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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Chanukah and Thanksgiving

Chanukah- Why do we celebrateWhen we put together our course in honor of Chanukah, we were primed to tackle the important questions: Why do we celebrate Chanukah? Why do we make such a big deal out of a relatively small miracle (oil lasting for 8 days), and how does Chanukah measure up against holidays like Pesach and Shavuot? We surprised ourselves when Rabbi Fohrman wove together an incredible course that answers all of these questions, and demonstrates how giving thanks is a central feature of Chanukah. So while we didn’t set out to create a course that provided the Torah perspective on Chanukah and Thanksgiving, we accidentally did just that!

 

So however you choose to celebrate Thanksgivingukkah, whether by making potato latkas with cranberry applesauce or pecan pie rugelach, we hope you enjoy this incredible course on Chanukah and on giving hallel v’hodaah. You will walk away with a clear understanding of the profound depth of the Chanukah miracles and their relevance to us, 2,000 years later.

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Musings from Rabbi Fohrman Vol. 4

Musings from Rabbi David Fohrman

 

King Solomon and the Problem of Success [the second in a series]

 

 

Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, as it is sometimes known, is a tough book to understand. It deals with a dizzying array of themes. What overall idea gives the book unity?


Answering this question is not so easy. I attended a lecture recently where a noted speaker argued that there is actually no unifying theme to the book — and that, indeed, its title attests to this. Kohelet is related to the Hebrew word “makhelah,” orchestra. He argued that Kohelet is a combination of many, many different voices, many instruments, all clamoring to be heard. They contradict one another in a cacophony of sound. There is no overall unifying voice.
My feeling is that an overall voice can indeed be found in the book. Even in an orchestra, the different instruments complement each other; together, they achieve some sense of order and unity. True cacophonies don’t sell CDs; symphonies sell CDs. There has to be a “center of gravity” in an orchestral piece for it to work. If Kohelet is an orchestra of voices, what is its “center of gravity”?

 

I’d like to propose an answer to that. I think the central problem Kohelet deals with is the problem of success.
Most of us aren’t all that bothered by Kohelet’s problem. Perhaps because we are, as yet, only moderately successful. But the more successful you are in life, the more you get bothered by it. What is the problem of success? It is the simple fact that nothing seems to last.

Think about it. The rich tend to be conservative, which means that they adhere to a policy that will attempt to “conserve” what it is that they have amassed. They want it to last.

 

At a certain point in life, when you’ve amassed enough money, enough power — or enough of whatever it is that you think constitutes success — a new question begins to gnaw at you. How do you keep what you’ve achieved? How do you make it last?
Many roadblocks stand in the way of making things last. One of the great roadblocks is death. As we age and gradually become more aware of the reality that we are mortal, successful people become increasingly preoccupied with the concern: How can we make our success last? Indeed, if we are to die, how can we make it outlast ourselves?

That is a vexing question, and it is the question that Solomon, the author of Kohelet, finds so irredeemably frustrating. Solomon was among the most successful of men who ever lived. He had riches, power — far beyond the imaginings of most of us. So the question of success burned ever brighter for him than for most of us. He summed up the problem in one word: Hevel.

 

The Hebrew word “hevel” is sometimes translated as “vanity,” but that’s not a very precise translation. It really means “that which evaporates.” Hevel denotes the steam that escapes your mouth on a cold day. You breathe it out and it’s gone. And that’s the way things go, Solomon observes, for most of our accomplishments. Time seems to erase all of them. You can be the richest, most powerful person in the world. You die, and a fool inherits your palace. You can build the largest, most impressive building. Time will eventually destroy that, too. One generation comes, another goes. That’s life. This world is in a constant state of flux.

That flux goes beyond the realm of mere things; it penetrates the world of human values too. Even our values don’t seem to have absolute permanence. They, too, shift with time. There is a time to rejoice and a time to mourn. A time to plant and a time to uproot. A time to build and a time to destroy. A time for peace and a time for war. All of this, Solomon assures us, is part of the great problem of hevel.

 

Nothing seems to make a permanent impact. This holds not only for the world of man, but for the realm of nature, too. It holds for all that exists upon our earth. All the rivers lead to the sea — but the sea is never full. Even the work of the rivers seems to fail to leave a lasting mark.

