• April 24, 2024
  • 15 5784, Nisan
  • פרשת שמות

Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu

Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu

Rav Eliyahu Dessler zt”l (1892-1953) was one of the most original and profound teachers of Torah in the previous century. He served as mashgiach in the yeshivot of Gateshead in England and Ponovezh in Israel. His shiurim (recorded in the 5-volume work Michtav Me’Eliyahu by his students Rabbis Chaim Friedlander and Aryeh Carmel) cover all the areas which are of interest to the Jewish people. As an heir to the mussar tradition of Lithuania he is driven to bring his audience to a higher level of commitment to to serving Hashem.

May 3, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 1
Class description


Hello Everyone, Welcome to the inaugural class on the מכתב מאליהו by Rav Dessler zt”l. Michtav Me’Eliyahu is a collection of shiurim given by Rav Dessler at the yeshivot of Gateshead and Ponovezh. As such each shiur addresses a single idea from various perspectives. Rav Dessler quotes freely from a wide range of sources, in today’s shiur we saw citations from the Ramban, an authority who lived in 13th century Spain (before moving eventually to Israel) and Rav Chaim of Volozhin who lived in 19th century Lithuania. The shiur which we began to study today is a discussion of the sin of Adam. Rav Dessler opened the shiur with an important statement of purpose. Rav Dessler did not see the תנ”ך as a history book. He also did not see it as a book of theology, which is an abstract inquiry into the meaning of Judaism. The stories in the תנ”ך are there to teach, to instruct us how to serve Hashem. The story of Adam and Eve is a fascinating one. The first humans, our oldest ancestors, were perfect. They were the direct creations of God. How then could they sin? What sort of flaw did they contain that would enable them to deviate from Hashem’s instruction? These questions are interesting on their own, but as he explained, Rav Dessler did not think that the story of Adam and Eve is meant to “interest” us. It is meant to teach us. So what is the lesson? I began the shiur today with the Rambam’s explanation of the story of Adam because it will figure prominently in Rav Dessler’s explanation of the story. The Rambam writes in Moreh haNevuchim that he was once asked a very good question. Hashem commanded Adam not to eat from עץ הדעת טוב ורע . Adam and Eve went against Hashem’s command; they ate from the tree and were expelled from the Garden. The very good question which was posed to the Rambam was that this story teaches a very odd lesson. The fruit of the forbidden tree gave Adam and Eve the ability to discern between good and bad. They were not meant to possess this ability. But, at the end of the story, they are expelled from the Garden but this ability was not taken away from them. It would seem that in this case the “robbers” were allowed to keep their loot. If Hashem wanted to He could have deprived them of this ability, but He chose not to do so. This seems very odd. The ability to tell the difference between good and bad is what sets humans apart from animals. Could it be that Adam and Eve profited by eating the forbidden fruit? The Rambam explained the story of Adam and Eve as follows. The Rambam distinguishes between two types judgements. There are judgements based on objective parameters and there are judgements based on subjective parameters. Judgements based on objective parameters are either true or false. It is true that the Earth is round. It is false that the Earth is flat. The words “good” or “bad” are not applicable to such statements. The “roundness” of the Earth is neither good nor bad it is simply true. The Rambam says that before the sin, Adam and Eve perceived the entire world around them as containing objects which could be used appropriately or inappropriately. They needed to make decisions, but they approached every choice as a question having a true solution. The true solution would be the choice to behave correctly. A false solution would be to behave improperly. Adam and Eve did not see the objects of the Garden as being attractive or repulsive. They simply viewed them as the means to an end. That is why they were not embarrassed by their nakedness before the sin. They saw their sexuality as being the means for procreation and nothing more. However they allowed themselves to be attracted by the beauty of the forbidden fruit. Once they sinned their entire world-view changed for the worse. Whereas prior to the sin they saw the world in terms of “true or false” they now saw the world in terms of “good or bad.” They lost the sense of “true or false” which was meant to guide their lives in the Garden so that they could make use of it properly. “Good” and “bad” are subjective values. Adam and Eve’s behavior after their sin was not motivated by the pursuit of the proper and avoidance of the improper but by their pursuit of the pleasurable and the avoidance of the unpleasant. And far from being an improvement of their intellectual state this marked a degeneration of their faculties. Adam and eve were not robots; they were capable of rational thought and could make decisions based on their free-will choices. The ability to make decisions based on the consideration of “good or bad” was not “loot” as the Rambam’s questioner thought it to be. It was a burden that we carry to this day. Adam and Eve were meant to live a life of comfort and ease in the Garden. But by sinning they proved themselves unworthy of that ease and were sent to live a life of toil outside of the Garden. Rav Dessler in his discussion of Adam and Eve begins with the Ramban’s description of their state prior to the sin. Adam and Eve, according to the Ramban did what they needed to do naturally. They had no more feelings towards their duties than did the heavenly bodies or the fruit trees. The Ramban says that the “good and bad” of the tree means “desire.” The comparison that the Ramban made between Adam and Eve on the one hand and fruit trees on the other implies that Adam and Eve were indeed automatons of some sort, but this cannot be the case. Rav Dessler next quotes the interpretation of Rav Chaim of Volozhin. In the story in the Chumash, Eve was tempted by the serpent. This shows that Eve herself had no “internal” or “inherent” yearning to sin. The temptation was outside of her. By eating the forbidden fruit she and Adam allowed sin to enter them. This is the key to understanding the state of humanity before and after this sin. Before the sin, Adam and Eve only wanted to do Hashem’s will. They were purely good, but they did possess the ability to choose and since the purpose of our being is to choose Hashem created an agent of temptation (the serpent in the Biblical story and the יצר הרע which we grapple with). Adam and Eve made the wrong choice. The consequence of their sin can be sensed in how we use the word “I.” Whenever we (or at least most of us) have to make a choice over what to do next, there is an internal dialogue. There is the voice of “I” and another voice saying “you.” Here is an example- when the alarm clock goes off “I” wants to stay in bed while another voice says “you” have to get up and go to shul. When I come home I come home “I ” wants to sit down and look at the Internet but “you” tells me that there is wet laundry that needs to be hung up. Why doesn’t “I” want to do the correct thing without being nagged by that “You” voice (which we can refer to as the יצר טוב)? The reason for this is the sin of Adam and Eve. Before their sin, as the Ramban says, they had no sense of “good and bad” which the Ramban equates with desire. They did what needed to be done. The desire to eat from a tree whose fruit was so attractive was external to them. This internal sense of right and wrong (or to use the Rambam’s words, “true and false”) was corrupted by the sin. Now our internal drive is to attain maximum pleasure with minimal discomfort. For the past year we have studied the Chovot HaLevavot of Rabbeinu Bachya who wrote extensively on the duality with human nature, the conflict between the body’s desire for gratification and the soul’s desire for elevation. This conflict, this duality within the human is the result of the sin of Adam and Eve. If before the sin we did not have what the Ramban calls רצון it is only because that before the sin “we” had an untainted understanding of what was expected of us. Sadly, we chose to live with a clouded view of the world. Adam and Eve chose an existence in which good and bad are values which need to be taken into account. This was the wrong choice and we struggle with consequences of this choice. Thanks to everyone who participated in today’s shiur. I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any questions or comments please write to me at fish9999@gmail.com Stuart Fischman
May 10, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 2
Class description

Dear Everyone, In this past Sunday’s shiur we completed the discussion of the sin of Adam and Eve. We learned that Adam and Eve were created by Hashem with the ability to make choices. What changed after the sin of eating from the “Tree of Knowledge” was their perception of the world around them. Before this sin Adam and Eve made their decisions based on which option would fulfill Hashem’s will. They had no “personal preferences” competing for their attention. After the sin, they began to weigh Hashem’s instructions against their desires. The question that they asked themselves when making a choice switched from, “What does Hashem want?” to “What do we want?” The puzzle which remained with us from last week was how could Adam and Eve sin? If their ability to reason was so highly developed why did they violate the will of Hashem? Rav Dessler explains the situation as follows. Adam found himself in the Garden of Eden, the perfect environment, with only one mitzvah to observe. Adam thought that while observing this single mitzvah is the will of Hashem there is exists a possibility to bring more glory to Hashem. Adam thought that if he would violate the command and eat from the Tree of Knowledge and then repent this would be an even greater achievement than merely observing that single prohibition. Adam was faced with two options for doing the will of God and he chose the wrong one. He did not consciously choose to sin, he chose the wrong way to serve Hashem. Why did he make this choice? Rav Dessler uses the word הסתר to describe our existence. הסתר means “obscured” or “hidden.” As long as we inhabit bodies there is an aspect of our natures in which we are “hidden” from God’s presence. This “hidden” space is a necessity since it allows us to function without being absorbed totally into God’s Infiniteness. It was this sense of “I” which led to his sin. Adam felt that by living in the perfect effortless world of Eden he was living on Hashem’s handouts, what is called “the bread of shame.” His “I” felt a need to earn his place in Eden and he felt that the way to do this would be by sinning and then repenting. Of course he was mistaken in this calculation. Had he realized that this line of reasoning was the plan of the יצר הרע and fought it that is how he would have earned his place in Eden. That little bit of ego was what led Adam to so sadly misunderstand what he needed to do. The story of Adam and Eve teaches that “choice” as we understand it is neither a blessing nor sign of a refined intelligence. When a person sees two possibilities as being equally valid it is because he does not understand that one choice reflects Hashem’s will and the other does not. Our task as Jews is to develop ourselves spiritually and to regain as much as is possible the perspective that Adam and Eve once had. This means that incrementally we will realize that we ought not to indulge in some of the things which we once enjoyed. The realm of possibilities in our world ought to be shrinking as we understand more and more of what is expected of us. This is not to say that we will become robots. It does mean that we need to become ever more sensitive to God’s expectations and less inclined to indulge ourselves in pleasures. We will make mature decisions based on the values of the Torah. This was the first of the shiurim of Rav Dessler which we have studied. I hope you found it interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks to everyone who participated and I look forward to meeting with you next week. Stuart Fischman

May 17, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 3
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we began to study Rav Dessler’s method of teaching Tanach. For Rav Dessler the Tanach is not a collection of stories meant to tell us about our heritage. The Tanach is a book which teaches us morals , ethics and how to serve Hashem.

We began the shiur with Rashi’s commentary to an episode in the life of יצחק and  רבקה. When Rivkah and Yitzchak were childless they prayed to Hashem for children and the Torah says that Hashem answered Yitzchak’s prayers. Why didn’t Hashem answer Rivkah’s prayers? Rashi writes:

רש”י בראשית פרק כה

ויעתר לו – לו ולא לה, שאין דומה תפלת צדיק בן צדיק לתפלת צדיק בן רשע לפיכך לו ולא לה:

Rav Dessler asks, why isn’t the prayer of the צדיק בן רשע  worthier than the prayer of צדיק בן צדיק ? Didn’t the child of the רשע overcome greater obstacles than the בן צדיק in order to become a righteous person?

Rav Dessler’s  answer to this question demonstrates both his ideas on human behavior and his method basing mussar lessons on stories from the Bible.

Rav Dessler thinks that there are three basic positive character traits:

  1. a) generosity (חסד)
  2. b) self-examination ( גבורה)
  3. c) truth (אמת)

In order to become a “complete” person, one needs to understand his basic temperament (which is one of these three traits) and cultivate it. Then he needs to incorporate the other two traits into his personality. What made the  אבות special was that each one of them perfected his basic personality and then incorporated the remaining two traits into his personality.

When we learn the stories in Breishit we see immediately that אברהם אבינו led a very different life when compared to יצחק אבינו. Avraham Avinu was generous and extroverted. When his shepherds fought over pasture land with the shepherds of his nephew, Lot, Avraham Avinu settled the dispute by telling Lot to choose the area where he wishes to settle and he, Avraham, would move. Avraham preached and established a community of believers. When Lot was taken captive in a war, Avraham Avinu went immediately to rescue him with  a 318-man strong army.

Yitzchak Avinu was different. There are relatively few stories about Yitzchak Avinu in the Torah. He only built one altar and we don’t hear about any community centered around him.

Rav Dessler explains the difference between Avraham and Yitzchak as reflecting the difference between a personality based on חסד and

one based on גבורה. Avraham was a man of חסד, he was always ready to give and to do anything to help another person. יצחק was a man of גבורה . He examined his motives and before he would act he would need to be absolutely certain that he was acting to do the will of God.

That Avraham and Yitzchak would have been great tsaddikim if they had only developed their innate חסד וגבורה is clear. What made them exceptional was their ability to act against their natures to do the will of Hahsem.  The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that Avraham Avinu was tested ten times. Each of these tests required Avraham to act harshly, with גבורה, and to go against his nature. Leaving his family behind to go to a strange land, to fight a war, to cast out one son from his family and finally to offer his second son as a sacrifice were not acts of kindness but they were Hashem’s will. That is why, after passing the test of the עקידה, Hashem tells Avraham:

בראשית פרק כב

(יב) וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱל-ֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי:

Avraham Avinu was always possessed חסד but now Avraham mastered the opposite trait of יראת א-להים.

It would have been relatively easy for יצחק אבינו to live a life of חסד in imitation of his great father. But יצחק אבינו  understood that it would be more meritorious to develop a new way of serving Hashem. He chose the way of גבורה.Yitzchak Avinu would not preach until he was certain that he was worthy to speak about God. As it happens, he only became certain of this after receiving Hashem’s blessing:

בראשית פרק כו

(כד) וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְיָ בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱ-לֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי:

(כה) וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְיָ וַיֶּט שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ וַיִּכְרוּ שָׁם עַבְדֵי יִצְחָק בְּאֵר:

Having perfected the service of Hashem with  גבורה he would be tested when the time would come to agree to that his wife Rivkah was correct when she tricked him into blessing Ya’akov instead of Esav.

There is no one, single model of spiritual perfection. Each of the three Avot had a distinctive method in serving Hashem. They followed their consciences but they were able to ignore their consciences when the situation called for this.

This is why צדיק בן צדיק is worthier than צדיק בן רשע.It is very difficult to break with one’s neighbors and family and to choose a difficult and demanding lifestyle. רבקה אמנו was certainly a great צדקת. However the path chosen by יצחק אבינו  was even more difficult. The easy path for יצחק אבינו would have been to continue the works of his father אברהם אבינו. But following instead of innovating can be a sign of laziness, of imitating instead of thinking. יצחק אבינו rejected that option and instead set out to serve Hashem in an

entirely different fashion. His path was the more difficult one and that is why Hashem answered Yitzchak’s prayers.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Have a happy Shavuot, Stuart Fischman


May 31, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 4
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s class we continued with Rav Dessler’s analysis of the story of Yitzchak Avinu.

In Parashat Toldot we meet the family of Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imeinu and their twin boys, Ya’akov and Eisav.  The Torah presents us with a description of a fractured home, the twin brothers developing along different paths with each parent preferring a different son:

בראשית פרק כה


(כז) וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים:

(כח) וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב:

When Yitzcahk Avinu grew older and was prepared to bless his favorite son we learn of Rivka Imeinu’s machinations to have her favorite son receive the blessing.

The story of Yitzchak Avinu is full of questions. Why did he prefer Eisav the outdoorsman to Ya’akov , the scholarly sort who seemed to be following in his father’s footsteps? Why did he desire to bless Eisav and not Ya’akov? And what does it mean to bless someone? The act of blessing someone would seem to reflect a conscious act so what did Rivkah Imeinu seek to accomplish by tricking Yitzchak Avinu into blessing Ya’akov?

Rav Dessler’s explanation of the story of Yitzchak Avinu and the blessing of Eisav is based on his idea that each of the Avot had a distinctive personality and unique approach to serving Hashem.

Yitzchak Avinu served Hashem with גבורה- that means he believed that the service of Hashem is done by overcoming adversity. Yitzchak Avinu wanted to earn whatever it is that Hashem wished to give. This being the case, Yitzchak Avinu never sought out a blessing for himself. To be a tzaddik means to reach spiritual greatness unaided.

Ya’akov was on the road to spiritual growth from his youth, this is what the Torah tells us when he is described as “.איש תם ישב אהלים”  Yitzchak Avinu saw this in his son and felt that Ya’akov would be best served by not receiving any blessing and being allowed to climb spiritually without outside help.

Eisav was not like Ya’akov. He was an outdoorsman who did not display any inclination to live a cloistered existence.  Rashi quotes the Midrash that Eisav would fool Yitchak Avinu into thinking that he would trying to be pious by asking him questions about Halacha. Yitzchak Avinu knew that Eisav would not be like Ya’akov on his own, However Eisav could be aided by receiving the blessing of Yitzchak Avinu. Eisav  would not be a tzaddik on his own, but with some help he could develop via a blessing that would free him from material worry.

This was how Yitzchak Avinu saw his two sons. What he failed to see was truly evil. Eisav could not be changed into a better person via the blessing of Yitzchak Avinu. On the other hand, Ya’akov would have descendants who would need the blessing. Not every Jew would be able to reach the greatness of a Ya’akov Avinu. Rivkah Imeinu understood that Ya’akov would be the father of a nation. Ya’akov, the saintly son needed the brachot not for himself but for the future.

Why didn’t Hashem make this clear to Yitzchak Avinu who was a prophet? Rav Dessler says that every one of the Avot was tested by being required to go against his nature. Avraham Avinu who was kindness personified was called upon to offer his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice. Yitzchak Avinu who willingly went to that sacrifice was called upon to give his blessing to a son whom he felt should not require any blessing. Yitzchak accepted the truth of Rivkah Imeinu’s plan and agreed to bless Ya’akov and his descendants. He acknowledged that though he himself never sought out any blessing, this would not necessarily work for an entire nation of believers.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. If anyone has suggestions for the next series of shiurim please feel free to write to me at fish9999@gnmail.com

Stuart Fischman

June 7, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 5
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we began to study Rav Dessler’s  interpretation of the story of Shimshon. Shimshon is one of the most fascinating figures in the Bible. The story of his life from his birth as a Nazir, his super-human strength , his battles with the Phiistines, through his downfall at the hands of Deliah and his tragic death has fired the imagination of readers throughout the ages.

Shimshon’s story is at once both a gift and a challenge for educators. His story is colorful and exciting ; students of all ages are excited to study it. On the other hand, his story raises the question of what is the lesson that we need to learn from his rise and fall. This question of determining the lesson of Biblical stories has been debated for since the advent of the Haskalah movement and has lately become the focus of a very bitter debate in Israel.

The current version of this debate in Israel is known as the debate over “תנ”ך בגובה העיניים”  (literally, “The Bible at eye-level”) . The proponents of תנ”ך בגובה העיניים believe that each generation has the right to study the stories of the Bible and to interpret them with contemporary tools of literary analysis and according to the mores  and ethical standards of the period. The proponents of תנ”ך בגובה העיניים do not feel bound to accept the words of the Sages as they compose their modern commentaries on the stories of the Bible and their critiques of the behavior of its figures.

The opponents of תנ”ך בגובה העיניים believe that this approach to studying the Bible is sacrilegious. These people believe that the figures of the Bible were spiritual giants whose holiness is beyond whatever we can imagine. Yes they were human, yes they made mistakes and yes we are meant to learn from their mistakes. Be that as it may, we need to discuss their behavior with only the greatest respect and where Chazal have interpreted a particular episode from the Tanach we need to treat that interpretation as authoritative.

Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l was one of the great leaders of Orthodox Jewry in the 20th century. He was a great scholar and authority on the Halacha. His fame however was not based on scholarly writings but rather on his administration of the Ezras Torah charity fund. Rav Henkin worked tirelessly to raise money to aid needy scholars both in Eastern Europe and after the Holocaust, in Israel. Rav Henkin accepted only the most minimal salary for himself. He refused to accept any raise in his salary as long as he felt there were people with a greater need for Ezras Torah’s resources.

Rav Henkin zt”l wrote an essay explaining what we would call “the Chareidi” attitude towards the teaching of Tanach and we studied this essay yesterday. Secular Jews [1] attacked the Chareidim for not studying Tanach as a “living ” work. Rav Henkin conceded this point and explained why Chareidim do not see Bible stories as providing an outline for current Jewish society.  The Tanach contains stories of Jews acting heroically. Once upon a time there were fighting Jews, Jews who waged wars, Jews who smote their enemies. The Zionists who looked at these Jews from days gone by as role models ignored the fact that these Jews fought with the blessing of God. Those Jews were led by prophets who sanctioned their battles. Only a Divine command can make a war moral or just.

Today we have no prophets who can tell us in God’s Name to wage war on our enemies. In our condition of exile we need to put all our effort into teshuvah so that we will merit the Messianic era and redemption. Rav Henkin viewed the Zionists as being misguided and of not understanding the pattern of Jewish history. Jews who wage war without an explicit Divine mandate are no better than savages.

Obviously there were God-fearing Zionists who looked to the Tanach for lessons on how to rebuild a Jewish state. I taught this essay of Rav Henkin’s because I think it will explain Rav Dessler’s approach to the story of Shimshon’s life. Shimshon, perhaps more than any other figure in the Tanach , resembles what we would call  a “super-hero.” His exploits were so remarkable that it would seem almost ridiculous to see him as anything other than a super-soldier fighting the battles of the Jews.

Rav Dessler sees an entirely different lesson in Shimshon’s life. Rav Dessler does not see Shimshon as operating without Hashem. The story of Shimshon opens with this verse:

שופטים פרק יג

(א) וַיֹּסִפוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲשׂוֹת הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְיָ וַיִּתְּנֵם יְיָ בְּיַד פְּלִשְׁתִּים אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה:

Shimshon saved the Jews from the Philistines, and it certainly makes for dramatic reading. But why were the Jews subjugated by the Philistines at all? The reason is that we sinned.   A secular reader would pass over this verse in order to get to the “exciting” parts of the story of Shimshon. The secular reader would look at Shimshon as a guerilla fighter. Rav Dessler would say that this reading of the story is dishonest. If the Jews were delivered from the Philistines it was not only because of Shimshon’s brawn. Shimshon needed to treat the cause of the Philistine “disease.” In other words he needed to teach the Jews to repent.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman

[1]  Rav Henkin was writing during a time when secular Zionists studied Tanach since they saw it as blueprint for building a new sort of Jewish society. Sadly, secular Zionists today are ignorant (or worse) of the Tanach . The proponents of תנ”ך בגובה העיניים  say that it is only by adopting modern methods of interpretation that we can rebuild broad-based interest in Tanach

June 14, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 6
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we continued to study  Rav Dessler’s explanation of the story of Shimshon.

Rav Dessler  writes that Shimshon had the potential to be the Messiah. This means that through his leadership Shimshon could have corrected all the flaws in not only in Jewish society but in the entire Creation. As Rav Dessler expresses it, Shimshon could have corrected the sin of אדם הראשון. This sin would have been corrected by Shimshon making use of evil for a Divinely approved good purpose. In his instance this meant marrying Philistine women in order to infiltrate Philistine society and waging his one-man battles against them.

This idea of inning for a “greater good” is a dangerous one.  This idea was at the heart of Shabbettai Tzvi’s delusional behavior when he thought that, being the Messiah, he could and should sin. However this idea does have a place in Jewish thought but it is limited to explanations of Biblical events and is not meant to guide our own actions.[1]

However Shimshon was given great gifts in order to achieve this task  (and as Rav Dessler puts it, this was also the task which שלמה המלך tried to achieve when he married foreign women). Shimshon was the subject of Yakov Avinu’s blessing of the tribe of Dan. Shimshon was not only a Nazir from the moment of his birth, his mother was commanded by the angel to observe the dietary restrictions of a Nazir.

