Work at Aleph Beta!

2 Positions currently open. See job descriptions below and email info@alephbeta.org with your resume to apply.

Internships (not related to the job descriptions) in production, Biblical research, graphic design, and video editing are also available.

Marketing Director

Marketing Coordinator Job Purpose: In this cross-functional role, you’ll be able to learn a lot, and will have exposure to all levels of the organization.  Our Marketing Coordinator will work closely with production, tech-team, and customer service. You will be responsible for researching, developing, and executing marketing opportunities and plans.

(This is worth reading: http://thenextweb.com/insider/2013/05/05/the-actual-difference-between-growth-hacking-and-marketing-explained)

Marketing  Director Job Duties:

  • Set up and run A/B Tests (Optimizely, UserTesting.com, etc.)

  • Run usability tests

  • Opens customer accounts by recording account information.

  • Recommends potential products or services to management by collecting customer information and analyzing customer needs.

  • Prepares product or service reports by collecting and analyzing customer information.

  • Understands and Optimizes the funnel of viewers, email registrants, paid subscribers, and conversions along the way

  • Runs Social Media Accounts and establishes a presence for our brand

  • SEO

  • Creates and manages email blasts

  • Contributes to team effort by accomplishing related results as needed.

Skills/Qualifications:

  • Decent Excel Skills

  • Basic HTML/CSS/JS skills

  • SEO

  • Willingness to learn what you don’t already know

Customer Service Representative

Customer Service Representative Job Purpose: Serves customers by providing product and service information; resolving product and service problems. Prepares reports to technical and marketing teams to give organization a sense of how customers are working with product.

Customer Service Representative Job Duties:

  • Attracts potential customers by answering product and service questions; suggesting information about other products and services.

  • Opens customer accounts by recording account information.

  • Maintains customer records by updating account information.

  • Resolves product or service problems by clarifying the customer’s complaint; determining the cause of the problem; selecting and explaining the best solution to solve the problem; expediting correction or adjustment; following up to ensure resolution.

  • Maintains financial accounts by processing customer adjustments.

  • Recommends potential products or services to management by collecting customer information and analyzing customer needs.

  • Prepares product or service reports by collecting and analyzing customer information.

  • Contributes to team effort by accomplishing related results as needed.

Skills/Qualifications: Customer Service, Product Knowledge, Quality Focus, Problem Solving, Market Knowledge, Documentation Skills, Listening, Phone Skills, Resolving Conflict, Analyzing Information , Multi-tasking

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Download MP3s at the Brand New Aleph Beta Shop!

Years ago, back in the olden days, Rabbi Fohrman recorded hundreds of hours of lectures on tapes. As tapes became mp3s and mp3s became videos, we decided to open the archives to our users to take advantage of these incredible lectures.

Thanks to your support, we’re now able to announce the grand opening of our Online Shop!

audio and docs

Our Available Products

Books:
Have you read: “The Beast that Crouches at the Door” or “The Queen You Thought You Knew?” What are you waiting for?!

Audios:
Rabbi Fohrman’s lectures on mp3s. From the 3-part series to the 20-part series.

Audios with Supporting Materials:
The lectures on mp3s + pages and pages of outlines, highlighted texts, source-sheets, and all kinds of goodies, created by Rabbi Fohrman himself!

Teacher’s Guides:
Many of our video courses come with Teacher Guides with educational goals, “points-to-pause,” supplementary assignments, source sheets, and outlines. Our Parsha guides are generally simpler, and our longer courses are quite robust. This is an excellent source for academic studies.

*Unfortunately, at this time, it’s not possible to buy individual lectures, or lectures without documents.

Subscriber Benefits

At Aleph Beta, we’re doing our best to continue to provide you with outstanding features to make Torah-learning easier, more engaging, and convenient. Additionally, we’re contributing even more resources to putting out tons of new content for our users! Your support enables us to provide you with all of these great products.

For our “Thanks,” we are excited to offer a 66% discount to our subscribers on our digital products and unlimited streaming of our audio library! Another reason to subscribe? You bet!

Note: If the shop doesn’t automatically grant you the 66% discount, you can request a coupon code next to the product you are looking to purchase, and follow instructions on the site. Make sure to input the code before purchasing in order to receive the discount.

What’s Next?

In our valued tradition of giving something to everyone for free, we will continue adding more videos and audios to our library for free streaming at an hour per month. Subscribers will continue to have unlimited free streaming.

Stay tuned for some exciting updates to our library, some new features for our subscribers, and the release of new Purim series coming soon!

Shop Now!

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Happy Anniversary!

By Immanuel Shalev
Chief Operating Officer

Esther (1)

Since it is Purim Katan this evening, we thought we’d celebrate this special occasion with you all by sharing a bit of exciting Aleph Beta history.

 

Purim is a very special holiday for us, because at this time last year, we took the first steps toward making our videos more engaging – shorter, more fun, and with powerful, relatable messages. The videos that you are now used to: 10 minute parsha videos, and 4-part series for a holiday, descended from 3 to 5 hour lectures and from hundreds of pages of notes in the mind of Rabbi David Fohrman.

 

Rabbi Fohrman isn’t just an incredible teacher of Torah – he is one of the most creative and tech-savvy Rabbis you will ever meet. A couple of years ago, after the rising success of Khan Academy, Rabbi Fohrman wondered if the visual medium might be perfect for his material. After all, describing chiasms and pointing to intertextual parallels relies on the student to take him at his word. That wasn’t good enough for Rabbi Fohrman. Armed with screencasting software and some tutorials, Rabbi Fohrman started to teach his Genesis material through illustrative video.

