Check Engine Light
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the protocol for reading the Tetragrammaton. Although it is spelled with the letters Yud, Heh, Vav, etc., it is pronounced as Ado–nai. The Yud-Heh, etc., name in Hebrew implies an intrinsic existence that makes itself. The Ado—nai name in Hebrew refers to God as a master or Lord. The duality between the pronunciation, and the word that is seen on the page, represents a fundamental duality and tension in the physical and spiritual world.
Chayyim V’chesed (443) and Sod Yesharim (The Night of Shabbos Chol HaMoed Pesach 9) explain that on the one hand, God is completely independent and unfathomable, but on the other hand, relative to the perspective of physical beings, He is a Master. That means to say, humans need to relate to God as a mighty power and revered king in order to grasp our smallness and vulnerability. If God were made too abstract, humans would have difficulty seeing God as an ever-present entity who is unlimited in ability and engaged with His subjects. This is a necessary concession for the physical world, but God Himself is greater than any description. This is what the verse (Zecharia 14:9) means when it says, “On that day, Hashem YKV-etc., and His name (Ado–nai) will be one,” that is, that creation will have been elevated to a spiritual state that can apprehend God as He truly is, so His essence and His name will be one in the same.
Because as I like to say in Psychology of the Daf, “everything is everything”, this pattern repeats throughout the creation. Toldos Yaakov Yosef (Yisro) says that this duality exists within the person, the body and soul, within the Torah (Oral and Written), and in prayer too (the words and the heart and emotions).
When patterns repeat themselves, it is a sign of design. The space held by the tension between the physical and spiritual, body and soul, and God’s immanence and transcendence enables something not fully comprehensible in the physical world, be rendered more comprehensible than without holding the tension. It is like an irrational number, you can hold it in your head conceptually, but it cannot be reduced to the precise math.
Another example of this manifestation is the tension between human intellect and emotions, that is, rational thought versus emotional and intuitive thought. The word “rational” comes from the Greek, “to measure.” Rational thought is always going to look better on paper by its very definition. It can always be demonstrated. Emotional and intuitive thought get a bad rap because literally, it is irrational. Some, therefore, make the error of squelching and discounting non-rational thought.
A human functions best when emotions are felt and processed fully. Emotions and intuition can come from unconsciously perceived data coming from the more animal part of ourselves. But animals can know things. Bees and spiders build elaborate structures; homing pigeons have a GPS better than WAZE. Are they engineers capable of intelligent creative design? No. But their instinct and programming provide remarkable abilities. The animal part of the human personality, which comes out in emotions, often has vital data that must be considered. They are like the lights on your dashboard – they represent information about the status of the equipment but not rational intelligence. When the lights start flashing, it is dangerous to ignore them nor should you trust them fully. Instead, once you let them report to you, you can decide what response is best. So too, emotions must be felt and acknowledged fully before trying to use rational thought alone to decide. When the check engine light goes on, it might be a minor issue or it might be on fire — you won’t know unless you check the engine.
Reverse the Trend
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph extols the Sages of Babylonia, describing them as “Heavenly Angels.” The exile from Israel to Babylonia should theoretically represent a degradation, losing the holiness of the Land of Israel and a further disruption from the centers of learning. Yet, the establishment of Babylonian academies did not lead to decline but actually to spiritual heights. Rav Tzaddok uses this statement to push back against, and modify the traditional position that each successive generation deteriorates further, morally, intellectually, and spiritually.
This is the well-known idea of Niskatnu Hadoros, and is expressed throughout the Halachah and Aggadah, such as what is stated in Shabbos (112b):
If the early generations are characterized as sons of angels, we are the sons of men. And if the early generations are characterized as the sons of men, we are akin to donkeys. And I do not mean that we are akin to either the donkey of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa or the donkey of Rabbi Pinḥas ben Yair, who were both extraordinarily intelligent donkeys; rather, we are akin to other typical donkeys.
Another similar teaching is found in Eruvin (53a):
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The hearts, i.e., the wisdom, of the early Sages were like the doorway to the Entrance Hall of the Temple, which was twenty by forty cubits, and the hearts of the later Sages were like the doorway to the Sanctuary, which was ten by twenty cubits. And we, i.e., our hearts, are like the eye of a fine needle.
The first teaching from Shabbos emphasizes a moral quality, and the second teaching from Eruvin laments a loss of intellectual ability. (Though the Gemara uses the word “heart,” from the context of the discussion, it appears to discuss intellect. Also see Derashos Haran (8) and Orchos Tzadikim (26) who seem to learn the Gemara this way as well.)
This raises the question: if every generation deteriorates, what is the value of continuing? I have always felt that contemporary rabbis and teachers overemphasized this teaching, leading to a sense of disempowerment and defeat regarding Torah and Avodah. Rav Tzaddok (Divrei Sofrim 23) and Tzidkas Hatzaddik (Va-eschanan 21) explain:
Though it is true that the generations continue to deteriorate in spiritual and intellectual stature, nevertheless, there is a core essence in the Jewish heart that continues to develop and complete itself until the end times. What is in the depth of the heart does not manifest itself due to the power of the evil inclination that surrounds each and every person. Yet, in every generation, when the righteous resist temptation, they accrue a benefit to the collective hearts of the Jewish people. Even though on a practical level, the temptations block the typical Jew from expressing this deep quality of the heart, it still remains inside. Thus, every generation accrues even greater levels in potential.
