Friday, December 25, 2009

Mesorah According To Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol

While learning Massechet Negaim I came across a fascinating Pirush Hamishna. There are different types of Negaim – skin abnormalities – that can cause Tume’ah and each has its peculiar rules. A Nega (Baheret) that appears within a wound or a burn becomes Tameh if after a week of segregation, it expands within the wound or if it grows a white hair. If it remains stationary and does not grow a white hair the person is sent home and is Tahor. Furthermore, the expansion must be within the wound. If it expands outside the wound into healthy skin, it does not count. The Mishna 9:3 posits a situation where there is a wound and a Nega within it, covering completely the wound both as large as a sela, located in the palm of a hand. Hair does not grow nor can expansion matter as it would have to be outside the wound as the Nega covers the whole wound. At first blush, it would seem that this kind of Nega could not ever become Tameh. Rabbi Eliezer was asked what the Halacha would be in such a case. To segregate the person for a week to see if any change may occur does not seem to be practical as there apparently is no possibility of Tume’ah. He answered that you do segregate that person for observation. At their surprise, he explained that it is possible that after a week, the Nega would shrink and the person would be sent home and a few days later the Nega would increase in size. Such a case makes the person a definite Tameh (Vaykra 8:35-36). They then asked him what if the wound and the Nega were exactly a Griss (a smaller size, the minimum size of a Nega) in which case shrinking would mean no Nega at all. A further enlargement back to a Griss would be seen as a new Nega and keep the person in limbo without ever becoming a definite Tameh. And here things become interesting –

אמרו לו, והלוא מקומה כגריס. אמר להן, לא שמעתי.

They said to him [Rabbi Eliezer] what if its size is a Griss? He answered I did not hear.

A little background is needed here. Rabbi Eliezer was the greatest pupil of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, the leader of the Sanhedrin during the destruction of the second temple. RE was a survivor of the war and took part in the immense effort organized by RYBZ to collect and organize the whole Masorah of Torah up to their time. They foresaw the spiritual upheavals facing the nation and worked to protect our spiritual heritage. RE had a brilliant memory and never forgot anything (Avot 2:8). He also claimed that he never said anything that he did not hear from his teachers. (Much has been written about the meaning of this statement see Rav Reuven Margulies in his Olelot and recently Professor Gilat published a book on R. Eliezer where he addresses the issue). His answer here therefore is quite meaningful.

אמר לו רבי יהודה בן בתירה, אלמד בו. אמר לו, אם לקיים דברי חכמים, הין.

Rabbi Yehudah Ben Beteira offers “Alamed” [to use logical and exegetical tools] to deduce the Halacha for this case. RE responds that if it will support the Chachamim yes, go ahead.
Rambam in his Pirush Hamishnah comments – (my translation/paraphrase)

When RE said I did not hear, he meant that he did not hear a good reason why the person in this case should be segregated. When RYBB suggested that he would give a reason, he told him that if, his reasoning will support segregation and explain the logic for it, to go ahead. However, should he reinforce the question and give more reasons why he should not be segregated, RE did not want to hear it. RE had a kabala that in this case the person has to be segregated but did not know what could happen at the end of the segregation for a conclusive Tume’ah to be decided.

Not being able to think of a reason why a Halacha should be so is not enough to reverse a Mesora of a Halacha. I am not sure to what category of kabala this belongs to, whether the Pirushim Hamekubalim from Sinai or some later Takanah or Gezeirah. The reason I place this Halacha in one of these two categories and not as a precedent decided by an earlier Sanhedrin based on the hermeneutic rules of logic, because those can be reversed by later Sanhedrin. In any case, this gives us a clearer picture of what RE meant when he said he would not say things that he did not learn from his teachers. He meant that he would not second-guess an authentic Mesora and even if he could not figure out the reasoning and come up with a plausible application, he would not amend it. In fact, RYBB came up with a possibility that made sense of the Halacha.

