Saturday, December 2, 2017

Rav Kook and the Artists of Jaffa (Derashah Vayishlach 5778)

I gave this derashah this morning, and liked it enough to post it here. Feedback wanted!

Yosef Chaim Brenner, one of the top Hebrew writers of a century ago, was born in Russia in 1881. He made aliyah in 1909, and settled in Yafo – where Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook was the Chief Rabbi. Brenner was a legend for his fiery insistence on what he believed to be truth, and he was viciously anti-religious.

Brenner wrote a particularly strong article in 1911, “על חזיון השמד: On Predictions of Assimilation”, in which he declared that Jews should stop bemoaning Jewish conversion to other religions. Mocking Jewish antipathy toward Christianity, he wrote, “The New Testament is also our book, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh… [I say that] a Jew can be a good Jew, devoted to his nation with his entire heart and soul, and not fear this legend as some form of treif, but rather relate to it with religious fervour like the non-Jew Leonardo daVinci in his day.”[1]

Yosef Chaim Brenner also had no great respect for his city’s Chief Rabbi. Brenner was once brought to seudah shlishit at the home of Rav Kook, and he walked out, insisting he would never return. Once, when seated with S.Y. Agnon and others, they went to daven minchah with Rav Kook, but Brenner refused. There are reports that toward the end of his life he changed his mind, but in his writing we find that he dismissed Rav Kook’s religious beliefs as handmaidens to clerical ambition, his ideas as illogical and confused, and his writing style as antiquated and opaque.[2]

And yet! Yehoshua Radler Feldman, a Hebrew novelist of the day,[3] wrote that Rav Kook said the following about Brenner: “Brenner had a great soul; he was tossed about by great spiritual suffering… Once I met with Chaim Nachman Bialik in Yaarot haKarmel, and he told me that Brenner burned entirely with a fire of love for Israel, and he burned with the pain of Israel.”[4]

How do we understand Rav Kook’s apparent appreciation for Brenner? I think we need to examine Rav Kook’s optimistic view of human culture.

1: Culture expresses Divine Light
To Rav Kook, “culture” refers to the unique way an individual human being expresses herself, or a community expresses itself. [5] It includes art and literature and music. It includes the breadth of society, from urban design to political structure to religion. Our civilization is culture. But most important, Rav Kook invoked a well-known midrash to explain what we are doing when we express ourselves in culture. This midrash says that like a builder working from plans, “Gd looked in the Torah and created the world.[6]

In other words: The world – which includes earth, sea and sky, beast and bird and human being – expresses Gd’s Torah. And Rav Kook extrapolated from this idea to teach that all we produce as human beings also expresses Torah.[7] Everything – our laws and ethics, our science and art, our culture – reveals Gd’s will.[8]

Rav Kook expressed this idea in numerous ways.
·         In his introduction to Shir haShirim, he wrote, “Literature, painting and sculpture aim to bring to realization all the spirtual concepts impressed deep in the human soul.[9]
·         The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design was established by Dr. Boris Schatz in Jerusalem in 1906. Two years later, Rav Kook wrote Dr. Schatz a letter of passionate encouragement, and guidance.[10] He said, “It is heartwarming and exciting to see our talented brethren, geniuses of beauty and art, finding a proper place… And a spirit from Heaven has carried them to Jerusalem, to beautify our holy city.” As he wrote, this art institute would “open sensitivity to beauty and purity” for all of us.
·         And perhaps most famously, Rav Kook said that when he lived in London, he would visit the National Gallery, and he most loved the work of Rembrandt. He said, “When G-d created the light [on the first day], it was so strong and luminous that it was possible to see from one end of the world to the other… From time to time there are great men whom G-d blesses with a vision of that hidden light. I believe that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his paintings is that light which G-d created….[11]
To Rav Kook, everything we create spreads beauty, and spreads enlightenment, channelling that Divine light which created us.[12]

2: You can corrupt the light
I find this reverent view of culture a powerful idea, one that lends itself to a remarkable respect for all humanity and its varied cultures. But there is a glaring problem, perhaps best expressed with a set of names from recent headlines: Lauer. Keillor. Spacey. Rose. Weinstein. Franken. Zahn. How seriously can we take the idea that culture expresses Divine light, when the most successful creators of contemporary culture seem to express the opposite?[13]

And the problem isn’t just in music or literature or cinema – we said before that Religion is also culture, and we have seen our own Spaceys and Keillors among our religious leaders. How seriously can we take the idea that culture expresses Divine light, when even Religion can be corrupt?