I believe Rav Tzaddok is asserting that the collective experience of Jewish life and practice in Torah accrues benefits that theoretically should make each successive generation better than the next. On a practical level, though, each generation succumbs more and more to the seduction of the evil inclination. This implies, though, that should an individual righteous person overcome these handicaps, he or she has the potential in the accumulated wisdom of the Jewish heart to enact greater achievements than the prior generation. This is how the Babylonian Sages reversed the trend and were revered by some of their Palestinian counterparts as angelic.
Consistent or Too Rigid?
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the interesting halakhic idea of “Kavua.” Regarding most Torah prohibitions, the majority annuls the minority, and the prohibited substance or item is discounted. Yet, there are certain objects or situations where the solidity and fixedness interfere with nullification. The classic example is the “Ten Stores” case, as described in Pesachim (9b):
דִּתְנַן: תֵּשַׁע חֲנוּיוֹת, כּוּלָּן מוֹכְרִין בְּשַׂר שְׁחוּטָה, וְאַחַת מוֹכֶרֶת בְּשַׂר נְבֵלָה, וְלָקַח מֵאַחַת מֵהֶן, וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵע מֵאֵיזֶה מֵהֶן לָקַח — סְפֵיקוֹ אָסוּר.
With regard to nine stores in a city, all of which sell kosher meat from a slaughtered animal, and one other store that sells meat from unslaughtered animal carcasses, and a person took meat from one of them and he does not know from which one he took the meat, in this case of uncertainty, the meat is prohibited. This ruling is based on the principle: The legal status of an item fixed in its place is that of an uncertainty that is equally balanced. In this case, when it comes to determining whether or not this meat comes from a kosher store, the two types of stores are regarded as though they were equal in number.
וּבַנִּמְצָא — הַלֵּךְ אַחַר הָרוֹב.
And in the case of meat found outside, follow the majority. If most stores in the city sell kosher meat, one can assume that the meat he found is kosher, based on the principle: Any item separated, i.e., not fixed in its place, is presumed to have been separated from the majority.
While much ink has been spilled to explain the underlying logic as to why in case number one the meat is forbidden, and in case number two it is permitted, the Torah rule is Kavua disrupts bitul, a strongly fixed object interferes in nullification. When the person’s question revolves around the stores (i.e., which store he bought from), since stores are distinct and not movable, we cannot nullify the non-kosher store in the majority of kosher stores. Yet, if the person found the meat in the street, though technically he is considering which store the meat came from, here he can use the statistical majority that most of the meat in town is kosher. This is because the item in question is the piece of meat in front of you, which is movable and not fixed, and is then subject to nullification by the majority of kosher meat that is around.
I always appreciate a good “chassidishe vort,” which brings metaphysical depth to dry legal teachings. Ben Yehoyada (Berachos 35a) applies the idea of Kavua to Torah study. There is an obligation to have specific, consistent, and daily times for Torah study, known as “keviyyas ittim” (Shabbos 31a and Shulkhan Arukh (OC 155:1). What is the difference between a person who studies when he can but does not have a seder or a fixed routine? Ben Yehoyada says that normally, if we spend most of our time working, our Torah time will be considered a minority and be nullified and characterized by the majority. However, when the study time is fixed, it resists nullification and maintains its distinct character.
Fixations can become too rigid, or can serve as a constructive anchor to maintain character and identity. Especially when it comes to Torah study, it is often difficult for family men to find the balance between making sacrifices by sticking to the routine, versus being unreasonably inflexible. Then aside from the moral calculations, there are people who have obsessively rigid personalities and cannot handle changing routine. The value placed on the tradition that one must be consistent and timely in Torah study might excessively override the concerns of others who need help, or even personal concerns for self-care. Sometimes an underdeveloped sense of empathy or attunement contributes to overvaluing the technical requirements and minimizing the needs of others. A perfectionist is likely to ignore others’ feelings or even his own, out of a pervasive fear of not meeting the expectation. Yet, another person may be slacking and lacking in the healthy discipline and consistency necessary for Torah study to have its full impact and not get overwhelmed by the majority of daily pressures and activities.
My father Z”L showed me how the Rambam (Laws of Torah Study 1:8) famously addresses this time management challenge:
כָּל אִישׁ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל חַיָּב בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה בֵּין עָנִי בֵּין עָשִׁיר בֵּין שָׁלֵם בְּגוּפוֹ בֵּין בַּעַל יִסּוּרִין בֵּין בָּחוּר בֵּין שֶׁהָיָה זָקֵן גָּדוֹל שֶׁתָּשַׁשׁ כֹּחוֹ אֲפִלּוּ הָיָה עָנִי הַמִּתְפַּרְנֵס מִן הַצְּדָקָה וּמְחַזֵּר עַל הַפְּתָחִים וַאֲפִלּוּ בַּעַל אִשָּׁה וּבָנִים חַיָּב לִקְבֹּעַ לוֹ זְמַן לְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יהושע א ח) “וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה”:
Every Jewish man is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished. Even if he is a poor man who derives his livelihood from charity and begs from door to door, even if he is a husband and [a father of] children, he must establish a fixed time for Torah study during the day and at night, as [Joshua 1:8] commands: “You shall think about it day and night.”
My father observed that stylistically, the Rambam seems to go from lighter distractions and pressures to harder ones, thus he starts with rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, and then progresses to “extremely old and weak” and “so poor as needing to beg door to door.” There is still one excuse on the list, which now we should presume will be the most challenging of all, making it even harder to learn than extreme poverty or old age. The final excuse: “A husband and father of children!” Yes, apparently that is the hardest challenge!