All of these spiritual gifts were given to Shimshon so that he could redeem the world. His task was not only to fight battles. His task was to make the world a holier place by using sin for a holy goal. To do this safely he needed to be “equipped” with the strongest spiritual armor possible, and so he was. Shimshon’s own parents could not understand this strategy. This is made clear in their conversation with Shimshon when he asked his parents to arrange his marriage to a woman from Timnah.

שופטים פרק יד

(א) וַיֵּרֶד שִׁמְשׁוֹן תִּמְנָתָה וַיַּרְא אִשָּׁה בְּתִמְנָתָה מִבְּנוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים:

(ב) וַיַּעַל וַיַּגֵּד לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אִשָּׁה רָאִיתִי בְתִמְנָתָה מִבְּנוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים וְעַתָּה קְחוּ אוֹתָהּ לִי לְאִשָּׁה:

(ג) וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ הַאֵין בִּבְנוֹת אַחֶיךָ וּבְכָל עַמִּי אִשָּׁה כִּי אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ לָקַחַת אִשָּׁה מִפְּלִשְׁתִּים הָעֲרֵלִים וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְשׁוֹן אֶל אָבִיו אוֹתָהּ קַח לִי כִּי הִיא יָשְׁרָה בְעֵינָי:

(ד) וְאָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ לֹא יָדְעוּ כִּי מֵיְיָ הִיא כִּי תֹאֲנָה הוּא מְבַקֵּשׁ מִפְּלִשְׁתִּים וּבָעֵת הַהִיא פְּלִשְׁתִּים מֹשְׁלִים בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:

Sadly, neither Shimshon, nor שלמה המלך lived up to their potential. What is distinctive about Rav Dessler’s  approach to teaching תנ”ך is his ability to find in these stories moral lessons that we all can use in our lives.

Next week,  bli neder, we will see how he explains Shimshon’s downfall. What I wish to mention now is something that I touched upon in yesterday’s class. As I mentioned in the opening class there is going on right now a debate in Israel over the best way to teach תנ”ך. Many people feel that  the stories of the תנ”ך should be taught “plainly”- that is to say that the shortcomings of Biblical figures that should not be glossed over. The people who endorse this approach feel that Chazal who say things like:

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן כל האומר שלמה חטא אינו אלא טועה

engaged in shallow and unsophisticated  apologetics.

I personally think that Rav Dessler shows us the profundity of Chazal’s teachings. If the only lesson that can be learned from the story of שלמה המלך  is the “plain meaning of the text” then there really is no lesson for me in that story since it is highly unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity to marry an Egyptian princess or to acquire a harem. However, Rav Dessler  shows us the keen insights woven into Chazal’s statements . He shows us the psychological flaws that existed ever so subtly in the figures of the תנ”ך and exist in us as well. It is Rav Dessler’s analysis of the Biblical stories that make them relevant to their readers.

I hope that next week I will be able to show you how Rav Dessler explains Shimshon’s downfall and the lesson that it contains.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the class. Stuart Fischman


[1]  I recommend that everyone should make an effort to read the commentary רוח חיים to Pirkei Avot, chapter 5 on this subject.




June 21, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 7
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s class we completed Rav Dessler’s discussion of Shimshon.

In the popular imagination Shimshon was simply seduced by Delilah. This could even be said to be the view of Chazal:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף ט עמוד ב

ת”ר שמשון בעיניו מרד שנאמר ויאמר שמשון אל אביו אותה קח לי כי היא ישרה בעיני לפיכך נקרו פלשתים את עיניו שנאמר ויאחזוהו פלשתים וינקרו את עיניו

Rav Dessler asserts that this interpretation of Shimshon’s final failure is superficial. Rav Dessler quotes the Gemarah’s  “follow up question” to this statement about Shimshon’s sin:

איני? והכתיב ואביו ואמו לא ידעו כי מה’ היא

For Rav Dessler the Tanach is not meant to serve as a tool  for deepening our national feelings nor is it a history book. Tanach is our moral compass. As such its lessons must be timeless, they must be relevant to every generation regardless of the material circumstances of the era. This being the case the story of Shimshon cannot merely a cautionary tale about the danger of sexual liaisons with gentile women. This lesson would be irrelevant for too many readers of the story. Rav Dessler’s genius[1] lies in finding the ethical flaw which led to the actual sin described in the Tanach. Shimshon was seduced by Delilah . But, the Gemarah asks, since Shimshon’s relationships with Philistine women had God’s approval, these relationships were not sinful. How then could they be the cause of Shimshon’s downfall? The Gemarah’s answer to this question is short:

כי אזל מיהא בתר ישרותיה אזל

Shimshon, who acted on Hashem’s instructions and with His inspiration nonetheless allowed the slightest amount of his ego to be expressed. When Shimshon’s parents asked him why he wanted to marry a Philistine he answered:

שופטים פרק יד

…וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְשׁוֹן אֶל אָבִיו אוֹתָהּ קַח לִי כִּי הִיא יָשְׁרָה בְעֵינָי:

Shimshon told his parents [2], “….for she pleaseth me well.”

We make moral choices every day. We hope that we are making the decision with which God agrees. The story of Shimshon teaches that even if we make our decision with the greatest care we always need to be sensitive to the possibility that some trace of self-interest is present.

The tendency that we have to be dishonest with ourselves about motives is deeply rooted. By bringing this issue to the center of the exploration of Shimshon’s character Rav Dessler provides us not only with a lesson in ethics but with guidance in how to learn Tanach.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the class. Stuart Fischman

[1] Rav Dessler who was a great tzaddik would say that he was merely elaborating on Chazal’s genius.

[2]  JPS translation

June 28, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 8
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we  began the discussion of Rav Dessler’s analysis of Hashem’s refusal to permit דוד המלך to build the Beit HaMikdash.

Last week we saw how the פשט and the דרש provide different perspectives on this event.

The Tanach itself tells the story as follows:

שמואל ב פרק ז

(א) וַיְהִי כִּי יָשַׁב הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּבֵיתוֹ וַייָ הֵנִיחַ לוֹ מִסָּבִיב מִכָּל אֹיְבָיו:

(ב) וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל נָתָן הַנָּבִיא רְאֵה נָא אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּבֵית אֲרָזִים וַאֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים יֹשֵׁב בְּתוֹךְ הַיְרִיעָה:

(ג) וַיֹּאמֶר נָתָן אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ לֵךְ עֲשֵׂה כִּי יְיָ עִמָּךְ:

(ד) וַיְהִי בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיְהִי דְּבַר יְיָ אֶל נָתָן לֵאמֹר:

(ה) לֵךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל עַבְדִּי אֶל דָּוִד כֹּה אָמַר יְיָ הַאַתָּה תִּבְנֶה לִּי בַיִת לְשִׁבְתִּי:

דברי הימים א פרק כב

(ז) וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִיד לִשְׁלֹמֹה בנו בְּנִי אֲנִי הָיָה עִם לְבָבִי לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לְשֵׁם יְיָ אֱלֹהָי:

(ח) וַיְהִי עָלַי דְּבַר יְיָ לֵאמֹר דָּם לָרֹב שָׁפַכְתָּ וּמִלְחָמוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת עָשִׂיתָ לֹא תִבְנֶה בַיִת לִשְׁמִי כִּי דָּמִים רַבִּים שָׁפַכְתָּ אַרְצָה לְפָנָי:

(ט) הִנֵּה בֵן נוֹלָד לָךְ הוּא יִהְיֶה אִישׁ מְנוּחָה וַהֲנִחוֹתִי לוֹ מִכָּל אוֹיְבָיו מִסָּבִיב כִּי שְׁלֹמֹה יִהְיֶה שְׁמוֹ וְשָׁלוֹם וָשֶׁקֶט אֶתֵּן עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּיָמָיו:

It seems that Hashem refused to allow King David to build the Beit Hamikdash because of all the people that he killed in the wars that he fought. The Radak who who is regarded as one of the great Bible commentators and as one who based his interpretations on פשט  writes as follows:

רד”ק דברי הימים א פרק כב

(ח) דם לרוב שפכת – ….ובאמרו דמים לרוב שפכת ארצה ….אפשר שהיו בהם אנשים טובים וחסידים אעפ”י כן לא נענש עליהם כי כוונתו לכלות הרשעים שלא יפרצו בישראל ולהציל עצמו כשהיה בארץ פלשתים לא יחיה איש ואשה, אבל כיון שנזדמן לו שפיכות דמים לרוב מנעו מלבנות בית המקדש שהוא לשלום ולכפרת עון ולעטרת תפלה, כמו שמנעו להניף ברזל במזבח ובבית המקדש לפי שהברזל עושים ממנו כלי הריגה לא יעשו ממנו כלי שלום ברוב:

The Radak points out that דוד המלך was never condemned by Hashem as one who sinned in his battles despite the fact that he may have killed innocent people in war. Nevertheless, he could not be permitted to build the Temple since the Temple is a building symbolizing peace.

The Midrash does not accept this “plain meaning” interpretation of this story. It presents us with a dialogue between Hashem and דוד המלך:

ילקוט שמעוני שמואל ב רמז קמה

האתה תבנה לי בית וכתיב לא תבנה בית לשמי כי דמים רבים שפכת

כיון ששמע דוד כך נתיירא אמר הרי נפסלתי מלבנות בית המקדש. א”ר יהודה בר’ אלעאי אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא דוד אל תירא חייך כי הם לפני כצבי וכאיל לכך נאמר שפכת ארצה ואין ארצה אלא צבי ואיל שנאמר על הארץ תשפכנו כמים. ד”א חייך הם לפני כקרבנות דכתיב כי דמים רבים שפכת לפני ואין לפני אלא קרבן שנאמר ושחט את בן הבקר לפני ה’.

אמר לו ואם כן למה איני בונה אותו,

אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא שאם אתה בונה אותו הוא קיים ואינו חרב,

אמרו לו והרי יפה

א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא גלוי וצפוי לפני שהם עתידים לחטוא ואני מפיג חמתי בו ומחריבו והם נצולין שכן כתיב באהל בת ציון שפך כאש חמתו….

According to the Midrash it was not that דוד המלך was unworthy to build the Temple. He was excessively worthy. Had he been allowed to build the Temple, it would have been maintained at the expense חלילה of the Jewish people.

Rav Dessler, who seeks the moral lesson behind the Midrashim, explains Hashem’s position as presented in the Midrash. This Midrash teaches that sometimes Hashem may place greater value on a building than on human lives (which is why Hashem will not allow such a precious building to be constructed). Why would this be?

Rav Dessler says that everything that in this world there needs to be a spiritual balance or harmony between the things that a person uses and the person himself.

He explains this idea of spiritual balance with an example from פרקי אבות. In פרקי אבות it says:

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג

רבי חנינא בן דוסא אומר כל שיראת חטאו קודמת לחכמתו חכמתו מתקיימת וכל שחכמתו קודמת ליראת חטאו אין חכמתו מתקיימת

This Mishnah seems to be teaching us the necessity of putting our learning into practice. If we live our lives in accordance with the Torah that we study then our learning will be sustained. However if we do not put our learning into practice then we will be punished by losing our knowledge.

Rav Dessler teaches us to understand this Mishnah in a different manner. The loss of knowledge is a blessing (albeit a blessing in disguise) and not a punishment.

As long as we are alive we make use of both people and things. The uses to which  we put those people and things can either be worthy and elevating or improper and desecrating. Hashem permits us make use of people and things only as long as we make proper use of them. Should we abuse those people and things then Hashem takes one of two actions. He either deprives of their use by doing away with them or he allows them to remain in existence and does away with the abusers.

