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.

Posted in Mussar | Leave a comment

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 and is thereby able to be appropriate; not limiting himself to the responses that he was born with. He is able to be fun and serious, spending freely and be miserly, be gracious and strict, all 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 can.
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 grow up and become the community that can be poled and will give the Torah’s answers to the question of what constitutes maturity.

Posted in Introduction, Mussar | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Mussar | 3 Comments

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.


Posted in Mussar | Leave a comment

Unpopular Psychology – Mussar and Logotherapy

I must confess to living with the delusion that if Mussar were explained in its full beauty then people would flock to it, drawn by their heartstrings.  Now that I have become more deeply involved in a sister pursuit known as Logotherapy I have come to a clearer understanding.  Responsibility is not popular and is not likely to become so.  Most of us would like to be utterly free of responsibility and certainly not the type of responsibility whereby we are answerable to another for the execution of that duty.  At best we are happy to be volunteers, taking on tasks but disallowing any claims on our being.  Mussar, and as I have come to understand Logotherapy, is all about responsibility and obligations.  It is about the demands which our humanity and our being in the Divine Image places upon each of us.  It is about the fact that our capacities and our talents each stand as our servants and our masters.  They are our servants for they are tools that we can use however we wish to accomplish every goal that those capacities are designed to achieve, and they are our masters, for they relentlessly demand to be utilized in the service of the greater good of my becoming more human and more like my Creator.  I enjoy my talents when they serve me and bring me glory; I loathe them when they lay claim to my attention.  Now go back to the previous sentence and replace the word ‘talents’ with the words ‘children’ or ‘neighbor’ or ‘Torah study’ or ‘generosity’ and see how pervasive this feeling is.

Mussar is about being called by our great humanity as well as the guidelines for how to respond to that call.  Logotherapy is about the fact that only this call humanizes us and to ignore the call is to feel empty and frustrated, for only when a tool is used properly can it feel right.  Logotherapy opens our understanding that our emotional, spiritual and, ultimately, physical health hang in the balance of being responsible while Mussar shows us how such basic responsibility can lead to being crowned with Commandments and Torah.

We are meant to thank our Creator every day for being responsible, and ultimately to thank Him for having sanctified us with His Commandments.  That somehow does not sound like the plot of a bestseller.

And hence, we proudly present, unpopular psychology.  Gone are the enticing bits of blaming our upbringing and our environment; the juicy morsels of characterizing ourselves as this type or that, the popular exemptions of co-dependence and addiction, the endlessly popular emphasis on the urgency of bodily desires which make for a brotherhood of mediocrity, failure and guilt.  Here we find the man-master, capable, powerful – and answerable.

Let others answer the call.  I’ll read their stories and applaud them from my comfortable perch as a volunteer actor on the stage of the human drama.  Their greatness can also be popular, filling the void in my life with pseudo-growth the same way that putting down others serves to create the illusion of my growth.  Assuming responsibility as one who is commissioned, obligated and answerable is hardly the fodder for a page-turner.  For the author is none other than oneself and the ink and the pages are the talents and capacities with which we are each endowed.

May we each merit to be considered by our Creator as master practitioners of unpopular psychology.

Posted in Mussar | 6 Comments

Unexpected Redemption

Jews have a complex relationship with redemption.  On the one hand (most of what I write has an ‘on the one hand’ in it) we are called upon to look forward, indeed to yearn, for redemption.  When discussing the great and awesome judgement to which a person will be subjected after his days on Earth are over, a key question that will be asked of each of us is whether we yearned for the promised redemption (Shabbos 31a).  If we are meant to continuously yearn for the Messianic redemption, then why are we taught (Sanhedrin 97a) that there are three things that spring upon a person while he is unaware, the arrival of the Messiah, a lost item that he stumbles upon and (the bite of) a scorpion?  It seems that for all of our yearning for Messianic redemption, it only comes when a person isn’t looking!

