Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Sin of the Spies: Lusting for Leadership

The tragic incident of the spies in Parshat Sh’lah is a poignant story of failed aspirations. Benay Yisrael, on the verge of fulfilling the four-hundred-year prophecy to return to the land of their forefathers, hesitate in their quest to enter the land. They request to send spies who temper their enthusiasm for the land with reports of mighty peoples and cities fortified to the heavens. Many Israelites respond negatively, doubting their chances of success in conquering the land of Canaan. This ultimately leads to the collective punishment of Benay Yisrael. The nation is forced to wander the desert for forty years until entire generation of the Exodus passes on and is replaced by a new generation who does not share the guilt of the sin of the spies.

All Benay Yisrael’s leaders seem to fail on some level. The spies fail in their mission to gather intelligence about Canaan in anticipation of its conquest. While providing information truthfully, the spies maneuver the people into denying any chance of success in conquering Canaan. The only two spies to bring back a more optimistic report, Yehoshua and Calev, fail to convince the Israelites of the deceit of the other spies’ statements. Yehoshua appears to hesitate in responding to the spies, while Calev, although forceful in his response to the nation, cannot assuage the peoples’ fears. Moshe and Aharon, fail to take an active role in the story by joining Yehoshua and Calev in condemning the negative report, and instead react passively. They fall on their faces in prayer to Hashem.

In approaching this incident, the actions and motivations of the majority of the spies are perplexing. Why do the spies return such a bad report to Benay Yisrael? One could explain that the spies simply were overwhelmed by what they saw in Canaan. Therefore, they returned an honest though incorrect appraisal of what they viewed to be the miniscule chances of success in Benay Yisrael’s conquest of Canaan. The error of their report was then based on their lack of faith in Hashgahat Hashem, divine providence. Alternatively, one could attribute the spies’ action to a much more sinister plan. They purposely manipulated Benay Yisrael to fulfill some secret agenda.

Continued below.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Citing Others by Name and Redeeming the World

I feel like a crime victim. Someone stole my ideas. Let me explain…

Two days ago, I was googling a few sentences from a post that I wrote in my TanachRav blog six years ago on why we don’t eat chametz, leaven, on the Passover holiday. I wanted to see how similar a Word doc version that I had saved on my computer was to my online version. I found two matches for my search, my post and an article authored by a Rabbi Yehoshua Schechter that very day, March 31, 2017, on a Torah site called Hidabrut which bills itself as “The World’s Largest Jewish TV Network”. When I clicked on this article, I discovered that it was a paragraph by paragraph copy of my original piece. Since then I have run the Hidabrut article through, an educational site devoted to teaching students the writing process by, among other services, providing an originality report which checks for plagiarism. The TurnItIn report found a 77% similarity between the Hidabrut article and my original TanachRav post. You can view the originality report here.

Why I am sharing this on my blog?

Firstly, because I am angry. I am proud of my TanachRav post. The hiddush, the novel idea, which I shared connecting the prohibition against leaven on Passover with the historical fact that yeast risen bread was actually an invention of the ancient Egyptians, the enslavers of the Israelites in the Passover story, has made the rounds online. It was even mentioned in an article in the Washington Post last year, The science behind Passover’s broad bread ban, which quoted me by name. For someone to copy my words without attribution, attempting to pass it off as their own, makes me feel victimized. In the future, when someone googles chametz and Egypt, they might come across this post and credit Rabbi Yehoshua Schechter, whoever he may be, instead of crediting me.

On a deeper level, this has caused me to think about how much I give proper credit for ideas which I cite. As the Mishna in Avot says, "One who says something in the name of the one who said it, brings redemption to the world" -translation by Sefaria.

The commentary Lechem Shamayim explains that besides the obvious fact that one who attempts to pass off the words of someone else as his own is stealing, this Mishna teaches us something much more difficult to accomplish. That one should carefully examine the source of every one his ideas and properly cite them since by citing the words of someone who might no longer be with us, one causes that individual's lips to move in the grave. In other words, by citing ideas learned from others by name, one perpetuates their memory for all eternity, bringing about their personal redemption. For example, in Jewish tradition, one does not cite the commentary Rashi as Rashi said but Rashi says. In the world of Torah learning, the giants of the past are still very much alive and speaking to us when we quote them by name. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously calls this a symposium of generations.

