Friday, September 18, 2009

Praying To G-D and Shana Tova To All

I hope everyone has a meaningful and useful Rosh Hashana. All too often we just pray without real meaning behind our words. If there is a day to actually contemplate and understand what you are saying, it is Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. All too often we let these days just glide by and do not utilize them in the proper way. When a person is wrapped up in the world around them, be it in business, a profession, or even school they often forget about the important things in life. I, for one, feel like this years Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur will be hard to make meaningful because my concentration will be elsewhere, worrying about tests. Hopefully, I and everyone else will be able to overcome our worldly worries, if even for a moment, and be able to really connect to G-D. Not just connect to Him, but have a real meaningful experience. I want to be able to feel, emotionally, G-D as my king. It is so difficult, especially this day and age to really envision G-D and connect to Him.

In the time of the giving of the Torah man was flooded with spirituality, so much so that Idol worship was a problem. This day and age, we have the exact opposite problem, no one believes in anything they can not see or feel. I think that living in this era presents a very real problem for prayer. If I can not imagine G-D in my head, then how can I connect to Him, how can I make Him relatable to me? I think this is a very big challenge.

I am always jealous of people that I see praying with so much intent and heart. I don't understand how they can make it as if G-D is truly in front of them. Maybe they are all trying, but not really succeeding, or perhaps they are succeeding. When I was in Shaalvim, I used to try my hardest to imagine G-D right in front of me and connect to Him spiritually. I was really into the Maharal, Ramchal, Zohar and I read all types of Chassidus. In the end of the day, these books did not help me relate to G-D. I think the Maharal helped me to understand Judaism better, but nothing helped me with my relationship to G-D. However, more recently I got into the Ralbag and Rambam, I think that these great Talmidei Chachamim have helped me relate to G-D on a level that I was never able to reach before. When I am davening now, I try to realize that I can't imagine G-D, it is impossible because, according to the Rambam, G-D is indescribable. This has really helped me, because now I focus on myself when I pray. I try to think about my place in this world. Also, I think about the beauty of the world and how amazing the creator of the world and Universe must be. That is how I relate to G-D now and I think it is more meaningful, to me.

I believe that the reason I am on this world is to live my life according to the Torah. G-D put us on the Earth to live our lives, but those lives must be according to certain rules and customs. With this in mind, I pray to G-D to help me make the decisions that are best for me and will help me live a prosperous life. So with this view, that G-D wants me to live a life in the physical world (having a family, helping others and therefore getting a job to support my family and to make me able to help others), I pray. My prayers are focused towards G-D in the sense of realizing my place in this world and I ask for assistance in leading a moral and meaningful existence. I hope I, and everyone else, will be able to relate to G-D through the most meaningful way possible and that we can ignore our earthly duties for a moment and focus on our connection to G-D.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dissecting Bodies and Believing In G-D

I don't understand how anyone who dissects a human body and understands it in detail can deny that there is certainly a G-D. There are so many intricancies that exist inside the body and perfectly placed structures so everything moves correctly. If this was the work of random evolution without some higher being, why wouldn't there be natural flaws in the general population? I mean, why should't we have muscles that work in a more unorganized manner. How is everything so perfect?

The other day we had a ceremony for the people that donated their bodies to us for the dissections. There was a lot of people that spoke and said how grateful we are and how appreciative we should be. However, there was also a bishop that spoke. Now, I am clearly not Catholic, but I had to appreciate his words, especially since he quoted Psalms. Some people thought it was inappropriate for a bishop to speak at a Med School and give a prayer for the bodies that we were dissecting. However, I would disagree. I thought it was very meaningful for the Med School to involve religion in this ceremony. First off, the Med School is a private school and it can do whatever it wants. However, I also think it shows a realization that there is a higher power at work.

When someone looks at these bodies they have to think, what separates the living from the dead? One of my friends at Med School even told me, " I am not religious, but when I look at these bodies and see how small the separation is between us and them I start to think." I was very impressed with this idea because he was so right. I know that there are certain molecules that are working in a living person that have stopped working in a dead person, but there is still something spiritual and otherworldly that you just can't help but wonder.