 

Rabbi Fohrman scribbled on the screen, picked out his own music and images, and spent hours putting together videos that added another dimension to his teachings. And he didn’t stop at one video – no, Rabbi Fohrman sat and created 60 videos to teach his Genesis material and worked through another 80 for “part 1” of his Yosef material.

 

At the beginning stages of Aleph Beta, our video editors merely cleaned up the videos that Rabbi Fohrman created. At Purim-time last year, in an effort to give Rabbi Fohrman more time to research, develop and teach his material, our incredibly talented video editors decided to take a crack at building videos from scratch, using only Rabbi Fohrman’s audio. The Purim video series was our first major success, taught in over 25 schools and viewed by over 14,000 people.

Our video editing team has been improving their game with each video, taking the words of Rabbi Fohrman’s lectures, capturing the main essence of his teaching, and creating the most powerful medium for its delivery. We now have an incredible team of excited young professionals working with Rabbi Fohrman on developing content, editing, producing videos, developing our web-offerings, and distributing the material to schools and adult-ed programs. Our material is being studied in more than 100 schools, and by 100,000 people throughout the world. We’re continuing our popular holiday and parsha series, and hope to expand our library of topics each month.

 

Ultimately, we’re still doing what we do because of you, our fans. We all love coming to work everyday because we think that Rabbi Fohrman’s methodology and Torah content is incredible. And it makes us even more excited when we get the kind of feedback that you all share with us each week.

 

So as Purim approaches, and in anticipation of this year’s new Purim course, take a walk down memory lane and enjoy last year’s course: The Hidden Story of Queen Esther.

 

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The Mystery of Place: Reflections on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife

An Epilogue to Our Parshat Tetzaveh Video

I want to take a few minutes to share with you a thought that moved me this week. It appeared in the comments to our parsha video, and was contributed by a fellow who identified himself only as Avi. Here’s the background to his idea.

 

In this past week’s parsha video, I talked about the paradox embodied by the mishkan, the tabernacle. It is a place in our three-dimensional world for the One who transcends those dimensions. God, the creator, lives outside the world that He creates. He is not bound by the rules of physics that He created – nor is He bound by the categories of space and time that form the matrix of our existence. He is beyond all this; He is transcendent.

 

I mentioned on the video that the Sages, in Bereishit Rabbah, allude to all this with a cryptic aphorism: Why, they ask, is God called “The Place”? Because God is the place of the world; and the world is not His place. What could they possibly mean by that?

 

I suggested that they meant that God’s place is not in this world; that is, space and time is not the environment in which God “swims,” as it were. The Almighty is not a physical entity that needs a “place.”Nevertheless, God does have a relationship to our physical world. He is the “place,” so to speak, for that world.

 

To understand this, we need to think more deeply about what we mean by the word “place.” What does this notion really mean to us? A place is a vessel in space and time in which something exists. It is the environment that holds something. In our universe, something doesn’t exist unless it has a place. But let’s stop thinking about that which is ‘in’ our universe. What of our universe itself? What is the place for that?

 

That place – that ‘environment’ – would be God.

 

The Consolation of Place

So here’s what Avi had to say. He called attention to the fact that there are many appellations for God in our tradition. On occasion we call God the ‘Master of the Universe.’ Sometimes, we call God ‘The Holy One Blessed be He.’ On rare occasions we speak of God as ‘The Place.’ What quality do those occasions have?

 

One of the times we speak of God this way is when tragedy strikes, when we are mourning our dead. The traditional statement that one makes on taking leave of a mourner refers to God as ‘The Place”:

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shaar avalei tziyon v’yerushalayim…

May “The Place” comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem…

Similarly, when we add a prayer for our brethren in trouble, we say:

Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael hanetunim batzara . . . .HaMakom yerachem…”

Our brothers who are faced with travail and difficulty… may The Place have mercy on them…

It seems that in times of trouble, our tradition tends to refer to the Almighty as ”The Place.” Why?

 

Avi suggests that there is something comforting about thinking of God as “The Place.” When we ponder the notion that God is not of our world, that He is transcendent, that He doesn’t live in our little fishbowl called the universe of space and time, there’s something lonely about it. God lives apart from us, and we want to be close to God. We want particularly to feel that closeness when times are hard, when darkness touches our lives. When life feels cold to us, when we mourn – we sometimes mourn more than we might know. In our sadness, perhaps we mourn not just the passing of a loved one, but something more basic: We fear that we are truly alone, that somehow, God is not with us. It’s just us and the cold, emptiness of the vastness of the universe.

 

Do we know there is a God? Yes. Do we believe His influence is felt in the world? Yes. But the idea that God exists in a realm apart from us is still a lonely idea. It’s like the five-year-old who must go to sleep in her dark room at night, all alone. She knows her parents are next door. She knows they won’t abandon her. But still, it is hard. It is lonely. The room feels vast and she feels small. Small, and alone.

 

It is in those times, and those times particularly, that we are called upon to think of God as “The Place.” That name for God tells us something, that our Parent in Heaven is in fact, very near. It tells us that we are not alone; our Parent holds us. We exist, as it were, within Him. Our Creator may not inhabit our world. But our Creator is more than our Maker; He is the place, the nurturing environment, in which we, and all that we know, exists. He is our place. In Him, we find our home.

 

“The Place”: Implications for Life After Death

Taking these ideas just one step further, it seems to me that there are profound ramifications for how we might think of life after death. Death is scary. It is our confrontation with the great beyond, the moment at which we leave the comforting familiarity of space and time and confront What Comes Next.