Thinking about my TanachRav post, while the words were my own, I am indebted to ideas which I learned from others. 

The connection between the prohibition against leaven on Passover and the year-round prohibition against idolatry which is a central part of my thesis was one which I saw in the writings of Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher. You can view his article on this in Hebrew in Volume 19 of his seminal work, Torah Sheleimah here.

The connection between the Egyptian invention of yeast and the biblical experience of Joseph in Egypt is one which I first heard long ago from my colleague at Yeshivat Frisch who has since retired, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Goodman. When I shared my post on Facebook last year, I gave Rabbi Goodman credit for this idea. I plan to write an expanded version of my original TanachRav post later this week in which I cite these two sources by name.

My feelings in this situation has made me even more sensitive to the need for all of us to be careful to always give proper attribution to others. It is my hope that the author of the Hidabrut post, who I have already reached out to, will realize this as well. Perhaps by correcting this unfortunate oversight on his part during this Passover season, the holiday celebrating our redemption from Egypt, he can bring us one step closer to the ultimate redemption.

One who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.


This morning Hidabrut took down their article. When you navigate to the original link you receive a Page Error message. Hidabrut has yet to respond to me but I feel their removal of the article is a tacit acknowledgement that it had been posted in error. I published the following response on my Facebook page. To be continued...

Cross-posted on TechRav.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

If You Build It, He Will Come

In the classic movie, Field of Dreams, the lead character while standing in a cornfield in Iowa hears a strange voice calling to him, “If you build it, he will come”. Soon he plows over his corn bushels, transforming his farm into a baseball field and the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson turns up to play ball with his former teammates. This is not the end of the movie though. I don’t want to give away any spoilers here. If you want to know the rest of the story, rent the film.

You van watch the video clip below.


I think of this quote a great deal when learning through this week’s Parsha and the ones that follow. In the beginning of Parshat Terumah, God commands the Children of Israel to build for him a Mishkan, a house of God saying:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh points out that God does not say to build him a sanctuary in order to dwell in it. Rather he says that he will dwell in them. The Temple is not the place where God, so to speak, dwells. Rather it is by our act of building the Temple that God dwells in us.

This is stated directly by King Shelomo when he describes the building of the First Temple in Kings 1, Chapter 2. He says:

הַבַּ֨יִת הַזֶּ֜ה אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֣ה בֹנֶ֗ה אִם־תֵּלֵ֤ךְ בְּחֻקֹּתַי֙...

With regard to this House you are building—if you follow My laws...

וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֥א אֶעֱזֹ֖ב אֶת־עַמִּ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.”

Through the building of the Temple, God will dwell amongst the Jewish people.

Rabbi David Fohrman finds an interesting hint to this idea from the name of the chief architect of the Mishkan, Bezalel. The name בצלאל is actually a contraction of two Hebrew words, בצלם אלוקים, the words in Bereishit God uses to describe human beings, the only creations fashioned in the image of God.

The message is clear. The Torah devotes four plus parshiot to the work of the Mishkan both to its conception and construction. This is more space than almost any other mitzvah in the Torah. The reason I believe is because the Mishkan is the one holy endeavor involving all of the creative activities known to humanity. It includes artists and artisans, goldsmiths and seamstresses, musicians and construction workers, and the list goes on and on. It is through utilizing our passions for creative godly pursuits that one discovers the godliness embedded in us.

A few years back, I connected this to the yearly celebration at Yeshivat Frisch known as Shiriyah. Read more here.

When we use our creativity for Torah and mitzvot, God will dwell not in a building, but in the hearts of each of us.

If you build it, he will come.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Using Word Clouds To Illustrate Literary Devices When Teaching Tanakh

One of my favorite literary devices when learning and teaching Tanakh is the leitwort, leading words, or מילה המנחה. This term refers to a word, root, or series of words in the Hebrew text which repeats itself multiple times usually to hint at a big idea embedded within the unit. This can be illuminating to students as it comes across as a "secret code" within the chapter of Tanakh which our students have to find and unlock its meaning.

