"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Sunday, January 31, 2010

FNQ – 5 Questions for the week - The state of the State

For this week’s installment of FNQ 5 questions for the week I would like to build off the State of the Union address of President Obama. However, my questions will not be about the state of the union but rather the state of the State. That is, the State of Israel. We have a lot of tough questions concerning our tiny little home land. Here goes.

1.How can the religious and secular Jews of Israel achieve unity when we disagree about so many basic issues of life and the destiny of our people?

Friday, January 29, 2010

FNQ Parshat Hashavua – 5 questions and a thought

Beshalach - The challenge of Manna
1.The Torah says that receiving the daily portion of manna was a test – why is this a test?

2.The Gemara says that “greater is one who benefits from his own labors than one who fear G-d.” What does that mean?

3.If you were given these two options which would you choose?
1.You work to make enough money to live a simple but self sufficient lifestyle.
2.You are financially supported by someone else and live an extravagant lifestyle.

4.Why is it that many people who win the lottery experience a decline in the overall quality of their life?

5.I once heard that a Rabbi said the best blessing he could give parents that they should be successful raising their children is that they should not be rich. Do you agree?

Imagine the following: The setting is a very simple and bare home. A home with a living space containing no amenities, just the necessities. The refrigerator and kitchen cabinets are basically empty. In the corner of the living room can be seen a young child sitting in his mother’s lap. His cries are not loud and overbearing, but they are clearly an expression of discomfort and unhappiness. He is starving. He hasn’t had a good meal for months. He used to eat luscious, satisfying meals, but then the families condition took a turn for the worse and a good meal had become very rare. He says to his mother, “Mommy, I liked it so much better back when we had those yummy pots of food, and that tasty bread. But now we have nothing. Can’t we have that great food like we used to have?” The mother responds, “Yes my child. I shall give you some tasty food. What ever you want, any taste, you name it and you can have it. But listen my love, this food is a test...”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

FNQ – Thought for the week - Never Knock a question

I have been a student for some time now. In fact, I have been a student in a formal setting as far back as I can remember. To be a student, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of Jewish accomplishment. Rav Soloveitchik often said that the expression Talmid Chacham does not mean Torah scholar. Rather, it means that you are a student (talmid) striving to become a scholar (chacham).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

FNQ – 5 Questions for the week

The Environment

Tu b'shvat has in recent years become a sort of Jewish arbor day. While there doesn't seem to be any basis for this in classical Jewish sources I believe the basic idea is a positive one. Man was created as the caretaker of this planet and ultimately will be held accountable for any and all destruction he causes to G-d's world. So what are my responsibilities towards preserving this planet?

1.Does the Divine promise that G-d will never destroy the world exempt me from my responsibility to protect it?

2.If a parent gave a child a gift would the parent not be disappointed if the child acted irresponsibly towards that gift?

3.We say in the 1st paragraph of the Grace after Meals “and through His goodness, that is great never have we lacked and never will we lack food for ever and ever” does this mean that I don't have to worry about global food shortages?

4.When I hear environmental issues mentioned do I snicker because I think the environmentalists are wrong or just because they are flaming liberals? Am I willing so accept something true whatever the source?

5.What am I doing to preserve and protect G-d's world in which I live?

Binyamin - Always looking for a good question

Thursday, January 21, 2010

FNQ Parshat Hashavua – 5 questions and a thought

Parshat Bo – Time and the Power of Starting Over

1. Why is establishing a calender the first commandment we were given? (see below for more on this)
2. Why did G-d give us power over time when in reality time rules over us?
3. Do you view time as an impediment or an opportunity?
4. If you were given a chance to travel forward in time so that you would be finished with.. high school, college, being single, working or being unemployed would you accept the offer?
5. Do you spend more time doings things you define as meaningful or as trivial?

Why begin the system of Mitzvos for the Jewish Nation with the Mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon and the establishment of the Jewish calendrical system?

Before beginning to attempt to tackle this question, a caveat is in order. An endeavor to explain why the giving of one mitzvah over another would require an in depth understanding of the entirety of the all Mitzvot and all of the sources that address them. Due to the fact that this amount of knowledge is beyond this author answering the question of why Kiddush HaChodesh is the first mitzvah unequivocally, proves to be very difficult. We can, however, offer our best effort, besiyata deShemaya.

The fist step in answering this question leads us to another question (in the true spirit of Torah dialogue!) that has been a hot topic since the Torah was given. That is, what is the purpose of Mitzvos in general? Without a solid working answer to this question we can in no way attempt to answer why one should be first.

