Friday, October 31, 2008

"A person has to know what his function is"

Every individual has a definite function within the people, just as every limb or organ has its function in the body, and one of the chief problems a person has to solve for himself is to know what his function is.

There is the story of the Tzadik who said to a rich, if somewhat stingy, disciple of his entourage:

"You're in great danger."

"Why? asked the disciple.

"Because," said the Tzadik, "every army is composed of many units regiments, platoons, and so forth and if a person takes upon himself to move from one unit to another, he is liable to be punished as a deserter.

And you, who were supposed to belong to the brigade of philanthropists and givers of charity, have deserted to the brigade of Torah scholars."

In many respects a person may be convinced of doing the right thing, but it may not be the right thing for him.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Long Shorter Way, p. 9, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Thursday, October 30, 2008

"The passage from one level to another demands a leap, an abandoning of solid ground"

"When a person passes from one level to another, there is an increased danger of falling.

He is no longer secure in the previous level, and can easily fall before he gains a hold in the next level.

This is true, of course, for every change in condition or of level of existence.

For instance, when entering the water to swim, there is a moment when one has to lose balance, disconnect from the secure contact with the ground and be neither walking nor floating.

Transition thus always involves imbalance and danger; it is in passing that one may collapse and lose all.

Thus, too, if someone who is learning some skill -- either manual or intellectual -- is put into a situation where there is a real difference of approach to the subject, it seems fairly necessary to advise the person to forget all that he had learned previously, because it would only serve to confuse him.

He cannot progress to a higher level of performance without forgetting, letting go of what he already knows.

So that those people, for example, who are intrinsically unable to forget are also those who find it hard to progress.

The passage from one level to another demands a sort of leap, an abandoning of all that was solid ground.

It is a basic feature of human progress, resting on the principle that the interval between points or fields comprises a mode of nothingness, and one cannot proceed from one point to another without losing one's previous balance, even if only for the briefest moment."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Sustaining Utterance, p. 13, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Daily study of a page of Talmud based on the insights of Rabbi Steinsaltz"

In August 1923, at the First International Congress of the Agudath Israel World Movement in Vienna, Rabbi Meir Shapiro proposed uniting the Jewish people worldwide through the daily study of a page of Talmud.

The "Daf Yomi" (a page a day) tradition continues today as thousands study the designated page of the day. With 2,711 pages in the Talmud, each Daf Yomi study cycle takes about seven and a half years.

You can receive an email each day containing a brief essay on the page of the day based on the insights of Rabbi Steinsaltz drawn from his Hebrew Talmud commentary.

Click here to subscribe:

As a sample, here is the essay from yesterday:

Kiddushin 20a-b October 28, 2008

Although the common perception today is that slavery is inhumane, the situation of an eved ivri (Jewish slave) is more similar to a long-term contract, in that the slave must be treated with great respect.

The Gemara understands from the passage “ki tov lo imakh” - that some slaves choose to remain beyond their assigned years because they find their situation to be a good one (see Shemot 21:16) - that the master is obligated to ensure that the slave join him in eating and drinking.

The master cannot eat fine bread and feed his eved ivri poor bread.

He cannot drink aged wine and have his eved ivri drink poorer quality wine;

He cannot sleep on cushions and have his eved ivri sleeping on straw.

The passage concludes with the expression “kol ha-koneh eved, koneh adon le-atzmo” - anyone who purchases a slave has bought a master for himself. The Me'iri writes that these obligations on the master should be seen as recommendations - as good deeds.

They are not monetary obligations that the master owes to his eved ivri, so the eved ivri could not, for example, take his master to court and sue him demanding a higher standard of living.

Furthermore, the Me'iri argues that even today, when we no longer have the concept of slavery, this attitude should inform contemporary relationships with workers, who should be housed, clothed and fed in a manner similar to that of the master.

This is certainly true according to the opinion of Tosafot (15a) who bring a prooftext to this rule from the passage “ke-sahir ketoshav ya'avod imakh” (Vayikra 25:40) - that an eved ivri should be treated like a hired servant.

The Talmud Yerushalmi writes that Rabbi Yohanan treated all who worked for him this way - even his non-Jewish slaves.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"What is life? What is it all for?"

“The book of Ecclesiastes is a key to a more inward-directed Judaism, posing as it does the great question:

What is life?

What is it all for?

These are the basic questions of every thinking person.

And in the course of the book, all the substantial, rational, and usual solutions to this question are demolished, again and again.

What is the purpose of life?

Certainly not any one of the possibilities that Ecclesiastes raises, telling us of his own experience and eventual despair.

The essential conclusion of the book, in terms of the answer to the fundamental question, is:

There is no way of finding the purpose of life within the framework of physical life itself.

And if we pursue this line of thought we reach a conclusion:

If there is a purpose to life, it has to be beyond life.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Ecclesiastes," p.151-152 in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Monday, October 27, 2008

"To be willful, a person must be aware"

“If an unlettered person purposely commits a sin or neglects to perform a mitzvah, his sin is considered unintentional and minor, for it lacks the basic elements of complete willfulness:

Rebellion, denial of a supreme Master, a conscious turning away from God's will.

This person does not truly understand the meaning of holiness and views God and His mitzvot as unclear concepts.

He is thus considered to be acting unwittingly, like a child who breaks an expensive item whose value he cannot appreciate.

Even when such a person acts knowingly, his knowledge does not extend to a full understanding.

To be willful, a person must be aware.

When his consciousness is on a low-level, when he does not adequately understand the meaning of sin and mitzvot, he cannot be judged on the same scale as someone who does know and comprehend.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From Understanding the Tanya, p. 89-90, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, October 26, 2008

"An expression of God's infinite power"

“A greater mystery than reality is the concealment of reality.

As has been said:

The glory of God is perhaps the fact that among the rest of Creation there can also be an unbeliever, who denies God even though he lives by the mercy of God and reveals God with every breath of his nostrils or twitch of his finger.

That such a creature should have the capacity to deny the existence of God is an expression of God's infinite power.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Concealment as Part of Creation" p. 51, in the The Sustaining Utterance by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, October 24, 2008

"One cannot wipe out the effect of what one has learned"

“Every day we learn something new, absorb additional information and knowledge.

But it is not a simple adding of something to a storehouse.

It is a complex process of integration.

Knowledge influences the knower; the knower changes with what he learns.

True, one may also forget what was known, but the impression made by the knowledge cannot be effaced.

One can forget everything that one has learned, but one cannot wipe out the effect it had on the personality.

Which, incidentally, explains why it is forbidden to put to shame a scholar who has lost his ability to remember.

It is assumed that what he once knew remains as a subtle, ineradicable influence.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "The Paradox of World and God" in The Sustaining Utterance, p. 84, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Thursday, October 23, 2008

"The common view about Kabbalah being a different world from the Talmud is a misconception"

"Customarily, we speak of the different ways of dealing with Torah:

--from the explicit to the implicit,

--from peshat (literal meaning),

--to derash (exegesis),

--to remez (hint),

--to sod (secret or esoteric truth).

All these simply address the same words of Scripture in four different languages, all of which have the same meaning.

One of the methods of study is to gain an understanding of the way these languages change from one form of expression to another, how they change from saying something in poetic terms to those of the story, a commandment, and a kabbalistic idea.

Consequently, the common view about mysticism and Kabbalah being a different world from the Talmud is a misconception of the organic unity of the whole.

The Kabbalah and the Talmud are different forms of expression, each following its own point of departure."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Mysticism in the Jewish Tradition" p. 194, in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Monday, October 20, 2008

"The secret of the Torah is a real secret"

"There are two kinds of secrets in the world, make-believe secrets and real secrets.

A make-believe secret is one that depends on its concealment; it is shrouded in mystery.

Such a secret relies on darkness and the unknown.

So long as it remains hidden, it arouses interest, but when it is revealed, the mystery vanishes and the secret loses its fascination.

Such is the secret of the trickster and the charlatan, a stage magician and the mystigogue; their spell lies in the undisclosed, the mysterious wrapping.

When the inner content of the trick becomes apparent, the magic disappears.

Such is not the case with the real secret.

A real secret can be open and apparent to everyone.

All can see the matter clearly and examine it from all sides.

Nevertheless, the more it is looked at and examined, the more of a secret becomes, profound and insoluble.

The story in the first part of the Book of Genesis is very well known -- children learn it at school, adults read about Adam in the Garden in many books -- and still it remains a secret.

And the more the extremely simple words of the Bible text are studied, the more numerous the aspects of riddle and mystery.

Thousands of interpretations have already been written on Genesis, all trying to explain, reveal, and decipher the story -- and still the secret remains inviolable, because the secret of the Torah is a real secret.

As greater illumination is turned on it, new facets of inscrutability become apparent.

Consequently, additional contemplation or study of the story in Genesis does not propose to reveal the mystery of the secret or to make it more simple and comprehensible, but rather to disclose it further, to reveal additional sides to it.

Every deepening of inquiry merely shows how these short, plain sentences lead to another intersection from which innumerable paths branch out, paths which a person can continue to trod all the days of his life."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From the Introduction to In the Beginning: Discourses on Chasidic Thought by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, October 19, 2008

"The spark of faith is never really extinguished"

"Belief is not a simple mental procedure for anyone, and certainly not for the genuinely religious individual.

A certain righteous person used to say the opening words of Maimonides' Thirteen Articles of Faith, "I believe with complete faith," are not a declaration but a prayer, a prayer for the attainment of complete faith.

If the person can really shake off the mountains of dust of accumulated opinions and actions, and truly examine himself inwardly, he will find there the spark of faith that was never really extinguished."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Modern Men and His Prayer" p.91 in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, October 17, 2008

"The Seven Shepherds we invite to the sukkah are in fact none other than ourselves"

Why are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David called Shepherds?

Some were indeed shepherds, and this was, at times, the primary reason they were chosen to lead.

This is particularly true of Moses.

The Midrash tells us that just before God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Moses was chasing a lost sheep, and God said to him: "You will lead Israel because you have mercy over a flock." (Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 2).

In the Song of Songs, the Shepherd (God) says to the shepherdess (Israel): "My sister, my friend, my dove, my innocent one." (Song of Songs 5:2). "My friend" should be translated as "my shepherdess, my source of nourishment."

These examples from the Midrash confirm the saying that Israel feeds God.

A definition of food helps to make this statement less anthropomorphic.

Taking nourishment unites body and soul.

By nourishing the human body, I enabled the soul to reside there.

Assuming, as we do, that God is the soul of the universe, then behaving in such a way that God will be present in the world is metaphorical "nourishment."

Individuals who conduct their lives in such a way that God will remain in the world, and not disengage Himself from it, can thus be called the shepherds of God, His nourishers.

The relationship is reciprocal.

The Psalms often refer to God as the Shepherd of Israel, as in "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

There is no better way to say that God ensures us sustenance and life.

And we ensure His Presence on earth by "nourishing” Him.

This is why He calls us "my friends."

A friend is one who nourishes.

The Sages draw on this concept to make a somewhat audacious interpretation of the verse in Isaiah, "So you are my witnesses, declares that Lord, and I am God," (Isaiah 43:10) which they reformulate as "If you are my witnesses, I am God." (Talmud, Hagigah.16b)

The idea is that God is saying, "As long as you are my witnesses, I am God. If not, I am no longer God."

Without us, without our efforts, if we do not serve Him, God certainly exists, but He is not present or visible in the world.

This is the true definition of a witness.

A witness is not only someone who is present at an event.

It is also someone who can provide an account of it.

This is one of the functions of Sukkot.

In the sukkah we live in the shadow of God, in the palm of His hand, embraced by His arm, as it is said "And I sheltered you with My hand." (Isaiah 51:16)

The Seven Shepherds we invite to the sukkah are in fact none other than ourselves.

We become the Shepherds of God; we discover our own ideal selves in the Patriarchs.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "The Three Pilgrim Festivals" p. 272-277, in The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Thursday, October 16, 2008

"The purpose of a mitzvah is to elevate the entire world"

"With one action, a person changes only a small part of reality.

When he waves the lulav and etrog, he cannot transform all of the etrogim in the world into etrogim used for a mitzvah.

Nor, when he writes a Torah scroll, can he transform all of the animal hides in the world into holy parchment.

But there is no need for him to do so.

Everything in the world is connected to everything else.

Every detail is intermeshed with other details.

Every action has an ongoing ripple effect.

When a person changes just one particular, he improves the entire world.

The purpose of a mitzvah is ultimately to elevate the entire world, to completely change the essential meaning of existence in general."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From Understanding the Tanya, p.155-156, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Monday, October 13, 2008

"The Seven Shepherds are present among us"

"The Seven Shepherds--Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David--are seven eminent figures in our history.

Of course, they are also much more than that.

They are personalities who continue to lead the Children of Israel, even in our times, in an invisible fashion.

