Sunday, October 23, 2011

Form and Matter

Bereishis bara elokim eis hashamayim ve-eis ha-aretz.

What does bereishis mean?

In the beginning. The verse says that in the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.

What does this mean?

It means that heaven and earth were the first things G-d created.

Does Rashi interpret the verse this way?

No. Rashi offers two possible (alternative) interpretations.

What are they?

The first is homiletic. The verse is understood to mean that because of the Torah and because of the Israelites, both of which are called reishis, G-d created heaven and earth.

The second transforms the verb bara into a noun and reads the verse as saying that in the beginning of G-d’s creation of heaven and earth. Accordingly, the verse is not saying that heaven and earth were, sequentially, the first things to have been created. Instead, the verse is detailing what heaven and earth were like when they were initially created. It is saying, in particular, that veha-aretz hayesa sohu vavohu.

Does the Ramban agree?

No, he vehemently objects.

What does he say?

He says that bereishis is to be understood as meaning the first. The first things that G-d created, the verse tells us, were heaven and earth.

How does the Ramban get around Rashi’s objection that the creation of water preceded the creation of heaven?

The Ramban offers an original way of understanding the thrust of the verse and of the verses that follow.

What would that be?

He distinguishes between matter and form.

Isn’t that an Aristotelian distinction?

I suppose it is.

According to the Ramban, the first things to have been created were two types of formless matter: heavenly and earthly. For reasons of manageability, we’ll confine our attention to the earthly type.

Did Aristotle posit a primordial formless matter?

This is a good question: but our subject is not Aristotelian philosophy.

The verse of bereishis is understood to mean that the first thing that G-d created was formless matter (called in Greek yehuli). Its creation constituted creation ex nehilo, something out of nothing. The remainder of the story of creation, on the other hand, is a story of the forms that G-d went on to impose on this original matter (formless). It is, in other words, not a story of creation ex nehilo.

How does the Ramban interpret the second verse: veha-aretz...?

He understands the words veha-aretz hayesa sohu vavohu as an allusion to the transition from formless matter to formed matter that G-d’s initial creation had undergone. The words veru-ach elokim merachefes al penei hamohyim, in turn, give a description of the initial form that matter took. In particular, it ascribes to it the form of the four elements: water, earth, air, fire. (The Greeks knew of this too.) (Here the Ramban seems to offer a Ptolemaic view of the cosmos.) With this initial arrangement in place, G-d went on to fashion the earthly world. On the first day He created light, and so on. In so doing, He was working with materials that had already been created.

I see.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Drama on the Parkway

It was the second day yomtov, sukos. I was making my way up Ocean Parkway, headed for the Bodners. I had just gotten through davening at the Mir, shacharis and musaf including, of course, the duchaning. We were going to have the yomtov se-uda. It was to be very yomtov-dik, the tables set majestically and the suka walls adorned magnificently with no-i suka. Lighting fixtures would be found gallantly suspended from the spaces interspersing the expanses of sechach, illuminating the interior and enhancing the ambiance immensely. The suka was to be filled to capacity, bla”h, family surrounding the methodically configured tables, sitting in neatly arranged chairs, close-together enough to economize, small enough to fit, but big enough to comfortably accommodate. Children would leap to and fro, making joyous noises, music to the ears. Obedient they would be, cleaving to every order to quiet down and stand still as to the roar of a royal trumpet. At length the masterly recital of the Kidush would commence, each word enunciated articulately and rendered melodically. All attention was concentrated on the blessing over wine, the intention, on the part of all assembled, to be yotzei through the reader’s agency felt palpably. Then would come the washing, then the betzi-as hapas, then the fish, and then, finally...the question.

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Something on the order of an hour before, as I stood listening to the shali-ach tzibur as he repeated the amida and anticipating his arrival at the section designated for birchas kohanim, I found myself caught by surprise by something on the page of the sidur. It had to do with the nusach of vesei-areiv (other say, veserav) that is recited in the midst of the birchas avoda during the chazaras hashatz of musaf, just ahead of the enunciation of the duchening. The birchas avoda begins in retzei and, ordinarily, concludes with vesechezena eineinu beshuvecha letzion berachamim, whereupon the chasima, baruch ata heshem hamachazir shechinaso letzion, is recited. The formulation of vesei-areiv is, when it is recited, inserted toward the end of retzei.

