Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Parashat Va’etchanan 5775 The Crucible

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vaetchanan 5775
The Crucible

The great tragedy of Moshes life was the fact that he did not complete his mission; he would not bring the people to the Promised Land. In fact, we might say that this is actually two tragedies: On a personal level, it is almost inconceivable that Moshe, our greatest leader and teacher, our staunchest defender and most dedicated shepherd, would not see the Land of Israel up close, not be forgiven and allowed to reap the rewards of his years of unflinching dedication. On the other hand, Moshes fate symbolizes a national tragedy: The entire generation that had experienced the wonders of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the Revelation at Mount Sinai and so much more, would also perish in the desert. The land will be inherited and enjoyed by their children.

Moshe begs to see the land. God understands precisely what it is that Moshe prays for, and although He commands Moshe to desist from further entreaties, God does, in fact, fulfill Moshes prayer in a very literal sense. Moshe is allowed to climb to a mountaintop vantage point and see the land, - but only from afar.

As Moshe continues his speech to the young generation who will soon go where he is not permitted to tread, it becomes painfully obvious to them that Moshe will not be joining them for the final leg of the journey. He takes this last opportunity to warn them about the consequences of idolatry, and pleads with them to keep the commandments in order to insure that the inheritance they are about to receive not be forfeited.

We may wonder how Moshes final words were received by this young, eager generation. Did they find it incongruous that Moshe, the greatest man they had ever known, the man who now stands before them and exhorts them about right and wrong, sin and its punishment, will himself be banned from entering the Land? Were they perhaps intimidated by the knowledge that even Moshe, who was the greatest prophet who ever lived, was unable to live up to Gods standards? Were they disheartened by the thought that if Moshe had fallen short, it seemed impossible that any mortal could succeed?

Apparently, Moshe was sensitive to these unspoken doubts and ruminations. As he begins his final series of lectures, he describes his personal predicament in very particular language, using an unusual turn of phrase that may give us a glimpse of his frame of mind and allow us to share his perspective. While other nations may worship the sun and moon and stars, he explains, the Jewish People is different. But you, God Himself took, and He brought you out of the iron crucible that was Egypt, so that you would be His heritage nation, as you are today. (Devarim 4:20)  While the image of the fiery crucible has captured the imagination of many commentaries and remains an enduring metaphor throughout Jewish history, Moshe may have had a very particular idea in mind when he first coined the phrase.

Rashis comments on this verse are terse; he explains that the crucible reference means that the Jews are like gold, but does not elaborate. Two 19th century scholars explained this passage at length, coming to widely divergent conclusions: Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg (1785-1865) refers to the process of smelting in which metals are purified of dross, and explains that the period of enslavement in Egypt had the same purpose: The Jews were subjected to a painful process that rid them of those who were unworthy, in order to allow them to meet their destiny unencumbered by those who would hold them back. This human dross would have fomented even more unrest and rebellion, and would have been unwilling and unable to receive the Torah or to fulfill the covenant they would undertake as a nation.  

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) had a very different approach. Rather than intimating that there were impurities in the Jewish nation that had to be burned off in the fiery furnace of Egyptian slavery, Rabbi Hirsch saw the crucible as an experience that gave strength and polish to the morals of the newly-emerging nation. The fires destroyed everything that had been before, allowed the Jews to distill their essential qualities and hone their identity. It is this view of the crucible that may allow us to understand Moshes words: His reference to the crucible is his attempt to point out one of the defining characteristics of Jewish nationhood. We are a people with a great capacity to suffer because we have a profound ability to see the long-term repercussions of our actions. Our enslavement in Egypt had not come as a surprise; not only was it foretold to Avraham, it was willingly accepted by him and his descendants as part of a long-term covenant. Avrahams children would inherit the Land of Israel, they would become a covenantal community and enjoy a unique relationship with God - - but only after 400 years of exile, hardship and slavery. Yaakov accepted this birthright with all its conditions; he and his children, the very core of the Jewish People, were willing to suffer in the short term in order to achieve the long-term payoff. Only a people with complete faith in the future, only those who are willing to postpone gratification in favor of a much greater spiritual destiny, are capable of accepting a covenant of this kind.

Long before Nietzsches Twighlight of the Idols, Moshe reminded us that the crucible of Egypt and the experience of slavery did not break us, did not eradicate us as a family or as a covenantal community, did not corrupt our morals; it not only made us stronger, it made us who we are. As he stands at the borders of the Promised Land but is denied entrance, Moshe himself is a living example that gratification of personal desires is far less important to the Jewish ethos than is the larger national destiny. Moshe is able to accept a world in which he is denied his hearts desire, he is able to withstand his personal pain and frustration, because he has complete faith in the future of the Jewish People and the Word of God.