אמר לו, שמא ייוולד לו שחין אחר חוצה לו, ויפסה לתוכו. אמר לו, חכם גדול אתה, שקיימת דברי חכמים

RYBB pointed out that it is possible for the segregated Nega to expand beyond the wound it was covering to an adjoining one that may spring up during the segregation period. That would satisfy the requirement of expansion within a wound as opposed to healthy skin. I am not sure, why this was so far fetched that Rabbi Eliezer could not come up with it, but be it as it may, it is an interesting insight into his thinking. It is also notable, the effusive praise RE gave RYBB for coming up with this possibility, calling him Chacham Gadol.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship. - Creation From Nothingness - The Creation of Time. (Part two of a series)

Stephen Hawking in a lecture about creation from nothingness makes the following statement:

“The problem of whether or not the universe had a beginning was a great concern to the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He felt there were logical contradictions, or Antimonies, either way. If the universe had a beginning, why did it wait an infinite time before it began? He called that the thesis. On the other hand, if the universe had existed forever why did it take an infinite time to reach the present stage? He called that the anti thesis. Both the thesis, and the anti thesis, depended on Kant's assumption, along with almost everyone else, that time was Absolute. That is to say, it went from the infinite past, to the infinite future, independently of any universe that might or might not exist in this background.

This is still the picture in the mind of many scientists today. However, in 1915, Einstein introduced his revolutionary General Theory of Relativity. In this, space and time were no longer Absolute, no longer a fixed background to events. Instead, they were dynamical quantities that were shaped by the matter and energy in the universe. They were defined only within the universe, so it made no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. It would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole. It is not defined.” (For the whole lecture, see here )

In MN 2:13 Rambam has the following discussion:

Even time itself is among the things created; for time depends on motion, i.e., on an accident in things which move, and the things upon whose motion time depends are themselves created beings, which have passed from non-existence into existence. … For time is undoubtedly an accident and according to our opinion one of the created accidents like blackness and whiteness. It is not a quality, but an accident connected with motion. This must be clear to all who understand what Aristotle has said on time and its real existence…. We consider time a thing created: it comes into existence in the same manner as other accidents, and the substances which form the substratum for the accidents. For this reason, viz., because time belongs to the things created, it cannot be said that God produced the Universe in the beginning…. Consider this well; for he who does not understand it is unable to refute forcible objections that are raised against the theory of Creatio ex nihilo. If you admit the existence of time before the Creation, you will be compelled to accept the theory of the Eternity of the Universe. For time is an accident and requires a substratum. You will therefore have to assume that something [beside God] existed before this Universe was created, an assumption which it is our duty to oppose.”

I am not a historian of medieval philosophy and I do not have the expertise to know whether this insight of Rambam about time was accepted generally in his time. From the presentation (including the pieces I skipped), it would seem that Rambam considered his opinion as novel in his time. This however is very important in Rambam’s thinking and has major implication in our ongoing discussion. In the previous post, I explained that although Rambam bases his thinking on Aristotelian physics, when it comes to metaphysics he deviates strongly and disagrees with Aristotles. It is not because he can prove that Aristotle is wrong but rather because Aristotle cannot prove his position nor is there a possibility that anyone will ever be able to do so.

“Everything produced comes into existence from non-existence. Even when the substance of a thing has been in existence, and has only changed its form, the thing itself, which has gone through the process of genesis and development, and has arrived at its final state, has now different properties from those which it possessed at the commencement of the transition from potentiality to reality, or before that time… It is therefore quite impossible to infer from the nature which a thing possesses after having passed through all stages of its development, what the condition of the thing has been in the moment when this process commenced; nor does the condition of a thing in this moment show what its previous condition has been. If you make this mistake, and attempt to prove the nature of a thing in potential existence by its properties when actually existing, you will fall into great confusion: you will reject evident truths and admit false opinions.” (MN2:17)

We extrapolate how things were based on the nature we know and the science we develop to explain it. That is based on the world we know. It is however impossible to extrapolate from the present state of our existence to how it was before everything we know came into existence. Therefore, Rambam argues that Aristotle when he talks about things that are beyond or before our existence is only conjecturing and trying to argue for what he considers the most likely, not truly what it was. In other words, Aristotle when he talks about creation is talking about something no one can ever know based on science and factual evidence.