 

No one really knows what comes next, and that makes it frightening. Unknown journeys, by their nature, evoke angst. But it seems to me that the notion of God as Place should be of some comfort to us. In that regard, allow me to share with you a piece of writing sent along to me by two good friends, Morris Smith and Andrew Herenstein. It seems to me a restatement, in a way, of ideas that appear in the classic Jewish work on death and dying, Gesher HaChayim (section III). I don’t know the original author of this beautiful piece, but I found it quite profound. Here it is:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

The other replies, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery.

Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense,” says the other. “There is no life after delivery. What would that life be?”

“I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths.”

The other says: “This is absurd! Walking is impossible. And eat with our mouths? Ridiculous. The umbilical cord supplies nutrition. Life after delivery is to be excluded. The umbilical cord is too short.”

“I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here.”

The other replies, “No one has ever come back from there. Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery it is nothing but darkness and anxiety and it takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” says the other, “but certainly we will see Mother and she will take care of us.”

“Mother??” You believe in mother? Where is she now?”

“She is all around us. It is in her that we live. Without her there would not be this world.”

“I don’t see her, so it’s only logical that she doesn’t exist.”

To which the other replied, “Sometimes when you’re in silence you can hear her, you can perceive her.”

I believe there is a reality after delivery and we are here to prepare ourselves for that reality.

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Crashing the Wedding Party

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One of the downsides of creating any work that ensconces an idea – whether book, video, audio recording or what have you – is that you don’t get a second crack at it once it is published. The idea is gone, separated from you and out in the world – and you can’t just “reel it back in” for fine-tuning.

 

At least, so it was until the creation of blogs.

 

A blog, I think, can give a writer a second crack at the bat. At least, that’s what I’d like to try to use this blog post for – a second chance at the bat at Parshat Yitro.

 

Last week, we released a video on Parashat Yitro. It gave rise to some fantastic discussion on our note boards (and on Aish). I want to highlight some of those posts and address them – and in the process, try to clarify and refine some of the ideas I raised. But a quick warning: The implications are not all so terribly sunny. There are some dark possibilities here as well, so let the adventurous reader be forewarned!

 

Let me begin by summarizing my central thesis on the video:

Yitro I and Yitro II: Parallel Stories?

 

In the Yitro video, I took the position that there seemed to be an intriguing correspondence between Moshe’s first encounter with his father-in-law Yitro, and Moshe’s second encounter with him. The latter encounter, of course, takes place in the aftermath of the Jews’ salvation at the Sea of Reeds. I went so far as to suggest that these two stories so closely aligned with one another that they constitute “parallel narratives” as it were.

 

Now, a word of caution here: Whenever one might suggest that two narratives are genuine “parallels” of one another – i.e. that the Torah actually means for us to understand them this way – it is not really enough to cite one or two things about the stories that seem to be similar. One or two similarities might just be the product of coincidence. Indeed, to really make the case, you need to show similarities that are fairly numerous and compelling. Failing that, your argument can be fairly easily dismissed with a wave of the hand.

 

So with that in mind, let us examine the available evidence.

 

Let’s take a moment to run through what happens the first time Moshe meets Yitro. In that encounter, a savior [Moshe], had just saved a potential victim [the daughters of Yitro] from enemies. Right after that, Yitro encounters the ones who were saved [namely, his daughters] — and in that encounter, the “saved persons” tell Yitro exactly what happened; that is, how the savior saved them. Following that, Yitro tells his daughters: “Why did you leave the man where he is? Call him and let’s break bread with him!” Following Yitro’s feast with “the savior”, the next thing you know, is that the savior marries the saved: Yitro gives the hand of his daughter in marriage to Moshe.

 

OK, and now let’s go to the second encounter between Moshe and Yitro, chapters later. Here is what happens there:

 

A savior [God], had just saved a potential victim [the Jewish People] from enemies [the Egyptian army]. After that, Yitro encounters a representative of the one who was saved. That representative is Moshe [who is part of the Jewish People]. In that encounter, Moshe, tells Yitro exactly what happened – how God saved them. And then, as if on cue, Yitro responds with: “Let’s sit down and have a feast”. Just as before, Yitro “invites” the Savior to join in the feast – he offers offering, and eats “in the presence of God”.

 

And now, let us ask: What happens next?

 

My conclusion on the video, was that if these parallels are real, the next thing that should happen in the chain of parallels is some sort of event that corresponds to the marriage between Moshe and the Daughter of Yitro.

 

Indeed, in what I’ve come to call “YItro II” – the second encounter between Moshe and Yitro — the next event we witness is Moshe judging the people who come to “seek out God” by virtue of their arguments. They want to know what God thinks of their disputes, how God will settle them. I suggested that perhaps this very event – this “seeking out of God” – is a kind of connection between God and Humanity, a connection sealed and consecrated by Divine Law. This constitutes a kind of “marriage” in the text between the Savior and the Saved. The Savior is God. The Saved is the Jewish People. They are now connecting deeply in a loving way. They are married. The ring, as it were, is the Divine Law.

OK; I See That; but is it Real?

Now comes the moment of truth: Was that all real, or just idle homiletics?

 

I’d say that the parallels described above are certainly suggestive – but I do concede that they leave room for reasonable doubt. One could counter that perhaps this is all the product of coincidence (and Fohrman’s overactive imagination). So let me to try and flesh out the argument just a little bit more. Let me show you a couple other points of correspondence that didn’t make it into the video version of this…

 

Remember the first time Moshe meets Yitro? If you look carefully at the text (Exodus 2:19), you’ll find that his daughters recount three things to him. They tell him that:

 

  • The savior [Moshe] saved them from enemies.

  • They then tell their father that the savior went on to provide for them in other ways, drawing water from a well.