Moshes message to the nation moves seamlessly from an account of his own personal pain to an inspiring account of the strength of his beloved people, even in the face of setbacks that lasted many generations. They have come through the crucible as a nation and they are gold, they are strong, they have been endowed with greatness. The suffering and humiliation, even the death of loved ones that they experienced in the crucible of slavery, has made them stronger, more united, more determined, as well as more aware of the suffering of others. They have refined the ability they inherited from their forefathers to take the long view, to see past the setbacks, even when these have been tragic and extreme. And now, they must see past the death of their greatest prophet and leader. Jewish history, Moshe reminds them, is measured in millennia, not in minutes, and he assures them that they have what it takes to begin the next chapter -  just as we, even today, so many generations and so many setbacks later, have what it takes to march toward the fulfillment of our glorious destiny.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

                                                     Echoes of Eden

Correspondence with Professor Alan Dershowitz Regarding Rav Elchanan Wasserman

Rabbi Ari Kahn
    Hashaked 5/3 Givat Zev
     Jerusalem Hills 90917
     p.o.b. 443

18 Elul 5756
September 2nd 1996 

Professor Alan Dershowitz
Harvard University
Boston, Mass.

Dear Alan,
I hope that this note finds you well. Thank G-d everything is well here, things returned to normal .....

Prior to your request for the letter of Rav Elchanan Wasserman, (which we discussed) I began to search for it myself.  My gut reaction was similar to yours, “How can a man leave America to knowingly be killed in Europe?” I had heard some of the legends surrounding Rav Elchanan's demise over the years, and I had never taken the time to try to distinguish fact from fiction. As a result of our discussion I decided to research the issue, therefore I thank you for being the impetus for this learning and clarification.

The legends spoke of a man leaving the comforts of America in order to be with his students in Europe, much in the way of a captain   going down with his ship[1]. When confronted by the enemy he never stopped teaching Torah, and like Rabbi Akiva of old, he died after giving a class about martyrdom. Eyewitnesses described him as looking like an “angel of G-d”. Reportedly some of the Nazis were afraid of the Rabbi who “glowed”, but in the end he was taken out and shot.
I can not evaluate where the facts end, and embellishment begins. However, I have succeeded in reconstructing some the pertinent facts.

As for the letter, I had assumed the letter was in His collected writings called in Hebrew “Kovetz Mamarim”. Indeed , I found one letter, written to the “Young Israel” movement dated 1939 [2].  The letter, however does not explain anything on a personal level, rather he responds to their willingness to help[3]. He responds almost exclusively on a theological level, with an analogy of a medical patient who complains of symptoms; the doctor should treat the symptoms, but more importantly should find the cause. So, too, the Jews in Europe are suffering greatly, but what is the spiritual cause? And what is the spiritual prescription? He proceeds to analyze the spiritual issues which he thinks should be brought to the attention of the masses. Interesting, but not what I was looking for.

In the course of searching for the letter, I was, as I said, able to reconstruct some important facts:

      1.     Most importantly, Rav Elchanan left America before the war began, and no one knew at the time what was in store for European Jewry. I was told by a friend, who was a student of Rav Elchanan`s son Rav Simcha, that he once discussed this with Rav Simcha who said  “my father had no idea of what would be; had he known, he never would have returned[4] to Europe.
2.     The people that discussed with him, the possibility of his staying in the U.S. reported great ambivalence[5]. He was torn, obviously aware that returning meant some type of danger, but he felt he was needed in Europe.
Here are some of the quotes attributed to Rav Elchanan: When told that his other 2 sons may be able to escape he replied “What about my other 400 sons (the number of students in his yeshiva)? [6]
When asked pointedly how in terms of Jewish law he was permitted to return he said “I am a soldier who must return to the front”[7]
3.     Once back in Europe and the nefarious plans of the Nazis became clear he instructed people that anything that can be done to avoid danger must be done.[8]
4.     Rav Elchanan himself tried on numerous occasions to escape, mainly to Israel[9], once the real horrors of the Holocaust became clear.[10]

The letter however was not mentioned in the biography or any other secondary source. To make a long story short, I finally found a photocopy of the letter, the main section reads:

Friday Parshas Naso Talma[11]

I received your letter but I could do nothing about it, so I did not respond. I am unable to bring the students to the Yeshiva of Dr. Revel or Beis Medrish Litorah in Chicago, for they are both places of spiritual danger, for they are run in a spirit of “free thinking” [prevalent in these places]. What would one gain to escape physical danger in order to then confront spiritual danger? But I sent your letter to Rabbi Shlomo Heiman the head of the Yeshiva Mesifta Torah VaDaas in Brooklyn. My advice is that you contact him and have him write a letter to------ the address is------------------
Elchanan Bunim Wasserman

Some important background
1.     The consideration of physical danger and spiritual danger, can be found in the writings of many sages, most notably the famed Chafetz Chaim, Rav Elchanan`s  mentor , had said such things about America, especially before and during World War one.
2.     Even during the early part of the War Rav Elchanan was concerned about people with young impressionable children who were contemplating going to America.[12]
3.     Having been to America and personally seen the relative spiritual wasteland that it was, Rav Elchanan was further (initially) convinced that the old policy of the Chafetz Chaim should remain in force.[13]
4.     I sense some ambivalence in the letter; was he against coming to America, or was the problem Y.U. (“Dr. Revels Yeshiva”)? Was he perhaps simply trying to get an invitation from a more acceptable yeshiva?