Two Midrashim give similar answers:

What difference does it make to God whether one slaughters from the front of the neck or the back of the neck? Rather the mitzvot were given in order to refine the creatures. (Bereishis Rabbah, 44:1)
Once the evil Tinneius Rufus asked R. Akiva, "Whose deeds are finer? Those of the Holy One, blessed be He, or those of flesh and blood?" He answered, "Of flesh and blood are finer." Tinneius Rufus said … "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" R. Akiva answered, "I knew you would ask me about this particular thing, therefore I prefaced my words by telling you that the deeds of flesh and blood are finer than those of the Holy One, blessed be He." Tinneius Rufus said to him, "If He wished males to be circumcised, why do they not come from the womb that way?" R. Akiva responded, "As for your argument, why males are not born circumcised, the answer is that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave commandments to the Jews for no other reason than to refine them by means of their observance." (Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria, 5)
The understanding of this concept alone, the Mitzvos as system for character refinement or letzaref bahem es habriyos, is itself a debate (see: http://vbm-torah.org/archive/ramban/09ramban.htm for more on the machlokes between the Rambam and the Ramban). However an explanation found in Sifrei Chassidus says as follows:

The essence of Mitzvos is to purify, cleanse and reveal “The True Jew”. To what is this likened? To a gardener who must do the following in his rose garden: he must plow, plant, weed out unwanted growth and water the saplings. The end goal of this entire process is to cause the rose to sprout. And if he does all of this and the rose has not sprouted, than he has achieved nothing. So too, the purpose [of the Mitzvos] is to reveal “The True Jew”. (Sefer Derech HaMelech, Parshas Toldos, pg. 24)

It follows from this approach that Mitzvos are meant to guide a Jew in his process of revealing his true essence. The system of Mitzvos is our path towards perfect refinement of character and uncovering of the essential pure identity.
Why is such a system necessary? The reality of existence since the sin of Adam Harishon and the ensuing expulsion from a perfect world is that we are often tricked and confused regarding who we are. Challenges, inclinations, negative internal and external influences and falsity all team up to cause us to forget that we are attempting to sprout forth the roses from within us. Laziness causes us to not plow, hopelessness causes us to not plant and deception causes us to not weed. Time and time again we are knocked off the course or even pushed backwards in our journey towards complete refinement and revelation of the perfect rose that is within us.
What then would be the perfect beginning of a systematic process to achieve this goal? Perhaps there is no better place to begin from than the simple push of inspiration, “you can and must begin again!!!” For the gardener who has watched a season of failed crops what will push him to plant the next season? And perhaps much more difficult, for the Jew who has covered up his pure essence and has become more distanced from it what will push him to try to reveal it? All hope seems lost. No commandment seems more fitting that the inspirational words of, “YOU MUST BEGIN ANEW”.
The first Gerer Rebbe, in his sefer Chiddushei Harim (pg. 91) , quotes e a teaching of the Chozeh of Lublin based on the following gemara:

…R' Elazar ben Arach came to that region, he became attracted to their worldly delights and his Torah knowledge became erased, when he returned he got up to read from the Torah scroll, he had wanted to read 'hachodesh hazeh lachem - this month shall be for you', instead he said 'hacheresh haya libam - was their heart silent?', the sages beseeched Hashem to have mercy upon him and his Torah knowledge returned" (Shabbos 147b).

The Chozeh said, “even though on the surface it seems that their hearts were silent, nevertheless this renewal is for you, meaning that one can experience a renewal enter into his heart and completely push away all spiritual silence and dullness”.

The Ibn Ezra teaches on this pasuk:

…The year is totally based only on the cycle of the sun. It is the body which produces cold, hot, summer and winter, the four seasons…it is, in essence, the year. It seems that the moon has nothing whatsoever to do with the cycle of the year but at the same time the sun has nothing to do with the months. For through the sun nothing has renewal, chodesh, renewal only comes through the moon. This is why the moon is referred to as chodesh, for the renewal of the months…

The moon represents the capacity for renewal. It represents Klal Yisrael and inspires us to start anew even in the midst of the never ending cycle of the year. It takes great courage and inspiration to begin anew as the inertia of life's frivolities pushes us forward whether we like it or not.
If Mitzvos are the outline of how we are meant to achieve character refinement and to reveal our perfect essences, than the best place to begin from is the command that you must start the process, no matter how far you have fallen from this sublime goal.
Again, I cannot claim to have a perfect answer as to why HaChodesh haze lachem should be first without a doubt. However in a world which pushes us in every direction except for that of towards purity and refinement, the most fitting beginning is the push to go in that direction. Shenizkeh.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Questioning – A dialectic tension of the Jewish Persona

On the one hand a Jew is characterized by being a ביישן, which can be translated as one who has the trait of shame. On the other hand the Mishna, Avot 2:5, teaches that one who is a ביישן, (feels shame, embarrassment or timidness) will not excel in learning. Are we to conclude from this very obvious contradiction that a Jew is defined as one who does not excel in learning. It is clear that this is not the proper solution. Jews have always valued learning and the search for knowledge. In fact, the study of Torah is a commandment of unparalleled significance. Therefore, resolving this apparent contradiction demands a qualification of the character trait of shame.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

FNQ – 5 Questions for the week

Every Sunday, I would like to share some questions to ponder for the week ahead. The questions will address one topic each week, but the topics will vary. If they make you uncomfortable….Good that’s the idea.

If there was a global counter keeping track of all questions asked, I think it would show a huge increase following natural disasters and human tragedies. When we realize we are not in control it is scary for us and we subsequently have a lot of questions. Perhaps we feel comforted because it happened in a far off place, but should we?

1. Do I genuinely care that thousands of people died in a far off place?

2. If yes, what have I done to show it? If no, do I think I should care?

3. When I read articles describing the horror, do I say to myself that this could never happen where I live?

4. Do I think this earthquake was G-d’s doing or just a random, natural event?

5. If it was G-d, what is the message?

What do you think?

Binyamin – Always looking for a good question

Friday, January 15, 2010

FNQ Parshat Hashavua - 5 Questions and a thought

Every week B'H I will be posting 5 questions and a thought.  The questions will be thought provoking and will never have simple answers.  Discuss over Shabbos and tell me what you come up with. Good Shabbos

1.  What does it mean to lose free will?
2.  Does one who lose it lose it completely or only with regards to certain decisions (i.e. Maybe Pharoah only lost free will about letting the Jews go but he still could choose what to have for breakfast?)
3.  There is a verse in Mishlei (21:1 see Malbim there) which says that kings never have free will. So what is    
the chiddush that Pharoah lost his?
4.  Can you temporarily lose free will or only as a permanent punishment? Can you get it back?
5.  Is free will an absolute? Can different people have different degrees of free will? (If there are different degrees of free will, how do I attain a greater degree?)

Parshat va'era describes the first 7 plagues and the ensuing removal of Pharoah's free will (a good mnemonic: ו and א of וארא equals 7, בא in parshat Bo equals 3.).   Free will or bechira chofshit is a topic which presents some of the most profound questions ever asked. In Hilchot Teshuva 5:5 the Rambam mentions the most powerful question on this topic: If G-d is all knowing and therefore knows what we will become and everything we will do, how is it that we are at the same time choosing our own actions and determining our own fate? In reviewing this halacha, I was struck by the fact that Rambam poses this question and yet strangely does not give an answer.  The Raavad on that halacha takes Rambam to task for this. He even goes as far as to say that the Rambam veered from the path of the wise by asking a question without answering it.

While there is certainly a philosophical argument at the core of their debate perhaps Rambam and Raavad differ as to the intrinsic value of a question, as well.  Perhaps, the Rambam says when asking a question, one is halfway towards arriving at the answer. In other words, even the question on its own has intrinsic value. The Raavad, on the other hand, seems to value the question only as a means to an answer, in which case a question with no answer has little, if any, value.  Upon further thinking I considered that it is possible that even the Raavad may agree with the intrinsic value of the question but only for one who asks the question. He may however, deny the value of forcing questions with no answers onto people who didn't ask the question in the first place.

The Rambam believes that our obligation in life is to seek out knowledge, to struggle with the reality of G-d's world and understand (to the best of our ability) Torah, life and G-d,Himself. In this vein, we say to he who has yet to ask the question – wake up, use your incredible gift of a brain and begin to ponder the wonders of existence. What do you think? 

Shabbat Shalom

Binyamin – Always looking for a good question.           

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why are we so scared of questions?

I am the first to admit that the world we live in presents profound challenges to Jews and Judaism.   The approach of many Orthodox Jews is to run or hide from  these challenges and not address the difficult questions the world is asking us.  While those who ascribe to this approach may consider themselves defenders of the faith, I consider this approach to be a terrible chilul Hashem.  Judaism has never feared a good question and the great Rabbis have always sought out answers to even the most difficult questions.  Asking the tough questions is a tradition that goes all the way back to Moshe Rabeinu when he asked G-d perhaps the most difficult question of all: Why do bad things happen to good people? We ask questions because we are not afraid.When we are afraid to ask we show our weakness.

As Moshe Rabeinu, we may not always get satisfactory answers due to the limits of this world. Yet, our commitment to Torah does not waver in the face of questions and challenges.  In fact, I believe that only through asking difficult questions can we expect that we may one day merit their answers and true yediyat Hashem.

What do you think?

Binyamin - Always looking for a good question

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fear No Question

I once heard a great Jewish sage quoted as saying there are no heretical questions. This is the theme of my blog. It is important to point out that while there are no heretical questions there certainly are heretical answers. I would like to use this blog to share some of my own questions and answers which i have found for them.   Sometimes I have no answers and sometime there are no answers - but I will continue to ask and to search.  I seek to empower others to ask and maintain and grow in their commitment to Torah even in the face of the most difficult questions.   What do you think?

Binyamin - Always looking for a good question