Here we need to invoke a second idea from Rav Kook: That it is possible to corrupt the Divine light we express, to produce a vulgar form of culture. That was his understanding of Greek culture.[14] But Rav Kook had a solution: This is why we have halachah, to shape our expression of that light. Halachah places boundaries and implements structure for that cultural expression.

In his letter to the Bezalel Academy, Rav Kook wrote that every valuable trait, even justice and wisdom, must be kept within bounds; as Kohelet says, “Do not be too much of a tzaddik and do not make yourself too wise.” In the same way, we must be careful in art and culture “to avoid intoxication and overreach.[15]” Or to use the terminology of Nietzsche, we must be Apollo, not Dionysus, manifesting an ordered beauty rather than an inebriated pursuit of desire.[16] We express ourselves, and the light within us, and with attention to these limits we will avoid pathetic vulgarity, and instead attain gorgeous radiance.

3: Appreciation of Our Potential
So Rav Kook had two ideas: That our culture expresses Divine light, and that this expression is vulnerable to corruption and must be directed. But he had a third idea, and this may be what drove his approach to Yosef Chaim Brenner: That even if someone has yet to express Divine light purely, we look at them as being on the path to redemption and purification.[17]

It’s no surprise, then, that Rav Kook valued Brenner’s creative work even if the author’s poison pen was sometimes directed at him, and at the Jewish religion. That fiery soul, that commitment to the Jewish people, was the Divine Light Rav Kook saw, the Torah that had guided the creation of the world, and Rav Kook optimistically expected it would eventually elevate Brenner’s work. Perhaps it would have, but Brenner was murdered in Arab riots in 1921.

I should note that I don’t think Rav Kook would offer the same respect to the people I mentioned before, who stand accused of harassment and abuse; where there is a vulnerable victim, one dare not display admiration for the corrupt. But with Brenner, Rav Kook saw fit to emphasize his strengths.

This Shabbos we celebrate seventy years of Israeli culture. Yaacov Agam. Nachum Gutman. S.Y. Agnon. Anna Ticho. Naomi Shemer. Daniel Barenboim. Dana International. Uri Zohar. Matti Friedman. In the work of some of them, the light of Gd is obvious. In some, like Brenner, we can see their altruism even if we are turned off by their application of it. And in some, frankly, it’s hard to see the Divine light at all. But Rav Kook promises us that it is there, and orders us to respect it.

But this is about more than respect for others; once we recognize the power of the culture we produce, we must also acknowledge the dramatic influence of the culture we absorb. To view art is to bond with the artist, to invite the creator into my living room and bedroom, into my mind and heart - and it will shape my own expression of Divine light. May we choose our influences wisely.

This morning,[18] Esav offered to Yaakov, “Let’s travel together.” Yaakov declined. Esav said, “Let me send some of my people with you,” but Yaakov denied him that as well. Instead, Yaakov said, “I’ll go on at my own pace, and we’ll meet up in Seir,” Esav’s residence. But that meeting doesn’t happen in chumash; what kind of game was Yaakov playing?

Some write that Yaakov never meant to meet up with Esav. Others say he meant to meet Esav at Seir, but it didn’t work out. But a midrash[19] takes it differently: Yaakov intends to meet Esav at Seir, in the time of Mashiach. Right then, at Yaakov’s moment in history, Esav’s culture was not a good influence; his expression of Divine light was too tainted. But Yaakov anticipates the day when Esav’s light will shine forth as well, and on that day, envisioned with such ardor by Rav Kook, אבוא אל אדוני שעירה, Yaakov and Esav will finally be prepared to join together.[20]