We invite them to our sukkah because we really feel that they are present among us and are not figments of the past.

Men fall into two categories.

The first is composed of men who act at one point in history.

They belong to the past and their actions have come to a close.

The Seven Shepherds, however, belong to the second category of men: those who have a permanent impact on the Jewish soul, an impact that has lasted up to this very day.

These Shepherds are more than archetypal figures.

A more fitting description is that we, as their descendents, have undergone their influence and have integrated part of their personalities.

The Seven Shepherds are not figures or role models, but rather seven facets, or seven fundamental features of our identity.

These Shepherds do not roam the fields; they roam our souls.

They are our spiritual fathers, and we 'carry' their genes.

They are the building blocks of our heritage and our spiritual genetic background."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "The Three Pilgrim Festivals" p. 271-272, in The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Seated in the sukkah, we live in perfect harmony in the shadow of God"

"Assembly, meeting, and reunification characterize Sukkot.

Within ourselves we unite the scattered fragments of our identity, and at the Temple in Jerusalem there were seventy sacrifices to unite the scattered nations.

These were called peace sacrifices.

Peace, shalom, is wholeness, or shlemut. The seventy sacrifices at the Temple were aimed at bringing men together, and restoring the wholeness of humankind in a broken, disunited world.

Sukkot ends with another form of wholeness, since on Simchat Torah we complete the Torah readings.

Fulfillment only comes with tranquility and peace.

Unbridled, unrestrained joy only comes in fulfillment.

Sukkot is the only holiday that is called the 'time of our rejoicing' because all the forms of fulfillment are granted simultaneously -- earthly wealth, the concluding portion of the Torah, the uniting of the nations.

We are filled with an extraordinary sense of well-being.

Seated in the sukkah, we live in perfect harmony in the shadow of God, echoing the verse in the Song of Songs: 'I delight to sit in His shade.' (2:3)

When I welcome the Seven Shepherds in my sukkah, I attain supreme harmony.

An invitation implies a willingness to receive.

By opening my door to the Shepherds I open the door of my being and say that I am ready to receive that part of my being that is in them.

I say to each, 'Enter within me with all you have to give and receive, with all that there is of me in you.' "

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "The Three Pilgrim Festivals" p. 277-278, in The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, October 10, 2008

"God's embrace"

"The classic metaphor used to describe the Tishrei festivals comes from a verse in the Song of Songs:

'His left hand under my head, his right arm embraces me.' (2:6)

The customary explanation is that the left-hand, which is a symbol of rigor and judgment, designates Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

On Sukkot we are supported by God's right, the symbol of love.

God's two "arms" correspond to the architecture of the sukkah.

The law requires that the sukkah have at least two walls, plus the beginning of the third.

This is exactly the form of an embrace.

It is God’s embrace."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “The Three Pilgrim Festivals” p. 254, in The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Josy Eisenberg


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"The very day itself atones"

Yom Kippur, the 10th day of Tishrei, is a special day in the year, and in a certain sense, one might say that it is a unique entity, separate from all other days, and cannot be counted among them.

Although in the Torah Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton -- a Sabbath of complete rest -- Jewish law does not consider it the strictest day of rest, and its sanctity and honor are less than that of Shabbat.

Nevertheless, everyone recognizes that it is the most exalted of all days.

The Talmud tractate that is entirely devoted to the laws for Yom Kippur is called Yoma, which means "the Day."

Even among simple folk, it is known as "the Holy Day."

As indicated in the Torah, and expressed in prayer, this day is essentially one of atonement and purification from sin.

The atonement obtained on this Day of Atonement does not result from one's repentance and self purification but from its nature as a day of pardon and Divine revelation, emanating from God Himself.

The very notion of pardon and atonement contains a conception of reality that transcends the bounds of common rationality.

The recognition that there is pardon from sins means that, in some way, the past can be changed, that acts which were done, which existed in reality, may be considered as not having occurred at all.

Furthermore, the concept of crime and punishment is primarily based upon the assumption that they have a cause-and-effect relationship, and that, as the biblical verse says, "Evil shall slay the wicked" (Psalm 34:21).

Forgiveness, therefore, is not only a change or reversal of the Supreme Law that defines good and evil but a violation of the laws of causality, and the elimination and cancellation of the past.

As it is said, "I have carried away your transgressions like a thick cloud, and your sins as a mist" (Isaiah 44:22).

The pardoning of sins is not like removing a stain, which leaves a faint mark, but like a wind dispersing the clouds, leaving no sign of their having been there before.

Forgiveness becomes, then, the actual creation of a new temporal order in which it is as if the sin never existed.

Moreover, it is as though by the very power of repentance "sins have become merits" (Yoma 86b), and the past is a rewritten according to another scale of values.

The sages say that repentance preceded the creation of the world, which means that repentance transports a person above and beyond the realities of the created world, with its order of time, forming, as it were, a new creation.

And since Yom Kippur is the day of Divine pardon and forgiveness, it is the revelation of a Supreme Essence that transcends the limits of the whole world.

The commentary on the verse "I, I alone, am He who wipes away your transgressions for My sake" (Isaiah 43:25) places the words "I, I alone" on a higher level than the "I" with which the Ten Commandments begins (Exodus 20:2).

This revelation, which transcends and cuts through the boundaries of the world, is the essence of this day, and its power is defined in the words of the sages as "the very day itself atones" (Yoma 87a).

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Days of Awe", in A Guide To Jewish Prayer, p. 195-196, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"A basic misunderstanding of God's greatness"

"For many clever men, the difficulty that is an obstacle to understanding God comes not from His greatness but from a basic misunderstanding of His greatness.

The person who thinks that God is justifiably concerned with the vast affairs of the galaxy and is not concerned so much about my reciting a blessing before eating a chocolate bar does not really see the greatness of God.

To the Divine Omniscience, there is no large or small, significant or insignificant detail in the infinity of the universe.

This is the justification for man’s saying: 'I am ignorant and do not know'.

But as with all the other creatures of the world, God replies, 'I am with thee always.'"

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “Intimacy with God” p.323 in The Long Shorter Way by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Monday, October 6, 2008

“In times of soul-searching the very roots of existing reality must be explored”

Our sages used a folk saying to explain how great disasters might befall the nation:

"When the shepherd is angry with the flock, he blinds the eyes of the leading ewe." (Talmud, BK 52a)

And woe to the flock whose leaders are blind!

These things hold true in all the ages, because even in times of peace and plenty we must check things out, be aware of dangers to come.

How much more true is this in times of soul-searching, at a time when there is a need for fundamental examination of our lives, when the very roots of existing reality must be explored.

Such exploration must be made not only in terms of existing assumptions, but on a review of the most fundamental values, and at such times it is essential that the eyes of the community see far and clear and penetratingly.

In ancient Israel, the prophet was defined as "Scout of the House of Israel," the one who saw from afar and who, in simple speech, was called "the shepherd."

A nation needs its guides and shepherds, its scouts and leaders of the flock, who will carry out the function of leadership:

The ability to feel and the power to think.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “Soul-Searching,” p.22-23, in The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, October 5, 2008

"God weighs every person differently"

"The question is asked: What about the aspiration for peace of mind and heart?

Of course, this is a universal longing, and there are those who do reach a high degree of tranquility.

God weighs every person differently.

Some are judged according to their achievements and others by their failures.

No one is weighed in the balance by the peace of mind he attained but rather by the nature of his struggle and what was won in the battle.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “The Animal-Soul” p. 56 in The Long Shorter Way by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, October 3, 2008

"Of prime importance is not one's intellectual level but one's intensity"

“On one occasion, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak conducted a search for someone to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

A number of men demonstrated their knowledge of the mystical meditations that are supposed to enhance shofar blowing, but he was not satisfied.

One day, a simple man came, and when Rabbi Levi Yitzchak asked him what he would have in mind when he blew the shofar, the man told him:

‘Rabbi, I have four daughters of marriageable age. When I blow the shofar, I will think, 'Master of the world, I do Your will and blow the shofar, so please do my will and help me marry off my daughters.’

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak stood up and said, ‘You will blow the shofar in my synagogue!’

Of prime importance in a person’s intention is not his intellectual level, knowledge, or even spiritual preparedness but the degree of his intensity as he performs the mitzvah.

That makes all the difference.

In short, intent without a mitzvah is nothing, but a mitzvah without intent, even if it be meager, is still significant.

Performing a mitzvah for its own sake is the starting point. But when we combine intent with a mitzvah, we can arrive at great things.

The mitzvah is a sort of code, a specific, definite message, and the intention is the amplifier.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From Understanding the Tanya, Chapter 37, p. 248, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz