This week’s parasha is Bechukotai, infamous for its long list of curses. Tragically, we find that all of those curses have been realized in Jewish history. And yet, we also find that out of each catastrophe comes tremendous blessing. God declares that although He will punish the nation, He “will not despise them nor reject them” for the covenant is everlasting. The punishment serves only as retribution, middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure”, but it also has a deeper purpose to bring forth renewed life. Let’s take three examples from the past two millennia to demonstrate this phenomenon. Continue reading
In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.
1. Personal Development that Works
Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”
Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.
One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.
There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:
The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.
Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.
Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.
2. The Importance of Community
While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.
Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.
It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.
And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!
3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe
Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.
While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:
As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.
The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.
And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.
In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.
The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?
The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.
Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.
And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.
Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)
Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.
This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, which begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book (Deuteronomy), is written from the perspective of Moses, and summarizes much of what the Torah discussed earlier. At the same time, it also introduces many new mitzvot, and reveals deeper insights into the Torah’s previous narratives. For example, while the book of Numbers told us that Moses was forbidden to enter the Holy Land because he disobeyed God in striking the rock, here we are told that Moses was forbidden to enter the Land because of the incident of the Spies! (1:22-38) How do we reconcile these differences? The answer can actually be found in next week’s parasha, Va’etchanan.
Va’etchanan (literally “and I beseeched”) describes how Moses begged God to allow him to enter the Holy Land. The Talmud (Berachot 32b) states that Moses prayed so much that God actually relented and forgave him for striking the rock. However, it would have been wrong for Moses to enter the Holy Land at that time, considering that the rest of the men were condemned to perish in the Wilderness because of the sin of the spies. After all, Moses was their leader. Could a shepherd abandon his flock? Would a captain abandon his sinking ship? So, Moses didn’t enter the land not because of the rock, but because of the spies.
This is all the more pertinent now with Tisha B’Av right around the corner. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, along with a handful of other tragedies said to have happened on, or around, that date – the ninth of the month of Av. According to tradition, the origins of Tisha B’Av lie in the incident of the spies. It was on that day that the spies returned from the land of Israel, and reported negatively about the people’s chances of conquering the land. The faithless nation feared and cried needlessly on that day so, it is said, God subsequently gave the nation many good reasons to truly fear and cry on that day throughout history.
The Problem with the 9th of Av
There are many problems with this classic narrative. First of all, why would God punish generations far in the future for the sins of that one generation long ago? Deuteronomy 24:16 itself states clearly that “Parents shall not be put to death because of their children, nor children because of their parents. Each person shall be put to death for their own crime.” While the Torah does also mention a number of times that God “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children to the third and fourth generations”, the phrase concludes by saying this is only true to those that “hate Him”. In any case, it is only to the third and fourth generations, not millennia into the future! Even so, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) says the prophet Ezekiel came and repealed this divine decree anyway:
Said Rabbi Yose bar Chanina, “Moses pronounced four decrees upon Israel, which four prophets came and cancelled.”
…Moses said, “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children…” (Exodus 34:7) Ezekiel came and cancelled it: “The one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:14)
Second of all, did the spies really return on the 9th of Av? The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates that the spies went forth on the 29th of Sivan and returned forty days later on the 9th of Av. However, the Torah tells us that the spies went to Israel at the start of the grape harvest (Numbers 13:20) and the same tractate of Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) states that the grape harvest season lasted from the 15th of Av until Yom Kippur! How could the spies have returned on the 9th of Av when the grape harvest only began on the 15th? (A simple Google search reveals that the ideal time for grape harvest is September-October, which is right between the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.)
On the same note, when exactly were the Temples destroyed? The Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (II Kings 25:8-9) This verse suggests the First Temple was destroyed on the 7th of Av.
Another verse in the Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, who stood before the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem; and he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (Jeremiah 52:12-13) The verse is nearly identical, except that this one says Nebuzaradan came on the 10th and destroyed the Temple.
We have the 7th of Av and the 10th of Av, but no 9th! The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) notes this contradiction and tries to reconcile it this way: “On the seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth, and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day [the tenth].” Rabbi Yochanan goes on to say that if it were up to him, the mourning day would be the 10th of Av, not the 9th, since this is when the Temple was mostly destroyed.
And what about the Second Temple? Josephus lived through its destruction, and later wrote about it in detail. He says that it was destroyed on the 10th of Av, and writes that the Jews mourn its destruction on the same day that they mourn the destruction of the First Temple. However, he seems to admit that he is uncertain about the exact dates that the Temples fell.
What does the Talmud say? It, too, is uncertain, but concludes that since “good things tend to happen on good days, and bad things on bad days,” it is assumed that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same day as the First Temple!
Postponing, Abolishing, or Redefining?
This year, Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, so the fast is postponed, appropriately, to the 10th. While Rabbi Yochanan felt that the 10th is the correct day to fast anyway, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – the great redactor of the Mishnah – wanted to have the fast of Tisha B’Av abolished completely! Some say this was only when Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat and needs to be postponed, while others say he wanted it gone entirely (Megillah 5b).
This idea has been echoed in modern times. The primary reason for mourning on Tisha B’Av is because of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Jewish people’s exile. Today, the Jewish people have returned to the Holy Land and have rebuilt Jerusalem. While there’s no Temple just yet, we are free to travel to, and settle in, the Holy City whenever we wish. Why are we still mourning?
Perhaps Rabbi Yehudah felt the same way. In his day, Jews had also returned to Jerusalem and enjoyed relatively good terms with the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah himself was friends with the Caesar known in the Talmud as ‘Antoninus’ (possibly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or maybe a local Roman governor).
Meanwhile, far worse tragedies have befallen the Jewish people since then: crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, and the list goes on. Why focus on the temples and Jerusalem when there are more recent, greater tragedies? Indeed, former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin intended to combine all the days of commemoration, and move Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day to Tisha B’Av.
Perhaps this is what Tisha B’Av should be: one day to remember all of the suffering that has troubled the Jewish people, and all the suffering that continues to plague the world. A day to remind us that Mashiach has not come yet, the Temple is not yet rebuilt, and the world is not yet whole. A day to ask ourselves: what exactly are we doing to hasten the arrival of that magnificent, forthcoming time? What are we doing that will finally put an end to all the mourning? Tisha B’Av should be a day not about drowning in the sad tears of the past, but about actively working towards the happy tears of the future.
And this is precisely what Rabbi Akiva told his colleagues when they saw the ruins of the Temple. While Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah immediately fell into a bout of weeping, Rabbi Akiva was laughing. Surprised, they asked him to explain himself. He told them that while they were dwelling on the destruction of the first and second temples, he was dwelling on the vision of the coming Third Temple. The rabbis responded – and with this the tractate ends – “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”