[2] Ibid. pp. 38-40. I may grant him the opaque.
[3] also known as R’ Binyamin
[5] See R’ Yehudah Mirsky, Towards Rav Kook’s Theology of Culture, and esp. pp. 110-112
[6] Bereishit Rabbah 1:1
[7] R’ A. Yehoshua Zuckerman, The World of Rav Kook’s Thought, pg. 189
[8] Arpilei Tohar 2; Orot haKodesh II 289; cited in Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality pp. 182-183
[9] Mirsky, pg 113
[10] Igrot haRa”ayah I 158, found at
[11] Jewish Chronicle, 9 September 1935, cited in Dr. Yehuda Gelman, The World of Rav Kook’s Thought pg. 206
[12] Zuckerman pp. 190-191, and the Mirsky article
[13] Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky has expressed doubts about Rav Kook’s ideas about culture, too, and his challenges point to our problem as well. He has written, “His an extremely idealistic conception of culture, both in that [his version of] culture enacts ideas, and in that those who participate in it are assumed to be driven by noble motives… Along these lines, there is almost no sense in his writings that culture is a commercial enterprise, that people do it to make money.” (Mirsky, pp. 133-134)
[14] Moadei haRa”ayah pg. 193, cited in Zuckerman p. 192-193
[15] Igrot haRa”ayah I 158, found at
[16] Dr. Yehuda Gelman, The World of Rav Kook’s Thought pp. 195-197
[17] See, for example, much of Orot haTeshuvah
[18] Bereishit 33
[19] Bereishis Rabbah 78:14
[20] See also Rav Kook’s vision of art in, more on the R’ Kook-Brenner connection in and, and Brenner’s critique of Rav Kook  in And R’ Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook and the Brenner Affair at (available on Muse). And bio of Brenner at And Part 8 of

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Weinstein, Mayim Bialik and the Perils of Religious Instruction

I wrote the following for my Beit Midrash's weekly email, and on reflection I'd like to get feedback from a broader population, so I'm reproducing it here:

Two weeks ago, journalists revealed that Harvey Weinstein, a very influential Hollywood film producer, stands accused of many acts of sexual harassment and assault. The story has been given top coverage on every major news website.

Commenting on Hollywood's abusive culture, Orthodox Jewish actress Mayim Bialik wrote an apparently well-intentioned essay for the New York Times last week, describing her own experiences. Toward the end of the article, she stated, "I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy."

Ms. Bialik also wrote very clearly, "Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women." Nonetheless, she has been attacked by numerous victims of sexual abuse, who claim that she is blaming the victim. Ms. Bialik's message of 'I help protect myself by acting modestly' is understood as alleging that victims must not have acted modestly.

This is not what Ms. Bialik meant, as she has responded. However, I think the fact that people read her comments this way is important. As the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains, we are guilty of ona'at devarim [verbal abuse] if we convey to sufferers that they are responsible for their own pain, even if we don't mean that.

I think if we are to be honest, we must admit that ideas expressed in Torah can be seen as blaming the victims. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 2:6) associates Dinah's rape with the fact that she mixed among the people of Shechem. A well-known midrash (Psikta Zutrita to Shemot 2:12) links the rape of Shlomit bat Divri to her friendliness toward an Egyptian slavedriver. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21a) states that the sages reacted to the rape of Tamar, daughter of King David, by prohibiting seclusion of men with unmarried women. To my mind, these comments of our sages are meant to educate about hazards, not to claim that victims of abuse must have put themselves at risk. But if they are cited without context, or to a sensitive audience, or without complete explanation, these sources come across as indictments of rape victims.

We do need to learn and teach Torah, and halachic sexuality is certainly worth promoting. At the same time, we who learn/teach these texts are obligated to be very careful with our words. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) quotes King David, "One who commits adultery receives capital punishment, but he enters the next world. One who causes another person to blanch [in shame] in public has no share in the next world." May we learn from the events of the past two weeks; when addressing sensitive matters, even [or especially] when quoting Torah, let us choose our words with extra care.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Three Faces of Satan (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5778)

Critiques welcome - especially before Yom Kippur!

Like many Jewish children growing up in North America in the 1980’s, my only real exposure to Satan was via Dana Carvey’s Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. To me, Satan was a Christian concept, a red-skinned fellow with horns, a goatee, a tail, hooves and a pitchfork. You might read about his adventures in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In truth, Judaism does describe a Satan, but for most of the year we downplay it, barely mentioning it anywhere.[1] That is – until we arrive at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The Yamim Noraim seem to be the season for acknowledging Satan’s influence:
·         Why don’t we recite the monthly Birkat HaChodesh blessing in shul in advance of Rosh Chodesh Tishrei? Some say it’s to avoid alerting Satan that Rosh HaShanah is coming.[2]
·         Why do we stop blowing shofar one day short of Rosh HaShanah? According to some, it’s to confuse Satan.[3]
·         Why does the tokeia blow shofar out of the right side of his mouth on Rosh HaShanah? To combat Satan, who is described in Tanach as attacking on our right side.[4] Why do we blow shofar before musaf? To confuse Satan with multiple sets of shofar blasts.[5] And in some communities a Teruah Gedolah is sounded at the end of davening – you guessed it, to addle Satan.[6]
·         It’s not just Rosh HaShanah, either; our liturgy for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur mentions Satan, as the chazan pleads with Gd ותגער בשטן לבל ישטינני, to obstruct Satan lest it act against our prayers.
·         And who could forget the שעיר לעזאזל, the scapegoat which is at the heart of the Yom Kippur Avodah, which some interpret as associated with Satan?[7]
Clearly we have heightened concern for Satan at this time of year. Why?

First, we need to know what Satan actually is.

The Talmud[8] states, “הוא שטן הוא יצר הרע הוא מלאך המות” – “Satan is the Yetzer HaRa, and both of them are the Malach haMavet/Angel of Death.”
·         I know what the Malach haMavet does – it kills a person’s body, removing the soul.
·         I know what the Yetzer HaRa does – it kills a person’s actions, by tempting us to sin.
·         But what is Satan? What does Satan do?

A personal Satan appears in three stories in Tanach. If we look briefly at each of them, we will soon see a common thread which will first show us what Satan does, and then, second, answer the question of why Satan is so important at this time of year.

One story involves Dovid haMelech/King David.[9] After putting down a rebellion, Dovid haMelech initiated a military census and a mandatory draft. The Talmud[10] is aghast; how could Dovid haMelech make this basic mistake? Schoolchildren know we are not allowed to count individuals![11] But as Tanach records, ויעמוד שטן על ישראל ויסת את דוד למנות את ישראל. Satan arose and persuaded Dovid to count Israel. Satan told Dovid haMelech, “You have no allies anymore. They deserted you to follow one rebel, and they will desert you again. You cannot lead this nation.” And so Dovid created a military census and a draft.

The second story involves Iyov/Job. The celestial malachim are gathered before Gd, when Satan crashes the party[12] and declares before Gd, “Business is good! I can go wherever I want, and I am welcomed with open arms.[13]” Gd responds by defending the value of humanity, identifying a single champion, Iyov, who is pure in his relationship with Gd. To which Satan responds, “There are no pure human beings; Iyov is as venal and selfish as the rest of them. Take away his wealth, and he’ll blaspheme like everyone else.” This, of course, leads to the great test of humanity that is the Book of Iyov.

The third story involves Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol at the beginning of the second Beit haMikdash. The navi Zecharyah experiences a prophetic vision of this high priest standing before Gd, wearing stained clothing, and Satan stands on Yehoshua’s right, לשטנו, to block him. As Rashi and Malbim explain, Satan is there to accuse Yehoshua and his family of wickedness, to allege that Yehoshua is unworthy of leading the Jews who have returned to Israel.

Three stories, three faces of Satan, with one thread:
·         Dovid! You are not a legitimate king.
·         Iyov! You are not a legitimate tzadik.
·         Yehoshua! You are not a legitimate kohen gadol.
The word “Satan” means obstruction, and the creature lives up to his name. The Malach haMavet kills the body. The Yetzer HaRa kills the deeds. But Satan is the most sinister of all – by convincing us of our own worthlessness, Satan kills our souls. He robs us of faith in ourselves, he robs us of our sense that we are valuable.

At the moment of Creation, Gd formed a celestial entity[14] whose ongoing role is to challenge us by telling us what we can’t do, to stand on our right side, our best side in the language of Tanach, and to charge, “Is that the best you can do? You can’t cut it. You should just give up.”[15]

Undermining self-esteem may not seem that frightening, more like some watered-down, white-collar version of a devil-lite, but don’t kid yourself; this work of Satan is a global threat. Read what psychologists and sociologists say about 21st century humanity - about rates of suicide and depression among individuals, about entire societies that have imploded under the weight of insecurity and have consequently devolved into racism, xenophobia and death-worship. It all comes down to the same cause: this Satan is wreaking havoc on the lives of people and polities as it preaches its gospel of “You can’t!”

So now we know what Satan does. And to go back to our original question, at this time of year we emphasize Satan because we understand the existential spiritual threat he poses on our Day of Judgment and Day of Atonement:
·         As I listen to shofar on Rosh HaShanah, as I examine myself during the ten days of repentance, as I fast all day on Yom Kippur, I am not tempted by the yetzer hara to repeat my stupidities of the past year. This week, I have had no desire to hurt other people, to take Shabbos or kashrus lightly, to skip minyan.
·         But Satan telling me I can’t do any better, I can’t grow, I can’t change, I will always be a person of anger, I will always be a person of weakness, I will always be a person of inconsistency, I will always be too tired or too stupid or too easily intimidated or too feckless – that’s the threat at this time of year. Hashem promises to accept us back when we return,[16] and to purify us on Yom Kippur[17] – but am I going to take that step when Satan stands on my right side, arguing that I can’t return?
·         Indeed, the Talmud (Chagigah 15a) tells the tragic story of Elisha ben Avuyah, a sage who was lured away from Judaism by Greek theories and who became known as Acher, “the other”. He wanted to come back, but thought he had heard a Divine voice say “Return wayward children – except for Acher.” Acher – you can’t! You have no value! And so he never returned.[18]

But if we look back at those three stories in Tanach, then we will also recognize that Satan can be defeated, so long as we know our own value – not some artificially inflated sense of pride that makes us feel better, but our true value:
·         Yehoshua Kohen Gadol is challenged by Satan and wrapped in filthy garb, but Gd declares, יגער ד' בך השטן! Yehoshua’s valuable merit wins the day. Gd rebukes Satan, and orders the malachim to give Yehoshua pure, clean clothing, befitting his righteousness.
·         Iyov comes under the most furious attack, and he is pushed almost to the breaking point – but he doesn’t break, he wins his family back,[19] and he is identified by Gd at the end as the righteous victor in that terrible battle.
·         Dovid fell prey to insecurity, and carried out a census – but the tragic story ends with Dovid buying a threshing floor and building a mizbeiach for Gd there. Out of Satan’s obstruction, we gain the future site of the Beit haMikdash.

We can win – just as we did throughout Tanach. So even though on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we ask Gd, “ותגער בשטן לבל ישטינני, Don’t let Satan attack us,” the truth is that it’s in our hands.
·         We can set our goals in the heavens.
·         We can get our tempers under control, and we can start making people smile.
·         We can learn a masechta of gemara, or multiple masechtot. We can learn Hebrew. We can learn how to daven.
·         We can become people of mercy and benevolence, and stop undermining and putting down people around us to make ourselves greater.
·         We can take care of our parents. We can take care of our children. We can take care of our own health.
·         We can give tzedakah and we can raise tzedakah, for causes from which we benefit personally and for causes which benefit others.
·         We can break off destructive relationships, and establish the foundations of productive ones.
·         We can make that most unhumble commitment in Neilah שלא אחטא עוד, that we will never sin again!
We can be גוער בשטן. Satan is easily confused by resistance, and he has no teeth – Yehoshua and Iyov and Dovid kicked them in long ago! We just need to stop listening to him, and to recognize the value in ourselves that Satan tries to deny.[20]

