Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Voice in the Shofar (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah 5776)

Birthdays: Why am I here?
If today is the birthday of humanity, then we have two obligations: 1) To thank Gd for our existence, as we do in the davening, and 2) To ask ourselves: Why are we here? What is the purpose of the brilliant, inventive, moody, creative, ambitious, bizarre creature that is the human being?

Fortunately, we don’t need to start on this question from scratch – this is a 14-minute derashah, not a shiur. I want to show you three sources, which carry a message of such power that it has changed my life, and which I believe can change our Rosh HaShanah birthday for all of us.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin
First, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, with words that are among the most inspirational I have ever heard.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner was the greatest student of the Vilna Gaon, toward the end of the 18th century. He founded the Volozhin yeshiva, the top yeshiva in Europe, famed for training intellectual geniuses; it is reported that the entrance exam included putting a pin through a gemara and telling the examiner, without looking, what word the pin had pierced on every page. Rav Chaim started the great Brisker dynasty, which produced the brilliant Soloveitchik family.

And Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Yitzchak, wrote the following about his father:[1]

וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד, שזה כל האדם: לא לעצמו נברא, רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות.
This is what my father always told me: "This is a person's entire purpose. A person is not created for himself. A person is created only to benefit others, with whatever power is in his possession."[2]

The uber-intellectual declared to his son: You are not here on earth to be a genius. You are not here on earth to ace the pin test. Not to minimize the importance of learning Torah, but to maximize the importance of chesed: You are here on this earth to look at the person beside you and ask yourself, “What can I do to make his life better?”

Rav Yerucham Levovitz
Second, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, expanding on an idea stated by Rav Simcha Zissel Broide, also known as the Sabba miKelm.[3]

Rav Simcha Zissel Broide was a brilliant talmid chacham. My Beit Midrash is learning Eruvin this year, and we have the newest edition of the Meiri on Eruvin, a fairly technical and esoteric text – and it comes with scholarly footnotes from Rav Simcha Zissel Broide.

As far as Rav Levovitz, he was the Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual leader) of the Mir Yeshiva in the first decades of the 20th century. The Mir Yeshiva is another institution famed for its Torah scholarship, and Rav Levovitz is honoured as one of its greatest leaders.

And this is what Rav Levovitz wrote:
גדול כ"כ ענין של נושא בעול עם חבירו מפני שזה כל התורה כולה, היינו איחוד הנפשות להרגיש זא"ז. וכל לימוד התורה, הלימוד והמעשה, הנה סוף המטרה שיתאחדו הנפשות להיות מרגישים זא"ז שיהיו אחד ממש.
Bearing a burden with others is of such importance because this is the entire Torah: the joining of souls, to feel what each other feels. All of Torah study, all of the learning and all of the deeds - the final goal is that all souls should be joined, to feel each others’ feelings, to truly be one.

Faced with identifying the purpose of the entire Torah, with all of its laws and rituals, Rav Levovitz, leader of one of the major European yeshivot, identified not our personal connection with Gd, and not Torah study, but bearing each other’s burdens with them! Not that he was diminishing the importance of Torah study, or saying that it is sufficieent to just “be a good person”. Just the opposite – it is critical that we practice all of our mitzvot, and that we examine them to gain an understanding of how they will help us to benefit others, and to bring people to greater empathy. Hashem gave us the Torah in order to instill empathy in our hearts and lives.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero
And third, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, one of the greatest kabbalists of the past 500 years. He was a leader of the community of kabbalists in Tzfat, and a Rebbe of the Ari z”l. One of his great works is Tomer Devorah, “The Palm Tree of Devorah”, which speaks of the ability of a human being to emulate Gd.

In Tomer Devorah, Rabbi Cordovero wrote that when the Torah says a human being is created in the image of Gd, this means that we hold within our hearts, our minds, our limbs, the capacity to emulate the actions of G-d in our relationships with others.

He wrote, האדם ראוי שיתדמה לקונו, A person is suited to resemble his Creator.” Not that this is something we need to leap for, to struggle to achieve – we are suited for this. And specifically, to resemble our Creator in the way we relate to the human beings around us, the way that Gd reached out to save Yishmael in this morning’s Torah reading – with mercy, with generosity, with empathy, with love.