In the case of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot the person who learns Torah but does not live according to its ideals has effectively abused both the Torah itself and the intellect which was given to him by Hashem. The Torah is not merely knowledge which one stores in the mind, it needs to be lived. Should a person learn Torah without living it he is living a disharmonious life. His mind knows what needs to be done but he is not acting appropriately. Hashem can rescue the Torah from further desecration by this man by one of two ways. Hashem can end the person’s life or he can deprive him of the ability to learn more Torah. The latter option is the more merciful one. That is why Rav Dessler says that the warning of “אין חכמתו מתקיימת”  is a blessing in disguise.

This is what Hashem was telling דוד המלך. דוד המלך  fought wars in order to defend the Jewish people. His wars were moral and he did not sin by killing.  Why then could he not be permitted to build the Temple? Rav Dessler explains that a Temple built by King David would be imbued with his own holiness. Such holiness would so cherished by Hashem that He would never allow it to be destroyed. For as long as the Jewish people would live according to the moral standard set by דוד המלך they would be worthy of praying in that Temple. But should the Jews sin (and Hashem knew that this would happen) they would no longer be deserving of such a holy structure. Their prayers and sacrifices would grossly hypocritical and an act of desecration. Hashem would then be faced with the choice of destroying the Jews חלילה (and He made this offer to משה רבינו when we sinned with the Golden Calf) or he could destroy the Temple. In order to forestall such an eventuality Hashem chose to have the Temple be built by שלמה המלך, who for all his righteousness was less of a צדיק than his father. Therefore when the Jews sinned and needed to be punished, Hashem could punish the Jews by destroying the Temple while leaving them alive.

This is the lesson that Rav Dessler derived from the Midrash. The gift of life is contingent on our using the gift properly.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman

July 5, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 9
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we studied Rav Dessler’s  writings on Tisha B’Av.

Hashem designated Tisha B’Av as a day of mourning when our ancestors, on that day, decided that they would listen to the warnings of the 10 spies and mot enter Eretz Yisrael. This is what Chazal say:

במדבר פרק יד

(א) וַתִּשָּׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא:

תורה תמימה במדבר פרק יד

ויבכו העם בלילה ההוא – אמר רבה א”ר יוחנן, אותו הלילה ליל תשעה באב היה, אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא, אתם בכיתם בכיה של חנם ואני קובע לכם בכיה לדורות [תענית כ”ט א’]:

A cursory reading of this passage would lead the reader to think that the mourning of Tisha B’Av is a punishment. Because we cried for no reason on that night  Hashem decreed that He will see to it that on this date we have a good reason to cry.

Rav Dessler teaches us that this passage contains a different lesson. In general, Rav Dessler does not believe that Hashem’s punishments are simply meant to cause us pain or suffering as retribution for our misdeeds. Hashem’s punishments are meant to teach us a lesson or to provide us with a different (though less pleasant) opportunity to fulfill Hashem’s will.

Crying is an expression of our deepest feeling of fear or loss. When the Jews in the desert cried out of fear, despite Hashem’s promise that He would lead them into Eretz Yisrael, this was a display of a total lack of faith in Hashem. Rav Dessler labels this despair as גלות השכינה פנימית- – the exile of God’s presence from one’s heart.

In the mystical literature our physical exile from Eretz Yisrael is held to have a sort of Divine parallel. This Divine parallel is called גלות השכינה. Rav Dessler, who was both a great scholar well versed in mystical teaching and a great teacher of mussar, adapted the Kabbalist’s concept of גלות השכינה and used it to teach a lesson in faith.

When Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to to build the Tabernacle, He told Moshe Rabbeinu:

שמות פרק כה

(ח) וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם:

They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.

Since this command refers to the building of the Tabernacle, why did Hashem say, “…I will dwell among them.,” why didn’t He say, “… I will dwell in it?Rav Dessler explains that Hashem was telling Moshe that what is essential is the ability for Hashem to dwell inside every Jew. If we make ourselves holy then Hashem will be able to “dwell” inside of us and then he will make His presence manifest by dwelling in the Tabernacle. However if we do not live in such a way that Hashem can live within us He will leave both us and the building that we construct for Him.

When Hashem leaves a person that is a personal גלות השכינה . If the entire Jewish people lose the presence of Hashem then that leads to a total גלות השכינה and to חורבן.

Our ancestors in the desert cried for no reason on Tish B’Av. Their crying was a sign of their lack of faith and because they lacked faith Hashem distanced Himself from them. Ever since then, when as a nation we failed to make a place for Hashem in our hearts, Hashem exiled Himself from us on Tisha B’Av. The destruction of both Temples, the expulsions from England and Spain and the outbreak of the First Word War all occurred on Tisha B’Av.

These disasters, for all that they brought horrible consequences were not meant only to punish us. They were meant to give us an opportunity to correct the sin of the Jews in the desert. They cried for no reason. Their terror of entering Israel was real, but it was a product of their loss of faith. The calamities of the subsequent Tisha B’Avs were opportunities to cry over the loss of our relationship with God. The mourning of each individual Jew over his or her personal גלות השכינה is the first step to the return of the שכינה to the nation. Chazal say that Mashiach will be born on Tisha B’Av. The mourning is what leads to the redemption.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman


July 12, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 10
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s class we discussed Rav Dessler’s concept of כלים (“tools”). What does this concept mean? In the course of our lives we are given many gifts by Hashem. These gifts are meant to aid us in our service of Hashem. So while what we receive from Hashem is given for free (which makes them gifts) they are meant to be used properly (which makes them tools).

“Tools” is a better description for what we are given by Hashem (than “gifts”) when we think about a Midrash quoted by Rav Dessler:

ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת חיי שרה [רמז קב]

…אברהם חדש זקנה יצחק חדש יסורין יעקב חדש את החולי חזקיהו מלך יהודה חדש חולי שני…

The obvious question is why would our Patriarchs ask Hashem to send old-age, pain and illness to the world? And after Hashem had already sent illness to the world, why did King Hezekiah ask Hashem to send more illness to the world?

The Midrash elaborates on this:

ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת חיי שרה [רמז קב]

ואית דמפקין לה בהאי לישנא אברהם תבע זקנה אמר לפניו רבש”ע אדם ובניו נכנסין למקום אחד אין העולם יודעין למי יכבד, ומתוך שאתה מעטרו בזקנה ושיבה אדם יודע למי מכבד, א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא חייך דבר טוב תבעת וממך הוא מתחיל, מתחלת הספר ועד כאן אין בו זקנה וכיון שעמד אברהם אבינו נתן לו זקנה הה”ד ואברהם זקן [כ”ד, א], יצחק תבע יסורין אמר לפניו רבש”ע אדם מת בלא יסורין מדת הדין מתוחה כנגדו ומת ואם את מביא עליו יסורין אין מדת הדין מתוחה כנגדו א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא חייך דבר טוב תבעת וממך הוא מתחיל, מתחלת הספר ועד כאן אין כתיב יסורין וכיון שעמד אבינו יצחק נתן לו יסורין דכתיב ויהי כי זקן יצחק ותכהין עיניו מראות, יעקב תבע את החולי אמר לפניו רבון העולמים אדם מת בלא חולי, אינו מיישב בין בניו ומתוך שהוא חולה שנים או שלשה ימים הוא מיישב בין בניו א”ל חייך דבר טוב תבעת וממך הוא מתחיל הה”ד ויגד ליוסף הנה אביך חולה חזקיהו מלך יהודה חדש חולי שני אמר לפניו רבון העולמים לא טוב לאדם שהעמדת אותו עד יום מותו אלא מתוך שאדם חולה ועומד הוא עושה תשובה שלמה א”ל חייך דבר טוב תבעת וממך הוא מתחיל הה”ד מכתב לחזקיהו מלך יהודה בחלותו ויחי מחליו מכאן שהיה בין חולי לחולי חולי כבד משניהם:

Our society seeks out ways to preserve youth. None of us would welcome pain or illness. But these Biblical figures were only concerned with their service of Hashem. Avraham Avinu was the personification of kindness (חסד ). He observed that unless people age visibly it will be impossible to show the elderly the respect to which they are entitled. Yitzchak Avinu personified “rigor” (גבורה). Yitzchak Avinu felt that as long as people are showered with kindness they won’t be motivated to repent. He therefore asked Hashem to bring suffering to the world  so that people will understand that Hashem will exact payment for sins.

Why did Yakov Avinu ask Hashem for illness? Yakov Avinu was the perfect mixture of his ancestors’ traits of חסד גבורה  which is called תפארת . Yakov Avinu realized that his twelve sons have differing personalities but in order to form a nation they will need to appreciate each other’s talents. Yakov Avinu felt that the time for him to instruct his children would be before his death. Therefore he asked Hashem to send illness to the world so that people would sense the imminence of their death and have the time needed to give final instructions to their children. King Hezekiah asked Hashem to send additional illness so the world so that people would repent out of gratitude.

Our ancestors had a clear understanding of our role in the world. As onerous as these gifts may be, they are when understood correctly valuable tools in the service of Hashem.

Hashem is patient with us. He waits as we earn to use His gifts appropriately.

ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת חיי שרה [רמז קב]

אורך ימים בימינה לעתיד לבא בשמאלה עושר וכבוד בעולם הזה אפי’ שהיא באה להשמאיל לאדם עושר וכבוד

Those who learn Torah properly will be rewarded with life in the World to Come. However even people who study the Torah for less than noble motives are rewarded, if only in this world. The important point is that Hashem rewards people who do not live ideal lives.

What is not forgiven is the abuse of Hashem’s gifts. An example of this is what happened to King David in his old age:

מלכים א פרק א פסוק א

וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לוֹ:

Why couldn’t King David find warmth under a pile of blankets? Chazal explain that this was a punishment for something that he did many years before to King Saul:

שמואל א פרק כד

(א) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁב שָׁאוּל מֵאַחֲרֵי פְּלִשְׁתִּים וַיַּגִּדוּ לוֹ לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה דָוִד בְּמִדְבַּר עֵין גֶּדִי: ס

(ב) וַיִּקַּח שָׁאוּל שְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ בָּחוּר מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּלֶךְ לְבַקֵּשׁ אֶת דָּוִד וַאֲנָשָׁיו עַל פְּנֵי צוּרֵי הַיְּעֵלִים:

(ג) וַיָּבֹא אֶל גִּדְרוֹת הַצֹּאן עַל הַדֶּרֶךְ וְשָׁם מְעָרָה וַיָּבֹא שָׁאוּל לְהָסֵךְ אֶת רַגְלָיו וְדָוִד וַאֲנָשָׁיו בְּיַרְכְּתֵי הַמְּעָרָה יֹשְׁבִים:

(ד) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אַנְשֵׁי דָוִד אֵלָיו הִנֵּה הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְיָ אֵלֶיךָ הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן אֶת איביך אֹיִבְךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִטַב בְּעֵינֶיךָ וַיָּקָם דָּוִד וַיִּכְרֹת אֶת כְּנַף הַמְּעִיל אֲשֶׁר לְשָׁאוּל בַּלָּט:

(ה) וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי כֵן וַיַּךְ לֵב דָּוִד אֹתוֹ עַל אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת אֶת כָּנָף אֲשֶׁר לְשָׁאוּל:

King Saul was trying to kill the young David. David’s own soldiers viewed King Saul’s wandering alone  into the cave as Heaven-sent opportunity for David to kill his enemy. Nonetheless David refused to kill King Saul. However he did cut the corner from the king’s cloak so that he could demonstrate to King Saul that he had the chance to kill him but did not do.

According to Chazal cutting the corner from the king’s cloak was an act of disrespect to the cloak. David should have found some other way to prove his innocence to King Saul. Rav  Dessler sees a powerful lesson in this story. Hashem’s gifts are not to be treated trivially,

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur. Stuart Fischman

July 19, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 11
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday was our final shiur of the zman and we studied one of Rav Dessler’s shiurim dealing with the length of our  exile.

Rav Dessler’s shiur focused on the difference between our current exile which has lasted almost 2000 years and our first exile to Babylon which ended after 70 years. Why has this exile lasted so long?

Rav Dessler explains that exile is merely the large-scale manifestation of sin, which is the individual’s state of exile. A person sins when he or she feels that “Hashem isn’t watching” or some other similar thought.  Sin is the result of the person choosing to distance himself from Hashem. This is exile from Hashem’s presence at the individual level. National exile is the result of individual Jews having chosen to exile themselves.

The punishment of exile is מדה כנגד מדה- we are sent into nations whose people commit the sins which we committed. Rav Dessler says there are two categories of sins. There are sins which are the result of hedonism and then there are sins which are the result of pride.

If people sin because of their pursuit of pleasure then there is a good chance that they will repent. It is human nature to enjoy something to excess and afterwards to be sickened by the same thing. If a person sins by eating a forbidden food eventually he will say to himself, “No more.”

This is what happened in the first exile. Chazal say that the destruction of the first Temple was brought about because we violated the sins of גילוי עריות, עבודה זרה ושפיכות דמים. We were exiled to countries where these sins were the norm and eventually we realized that we cannot go on this way. Rav Dessler sees a symmetry between exile and redemption. Exile of the nation is due to the exile of individuals. Redemption of the nation is the result of the redemption of individuals. What is the redemption of individuals? תשובה-repentance. When an individual does teshuvah he is re-establishing his connection with Hashem. The person is redeeming himself, he is bringing himself back to the place where he belongs. When we redeem ourselves as individuals, we will be redeemed as a nation by Hashem.

The sins of the first Temple were sins of excess and therefore, after we realized that we behaved abominably we repented. What caused the destruction of the second Temple? Chazal say that only one sin caused it; the sin of שנאת חנם  (baseless hatred). This sort of hatred is based on some sort of rational calculation. It is understandable that people may hate their business competitors. שנאת חנם is not like this at all. It is an outgrowth of unchecked egoism. It is based on the resentment of other people simply because of their existence which is perceived as diminishing the person’s significance. This sort of arrogance is limitless and people as a rule do not free themselves from this pattern of thought.

Rav Dessler quotes an enigmatic Midrash and then provides us with an explanation.

מדרש שמואל (בובר) פרשה יח

אמר רבי חנינא לעולם אין הקדוש ברוך הוא נפרע מאומה תחילה עד שיפרע משרה שלמעלן

Hashem brings down a nation only after he brings low the angel which manages the affairs of the nation. What does this mean? Who are these angels?

Rav Dessler explains that nations have character traits and that these character traits are referred to as “angels” in the Midrash. The “bringing low” of the angel means that the angel loses its power. What provides these angels with their power? The surprising answer is sin. As long as the Jewish people sin they are empowering the angel of the country in which they are exiled. But when we finally grow tired of sinning and are sickened by it we stop sinning. The angel of the nation is no longer empowered by our sins, it weakens, its downfall leads to the nation’s downfall and the Jews are redeemed.

This was what happened in our previous exiles, none of which lasted as long as our current exile. Why is this exile so long? We saw that the sin of the second Temple was baseless hatred. This sin strengthens the angel of עשו הרשע who is the angel of the current exile. The sin of hatred is unlike any other sin. People tire of other sins once they no longer provide pleasure. Hatred is different. Hatred is a product of pride and proud people are never satisfied with the honors that they receive. So as long as we are entangled in the sins of pride and baseless hatred we will be in exile.

How then will we be redeemed from this exile? Rav Dessler explains Hashem has promised us that He will not abandon us in exile. So there will be an end to the thirst for glory and an end to hatred. This will happen when people despair of human society. When people see no hope and are ready to sink into despair this desperation will lead them to Hashem if for no other reason that they see no alternative. Inside of every Jew is a spark (נקודה פנימית)  which can lead him back to Hashem. In the darkest moment a person can find this spark and it glow and illuminate the soul until the person does complete teshuvah and finds joy again.

This is the pattern of sin-exile-teshuvah- redemption and may we all be זוכה to תשובה וגאולה שלימה בב”א.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiurim. Stuart Fischman

August 30, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 12
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Welcome back to the siurim on Michtav Me’Eliyahu of Rav Dessler zt”l. Yesterday we began to study Rav Dessler’s writings on  עקדת יצחק.

The עקדה is one of the most important motifs of Rosh Hashanah. The קריאת התורה of the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of the עקדה. Rav Sadiah Gaon is quoted as saying that one of the reasons for blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to invoke the memory of the עקדה . Finally in the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah we conclude the זכרונות section with a request to Hashem that He should remember the עקדה.

The עקדה has captured the imagination of people ranging from Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan. They are astounded by Avraham Avinu’s willingness to kill his son in order to perform God’s will. Rav Dessler sees something even deeper in the greatness of Avraham Avinu’s acceptance of Hashem’s command.

Avraham was willing not only to sacrifice his son, he was willing to undo his life’s work at the עקדה. Avraham Avinu lived in a society where pagans were willing to sacrifice their children to their gods. Avraham Avinu spent his life preaching against these idolaters. By going to sacrifice Yitzchak, Avraham was making a mockery of himself and his belief system. But he went, and he went without complaint. Rav Dessler points out that Avraham Avinu was not a meek person. He knew how to speak up to God when he felt it was necessary. We see this in his debate with God over the fate of Sodom. Avraham Avinu bargained and pleaded with Hashem to spare the people of Sodom despite their evil ways. Why then didn’t Avraham Avinu plead with Hashem to spare Yitzchak?

Avraham Avinu did not ask Hashem either to spare Yitzchak or to explain the necessity for the עקדה. Avraham Avinu’s greatness was his willingness to suppress all of his emotions and feelings once he was given a Divine command. Rashi writes:

רש”י בראשית פרק כב

וילכו שניהם יחדיו – אברהם שהיה יודע שהולך לשחוט את בנו היה הולך ברצון ושמחה כיצחק שלא היה מרגיש בדבר:

Avraham Avinu certainly loved his son. When Hashem commands Avraham Avinu to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice He emphasizes”… אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק… ”  Nonetheless, Avraham put aside all of his paternal feelings in order to perform Hashem’s will with joy. It was only after that Avraham was told that he fulfilled the mitzvah by placing Yitzchak upon the altar and there is no need to kill him that Avraham Avinu allowed himself to tell his feelings to Hashem:

פסיקתא רבתי (איש שלום) פיסקא מ – בחודש השביעי

א”ר ירמיה אמר לו רבונו של עולם גלוי היה לפניך שהיה לי מה להשיבך כשאמרת לי לקרב את יצחק, אילו השבתי אותך לא היה לך מה להשיבני, שהייתי אומר לך אתמול אמרת

אותך אלא עשיתי עצמי כאלם וכחרש ואני כחרש לא אשמע וכאלם לא יפתח פיו (תהלים ל”ח י”ד) כשיהיו בניו של יצחק נידונים לפניך ביום זה ואפילו יש להם כמה קטיגורים מקטרגים אותם כשם שדממתי ולא השיבותיך כך אתה לא (תשוה) [תשים] להם.

This is the greatness of Avraham Avinu and this explains the centrality of the עקדה  to our prayers on Rosh Hashanah. Avraham Avinu approached Hashem and said just as I refrained from quarrelling with You and remained silent in order to do Your will, when You judge my children on Rosh Hashanah do not quarrel with them.

Rav Dessler goes on and says that we are all capable of  following the example of Avraham Avinu and that it is essential for us to do so. When we need something we ask Hashem to grant us what we ask for in our prayers. Prayer is a mitzvah; Hashem wants us to turn to Him. However there is an inherent paradox in the notion of prayer. We believe that God is good and righteous. It would follow that if we truly needed something then Hashem would have given it to us without our asking for it. Asking Hashem to give us something implies that we think that our understanding of our needs is more correct than God’s and we certainly do not think that. Why then are we so presumptuous as to tell Hashem that He needs to give us something?

Rav Dessler explains that when we pray to Hashem we are asking Hashem to make His world more comprehensible to us. Of course Hashem is good and just, but sometimes things are bad from our perspective. By granting our request Hashem will be making our world more bearable. However, if Hashem in His wisdom does not give us what we ask for, we don’t abandon Him or His mitzvoth. We continue to serve Him despite our inability to understand why things are the way they are. This is what we inherited from Avraham Avinu; the willingness to serve Hashem even when we do not understand why Hashem is treating us as He does. The Gemarah says that when a Jew promises to give charity on the condition that his child will recover from an illness he is a צדיק גמור. This is not true for a Gentile. The difference between the Jew and the Gentile is that if the child does not recover the Jew will say that he was not worthy of having his son recover while the non-Jew will blame God.

The essence of prayer is the willingness to accept God’s verdict without complaint.

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur. Stuart Fischman

September 6, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 13
Class description

ello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we studied the interpretation offered by  Rav Yehudah Amital zt”l for the story of Akeidat Yitachak and contrasted it with interpretation of Rav Eliyahu Dessler zt”l ( which we studied last week).

Rav Amital zt”l was the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut. He invited Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l to be his partner in running the yeshiva and together they built it into one of pre-eminent yeshivot not only in Israel but in the entire world. Rav Amital zt”l was well-known for his humanity. I myself first came to appreciate the breadth of Rav Amital’s vision when in one of his essays I saw that he condemned in the same sentence  the barbarism of both Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Rav Amital may be the only Rosh Yeshiva to have seen our suffering during the Holocaust as part of a larger pattern of universal suffering.[1]

Rav Amital presents us with a unique view of the story of Akeidat Yitzchak. Most commentators base their interpretations on Rashi who writes:

וילכו שניהם יחדיו – אברהם שהיה יודע שהולך לשחוט את בנו היה הולך ברצון ושמחה כיצחק שלא היה מרגיש בדבר:

For Rav Dessler the greatness of Avraham Avinu was demonstrated by his willingness to suppress not only his love for his son Yitzchak, but his willingness to obey this most terrible demand without question. We know that Avraham Avinu was perfectly willing to debate with Hashem.  This was demonstrated when he so eloquently pleaded with God to spare the people of Sodom. Why then didn’t Avraham Avinu pray to Hashem to spare his son?

Rav Dessler explains that Avraham Avinu understood that this terrifying mitzvah needed to be done unquestioningly. When Hashem told Avraham Avinu about the decision to destroy Sodom, Avraham was in effect being given an opportunity to pray for the annulment of the decree. The command to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice did not include such an invitation. Avraham Avinu understood that any question by him of the command would taint the validity of the mitzvah.  Avraham Avinu waited with his questions until after he was told that having placed Yitzchak upon the altar there is no need to sacrifice him. Again, Rav Dessler follows Rashi’s interpretation of the parsha:

כי עתה ידעתי – אמר רבי אבא אמר לו אברהם אפרש לפניך את שיחתי, אתמול אמרת לי (לעיל כא יב) כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע, וחזרת ואמרת (שם כב ב) קח נא את בנך, עכשיו אתה אומר לי אל תשלח ידך אל הנער. אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא (תהלים פט לה) לא אחלל בריתי ומוצא שפתי לא אשנה, כשאמרתי לך קח מוצא שפתי לא אשנה, לא אמרתי לך שחטהו אלא העלהו, אסקתיה אחתיה:

Having fulfilled the mitzvah only then did Avraham Avinu felt free express his feelings to God.

Rav Amital interprets the story of the Akeidah in an entirely different fashion. Basing himself on both the Mishnah in masechet Ta’anit as well as the Midrash he says that far from going to the Akeidah happily both Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu went to the Akeidah fearfully, praying for a reversal of the decree.

Rav Amital says that in Avraham Avinu’s time there were many pagan cults which demanded human sacrifice. The Torah singles out the cult of Molech in which parents tossed their children into bonfires as a sign of the depravity of the nations living in Eretz Yisrael. In our time we see that the Arabs celebrate the willingness of their children to become suicide bombers. As Rav Amital sees it, had Avraham Avinu not cried to Hashem to spare Yitzchak this would have been sign of spiritual failure. Avraham Avinu was able to go to the Akeidah as a loyal servant of Hashem but he went as a very human father who was torn between his duty to God and his duty to his son.

