Thursday, June 15, 2006

Guest Post from a BT Yeshiva Alum and Kollel/Kiruv Rabbi

After a spirited debate in the comments of the previous post, I invited Adam Singer to write a guest post. He tailored the post to address the main themes of this blog. Rather than distract from his post and dvar torah, a first for this blog, I will reserve any comments of mine for where else... the comments section. Thank you Adam for your contribution.

Guest Post by Adam Singer

I want to start by thanking BTA for allowing me the opportunity to share my thoughts with the people who read his blog. I have thoroughly enjoyed our exchanges over the past few weeks, and I hope that we will be able to continue over e-mail or perhaps on this blog.

I wrote the following is a parsha sheet for parshas Korach this year. I have been reading the postings for the last few years and they seem in a vein which I tried to address in this piece.

Like BTA, I studied at Machon Shlomo, although I think I was there for longer than he was. The complaints that he and other raised against MS, other baale teshuva yeshivas, and Judaism in general are familiar. Some of them I have had myself. I think a lot of them are important points for example, if your marriage works well, then your “teshuva-experience” will be bliss. If it does not, or you have a hard time finding a “shidduch” the life of a baale teshuva can be very unpleasant indeed. But in all truth, isn’t that true of just about any life decision? If you have a good marriage, most everything in your life is going to be better and more pleasant. If not, you are probably tied to a lot of misery, regardless of whether or not you ever even investigated Torah and observant Judaism.

Becoming observant might have made your dating experience more complicated, but it also might have given you resources and advisors who can make your marriage and your life richer and more satisfying. More than anything else, I think a person’s satisfaction in observant Judaism has more to do with the individual’s psychological resources going into the experience, his/her determination to make it work, and his or her mazal in finding good rebbes and friends than it does on anything else. And that is what I feel is my real underlying input for this site.

I think that lot of people find Torah or seek Torah because they are somehow dissatisfied with their secular lives or they are simply unhappy. Torah presents them with resources and opportunities that make them feel like their problems are solved and they can now have fulfilled and satisfying lives as observant Jews. Then new challenges develop and the old one’s somehow linger on, when you thought you were rid of them. The truth is that Torah has given them new resources and avenues they wouldn’t have had before, and more importantly, I believe they are living a better and more truthful life. But nonetheless, this is the challenge phase where I think you and many others just give up. People find the same-old hackneyed accusations to excuse themselves from Torah be it Holocaust, Genesis, or Olam Haba and then walk out. But ultimately, I really believe there are more personal forces at work. There are great historians, geneticists, physicians, biologists, and ethicists who deeply believe in Torah and a Torah life. I am happy to connect you to them if you’d like. But ultimately I don’t think that’s the real issue here. I think the real issue is that being a baale teshuva will not necessarily solve all of your problems and it might bring challenges that you never expected.

A lot of us who found Torah because of something dissatisfying, probably would have benefited a lot from some professional counseling. Indeed, sometimes teshuva should probably be the prelude or companion to good counseling. People might need to be more aware of that. Some people who are looking to become more observant might be well advised to seek good professional counseling at the same time. If you are already observant and are feeling like something’s not going right, it might be a good time to look into some counseling. You might be amazed at how much better your life and your marriage will be with some good counseling. And you will almost certainly be amazed at how much Judaism is a part of the solution, and not the problem itself. Many will make the mistake of abandoning meaning and truth for easy answers and a more convenient lifestyle. I truly believe that they are missing out and I will be amazed if there are not many times in your life when you will deeply agree with me.

With that as my prelude, I invite your comments and feedback here or directly by e-mail at Truly yours, Adam Singer, Savannah, Georgia

The Beginning of Wisdom

Why do you, or do you not choose to believe in G-d and the Divinity of Torah? We seldom know what really motivates us. When we consider why we believe something to be wrong or right, if we do so at all, the answer is hidden beneath layer after layer of the effects of nature and nurture. Of course it is true that murder is wrong, of course it is true that every human being is invested with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…but what makes these things true? Are there foundations to these truths? Is it just possible that we take these truths to be self-evident because we lack the motivation or purpose to truly investigate their foundations?