The important thing that we have to take away from this is that Rambam believes that a scientific answer to how the Universe came into existence will never be demonstrated. We live in this universe, the physical one and we will never be able to extrapolate and definitely prove how it was before existence came to be. It is with this preamble in mind that we read Rambam in (MN2:25)

“Owing to the absence of all proof, we reject the theory of the Eternity of the Universe; and it is for this very reason that the noblest minds spent and will spend their days in research. For if, the Creation had been demonstrated by proof, even if only according to the Platonic hypothesis, all arguments of the philosophers against us would be of no avail. If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it.”

Many have picked on these words of Rambam that he had an esoteric position that Aristotle was right. Some even made him out to be a hidden heretic, a precursor of Spinoza. But if read in the proper context it is clear that Rambam rejects Aristotle’s position and even Plato’s Materia Prima theory as conjectures that can never be proven. The answer to the question is therefore relegated to religion and revelation. It is a matter of accepting a position taught by prophecy without worrying that it can ever be disproved. We can confidently accept it.

Clearly, this confirms Rabbeinu Avraham rejection of those who accused Rambam of being an Aristotelian. In an upcoming post, I will discuss and show how Rambam was cautious and when it came to a matter that Aristotle believed to be scientific while Rambam felt that science might one day find a different explanation, he was extremely cautious and accepted Aristotle for lack of a better explanation.

Before I leave this, Hawking in his presentation does not necessarily accept that creation from nothingness was a result of God’s will. He conjectures a merging of Einstein’s relativity and quantum physics as the explanation of how things came into being from nothing. That will still only be a theory and will also leave us with the question: was this a spontaneous singularity or a willed one. I am confident that a scientific answer is impossible.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship.

Rambam is accused of explaining Judaism in a way that adapts it to Aristotelian philosophy, the physics and science of his time. He is accused of this, not only by modern scholars, but also by many traditional great Jewish thinkers such as Ramban – many times in his writings – and Gra in Yoreh Deah Hilchot Avodah Zara. This accusation and misunderstanding of Rambam has taken root. It is why many people, especially the Bnei Hayeshivot nowadays consider Rambam’s philosophy as passé and to be ignored accepting the more mystical approaches that clearly differentiate between religion and science, giving primacy to the former. This approach keeps us deep in Galut (a subject worth talking about at some future time) and is a hindrance to our religion’s ultimate goal of bringing its light to all the nations of the world.

A well-educated person must develop a split personality to accept the contemporary popular understanding of religion as a way of life while acting and thriving in society and the world. This disconnect between religion and daily life has compelled the “really religious” to remove themselves into their segregated communities and spend their life sitting in Beit Hamidrash, never acting on what the Torah teaches them. Torah is no longer “Chukei Chaim”, laws of living. In fact, many teachings of the Torah are distorted to fit this misguided understanding of what is required of us. It is also at the root of the unethical and immoral behavior we witness almost daily in our community. That Torah, especially when it deals with daily life in society, is for learning not living is a conclusion that results from this way of thinking.