In the nusach that we, benei ashkenaz, follow, the vesei-areiv addition, which is, indeed, incorporated into retzei, occupying the trailing part of it, closes with vesechezena eineinu beshuvecha letzion berachamim. And in this respect it resembles the ordinary birchas avoda (which is to say, retzei). However, there is something that contravenes this similarity. After the usual vesechezena, and before the final chasima, there occurs the following insertion: vesham navadcha beyira kimei-olam uchshanim kadmoni-os. This is something that is not usually said in retzei. And in conjunction with this change, there occurs another, this time affecting the chasima of the beracha. Instead of concluding, as we usually do, with baruch ata hashem hamachazir shechinaso letzi-on, we conclude: baruch ata hashem she-osecha levadecha beyira na-avod. I found myself puzzled by this realization and couldn’t put my finger on the reason for it.

As I pondered the perplexity, I noticed something else in the sidur. It featured an alternative formulation that it imputed to the benei eretz yisra-el – displaying the two formulations side-by-side. In this other formulation, which in most respects concurs with the first, ashkenazik one, the words vesham na-avadcha... occur not immediately following the words vesechazena but, on the contrary, right before them. Concomitantly, the beracha concludes in the way in which it ordinarily does, with the vesechezena clause. In addition, the chasima takes its ordinary form, baruch ata hashem hamachazir..., as well. This only added to my consternation. After all, both formulations were of the same content, but for a seemingly minor juxtaposition of clauses toward the end. More than being puzzled by the difference in the two formulations of the inner content, I found myself bewildered by the differing chasimos. Given that the content of the two formulations was identical in both cases, why should a slight modification in the sequencing occasion a major change in the chasima?

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As I sat at the suka table partaking of the delicacies and enjoying the ambience, I took the initiative to pose this question to the host. It did not take him long to respond with a ringing reply. He made the (now obviously simple) point that a beracha’s chasima reflects the content of the closing segment of the beracha’s inner content. This is something of which I had not been fully aware. I had thought that it simply reflected the inner content as such, without regard to whether it occurred later or earlier in the formulation of the beracha. On the basis of this assumption of mine, I deduced that, the content in the two cases being substantially the same, there ought not be any difference in the respective chasimos. This is something on which Reb Moishe (Bodner) corrected me (in effect). He made the point that a chasima reflects the specific content that closes the inner formulation of the beracha. And since, on the reading of nusach ashkenaz, the close reads vesham na-avadcha..., the appropriate chasima is, indeed, she-osecha levadecha beyira na-avod.

As to why the two formulations differ internally, this is an interesting historical question.

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When it was over, I had Reb Moishe & Co shychyu to thank not only for the delectable se-uda and festive atmosphere, but also for the splendid insight into the davening

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Appendix to the Previous Post

Reviewing the last post, I had a thought. I had said that the reason for using the singular al chet in the first three sections was that the single chet of rebellious disobedience was referred to. Any chet committed, no matter what the motivation, instantiates the general concept of rebellion toward, kevayachol, the Al-mighty. This represents an all-encompassing chet; and it is the subject of confession in the first three groupings.

However, it occurs to me now that there is an alternative way of viewing the matter. Drawing on the same basic ideas, we might explain the use of the singular in the first three sections in the following way. In the these sections, the focus is not on the different aveiros considered from the perspective of their defining prohibitions. It is, rather, on them considered from the perspective of the motivation (techunos hanefesh) leading up to them. When regarded in this way, acts of sin are not subsumed under universal classifications, like: eating this or doing that. Each act is particular and unique. It is simply and purely ill-motivated, ill-begotten. (It is rebellion.) It is, you might say, sui generis: an instance unto itself. So it is singularly formulated as a chet, meaning an individual instance. In the fourth section, on the other hand, chata-im are, as noted, delineated by the obligations they incur. What obligation a given perpetration of a chet incurs depends on the prohibition – the category – under which it is subsumed. Moreover, each type of obligation is incurred by any of multiple such prohibition-categories (e.g., different types of aveira obligate the same karban). Accordingly, the plural form – al-chata-im – is used, to denote these various aveira types.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What We Confess To on Yom Kipur

We begin the al chets by saying al chet shechatanu lefanecha be-ones uberatzon. Then we continue with the whole litany of al chests. My question: Once we’ve said the first al chet, be-ones uberatzon, we’ve covered all the ground. Any chet is either a chet be-ones or a chet beratzon. There is no other possibility, no middle ground. What then is the purpose of continuing with the whole list of other al chets? It seems superfluous!

