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.


Enter Worditout.com.


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.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What did Aaron do wrong at the Mei Merivah?


Moses Strikes the Rock, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Much ink is spilled concerning the sin of Moshe at the Mei Merivah which resulted in his losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. But what was the sin of Aaron? 


As enigmatic as Moshe's sin seems to be, Aaron appears to do much less. He actually does nothing. So why does God group him together with Moshe for the same punishment?

במדבר כ 
(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יקוק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃ 
But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

I am not the first to ask this question. In Parshat V'Zot HaBerachah, Rashi brings down a grievance by the Tribe of Levi who question why Miriam and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

רש״י על דברים לג:ח 
(ח) תריבהו וגו' ... תריבהו על מי מריבה, נסתקפת לו לבוא בעלילה, אם משה אמר (במדבר כ:י) שמעו נא המורים, אהרן ומרים מה עשו:
(8) תריבהו וגו׳ THOU DIDST STRIVE WITH HIM [AT THE WATERS OF MERIBAH]... Thou didst seek an occasion against him to come with a pretext, for if Moses said, “Hear now, ye rebels”, what sin did Aaron and Miriam commit? (why were they not allowed to enter the land?).
The sin of Miriam is beyond the scope of this piece since she dies before the incident of Merivah. But what of the sin of Aaron? Unfortunately, Rashi brings down Shevet Levi's question without citing any answer so we are still left to wonder.

Perhaps, one can discover an approach to what Aaron did wrong at Merivah by revisiting the sin of Moshe.


To summarize the story:

The people arrive in the desert of Zin after the death of Miriam and have no water. They complain to Moshe and Aaron. Moshe and Aaron go the the Tent of Meeting and fall on their faces until God appears to them. God tells Moshe and Aaron to take the staff, gather the people, speak to the rock, and bring forth water from the rock. Moshe takes the staff from before God. Aaron's staff which was kept in the Mishkan after Korach's rebellion. Moshe and Aaron gather the people, Moshe tells them that they are rebellious and he will bring forth water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock twice bringing forth water. God then tells Moshe and Aaron that since they did not properly sanctify him, neither of them will lead the people into the Promised Land.

Despite the myriad of approaches to Moshe's sin, Abravanel lists eleven possibilities, nothing seems to stick. God tells Moshe to take the staff. Moshe takes the staff. God tells Moshe and Aaron to gather the people. Moshe and Aaron gather the people. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock. Moshe speaks in front of the rock. God tells Moshe to bring water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock (twice) and water comes out. One could quibble with details which many commentaries do but fundamentally, Moshe appears to follow God's command exactly.

But perhaps this is the exact problem. Maybe Moshe should not have even been seeking God's command. With the Children of Israel in dire need of help, with no water source in a desert, perhaps Moshe should have been acting first and consulting with God later.


This approach is brought down by Rav Yosef Albo in Rabbi Meir Simcha's Meshech Chochmah1. He explains that Moshe's sin wasn't an act of commission but of omission. It is not what Moshe did that was the problem but what Moshe did not do. Moshe should have acted on his own to solve the problem and only then turned to God.

The Meshech Chochmah elaborates that this perceived fault of Moshe becomes even more glaring to the people when compared with the story immediately preceding this in the Chumash, the rebellion of Korach. During Korach's rebellion, for the very first time, Moshe acted first before receiving a command from God. When Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and his brother Aaron, Moshe does not fall on his face waiting for the glory of God to appear. Rather Moshe issues a challenge to Korach and his men saying that God should make a new creation, causing the ground to open up and swallow the rebels. He "challenged" God to make a miracle, one God did not command. And God accepts Moshe's challenge, the ground opens up swallow up Korach and his crew and fire comes forth before God to consume the 250 men who were bringing an unauthorized incense offering.

According to the Meshech Chochmah, this opens up Moshe to a serious critique from the people. If Moshe was willing to act on his own to protect HIS honor, then why is Moshe not acting on his own at Merivah to provide life-giving water for his people. He should have taken the stick of Aaron which was placed in the Mishkan as a symbol for all future rebellions and acted on his own to bring forth water for his people. God would have surely responded to this challenge. The fact that Moshe did not and rather waited for God to appear to him and tell him what to do is a small lapse in leadership which results in Moshe's losing the privilege to lead the people into the Land of Israel.

I believe that perhaps one can answer similarly regarding Aaron. Aaron did nothing wrong in the incident of Merivah. But this was the problem. He did nothing wrong but nothing right either. 


When Moshe hesitated, responding with inaction when action was called for, Aaron should have acted in his stead. The fact that Aaron did nothing to help quench the people's thirst and instead fell on his face before God with his brother Moshe puts Aaron in the same category as Moshe.