I am still bewildered why people think that if evolution occurred it is impossible that G-D exists. I do not see these two things as mutually exclusive. It makes a lot of sense to say that there was a higher being guiding evolution. Everything in the world works so perfectly together and evolution's steps occurring was something like one in a billion chance. This is not all of evolution occurring, but rather every step that was needed had a very slim chance. I just can't see how everything happened without a higher power. Without a higher power guiding it, it is practically impossible for human life to have occurred.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ki Tavo- What Does Making a New Covenant Mean?

ט וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, אֶל כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר: הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 27:9 And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke unto all Israel, saying: 'Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the LORD thy God.

In this week's parsha we see Moshe telling the Jewish people that they should follow in the ways of G-D and to listen to His words. If they do then they will be blessed and if they do not then they will be cursed. Not exactly a big chiddush (new idea) here. However, what does interest me in this parsha is this verse that I quoted at the top. The interesting aspect of this verse is that when Moshe is telling the Jewish people to keep the Torah and if they do they will be blessed and if they don't they will be cursed, he is not the only one talking. It says that Moshe and the Kohanim, (who are) levites told this to all of Israel. Why in the world does Moshe need "backup" to tell the Jewish people these curses and blessings? Also, why does the Torah single them out as Levites? What is so special about the Levites, specifically in regards to telling other people to follow G-D?

The Seforno tells us why it is that the Kohanim have to be mentioned here when it comes to teaching the nation about the curses and the blessings. It is because the Kohanim are supposed to be the teachers of the nation. This is why it is so important for them to be there along with Moshe teaching the Jewish people the Mitzvos and what one should or should not do. This was their purpose within Klal Yisroel (when not in the Bais hamikdash). They were given the all important responsibility of educating the nation in the mitzvos (commandments) and the reward and punishment for keeping or transgressing those mitzvos.

The reason why Moshe and the Kohanim had to be specified as Levites is a wild idea from the Meshach Chachma. Are you ready? He says that we learn in the Midrash Tanchuma and the Yalkut in parshas Netzavim that there were 3 covenants made between the Jewish people and G-D. One was when they left Egypt, one was at Mount Sinai and the third was right here with Moshe before the Jewish people entered the land. The reason that there was a third covenant, the one with Moshe in this week's parsha, was because the second covenant, the one at Mount Sinai, was battul (voided) because of the sin with the Golden Calf. Therefore, the Meshech Chachma thinks that this is the reason that Moshe and the Kohanim are specified as Levites, because Levites did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf. Since the Levites did not sin by the Golden Calf, they did not need to make a new covenant with G-D. This might also be why Kohanim (priests) are designated as the ones to teach all of the Jewish people the law, because they had a stronger covenant than the rest of the Jewish people, according to this Meshech Chachma. The Levites had the covenant of naaseh Venishma (we will do and then we will hear), but the covenant now was listen to what I say and then accept it.

The part that I find wild about in this Meshach Chachma is that he is willing to say there was a new covenant after Mount Sinai. I mean, I don't know what the repercussions should be, but to say that a sin, even if it was the Golden Calf, causes us to need a new covenant, well that is just scary. If the Jewish people are in Galus now and we have had two temples destroyed, doesn't that mean that we should have to have a new covenant now? What would be the difference between the sin of the Golden calf and all the Jews who have completely rejected G-D's existence?