And he added powerfully, אילו ידומה בגופו ולא בפעולות, if a person were to have the physical capacity to reach out to others, if a person were to have the emotional capacity to love, and a person would not employ it in action, הרי הוא מכזיב הצורה, ויאמרו עליו 'צורה נאה ומעשים כעורים', that person would be making a lie of our form! They would say of such a person, “What a pleasant form, but what ugly deeds!”[4]

Three voices, three of the greatest minds Judaism has ever known. Not cherry-picked – there are others I could bring. But three voices which unite to answer our birthday question: The brilliant, inventive, moody, creative, ambitious, bizarre creature that is the human being was put here on this planet on this day, in order to help other people. In order to unite with others in empathy and carry their burdens. In order to emulate Gd’s aid for Yishmael with generosity, empathy and love for other human beings.

Of course, a good derashah requires nuance; there must be another side of the coin, and there is. We face two limits to our empathy: Biology, and Knowledge.

Limit 1: Biology
First, biology – The saying goes, “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.” We have trouble relating to too large a circle of human beings.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar studied the brains of primates and the size of their societies, and came up with a formula that predicted that human beings would only form social networks of up to 150 or so people.[5] Malcom Gladwell made the theory famous in his The Tipping Point, where he marshalled evidence for it.

And it’s not only Dunbar and Gladwell - halachah[6] limits its demands upon our empathy. We have a principle of עניי עירך קודמים, that our tzedakah should go to our families first.[7] Granted, that same talmudic passage includes the warning that those who only help their own will soon find themselves in need of aid from others – still, the rule is that our own do come first.

Another example from halachah: The Torah describes our obligation to help others load and unload their animals, and to restore their lost property. But the Torah says כי תפגע, this is only when you encounter a need. The sages explained that only upon encountering a need up close are we obligated to help; they defined a distance limit of about 150 meters. Halachah is aware that we respond best to what it calls ראייה שהיא פגיעה, to a personal encounter, and it does not obligate us to go looking to help those we don’t know and we don’t see.[8]

So how can Rav Chaim of Volozhin expect me to walk around all day thinking of helping people? How can Rav Yerucham Levovitz expect me to carry the burdens of so many people? How can Rav Moshe Cordovero demand that I emulate the Divine embrace for everyone around me?

To this, I respond with an article published in the New York Times this past summer, by three research psychologists. Darryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William Cunningham wrote a piece called Empathy is Actually a Choice.[9] They said, “While we concede that the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent…We believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The ‘limits’ to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.” And they demonstrated, with research studies, that humans are actually designed with the ability to expand the empathetic capacity of our hearts. Dunbar’s Number does not prevent us from expanding our hearts to care about, and extending our arms to carry the burdens of, a world of human beings.

Limit 2: Knowledge
The other hypothetical limit is knowledge.

Here is a powerful blog post I saw back in 2007. The writer is anonymous:
I write to you today as one of the Unseen. It hurts to not be seen. It hurts even more to suffer alone and in silence. I have a mental illness… I hide it well most of the time.
Today I did not hide it. I cried openly in shul… surrounded by some two hundred people during the kiddush luncheon that followed, and still you did not see me. I stumbled out of the social hall, blinded by tears I could not control and sobs that left me unable to breathe, and still no one saw me.
I took refuge in the chapel and sobbed aloud… People came into the chapel for various reasons: to look for a lost tallis, read the newspaper, find a book in the library. Even still, I remained Unseen.
When my sobs exhausted themselves and I found my peace in emotional numbness, I rose to leave the chapel, falling onto a chair in my weakened state. One man remained in the chapel, facing me. He did not even bother to look up. I left the chapel, Unseen.[10]

I don’t believe that people ignored a crying person in shul because they didn’t care, and weren’t moved. Rather, I think it’s because they didn’t know what to do. Perhaps they were afraid to make her uncomfortable by approaching her. So they left the room.