It is also a device where students clearly see the value of studying in the Hebrew text since the leading words are only apparent in the original Hebrew. This is lost in even a very good translation since Hebrew is a much more versatile language than English with its ability to do word plays by converting the same root into nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

One of my favorite strategies to teach leading words is the use of word clouds, randomly computer generated images in which words are sized based on frequency. The more times a word appears, the bigger it is in the word cloud. These clouds can be beautiful pieces of art when using the right app and since they are created at random, lend a level of authenticity to the finding of the leitwort since this is not an artificial process pointed out by the teacher but is found organically through the word cloud.

In the past, I used Wordle, a web app, to generate my word clouds. 

I find using word clouds to be an especially effective classroom strategy when introducing a text since students can use it to see the protagonists and main themes in a story.

Below is an example from Kings II chapter 9.

Through the word cloud students clearly see who the story will be about, Yehu the rising king, Yehoram who Yehu is overthrowing in a coup, and strangely the word HaShalom, which means do you come in peace. In this chapter, an extended battle, HaShalom seems to be out of place, a mystery to solve when students delve into the verses in greater depth.

Below is another example from Amos chapter 1.

This word cloud clearly indicates the repeated phrasing in the first chapter of Amos, עַל-שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי... וְעַל-אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ, for three sins [I shall forgive] but for the fourth I will not reverse... They also notice God as the theme in the chapter who is wreaking punishment against each of the peoples listed for their crimes against humanity.

Wordle has always been my go-to word cloud generator until now. Recently Wordle has stopped working. Perhaps the web site needs updating with some more modern code. Wordle, if your out there, I would love for you to read this post and update your site. Until then, I have been searching for a new word cloud generator.


Worditout is similar to Wordle. It is free, currently works beautifully with Hebrew and other languages, randomly generates word clouds sized based on frequency while allowing for many different color schemes and word sizings.  It is a wonderful word cloud app.

One important caveat is in order when using worditout and other word cloud apps. It is important that you use as clean a Tanakh text as possible. These apps are dumb computers running algorithms, even different Taamei Hamikra above he word will cause the computer to view the same word as different in the word cloud. Dashes after the word create similar confusion. My recommendation is that you use text from Mechon Mamre which has no cantillation notes. Then paste it into a Google doc and remove all of the dashes by the words and only then copy and paste the text into worditout. This will result in a much more accurate word cloud.

Below is an example I made yesterday using worditout that I will be teaching next week from the first chapter of Megillat Esther.

When I saw this word cloud randomly generated before my eyes, I got so excited I started screaming in delight. 

This word cloud illuminates the central tension in the first chapter of Esther and really the entire Megillah. Who is the מלך, the king, in the story? We know that famously God's name never appears in Megillat Esther yet Chazal says that המלך is a veiled reference to God. You see in this word cloud that the entire chapter revolves around the king. Besides המלך, we have מלכות, המלכה, המלכות and most notably אחשורוש. This is the overarching question of chapter 1. Who have the Jews chosen as their king? Instead of choosing God, the King of Kings, they have chosen Achashverosh, the King of Persia. The rest of Megillat Esther explores the ramifications of this choice.

I am SO excited to show this word cloud to my students and see what inferences they will make from the text about the story. I will keep you updated in future installments on this blog, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה.

Cross-posted from my TechRav blog.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lessons from Parshat Mishpatim: Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up

The end of Parshat Mishpatim continues the account of the events of the giving of the Torah that began in Parshat Yitro. In one enigmatic verse, the Torah describes a vision of God witnessed by Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders.
וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר׃
And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Source: Sefaria
This verse parallels a similar vision in Ezekiel which describes a vision of the heavenly throne.
וּמִמַּ֗עַל לָרָקִ֙יעַ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־רֹאשָׁ֔ם כְּמַרְאֵ֥ה אֶֽבֶן־סַפִּ֖יר דְּמ֣וּת כִּסֵּ֑א וְעַל֙ דְּמ֣וּת הַכִּסֵּ֔א דְּמ֞וּת כְּמַרְאֵ֥ה אָדָ֛ם עָלָ֖יו מִלְמָֽעְלָה׃
Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. Source: Sefaria
What lesson can we derive from these images?