Another question. As we get to the fourth grouping of al chets, we encounter a change in language. Instead of saying al chet, in the singular, we begin to say al chata-im, in the plural. Thus, al chata-im she-anu chayavim aleihem ola, etc. This new question is in two parts. First, why should there be this change of expression from the singular to the plural? Wouldn’t it have been more congruous for the entire listing to follow a single, consistent form, whether it be the singular or the plural? And second, on the face of it, the plural form is the correct! What justification is there for formulating all the preceding al chets in the singular form? For example, al chata-im shechatanu lefanecha besimhon leivav would seemingly have been preferable to our al chet shechatanu lefanecha besimhon leivav. After all, it is a whole slew of individually committed chata-im (acts of transgression), all falling under the general rubric of besimhon leivav, that we are expressing our remorse for! Or so it would seem.

What I want to suggest is that there are two aspects to the repugnancy of chet. There is, on the one hand, the chet itself. By this I mean, every chet defines a category of action (or inaction, as the case may be) that is deemed intrinsically repulsive and undesirable. The Torah’s mitzvos teach us what modes of behavior need to be avoided on the their own account: whether it be partaking of certain foods; engaging in certain relations; doing work on Shabbos; doing this, that, or the other type of work; and so on. The fact that a given act instantiates one or another of these classifications makes it sinful and inherently offensive. In this way, it wears its repugnancy on its sleeve.

But then there is also another aspect. Any chet that is committed constitutes an act of rebellion (merida) against the hegemony of, kevayachol, the Ribono Shel Olam. This is because the mitzvos of the Torah represent (the definition of) His will vis-à-vis us, His chosen people. They tell us, as it were, what He expects of us. So when someone flouts one of them, he is manifesting disobedience and rebellion against His will. This is something that all chata-im share in common. Whatever the classification that a given aveira belongs to, its perpetration constitutes an act of disobedience, and of refusal to subject oneself to His will. This, then, is point one.

In addition, I want to interject another item of background perspective. I said that to perform one aveira or another was to commit a sin of (general) disobedience. But I want to enter a refinement on this point. Disobedience is not monolithic: there are different ways of evincing disobedience. Furthermore, they emanate from correspondingly different internal states of mind or traits of character (techunos hanefesh). Ones, for example, is one state of mind, ratzon another. Simhon leivav is yet a third. Even things like neshech umarbis and machal umishteh, for example, represent inner tendencies of the person (just as much as they represent  forbidden acts). As a rule, when the Torah prohibits a certain act, the Torah is, at the same time, faulting the inner state of mind that prompts and motivates its performance. The prohibition against the act may be viewed as, at least in part, an admonition that the tendency to perform it should be uprooted – as if to say, its presence stands at the root of the problem.

With this as background, I want to suggest that the viduy is structured so as to have us confess to each of the two aspects separately: the common (disobedience-based) and the individual (act-based). The first three sections of the al chets, I want to say, occupy themselves in making confessions for disobeying and rebelling against His will in the myriad specified ways. For as said, there are different ways of evincing rebellious disobedience. Each one introduces its own failing, its own character flaw. Thus, for example, disobedience of, kevayachol, His will can be demonstrated through carelessness as much as through deliberateness; it can be displayed through speech no less than through haughtiness; through sight as much as through flight. And so on down the line. Each al chet expresses another way in which sinful rebelliousness may be manifested and brought into being. However, the fact notwithstanding that each al chet represents another (particular) way of exemplifying rebelliousness, the basis of their repugnancy is ultimately one and the same: it is rooted in the fact that His will has been disobeyed. This being so, it is understandable that the singular term, al chet, should be used. For in each case, it is one unitary chet that is confessed to: the act of rebellion.

Al chet shechatanu lefanecha betifshus peh, for example, is to be understood as a confession to the act of rebellion, performed through the use of tifshus peh. And similarly for all the other of these al chets.

The situation changes, however, once the fourth section is reached. In that one, the focus turns to aveiros taken in their individuality. We move from confessing to committing disobedience, in its various guises, to confessing to performing acts that are intrinsically repugnant, as demonstrated by the fact that the Torah has proscribed them. We do not enumerate the different categories of sin themselves, as that would make for a very long list. So instead we encapsulate the different sins under heads corresponding to the obligations they incur: But it is individual (types of) sins that we are discussing (no longer the single sin of disobedience). Consequently, we invoke the plural form, al chata-im, in expressing them.