The answer seems to lie in the depth of our belief system.  We don’t believe that the status quo can radically change.  From the micro level (can I really alter some aspect of my character or repair some act for which I must repent) to the macro level (can the messed up situation/world ever be set straight) we tend to disbelieve.  On the downside, we find the prophet teaching us (Lamentations 4:12) that even the kings of nations, did not believe that Jerusalem would be breached and that the Temple would be destroyed.  In fact, this left ample room for false prophets to declare that there was nothing to be concerned about, that the Temple would be safe and that the People need not take major corrective steps.  Their message met the basic feature of human belief – in the status quo.  Things don’t change; indeed they cannot change.  And yet the Temple was destroyed.  From one day to the next the situation of the Temple and of the Jewish People was altered dramatically.  Similarly, we have difficulty believing that our situation will again change and that Messianic redemption will indeed arrive.  Thus two things can co-exist.  We can yearn for the Messianic redemption and it can only come when we are not looking.  They come together as beliefs.  We must believe in the prophecies of redemption while bowing to the human nature of belief in the status quo.  There is no other way to live for if I were to imagine that the situation will immediately change then it would not matter much how recklessly I enlarge my overdraft.  And if I do not believe that the situation can change then I will lose all hope and become a desperate ‘fixer’ of things over which I have no control.  I need to find the balance between the two belief systems; the necessary belief in redemption and the belief in the status quo.  One keeps me going and one keeps me from going too far.

There is a big catch in this story, though.  There is a piercing comment of the Maharsha on the above-mentioned Gemara about the three things that spring on a person when he is unaware.  He decodes the Gemara as follows: The Messaih’s arrival will be for some as joyous as finding a lost treasure, and for others it will be as the bite of a scorpion.  Both are sudden, but one is suddenly brilliant and wonderful and one is suddenly horrible.  How could the same event be both wonderful for some and horrible for others.  Likely that has a great deal to do with the nature of the yearning.  I recall as a youngster hearing about a simple Jew in a small town who heard a great rabbi speak about the coming of the Messiah.  Glowing and excited, the fellow ran home to tell his wife the good news.  The Messiah is coming and we’ll all be going back to the Holy Land, to the rebuilt Temple, and so on.  His wife’s response took him aback.  She challenged him, ‘but what about our cow?’  So the simple Jew ran back to the rabbi who was still at the Synagogue and put her question before him, ‘perhaps we don’t want to go to the Holy Land; we have a cow here.’  To which the rabbi responded with exclaim, ‘but what about the Cossacks!’  Ah, now he clearly understood.  He went back to his wife and proclaimed, ‘we shouldn’t want to stay here, what about the Cossacks!’  She thought for a moment and sent her husband back to the rabbi.  She had a suggestion.  ‘Leave us here with our cow, and take the Cossacks to the Holy Land!’

There are many people whose yearning for deliverance, if it exists at all, is simply for relief from the difficulties of their daily lives.  And while I have no issue with such prayers and while I would wish the same for myself and for those I care about, there is more to redemption than relief from difficulties.  There is universal recognition of what a human being was designed to be – a mentsch who is then crowned with Commandments (Mitzvos) and above that crowned with Torah.  The universal recognition of what it means to be truly human in the Creator’s image is the piercing message of redemption.  To cut through the nonsense and seemingly endless stream of smallness when people hold up false values and put other humans down.  To wipe away the disgrace of misguided people who have replaced the glorious Torah definitions of exalted humanity with their own pathetic definitions of human achievement.  For those who are yearning for distorted humanity to prevail then redemption will be a scorpion’s bite.  For those who are holding fast to the finest Torah definitions of Man, the redemption is a found treasure.  It will always be unexpected because of the nature of our status-quo belief, but it can be profoundly glorious if we are yearning in the right direction.

Oh, by the way, the way to demonstrate the yearning for exalted humanity is to strive towards it with actions that reflect that yearning.  We’re fragile and error prone, but if we keep climbing the steps, there will be an elevator that will take us to the top.

Posted in Mussar | 1 Comment