Rashi explains the symbolism of the sapphire brick:
כמעשה לבנת הספיר. הִיא הָיְתָה לְפָנָיו בִּשְׁעַת הַשִּׁעְבּוּד, לִזְכּוֹר צָרָתָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהָיוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים בְּמַעֲשֵׂה לְבֵנִים (ויקרא רבה): כמעשה לבנת הספיר
AS IT WERE THE BRICKWORK OF SAPPHIRE — This had been before Him during the period of Egyptian slavery as a symbol of Israel’s woes — for they were subjected to do brick-work (cf. Jerusalem Talmud Succah 6:3; Leviticus Rabbah 23:8). Source: Sefaria
And the clear blue sky:
כעצם השמים לטהר. מִשֶּׁנִּגְאֲלוּ הָיָה אוֹר וְחֶדְוָה לְפָנָיו:
וכעצם השמים לטהר AND AS IT WERE AS THE BODY OF HEAVEN FOR PURITY — This implies that as soon as they (the Israelites) were delivered there was radiance and rejoicing before Him. Source: Sefaria
The “sapphire brick” represents that God was with us during our time of enslavement when the Israelites were forced to make bricks. The “clear blue sky” represents that God will also be with us in our time of redemption when there will be light and joy.

The Torah is conveying the message that just like God is with us during our time of joy, he is with us in our time of suffering as well. According to the Midrash, this is why God first appeared to Moshe in the form of a burning bush, to represent that when the Children of Israel are in a state of pain and suffering, God as well shares in their pain.

The Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah explains that this sapphire brick was transparent. Perhaps the message God is communicating is that even during a time of oppression, when the Jews are forced to create bricks, and God is not apparent, he is still there with us. God is in the bricks guiding us in our time of need.

Looking back to story of the Hebrew slaves fashioning bricks earlier in Shemot, one can derive an even more profound lesson. After Moshe confronts Pharaoh for the first time, the situation for the Hebrew actually got worse. Pharaoh decreed that the Israelites will no longer have straw to make their bricks while their daily quota would remain the same.

וַיְצַ֥ו פַּרְעֹ֖ה בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא אֶת־הַנֹּגְשִׂ֣ים בָּעָ֔ם וְאֶת־שֹׁטְרָ֖יו לֵאמֹֽר׃
That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and foremen of the people, saying,
לֹ֣א תֹאסִפ֞וּן לָתֵ֨ת תֶּ֧בֶן לָעָ֛ם לִלְבֹּ֥ן הַלְּבֵנִ֖ים כִּתְמ֣וֹל שִׁלְשֹׁ֑ם הֵ֚ם יֵֽלְכ֔וּ וְקֹשְׁשׁ֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם תֶּֽבֶן׃
“You shall no longer provide the people with straw for making bricks as heretofore; let them go and gather straw for themselves.
וְאֶת־מַתְכֹּ֨נֶת הַלְּבֵנִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֵם֩ עֹשִׂ֨ים תְּמ֤וֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם֙ תָּשִׂ֣ימוּ עֲלֵיהֶ֔ם לֹ֥א תִגְרְע֖וּ מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־נִרְפִּ֣ים הֵ֔ם עַל־כֵּ֗ן הֵ֤ם צֹֽעֲקִים֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר נֵלְכָ֖ה נִזְבְּחָ֥ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
But impose upon them the same quota of bricks as they have been making heretofore; do not reduce it, for they are shirkers; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God!’ Source: Sefaria

Moshe cried out, feeling that God had abandoned him:

וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃
Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?
וּמֵאָ֞ז בָּ֤אתִי אֶל־פַּרְעֹה֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר בִּשְׁמֶ֔ךָ הֵרַ֖ע לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה וְהַצֵּ֥ל לֹא־הִצַּ֖לְתָּ אֶת־עַמֶּֽךָ׃
Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” Source: Sefaria

The Ramban explains that at this point the redemption process appeared to cease. Moshe left, taking his wife and children back to Midian, and for long six months the Jews lived in even greater bondage and misery.

This can provide a profound lesson for us. In the process of a great redemption there are often setbacks, sometimes serious ones where God disappears from the scene. But God is still there. He is in the bricks.

Rav Tzadok Hakohen calls this a ירידה שהוא צורך עליה, a descent for the sake of an ascent.

ספר פרי צדיק פרשת נצבים - אות א 
אבל ישראל נופלין ועומדין וכן הוא אומר (מיכה ז:ח) אל תשמחי אויבתי לי כי נפלתי קמתי והוא שעל ידי הנפילה זה עצמו יהיה סיבה לקימה 
על דרך לשון חכמינו ז"ל (מכות ז' ע"ב) ירידה שהוא צורך עליה שעל ידי הירידה יכול להיות העליה יותר 
וכן הוא אומר כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם שעל ידי הנפילה דייקא יהיה הקימה
But Israel falls and stands as it says, "Do not rejoice over me, Oh my enemy! Though I have fallen, I rise again." This is that through the act of falling this is the reason that one rises. 
This is the language of Chazal, "Downward motion for the sake of upward motion." That through the descent one can reach an even greater ascent. 
Likewise it says, "Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up." That specifically through falling, he is able to get up. (Translation my own.)

Rav Yizhok Hutner Zatzal, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, elaborates on this in a famous letter he wrote to a student who was struggling spiritually. He writes:

החכם מכל אדם אמר "שבע יפול צדיק וקם". והטפשים חושבים כי כונתו בדרך רבותא. אף על פי ששבע יפול צדיק מכל מקום הוא קם. אבל החכמים יודעים היטב שהכונה היא שמהות הקימה של הצדיק היא דרך ה"שבע נפילות" שלו. 
וירא את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד. טוב זה יצר טוב. מאד זה יצר הרע. 
אהובי, הנני לוחץ אותך אל לבבי, ולוחש באזניך, כי אילו היה מכתבך מספר לי אודות המצוות ומעשים טובים שלך הייתי אומר כי זהו מכתב טוב. עכשו שמכתבך מספר על דבר ירידות ונפילות ומכשולים, הנני אומר שקבלתי מכתב טוב מאד.
The wisest of all men said, "Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up." The fools think this is a novelty, even though the righteous man falls seven times, nevertheless he still gets up. But our sages know well the true intent of this statement is that the essence of the getting up of the righteous man is through the seven times he has fallen. 
As it says, "[God] saw all that he created and it was very good." Good refers to the good inclination, while VERY good refers to the evil inclination. 
My beloved [student], take this to heart and hearken with your ears. If your letter had told me about your mitzvot and good deeds, I would have said that this is a good letter. Now that your letter tells me about your descents, fallings, and stumblings, I say that I have received a very good letter. (Translation my own.)
I have been thinking a great deal about this idea. I recently blogged about some recent disappointments and the lessons that I learned from them about being systems oriented instead of focusing on specific goals. We all fail many more times than we succeed. The question is do we learn from these failures and use them to consistently improve our personal system for success or do we let these descents get us in a rut piling on failure upon failure and losing the drive to aspire for greatness?

This I believe is an especially important lesson for us as educators and parents. We too often expect nothing less than total success from our students and children. Our hyper-competitive, college-driven society has trained us that every student must fight for every point on her GPA as the ticket to a good college which is then the ticket to a good job which will lead to a good family, and good social standing in their community. (Obviously I am speaking facetiously.) Students engrained with this worldview, lose the joy of learning while being averse to taking any risks which could possibly lead to failure. But such an approach guarantees that they will never experience meaningful success either.

