Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, May 22, 2017

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


Throughout history most of us have been farmers.  At the time of the American Revolution ninety-seven percent of Americans were farmers of some sort.  Today, less than two per cent of workers in the States are farmers.  The biggest change took place during World War I, when mechanization took the place of all those going into the army or producing the material of war.  Over the past few decades we've seen a similar change in Israel, from tillers of soil to producers of high tech.  But it's clear that the history of technology began with the development of agriculture. There's an Israeli historian/anthropologist, named Yuval Harari who has suggested in a book, entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that humanity has suffered from this development.  Grain based diets allowed the great growth of populations and empires, but at the cost of personal freedom and periodic disasters of drought and famine.  Be that as it may, the history of humanity has unfolded together with the saga of food production.  So, it should come as no shock that Jewish law and tradition has a lot to say about agriculture.  Starting with Adam and Eve and continuing through the 39 prohibited activities of Shabbat, producing bread through the sweat of the brow is a major concern.  This symbiosis of Torah and agriculture reaches its apex this week, with the laws of shmitta or sabbatical years. 

There's a famous debate about the reason behind this rule that no farming infrastructure should be improved every seventh year.  Probably the most famous and reasonable position is that of Maimonides, who wrote that this year of fallow allows the fields to recover their fertility.  It allows the recovery of nutrients to make the fields even more productive.  The spiritual side of this practical position is that the farmer, too, can recharge batteries by Torah study and spiritual growth during this year of agricultural hiatus.  This extends the famous metaphor of humans as trees of the field.  Our work, rest and growth is firmly tied to the fields of our beloved homeland.  Remember, Maimonides quite often explains mitzvot not only in rational terms, but also practical terms.  He is teaching for both the times of exile and the, sadly, rare periods of normalcy, when Jews live in Israel.  

As powerful as this approach may be, there are many rabbis who attack it fiercely.  The arguments against this position are both physical and sacred.  Practically, they argue, this isn't the best way to give the fields rest.  Specifically, the Kli Yakar avers that the best system of fallow is a rotation of fields and crops based on three year cycles.  Okay, if you say so.  What does a city boy like me know?  Then these dissenters, point out that, if the purpose of the mitzva was increased output, then the punishment should be crop failure and famine.  However, that's not what the verses say.  The Torah calls for exile from our home land as the proper punishment.  It seems that the major issue of this precept is spiritual in nature.  It has to with the holy bond between the Jews and the Holy Land under the aegis of God. 

There may be an elegant compromise to this debate, based on a fascinating point raised by the Ohr Hachaim.  He raises the question:  How come this mitzva is communicated with the double introduction of both v'amarta (and He said) and v'dibarta (and He spoke)?  The holy rabbi explains that amira is a soft and encouraging language, while dibur is a more demanding and intimidating expression.  Is shmitta a soft, embracing mitzva or a harsh, difficult command?  He answers that there are both aspects to this mitzva.  For the well to do farmer, this is a harsh command.  He gives up a lot during the year of fallow, he is addressed with dibur.  On the other hand, the poor and the landless benefit greatly from the hefker (ownerless) status of the fields.  They can freely enter the fields of anyone and collect produce for the personal use of their families.  For the indigent, shmitta is a major economic boon; they are addressed with a gentle amira. 

Let's utilize this linguistic twist noticed by the Ohr Hachaim to help resolve the earlier argument.  According to Maimonides, shmitta  is a boon and opportunity for the farmer to replenish the nutrients of the fields and to recharge internal batteries as well. Judaism was the first civilization to recognize the benefits of rest for the body and soul.  Shmitta is shabbat for the land, as our weekly shabbat works  for us.  However, the majority of commentaries see this as a more difficult test of our faith in God as the true source of our sustenance and prosperity.  This test can sometimes be harsh and difficult.  It takes tremendous faith to resist the temptation of cheating a little and working the fields a bit, just a little trimming here and a bit of irrigating there.  The lessons of shmitta are lessons of faith, not agribusiness doctrine. 

Look, I don't know if the world is better or worse off, because of the intense cultivation of grains.  Personally, though, my opinion is that the lessons learned through the agricultural revolution of thousands of years ago have given humanity the tools of organization and innovation to account for much of what we call progress.  But I don't believe this debate much affects the Torah and its laws.  Through the Torah, God instructs us how to best make a moral society in common with our conditions. The Rav often said that the Torah is an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary one. 

So, shmitta doesn't teach about the benefits of grain as opposed to gathering berries and hunting prey.  But the Torah does inform us how to best relate to our Maker and our fellow human.  Shmita teaches great reverence and faith in God and great concern and consideration  for each other.        


