Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Bridging the vast immeasurable distance between the finite and the infinite"

"The Book of Exodus describes the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) not once, but four times, specifying precise measurements and minute details.

Why is so much space devoted to the physical attributes of the Mishkan and its vessels, when their purpose is, fundamentally, spiritual?

The function of the Mishkan was to enhance the relationship between God and His people, Israel - to serve as a medium of communication that could bridge the vast, immeasurable distance between the finite and the infinite.

Building the Mishkan can be compared to constructing a spaceship.

Space travel requires vehicles that can journey to distant, extraterrestrial places, but these voyages - no matter how long they are - are ultimately circumscribed by finite, physical parameters.

The Mishkan, on the other hand, faced an even greater challenge: transcending the vast distance, and differences, between an infinite God and a finite humanity.

In order to build a spacecraft, one must develop a design, gather raw materials and fashion each component.

Every part must be checked and double-checked, to assure that it meets the exacting specifications.

All the pieces are then joined together into a cohesive unit.

Finally, each part must be rechecked, each subsystem must be tested, and the whole structure must be reassembled. The Mishkan, too, was assembled, deconstructed and then constructed anew, to verify that each part perfectly complemented the others.

And after the completion of these exhaustive procedures, both the spacecraft and the Mishkan needed the same critical element in order to realize their potential: human involvement, both inside and out.

The spacecraft is guided - by engineers on the ground and by astronauts on board - as it breaches the atmosphere to join the stars in the heavens.

From before liftoff, throughout its mission, and until it returns, it is closely watched by the nation and the world - united in wonder when things go well, bound together in grief when they do not."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "A Bridge to the Infinite - Parshat Vayakhel" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in the Jerusalem Report


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"God alone is truth; nothing else can be called truth"

"For certain people the pursuit of truth is an inner need.

We cannot go to sleep until we find out what truth is.

For us, truth is not a trivial matter such as what is the length of my trousers; it is something that we cannot live without.

And in this sense, it is deeply connected to our philosophy and to our faith.

The first sentence in Maimonides’ great halachic work is a good summary of this issue.

He says there that there is one level which is the highest, and there is nothing higher than it:

God alone is truth; nothing else can be called truth.

The search for truth, then, is the search for the Divine essence within this world.

This is what we are really looking for."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "The Pursuit of Truth," a lecture by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, to girls' school in Kiev


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"History demonstrates that secular governments do not necessarily lead to better societies"

The website "On Faith" recently posed the following question:

How would you respond to radical Muslim clerics in northwest Pakistan -- now under Islamic law -- who are calling for expansion of Islamic law across the entire federal republic of Pakistan? Should any nation be governed by religious rules?

Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:

"There is no cogent reason -- neither rational nor historical -- to assume that a state must be governed by a secular system.

Why should laws devised by politicians and lawyers be intrinsically superior to those that claim to be created by divine inspiration?

History demonstrates that secular governments -- even democracies -- do not necessarily lead to better societies.

However, each case needs to be examined on its merits.

Is the particular religious system broad enough, or flexible enough, to meet the needs of an unstable, fluid world?

And who are the people assigned to carry out these laws?

The officers of the court in secular societies are, in another parlance, the servants of God.

The discernment, justice and ability of such people will always vary; these qualities are not to be found in many systems -- and perhaps not in the clerics of Pakistan."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From the website "On Faith"


Monday, April 27, 2009

"A more comfortable life is not necessarily a happier one"

"The impoverished citizens of today’s world may be far less poor than they were 1,000 years ago, but their envy of those who have more has not changed much.

Today’s rich – as rich people always have – find that a more comfortable life is not necessarily a happier one.

An expensive gourmet dish in a lavish restaurant will never be as tasty as a meal eaten after two days of fasting.

The joys of a very posh wedding will never be as satisfying as the smile of someone we love."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay, "The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same," by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, April 26, 2009

"The soul of man is the candle of God"

"The light of the memorial candle, although it is mingled with sadness, expresses a symbolic light--

'The soul of man is the candle of God' (Proverbs 20:27).

It is eternity, and not sadness, that is revealed in this light."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay, "Shades of Light," by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, April 24, 2009

"Candlelight has turned into the very symbol of the Sabbath itself"

Initially, the Sabbath candle was lit for very prosaic reasons: to make light for those who eat the Sabbath evening meal, so that they would not spend the evening in utter darkness.