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski tells the following story regarding a patient of his, a woman named Sybil:[21]
Sybil was admitted for heroin addiction. She was a registered nurse who had not worked for six years because of her addiction. The reason she came for help was that she had used up all her veins and had none left for injecting heroin.
In the first interview, I noticed that she was wearing a locket. “Is that real gold?” I asked. When she answered in the affirmative, I asked, “How come you still have it and did not sell it to get heroin?”
“I’ll never sell this,” she said. “This was my mother’s.”
“Let me see it, please,” I said. Sybil handed me the locket, and I took the scissors lying on the desk and made as though I was going to scratch the locket.
“What are you doing?” Sybil said.
I said, “Don’t get upset. I’m just going to scratch it up a bit.”
“But that’s mine,” Sybil said.
“I promise I’ll give it back to you,” I said.
“But I don’t want it scratched up,” Sybil said. “It is beautiful and very valuable to me.”
I said, “So, if something is beautiful and very valuable, you don’t let it get damaged, right?” I took Sybil’s arms, which were marked by the unsightly tracks and scars of abscesses. “Can you read what that says?” I asked. “It says, ‘I am not beautiful. I am not valuable.’”
Tearfully, Sybil said, “I never thought I was any good.”
Sybil recovered from her drug addiction and became very active in helping other nurses with drug problems. She discovered that she had a desire to help others. Now Sybil knew who she was.

The Malach haMavet and the Yetzer HaRa are small fry; they go after our bodies and our actions. The true enemy, unmasked at this time of year, is Satan, enemy of our souls. But like Sybil, we know who we are, and we know we are valuable. May we, in our davening, capitalize on that knowledge and use it to propel us to unprecedented heights in the year ahead, and may our newfound commitment put Gd in the happy position of being justified in awarding us a גמר חתימה טובה.

[1] A notable exception: our daily prayer to Gd not to let the שטן המשחית harm our actions
[2] I thought it was בכסה, the overshadowing of Rosh Chodesh by Rosh HaShanah, but Taamei haMinhagim 691 co-opts that idea as part of confusing Satan.
[3] Taamei haMinhagim 693, Mishneh Berurah 581:24; note the other approach of distinguishing between customary shofar blowing and the actual mitzvah.
[4] Mishneh Berurah 585:7
[5] Rosh HaShanah 16b
[6] Mishneh Berurah 596:1
[7] See Maharam Rutenberg 4:513, although I must admit some reticence re: linking Samael with Satan
[8] Bava Batra 16a
[9] Shemuel II 24 and Divrei haYamim I 21:1; I am taking Malbim’s read. Somewhat differently, Abarbanel to Shemuel II 24’s suggestions include the idea that Dovid feared his army was too small
[10] Berachot 62b
[11] Indeed, Shaul specifically avoided the census by using בזק and טלאים to count troops in Shemuel I
[12] Moreh Nevuchim 3:22
[13] Daat Mikra Iyov pg. 11
[14] Abarbanel to Shemuel II 24 suggests that it is really Gd talking, but the attack is identified as השטנה - obstruction
[15] Ditto Satan attempting to dissuade Avraham from the Akeidah, and shaking the confidence of Sarah as well as the Jews waiting for Moshe to return from Har Sinai. Even Bilam’s encounter with a malach which is לשטן לו is consistent, although that malach was on our side.
[16] Devarim 30
[17] Vayikra 16:30
[18] Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4) writes that teshuvah requires me to say, “I am someone else, not the person who committed those deeds.” But how will I say that if I believe I can’t?
[19] A pshat read of Iyov 42:10
[20] And this may be the secret behind those rituals we reviewed earlier, which confuse Satan.
·         Some of those rituals take the route of lying low. If I don’t play up my desire to change, if I don’t announce that Rosh Chodesh Tishrei is coming, if I stop blowing shofar for a day, then the voice of “You can’t” won’t be awakened until it’s too late.
·         But more powerfully I can also steamroll my Satan directly, because like Dovid, Iyov and Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, I know what my value is, I know Satan is wrong, I know I am capable of teshuvah. So I can channel my inner New Yorker, interrupting Satan, drowning him out with the shofar. If he wants to stand on my right, then that’s where I will blow shofar. If he wants to shout against the shofar, I’m going to blow it before musaf, I’m going to blow it during musaf, I’m going to blow it after musaf, as long as he keeps talking, to proclaim that I am capable, that I can change.
[21] Without a Job, Who am I? pg. 36

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cracking the Cold (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah 5778)

Yes, I've neglected this blog, but here is my current draft of a Rosh HaShanah derashah. Please let me know what you think.

