. He has difficulty admitting when he is wrong.

If we find ourselves doing any of the above that is not a sign of evil; it is rather an indication of lingering immaturity. These change as we age and focus on expanding our natural selves rather than remaining bound by our birth-nature.

In summary, the Nickelodeon community has asserted that maturity is about slowing down, becoming staid, and possibly a bit stale. In the Torah view it is about expanding the range of options, of moving from predictable (based on my native nature) to appropriate (responding to the present moment). Now, all we need is to become the community can be poled and will give the Torah’s answers to the question of what constitutes maturity.

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The non-blessing blessing

After partaking of and being satisfied from a bread meal, a Jew recites three blessings, known as the Grace after Meals or ‘bentching’ in the vernacular.  Our rabbis extended this obligation to such meals even if the person does not reach satiety.  They further invoked a condensed version of the ‘bentching’ for seven foods that are the sources of the praise of the land of Israel.  However, when partaking of foods that do not meet any of the these criteria, such as drinking a cup of water, the Talmud teaches us that afterwards we say ‘nothing.’  Surprisingly, this ‘nothing’ is none other than the blessing known as ‘borei nefashos.’  This blessing does not make mention of having eaten to satiety, but only that Hashem creates varied life, the needs of each life and the bounty to satisfy those needs.  It is strange, however, that after declaring that no blessing follows the drinking of water we then find the blessing!  How did a non-blessing turn into a blessing?!

There is a story told (I cannot vouch for its historicity – it is one of those stories that is true even if it did not happen) that a student (it is said that it was the then-young Rav Schwab) once approached Rav Yeruchum (the Mashgiach of the Mirer Yeshiva in Lithuania) for a loan to enable the student to travel home for the holidays.  The Rav was only too happy to extend the loan and the student was lavish in his words of thanks.  With a stern look the Rav pointed out that one is not permitted to say words of thanks for a loan, for even this small addition is viewed within the restrictions of paying interest for a loan.  The student was duly reprimanded.  He demonstrated his having learned the lesson when he returned from the holiday with the money in hand, dutifully and simply putting it down on the Rav’s table and turning to walk away.  No sooner had he stepped away when the Mashgiach called him back and gave it to him over the head.  How could he simply walk away without a thank-you!?  Now the student was utterly bewildered.  Here he had thought that he had learned his lesson and not said thank-you, and now he was hearing rebuke for not saying thank you!  What am I missing?!  Rav Yerucham went on to say that while it may indeed be the case that we are restricted from saying words of thanks, but how could it be that the room itself is not filled with the humble energy of gratitude for the kindness?!  You may not be able to say ‘thank you’ but where did the gratitude go, how can you just walk away?!

So it is, it seems to me, with the non-blessing called ‘borei nefashos.’  We are told that no blessing is needed after partaking of certain foods.  Fine.  Now, how do you leave the table, how do you walk away?  True, no blessing is needed, but where is the blessing?!  How can you simply move on?  And so, the Rabbis gave us a way to express our gratitude when the occasion demands no blessing, by instituting a blessing! 

The depth with which one recites the blessing of ‘borei nefashos’ is not an indication of one’s fidelity to the law; it is a statement of his humanity.

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Even Though

The Mishna in Avos (Chapter 3, Mishna 11) teaches us that certain transgressions are so heinous (see below for a more detailed listing) that one who violates them (and fails to repent) does not have a portion in the world to come (even after suffering and death).  The Mishna inserts a qualifier into this statement teaching us that “even though he possesses Torah study and good deeds (Mitzvos and Chesed) he has no portion in the world to come.”

I found myself asking what is the implication of the ‘even though?’  What would I have thought had the Mishna not inserted this qualifier?  The first thought was that the Mishna wants us to know that there are no trade-offs with Heaven.  However, regarding this idea the Torah writes explicitly (Devarim 10:17) that Hashem does not take bribes.  And the commentaries point out that this means any bribe which might have currency in Heaven, such as charity or good deeds.  And so we are back to asking what was the ‘even though of our Mishna?

I would like to suggest that this ‘even though’ (and possibly other usages of ‘even though’ in the Mishna) have the implication of dealing with an unanswerable question.  In this case, we have a conflict of fundamental beliefs.  On the one hand we are taught to have perfect faith that Hashem rewards those who uphold His will (as well as the reverse).  We are further taught that the place for our reward is the world to come (for all except those who would truly rather have the material world than the infinite spiritual world).  Thus, if the only place for reward is the world to come, and this person has studied Torah and performed acts of charity and Chesed, then how could it be that he will not have a portion in the world to come?!  What will come of the awaited reward that we assert with such certainty is the lot of one who upholds His will?!

The answer is contained in the words ‘even though.’  The Mishna is asserting that we must reckon with a conundrum, a mystery that only the Creator can answer.  One who violates one of the prohibitions listed will not have a portion in the world to come, and as for the seeming contradiction between this assertion and the assertion that Hashem repays perfectly for every right and wrong, we are left with an ‘even though.’  The matter of reward, so to speak, is left to Heaven.  We are left with the unequivocal assertion that the person has no share in the world to come.  We don’t have to answer for the eternal mathematics.  Some things can be left with an ‘even though.’

As an afterthought, perhaps the underlying reason for the loss of eternity is that one who is not sensitized to the items in the list is so removed from the purpose of creation (sanctity of that which is consecrated to Hashem – both consecrated objects and consecrated time, the unique bond of the covenant (bris) between the Jews and Hashem, the deference that is due to a human being, and to the truths of the Torah) that his agenda makes him unable to enjoy eternal proximity with Hashem.  He and Hashem have taken different paths and at a certain point the conclusion must be made that the two paths will never join.  As to what happens with his Torah and Mitzvos, we leave that to heaven.

 

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