  • Finally, they tell how Moshe then gave their thirsty flock of sheep water to drink.

 

Now let’s go to the corresponding point in “Yitro II”.

 

It turns out that when Moshe tells Yitro how God saved the people, he actually says, in effect, three things, too. Not only that, but each of the three things appear to correspond to the three things the daughters said in “YItro I”.

 

What does Moshe say in Yitro II? Well, first, he tells Yitro that a savior [God] saved has the people from Pharoah and the Egyptian army. OK, that corresponds to what the girls told father about a savior saving them from enemies. But now, ask yourself: How, exactly did God effect that salvation? How did God save the people from the army of Pharoah? The answer is that He did so through the event we know as the Parting of the Sea. In that event, God took a single body of water, and drew some of the water away, making, in effect, two bodies of water…

 

So what does that remind you of in Yitro I?

 

Well, go back to what the daughters said to Yitro: “He drew water from the well for us… Think, now: What happens when a person draws water from a well? First, before lowering the bucket, all the water is in the well. Then, after you lower and raise the bucket, you draw part of the water away, making two bodies of water.

 

At the well, in an act of everyday kindness, Moshe drew a small body of water apart vertically.

 

At the splitting of the Sea, in an act of supernatural kindness, God drew a body of water apart horizontally, in the greatest miracle known to mankind.

The Third Correspondence

But let’s continue further. In “Yitro II”, Moshe goes on to tell of how the people met up with “travails on the way”, difficulties from which God saved them. Now, ask yourself: To what travail does Moshe refer?

 

Well, let’s see. Moshe had just spoken of God’s deliverance at the Sea of Reeds. What was the very next travail the Jews met up with in the desert? The answer is that the people thirsted for water, and there was none – so God provided them with water.

 

They came to Marah and couldn’t drink the water because it was bitter… and God showed Moshe a tree, and he threw it in the water, and sweetened the water for them… (Exodus 15:23-25).

 

Again, let’s go back to the corresponding event in ‘Yitro I’. What is the third thing the daughters told their father? It was that Moshe provided their thirsty flock water to drink.

 

In each case, the Savior provides water, allowing, as it were, a thirsty flock to drink. It is just that in one case, the Savior is human; in the other, the Savior is divine. In one case, the flock is comprised of sheep; in the other, it is comprised of the Jewish People as a whole…

Further Parallels, with a Twist

I said above that after the Feast of Yitro, the next thing that happens in both instances is that the Savior marries the Saved. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is something that happens in between. It has to do with Moshe “sitting”.

 

In “Yitro I”, Moshe sits and dwells with Yitro.

 

And Moshe was content to sit [lashevet] with the man. (Exodus 2:21).

 

And what about in “Yitro II”? Well, Moshe again sits – but he does not sit with Yitro; instead he sits to judge the people…

 

“Vayeshev Moshe lishpot ha’am…” (Exodus 18:13).

 

Parallel events continue to unfold here – but yet, something is happening differently this time. There is a divergence.

 

The divergence starts with the guest list for Yitro’s feast. In Yitro II, Moshe, strangely, is conspicuously absent from Yitro’s feast; one wonders: Where is he?

 

Lo and behold, we find him in the next verse “sitting” (just as he was in Yitro I) – but sitting not with Yitro but with the people, telling them of God’s laws. At this point, Yitro accosts him, telling him that what he’s doing is not a great idea:

 

“Why are you sitting here all alone, with the people standing over you from morning til evening?… It is not good this thing that you do… you cannot do it all alone…” (v. 14, 17, 18).

 

I’d like to add here an idea that didn’t appear in the video, due to lack of time. The idea is somewhat dark, and a viewer (she identifies herself as “Princess”) alluded to it in one of the comments that appear on our site. Let me quote her insightful words:

 

I am going to take the minority position that Yitro was a malevolent introduction into the bridal party rather than a positive one. Yitro hears about the deliverance of Israel while Moshe has [directly] heard from and seen the miracles of the Holy One. Now, I can understand that forty years of shepherding with his son-in-law probably leads Yitro to not view him as anything special, so once he shows up in the camp of Israel, it appears he decides to take over. …He sets up a court system that we never hear is validated from heaven, as God has his own plan…. Thoughts?

 

Well, “Princess” concluded by asking for my thoughts, so I will provide them here:

Crashing the Bridal Party?

My thoughts are that “Princess” may largely be right.

 

While I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize Yitro’s involvement as “malevolent”, there is indeed reason to wonder whether or not we are witnessing something of a tragedy in the making. For indeed, if the thesis I advanced above is correct, Moshe is telling Yitro that something special is happening between the people and God. It is not just about judging; it is about connection. There is a kind of marriage happening here.

 

But what is Yitro’s response to this?

 

Yitro, concerned about Moshe’s well-being, suggests instituting a large hierarchy of judges. What will this do? What will happen as a result?

 

Yitro suggests this in order to help Moshe in managing what seems like a crushing burden. It makes sense from an administrative standpoint, that is sure. But while his plan might provide relief for Moshe, it comes at an existential cost. It creates a new, intermediate position in what was otherwise a direct and intimate relationship. Yitro’s proposal creates something that intervenes between God and the people. There is now a new party to the marriage between God and the Jewish People. The network of intermediate judges is intervening between them.

Does the Text Support Such an Audacious Conclusion?

 

One second, you say: Are you telling me Yitro’s plan wasn’t a good idea? Are you suggesting this whole plan was something other than what should have taken place?

 

While that might seem a startling conclusion, there is strong evidence in the text for it. Listen carefully to Yitro’s words, again:

 

“Why are you sitting here all alone, with the people standing over you from morning ‘til evening?… It is not good this thing that you do… you cannot do it all alone…” (v. 14, 17, 18).