Over a period of 16 years, from 1833 to 1849, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a long poem in memory of his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. It’s called “In Memoriam A.H.H.[1]”. The best-known line from the poem is probably, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” But I want to focus on a different passage today. In describing his own faith in the face of this bereavement, Tennyson wrote:

Behold, we know not anything; 
         I can but trust that good shall fall 
         At last—far off—at last, to all, 
And every winter change to spring. 

So runs my dream: but what am I? 
         An infant crying in the night: 
         An infant crying for the light: 
And with no language but a cry.[2]

Tennyson describes his cry as that of an infant; he hears the voice of a baby in the emotions of a grown, worldly, sophisticated man grieving for his friend. Keep that image in mind, please, as we look at a very odd element of the mitzvah of shofar.

Shofar is a surprisingly vague mitzvah; the Torah describes the first day of the seventh month as יום תרועה, a day for trumpeting, but it doesn’t define what exactly a teruah is. How do we know what sound to make? The Talmud[3] deduces the nature of the shofar’s teruah based on the crying of a particular woman in Tanach.

More: We blow 100 shofar blasts each day of Rosh HaShanah, even though 60 should cover all of the possible permutations of sounds. Why 100? Tosafot[4] quotes the 10th century sage, Rabbi Natan baal ha’Aruch, explaining that we want to match the cries of that same woman in Tanach. She cried 99 or 100 times, depending on your version of this idea, and we cry as she did.

So there you have it. How do we know that teruah is a crying sound? That crying woman in Tanach. Why do we blow 100 blasts? Same woman in Tanach. And my problem is this: That woman in Tanach ranks as one of the coldest, most heartless human beings in Jewish history. That woman was the mother of a Canaanite general named Sisera.

Go back in time about 3200 years. After the Jews left Egypt and entered Canaan, Yehoshua led them for 28 years. After he died, we were governed by a series of Shoftim/Judges for centuries, during an up-and-down period in which we were often under the thumb of local tribes. About 120 years into this period, the Canaanites come to dominate us; they have iron, horse-drawn chariots, and they force us up into the mountains. Their lead general is a man named Sisera.

To make a long story short, our shofet at the time is a woman named Devorah, and she leads us in rebellion against Canaan. Miraculously, the Canaanite chariots are routed. The soldiers flee east, to go home; their general, Sisera, deserts and heads west, looking for shelter. He is intercepted by a woman named Yael, who kills him. Devorah composes a poem about the victory, and at the end of the poem she describes the scene back at Canaanite headquarters, where Sisera’s mother anxiously awaits her son’s return. To quote:[5]

“At the window, the mother of Sisera gazes out and cries at an ornately decorated window. She cries, ‘Why is his chariot delayed in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots late?’ The wise noblewomen answer her, and she also gives this statement to herself, ‘Have they not found and distributed spoils, a womb, two wombs to every man, spoils of dyed [fabric] for Sisera, spoils of dyed embroidery, dyed embroidery around the neck of the despoiler?’”

This is the mother of Sisera – a woman who comforts herself with the thought that her son is assaulting women and stealing spoils. And her language – a womb, two wombs to every man – it’s vulgar, obscene! How grotesque! What a mockery of maternity! Sisera’s mother may have cried for her son, but why in the world would I want to model my shofar on Rosh HaShanah on the grief of the most abominably cold-hearted human being imaginable?!

I’m not the only one with this question. Rav Eliyahu Ki-Tov asked this question in Sefer haTodaah, and decided that we are not looking at her villany, but at our own goodness. We are contrasting ourselves with Sisera’s mother. She wept with cruelty; we weep with humanity. There is a logic to this, certainly.

Another answer is to look past her cold villainy, and see her as a bereaved mother. As Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider wrote in a column on the OU website last year,[6][S]o great is the grief of any parent for the loss of a child, that we all are left completely bereft. The universality and commonality of suffering over the loss of a child transcends names and identities.” Rabbi Goldscheider knows what he is talking about; he lost a child. And I accept his point. But I don’t understand – do we really need to demonstrate our compassion for a bereaved parent by invoking this particular bereaved parent? Do we not have enough bereaved parents in our history, on whom shofar could have been modeled?[7]

I would suggest that the answer is not to ignore her villainy, but to embrace it, to understand that her lack of a heart is precisely the point. We invoke her because she is so unsympathetically heartless. This merciless human being, who reassures herself that all is well by imagining her son viciously violating prisoners – even she can crack.  And that unadorned cracking of the cold, yielding sincere emotion below, is what matters in shofar.