This can be an important lesson for us. There are times when prayer is called for. But there are other times when one must first take action and then pray to God that he will follow. 


As God tells Moshe at the Yam Suf as the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites.

שמות פרק יד
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקוָק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.


It is this perception of a lack of taking action on behalf of the people, when earlier Moshe and Aaron had acted so decisively to protect their own standing as the leaders during the Korach rebellion, that leads God to choose a new generation of leadership who will finish their mission and lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

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1. I am beholden to Rabbi Shalom Carmy who quotes this Meshech Chochmah in his monograph in the Spring 2016 issue of Tradition. "The Sons of Korah, Who Did Not Die." Tradition 49.1 (2016): 5. Print.


You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How did they know that? Chazal's approach to Midrash

One of the things that I love about teaching high school students is their refreshing honesty. When one of my students thinks a Midrash is far fetched, he/she is not afraid to tell me. The answer that I often received when I was a kid to the question, how did the rabbis know that, was that the rabbis had a tradition from Moshe or some sort of divine inspiration. This was hardly satisfying to me so I try never to foist that one on my own students. My answer to a question about the source of a Midrash is usually that they knew based on a close reading of the text, not only the verse in question but the entirety of Tanach. Sometimes we can deduce their source other times we just don't know yet.

As the saying goes: דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר, the words of Torah are "poor" in one place but "rich" in another.


Let me provide an example from this past week's Parsha. Many of us know the Midrash that was made famous in Rabbi Soloveitchik's talk, The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority.  The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Korach took 250 men clothed in a Tallit entirely made of the blue Tekhelet thread and asked if it required the blue Tzitzit string. Moshe replied that it does. Korach then filled a room with Sifrei Torah and asked if it required a Mezuzah on its door and Moshe replied that it does. Korach then mocked the seemingly nonsensical responses of Moshe. If a single blue string of Tzitzit will remind us of G-d and his mitzvot then why wouldn't an entire blue garment be an even greater reminder. If a single paragraph of holy writ attached to the doorpost will serve as a reminder of G-d in our home then would not a room full of Torah scrolls be an even greater reminder?

The imagery in this Midrash begs the question, how did the rabbis know this story? There is no mention of Korach or his men wearing in the Tekhelet garments in the Torah. To approach this question, one must analyze the purpose and method of Midrash. Firstly, one rule which is true almost always is that virtually every Midrash is addressing some type of textual anomaly. There is a question on the text which sparks the rabbinic discussion. The answer given by the Midrash might seem far fetched and not the simple pshat but the Midrash grapples with the text just like every later commentator. The question in Parshat Korach is obvious and dealt with by every commentator. The Parsha begins, וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח, "And Korach took", but does not indicate what he took. In this case the Midrash addresses this issue using proximity by analyzing the verses immediately preceding this one which present the Mitzvah of Tzitzit and then presuming that Korach in fact took these Tzitzit. The question then becomes why and in its approach the Midrash creatively utilizes these Tzitzit as a prop in Korach's rebellion.

This does not merely fill in the gap concerning what Korach took but as explained by Rabbenu Bachya amplifies the primary theme of Korach's argument to Moshe. Korach's argument fundamentally is one for pure democracy. He asks, "If the entire community of Israel is holy and G-d dwells amongst everyone" then why should Moshe and Aharon raise themselves above the people. This is fundamentally the same argument as the Tzitzit strings. If the purpose of the Tekhelet string is to remind one of G-d then a garment made entirely of the blue string should not need any reminder. If the purpose of the mezuzah is to bring G-d into one's home then a house full of Torah scrolls should need no such symbol. Similarly, if the purpose of Moshe and Aharon is to help serve as the conduit for the people to connect with G-d then a people who are entirely holy and dwelling with G-d should not need a Moshe and an Aharon to lead them.

When looked at in this light, one sees the beauty of the Midrash. It not only answers an obvious textual difficulty by connecting the account to verses elsewhere which shed light on the text but enhances the underlying theme that is the crux of the story.

This type of analysis can be undertaken for many other Midrashim. The key is to try to find the verses which often are not in close proximity but are located in other books of Tanach upon which Chazal based their seemingly fanciful Midrashic accounts. I will present two such examples.

We know that Moshe Rabbenu had some type of speech impediment. This is stated directly by Moshe during his argument with G-d at the burning bush as a reason that he should not be chosen for the mission of redeeming the Children of Israel. Many of us learned a famous Midrash which provides the background story for Moshe's difficulty speaking. As the story goes, Moshe as a baby on his adopted grandfather Pharaoh's lap grabbed the king's crown. The royal magicians were worried this was an omen that this young boy would seek to topple the Egyptian dynasty in the future. So they developed a test where they would place gold and hot coals before the young boy and see what ensued. If he went for the gold, it would confirm his rebellious aspirations but if he went for the coals, it would prove he was just a regular precocious baby boy. Baby Moshe of course went for the gold but the angel Gabriel moved his hands to the coals and put it towards Moshe's mouth so he was burned resulting in his later speaking difficulties.