 

I’ve bold-faced a few words here. Look at those bolded words carefully, and ask yourself: What this reminds you of? Where else in the Torah do we hear language like this? Where else does someone say: “It is not good that someone be alone…” Where else does someone then try to create someone who will “help” that person, so that he will not be all alone?

 

The answer, of course, is that we are looking at language borrowed from the creation of Eve. The “someone” who creates the helper is none other than God:

 

And God said: It is not good that man is alone. I will make a helper alongside him… (Genesis 2:18).

 

The Torah seems to confirm our suspicions. We really are talking about marriage between God and the Jewish People here. It’s not just a figment of our imagination. It is real. And yet, at the same time, the Torah seems to be sending out a cautionary signal. What Yitro is proposing is, in effect, the creation of a new spouse in the relationship. No longer will it just be God and the Jewish People, in a relationship facilitated directly by Moshe. No, there will be someone else. New helpers. There will be intermediate judges, intervening in the relationship…

Echoes of Hagar

The notion of the judges being “new helpers” intervening in a marriage relationship, as it were, is reinforced by one last textual allusion — a quite chilling one.

 

At the very end of the story, where Moshe accepts Yitro’s advice, the text expresses Moshe’s assent using these words:

 

And Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in law (18:24).

 

The Hebrew for this is:

 

Vayishma Moshe lekol chotno… [Hebrew transliteration].

 

Now, let’s play our little game one last time: Where else have we heard this formula before? What else in the Torah does vayishma Moshe lekol chotno remind you of?

 

It turns out that this exact formula, “vayishma ‘x’ lekol ‘y’” [And ‘x’ listened to the voice of ‘y’], appears only one other time in the entire Five Books of Moses.

 

When is that time?

 

The only other time that language appears in when Abraham assents to Sarah’s suggestion that he consort with Hagar, instead of her, to father a child:

 

And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah… (Genesis 16:1).

 

Think about that earlier episode. A man is married to a woman. But then that woman suggests that he consort with another woman, instead, to achieve the all-important end of a child. And the man assents to that suggestion…

 

The comparison is indeed chilling. The Torah seems to hint that “Princess” might well be right. The intermediate judges may have offered administrative support for Moshe – but at what price did that support come? Could it have compromised what could have been, should have been, a direct, intimate relationship?

 

I’ve already gone on quite long enough in this blog post – but for readers interested in hearing more about my theory concerning the startling repercussions of Yitro’s judges, I invite you to listen to an audio course we just posted on our site: “Why Couldn’t Moshe Enter the Land?” In that series, I’ve explored these issues in depth, and charted what I believe to be their repercussions.

 

The series is a long one – it is seven lectures. The first three deal with other ideas; the last ones, the fourth through seventh, I believe deal with these issues extensively.

 

Take a listen and let me know what you think. I believe you’ll find it quite intriguing.

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“Great D’var Torah! But What Are Your Sources?”

 

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By Rabbi David Fohrman

 

So here’s a note that I received recently from one of our loyal Parsha viewers. I thought I would share it with you and take a moment to respond:

 

“Rabbi Fohrman’s Parsah thoughts are brilliant & insightful. I just wonder are there any sources for his theories and if yes why do you not quote them?

Thank you so much…”

(name withheld)

 

So here’s my response: I do work with other sources – and I do mention them when I work with them; it is how I synthesize those sources that is original. So, for example, in our video on Parshat Vayechi, I refer to Rashi and to comments made by the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah. But how I synthesize those sources with the text – yes, that is original. Unless I state otherwise on any particular video, how it all comes together is nothing more or less than my way of seeing it. I am sharing with you, a reader of Chumash, how things seem to me, as a fellow reader of Chumash. We are two readers, trying to make sense of the text that stands before us. We are trying to understand “pshat” [the simple meaning of the text]. Any commentator we encounter – from Rashi, to the Ramban, to Seforno, to Hirsch and the Haamek Davar – is writing to you based on the assumption that you have already made an attempt to understand “pshat.” If you have not tried to do so yet, you are not ready to read the commentator – for indeed, you have not yet read the text that he or she is commenting upon.

 

Let me backtrack, for a moment, to a possible source of some confusion on this matter.

 

Many of us have spent a great deal of time studying Gemara, over the years. When we study the Gemara, we are trained from a young age, in yeshiva, to defer to the opinions of sages greater than us, who have written on these matters many years before. To some extent, that deference owes itself to a recognition of the greatness, acumen, honesty, and spiritual loftiness of such earlier commentators. But it also owes itself to the idea of legal precedent. Studying Gemara is not just an intellectual pursuit, and it is not just a spiritual one. It is also a legal pursuit. The Gemara is concerned with settling questions of law – and in questions of law, precedent matters. It matters in Jewish law, and it matters in American law. It matters in almost every system of law that one could imagine.

 

When legal matters – halachah – are not at stake, Jewish tradition has always recognized the right of all readers, in every generation, to look at the text themselves and to try to decide, to the best of their abilities, what it is that they think the text means. It is always up to individuals to read “pshat”, to try to discern for themselves what they think the simplest, most true meaning of any text is. One simply cannot read a text and fail to make these decisions; to do so is just to read words without attempting any sense of comprehension, and it is an abdication of one’s basic responsibility as a reader. The very idea of “reading comprehension” implies an attempt to comprehend – to synthesize – the words, sentences and paragraphs that lie before you and in some sort of way, ask yourself what they all add up to. This is what we all do when we read. And it is what I do, when I read, too. This is what I am sharing with you in these videos: My best attempts to make sense of what the pieces add up to.

 

If it is Really New, it is Wrong

 

I should really say another thing though, about “originality” in my work. When I say that, typically, the ideas that I put forth on the videos are “original”, which is to say, they originate with me – that’s true in one sense, and it’s not true in another. The sense in which it is not true, is that I’m not trying to dream things up; I’m not really the point of origin for the ideas. The text is. That is, I’m trying to share with you something that I think the text is saying. Ultimately, if I am right, it is the text that is speaking to you more than I am. I’m just a guide, not an originator. If, in truth, I am really originating something – if it comes from me and not from the text – then I have failed. Then, I am actually wrong. In order for theory that I put out there to be correct, it has to, in retrospect, seem “obvious.” If it does not seem obvious, or at least compelling on the merits of the text – then it should be rejected.

 

The Role of Midrash

 

The above take on things is somewhat oversimplified, because the truth is, much of what I do, in fact, involves commentary quite heavily. I am often attempting to synthesize a kind of commentary – Midrashic commentary – with the Biblical text. (Our video on Parshat Vayechi is a good example of this.) Midrash is typically difficult to understand, and it tends to speak in riddles. But if one can piece together its meaning, I believe that one finds, more often than not, that Midrash provides an astoundingly insightful way of synthesizing the larger meaning of Biblical text. For those of you interested in a more detailed look at Midrash and how it can be read successfully, I refer you to Simi Peters excellent book, “Understanding Midrash” – and, to a lesser extent, to our upcoming video on Parshat Shemot. In the meantime, I wish you great success in your attempts, along with me, to discern the larger themes inherent in biblical text – to discern the beauty of each leaf, to understand how each is part of a tree, and to intuit the shape of the forest. To do, in short, what it is what the Almighty requires of us in reading His book.

 

Happy reading,

Rabbi David Forhman

 

Make sure to check out the 10 Minute Parsha Video on Shemot: If Midrash Is Real, Why Isn’t It Pshat?

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A Powerful Biblical Tool…From Sesame Street

By Rabbi David Fohrman

 

Sesame Street

It strikes me that most of the tools we need to help us read Biblical text more clearly and more deeply — the kind of tools I use often in Aleph Beta videos — are actually very intuitive and commonsensical. So intuitive and commonsensical, I would say, that it is almost as if everything you need to know to understand the Bible, you learned in kindergarten. A lot of time, these tools remain kind of behind the scenes on our videos, so I wanted to take a couple moments with you, in writing, to profile one of the approaches to text that I find really valuable. You’ll find, I think, that it is something you can use yourself from time to time — and, when you do, you may surprise yourself with the profundity of insight it leads you to uncover.

The ‘kindergarten-like’ tool I want to point out today is a device I like to call “which one of these things is not like the other?” Yes, you heard that right. If you remember Sesame Street back from those kindergarten days, you already know how to play — but for those of you who were deprived of Sesame Street in your youth, allow me to introduce you to the pleasures of this little exercise.

 

The way it used to work on Sesame Street is this: All of a sudden the screen divides into four segments. In each quarter of the screen you see some kind of object, and then the music starts to play. At this point, your mission, dear viewer (should you choose to accept it), was to identify which of the four object just doesn’t belong. In short, which of the four is just “not like the others.”

 

Something like that can happen as well, quite often, when we examine core Jewish texts. Every once in a while, as you read, you come across groups of ideas, things or places. And as you look at the group, you begin to hear that Sesame Street song play in the back of your mind. Most of the things seem to obviously fit in a certain category. But one of them doesn’t seem to fit.

 

Why might the Torah be goading us into playing this little game? Why include the fourth element if it doesn’t really fit? My sense is that the Torah does this as a way of conveying something unexpected and profound. It is the Torah’s way of saying: “You think that last element doesn’t fit? Look again. Things aren’t as they seem at first glance.”

 

From my own experience, I find that, usually, the last thing really does fit — it just doesn’t fit the way you first expected it to. If you can figure out how the last thing truly is part of the larger whole, it will lead you into a new and deeper understanding of both the whole category — and the apparently anomalous element’s place within it.

 

A good example of this ‘tool’ in action can be found on the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments on that tablet seem to fall under the category of commands that govern man’s relationship to God. But the last command on the tablet, to honor your father and mother, is apparently anomalous. Last I checked, your parents are people. What are they doing on a tablet that is supposed to be about my relationship with God?

 

The answer might well be that the category name needs to be refined. The tablet might not be about “relationships between people and God,” as tempting as that title may seem. The tablet might actually be about something else, about something larger. Yes, we have a heavenly creator, God, and earthly creators, parents. The first tablet tells us how to honor both.

 

I want to challenge you to play our game in this week’s parsha. T the whole parsha is about the story of Joseph, right? He is the main character; it all revolves around him. Or…almost all of it. There is an entire chapter that just doesn’t seem to belong. And that is chapter 38.

 

Chapter 38 details the long and involved story of Yehudah and Tamar. The story is entirely centered on Yehudah and his life, and seems to have

Judah and Tamarnothing whatsoever to do with Joseph. So the question is: What is it doing here? Right after the Sale of Joseph occurs, when Jacob’s house seems to be in utter disarray, and the reader is waiting to see what happens next with Joseph — we get a long, extended digression into the life of Yehudah. And then, just as suddenly, it’s back to Joseph. Chapter 39 picks up with the story of Joseph, as if we had never left it.
Why is the Torah doing this? What does Chapter 38 have to do with the price of tea in China, as it were? The Sesame Street music is starting to play. What do you think the answer is? Leave us your answers in the comments below. And if you’d like to hear mine, check out our new Aleph Beta course on the life of Yehudah, entitled “Judah: A Perpelexing Character.”

 

Shabbat Shalom!

 

This Post was sponsored by Bonnie Septimus in loving memory of Shmuel Fishel ben Alexander Chaim, Eliezer Zvi ben Yosef Dov, Devorah bat Zvi Zelig, and Chaya Rachel bat Chaim Yitzchak

 

For Sponsorship Opportunities: http://alephbeta.org/donate

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The Sale of Joseph

Back in the olden days, when Rabbi Fohrman was creating his own videos without the help of professional video editors, he created a masterful course on the sale of Joseph. We’ve chosen to break that course up into its main themes, into four separate courses:

Part I: Joseph: Coats, Dreams and Jealousy

Part II: Joseph: A Matter of Perspective

Part III: The Sale of Joseph: Who is Responsible?

Judah: A Perplexing Character? – An Analysis of Judah and Tamar

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most well-known in the entire Bible. And yet, the story – for all its familiarity, for all its child-like simplicity — is darker than the one we might remember learning as a child. Indeed, a sober reading of the text reveals that this is no child’s story at all. What are we to make of this story of near-fratricide? What enduring meaning does it hold out to us?

Join as and explore these courses on your own, or gather together with a group of friends or family to explore the text on your own, grapple with the questions and ideas posed by Rabbi Fohrman in this incredible video series.

 

JosephJoseph- A Matter of Perspective

Joseph- Who is Responsible_ Judah and Tamar
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Musings from Rabbi Fohrman Vol. 6

Musings from Rabbi David Fohrman
The Cherubs’ Secret: The Final Installment of the Kohelet Series 

A mentor of mine, Rabbi Joseph Leibowitz, once shared with me a fascinating insight – or at least I found it fascinating – about the nature of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.

 

The Tree of Life, as it turns out, has a counterpart. The original tree becomes off-limits to mankind after we eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Angels known as cherubs are stationed outside the Garden of Eden, to guard the way back to the Tree of Life – and to ensure that mankind never returns.

But strangely, these angels reappear one more time in the five books of Moses. Two cherubs adorn of the top of the Ark of the Covenant. It is the only other time we meet cherubs in the entire Torah. And what are these cherubs, the second set of angels, guarding? It turns out that they are guarding a Tree of Life too.

 

What, after all, is inside the Ark of the Covenant? It is the tablets upon which are inscribed the 10 Commandments, the blueprint for God’s Torah. Later on, in the Book of Proverbs, the Torah is described as a Tree of Life. We say it in Synagogue every week as we raise the Torah scroll aloft: it is a Tree of Life for all grab who hold of it.

 

Interesting. The original tree of life is guarded by cherubs. The next Tree of Life is also guarded by cherubs. Seemingly, the same angels that keep us away from the first of tree of life grant us access to the second one. The second pair of angels shelter us within the embrace of the Tree of Life.

 

But all this gives rise to a basic question. In what sense are the two Trees of Life similar? Yes, it is true that they share a name. But merely sharing the name of something does not really matter unless you share a piece of the essence as well. In what way are these two trees the same?

 

Here is the answer suggested to me by Rabbi Leibowitz:

 

The original tree of life granted eternity to those who eat of its fruits. The Torah surely does not give us this; it doesn’t let us live forever. We all die, even the greatest Torah scholars. So what does the Torah do, if it does not grant us the ability to live forever?

 

The answer is, it gives us the ability to live with forever.

 

After Eden, there is only one being that embodies forever. That being is God. By studying Torah, living it – grabbing hold of it and not letting go – we attain a bond, a connection, with the Eternal One. In the words of the old Prudential commercial, we get a piece of the rock.

 

Connection with forever provides a kind of answer to the problem of success. That answer is embodied in the Sukkah. At the moment of our greatest success, when the last uncertainty concerning the coming year’s crops fade away and we triumphantly gather our grain into our homes – at that moment, we leave our homes and go outside. We abandon the world of bricks and cement, the illusion of permanence, and we embrace the fragile transience of the Sukkah.

 

And what is meant to be our attitude in doing so? Sukkot is the holiday the Torah associates, more than any other, with unbridled joy. When you enter the sukkah in joy, you say, “So nothing in my world lasts? Fine. Nothing lasts! I embrace transience with delight, as I live in connection with permanence.”

 

The problem of success dogs us with worry: From whence will we find permanence? As long as we engage in that fruitless search, we shall be consumed with worry and dissatisfaction. Sukkot says: Enter the Sukkah, experience the loving shelter your Creator provides in a transient world – and revel in it.

 

Grab hold of the rock.

 

At the end, when all is said and done, fear God and do his mitzvot, for this is all of man.

 

In this penultimate verse of Kohelet, Solomon is getting at a fundamental truth. The problem of success isn’t supposed to have a solution in this world. That’s the whole point. The problem is a beacon meant to stretch our gaze towards the horizon. Because forever can’t be found in this world, the drive for attainment of forever leads us out of this world – it is a drive meant to bring humanity within shouting distance of the Almighty, of our Creator. 

 

And when we are in this space – feet firmly planted in this world, and hearts and voices raised towards the Ineffable beyond – we can look transience in the eye and yet overflow with joy de vivre.

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Musings from Rabbi Fohrman Vol. 5

Musings from Rabbi David Fohrman
Akeidah: Heroism or Murder

 

I wanted to take a break from our three-part series on Kohelet to answer a great question posted by a teacher in Akiva Day School in Detroit, Ariella Skoczylas. She showed our Parshat Vayeira 

video in class this week and she posted her question below. She asks:

 

So, I always enjoy these videos, but the message here frustrates me a bit, simply because it’s not possible to be fully committed and “there for” two opposing realities. If Avraham was there for Yitzchak, he wouldn’t kill him, and if Avraham was there for God, he would. We never know if Avraham would have really gone through with it, as God brought him a replacement sacrifice, but they are certainly walking up to the possibility of Yitzchak’s death. I always pictured it as a difficult time for Avraham, of course, but he WAS willing to sacrifice his son for God. It was a dual loyalty but at certain points, one loyalty had to win over…how could he truly be “there” for his son when he is willing to sacrifice him? It still doesn’t sit well with me.

 

Here’s my response: I agree with you regarding the points you make. Yes, it is true that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, in the end. Ariella asks: How do we square this with the points I make in the video concerning Abraham “being there” for his son, for both his son and God.

 

I treat this issue at greater length in another series you can find on our AlephBeta website,  “Akeidah: Heroism or Murder“, and I recommend you listen to that treatment. But let me make one or two points that summarize a few of the relevant themes that I elaborate there at greater length.

 

There is a basic problem that must be addressed concerning the Akeidah, before any other issues are considered. This problem is fundamental, and before you address this problem, nothing else about the Akeidah makes sense – including whatever points I made in the Vayeira video. And that problem is this: Was the Akeidah to be regarded an act of heroism, or an act of murder? In short: Was Abraham right in being willing to sacrifice his son, or was he wrong? If he’s right, he’s a hero; if he’s wrong, he’s an attempted murderer. So which is it?

 

It is clear from the Torah, that the Torah itself considers him to have been right in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. The possibility that he’s a murderer never seems to even be an issue in the story. The moral rectitude of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is simply taken for granted. As proof of this, simply consider what it is that the angel says in response to Abraham, as he raises the knife over his son: “Because you didn’t withhold your son, I will bless you greatly…”. This doesn’t seem like much of a condemnation of Abraham’s act on moral grounds. If, as some would argue, the point of the Akeidah is to underline that Abraham was wrong, that he shouldn’t have sacrificed Isaac, that the willingness to give a child back to God is immoral – then the angel simply said the wrong thing. The angel ought to have instead used his five minutes of fame to proclaim that Abraham, ‘nebach’, was misguided and that everyone should know for centuries going forward that he was wrong, that God can’t demand a child; that it is immoral, that Abraham shouldn’t have listened. The fact that the angel does not say this, but implicitly lauds Abraham instead, indicates that, in the view of the Torah, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice can’t be judged as wrong.

The question, though, is why? Why does the Torah take such a stance for granted.

 

So the answer to this is long and involved and I really recommend that you listen to the series I reference above for my take on this. But let’s just say, to keep it short and sweet, that Abraham (and Isaac) seem to have recognized a fundamental truth. Life is a gift. It is a gift given to us by God, our Creator. And the Creator holds the strings to that gift, and can take it back when He chooses.

 

Consider this: Why is God not the greatest murderer in the world? Every year, hundreds of millions of people die. They die at the hands of God. God could have saved them all, kept them living. The answer is that these are the terms on which the gift is given: You have life as long as I, the Creator, will that you keep living. It is understood that at some point, I take you back. God is the great Lifeguard in the Sky. When the lifeguard blows the whistle, it’s everyone out of the pool. It doesn’t make a difference that you’re having fun and want to stay in. 

 

Time’s up. Time to towel off, and get ready for the next great activity in the Journey of the Soul…

 

God alone has the prerogative to blow the whistle. Almost all the time, He blows the whistle himself. But what if once, just once, he hands the whistle to a human being and says ‘blow this for me; take Isaac out of the pool’ – is it immoral for the human being to do so? Clearly not. He’s acting on the Creator’s authority. He is nothing but the agent of the Creator. To bring it down to the earthly realm for a moment, we all understand that, if the State has the right to take a life through capital punishment, the executioner is not a murderer. He is acting as the agent of the State.

 

So the Torah never questions the morality of Abraham’s act. If the Creator says: “I want Isaac back now”, the Creator has the right to make that demand, to make that request. Why the Creator would do this is a whole separate question, a question I won’t get into here – but as for whether it is justifiable for Abraham to go through with this, clearly the answer is yes. That’s the ground level fundamental assumption I think we need to make before we consider anything else at all about the Akeidah.

 

Once we take for granted that Abraham is in the right to give Isaac back, that he is duty-bound, morally, to honor his Creator’s request, the question now becomes: How should he relate to Isaac in the face of this?

 

That’s the tricky question I’m trying to deal with in the video. A complicating factor in Abraham’s stance towards Isaac is that he really, truly, doesn’t know what’s going to happen on top of the mountain. For indeed, the command to sacrifice Isaac, even if it must be obeyed, doesn’t make any sense. Abraham doesn’t know, really, what’s going to happen on top of the mountain. So what is he supposed to do?

 

That’s the question the video is seeking to deal with. The argument I’m making is that merely because the Creator says I need to give you back, doesn’t mean that I psychologically sever my bonds to you, that I no longer am charged with being there for you. As for the uncertainty regarding what will happen at the top of the mountain – yes, there is uncertainty, but that is an uncertainty which God needs to figure out, not Abraham. Abraham’s duty is to be there, not relinquish his relationship to either God or his son, even as he negotiates the torturous path that lies before him.

 

Why does God ask this of him? Why is he being put through this? That’s a good question and beyond the scope of this (already too long) post. But if you’d like my answer to that, please listen to another audio series of mine we just released on our website, entitled “Phantom Akeidah: The Sacrifice of Ishmael“, where I treat this question in detail.

Our next musing will finish the three-part series on Kohelet! Share your thoughts and see you then.

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