But, from the very start, the significance of candlelighting has gone far beyond that.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) rules:

"One ought to take care to make a nice candle... and some make two wicks, one for 'Remember [the Shabbat day]' (Exodus 20:8) and one for 'Keep [the Shabbat day]' (Deuteronomy 5:12)...".

Indeed, it goes further:

"If one does not have enough to buy a candle for the Sabbath and wine for the kiddush of the day, the Sabbath candle takes precedence" -- so much so that "even if one has nothing to eat, he is to beg for alms to buy oil and light the candle" (Shulchan Aruch,Orach Chayim 263).

The candlelight, then, has turned into the very symbol of the Sabbath itself, a sort of "light of the seven days" shining in a sanctified niche of time.

And just as the Sabbath enters with a light, so, too, we bid it farewell with a light: the Havdalah candle, a torch with which to escort the Sabbath Queen's departure.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay titled "Shades of Light" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Our tribe is a very different kind of tribe"

"To be sure, a family is usually a biological unit.

The Jewish family is and isnt a biological unit.

We speak about ourselves as being the children of Abraham, or the children of Jacob.

But in fact, our real legacy isnt a biological one at all.

Our tribe is a very different kind of tribe.

To quote an old source, when we speak about the father of our family, the mother of our family, we say that the father of our family is God, that the mother of our family is that which is called the communal spirit of Israel.

This is not just a mystical-theological statement.

This is the way our family is constructed, it determines how the family behaves and feels."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay titled "Coming Home" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"No one soul can take the place of another"

“In spite of all the bonds uniting the individual soul either with a higher source or with every other soul, each particular spark, each individual soul, is unique and special, in terms of its essence, its capacity, and what is demanded of it.

No two souls coincide in their actions, their functions, and their paths.

No one soul can take the place of another, and even the greatest of the great cannot fill the special role, the particular place, of another that may be the smallest of the small.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Thirteen Petalled Rose, pp. 38, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The Mount Sinai experience was beyond the boundaries of time and space"

“The students of the Baal Shem Tov said, ‘When we studied Torah with the Baal Shem Tov, it was with thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar, as it was when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, when 'all the people saw the thunder . . . and the nation feared and moved and stood from afar.'

The Mt. Sinai experience was a transcendental experience, beyond the boundaries of time and space, existing forever.

Like the creation of the world, it is a permanent state, not a one-time act but an ongoing activity.

Whenever one sits and studies Torah properly, one hears the voice of God.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From Learning from the Tanya, p. 213, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Monday, April 20, 2009

"The man who has stopped going has lost his way"

"Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind.

The feeling of 'behold, I've arrived' could well undermine the capacity to continue, suggesting as it does that the Infinite can be reached in a finite number of steps.

In fact, the very concept of the Divine as infinite implies an activity that is endless, of which one must never grow weary.

At every rung of his ascent, the penitent, like any person who follows the way of God, perceives mainly the remoteness.

Only in looking back can one obtain some idea of the distance already covered, of the degree of progress...

The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going--he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest--to be someone who has lost his way."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, April 19, 2009

"When a teacher is a fake, the students will know it right away""

"Character education is not done through direct statements, such as: be nice, be honest, etc.

Children are very clever; they also observe their teachers from every possible angle.

It is therefore extremely difficult to fool them.

Be the subject studied what it may, what the teacher transmits about character formation is what the teacher actually is.

The teacher is the actual model, and therefore, you have to be what you teach.

When a teacher is a fake, the students will know it right away.

It is so very important for a teacher to be able to say “I do not know.”

The importance of this cannot be over-stressed.

Pretending knowledge undermines not the knowledge, but the character of the pupils.

Sometimes, it is so much better to say, "Dear pupils, I myself am far from perfect in this point; and while I am teaching you, I myself am also trying to make some progress."

Beyond being fair and honest, it will also be respected by the children, because then they will feel that they and the teacher are going somewhere together.

For how many among us can really say to our pupils, “Look at me, and behave exactly like this”?

The point is that certain things can be taught, or transmitted, by being a role model.

A teacher, by definition, is a model, and when a teacher has humility, and integrity, it is transmitted.

And it is transmitted not only by personal example, but also through the teacher’s demands.

Many teachers create dishonesty, intellectual or otherwise, by their demands, as well as by the way of what they give the better marks for – for instance, by giving a good mark to a dishonest paper, just because it is “nice.”

But there is more to it than that.

It says in Pirke Avot that Torah learning “endows him (= the learner) with sovereignty and authority,” or, in other words, what it means to master something, and what it means not to master something.

Mastery means that one becomes the real owner, the real boss, of whatever it is that he studied.

And lack of mastery is the sloppiness that comes from not understanding what it means to do something, anything, properly.

This, in fact, may be the most important thing: learning the proper way of doing things.

If a teacher manages to cover all of the material in the curriculum, or more or less than that, it is not all that significant.

But if a teacher succeeds in teaching children how to do things properly, that is an achievement.

With time, such children will be able to close any gap.

To create a fine human being, even if that human being has less formal education than the average student in the other school – that is really worthwhile."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From a talk by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz called "On Character Education"


Friday, April 17, 2009

"Every day we need to place ourselves at the foot of Mount Sinai"

"One of the problems facing this generation is that we have perhaps become too 'intelligent,' too knowledgeable, or too rationalistic, to be able to experience the total and spontaneous allegiance of our ancestors.

Worse still, we tend to forget that there is something beyond reason.

Jews need to face this question both as individuals and as a nation.

How can we recover this ability to transcend the particular and seize reality in its totality without performing fancy calculations beforehand, without asking, 'Do I understand?' 'Do I want this?' 'Am I ready?'

This is why the sages say that every day we need to place ourselves at the foot of Mount Sinai.

This can take place on Shavuot or on any day of the year.

The face-to-face encounter at Sinai involves an encounter with Oneness and willingness to accept things that are beyond our faculties of comprehension."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Seven Lights on the Major Jewish Festivals by Adin Steinsaltz and Josy Eisenberg, p.231-232


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"The bigger the 'I' the smaller the love"

Love is such a used, abused, and misused word that people should possibly stay away from it.

How I would define it?

In essence, love is the basic experience of caring about another, of going out from myself toward the Other.

Love requires caring – not caring about what benefit or enjoyment I can gain from you, but finding joy in the very fact of your existence.

When I say “I love you,” the truthfulness of my statement depends on the size of the “I” and the size of the “you”:

The bigger the “I,” the smaller the love.

But if the “I” is smaller than the “you,” then we have the sense that we are dealing with love.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From a talk by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz given at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Science and Religion


Monday, April 13, 2009

"There is no basic set of meaningful principles to which all Jews would agree"

"What does it mean to identify oneself as Jewish?

As a rabbi - someone who is, one might say, a Jew by profession - I have given a fair amount of thought to this issue.
The most obvious first answer, I believe, is that a person is a Jew by religion.

In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as it might seem.

There is no basic set of meaningful principles to which all Jews would agree.

And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.

Are Jews members of a race?

This is clearly not the case.

Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.

Do Jews belong to a nation?

Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit.

Even linguistically, we are splintered.

Hebrew is our official 'shared' language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.

What we are - I propose - is a family."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay, "What is a Jew?" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, April 12, 2009

"We who are capable of transmitting Jewish knowledge must rise to the challenge"

"For too many Jews, Judaism is not even a memory — it is the memory of a memory.

This generation is different, because so many cannot access the familial aspect of Judaism.

This generation, more than any other in Jewish history, has been distanced so long and so effectively, that it must reach out beyond itself in order to reconnect.

At the same time, we who are capable of transmitting Jewish knowledge must rise to the challenge and meet it more than half way.

The task before us is to inspire and empower this generation to re-create Jewish memories and restore Jewish knowledge.

It is almost a miracle that, so far removed from the positive practice of Judaism, there are those who still seek, and even hunger for, Judaism."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Why is This Generation Different From All Other Generations?" an essay by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Times of crises give us opportunities for a new outlook"

"Passover is the most ancient Jewish festival, and also the most beloved.

Yet beyond the splendor of its antiquity and our own childhood memories, Passover's message is both universal and contemporary:

Each of us yearns for the move from enslavement to exile.

The heartfelt desire for deliverance -- redemption from slavery -- is not confined to those in captivity.

One's personal 'Egypt' may be literal, physical bondage.

But others may experience their own 'Egypt' as financial ruin, the exile of one's soul or the relentless heartache within one's own family.

The defining feature of bondage is not a one-time trauma; it lies in its span, sometimes a whole course of life.

Whether one's bondage is obvious to all or known only to the sufferer, it is a reality from which the sufferer cannot pull free.

And because the sufferer does not have the tools or the abilities to liberate himself, everyone – both the complete heretic and the sage – yearns, with or without prayer, for a miracle.

Even the attempt to escape is not a full answer; the straits may be too high, and possibly also too deep.

The Exodus from Egypt is miraculous.

A pit with a ladder in it is a pit, but there is a clear way out of it.

Egypt is a dead-end labyrinth, an abyss with no staircase.

Had 'Egypt' been a solvable problem, on either the individual or the national level, surely many would have found a way to leave.

The festival of the Exodus from Egypt therefore carries an important and significant message for every human being – namely, that there is a precedent for the miracle of deliverance, that there even is a memory of such an event.

And thus the story of the Exodus is imprinted in each of us.

Even those of weak faith can see the Exodus as the symbol of liberation from a difficult and bitter exile.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for reaching the Exodus, neither a five-year plan nor a twelve-step program.

But there is one element that can be identified:

What seems to be the peak of enslavement is, in fact, the beginning of redemption.

Just before the miracle of the Exodus the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:14) 'and they [the Egyptians] made their [the Israelites'] lives bitter.'

Why so?

Enslavement, in all its forms, is painful, limiting and confining; but because it is not a one-time event, we adapt.

It is not that we like our troubles; it is that we are used to them.

We learn to co-exist, to lead a life in which man and his suffering, external or internal, live side by side.

There is pain, there is distress, but there is also resignation, even if unwilling, to the existing situation.

A reality of this kind is in itself a barrier to liberation.

A person who has been living for a long time behind walls may be unable to step out even when the gate opens.

And such a person will surely not have the courage to make an illogical jump in order to escape his present situation.

However, when people reach a deeper understanding of their distress, when they reach the level of 'and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried' (Ibid, 2:23), this in itself is the beginning of the possibility of being redeemed.

Bitterness emerges not only out of the pain, but also from the shattering of the compliance with the state of bondage.

That bitter suffering is not the solution; it is the moment of realization, a more profound understanding of our travail.

Out of this moment comes the opening for a new paradigm, a new reality.

Times of crises, such as our own times, are not only periods of human and social tragedies.

They also give us opportunities for a new outlook and a clearer examination of the past and of the present.

A new perception of reality -- one that does not focus on particular details but also sees the broad social, economic and human situation -- is in itself the beginning of redemption.

One must want to be redeemed, in order to be redeemed.

Before we eat the matzah (which is both a symbol of redemption and 'the bread of affliction') we remove the leaven, bi'ur chametz.

Leaven is bread which is very edible, possibly tastier than matzah, which symbolizes all the more bearable aspects of bondage.

We are called upon to burn, even if only symbolically, the leaven that has accumulated in the past year, perhaps also in the course of a whole generation, so that we can begin to create an atmosphere of redemption.

On the Seder night we gather for a festive meal, and the festival table in every Jewish home – even if it is neither glamorous nor bountiful – is a reminder of a most important fact: that the Israelites were redeemed not only in the past, and that in the future, too, there is the "Redeemer of Israel."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay "We May be in Bondage; We Can be Redeemed" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"The primary meaning of eating matzah is the return to the starting point"

"The matzah eaten by the Israelites in Egypt has a dual meaning, as is clearly demonstrated by the Haggadah ritual.

On the one hand, it is the symbol of flight and powerlessness.

The dough prepared for the Exodus did not have enough time to rise, because the Israelites had to leave Egypt in haste.

On the other hand, the Israelites were instructed to eat matzah on the evening of Passover to accompany the Passover lamb.

'They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs' (Exodus 12:8).

We are commanded to eat matzah although we eat bread the rest of the year and have apparently reached a higher level of knowledge.

One of the basic features of Jewish existence, both on the personal level and on the level of collective history, is that there is no possible beginning without a return to the roots of faith, to a state of pure knowledge free of all rationalization.

The rest is only construction, superstructure, and embellishment.

The primary meaning of eating matzah is the return to the starting point.

This return is necessary even when I have 'eaten' more sophisticated nourishment."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Monday, April 6, 2009

"The central ceremony of Passover takes place in the home, not in the synagogue"

"The sense of family is an integral part of all Jewish holidays, but it is even stronger during the festival of Passover.

The central ceremony of Passover is the seder, which takes place in the home, not in the synagogue.

And the key element of the seder is in telling the story of our (physical and spiritual) enslavement, our (physical) liberation, and the attainment of our (spiritual) destiny at Mount Sinai - that is, the reaffirmation of our identity as the House of Israel.

This Wednesday night, Jewish families throughout the world will come together and read from the Haggadah, the text of the seder.

They will begin to tell the story by pointing to the matzah, the unleavened bread, and declaring:

'This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.'

As we look at the matzah and remember our history - when we were hungry and needy, yes, but also when we were all together - we realize that part of the family is missing.

There are empty chairs in the house, where a son or a daughter or a cousin ought to be.

We issue the invitation and we open the door, but some of them are so far away - from us and from Judaism - that they don't hear our invitation or see the light from the open door.

If every Jew who cares about the members of the Jewish family will issue the invitation and open the door, many of these estranged Jews will hear or see, and drop in for a visit - if not to his own house, then to the house of a long-lost cousin.

Let us welcome them back."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From a newspaper column by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, April 5, 2009

"We must respond to our children's curiosity with substance"

"Throughout our history, and in almost every country of our dispersion — with the noteworthy exception of the United States — others have tried to destroy us with hate.

Today, however, the biggest problem — especially in the United States — is that we are being decimated by “love,” as, one by one, Jews are voluntarily surrendering their Judaism on an unprecedented scale.

Our response to this threat must also occur one-to-one.

At the seder, and every day, we must respond to our children’s curiosity with substance and we must meet their passion with our own.

We must assure that we live a Judaism that is fresh and vigorous and compelling, so that every generation will be able to establish itself as a first generation that is both wise and enthusiastic."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay, "Why is this generation different from all other generations?" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, April 3, 2009

"A person who denies and distorts his essential qualities is in exile"

"The miracle of the Exodus was not complete when the Jews left Egypt.

At that point, they were merely runaway slaves.

As Abraham ibn Ezra describes it, the Jews, standing on the banks of the Red Sea, genuinely wanted to escape the afflictions of slavery, but — having lived their entire lives as slaves — they were immobilized, unable to sever the powerful connection to their oppressors.

Thus, there followed periodic murmurings about returning to Egypt and the idealized lives they had there.

Unable to achieve true freedom, the slave generation could not enter the land of Israel to build a free nation.

Just as slavery and freedom are juxtaposed on a personal plane, so exile and redemption can be contrasted on a national plane.

Exile is the subservience of a people to a foreign power.

Redemption lies in the people’s ability to remove the yoke of exile and emerge as a free nation.

Implicit in the condition of exile is the destruction and subjugation of the national will and its creative energy, as the nation yields to the pressures and dictates of a foreign power.

Those who are forced from their land but continue to conduct their lives in accordance with their own principles cannot be considered as being in exile.

They are merely sojourning in a foreign land.

Exile, like slavery, requires the suppression of self-expression and self-determination.

A person who denies and distorts his essential qualities — and replaces them with the characteristics of his environment — is in exile.

This exile is partly a physical condition, like slavery, but its essential quality is spiritual.

It is surrender and abdication.

It is the acceptance of a set of values, attitudes, and mores antagonistic to the essence of the authentic, distinctive self."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay "Passover: The Festival of Freedom" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Thursday, April 2, 2009

"On Passover, we become children once again"

"The whole Passover ritual could be summarized in a single commandment:

'You shall tell your son.'

This is why at the beginning of the Haggadah the child asks four questions:

'Why is this night different from all other nights?

Why do we only eat matzah?' and so forth.

According to the law, if there is no child present, or if an adult celebrates Passover alone, he must ask the questions, even though he is supposed to 'know' the answers.

It is customary in certain communities for adults to ask the questions, because on Passover, we should, in a sense, become children.

This is also why in the Bible, Passover is called the 'spring holiday.'

On Passover, nature as a whole begins to blossom and man's renewal coincides with that of nature.

The Sages have pointed to the parallel between the word nitsan, 'bud,' and Nisan, the month in which Passover takes place.

It is a true renaissance.

We become children once again, and all we can do is ask questions."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Our need to live in our own distinctive way"

"A leading Chassidic sage remarked that it is easier to take the Jew out of exile than to take the 'exile' out of the Jew.

It is not enough that the Jewish people have left the 'desert of nations.'

We must return to our sources, our spirit, our true way of life and thought, in order to be truly free, truly redeemed.

As we gather at the seder table this year, we must experience the slavery of our ancestors and their evolution to freedom.

We must remember the sweet and the bitter in our collective past and ensure the transmission of our shared self with our children.

We must convey to them a profound understanding that the final redemption will be achieved only when we fulfill our need to live in our own distinctive way — when we are truly free."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Passover: The Festival of Freedom" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz