May 30, 2014

What is True Exertion?


A number of years ago, someone wrote an article in a Jewish publication about how wonderful it is that we now have the computer capability to quickly search and find what we're looking for, while learning Torah.

The way he put it was, "no more wasting precious time trying to locate the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch etc", and "no more time wasted finding a sefer or trying to figure out the translation of difficult words."

There was a response in the next issue which took exception to the whole article, bringing up the issue of having computers altogether, as well as the issue of ameilus ba'Torah (exertion in Torah study), that clicking a couple of times to find a source eliminates ameilus ba'Torah.

The author's response was 1) that which is invented can be used for good or bad 2) it got approval from gedolim etc. and 3) "ameilus" does not really refer to hours spent looking around for the right sefer or trying to figure out a translation. He called that bittul zman (wasting time).

My question is: what is true ameilus or yegiah (exertion)?

Over the years, I've collected examples of people exerting themselves for a mitzva when their actions are ostensibly unnecessary:

The story of the Rebbe walking to get mayim sh'lanu (water for matza baking) when overtaken by another Rebbe in a wagon who asked him to join him on the wagon. The one walking said he didn't want to share the mitzva with a horse.

What is the justification for saying this? Would he really be sharing his mitzva with the horse if he rode rather than walked? And maybe if he conserved energy by riding, he could learn more Torah later on?

Or in "Guardian of Jerusalem", p. 134 , R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld says he doesn't want to get into the carriage because, "We are involved in saving a Jew's life. I prefer to perform this mitzva on my own, without the help of a carriage."

Or R' Y.Y. Herman ("All for the Boss"), who got out of the wagon to walk in the mud to the Chofetz Chaim.

Or Chasidim walking to their Rebbe instead of riding, or walking to the Kosel (in a story written by Meir Wikler) which took all day for Reb Elya. Was that a waste of time? Maybe he should have taken a taxi and spent the rest of the day learning?

Or the Terumas Ha'Deshen (who precedes the Beis Yosef and is constantly quoted) who objected to the "lazy susan" (a revolving platform) in the beis medrash to make it easier to get sefarim. He certainly wouldn't approve a Torah CD Rom!

Then there is the Gemara in  Menachos about the rav who went to talmid to learn something he (the rav) forgot. Why did he go to the talmid rather than the talmid going to his teacher? Because the yegia would help him.

more examples to follow

May 28, 2014

What Was Gained?

There's a pattern in history which puzzles me. To give some recent examples: Hashem imposes Communism on vast areas which contain millions of Jews. Judaism and its observance is forbidden. This goes on for about seventy years, and countless Jews are lost to their people by marrying out and death. The rest know next to nothing about Judaism.

Then the Iron Curtain comes down and Judaism is slowly being revived.

So what was the point of taking it away, only to bring it back decades later?

Another example: Hashem makes life in Eastern Europe so miserable with poverty, persecution and pogroms that millions of Jews emigrate to America where most of them drop Yiddishkeit. Now we have kiruv organizations bringing back the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those original Jews to Judaism. So why take it away to begin with?

Yemenites and most Jews from North African countries lived religious or at least traditional lives. Then they were taken to Israel or had to flee to Israel and had Yiddishkeit torn away from them by their fellow Jews, r'l. Now we are being mekarev their children and grandchildren. So what was the point in G-d arranging for their Yiddishkeit to be taken away, only to give it back years later after so much fall-out?
This is mostly a rhetorical question since we cannot know the ways of Hashem, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts."  There is the idea of a "descent for the sake of an ascent," though I cannot see how it applies here. 

May 27, 2014

Results or Effort?

Nowadays, when it comes to test results (and June is around the corner) the emphasis on results is often decried, with the new view maintaining that effort is what counts.

I disagree with this view. I think that's what tests are for, to see if you have mastered the material. Some master it more easily than others, but the point of tests is to measure mastery of the material.  For example, either you pass your driving test or you fail.  Effort doesn't count.

How much effort someone puts into mastering classroom material is another matter. Years ago you got marked for your mastery of a subject and there was a separate grade for effort or shekida though did you ever wonder how teachers were supposed to assess the amount of effort you put in?

On the one hand the mishna in Avos says, "it's not for you to finish the work, nor are you free to desist from it" which would support the position that effort is what counts, not results.

We also know that a good thought is reckoned like an action.

On the other hand, if a person tries to obtain matza (or an esrog etc.) for Pesach and doesn't manage to get any, although Heaven will give him credit for trying, he didn't do the mitzva and did not bring about the spiritual results of a mitzva! This supports the position that results are what count, and effort, though laudable, is not good enough.

Process or results ...

May 23, 2014

The Yeshiva Myth

According to the "yeshiva world," the "Yeshiva Movement," as they call it, is attributed to the Gra because his talmid, R' Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) started a yeshiva. His yeshiva is considered the " Mother of All Yeshivos," as though yeshivos didn't exist before he started his own. This is untrue of course, as anybody who has read any historical accounts knows, and I'm not talking about the yeshivos in Sura and Pumbedisa in Gemara times or the yeshiva of Shem and Ayver ...

But this is part of the Litvish worldview, that they invented yeshivos and modern day learning, with the proper "derech," and all.

The Maharal (1520-1609) had a yeshiva.

Pinsk had a yeshiva. R' Shimon, a colleague of the renowned Maharshal (1510-1574), headed this yeshiva. After his passing, his son R' Refael succeeded him. When R' Moshe Yaffe became rav of Pinsk, he was also appointed head of the yeshiva."

There were yeshivos in Ostrohe, Brisk, Slutzk, Minsk, Vilna, Cracow, and Prague. [yes, I know some of these are Lithuanian towns. The point is they existed before the Volozhiner yeshiva.]
There were renowned yeshivos in Lublin in the time of the Maharsha (1555-1631) and the Maharam (1558-1616). The latter headed yeshivos in Lublin, Cracow, and Lvov, and had hundreds of talmidim.

The Maharshal (1510-1573) headed a great yeshiva in Lublin.
Likewise, later on, around the time of W.W. II, there were dozens of yeshivos in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania that had nothing to do with the Lithuanian yeshivos.
I found it very interesting that outside the yeshiva in Pressburg, the yeshiva of Pupa was the most organized and biggest yeshiva in all of Europe.

When the Nazis closed the yeshivos in Czechoslovakia, there was an overflow of boys on a waiting list for this yeshiva. In 1942 the yeshiva was already severely overcrowded; about 350 students were occupying rooms intended for 250. These were students 18 and older. (taken from an account of someone who learned there in 1942)

I grew up hearing about the Mir, Slobodka, Kelm, Baranovitch, and Radin but Pupa? Don't recall that it was even mentioned ...

I don't see how the structure and curriculum of the yeshiva of Volozhin, were unique. How did it differ from any of the yeshivos mentioned above? Why does it deserve the title "Mother of All Yeshivos?"

May 21, 2014

More on Health and Hishtadlus

follow-up to previous post

I have read many times where someone in Eretz Yisrael, when asked about living in a dangerous place or during war time, responded with: If my time is up, it's up no matter where I am.

That sounds correct because we know that Dovid Ha'Melech, for example, was allotted a certain number of years, and so too, for all of us.

However, on Rosh Hashana we say, "You apportion a set time for all Your creatures ... who will live and who will die; mee b'kitzo u'mee lo b'kitzo - who will die at his predestined time and who before his time ..."

Oh, so there is such a thing as dying before your designated time.  How does that happen? By smoking? Not using a seatbelt? By consuming sugar and not enough vegetables? By being sedentary?

"Ein somchin al ha'neis" - we do not rely on miracles.  It is easy to explain this by saying, don't cross a major highway blindfold.  The problem is, when it comes to ordinary activities, we each decide what our definition of "reasonable" is.  For some people, it is not normal to do an activity just for the sake of exercise; they think that going about one's normal activities is enough.  Others regularly walk, swim, cycle, and take an exercise class for their health.  Some people think nutritional supplements are a must; others think it's enough to eat a balanced diet (and they decide what a balanced diet is).  Some think having an annual physical and screening tests are the norm while others don't visit a doctor unless a particular reason to do so arises. 

We pick what is comfortable for us, what we like doing, and if we are obedient and disciplined types we do as current medical knowledge advises (although doctors contradict one another), and it's usually a combination of these.  And then we think we are "balanced" and doing the right thing.  And we feel in control.  And we're not.

a related post: here

May 20, 2014

On Health and Hishtadlus

I've been pondering hishtadlus in health matters.  I know that taking care of one's health is a mitzva (Devarim 4:15) so I do many things in this regard.  At the same time, I know about numerous situations in which a person made efforts to take care of him or herself and they experienced illness or injury in that very area. 

For example, being careful on the steps, holding on to the bannister, and falling anyway.  Doing a screening test faithfully and getting that disease anyway.

Even as Hashem enjoins us to take care of ourselves, He lets us entertain no illusions that we are in control.  Because if we think we are, He reminds us that we're not. 

So where does that leave us? It leaves me feeling unsettled.  I know the proper outlook is to think I do my part and Hashem runs the show.  The Chovos Ha'Levavos talks about this. 

It can be hard to maintain this way of thinking because human nature is such that we either 1) go overboard in taking steps to maintain our health * or 2) we are more lackadaisical about it.  To get it just right, i.e. to take the right steps while believing nothing is up to me; it's all up to Hashem, is an avoda.

So sometimes, when I am careful about how I bend down, for example, holding on and bending carefully, I think how sensible I am; but then I think - who am I kidding? I've heard so many cases of "freak" accidents, of missteps, of unexpected and sudden falls and illnesses.  Do I think I can avoid injury because of my awareness and taking care? But we have to be aware and take care ... And so I keep pondering.

* the same goes for parnassa

May 19, 2014

Mushy Nougat Chips

I'm not sure what this is a mashal for; maybe you can tell me.

I have a bottle of nougat chips.  I saw that some had melted and stuck together just by being in the pantry.  I shook the bottle, thinking that would knock them apart.  I did not pay close attention so when I didn't see the desired result, I shook it again. 

This time, to my dismay, I saw what was happening when I shook the bottle - even more nougat chips stuck together until they had formed a mass of chips!

I then spent time prying and cutting them apart and stuck the bottle of mangled chips in the freezer (the fridge would have done just as well).

So my efforts to achieve a desired result, caused the exact opposite result.  And what did I do? I continued the same, not futile but counter-productive action! Then I caught on.  And the nimshal is?

May 15, 2014

Think: How would I react if I was asked this question

Eliezer Krohn tells a story about his brother who was on a transatlantic flight.  You are able to put items in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you.  The person sitting behind him had brought along a lot of food which he put under his brother's seat and he asked his brother, "Can you do me a favor and not sleep throughout the flight?'

Why did he ask him this? Because you are not supposed to sleep with food underneath the bed.  Now, this was an 11-12 hour flight! His brother said, "I have a better idea.  How about we keep it under your seat ...."  The person said no, because then it would be hard to reach.

Can we imagine ever saying something comparable to this? We react with incredulity that someone could be so dense and insensitive, but as R' Krohn said, he's sure the person is not a bad person, but sometimes you need sechel and sometimes you are just so focused on yourself that you are oblivious to others.