In conclusion, I think the facts stand on their own, but of course you and all students of history will draw their own conclusions. My study brought me in touch with a great Jew who lived and died for his people, and was dedicated to his students in a manner which is unfathomable to the modern mind.
We are bidden in Pirki Avot not to judge our friend until we find ourselves in his place. Perhaps by judging people we tempt Fate, as it were, to put us in that place. Let us hope and pray that no Jew - no person - is ever put in that type of situation again.
If I can be of assistance in any way please do not hesitate to contact me.
May the coming year be a year of health and prosperity to all of G-d`s children. May you and your family enjoy health and happiness, and may you be inscribed in the book of the righteous.


[1] One can find this phrase in Rav Elchanan`s, justification for returning to eastern Europe from London in the spring  of 1939 Or Elchanan  (A biography written about the man and his teachings)page 213, although the source also cites a more mystical consideration.
[2] I later saw the letter referred to as the last published letter
[3] This is my assumption - their letter was not published
[4] As it was, he did instruct his son to stay in the U.S. Legend: Rav Simcha reportedly said that it was then that he realized that he would never have children, (see below).
[5] Or Elchanan page 213, the source was his son Rav Simcha
[6] “Or Elchanan” page 212.
[7] Or Elchanan page213
[8] Or Elchanan page 239,270
[9]  A Facsimile of the letter is in Or Elchanan on page 273, notice the handwriting matches the letter which I found.
[10] Or Elchanan page 271, it is recounted that once he was waiting online for a visa to Israel, one of his students was in front of the line and tried to entice Rav Elchanan to trade places on line, Rav Elchanan refused. See page 276 for other attempts at escape.
[11] Apparently the name of the city he was in, no year is given.
[12] Or Elchanan 246, 247
[13] Rav Elchanan was in America primarily for fund-raising purposes.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Essays and audio V'etchanan

Essays and audio V'etchanan…

The Echoes of Eden Project:
New Essay:  
The Crucible



Uplifting the generation - Moshe teaches the new generation about to enter the Promised Land

New -Tisha B’Av lecture

Halacha shiur based on this week’s Parasha

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Parashat Dvarim – Tisha B’Av 5775 - It’s About Time

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Dvarim Tisha BAv 5775
Its About Time

This week’s Torah reading is the first in a new book, but for the most part it is a book that tells an old story, a book whose very existence is born of tragedy. Moshe is close to death; he will not cross over the Jordan River to the Land of Israel, and he opens his final series of speeches with a retrospective. How did we get here? Where did we go wrong? Can we avoid such mistakes in the future?

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel on the east bank of the Jordan, ... An eleven day journey from Horev to Kadesh Barnea by way of the Se’ir highlands. (Dvarim 1:1,2)

The Jews have arrived at the cusp of the Holy Land, at the banks of a river that the disciples will cross without their master. After forty years of wandering, Moshe reveals that the actual distance between the Land of Israel and Horev (also known as Sinai), the place the detour began, is a mere eleven-day journey. So many years wasted, so many lives lost, and it all could have been avoided.

How, indeed, had it come to this? At Horev, Moshe was first called upon to lead the Jewish People out of slavery. There, he saw a bush that burned but was not consumed, a symbol of eternity, of God’s existence beyond the confines of space and time. This personal revelation was later shared with the entire Jewish People at that very same spot, just as God had promised Moshe at the start (Shmot 3:12): The personal, micro-revelation was transformed into a macro-revelation, The Revelation, that would forge a nation and change the world.

At that same spot, Moshe climbed to the summit and received a physical manifestation of the Revelation, the Tablets of Stone – and, at that very same spot, things went awry. The people panicked; it seemed to them that too much time had passed, and Moshe had not survived his encounter with God. Rather than putting their faith in Moshe’s unique capabilities or in God’s express commitment, they allowed fear to overtake them; they sought out an alternative to Moshe – and the golden calf was formed. How quickly they regressed! They had heard God Himself speak to them only 40 days earlier, but they managed to forget both the experience of that Revelation and its content. The roar of the frenzied crowd, the beating drums and rhythmic chants of the idolatrous orgy, drowned out the sights and sounds of the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.

Moshe’s descent from the mountain, with the Tablets in his arms, should have been cause for celebration; that day should have been known for all time as  “Simchat Torah,” a day of rejoicing with the Torah. Instead, Moshe’s return to the camp went unnoticed by the people below, who were too busy worshipping the golden calf to pay any attention to him or to the gift he had brought down to them. And then, at that very same spot, Moshe, who had no part in the inconceivable sin, prayed and pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of the nation. At that very spot, the detour began, and it is the narrative of that detour that comprises the next two books of the Torah - a long, arduous, 39- year trek that should have taken only 11 days.

When we stood at Sinai, we had been heartbreakingly close to our destination, but we lost track of time. We concerned ourselves with Moshe’s tardiness, and paid no attention to the fact that we had, in fact, lost our grasp on time itself, and turned an eleven-day journey into decades of wandering.

Rashi offers a fascinating insight into this eleven-day distance: When we finally made the journey in earnest, it only took three days. (Rashi on Devarim 1:2)

In fact, this peculiar, kaleidoscopic time-line is more relevant to our lives than it might seem at first glance. Time is a strange and slippery concept: Often, there are life-lessons that normally take years to learn, which can be acquired in a flash, in a lightning-bolt of clarity, in what is known as an “ah-hah! moment.” On the long and winding road, a short and direct route is suddenly illuminated.  Other times, we see the light yet repeatedly ignore the message; repeating the same mistakes over and over, we force ourselves to take unnecessary detours and to expend our emotional, intellectual and physical energy going around in circles.

Our normal perception of time is linear and constant; we are, by and large, “captives on a carousel of time,” unable to break through, to transcend. Yet there are some people (and some situations) who manage to break these boundaries. Unfortunately, it often takes a cataclysm to grab our attention. We are only shaken out of our reverie by personal or national crises – or worse. This is the lesson of the first few words of the Book of Devarim: It took the Jewish People thirty-nine years to achieve what we should have accomplished in eleven days, but when we were finally ready – spiritually alert, attentive, and willing to take step up to meet our destiny - the eleven-day journey was completed in three days.

All these years after the destruction of the Temple, it is clear to us that we have taken a two-thousand-year detour. But it should be equally clear to us that we are – and always have been – heartbreakingly close to our destination. The final distance can be achieved in days, minutes, perhaps even seconds – when we are finally ready to take those last few holy steps.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

                                       Echoes of Eden 

Audio and Lectures Parashat Dvarim and Tisha B’Av

Audio and Lectures Parashat Dvarim and Tisha B’Av
Parashat Dvarim – Tisha B’Av 5775 -It’s About Time
The Price of Hatred
Special for 5th of Av Yahzeit of the AriZal
Safed (Tzfat)
with Hebrew –
Feeling Small
with Hebrew –
The Words of Moses
The relationship between the 17th of Tamuz and Tisha BAv
Playing Hide and Seek with God (Tisha Bav)
Sources of Hatred
Belief in God's Words
Moshe's words
Dynamics of Prayer

Tisha B’Av
Bava Ben Buta; The Blind Man who saw the Impending Churban
3 Sins Of Tisha Bav
9 Bav
9 Days Part 1
9 Days Part 2
Kol Vyad TishaBav
The Churban
Giants and Grasshoppers
The Carpenter The Apprentice And His Wife
Tisha Bav 08 Hebrew
The Source of Hatred
Tisha Bav 5767 Hebrew
Tisha Bav 5767  the sin of the spies
Tisha Bav 5769 Chillul Hashem And Churban
Tisha Bav Laws of mourning
Tisha Bav -Two brothers
When Tisha B'Av Falls on Shabbat (are marital relations allowed)
5772-When Tisha Bav falls on Shabbat the fast is pushed to Sunday - Are there any laws of Tisha Bav on Shabbat? Are laws of private mourning intact? Are sexual relations allowed? Is the fast on Sunday a "bona fide" Tisha B'Av?

לימוד וליבון הסוגיע "שבת שחל בט' באב" דין של שבת ושל צום נדחה
Rabbi Tzadok; Feeling the Pain of the Community
Playing Hide and Seek with God (Tisha Bav)
Tisha Bav as a Holiday or Moed, sin of the Golden calf and the repercussions. Finding God in sorrow
Tisha Bav , the 17th of Tammuz and mistaken calculations
were the city walls breached on the 9th or 17th of Tammuz? strange answer in the Yerushalmi  shiur in Hebrew
Tisha Bav 5773 Because of a Rooster and a Hen
the destruction of Tur Malka as told in the Gemara in Gitten, a town that lost its identity.
The Sins which caused the Churban
5774-The biblical antecedents to the sins which destroyed the Temple
Sources of Hatred
5774-Biblical antecedents to the idea of Hatred.
Tu Bav
The idea behind an obscure holiday