Where did the rabbis get the idea for this creative story? To answer one must look at the inauguration of three other prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In each of these stories the prophet is initially reluctant to start his mission similar to Moshe's reluctance at the burning bush. But there is a key difference in G-d's response to each of them. In the case of Isaiah Chapter 6, verses 5-7, after the prophet says he is of impure lips, G-d responds by utilizing one of the Seraph angels to purify his lips.


וַיָּ֣עָף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן־הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל־פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל־שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֺנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר׃He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, Your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away.”


Similarly, G-d touches Jeremiah's lips to make him worthy of prophecy and in the case of Ezekiel actually has the prophet eat his words in a scroll in order to transform him into a vehicle for the divine message.

Our rabbis knew this so they had a vexing problem when looking at Moshe's opening exchange with G-d. Why didn't G-d respond to Moshe by touching and purifying his lips? They looked at Moshe's claim that he had a stammer and came up with a creative response. The reason G-d never touched Moshe's lips at the burning bush to make him a mouthpiece for the divine is because he ALREADY HAD touched Moshe's lips previously. The angel Gabriel touched Moshe's lips with hot coals when he was just a baby. Ironically, the reason Moshe gave that he could not function as a prophet, his speech impediment due to this childhood incident, is then the very reason Moshe COULD function as a prophet. G-d purified Moshe's lips for prophecy when he was still a baby. 


This is a fascinating example where the words of Midrash about Moshe as a baby only makes sense when looked at in the greater context of many other books of Tanach.


My final example is from another famous Midrash we all know from preschool, that when G-d split the Yam Suf, the Children of Israel did not cross in one path but the sea split into 12 paths, one for each tribe. The source of this Midrash is also often questioned. It is cited by Rashi on Psalms 136:13 which states G-d split apart the Yam Suf but this hardly indicates that it was split into 12 paths. However, once again, what is cryptic in the Torah and Psalms becomes readily apparent when analyzing a similar story in a different book of Tanach.

Isaiah Chapter 11 when describing the messianic era explicitly states that the ingathering of the exiles from faraway Egypt and Assyria will be modeled after the miracles of the Exodus. This account even mimics the splitting of the Yam Suf with a portrait of the Egyptian sea drying up and the Israelite crossing of the Euphrates River. This is where the account becomes very relevant to our question as stated in Isaiah 11:15:


וְהֶחֱרִ֣ים יְהוָ֗ה אֵ֚ת לְשׁ֣וֹן יָם־מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהֵנִ֥יף יָד֛וֹ עַל־הַנָּהָ֖ר בַּעְיָ֣ם רוּח֑וֹ וְהִכָּ֙הוּ֙ לְשִׁבְעָ֣ה נְחָלִ֔ים וְהִדְרִ֖יךְ בַּנְּעָלִֽים׃The LORD will dry up the tongue of the Egyptian sea.—He will raise His hand over the Euphrates with the might of His wind and break it into seven wadis, so that it can be trodden dry-shod.

Note that the crossing of the Euphrates River will not be in one path. Rather the verse states that it will be split into 7 streams. The Israelites as the commentaries elaborate will cross between these 7 streams similar to how they crossed the Yam Suf. If one is walking between 7 streams then one has six paths. And if the Children of Israel are crossing on each side of the stream within these 7, one gets 12 paths in total, the 14 sides minus the two outer ones which the Israelites obviously did not use. So one gets an account of the Children of Israel crossing the Euphrates on their way back to Israel for the final redemption in 12 paths. The next verse then says:


וְהָיְתָ֣ה מְסִלָּ֔ה לִשְׁאָ֣ר עַמּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִשָּׁאֵ֖ר מֵֽאַשּׁ֑וּר כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר הָֽיְתָה֙ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּי֥וֹם עֲלֹת֖וֹ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃Thus there shall be a highway for the other part of His people out of Assyria, such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt.

The Midrash deduced that if the highway out of Assyria crossed the river in 12 paths, then the original Exodus upon which this account is based also must have involved the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf, not in one path, but in 12 paths as well, one for each tribe.

Sarajevo Haggadah from AlHatorah.org

Once again, a fanciful Midrash which does not seem to have a basis in pshat attains a new meaning when looked at in the context of the entire Tanach.

 דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר


You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.