Investigate the inner motivations of your beliefs and you may find that a lack of faith is tied more closely to fear or even selfishness than to any challenge science or history might weigh against G-d or the Torah. There are people who are well-grounded in science, engineering, medicine, law, philosophy, and history and who live lives deeply committed to Torah observence. Why don’t you? Or why do you? Questions about the roots of our beliefs are the foundations of the future of our people. The issue of why we believe what we believe is also at the core of the story of Korach in this week’s parsha.
Korach dissented against Moses during the Jewish people’s journey through the desert. In many cases, Korach appears to be a democratic visionary. His dialogues with Moshe are replete with accusations that Moses gave preferential treatment to himself and his family. Why should Moses’s brother be high priest? Why should Moses be the leader? All of the Jewish people are holy! No one should hold more authority than any other (see Bamidbar 16:1-14). But all of Korach’s populist pandering was only an attempt to garner support for his coup. It was rabble rousing of the worst sort meant to turn the people against Moses, the humblest and most selfless leader who ever lived.
What was really motivating Korach? Truth? Integrity? A heartfelt devotion to the people of Israel? The Torah subtly teaches the root of Korach’s actions in the following verse: “And he [Korach] took Korach, the son of Yitzhar, son of Kehas, son of Levy took…” (Bamidbar 16:1). This verse is impossible to understand in its simple literal meaning. The first word of the verse is “And he took”, referring to Korach (i.e. Korach took). But the second word of the verse is Korach. In other words, the verse literally says that Korach took Korach? How should we understand these words? What did Korach actually take?

Second, we must understand a nuance contained in Korach’s genealogy. Why does the Torah list so many of Korach’s forefathers? Usually the Torah lists the name of an individual’s father, and perhaps a grandfather. Why does the Torah mention three generations of Korach’s forebearers (i.e. his father, grandfather, and his great-grandfather)?
The sages explain how to understand the verse when it says that “Korach took Korach”. What does it mean for Korach to take himself? It means that figuratively, Korach took himself out of the world. He removed himself from the list of those who would lay the foundations of the Jewish people. He removed himself from those who could have a positive spiritual impact on the world. He removed himself from everything good and important in life, and this is what it means to be taken from the world.

The definition of the Korach being taken from the world is similar to the meaning of the following statement in Pirkei Avos 4:28, “Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says: envy, lust, and honor, take a person from the world.” In this statement Rabbi Elazar HaKappar is teaching that the drives rooted in envy, lust, and the pursuit of honor will cause a person to forfeit everything that is most precious in life and thus take him from “the world”.

Indeed, envy and the pursuit of honor were Korach’s true motivation for his dissent against Moses and this is how he was “taken from the world.” The Torah alludes to envy and the pursuit of honor in Korach’s character in its description of his lineage. Rashi (11th cent. France) explains that the Torah’s extensive description of Korach’s lineage is an allusion to his envy for a position of honor which was given to his cousin, Elizaphan son of Uzziel. Elizaphan, Korach, Moses, Aron, were all grandsons of a man named Kehas. Moses and Aron were the sons of Kehas’s first-born son Amram. Korach was the son of Kehas’s second son, Izhar. Elizaphan was the son of Kehas’s youngest son Uzziel.

Korach was irate that he, the son of an older son, had been passed over for the son of a younger son for the position of prince of the family of Kehas. This fury from envy and love of honor were the real foundations of Korach’s feud against Moses.
Korach was a man seeking to assuage his hurt pride by undermining Moses and the system of the Torah which is the real foundation of everything good and selfless in creation. Everything he said was true. The Jewish people are holy, and indeed ideally they should not require any individual to lead them. But the shortcomings of the Jewish people at the sin of the golden calf and elsewhere showed that they needed a leader. Korach’s selfishness and short-sightedness were the greatest proof that he was not the right person to lead. It is a sad testimony that a person can know many things which are true, and use them all to lead others in the wrong direction.

None of us is really immune to envy, desire, and honor. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how we could really find motivation without these things. But we must be aware of what direction these emotions are pointing us. The sages teach that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. If we are motivated by the awesomeness of what it means to live in a world with a Creator, if we are motivated by the understanding that we and everyone around us will someday be held accountable for every one of our actions or inactions, there is much we can accomplish to build our world. If we are animated by the recognition that my ego cannot be the sole motivating factor in my life, and we take Torah as a guide for how to direct ourselves to grow to become better, less selfish people, we have a chance at gaining a real and satisfying direction in our lives. We have a chance of fulfilling our true potential, and we have the potential to truly build our world.
This week take a moment to consider something which is truly good. You choose what this is. But ask - why is this good? What do I have to gain from it and what could others gain from it as well.

May we all be blessed to be true builders of our world and may Torah allow us to find comfort and meaning in every aspect of our lives. GOOD SHABBOS!!!