I think the answer is as follows. Notice how the Meshech Chachma says there were three covenants. One was at the exodus from Egypt. In what way was this a covenant? Also, in Megilas Esther chazal tell us that there was a new covenant that was made between G-D and the Jewish people. What does this all point to when we talk about covenants? It seems like, to me, that these covenants are promises from G-D to the Jewish people that as long as the Jewish people follow the Torah and commandments then they will live in peace and prosperity. That is why after the Exodus the Jews were able to go receive the Torah. That was the first covenant between G-D and the Jews (the reason for this covenant was because of the previous covenant made with Avraham because of the 10 tests that he had passed). Then after the Jews received the Torah, the fulfillment of the first covenant, they were going straight to Israel, but they sinned with the Golden Calf and the Meraglim happened. Now, the Jewish people were stuck in the desert for forty years that acted as an atonement and right before we go into the land we get to make a new covenant which leads to Jewish prosperity in the Land of Israel. However, once there was rampant sinning the Jewish people were kicked out of the land. After several years of atonement the Jewish people made a new covenant with G-D and got to come back to Israel. Many years pass and then there was so much sinning going on again, the Jews were again kicked out of Israel. Still, we are in the stage of atonement. There have been many people who have speculated as to why we are still in exile and why the Moshiach (Messiah) has not come.

Personally,the way I see it, when the Jewish people either had learned their lesson or cried out to G-D that there would be no more Jews, only then was a new covenant made. By Egypt, the Torah says that G-D came to save them because He heard their cries for help. Also, chazal tell us that many Jews were assimilating into the Egyptian culture and had G-D not taken them out then, there would be no Jews left. Therefore, that was the proper time to make a new covenant with the Jews. By the sin of the golden calf, after forty years in the desert the Jews had done proper teshuva (repentance) and were now allowed to enter the land because they had overcome their previous sin. The same thing happened with the return of the exiles from after the destruction of the first temple, they had done proper repentance. However, our current situation was caused by Sinas Chinam, baseless hatred of one another. It seems like this sin has existed throughout the Jewish community ever since the destruction of the second temple. We, as a people, have not overcome this and we are not desperate enough yet to say that we can not survive in galus. Therefore, there is no reason why G-D should make a new covenant with us until either we are in dire need or we actually start to respect and love one another. Unfortunately, the later has not occurred, even though we have been in exile for thousands of years, and hopefully we will not need the Moshiach to come because of the former.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rambam- Create a Foundation of Knowledge in Halacha and Then Learning Maaseh Merkavah - Perek 4 halacha 13

Even after the Rambam goes into the importance of Maaseh Merkavah and maaseh Breishis he ends off on a very important note. He tells us that we must have a foundation in knowledge of the Torah, specifically halacha, before we can even attempt to conquer a knowledge (in the negative sense) of G-D and His world. He says,

ועניני ארבעה פרקים אלו שבחמש מצות האלו הם שחכמים הראשונים קוראין אותו פרדס כמו שאמרו ארבעה נכנסו לפרדס. ואע"פ שגדולי ישראל היו וחכמים גדולים היו לא כולם היה בהן כח לידע ולהשיג כל הדברים על בוריין. ואני אומר שאין ראוי לטייל בפרדס אלא מי שנתמלא כריסו לחם ובשר. ולחם ובשר הוא לידע האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהם משאר המצות. ואע"פ שדברים אלו דבר קטן קראו אותן חכמים שהרי אמרו חכמים דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה ודבר קטן הוויות דאביי ורבא. אעפ"כ ראויין הן להקדימן. שהן מיישבין דעתו של אדם תחלה. ועוד שהם הטובה הגדולה שהשפיע הקב"ה ליישוב העולם הזה כדי לנחול חיי העולם הבא. ואפשר שידעם הכל קטן וגדול איש ואשה בעל לב רחב ובעל לב קצר:

"The subjects that are dealt with in these four chapters that deal with these five commandments are referred to by the previous wise ones as the Garden, as in the Garden that four entered into to. Even though (these four) were great men of israel and they were very wise, still, not all of them had the ability to know and attain all of these subjects. I say (the Rambam) that it is not proper to enter the Garden unless your basket is filled with bread and meat. Bread and meat is referring to knowing the Issur viheter (permitted and prohibited) laws, as well as all other laws, that are in all other commandments. Even though these things are small, the wise ones called them a major idea and the debates of Abaye and rava (halacha) a small subject. Even though this is so (that the wise ones call the halacha a small subject and Maaseh Merkavah a big subject) it is proper to learn the halacha before Maaseh Merkavah. The reason for this is that they settle a man's knowledge first. Furthermore, (the halacha) represents the influence of G-D in this world that allows one to attain a place in the world to come. And it is possible for anyone to understand Halacha, small or great, male or female, a big hearted person or a small hearted person."

The Rambam here reveals to us a major principle that should be utilized. He tells us that the only way that we are going to be able to acquire the world to come is through following halacha. This is true because everyone has the ability to acquire a knowledge of halacha and follow it appropriately. However, Maaseh Merkavah serves an entirely different purpose, that helps us develop our minds, for those who are able, in a way that we can achieve a greater understanding of G-D. The reason we must first achieve a comprehensive knowledge in halacha before we begin to delve into Maaseh Merkavah is because Maaseh Merkavah builds upon the foundation stones of Halacha. One can only understand and appreciate Maseh merkavah once halacha has been mastered.

This goes very well with Rambam's ideas on how one achieves eternal life. The Rambam bases eternal life on acquired knowledge, called the acquired intellect. Someone who has a basic understanding of halacha will be able to live forever, but it is a lower level than someone who has mastered halacha and understands it with intricate details. On top of this is the person who learns Maaseh Merkavah. A person that is able to acquire the knowledge of G-D (through the negative understanding of what He is not) will have an even greater and more meaningful eternal existence, because of this greater knowledge. This is why the Rambam refers to the original wise ones as calling Maaseh Merkavah a great subject and halacha a small subject, because Maaseh merkavah, learned in the correct way, will lead a person to have an extremely amazing eternal life.

Ralbag On How to Observe Judaism

I am going to take two quotes from the Ralbag and just point out how amazingly beautiful his words are. He says (In his introduction to the WARS of the Lord),

"It is evident, as Maimonides (may his name be blessed) has said, that we must believe what reason has determined to be true. If the literal sense of the Torah differs from reason, it is necessary to interpret those passages in accordance with with the demands of reason (Guide 2:25)...... It is, therefore, evident that if reason causes us to affirm doctrines that are incompatible with the literal sense of Scripture, we are not prohibited by the Torah to pronounce the truth of these matters, for reason is not incompatible with the true understanding of the Torah. The Torah is not a law that forces us to believe false ideas; rather it leads us to the truth to the extent that is possible, as we have explained in the beginning of out commentary on the Torah (Ralbag commentary on the Torah 2a)."

Here the Ralbag, quoting the Rambam, tells us that the Torah must abide by reason. It therefore is incumbent upon us to understand the Torah in light of reason. If something is nonsensical through its literal meaning then that must not be the true meaning of the text and it must then be interpreted in a way that conforms to reason.

However, at the end of the Ralbag's first book in the Wars of the Lord he qualifies his statements. He says,

"Adherence to reason is not permitted if it contradicts religious faith; indeed, if there is such a contradiction, it is necessary to attribute this lack of agreement to our own inadequacy.... We, too, behave accordingly if we see that religion requires a different view from the one our reason has affirmed."

So there are two situations that the Ralbag is telling us: 1) Reason should be used to understand the Torah in the correct way, even if that means the literal understanding of the verse is not the correct understanding and 2) When our reason contradicts the Torah and no alternative explanation is sufficient then we must disregard our reason and accept the Torah.

I think the proper understanding of the Ralbag is as followed. There are certain aspects of life that are unexplainable through reason, those being G-D's existence and his ability to create miracles that are clearly non-natural occurrences. However, unless a prophet tells us that something is not natural, or G-D Himself tells us something is non-natural, then we should believe our reason. The Ralbag, Rambam and several others have the opinion that G-D does everything as close to natural as possible. This is why they would explain all types of occurrences through nature, except the miracles that are clearly outside of nature. However, even the events that are seemingly outside of the natural possibilities are still kept as close to nature as possible.

So the Ralbag, Rambam and countless others are under the impression that one should view the world through reason. Reasonable ideas should be at the forefront of a persons view of this world. One should not think that some great Rabbi walked on water or flew around the world, this is illogical and hence unnecessary to believe. Black magic is also something that seems to defy logic and belief in it is not a core of Judaism, therefore, it should not be believed in.