This is where Rav  Amital’s lesson of the Akeidah differs from Rav Dessler’s. Rav Dessler says that Avraham Avinu’s greatness was manifested in his ability to obey Hashem despite the very legitimate questions which he could have raised. Our duty is follow in Avraham Avinu’s footsteps and to perform the mitzvoth even when times are difficult and we do not understand why things are the way they are.

Rav Amital disagrees. He says that we must not hide our feelings from God. Hashem wants us to approach Him honestly. Hashem does not expect us to suppress our feelings of confusion or despair. Of course we must do the mitzvot, just as Avraham Avinu went to the Akeidah with Yitzchak Avinu. But just as Avraham Avinu did not hide his feelings during the Akeidah we too should not hide our feelings from Hashem. Rav Amital says that honest prayer from the heart is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah. That is the message of the shofar, we cry out to Hashem with a simple ram’s horn, the most basic musical instrument imaginable.

Rav Dessler and Rav Amital were two of the greatest teachers of Torah of our era, the era following the destruction of the Holocaust. May we be zocheh to incorporate their teachings in the coming year.

[1] I would point out that Rav Amital himself was a slave laborer in a Nazi  camp.

September 20, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 14
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Today we had our final shiur of the z’man on Michtav Me’Eliyahu. In the shiur we reviewed Rav Dessler’s  teachings on teshuvah.

Rav Dessler points out that there are levels of teshuvah (as there are in most areas of life). Teshuvah is unique among all  the mitzvoth of the Torah. As a rule we say that we should do mitzvoth even when we lack the proper motivation. As Chazal express it:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת פסחים דף נ עמוד ב

לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אף על פי שלא לשמה שמתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה

Mitzvot done without feeling possess are at least worthy actions. Hopefully by performing these actions repeatedly a person will grow spiritually and perform those actions with the appropriate feeling. The mitzvah of teshuvah is the exception to this rule. Teshuvah must come from the heart. With great insight, Rav Dessler writes that many people are motivated to do teshuvah by “spur of the moment” bursts of inspiration. These bursts of inspiration are valuable in that they can jolt a person into introspection. But as suddenly as these bursts come they leave. True teshuvah needs to lead to lasting change. Lasting change must come from the heart. Inside every heart, even in the heart of the worst sinner, there is a spark of light which burns forever. True teshuvah occurs when a person digs into his heart to find that spark and allows the light to shine throughout his being.

This sort of teshuvah must be accompanied by a feeling of regret. Only when a    person regrets his past actions can he (or she) honestly and definitely resolve to change for the better. Rav Dessler uses this idea to explain a Gemarah in masechet Yoma:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף פו עמוד ב

אמר ריש לקיש גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כשגגות שנאמר שובה ישראל עד ה’ אלהיך כי כשלת בעונך הא עון מזיד הוא וקא קרי ליה מכשול איני והאמר ריש לקיש גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות שנאמר ובשוב רשע מרשעתו ועשה משפט וצדקה עליהם (חיה) +מסורת הש”ס [הוא]+  לא קשיא כאן מאהבה כאן מיראה

The Gemarah identifies two types of teshuva, תשובה מיראה and תשובה מאהבה. תשובה מיראה is the teshuvah motivated by the acquisition of a greater understanding of one’s obligations to Hashem. When a person learns what he she (or he) owes to God that person will not sin as before.  Those sins were the product of ignorance. Therefore when a person repents Hashem in His mercy will judge those sins as “accidents” as opposed to willful acts .

A higher level of teshuvah is the teshuvah which leads to a great love of Hashem, תשובה מאהבה. The Gemrah says:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לד עמוד ב

מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין

Why is it that ba’alei teshuva occupy a higher place in Heaven than the totally righteous?

Rav Dessler explains that a ba’al teshuvah knows  God’s mercy because the ba’al teshuvah experiences it in his everyday life. The ba’al teshuvah knows that his very life is a result of Hashem waiting patiently for him to return to the right path. This experience of Hashem’s mercy is unknown to the righteous person who never sinned. This knowledge of Hashem’s mercy enables the ba’al teshuvah to become closer to Hashem than the totally righteous tzaddik. And because the ba’al teshuvah reaches this level because of his past sins, Hashem treats those sins as mitzvoth.

May we all find the way to teshuvah and be worthy of a גמר חתימה טובה.

October 18, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 15
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Welcome back to our series of shiurim on the מכתב אליהו of Rav Dessler zt”l. Rav Dessler was a profound and original thinker and educator who did much to preserve and adapt the Lithuanian “Mussar Movement” after the Holocaust. Anyone who is interested in Rav Dessler’s biography can read about him on the Internet. His Mussar classes were written down and published by his students in the 5-volume work מכתב מאליהו and in an English work titled Strive forTruth.

The chapters of Michtav Me’Eliyahu are independent of each other so new students can join the shiur without needing to review the earlier classes.

I would like to extend a welcome to people who are new to Web Yeshiva. Web Yeshiva is a wonderful platform that allows people from all over the world to learn together. A Web Yeshiva shiur  is of course different from a shiur where we all sit together in the same room. As a teacher my concern is that everyone should follow the discussion, and since I can’t see everyone I don’t get the immediate feedback that I do in a classroom. So it is very important for me to hear from you about the shiur. During the shiur you can contact me and/or other members of the class via the chat box on the web-site. Alternatively you can click on the screen and ask to speak. If you have a  suggestion for the shiur please feel free to contact me. Your feedback is the way for me to know what to change in order to improve the shiur. My e-mail address is fish9999@gmail.com

I look forward to meeting with all of you Sunday. Bye, Stuart Fischman


October 25, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 16
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s class we completed the קונטרס הבחירה   of Rav Dessler zt”l.

We saw  last week that Rav Dessler coined a phrase, “נקודת הבחירה”  which can be translated as “point of choice.” The “point of choice” is the area of Halacha in which a person finds himself in a conflict between her desires and the demands of the Torah. For a person who was raised in an Orthodox environment and who studied in Torah institutions there is no temptation to have a ham sandwich. That person’s “point of choice” is somewhere else entirely.  On the other hand if we consider a בעלת תשובה then adopting a kosher diet may be a great challenge and her “point of choice” may be the decision to refrain from eating pork.

When we consider the meaning of נקודת הבחירה we can understand why Rav Dessler wrote that Hashem judges people on how they “move” their נקודות הבחירה.  When we go back to our example of a woman who was raised as an observant Jew, Hashem wants to see her progress. If her חסד was a matter of giving her loose change to צדקה then she would need to start performing volunteer work. By striving to improve her performance of mitzvoth she changes the location of her נקודת הבחירה  and moves it upward. The shift in the נקודת הבחירה is a reflection of a shift in the person’s personality. If on the other hand the woman in question remains a creature of habit; if her observance of the Torah is the daily repetition of what she was taught in her youth then she has not grown. Her mitzvoth are the result of the work done by her parents and teachers with nothing invested by her. This sort of static existence is a disappointment to God.

Rav Dessler goes on to say that the ultimate development of free will is its loss. The exercise of free will, the act of choosing, implies that the person is faced with alternatives of equal value. For the Jew who believes in the Divinity of the Torah, the decision to eat a shrimp salad should not be considered a “choice” since the decision to eat the shrimp salad is a violation of the Torah while the decision not to eat it is in keeping with God’s will. These two options do not have equal value. The decision to eat the shrimp salad merely represents the foolishness which results from ignoring the Torah. It is not an intelligent act, it is the result of a temporary bout of irrational behavior. We must strive to act intelligently at all times which means we need to constantly be aware of and accede to Hashem’s will. When we reach that level of development we will no longer feel that we face “choices.” Rather we will make decisions based on what we understand to be רצון ה’  at that moment.[1]

This ability to eliminate considerations of comfort and pleasure from the decision-making process leads to a higher level of קיום מצוות. This higher level is the level of performing the mitzvoth out of love. Even if a person succeeds in making her decisions based only on the consideration of רצון ה’ she may feel that she is compelled to act by the Torah. The higher level is the level of love. When I do something for my children  I don’t feel “compelled,” I do it because I love my children and want to see them happy. Their happiness is my happiness. If you would ask me if I enjoy driving, I would answer, “No.” Nevertheless, since the year 1989 I have been schlepping my children hither and yon, starting with taking them to “gan” and as the years have rolled on, to school, to yeshiva, to the Army, to university and baruch Hashem to weddings. As much as I hate driving I am happy that I can take them places and b’ezrat Hashem I will continue to do so in the future. Such is the power of love. Rav Dessler says we should strive to reach this level in our עבודת ה’.

That is the gist of yesterday’s shiur. Thanks to everyone who participated. Stuart Fischman

[1] This state of being in which the person assesses situations based on what Hashem would want him or her to do at that moment is the state of being of  Adam and Eve before their sin. We discussed this in the first shiurim on Michtav Me’Eliyahu in the previous semester

November 1, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 17
Class description
November 8, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 18
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we began to study Rav Dessler’s essay “.הנס והטבע”  Rav Dessler zt”l was writing for a Western society which is capitalistic and admires material success. Rav Dessler does not condemn ambition per se. What he is warning against is the cult of worshipping successful people. This essay appears in the first volume of מכתב מאליהו which was first published in 1955 (תשט”ו) .  Today, in the year 2015 (תשע”ו) the fascination of the public with successful people is perhaps greater than ever. Movies are made celebrating the lives of tech moguls such as Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs. Rav Dessler’s aim of bringing God into our thinking about “everyday life” is as relevant as ever.

Rav Dessler wrote and taught audiences of believing Jews. Rav Dessler in this essay probed the sincerity of their belief. He wrote that there are four types of believing Jews:

1) The first type of believer makes plans and constructs strategies for achieving material success.  She (or he) is confident that by working according to the plan she will realize success. Of course, she believes in God and will acknowledge that there are events that she cannot control, so she asks Hashem to save her from disaster. However, should her plan work out as he calculated she will feel that her success is the product of her hard work.

The Torah warns us against thinking along those lines:

דברים פרק ח


(יא) הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם:

(יב) פֶּן תֹּאכַל וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה וְיָשָׁבְתָּ:

(יג) וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה לָּךְ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְךָ יִרְבֶּה:

(יד) וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:

(טו) הַמּוֹלִיכֲךָ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַגָּדֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא נָחָשׁ שָׂרָף וְעַקְרָב וְצִמָּאוֹן אֲשֶׁר אֵין מָיִם הַמּוֹצִיא לְךָ מַיִם מִצּוּר הַחַלָּמִישׁ:

(טז) הַמַּאֲכִלְךָ מָן בַּמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ וּלְמַעַן נַסֹּתֶךָ לְהֵיטִבְךָ בְּאַחֲרִיתֶךָ:

(יז) וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה:

It may be that Bar Kochbah who led the failed revolt against the Romans fell victim to this sort of thought:

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת תענית פרק ד

ר’ עקיבה כד הוה חמי בר כוזבה הוה אמר דין הוא מלכא משיחא א”ל ר’ יוחנן בן תורתא עקיבה יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא. א”ר יוחנן קול אדריינוס קיסר הורג בביתר שמונים אלף ריבוא. א”ר יוחנן שמונים אלף זוג של תוקעי קרנות היו מקיפין את ביתר וכל אחד ואחד היה ממונה על כמה חיילות והיה שם בן כוזבה והיה לו מאתים אלף מטיפי אצבע. שלחו חכמים ואמרו לו עד אימתי אתה עושה את ישראל בעלי מומין אמר להן וכי היאך איפשר לבדקן. אמרו לו כל מי שאינו רוכב על סוסו ועוקר ארז מן לבנון לא יהיה נכתב באיסרטיא שלך היו לו מאתים אלף כך ומאתים אלף כך וכד דהוה נפק לקרבא הוה אמר ריבוניה דעלמא לא תסעוד ולא תכסוף [תהילים ס יב] הלא אתה אלהים זנחתנו ולא תצא בצבאותינו

Rav Dessler says that people who think like this are practicing a dualism since they regard  their plans as being of equal significance to Hashem’s aid.

The second type of believer acknowledges God’s presence in our world, but he (or she) but they say that nature and its laws are “real.” Rav Dessler uses the word “מציאות”  to describe this sort of attitude towards the world. Rav Dessler illustrates the fallacy of this belief with the following allegory. Imagine, he says, a person looking into a room via a keyhole. The person looking through the keyhole sees a pen writing on a piece of paper. We can all agree that it would be foolish for this person to think that the pen is writing on its own power and volition. There must be a person guiding the pen but the person peeking through the keyhole simply does not see him. Similarly, anyone who says that the Earth is governed by autonomous natural laws is suffering from an excessively narrow perspective of reality. The correct perspective on the affairs of world is that everything that happens on Earth happens because of Hashem’s will. There are no other “causative agents” at work.[1]

A note: we learned last week that the Rambam in his writings on the subject emphasized Chazal’s saying עולם כמנהגו נוהג . Rav Dessler’s denial of the “reality” of physical laws seems uncannily similar to the views of the Kalam philosophers who were so harshly critiqued by the Rambam. The editor of Rav Dessler’s shiurim was Rav Aryeh Carmel zt’l. He wrote an essay exploring the ideas of the Rambam and Rav Dessler on this subject. Rav Carmel wrote that the Rambam and Rav Dessler agree on the essential ideas but emphasized different points according to the needs of their readers. The Rambam criticized the Kalam philosophers because their emphasis on God’s omnipotence led to a denial of human responsibility. The assertion that a pen falls because at every sequential moment God creates a new universe in which the pen approaches and finally hits the ground could free a person who drops a stone from responsibility should that stone land on another person’s head. The Rambam believes that Hashem created and manages the world. But Hashem also left us free in this world and He expects us to obey His Torah. Should we deviate from the laws of the Torah we are responsible for the outcomes of our actions and we cannot lay the blame at God’s doorstep saying that He allowed those consequences to develop.

Rav Dessler as I mentioned at the beginning of this summary wrote with a different goal in mind. Rav Dessler saw no need to teach a lesson on human responsibility. The issue which wished to address was egoism, גאוה. The laws of nature, the מנהג העולם which the Rambam said are part of Hashem’s creation are of course impersonal. The laws of motion and gravity are identical for רשעים and צדיקים. If we think that we live in an unfeeling world we may חלילה come to believe:

יחזקאל פרק ח פסוק יב

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי הֲרָאִיתָ בֶן אָדָם אֲשֶׁר זִקְנֵי בֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל עֹשִׂים בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אִישׁ בְּחַדְרֵי מַשְׂכִּיתוֹ כִּי אֹמְרִים אֵין ה’ רֹאֶה אֹתָנוּ עָזַב ה’ אֶת הָאָרֶץ:

and live accordingly. Therefore Rav Dessler zt”l emphasized Hashem’s presence and activity in this world and denied the autonomy of the laws of nature.

The third level of belief is  the acknowledgement that all that exists is Hashem’s will.  The world appears to operate on the basis of impersonal laws but this is only a test from Hashem. We need to see past the laws of nature which are a sort of camouflage which hide Hashem from us.

The fourth level of belief is the realization that the laws of nature are actually a hindrance which  prevent us from relating to Hashem. In an ideal world people who did not eat would thrive while people who ate would die. Food and the constant struggle to acquire it prevent us from seeing Hashem as the only Being who supports us. Food distracts us from God. The fact is that only משה רבינו while on Mount Sinai was able to live without food and water, but the rest of us need food. The goal for us is to achieve the spiritual insight of רבי חנינא בן דוסא  who saw the world as a place where only Hashem’s will was of any significance and for that reason he could say to his daughter with total calm[2]:

מאי אכפת לך? מי שאמר לשמן וידלוק הוא יאמר לחומץ וידלוק

Thanks to everyone who participated in the class. Stuart Fischman

[1] “…כך המאמין יראה שהשי”ת הוא העושה והמסבב את הכל, וכל הסבות ומעשי בנ”א הם אצלו כמו עט ביד הכותב, אשר ישתמש בכולם לתכלית אשר ירצה.”

[2] תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף כה עמוד א

November 15, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 19
Class description

Hello Everone,

Yesterday we completed the study of Rav Dessler’s essay on the tension between our belief in Hashem and his management of the world and the notion that the world is governed by “laws” of nature.

We have mentioned more than once that the Rambam emphasized that Hashem did indeed create world which runs according to predictable patterns which we call “laws.” The Rambam emphasized this because there was a competing set of beliefs adhered to by certain Islamic thinkers. This set of beliefs, known as Kalam, taught that there  is no sort of rhythm which regulates the earthly events. Rather, when we look at the world we see a continuum of discrete events each one brought into existence by God’s will. The Rambam opposed this view because once we say that each moment of existence is brought into existence by a specific act of God then we as people are no longer solely responsible for our actions. If for example a person drops a stone from a great height onto a person’s head, the person who dropped the stone can deny responsibility for the consequence of his action. He can say that there was no guarantee that the stone would drop. The stone’s fall was due only to God’s will at that place and time.

Rav Dessler did not mean to deny human responsibility since that is truly the foundation upon which our Torah is built. Why then did Rav Dessler write that when we look at the world we are not seeing an uninterrupted flow of events? Why did he say that what we see is analogous to a moving-picture where the people watching the movie are actually seeing fast-moving series of photographs which only seem to be continuous?

Rav Dessler was very concerned that we would be swept up in the cult of personality which society builds up around successful people. Rav Dessler says that we need to ask ourselves, as Jews who claim to believe in God, what do we think when we read about prominent people? When a general leads an army to victory do we say that this leader’s superior tactics enabled him to triumph? When we read  about wealthy entrepreneurs do we say that they have a “business sense” that other people lack? If this is how we think then we are excluding Hashem from this world. Since we are “frum Jews” we speak the usual “frum” clichés such as “b’ezrat Hashem” and “im yirtzeh Hashem” but we don’t mean what we say.

Every day before we say שמע we recite the following words:

“המחדש בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית”

We need to live by the words of this prayer. Rav Dessler does not deny that we see repetition in nature. What he denies is the existence of “absolute laws which exist autonomously from which there is no escape.” The true nature of existence is understood by the tzaddik like Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa who with absolute confidence told his daughter, “Hashem who decreed that oil should burn can decree that vinegar should burn” and so the Sabbath lamps which were filled mistakenly with vinegar burned throughout the Sabbath.

I hope you enjoyed the shiurim. Stuart Fischman

November 22, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 20
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we began the study of an essay of Rav Dessler, his “.קונטרס החסד”  This essay, along with the essay which we just completed ( the “קונטרס הבחירה”)  is at the center of his system of mussar.

Rav Dessler says that humans have two drives; the drive to give and the drive to acquire. The drive to give is Divine, it is what imparts to us the Divine image in which we were created.[i]

The drive for acquisition is the source of all of the ills which affect society. The Torah condemns all manifestations of greed. Some of these manifestations are specifically prohibited by the Halacha. Thievery be it violent or not is of course proscribed by the various prohibitions of  גזל, גנבה, אונאה and עושק. Rav Dessler in this essay went beyond those prohibitions and critiqued all the forms of economic activity . His central idea is that at all times we are either giving or taking. The ideal towards which we need to aspire is that we should be givers and not takers. When we give, we are following the example set by God who is the greatest giver of all since he gives us life and everything that exists. Takers on the other hand are only looking out for themselves. Rav Dessler lived in England and he saw all the ills of unchecked capitalism. Rav Dessler attacked employers who pay low wages in order to increase their already great profits and personal wealth. He also attacked colonialism which under the guise of “spreading civilization” exploits the people trapped under the rule of greedy imperialist countries.

Rav Dessler was not naïve nor was he ignorant of what the people who heard his shiur on “givers vs. takers” would reply. The society of mid 20th century England was based on commerce and the person who knew how to seize opportunities and to profit from them was admired. It was for that reason that Rav Dessler publicized the business practices of the Chafetz Chaim zt”l.

The Chafetz Chaim (Rav Yisrael Meir of Radin, Poland) was the saintly author of many works on Halacha as well as the founder of the yeshiva in his home town of Radin. Despite his being recognized as one of the leaders of Polish Jewry he never occupied an official rabbinic position. The Chafetz Chaim refused to derive any benefit from the Torah and earned his livelihood from a grocery store which he owned and managed. The Chafetz Chaim sold only the freshest merchandise and was very careful to give his customers the benefit of every doubt. People flocked to his store. This bothered the Chafetz Chaim since he saw that the other storekeepers in Radin were losing customers to him. The Chafetz Chaim then decided that he would keep his store open only for the number of hours that it would take for him to earn the money which he needed for that day. He hoped that since his store would be closed in the afternoon the other shopkeepers would earn their livings when his store was closed.

Things did not work out that way. When the people of Radin saw that the Chafetz Chaim was only behind the counter of his store in the early morning that’s when everybody in Radin did their shopping. The Chafetz Chaim ended up closing his store.

Rav Dessler held up the Chafetz Chaim as the paragon of Jewish capitalism. The Chafetz Chaim was not simply a “giver.” He was a “taker” as well since he took money from his customers. However his taking was as holy as his giving since the purpose of his taking was to enable his continued giving.

The Gemarah says that the person who earns his livelihood from manual labor is greater than the person who fears God” (Berachot 8a). What is the greatness of manual labor? Rav Dessler says that the laborer who works conscientiously is paid for his work and cannot fall into the trap of taking more than he gives. People whose livelihoods are based on their cleverness often earn profits greater than the value of the effort put into their work or the service or product that they provide. These people are takers.

One of the serious issues facing contemporary society all over the world is the problem of the wage disparity and the distribution of wealth. In the United States this issue is emphasized by the “99% movement”. The members of this movement point out that 1% of the population of the United States controls more wealth than the remaining 99% of the country. In my youth socialism with its emphasis on “economic justice” was decried for being “unsustainable” and the collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the transformation of the economy of China seemed to support this claim. But now we see the corrosive effects of capitalism on the societies where the middle classes are struggling to maintain their standards of living.

Orthodox Judaism is not associated with movements for economic justice. The “fair trade” movement which seeks to guarantee that farmers in the Third World receive a reasonable price for the commodities which they grow has no Orthodox rabbis as spokesmen. I think that the reason for this silence is due to the association of leftist economic activity with leftist opposition to the State of Israel. It may also be due to a vestigial linkage of leftist economic thought with Marxist anti-clericalism.

Be that as it may, I think that Rav Dessler’s statement of the Torah’s vision of economic justice needs to studied and heard.

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur, Stuart Fischman

[i] The Torah says that we were created  בצלם א-להים. The Rambam says that the צלם  א-להים is our ability to engage in rational thought, like God.  Rav Dessler says that the צלם א-להים is the ability to display generosity which is also a behavior of God

November 29, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 21
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we continued the study of Rav Dessler’s קונטרס החסד.

Last week we learned that according to Rav Dessler זצ”ל we are imprinted by God with two drives; the drive to acquire and the drive to give and our task is to live a life of giving. In yesterday’s shiur Rav Dessler expanded on the need that humans have to give.[1]

Rav Dessler says that it is an inescapable fact that all humans have a need for companionship. We all try to marry  and to have children. This is not a mere biological drive whose aim is the preservation of the species. If this were the case people would not marry after their ability to have children has passed. Rather people marry and have children so that they can have people to with whom they can share. People who can’t have children either adopt children or raise pets. Again, these behaviors are driven by the need to give.

Some people think that giving is a result of love. We give to those whom we love. Rav Dessler thinks that this idea is incorrect. Rav Dessler says we give, and we love the ones to whom we give. Rav Dessler finds a source in the Torah for this insight into the nature of love. The Torah exempts three groups of people from going to war:

  1. a) the person who built a house but did not yet move into it
  2. b) the person who planted a vineyard but did not yet harvest its grapes
  3. c) the person who betrothed a woman but did not yet marry her

What these three groups have in common is that they built and cultivated a relationship but have not yet had an opportunity to enjoy their labors. The Torah equates the relationship between the creators of an object with the relationship of a groom to his bride-to be. We learn from this that the love for an object is a result of the effort invested in its development. We love the things in which we have an interest.

Rav Dessler says that this is true for the love that we have for people. Even tyrants have a  need to give and to feel love. Tyrants however only display generosity to their family members and to the people who are in their inner circle of friends and allies. What tyrants don’t realize is that if only they would give to people outside of their small circle of friends[2] they would experience growth.  By being invested in another person’s welfare we become interested in their welfare and this is “love.” When a person is sincerely concerned for the welfare of someone else he is fulfilling  the mitzvah of ואהבת לרעך כמוך.

There are two mitzvoth which ask us to help our neighbor. One mitzvah is “פריקה”- helping our neighbor to unload the baggage from his animal who has collapsed under the weight of the burden. The other mitzvah is טעינה- helping our neighbor to load packages onto an animal. It would seem that if I am faced with the choice of doing פריקה or טעינה  I should choose פריקה since this action helps both the person and the animal. The Gemarah says this is true but there is a case where טעינה is to be done. That case is is where the טעינה is needed by a person whom I dislike while the פריקה is needed by my friend. In such a case by helping the person whom I dislike to load his packages I will also be overcoming my יצר הרע.

Rav Dessler says that the “overcoming of the Yetzer Hara” is not merely a spiritual exercise. By helping my enemy I am making an investment in his welfare and gradually he will become my friend. Rav Dessler says that giving always results in a gain for the giver. By giving he broadens the number of friends that he has.

The last passage which we studied was Rav Dessler’s discussion of marriage. Rav Dessler dismissed the idea that we marry simply to have children. [3] He also dismissed the idea that marriages last past the child-bearing years because the spouses have a sense of gratitude towards each other for bringing forth and raising their children. He rejects this idea for the simple reason that most people do not show gratitude for anything so why should child-rearing be the exception to this generally nasty pattern of behavior?

Rav Dessler concludes that marriage is based on the need to give. We need a spouse to whom we can show kindness. And since marriage is based on kindness successful marriages are the ones where the husband and wife never stop showing kindness to each other. Marriages fail when one spouse feels that he or she is owed something by his or her partner. The transition from wishing to give to the spouse to expecting to be given things by the spouse is a gradual one and most people are nto conscious of this change. However once it happens the love is gone from the marriage. Rav Dessler writes that when would give his blessing to new couples he would advise them to ceaselessly think of how they can make their spouse’s life better. Once one of the spouses , be it the husband or the wife, feels that the other spouse should be giving more, the marriage is in trouble.

Thanks to everyone who attended the shiur. Stuart Fischman

[1] Rav Dessler does not elaborate on the human drive to acquire.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4bSqSdto5g

[3]  Rav Dessler’s essay predates the book Sociobiology which only appeared in 1975. I guess that some of E.O. Wilson’s ideas were current when Rav Dessler zt”l  was active

December 6, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 22
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we discussed one of the halachot of Chanukah instead of our ususal study of Michtav MeEliyahu.

The central mitzvah of Chanukah is the lighting of the Chanukah candles. The purpose of the candles is to publicize the miracle of Chanukah, and this publicizing  of the mitzvah is known in Hebrew as פרסום הנס.

Candles of course are subject to being blown out unexpectedly. The Gemarah says there is a dispute if one is obligated to light the candles again should they be extinguished before their having remained lit for the required half-hour. The halacha is that כבתה אין זקוק לה- if the Chanukah do not to be re-lit should they be extinguished prematurely.

This ruling is difficult to understand. If the purpose of lighting the Chanukah candles is to publicize the miracle, how has this been accomplished if the lights are blown put after two minutes? Why shouldn’t one need to re-light the candles so that they remain lit for the necessary half hour?

We saw two explanations for this halacha. One explanation came from the Chassidic work בני יששכר and the other explanation came from Rav Kook zt”l.

The בני יששכר[1]  wrote that the Chanukah lights symbolize the difference between the Torah and secular wisdom. The value of secular wisdom lies in its providing the correct answer to various questions. For every question the only valuable answer is the correct and useful answer. If a person studies and experiments for many years but reaches an incorrect conclusion he has wasted his time. Secular knowledge is pragmatic and the pursuit of secular knowledge is utilitarian in nature.

The pursuit of Torah knowledge is based on an entirely different system of values. Hashem gave us a mitzvah to study the Torah. We say every day a blessing      “ברוך אתה ה’… לעסוק בדברי תורה.”  Hashem wants us to be involved in the study of Torah.  We know that the Gemarah records all the opinions of the Sages, we study opinions which were  accepted as being “Halachic” but we also study the opinions which were not incorporated into the Halacha. The opinions of Beit Shammai form the Torah along with the opinions of Beit Hillel. All of the opinions are holy.

This sort of knowledge is not pragmatic. If Hashem was interested in our acquiring “useful knowledge” the Torah would be narrowed down to the קיצור שלחן ערוך. But the study of Torah is an exercise in holiness. Even when we study and arrive at incorrect conclusions we have fulfilled the mitzvah of studying Torah.

This is why we don’t need to re-light the Chanukah candles if they are blown out before the minimum time. If the candles were lit for a purely practical reason (such as פרסום הנס) then we would be required to re-light them. But the candles represent the non-pragmatic Torah and by not lighting them anew we demonstrate that the study of Torah is totally unlike the study of secular of knowledge.

Rav Kook zt”l saw a different idea in the Chanukah candles. The discussion of the Chanukah lights appears in a discussion of the Shabbat candles. The Gemarah distinguishes between oils and wicks which burn cleanly and those that do not. The latter types may not be used on Shabbat but they may be used for Chanukah. The reason that they may be used on Chanukah is that should the Chanukah lights not remain lit for the required time they need not be re-lit. The question is, as we said already is, why not?

Rav Kook  זצ”ל wrote that the miracle of Chanukah occurred at a time when Judaism was under attack by a foreign culture. The Jews had absorbed to a certain extent the values of Hellenism.  Even the victorious חשמונאים were influenced to a certain extent by an alien brand of nationalism.[2] The Chanukah lights represent the Torah according to Rav Kook, as they do for the בני יששכר but Rav Kook sees in the Chanukah lights a different sort of Torah. The lights of Chanukah which do not burn cleanly and which we may ignore should they go out early represent the “hybridized” Torah which is a mixture of eternal values with the secular cultures of the day. Throughout the duration of our exile we have been and will continue to be exposed to foreign ideologies. Some Jews will be attracted to those ideas and led away from the Torah. In order to meet the needs of the Jews who are attracted to foreign concepts and beliefs there is a legitimate need for a literature which expounds the Torah’s values using the terms of alien cultures. This was done first[3] by Philo of Alexandria. It was done by the great medieval thinkers such as Rav Sadiah Gaon and the Rambam. This sort of writing was done after the Emancipation by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l in Germany.

This literature is valuable because it meets the needs of the time in which it is written. However it lacks the eternal quality of “pure” Torah. Since this literature is written to address a particular ideology (be it Aristotelian or German thought) once that ideology has lost its currency the Torah literature written to accommodate it loses its value as well. There will always be a mitzvah to study the opinions of בית שמאי which are not accepted להלכה but there is no longer any need to study the Rambam’s discussions of Aristotle’s physics.

This explains why we may ignore the Chanukah lights if they go out too early. The Chanukah lights represent that Torah-based literature which was composed as a response to the transient secular philosophies of their time.

Happy Chanukah, Stuart Fischman



Dinov (Yiddish: דינאָוו‎, Hebrew: דינוב‎) is the name of a Hasidic dynasty, descended from Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov (c. 1783 – 1841), also called “theBnei Yisaschar” after his popular work: בני יששכר [Bene Yiśaśkhar]. Dinov is the Yiddish name of Dynów, a town in southern Poland, in the historic region ofGalicia.[1]

[2] Rav Kook mentions in connection with this the failure of the חשמונאים to hand the leadership of the nation over to the descendants of דוד המלך.  See what the Ramban writes about this failure in his commentary to פרשת ויחי.

[3] As far as I know

December 13, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Strive for Truth: Michtav MeEliyahu: Lesson 23
Class description

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday was our final shiur of the z’man on Michtav Me’Eliyahu and we continued our study of the section titled “Kuntras HaChesed.”

The section which we studied yesterday had the heading “בשאיפה”  which means, in English, “On Ambition.” This section is a continuation of Rav Dessler’s critique of our capitalist society and its ethos of praising material success to the near total exclusion of other areas of achievement.

Since our society holds material achievement in esteem it follows that our society praises ambition. We admire ambitious people and try to raise our children to be ambitious. Ambition itself is neutral, it can be the motive for good or bad deeds. In this chapter Rav Dessler critiques the ambition to acquire wealth.

Rav Dessler quoted a certain “thinker” who said that “ambition is life.”  Rav Dessler says that this idea exposes all that is wrong with our society’s values. Ambition is a form of hunger. Ambition is the striving to attain something that the person lacks. When a person requires nourishment the ambition to obtain food is hunger. But a person’s life cannot be a perpetual state of hunger. The ambitious person who lives with a constant yearning to acquire more and more wealth has no life at all.

Rav Dessler bases his critique of the life of ambition on the observation that people never find satisfaction inpossessions. When a person acquires an object which he craved he will become bored by it after a short time. If a person’s goal is the acquisition of wealth he will never be satisfied by the wealth which he already possesses. Chazal teach:

קהלת רבה (וילנא) פרשה א

אמר ר’ יודן בשם ר’ איבו אין אדם יוצא מן העולם וחצי תאותו בידו אלא אן אית ליה מאה בעי למעבד יתהון תרתין מאוון, ואן אית ליה תרתי מאוון בעי למעבד יתהון ארבעה מאה

Ambition can never lead to satisfaction. When animal is hungry, it eats until it is no longer hungry. This very basic hunger is finite. An animal can be sated. Human hunger is different in its basic nature. The hunger for acquisition is the hunger for something which is “outside.” The hunger for material objects is not an internal feeling or need which can be met.  If I need more things in order to be happy, well there are always more things out there which I need and I will be constantly striving to obtain those things.

Rav Dessler divides all of humanity into two groups. There are takers and there are givers.  Takers live in a state of constant anxiety and dissatisfaction. Givers know happiness. Chazal said:

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ד

איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו

Chazal did not say ” “איזהו עשיר  המסתפק בחלקו they deliberately chose the word “.שמח” There is a specific blessing which Hashem gives us- the blessing of being satisfied. The mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon  is taught with the words:

דברים פרק ח

(י) וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵרַכְתָּ….

When a person has developed spiritually she will be happy with whatever possessions she has acquired.  She will know what is truly important and her ambitions will be directed towards spiritual as opposed to material growth. That sort of person will know the blessing of “.ושבעת”

When a person has the ברכה of ושבעת he can become a giver. Giving comes from happiness. Only the happy person can give because he wants to share his happiness with others.

This is what we learned yesterday. In the next z’man we will study the Chasidic work שם שמואל which contains teaching on the פרשת השבוע. I hope that we will return to מכתב אליהו in the future.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiurim. Stuart Fischman


Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman graduated from Yeshiva University in 1980 and the dental school of Columbia University in 1985. In 1989 he began studying and teaching at Yeshivat Hamivtar and now studies and teaches at Yeshivat Machanaim in Efrat. He has rabbinic ordination from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.