Category Archives: Mussar

Emunah Shleimah: Faithfulness in Serving G-d During Times He Doesn’t “Make Sense”

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“And Avraham raised his eyes and saw — behold, a ram! — afterwards, caught in the thicket by its horn; so Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering instead of his son” (Bereishit 22:13).

There is a well-known commentary on Parashat Vayeira that deals beautifully with the topic of emunah shleimah [absolute faith/ faithfulness]. Parashat Vayeira includes Avraham Avinu’s final and most challenging of ten tests (see notes below for a list of the ten): the Akeidat Yitzchak, when HaKadosh Baruch Hu commanded him to take the life of his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. The famous commentary asks why this particular trial was the most difficult for Avraham. According to a Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah), Avraham “discovered” G-d on his own at a very young age amidst an environment that was steep in idolatrous ideology. This means that his knowledge of G-d had always been initially an intellectual one. Until the test of Akeidah, he had based his faith in G-d solely on HKBH’s rationality. Then all of a sudden, HKBK asked him to take away the life of the one person that will be the continuation of what G-d Himself had promised to him: that Avraham’s progeny will be the ambassadors in sanctifying His Great Name in the world. And even if G-d did not promise him anything, Avraham still found it illogical to have to slaughter a completely innocent person. He could not rationalize why Yitzchak deserved to die (Abarbanel)! [See also Avraham’s dramatic bargaining speech to G-d to save Sodom V’Amorah in the beginning of this parashah.] Thus, for Avraham, the test of Akeidah, probably the only test, that made absolutely no sense, a complete contradiction, and this would seem to merit the questioning of the very basis of his belief in G-d. But it didn’t. Because this is where his emunah shleimah came in. 

When HKBH called Avraham’s name to stay his hand from hurting Yitzchak, Avraham answered “Hineini.” His “here I am” said it all. According to Rashi, this expressed both humility and readiness seen in all those who are totally devoted to G-d. Avraham didn’t fail to see that the ultimate test wanted him to give up that one thing that brought him to know and serve G-d — his intellect — and go beyond it by giving in to the will of G-d.  

For the past half-decade, I have caught myself waging an on-going internal battle between questioning the worth of the values I’ve held for as long as I can remember and the practicality of adhering to said values. The incessant question “why is G-d making it very hard for me to serve Him?” keeps me on edge as I try to the best of my ability to observe the mitzvot in simplicity [temimut]. But after further introspection, I was allowed to see, B”H, that what is most lacking in my avodah H’ [service of G-d] is emunah shleimah. I was so absorbed in the idea of a rational G-d that I had forgotten a very important, if not the most important, principle in the Jewish faith: that HKBH is so much bigger than any human intellect can ever muster. He is bigger than anything else, in fact. Ein Od Milvado [There is none besides Him] (Devarim 4:35). It was a ridiculous presumption on my part to even encase G-d’s wisdom into a very limited vessel such as human intellect. Should a creation be better than its Creator? My incapacity to understand Him, though, does not in any way equate to Him being irrational. Far from it. It just means that, like Avraham Avinu, I have to persevere in my emunah, my faithfulness, in Him as I did during times when He made complete sense to me. 

How do we strengthen our emunah, then? By viewing things in the right perspective.

What is the essence of a Heavenly test? It is “one that forces a person to choose between G-d’s will and his own nature or understanding of what is right” (Artscroll). According to the Ramban, all trials given by G-d are solely for the benefit of those being tested. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon in his Even Shleimah said that the intent of the Torah’s mitzvot [commandments] is to perfect man, to purge him of his middot raot [negative character traits], and in time make them into traits that will help him do avodat H’ as it is intended. We see in all these that the foundation of our faith should be the knowledge that HKBH only desires our good. When everything else seems unclear, at least let this perspective be the only thing that is entirely clear. 

“Emunah [is] not the belief in better times to come, with the help of G-d, but the corollary of an abiding belief in the goodness of G-d — a belief that G-d, in His loving kindness, does nothing but good to man.” — from Guardian of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld

I know it may be a long way to go for me to have the amount of emunah shleimah that is required of me in my avodah H’; but I’m not one to give up. With His help, I will get there. 


Notes:

Avraham’s Ten Trials According to the Rambam (Artscroll):

  1. Avraham’s exile from his family and homeland.
  2. The hunger in Canaan after G-d had assured him that he would become a great nation there.
  3. The corruption in Egypt that resulted in the abduction of Sarah. 
  4. The war with the four kings
  5. His marriage to Hagar after having despaired that Sarah would ever give birth.
  6. The commandment of circumcision.
  7. Avimelech’s abduction of Sarah.
  8. Driving away Hagar after she had given birth.
  9. The very distasteful command to drive away Ishmael.
  10. The binding of Isaac on the altar. 
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The Non-sense of Arrogance

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Last Shabbat, while looking at the roofs of the neighboring apartment buildings (we live on the 6th floor), my husband and I noticed a group of pigeons drinking from a puddle of water on one of the roofs. A few minutes later, the calm was disturbed when a bigger bird, very likely a crow, showed up. It “crowed” (how much more apt can this word get?) in its usual loudness while it used its wide wings to shoo the pigeons away from the puddle. And so the pigeons did. But before the crow started to actually drink the water, it strutted its body first, head held high, looked to the left and then to right. My husband then commented: “See that gaavah [arrogance]? It has no sechel [sense].”

The rooftop where the pigeons usually go for a drink

The rooftop where the pigeons usually go for a drink. (The crow was not in sight during the taking of this picture.)

The Gemara (Eruvin 100b) teaches that some character traits can be learned from animals just by observing them such as diligence and honesty from ants, modesty from cats, chastity from doves, etc. In the case of our story above, we learn that the crow and many other types of animals are arrogant. Since it is in their nature to have these tendencies, we say that anything that animals do is without sechel. When we refer to sechel here, we do not just mean “common sense” in its simplest context since as was previously presented, animals do have some kind of sense. Thus, having sechel, especially when associated with human behavior, always involves acts and decisions done with wisdom.

According to the Torah, one of the most (if not the most) despicable and non-sense of all behaviors is arrogance for it ultimately leads a person to forget his Creator (Orchot Tzaddikim). Therefore, we are warned that “the abomination of Hashem are all who are proud of heart” (Proverbs 16:5) and that “one with haughty eyes and an expansive heart – him, I [Hashem] cannot bear” (Psalms 101:5).  On the other hand, the value that the Torah exalts the most is humility. The greatest of all Jewish prophets was positively described with only one thing: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).

We might think, it is so obvious why we see in the crow how non-sense its arrogance is. It did not do anything worthy of pride. It was born bigger than the pigeons so what is there to be proud about? Yes, so obvious yet, we see this kind of arrogance all too often in rich and intelligent people. But from this argument, we are also practically saying that it is all right to be arrogant as long as we did something worthy of it. For example, a persevering businessman who had his years of hard work rewarded with wealth; or maybe a studious scholar who after almost a lifetime of toiling in learning finally received honor from his peers for his extensive knowledge. Is there really sechel to warrant arrogance in these cases?

The Torah’s answer is of course no. As the Igeret HaRamban [Letter of the Ramban {Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman}] summarizes it:

For Indeed, of what should man be prideful? If he has wealth – it is Hashem who makes one prosperous. And if honor – does honor not belong to G-d? As it is written: “Wealth and honor come from You” (I Chronicles 29:12) – and how can one glorify himself with the honor of his Maker? If he takes pride in wisdom – let him understand that G-d may remove the speech of the most competent and take away the wisdom of the aged (Job 12:20). Thus, all men are equal before their Creator. In His fury, He casts down the lofty; in His goodwill, He elevates the downtrodden. Therefore, humble yourself so Hashem may lift you.

Then, there is the most despised type of arrogance: the one that takes pride in his religiosity or spirituality. This is the kind that most religious people are guilty of in varying degrees. This is the person who feels superior for dedicating his life to serving G-d, observing the mitzvot [Torah commandments], learning His Torah, etc. There is nothing more non-sensical than this type. Rabbeinu Avraham retells a story told by his father, the Rambam [Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon]: “He [Rambam]  heard that, on the night of Yom Kippur, an observant man declared, ‘I don’t know for what sin I should repent.’ My father remarked, ‘What an unfortunate man! If he would only know what he should, he would repent even for thinking he has no sin for which to repent’” (Hamaspik L’ovdei Hashem). We see here that ignorance regarding the truth about one’s self is the main reason a person is haughty when it comes to religious matters. And what is ignorance but a lack of sechel? That is why among the most righteous of individuals, humility is paramount and the most desired by G-d. In the Gemara (Chullin 89a), quoted in Mesillat Yesharim, it states:

[With reference to the verse] ‘Not because you are more numerous than all the nations did Hashem desire you’ (Deuteronomy 7:7), the Holy One Blessed be He said to them [to Israel]: My sons, I desire you, for even when I imbue you with greatness you diminish yourselves before Me. I bestowed greatness upon Abraham; he said, ‘And I am dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27). I bestowed greatness upon Moses and Aaron; they said, ‘And what are we’ (Exodus 16:7). I bestowed greatness upon David; he said, ‘But I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7).

After everything that has been said, it is now understandably clear why arrogance is a complete non-sense. Wisdom begins when we learn that the more we know, the better we realize how much more there is to know, making all that we already know insignificant compared to what we are obligated to know.

Why Do We Not Recite the Full Hallel on the Seventh Day of Passover?

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(This post is mostly based on Rav Dovid Hofstedter’s essay “Az Yashir” in his book Dorash David on Moadim. And this is just one of the many possible answers to this question.)

The Hallel (lit. praise) is a series of chapters (113-118)  in Psalms that is recited during all Jewish festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh. There are two kinds of Hallel: the full and the half. The Full Hallel (all of chapters 113-118) is said on the first night and day of Passover (first two outside Israel), Shavuot, all the seven days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah and all eight days of Chanukah. The Half Hallel (chapters 113-114; 115:12-18; 116:12-19; 117-118) is said on all the other days of Passover and on every Rosh Chodesh.

So we see here that on Sukkot, the Full Hallel is recited on all days. Yet on Passover, it is only done on the first one (first two outside Israel), and not even on the seventh day (and eighth outside Israel) which is a Yom Tov. Why is this?

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) answers, quoting Proverbs, that we should not be happy at the the downfall of our enemies. Also, the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Moelin) writes: “We recite the full Hallel on the first two days of Passover, and subsequent [days] we say it with omissions…. For on the seventh day the Egyptians drowned, and Hashem said, ‘My creations are drowning in the sea, and you are singing a song before Me?'” He explains further that since we do not recite the full Hallel on the seventh day (which is a Yom Tov), we also do not recite it on Chol Hamoed.

But wait, did not the children of Israel sing a song, the Az Yashir, which mentions plenty of reference regarding the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds; and do we not recite this song daily in our morning prayers including the seventh day of Passover?

One explanation is because the song Az Yashir was essentially formed through the children of Israel’s achieving the highest level of faith and trust in G-d that resulted in them deserving to sing this song with ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration; similar to prophecy).

[It is also important to note the tense of the start of the song (Az Yashir Moshe…). We find that it is in the future tense. One interpretation says that at this time, Moses did not agree at first that the children of Israel sing it because at that time, they had not reached that highest level yet.]

Thus, this song is not just any kind of song. When the children of Israel sang it, they were past the reasoning that it was because G-d saved them or because the wicked are at long last being punished. They were only singing it solely for the purpose of describing G-d’s greatness. For this reason, it is acceptable for them to sing it and for us to recite it daily.

So why the Az Yashir and not the Hallel? Are they not both done through ruach hakodesh? Yes, they are. But our Sages decreed that the Hallel should not be said in its entirety on the day the Egyptians died as a reminder for all generations that Moses did not agree at first for the song to be sung since the children of Israel did not reach yet the level that would warrant the seeming “rejoicing” despite the suffering of another of G-d’s creations. Ultimately, we are being taught that the only justifiable expression of praise and gratitude to G-d is when it is solely for the sanctification of His Name.

On Dreams and Gratitude

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I remember at the age of 15, it was the time I had already laid out a plan for my future life. It was the time I knew exactly — in general terms — who and what I wanted to be. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), after 13 years, my list of dreams has not changed that much. And thank G-d, after a whole LOT of waiting, I am finally living most of those dreams.

But as with any kind of life, it is always never as you expect it to be. Many times, I find myself extremely sad of present circumstances; nostalgic of the life I have left behind; doubtful of the rightness of the choices I have made; and fearful of the future that seems so bleak and unwanted.

And then, I get a reminder.

 

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It cannot be denied that there is happiness in gratitude. The Mishnah says: “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion. For it is said:  ‘When you enjoy the work of your hands, then you shall stride forward and it shall be well with you’ (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” Who rejoices in one’s portion? Only the one who is grateful. In Rabbi Shimson Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on this mishnah, he says: “…a man’s craving for more and more may well grow to such excess that the lack of what he does not now possess may actually mar his joy in whatever he does have at present. Yet it is precisely this joy in what one possesses, this contentment with one’s portion that constitutes the only genuine treasure and the sole true happiness in life; without it, even the richest of men will remain poor in the midst of all his wealth.”

Where was I 13 years ago when dreams were just dreams yet I was so hopeful? What happened to that person who kept on praying for strength and patience until those dreams come true? Where is that part of me that did not stop working for and looking forward to those dreams? And now that I actually find myself in that future I have only dreamt 13 years ago, I cry because I did not expect it to be so difficult?

No! I will not be an ingrate! At least, not today.