Rav Yehudah Amital[8] also emphasized the sincere cry, in an essay regarding Akeidat Yitzchak. He quoted a manuscript of the midrashic Avot d'Rabbi Natan[9] which describes the fateful scene on the mountain. In contrast to the classic image of the stoic father and son, pure in their devotion to Gd, in this version Avraham says to himself, “I am old, and he is young, perhaps Yitzchak could escape!” And Yitzchak says to himself, “Who will save me from my father? I have no aid other than Hashem!” Rav Amital explained, Avraham was no malach, and Yitzchak was no seraph; neither of them wanted to go through with this, and they were looking for something, pleading with Hashem, to prevent Yitzchak’s death. They cracked - and as we say in our Selichot, Hashem answered Avraham. It’s true that Hashem never wanted Yitzchak to die, but even had Hashem wanted Yitzchak to die, He would have halted the akeidah because of Avraham’s plea for Yitzchak’s life – because the most valuable prayer to Hashem is that simple, sincere cry, like that of Avraham, for that which we love the most.

This is what shofar is about – expressing the sincere cry. Returning to the beginning, I think this is what Tennyson described in his own grief for his beloved friend: “An infant crying in the night: An infant crying for the light: And with no language but a cry.” Simple. Sincere. Lacking artifice and style, and all the more beautiful for it. Even Sisera’s mother, at her moment of crisis, releases this pure voice from inside of her.

We may not like to admit it, but we nurture within ourselves the seeds of the cold brutality of Sisera’s mother - and for good reason. A soul open to every emotion, a heart with strings that can be plucked by every circumstance, would drown in a sea of passion. We would suffer depression at every hurricane and shooting and car accident and famine. We would ride a roller coaster of joy with every birth and marriage and success we saw on Facebook or Linkedin. We would spend our last pennies on helping people around the world in need. We would overload in reaction to every news headline and private conversation, and we would be left gasping for air, for emotional space, for survival.

So we develop a necessary shell, but we pay a price in doing it. I become much more at ease snapping my fingers to an upbeat tune than contemplating loss. I become more comfortable reading a book of intellectual essays about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur than intensely contemplating what I did for the past year, and why I did it. I would rather go home to a delicious lunch than remain here asking, a la Tennyson, whether spring will truly follow winter for me, for my family, for my friends.

But on Rosh HaShanah, with the shofar, we are meant to penetrate to just those fears that inhabit the pit of our stomach. To imagine what it would mean to lose that which we love and treasure more than anything on earth – and to cry like Tennyson’s infant. Toward that end we summon the image of the coldest, crudest human being imaginable, Sisera’s awful mother, cracking, and we know that if she can, then so can we. And our cry, at the moment when our cold is cracked, is gorgeous in its purity, in its simplicity, in its sincerity.

Along the same lines, the Talmud Yerushalmi[10] says we blow an animal horn because our own cry on Rosh HaShanah is that of an animal. The shofar has no words, only an animal, or perhaps infantile, sound that emerges with our breath, from our core. May we crack, and find that cry inside of ourselves this morning, for just a little while. May we call out to Hashem sincerely, for the sake of our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our friends, our children. And may Hashem respond to us, as HaShem responded to Avraham, with a verdict for a חתימה טובה, to be inscribed and sealed for a year of berachah and shalom.

[3] Rosh HaShanah 33b-34a
[4] Ibid.
[5] End of Shoftim 5
[7] I.e. Sarah and Yaakov, when they believe their children dead. Of course, there are other answers, such as noting that R’ Akiva was her descendant, and invoking mystical ideas. Rav Soloveitchik has a particularly moving idea found in Pninei haRav pg. 158 and “Before Hashem you will be purified” pg. 10. See
[9] Cited in Torah Sheleimah Bereishit 22 #92
[10] Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1