It is interesting to note that our rabbis teach us that four people in the history of humanity died without sin, Binyamin the son of Yaakov, Amram the father of Moshe, Yishai the father of David, and Kilab the son of David. Yet these 4 individuals are not considered to be the greatest people in history. Yosef, clearly eclipsed his brother Binyamin. Amram is eclipsed by his son Moshe. And David is clearly greater than both his father Yishai and his son Kilab.

What made Yosef, Moshe, and David such great figures in our history is not that they never sinned. It is that they did great things. And in order to do great things, they took risks and at times experienced failure, and then utilized these mistakes as a vehicle to reach even greater heights.

It is because the righteous man falls seven times that he gets up. This is a lesson that every one of us leading our normal mistake-filled lives can aspire to.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

3 Reasons You Should Use Sefaria For the New School Year

The following posting is cross-posted from TechRav.

I have always admired Sefaria, the online platform for Jewish text. I wholeheartedly subscribe to their vision of creating freely available, high-quality online Jewish text both in Hebrew and translation. I love their start-up feel with a team of dedicated coders incrementally improving Sefaria on a regular basis, supplemented by thousands of contributors who through crowdsourced translations and public worksheets have augmented the product. Their commitment to the open and free use of their digital text and source code has allowed an ecosystem of Jewish apps to be built using Sefaria including BetaMidrash and JiTap.

The explosive growth of Hebrew sources featured on Sefaria has caused some growing pains though. The original, elegant interface included text with translation when available and when one clicked on the text, a verse from the Torah for example, all of the commentaries related to the text in a scrolling sidebar. This was wonderful in theory but when a verse had a dozen or more connections from commentaries like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Sforno, Haamek Davar, Midrash, and Talmud, it became a challenge to access all of these sources. The worksheet tool also while adding awesome features like embedded pictures and YouTube videos directly in the digital sheet, was not easy to manipulate especially when working in a classroom setting or when trying to create a printed copy of the sheet.

This is why I am so ecstatic about Sefaria's improvements in the past 3 months which have not been of the incremental kind but have been ground-breaking. They have created a whole new Sefaria which has made the platform a must-have addition to any Judaic classroom for the new school year.

1) Sefaria's Completed Redesigned Interface

Sefaria replaced the scrolling sidebar of textual connections with a Connections tab containing an organized listing of various commentaries and other connected sources. This addition alone has transformed the usability of Sefaria in the classroom with all of the gems included in Sefaria now easily available at one's fingertips.

But this is not the only noteworthy addition in the new interface. Sefaria has also added a series of Tools for each text. These include sharing text on social media or email, adding notes to any text while logged into Sefaria either privately or publicly to share with others, and even comparing two different texts from Sefaria side-by-side. 

These last two features could be indispensable in the classroom as a teacher could require students using Sefaria as their primary text to share their notes either with the teacher or with the class. In analyzing texts, teachers or students can now easily compare and contrast units using Sefaria. I plan to use this during the first weeks of school when teaching the Book of Ezra to compare and contrast the Hebrew version of the Cyrus Proclamation in Ezra Chapter 1 with the Aramaic version found by Darius some years later in Chapter 6.

2) Sefaria's Google Drive Export

I have always loved utilizing Sefaria to post digital versions of worksheets for my students. I found that when embedding a sheet from Sefaria onto my TanachRav blog or into my Learning Management System, one could not only view the sources on that sheet but one could see them in context simply by clicking on any individual source quoted to open it in its original format. Also, since Sefaria sheets allow for embedded YouTube videos, a digital version of the sheet could "come to life" with a Flipped classroom video or some other video hook placed directly into the worksheet. 

However, there were times that my students did not have a device or I did not want them to use one, either when learning on Shabbat or Yom Tov or just out of a desire to place a greater focus on the text without any technological distractions. At these times, I would print out the worksheet. This could be a frustrating experience since Sefaria is not designed for a print view so texts often bleed over into multiple pages in a format less than optimal for students. This is why Sefaria's new Export to Google Drive function is truly a game-changer. One can create a full worksheet in Sefaria and then, if intended for printing in class, one could first export the sheet to Google Drive which allows for more sophisticated word processing tools to design it to perfectly format to the printed page.

