Sunday, September 18, 2011

In Every Direction

Dr. Ayal Davidson – Head, Land of Israel Studies Department, Orot Israel College
Pirkei Avot serves as an excellent guidebook for this unique time of year, which is dedicated to self-scrutiny and self-examination. The Mishnah teaches us to look in every direction in order to draw the strength needed to make the required changes. On one hand, we must look backward. We must delve into the deep recesses of the past and discard the waste while collecting the nitzotzot (literally, sparks):
“Know from where you came.” (Avot 3:1)
But on the other hand, we must look forward and prepare for the future:
“And before Whom you are destined to give a judgment and a reckoning.” (Ibid)
Yet, that is not all. We must also look upward:
“Know what is above you,” (Avot 2:1)
And downward:
“And where you are going - to a place of dust, maggots and worms.” (Avot 3:1)
Interestingly, each direction has a deeper meaning. Although modern maps point north, ancient cartographers and explorers turned eastward – hence, the term “orient.” Indeed, in Biblical Hebrew, east is called “kedem” (literally, in front or in advance), and the Dead Sea is referred to as “yam hakadmoni” (Zechariah 14:8 – i.e. the “eastern sea”). Meanwhile, the Mediterranean is called “yam ha’acharon” (Ibid – literally, the “final sea”), because it is located behind (mei’achorei) one facing east. Similarly, southward is referred to as “teiman” (literally, Yemen), because it is located to the right. And the left? Even today, the Arabic name for Syria is “A-Sham” (literally, the left).
Moreover, the future is known as “acharit hayamim” (Devarim 4:30 - i.e. the end of days), while the past is called “yemei kedem” (literally, “primeval days” – i.e. antiquity). But wait! Should it not have been the opposite? After all, the future is before us, and the past is behind us! However, this is only correct in modern, Western terms. According to our traditional, Jewish approach, one must face the past and learn from it, and thus, the future is behind one’s back.
Moshe presents an educational problem to Bnei Yisrael:
“If your son asks you tomorrow, saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances, which Hashem, our God, has commanded you?” (Devarim 6:20)
What will you say to him? My dear son, look to the future; work on yourself; consider how you will look tomorrow? No, just the opposite:
“You shall say to your son: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand… in order to bring us, to give us the Land which He swore to our fathers.” (Devarim 6:21-23)
In other words, the past is what holds the secret of our spiritual existence and gives us the strength we need to confront the future.
And there is another lesson for us: The curriculum in Orot Israel College’s Land of Israel Studies Department includes a study of geography. When one knows how to examine the layers above and below the rocks and the trees, one discovers a wonderful inner world, imbued with a deep spiritual, Torah, and – in our example – even moral significance. All that remains is to invest some thought and reflection and to discover it.
May Hashem grant us a year of fruitful and productive learning which will uncover our world’s inner and spiritual layers. And as a result, may our students feel that they are not only ready to discover their own inner worlds but that they are also prepared to bequeath them to their students.

Stop For a Minute

Rabbi Dr. Amir Mashiach – Head, Jewish Philosophy Department, Orot Israel College, and Rav, Beit Knesset L’Tzeirim, Petach Tikva

In India, they tell the following story:
One evening, a sage walked along the beach. In due course, he came to a small fishing village, where a man began chasing after him.
“Stop! Stop, please,” the man cried. “Give me your precious pearl!”
“What pearl are you talking about?” the sage asked and continued on his way.
“The pearl that is in your sack,” the man replied. “Last night, I dreamed that I would meet a great scholar and that he would give me an exquisite pearl, which would make me rich beyond my wildest dreams.”
The sage stopped walking. He opened his sack and took out a giant, beautiful pearl, which glowed like a thousand flames.
“Just a few minutes ago, when I was on the beach, I noticed this large, sparkling pearl,” the sage said and presented the gem to the astonished man. “It appealed to me, and I put it in my bag. Apparently, it is the pearl you dreamed about. Take it. It is yours.”
The man was ecstatic. He took the pearl from the sage and skipped away happily. After the man had left, the sage stretched out on the sand and prepared to spend the night.
Meanwhile, when the man got home, he could not fall asleep. Afraid that someone would steal his treasure, he spent a restless night, tossing and turning in his bed. Finally, at the crack of dawn, he picked up the pearl and returned to the beach in search of the sage.
“Please take back the pearl,” the man said when he found the sage. “It is a source of worry for me – not wealth or happiness. I would prefer that you give me some of the wisdom which enabled you to give up a pearl so easily. That is the true meaning of wealth.”
We live in a world exemplified by a frantic pursuit of wealth and prosperity. To a certain extent, this is a good thing. After all, this race led mankind to great achievements in the fields of science and technology. Man conquered the ocean and outer space. Man harnessed the sun’s rays, water, and the air in order to produce energy. Man built traffic arteries which significantly decreased the time it takes to get from one place to another. With the help of computers and the Internet, man transformed the world into a small global village, and now, with the click of a button, one can reach the four corners of the earth within seconds. The list goes on and on… Yet, in spite of their considerable importance, these accomplishments are incomplete. The Torah teaches us that man is comprised of two parts: a body and a soul. Unquestionably, man has developed the body at an astounding rate. However, in our modern - and postmodern - world, where “time is money,” a major element is missing.
Regardless of his impressive achievements, man must understand that the picture is incomplete when the focus in one-dimensional – entirely material. Wealth does not only mean physical wealth. True wealth is spiritual perfection. Hence, Ben Zoma tells us:
“Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot.” (Avot 4:1)
Because of man’s pursuit of “an exquisite pearl, which would make me rich beyond my wildest dreams,” the Torah comes and gives us time to stop and think. The Yamim HaNora’im, which begin on Rosh Hashanah and peak on Yom Kippur, are a time to focus on the spirit. Indeed, on Yom Kippur, we are fully detached from the material. We neither eat nor drink; we neither bathe nor anoint ourselves with lotion. We resemble angels – completely spiritual… No! The Torah does not want to transform man into an angel. HaKadosh Baruch Hu has plenty of angels in the heavens. Instead, we, as humans, must serve as a unique balance and combination of these two elements – the spiritual and the material, the body and the soul. This task is not easy, and therefore, it is primarily given to Am Yisrael. And by meeting this challenge, Am Yisrael will reach completion and will illuminate the entire world with the precious light which emanates from a true understanding of “tzelem Elokim.”
Not by chance, Rosh Hashanah’s only mitzvah is hearing the sound of the shofar. It is a simple, uncomplicated sound; a sound which goes beyond words or notes; a sound which causes us to stop and think about the neglected yet precious part of us: our ability to think. Thinking enables us to give up “the pearl” and achieve true completion – the sacred balance between the material and the spiritual.
In Orot Israel College’s Jewish Philosophy Department, we study the teachings of Gedolei Yisrael throughout the generations. Yet, besides analyzing their writings, we mainly learn how to internalize the wisdom of their lives. By doing so, we will learn how to apply the insights of these incredible role models from those days to our lives, as individuals and as a society, in our time. This is not an easy task, but b’ezrat Hashem, we will learn, accomplish, and succeed.
Shanah tovah and b’hatzlachah!