Ones and ratzon do not refer to types of sin but to ways of exhibiting rebelliousness. They are but two ways among a whole slew of others, which are given expression in the al chets comprising the first three sections. True, every sin committed is either ones or ratzon; but it is not in every act of sinning that willfulness or inadvertence stands out as the most salient psychological (motivational) characteristic.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Wondrous Mechanism of Repentance

The velt asks: The Rambam says in regard to the judgment that is passed on everyone on Rosh Hashana, tzadikim are unremittingly sealed for life; rasha-im are immediately sealed for death; and beinunim are left suspended. If they perform teshuva, the balance is tilted in their favor, and they are spared and earn life. If they fail to do so, the scales are tilted in the opposite direction, and they are doomed and meet their fate. Why is it that the Rambam singles out the mitzva of teshuva as if it were the one good deed that a beinuni could perform so as to have the scale tipped in his favor? There are myriad mitzvos, and doing a sufficient amount of any of them should ostensibly be effective in tipping the scales in his favor!

To this I wanted to offer the rejoinder that the Rambam holds to a concept of teshuva that identifies it with azivas hachet, which is to say, total abandonment of the transgression. This abandonment is its core essence. When a person transgresses, the tally of his transgressions is incremented and, in time, comes to exceed that of his merits, i.e., good deeds. When he mends his way and ceases to commit transgressions, his good deeds are gradually increased, ultimately reaching the point where they are trailed by the count of his offenses. This is what abandoning his transgressions accomplishes. And this is, in part, what the Rambam means when he says that teshuva has the effect of tipping the scale in his favor.

In other words, the Rambam is taking the position that to set this person's standing aright it won't do (for him) simply to add to the cumulative store of his mitzvos so that it will outweigh that of his aveiros. It's not about numbers. And in this respect, the mitzva of teshuva is no exception: it's not a matter or adding this particular mitzva to the total mix. For the Rambam, the only dependable way of altering this person's standing (with its attendant consequences) is by eradicating the (effect of) the particular transgression he committed (that for which he is enjoined to do teshuva). This is what makes doing teshuva efficacious. It targets this particular aveira, and it has the effect of ridding the person of it. For it is the presence of this aveira that is precipitating this person's lopsided imbalance. His teshuva accomplishes its eradication by having him completely abandon it. 

But actually there is more to it. For it is not sufficient that the erstwhile transgressor should simply mend his ways, in the sense of ceasing to do bad and doing only good, from here on in as it were. By this alone, the blot on his record remains unaltered. He has, after all, committed transgressions in the past, and they are not left undone. To clean his record, they need to be undone; which is to say, he requires kapara (atonement). Achieving it calls for teshuva: but teshuva must now be understood as entailing more than just ceasing to commit the transgressions of the past. It requires a positive act done in the present, one of taking upon oneself never to repeat one’s transgression and resolving decisively to do only good going forward. This in turn entails showing remorse for the evil that one has perpetrated; indeed, it requires articulate confession.

But neither is this enough! The requirement of total abandonment remains in place; and until one has displayed this latter, one has not completed fulfillment of one’s teshuva (and kapara) obligation. Yet, the satisfaction of this latter element lies in the future: it depends on the individual’s capacity for carrying through on his voiced determination. How, then, could the kapara take effect now? And it must take effect in the present; for if it doesn’t, then what’s to keep this individual from succumbing to the fate ordained by his sins immediately?

This, I imagine, is what prompts the Rambam to say that his repentance and dedication must be of such intensity that the Knower of the Hidden testifies in regard to this individual that he will not repeat his transgression. This is not merely a point about the intensity of the feeling. It is an answer to the question: if kapara requires teshuva, and teshuva requires azivas hachet (total abandonment), how can one possibly achieve kapara until one has lived his life (when it is already too late!)? Who is able to say that the person has abandoned his transgression with such a degree of finality? The answer: kevayachol the Ribono shel Olam Himself! Only He knows that his psychological abandonment is such as to keep him from lapsing as time passes. If it is, his act of teshuva has been consummated, and he merits forgiveness (kapara) at once: he is spared the depredations of his transgressions’ consequences.

So to repeat, teshuva requires azivas hachet. Azivas hachet has two aspects. On the one hand, it consists in the fact of abandonment, which is to say, non-repetition of the transgression. It is this aspect that accounts for the ba-al teshuva’s not incurring the fate of someone overladen with transgressions. His slate is thereby reconfigured. At the same time, however, it includes a component of strong disavowal, which is a psychological state. This latter serves to confer immediate kapara for the transgressions already committed. Encapsulated in it is the fact that there will be no future relapse. This is what gives (this aspect of) teshuva the power for the individual to avert the consequences of the sin that has been committed. It makes it now so that the slate will be reconfigured in this individual’s favor.

May we merit to achieve complete teshuva.