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

How come we often use the word 'holy' in such unholy ways? Why should this term denoting sanctity or piety or godly come to be part of exclamations and, even, pardon me, expletives? I saw one explanation that pairing 'holy' with profane ideas somehow intensifies its impact. To stress our point we break taboos. I find this idea somehow both satisfying and disturbing. It's clear that the term 'holy' carries a lot of power. It both inspires and troubles the listener. Okay, so we can see how the word can be used in provocative ways to jar the audience, but what does the word mean in its purist sense? Lo, and behold this is the perfect time of year to explore that question, because together with last week's Torah reading which featured the words, "Be holy, because, I the Lord God am holy (Leviticus 19:2)', and contained the following injunction, 'You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the Lord, your God...I am the Lord, Who sanctifies you. (20:7-8)', our section of Leviticus is so very much about 'holiness'. This topic continues this week with the famous dictum, 'And they shall not desecrate the holy things of the children of Israel, those that they have set aside for the Lord (22:15).'

The simplest reading of these texts is that we should be 'holy' as an act of emulating our Creator, imitatio Dei. When we attempt to mimic the acts and behavior patterns of God, we achieve a certain holiness. For that reason all of the quoted verses demand that we be holy because God is holy. That's cool, but not totally satisfying because we associate being 'holy' with behavior which is distinctly un-godly, like sexual mores or eating habits. So, Rashi last week commented: for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness (quoting Vayikra Raba 24:4). Rashi pushes an agenda that holiness is connected to controlling certain strong human urges. And this week holiness is associated with, first, the cohanim, then places like the sanctuary, and then in chapter 23, also called parshat hamoadim (section of holidays), with times. How do times and places behave like God?

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik weighed in on this topic a number of times in his many writings and presented an inspiring, yet provocative approach. He defined sanctity as 'the mere attributes of kadosh, kadosh, kadosh denote distance, separation and distinction (Out of the Whirlwind, p. 143)' and as 'the mysterium magnum, ineffable and unattainable, awesome and holy (Worship of the Heart, p. 67).' In other words holiness is connection to something so beyond us, that it is a mystery beyond our feeble powers of intellect to comprehend. So, where

does this baffling stuff come from? How does it enter our mundane realm? Here comes the most difficult, yet elegant, part of the Rav's position. It comes from us. 'Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood. Through the power of our mouths, through verbal sanctification alone, we can create holy offerings of the Temple treasury and holy offerings for the altar. The land of Israel became holy through conquest, Jerusalem and the Temple courts-through bringing offerings (Halachic Man, p. 47). This holiness starts as a deep mystery, but as we create it, we begin to feel a closeness to God. We are imitating the Divine ways and soon we no longer want to flee God's presence; we become God's intimates. Eventually mankind 'tries to imitate God, walk in His way and participate in His caritas (kindness and love).'

That's cool, holiness is connected to our tzelem elokim (Divine image) which, as given by God, defines our humanity and our relationship with God, but the concept I find the most fascinating is a novel idea from the Gerer Rebbe in his commentary, Sfat Emet. When discussing kedoshim tihiyu (be holy) the Midrash quotes a well known verse from Psalms, May He send your aid from His sanctuary, and may He support you from Zion (Psalms 20:3). So the verse seems to state that sanctity comes from the Temple in Zion. Originally the term Zion meant a specific place or building in Jerusalem, then came to mean all of Jerusalem, and, eventually in the fifth century BCE, referred to all of Israel. But I digress. The Midrash explains this to mean the sanctification of our deeds and the zionification of our actions. What's that last idea? How do we zionify deeds? The Rebbe explains that this word mitziyon, in the Psalm refers to this verse in Jeremiah: Set up road markers for yourself; establish signposts! (31:20). The word for road signs is tziyunim. One possible interpretation for the word tziyon is that it means clearly marked or outstanding. Often grave markers are called tziyunim, for they identify the space above the body. So, mitzvot are tziyunim of a deeper reality hidden behind them. We bring sanctity into this world from the heavenly realm by these entry ports marked: mitzvot.

So, too, the word Zion implies that Jerusalem and the Temple were markers of where the Divine power entered our realm. The holiness in our world enters through assigned portals. The Gerer Rebbe stresses that mitzvot also achieve this purpose. According to the Rebbe, humans don't create the Holiness, instead we usher it into this physical universe.

Whether we accept the Rav, who said that humanity creates kedusha, or the Rebbe who said that we control the flow of kedusha, the importance of Jerusalem is huge. It makes no difference whether the kedusha is manufactured or uncovered, it's address is still Jerusalem. During these stirring days between Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, it's important to contemplate and communicate the role of Jerusalem in our world. Let's not be like those who

denigrate or defile the importance of sanctity in our world through profane expressions. Let's, instead, pray for the well being of Jerusalem, and us all. The two are intertwined.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Brooklyn, meet Italy...


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Walk Article


Achrei Mot-5777

Rabbi David Walk

It would seem that I should start this week's effort with a reference to playing chess with the Grim Reaper at the sea shore by the glow of the setting sun.  Mining significant ideas out of that profound metaphor of the ultimately fruitless struggle against Death is a common endeavor. But I never liked Swedish Cinema.  Sorry, Mr. Bergman.  I think it's because they call it 'cinema' instead of 'movies' like normal people.  Anyway Woody Allen and Family Guy got there before me.  However, I really do want to discuss some issues concerning death this week, because the issue is remarked upon in this week's Torah reading.

In our Parsha we have the following verse:  And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments that one should do them and live by them; I am the Lord (Leviticus 18:5).  For this week's discussion, the critical quote is 'live by them' or chai bahem.  The most popular interpretation of chai bahem is that performing mitzvot should not endanger our lives (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 85a).  With very few exceptions mitzvot don't require us to put our lives on the line.  Most famously, if a doctor tells you that you shouldn't fast on Yom Kippur, it then becomes prohibited for that person to fast.  Notice I said 'doctor' not rabbi.  I often get that question, and refer them to a doctor.  When we say chai bahem, we mean that health issues tend to trump halachik concerns.  Another popular approach is suggested by Rashi, who states that the objective of living within Torah and mitzvot extends beyond the grave.  Mitzva performance gives us eternal life.

The great Torah luminaries of Chasidei Gur extend Rashi's position into new spiritual territories.  The founder of the movement, the Chidushi Harim (Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1798-1866), wrote that he had heard (sorry, don't know from whom) that 'to live in them' means to put your essential life forces into Torah study and mitzva performance.  His grandson and successor, the Sfat Emet (Rav Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, 1847-1905), explains that chai bahem means that Torah gives us life in both this world and the world to come.  When God gave us the Torah (and the angels complained that the Torah shouldn't leave heaven), we were given the power to spread Torah even in this physical realm.  The second Gerrer Rebbe goes on to say that there are people who live to enjoy this world, and as a result derive their life force from this physical realm.  But the individual who desires a life of spirituality, the Torah and mitzvot can be the conduit for receiving this other worldly life force even here in this world. Our Torah efforts have tremendous influence both here and in heaven.  In some way, this phrase mitigates the damage done by death, because the Torah and mitzvot we do here can live beyond the grave.

Does this imply that death is an unadulterated evil?  No, not necessarily.  Even though I must admit that there exist positions that view death as purely an evil and a punishment, I'm not an adherent.  The Rav, Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik wrote:  Death...is an evil experience if viewed from the level of individual existence.  However, if seen under the aspect of the  destiny of man as such, the elimination of the old and obsolete or the the departure of people who belong mentally to a different age is the greatest of blessings (Out of the Whirlwind, p. 126-127).  Rav Soloveitchik also noted 'Death gives man the opportunity...to build even though he knows that he will not live to enjoy...the edifice...he is engaged to enrich not himself, but coming generations.  Death teaches to transcend his physical self and to identify with the timeless covenantal community...it enhances his role as a historical being and sensitizes his moral consciousness (Ibid. p.4).

Rabbi Gerald Blidstein wrote (Tradition 44:1) that the Rav is teaching us that death provides humanity with the opportunity to be truly 'heroic'.  Without death we wouldn't have the possibility of achieving the pinnacle of moral greatness, namely, working for a goal which we have no expectation of ever benefitting from.  What greater possible example of v'ahavto l'rei'acha komocha (love your colleague like yourself) is there than building a better tomorrow which you may never see?  What greater love for your progeny, than leaving a world better than you found it?   This may, indeed, be the meaning of the famous Mishneh:  It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it (Pirkei Avot 2:16).  We are tasked to bring about a world of peace, love and Torah, but we don't expect to finish it, see it or enjoy it.  It's enough to try.

Dr. Blidstein says that the Rav never saw this imperative as a Sisyphean one.  In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is tortured by eternally rolling a stone up a hill, only to see it roll back to the exact same place as he completes the effort. We, however, hopefully see progress from our holy exertions, and believe the world is a better place because of them.

I know many of us would like to translate v'chai bahem, as 'have a good time living the Torah and keeping the mitzvot'.  As Israelis say la'asot chaim, 'do some living', and as attractive as that thought might be, it doesn't often seem to work out  that way.  Most of the commentaries translate the phrase to mean, 'make your life meaningful through them.'  That's a beautiful thought and one which should inspire us to greater spiritual attainment.   That should be enough for any of us, but it can't hurt to have some fun along the way.  But the ultimate message of our Torah giants is that we must feel that we have achieved a victory over the Grim Reaper, when our legacy lives on.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

We Jews are a garrulous group.  We just love to talk and shmooze and kibbitz.  As a result of this, I guess that it's not surprising that our Sages seemed to be fighting an uphill battle against idle conversation.  We've begun the Pirkei Avot season, and the rabbis warn against speaking too much and describe silence as one of the great guarantors of spiritual greatness.  And this week's double reading reinforces this tendency, because our Midrashim have long concluded that the spiritual scourge of tzara'at, discussed at great and overly detailed length, strikes as a result of speaking lashon hara or pernicious gossip.  Now we don't know what this dermatological disease is, but many believe that it's a form of psoriasis.  As I grow older I'm able to point to white flaky stuff on the backs of my hands to help illustrate this phenomenon to my youthful charges.  Luckily, none have asked me what I said to cause this malady.

So, it's a bit surprising to see which verse from the book of Proverbs Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) has chosen to introduce our parsha.  He always has these parsha prefaces, always quoting Proverbs, and usually it's obvious why he chose that particular verse.  However, this week is a head scratcher, and here it is:  Joy to the individual whose mouth gives an appropriate answer; what could be better that a word spoken in its proper time (Proverbs 15:23).  King Solomon seems to be praising the benefits of speech, perhaps, an early free speech advocate.  On one of those Bible translation websites I found the following cool rendition:  What a joy it is to find just the right word for the right occasion! (Good News Testament).  It's wonderful to speak well.  This seems to contradict the spirit of his father's  famous verse in the book of Psalms:  Who is the person who desires life?  Loves life and desires to see goodness?  The one who guards the tongue from evil, and one's lips from words of deceit (Psalms 34:13-14).

I realize that we could say that we're not comparing the same things.  One team led by King David is criticizing nasty stuff which comes out of someone's mouth; the other, led by the son, King Solomon, is praising a well spoken thought.  We can say that there is no argument, but the strong language on both sides does leave the impression that one group is emphasizing the care we must take with our talk and the other's agenda is to promote an active search for good discussion of ideas.

Rabbeinu Bechaye himself appears to be on team two.  Here's what he offers.  That when a person intends to speak words which are correct, considered and well ordered, wisdom itself is gladdened because this one is careful to not allow words to escape the lips until the heart has considered them.  He explains that the second phrase in the verse teaches us about the proper timing of speech.  A joke, no matter how hilarious, is not proper in a house of mourning, as it says in Breishit Raba:  At  time of joy, joy; at a time of sadness, sadness (27:27).  He then explains that this concept is the source of the famous Talmudic statement:  Inquire about the laws of Pesach at Pesach, the laws of Shavuot at Shavuot and the laws of Sukkot on Sukkot (Megila 32a).  If that were the entirety of Rabbeinu Bechaye's comments, that words should be appropriate and timely, I might have concluded that there is no argument between our verse and all the other material about the dangers of speech. However, the great commentary goes on to another point which he calls al derech ha midrash or midrashically speaking.

According to Rabbeinu Bechaye's allegorical approach, the 'person' being referred to by King Solomon is none other than God.  The 'appropriate response' from our verse is talking about when God said during the Creation, 'Let there be light, and there was light' (Breishit 1:3).  And the 'word spoken in its proper time' refers to when the Torah said, 'and God saw the light that it was good.' (Breishit Raba 3:3).  That's the Midrash, but the good rabbi wants to explore what is the 'proper time' vis a vis our Creator.  God was, is and will be.  What is a proper time for the infinite Deity?  So, here Rabbeinu Bechaye makes an assumption about the intent of that midrash.  The 'proper time' for God means the order of Creation.  All of the energy and matter were created in the first nanosecond (or whatever time frame works), the revolutionary idea in the Midrash is that all of this 'stuff' was placed in a perfect order or hierarchy during the first week.  Therefore humanity must be the pinnacle of Creation.  After all we came last.

The esteemed rabbi leaves unsaid a truly profound idea.  Other places in his master work Rabbeinu Bechaye refers to a famous Kabbalistic idea that all Creation is a pyramid with us at the tippy top.  How are the different levels described?  Well, we begin with domem or silent (often called inanimate), then tzomeach or vegetative (meaning 'growing things'), followed by holech or mobile (the animal kingdom), and, finally, medaber or speakers.  Our unique status is defined by our ability to speak.

I firmly think that Rabbeinu Bechaye believes that speaking must be an extremely significant attribute worth cultivating, developing and, yes, expanding.  It's sad that over time so many of our Torah giants have emphasized refraining from speech as an antidote for negative use of this amazing capacity.  And sometimes that sadly might be true.  There are habitual or addicted gossipers.  But I believe strongly that priority should be given to well spoken thoughts and ideas.  We can't tell plants to stop growing, why should we suggest humans stop speak.  Human speech is a great gift.  Let's use it in an appropriate and timely manner.  It brings us one step closer to God.  Maybe chap a shmooze with God.