Kings, for all their fame, are not immune. At a certain point, Kohelet sardonically introduces himself to us. His words drip with irony: I am Kohelet the son of David; I was a king, once, in Jerusalem. He is addressing us, the modern reader. And he is acutely aware that we may not know who he is. How absurd it would have been to introduce himself thusly in his own day. Everyone would have known him. He was the nation’s greatest celebrity. But he knows that time will erase all that fame. Children today know the names of Spongebob Squarepants; they don’t know the name Solomon. Time erases his fame, too; he is quite certain of it.

How do we outlast ourselves in a world of “hevel,’ a world determined to slowly, inexorably, erase our footsteps?
That is Kohelet’s problem.
What is his answer? I believe that answer comes through in his last verses. When he advises us to “fear God”, he is not merely exhorting the successful man to take solace in religion; to drown his woes in a soothing pool of spirituality. He is not asking us to give up on the problem of ‘hevel,’to forget about it while we intoxicate ourselves with religion’s wine. He is saying something lucid. Something rational. And something hopeful. I’ll try and articulate what I think it is in our next installment.
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Musings from Rabbi Fohrman Vol. 3

Musings from Rabbi David Fohrman

 

 

Kohelet On Sukkot: Really?

 

Last Shabbat, we all experienced a kind of paradox: We read the Book of Kohelet, and we read it on the holiday of Sukkot. If that doesn’t seem like much of a paradox to you, consider this: Sukkot is the most joyous of the Shloshet Regalim, the only holiday in the Torah overtly associated with great happiness, with simchah. And the Book of Kohelet? And as for the Book of Kohelet — with the possible exception of the Book of Job, it may well be the least upbeat book in all of Tanach. Nothing remotely giddy about it. What are we doing reading this book on Sukkot, our holiday of joy?

 

One theory we might consider is that this incongruity between joy and sobriety is the very point. That is, we read Kohelet on Sukkot precisely to limit what might otherwise be a heady and over-the-top celebratory atmosphere. The Talmud speaks of sages who would seek dramatic ways to inject a note of sobriety into celebrations such as weddings. They feared that otherwise, such fests might careen into reckless merrymaking. So perhaps Kohelet is meant as a kind of intentional damper upon joy, a stopgap intended to ensure that no one has “too much fun,” so to speak. While this explanation seems somewhat reasonable, I have to confess that I don’t find it all that compelling. It is hard to make the argument that the Sages deliberately chose a text for Jews, the world-over, to read on Sukkot, that fails to complement the theme of the day, and instead runs counter to it.

 

Is there is something in Kohelet that, despite appearances, is very much of a piece with Sukkot? I think there is.

 

Is the End of the Book a Cop-Out?

 

I’d like to suggest that the mystery of why we read Kohelet on Sukkot is bound up with another mystery — the enigma that surrounds the penultimate verse in Kohelet, a verse said aloud by congregants as the Chazan completes the reading of the book. This last verse states: “sof davar hakol nishma; et ha’elokim yerei, v’et mitzvotav tishmor, ki zeh kol ha’adam”. Loosely translated: “In the end, after all has been heard — fear God and keep his commands. for this is the be-all and end-all of mankind.”

 

 

While this seems to be a perfectly wonderful verse when viewed in and of itself, it is harder to understand when viewed in the context of the rest of Kohelet, for the one theme that animates Kohelet is the pervasive presence of ‘hevel’ in all human endeavor. Hevel is a hard word to translate. Some render it vanity — but literally, its meaning seems to be “that which evaporates.” Hevel is the steam that escapes one’s mouth on a cold winter’s day. It is ephemeral: here one moment, gone the next.

 

That’s the way Kohelet sees the vast enterprise of human activity: It is all hevel, all vapor. It just doesn’t last. In verse after searing verse, Kohelet presses the argument that the transience of life, when you really think about it, is a matter of great anguish. It seems to make life seem a kind of exercise in futility. But how does keeping the mitzvot of God and maintaining a sense of awe and reverence for Him, address that problem? It is all very nice to fear God and follow His directives — but how does this solve the problem of transience? Has the author of Kohelet just thrown in a religious-sounding ending to his work without regard to whether his solution really answers his question?

 

I believe Kohelet is in fact providing an authentic response to the anguished problem he raises. And if we listen carefully enough to discern that response, we may well find that we have solved for ourselves another mystery as well: Why, in fact, we read the Book of Kohelet on this holiday of unbridled joy, on Sukkot. It all has something to do, I believe, with the very device for which this holiday is named: The Sukkah itself.
Think it over. Let me know what you think. And I’ll share with you my thoughts in the next installment of these musings. In the meantime, I want to wish a very happy Sukkot to you all. May we all merit to find great joy in the face of transience.
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Musings from Rabbi Fohrman Vol. 2

Musings from Rabbi David Fohrman

 

 

Will You Be Mochel Me? Vidui’s Sinister Impostor 

 

Effective apologies are wickedly difficult to pull off. Not because articulating an apology is inherently complicated, it’s not. But these words are hard to say.

 

According to Rambam in his Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), the soul of the teshuvah process is what’s known as vidui – confession. Vidui, according to the Rambam, is the one part of the teshuvah process that has the ability to transform us, to rehabilitate our relationships. It is, he says, like going into a mikvah. And vidui — apology — is a very simple thing, really. According to the Rambam, it boils down to a very simple phrase: ‘I have wronged you’…

 

But oh, how hard these words are to say.

‘I have wronged you’, grammatically, has a very simple structure. It is composed of a subject (I) a verb (have wronged) and an object (you). But it is so easy to compromise the structure, to leave out any one of these elements. And when we do that, we cripple the power of an apology to work its magic. For the problem with apologies, is that however transformative they are – and they can be truly transformative – there is very little partial credit. An apology either works to rebalance a relationship, or it fails. It’s kind of like being pregnant. Either you are or are you aren’t. There’s not much middle ground.

 

Imagine being on the receiving side of a flawed apology. Imagine someone hurt you, really hurts you – and then he or she comes to you to seek to set matters right, to recognize the wrong he or she committed.

 

But as they begin speaking to you, you realize something is wrong. You realize that they don’t really “get” how their actions impacted your life. There’s a subject, as it were, there’s a verb — but there’s no object. There’s no ‘you’. How easy is it forgive? Not so easy. Or what if the “subject” is compromised? What if they realize that a wrong was committed, and they realize that the wrong affected you – but they don’t really realize that they could’ve done things differently. They don’t really see themselves without fault. How easy is it forgive? Not very.

 

The extreme version of this, of course, is the political apology: “Mistakes have been made my administration”. Think about that: No subject, no verb, no object. Who made the mistakes? Was it me, you? No one knows. They were just made. And who did they affect? No one, evidently. Again, the mistakes were just made. The victim is conveniently left out of the picture. And what of the verb? In place of the morally charged “wrong”, we have “mistake.” Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are wrongs shorn of moral culpability. 2+2 = 5; that’s a mistake. “Regrettable errors took place in my relationship with you.” How transformative is that? Not very.

 

Is Asking for Forgiveness the Same As Apologizing?

 

All of this brings me to reevaluate a custom many of us have. We typically do this about three hours before the onset of Yom Kippur. We call our friends… and what do we say?

 

We ask them if they are “mochel” us. Many of us use this Hebrew phrase when we call our friends, and thusly ask for forgiveness. Somehow, it is easier not to use the English — ‘would you forgive me?’; perhaps it’s less direct. But therein lies the problem: An apology needs to be direct, unmuddled. And asking your friend “to be mochel” you is anything but unmuddled. It creates murky waters, to say the least.

 

For let’s stand back and ask this question: Is asking forgiveness the same thing as apologizing?

 

The answer, on a moment’s reflection, has to be ‘no’. The two are not the same at all. Apologizing means recognizing a wrong. It means accepting that I’ve done it, and expressing regret for having done it. I recognize what I’d rather not recognize, first to myself, and then to you, the victim. Asking forgiveness is something that can happen only after this internal process. If you can accept my recognition of what it is that I’ve done — then, perhaps, you can forgive me.

 

But what if I don’t lay that foundation? What if I don’t apologize, and I fast-forward to forgiveness? When I ask you to “be mochel me,” in some strange but perverse way, I’m turning the tables. I am shifting the moral burden from me to you. It is no longer up to me to apologize, but up to you to forgive. And if you should reject my cursory request for forgiveness? Well, then we all know what an unforgiving, coldhearted person you are.