3) Sefaria's Assignments Tool

Even though the ability to print out well-formatted worksheets using Sefaria and Google Drive is a wonderful tool, one can only really unlock Sefaria's full transformative potential when utilizing it to create a paperless classroom. I already listed some of the added benefits to this above. For example, the ability for a student to click on any source to see it in its original context and to use Sefaria sheets to create a Flipped Classroom by embedding YouTube videos directly into the sheet. 

However, the biggest impediment to the paperless classroom for most teachers has been something far more prosaic, the workflow. How does the teacher give a sheet out to students, how do they fill in the sheet, and how do they hand it back to the teacher? 

Enter Sefaria's new Assignments features. 

Assignments allows the teacher to create an unlimited number of copies of any sheet for the student to digitally fill in with their account and hand in to the teacher. This is similar to Google classroom but built into the Sefaria platform so its much easier for most teachers, especially those who do not use a Learning Management System or who use one different than Google Classroom. All the teacher needs to do is create a worksheet in Sefaria with some comment blocks for teacher questions, then click on Assignments, and Assign this Sheet. 


A link is generated which the teacher can now share with all of her students. When each student opens the link, it creates a new version of the sheet using the student's account. The teacher merely needs to find her original sheet in Sefaria and she will see her students' Saved Assignments together with her original version. When the assignment is done, she clicks Stop Collecting Assignments and the students are no longer able to submit responses. This assignments feature has made the dream of the paperless classroom with an easy student workflow within reach of any teacher.

These three upgrades to Sefaria's already powerful platform, the redesigned, user-friendly interface, the export to Google Drive, and the Assignments feature are why I am so excited to use Sefaria for the coming school year. 

If you are already a Sefaria user but have not checked it over the summer, give it another look. Besides the features listed above, Sefaria has added so many enhancements, I am sure it will not disappoint. And if you are new to Sefaria, give it a try. It might just transform your students ability to engage with high-level Torah texts, make connections throughout the corpus of Tanakh and Torah She Baal Peh and begin to develop and share their own Chiddushei Torah, original interpretations.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The True Meaning of Yiras Hashem

Yesterday's Torah reading, Parshat Eikev, contains within it the Parshat Hayira, an essential treatise that many recite daily as it appears at the end of the morning prayers in the Ashkenazic service. The portion presents what appears to be a simple credo of Jewish belief.

דברים י׳:י״ב
(יב) וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקֶ֜יךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.
Rashi explains that this is the basis for the famous Talmudic dictum that everything is in the hands of heaven except for the Fear of Heaven. This illustrates the paradox that while God is in total control of everything in our lives, our health, our wealth, our wisdom, our family. God is all powerful and all knowing. However, at the same time, we still have the choice to do right or wrong, free will, represented by our ability to show Fear of Heaven.

This Fear of God expressed in this verse still requires further definition. What does it mean to fear God? This can be presented in two different ways as illustrated by the supplication that Rav used to add to his silent Amida.
ברכות ט״ז ב 
רב בתר צלותיה אמר הכי יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלקינו שתתן לנו חיים ארוכים חיים של שלום חיים של טובה חיים של ברכה חיים של פרנסה חיים של חלוץ עצמות חיים שיש בהם יראת חטא חיים שאין בהם בושה וכלימה חיים של עושר וכבוד חיים שתהא בנו אהבת תורה ויראת שמים חיים שתמלא לנו את כל משאלות לבנו לטובה.

Rab used to add at the conclusion of his prayer : May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of bodily vigour, a life marked by the fear of sin, a life free from shame and reproach, a life of prosperity and honour, a life in which the love of Torah and the fear of Heaven shall cleave to us, a life wherein Thou fulfillest all the desires of our heart for good.
This prayer asks God to grant us two different types of fear, fear of sin and fear of Heaven. I elaborated on this in my Dafchat blog:

This beautiful Tefilla seems to beseech God for a life full of fear of God twice, once when we ask for "fear of sin" and a second time when we ask G-d for the "fear of heaven". The Eitz Yosef commentary on the Ein Yaakov explains that this teaches us a profound distinction between 2 different types of fear of God, what in English we might call the fear of God vs. the awe of G-d.  
He explains that the first type of fear described here as a fear of sin is a low level fear which involves יראת העונש, a fear of punishment. I am afraid to sin because if I do, I am afraid that God will punish me. While obviously this type of fear is better than no fear at all, a religious experience predicated on this type of relationship with God, who is the "big cop in the sky" who will catch me if I am sinning is not something that is exemplary. It cannot possibly be that great people in Tanach like Avraham, Ovadiah, and Iyyov who are described as fearing God merely had this level of fear of sin.  
 He then explains that the second type of fear, described in this prayer as " fear of heaven" is actually awe of God, described in Hebrew as יראת הרוממות, awe of God's loftiness. This is a very lofty level of fear where in one's religious experience one becomes so enameled with the greatness of the Master of the Universe that he lives in constant awe of his greatness. This is the awe experienced by our great people throughout history. It is an experience that although hard to reach should be an aspiration for us all.
This begs the question, which type of Fear of God is being expressed in our verse in Parshat Eikev, fear of sin or awe of God's loftiness? The Malbim quotes the Abravanel who poses this question and states a paradox. On the one hand, the verse cannot possibly be referring to fear of sin since fear of sin is a relatively low level of belief which even simpletons could have in reference to the Almighty. This could not be the essence of what God demands of us as expressed in the Torah. On the other hand, awe of God, is a very high level of belief that the Malbim states only one person in a generation perhaps can reach. How then could God demand this level of divine reverence from every single Jew?

The Malbim answers with a subtle redefinition of what it means to be in awe of God. He says that this fear or reverence actually comes from the trait of בושה, shame. One attains this through a realization that God is always there watching over one's shoulder. Someone who recognizes that God is watching would be embarrassed to sin not due to fear of punishment but because of the reverence one has when in the presence of the divine.

This recognition of God's constant presence in our lives, שִׁוִּיתִי ה' לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד, is described by the Rema in his very first gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, our basic code of Jewish law. Rema explains that when one awakens each morning, he should rise eagerly for the service of God who is with him at all times when he lies to sleep and when he awakens from bed. The last word on one's lips before slumbering are the words of Keriat Shem Al Hamita and Hamapil which express a recognition of God and the first words upon awakening are Modeh Ani which thank and acknowledge the Almighty King of Kings. One who can recognize God's constant presence will have the level of awe of God expressed in Parshat Eikev.

This interpretation while satisfying intellectually is still emotionally difficult to achieve. How can one achieve a state of always realizing God's presence in our lives? I believe this to be a very personal question which each individual should seek to answer.

The poignant story of Yosef from the Chumash has served as my guide for addressing this. Yosef was sold into slavery in the foreign land of Egypt while still a teenager full of youthful charm and just a bit of vanity. He was seduced by his master Potiphar's wife on a daily basis. One day when everyone else apparently was gone, he entered the house to see Potiphar's wife. The Midrash quoted by Rashi states that this was a moment of weakness when Yosef was finally ready to succumb to temptation with the seductress. But then he saw the vision of his father's face in the window. And instead of sinning, he ran away from the Egyptian woman. What is it that Yosef saw? I believe he saw his own reflection in the window but at that moment saw in his reflection his father and all that his father represented. His father was the steadfast man of truth, the patriarch of the family, who had an uncompromising belief in God. This image is what prevented Yosef from sinning.

This I believe can be a guide for us when contemplating God's presence in our lives. The Torah exhorts us later in Parshat Eikev to cleave to the Almighty. Rashi famously asks how this is possible since one cannot attach oneself to God who is incorporeal. Rather he suggests that one should cling to Torah scholars and it will be considered as if he is attached to God.

When trying to imagine God watching over us, one can make an image in one's eye of a beloved teacher or an elderly relative, someone who represents total devotion to God. For Yosef, this was the image of his father. For each of us this will be different. This image can help us reach an awe of the Almighty who is watching over us at all times.

One can find my source sheet for this post on Sefaria. It is also embedded below. As always, I welcome your comments and constructive critique.