But our ignorance is easy to eliminate – and looking around our minyan, I see so many people who have taken the steps to do that, who have become involved in chesed causes and who have pioneered chesed causes. So we know how to eliminate ignorance: Good parents do research to learn how to take care of their children. Good teachers study how to teach well. Good first responders train in the latest CPR techniques. And good human beings, like us, find out how to help other people.

This is what we celebrate today: נעשה אדם!
·         The Divine decision to populate His universe with the brilliant, inventive, moody, creative, ambitious, bizarre creature that is the human being.
·         The Divine decision to create a human being who would look to help others beyond Dunbar’s 150, beyond the halachic minimum of ראייה שיש בה פגיעה, as Rav Chaim Volozhin wrote.
·         The Divine decision to create a human being who would overcome ignorance and train herself to bear the burdens of others, as Rav Yerucham Levovitz wrote.
·         The Divine decision to create a human being who would emulate Divine mercy and love and empathy, as Rav Moshe Cordovero wrote.

The Talmud[11] teaches that the shofar’s sound replicates different types of crying. These might be our own cries of repentance before our King, but these may also be the cries of other people – even the wicked mother of Sisera, as the gemara teaches.[12] As we fulfill this mitzvah momentarily and hear the moaning tekiah, the groans of the shevarim, the shuddering teruah, let us expand our empathy, our image of Gd, and ask ourselves whose cries we are hearing.

Who do we hear in the shofar? Is it the panhandler at the corner of Bathurst and Steeles? Is it a socially awkward person who is more easily ignored than greeted? Is it someone who lacks a family and is rarely invited for a meal? Who do we hear crying with the shofar? And what will we be moved to do about it?

·         Let us hear the shofar and reach out because Rav Moshe Cordovero says that is a fulfillment of our Image of Gd.
·         Let us hear the shofar and reach out because Rav Yerucham Levovitz says that’s what Judaism is for.
·         Let us hear the shofar and reach out because Rav Chaim of Volozhin says that’s why we were created on that first Rosh HaShanah.

Let us hear the shofar and reach out as Gd did for Yishmael – and האדם ראוי שיתדמה לקונו, we can do it as well.

[1] Introduction to Nefesh haChaim
[2] Another relevant passage – Horeb 120 on seeing in others the condition of our own existence.
[3] Daat Chachmah Umussar III #295 (pg. רעא)
[4] See, too, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avadim 9:8
[6] Bava Metzia 33a, codified in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeiach 13:6 and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 272:5
[7] Talmud, Bava Metzia 33a
[8] Indeed, Shulchan Aruch haRav Choshen Mishpat הלכות עוברי דרכים וצער בעלי חיים 6 says explicitly that there is no obligation to help beyond this perimeter, even if one knows of the other party’s need.
[9] Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, William A. Cunningham, Empathy is Actually a Choice, July 10, 2015
[11] Rosh HaShanah 33b, for example
[12] Ibid.


  1. Yasher koach, kesiva vechasima tova

  2. Rav Shimon Shkop has a very enlightening approach, finding a synthesis between self-interest and living a life focused on benefiting others.

    But I wonder how many of us would actually be willing to accept the idea that the entire Torah enterprise is really to improve our ability to give to others? Esrog, davening, shofar, Torah study, even the mitzvos to love Hashem and to feel yir'as Shamayim -- all not ends in themselves?

  3. R' Tzvi-

    R' Micha-
    I think that's the challenge R' Levovitz puts before us - to figure out how these mitzvos contribute toward that goal. It would be an interesting sefer to write...

  4. Every mitzvah has an element of chesed, every mitzvah teaches you that there is something beyond yourself, especially study of Torah. Even the arba minim, you are holding the whole of the community together in your hands, bringing them together symbolically. If that doesn't lead you to want to reach out to other people, to heal the breaches and the divisions in the community, then maybe you are only holding three branches and a fruit.

  5. G'mar chatimah tovah, Rabbi. I always enjoy reading your postings, and I always learn something, even and perhaps especially when we disagree.

  6. Anonymous-
    Indeed! We could also note that the arba minim are used to pray for rain for the community's fields and produce...

    Thanks, and gmar chatimah tovah for you as well!