 

When I ask you to “be mochel me for anything I might have done,” without first expressing any genuine understanding of what I actually did, of how you may have felt, of how I might’ve acted differently and how I will act differently in the future, I may go home thinking how wonderful a thing I’ve done -after all, I have called seven people and made up with them — but have I really? If they are my friends and I never really did anything seriously to annoy, slight or harm them — then maybe. But if I really wronged any of the seven, I might convince myself that we have put the past behind us – but have I convinced you, the victim? Have you really forgiven me? Or has my flippant request for forgiveness just stoked the fires of your resentment?

 

As we approach these three hours before Yom Kippur, let us pick up the phone and call those seven people — maybe not just our friends, but those we might have really wronged — and do so with something approaching the genuineness that a phone call of this sort deserves. “I think I really wronged you over this past year; I feel terrible about it. I hope you might find it in your heart to forgive me.” These words are harder to say. But their potential fruits – a relationship saved, rehabilitated, brought back to life – are a thousand times sweeter than apology’s feckless impostor, a forgiveness sought before its time.

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Musings from Rabbi David Fohrman

Musings from Rabbi David Fohrman

Hi everybody, it’s Rabbi David Forman – the disembodied voice behind many of the Aleph Beta videos. I wanted to reach out to you in the first of these blog-style posts, as part of our biweekly newsletter. I thought I’d use the opportunity to share with you some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the last week. I would love to get your feedback on these – so if you click on the link in this e-mail, it will take you to our Aleph Beta forum where you’ll be able to do just that.

 

Recently, we put out a new set of videos on the teshuvah process called Teshuvah: What is Real Repentance. They are really an analysis of the second chapter of Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah – Laws of Teshuvah. Our video editors have done some splendid work with it, and I want to encourage you to watch it.

 

I began the videos by asking a question about the very notion of laws of teshuvah. The institution of law is objective, it is cut and dry, and it doesn’t change based upon what you and I happen to feel. Law is the closest thing to mathematics that we human beings have as part of our social lives.

 

But what is teshuvah? Teshuvah, return, is the most personal, subjective experience you could possibly imagine. The process of return is about introspection, about how you feel. And law, by contrast, is manifestly not about how you feel. How then, could there even be such thing as Laws of Teshuvah? The whole notion of laws that could govern so intimate and so personal a process seems like an oxymoron.

 

This is the question that I started with in the first of these videos. You can watch them and get the response that I offered there – but a thought occurred to me as a kind of epilogue to the videos, and I wanted to share it with you.

 

I remember back when was a senior in high school, a mentor of mine, Rabbi Ezra Neuberger, delivered a series of talks on “derech halimud” (approaches to Talmud study), to my class. He said many interesting things that still stay with me – and one in particular is relevant here. He said, when you learn a page of Talmud, whatever you do, don’t try and imitate the kind of learning that you see in your rabbai’m.

 

His point was this: Students looks at their teachers and wants to be like them. They sees a great deal of creativity in their teachers. Each has his or her own distinctive style and particular way of approaching issues and ideas. And the student, swept up in a particular style, may seek to imitate what it is that he or she sees. This, however, is the path to failure, Rabbi Neuberger assured us. Because when our teachers were teenagers, like us, they didn’t do then what they are doing now. They didn’t focus on imitating their teachers. They focused on fundamentals.

 

There are certain basic fundamentals in Talmud study. Over time, as these fundamentals become part of your habits, you don’t think about them much anymore – you do them unconsciously. Our teachers, Rabbi Neuberger argued, were probably no longer conscious of these fundamentals – and they didn’t talk about them that much. But in truth, these underlay everything they did.

 

It’s the same in any field of endeavor. Fundamentals, rules, need to be mastered first. When you master them, they become habits, and you almost don’t have to think about them. If you want to be a great shortstop — you can’t imitate Cal Ripken. You have to focus on fundamentals. It’s the same in ballet, it’s the same in basketball.

 

But now ask yourself this question: if becoming a great dancer is achieved only by focusing on fundamentals, only by mastering the rules, where is there any room for human creativity? The neat thing is that, somehow, abiding by rules opens up the world of human creativity; it doesn’t squash it. You have the opportunity to be creative because you’re following fundamentals. Creativity builds on top of the rules in some mysterious kind of way.

 

The same, I think, is true with laws of teshuvah. There are fundamentals in the process of return, and the Rambam gives them to us. And when you follow the guidelines, master them, you put yourself in position to express your true inner core — more eloquently and more effectively than you could ever do otherwise.

 

Looking forward to hearing your feedback – both on this post, and on the video series – on our forum. Have a shana tova!

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