At the end of Rambam’s life (died 1204), controversies about his teachings began and continued uninterrupted for decades and centuries after his death. The first Maimonidean opposition was led by great Rabbis of Southern France and Northern Spain, among them such luminaries as Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (near Barcelona died 1263) and Rabbeinu Shlomo Min Hahar (Montpellier in Provence). Rabbeinu Yonah was a Chaver and relative of Ramban who penned the famous letter which starts with “Terem A’aneh Ani Shogeg” (page 336 in Chavel’s Kitvei Haramban), defending Rambam and castigating Rambam’s detractors. Of course, we all know that Ramban did not see eye to eye with Rambam on many theological issues but he was great enough to dissent gracefully and with respect with the great thinker. This controversy ended in 1233 with the first burning of Jewish Sefarim, the books of Rambam, by the monks who could not pass such a great opportunity. This began the tragic cycle of burning Shas and all Sifrei Yisrael in France and subsequently all over Europe, leaving only two original reliable manuscripts of Shas for later printers. Rabbeinu Yonah it is said had great misgivings about his earlier stand and as repentance undertook not to openly disagree with Rambam in his Halachik writings after that time.

Rambam’s son Rabbeinu Avraham, when he heard about the controversy and its consequence, penned a letter named Milchamot Hashem, which Rav Reuven Margulies edited and published. Rabbeinu Avraham addresses the accusation that his father was misled by Aristotle the Greek. The following is my translation:

“The fools who lack intelligence, were not satisfied with their lack of thought and knowledge to the point that the prophet refers to such people - יִִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע, עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן - but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider. They also decided in their foolishness that anyone that is interested in knowledge is a Min and Kofer in the Torah and anyone that studied philosophy has acquired the beliefs of the philosophers. [That is incorrect] for they [the philosophers] believe the world to be eternal without a beginning while we disagree with them based on the belief promulgated by the torah. We bring arguments against the philosophers to clarify the Torah belief that the world is new and created and that there is only One eternal entity that is First and Last, and that is HKBH… That is how the sages told us (in Avot 2:16), “be steadfast to learn Torah and know how to answer an Apikores”. We do the same with all their other beliefs which do not agree with Torah’s beliefs. This [disagreement on specific subjects] does not compel us to disagree with their [the philosopher’s correct] beliefs that agree with Torah, such as that God is unique and True, He is not a body nor has features. However, we do disagree with these [Rabbis] who have a faulty theology about the uniqueness of God claiming in their mistaken and erroneous thinking that God is in a place, sits on a throne, because it is a belief that is proven to be wrong.”

I believe it is important to understand what Rabbeinu Avraham is telling us as it has practical implications to how we must deal with the sciences of our time and our religion.
Rambam makes a clear distinction between scientific facts and metaphysics. In medieval science, that distinction was not clear. Science was based on what were considered philosophical truths rather than empirical evidence. For example, it was believed that the planets have a circular orbit because that is a perfect movement. The universe strives for perfection, thus the orbits must be perfect. Observations to the contrary had to be explained away using complicated formulae that fit the underlying philosophy. Rambam accepted the observations and the explanations given with a grain of salt. Here are two (amongst many) of his comments on the subject where his skepticism comes across clearly.

“The theory of Aristotle in respect to the causes of the motion of the spheres led him to assume the existence of Intelligences. Although this theory consists of assertions which cannot be proved, yet it is the least open to doubt, and is more systematic than any other, as has been stated by Alexander in the book called The Origin of the Universe.” (MN 2:3)

“For as regards the things in the sublunary world, his [Aristotle] explanations are in accordance with facts, and the relation between cause and effect is clearly shown. It can therefore be assumed that everything is the necessary result of the motions and influences of the spheres. But when he treats of the properties of the spheres, he does not clearly show the causal relation, nor does he explain the phenomena in that systematic way which the hypothesis of natural laws would demand.” (MN 2:19)

The sense we get is that Rambam confronted the difficulties presented by observations and had to live with the best explanation he could find until a better one could be found. That is so with clear observations that needed explaining and he could not do so with the tools he had at hand without resorting to Metaphysical theories. He had to be tentative because he had a sense that future generations may come up with better explanations.

How did he deal with matters that could never be explained by science such as the eternity of the world, creation from nothingness, whether the universe was willed into being or is it the result of some singularity? Aristotle addressed these questions and tried to answer them rationally. Rambam points out that if we read Aristotle carefully we can see that his theories in this area were very tentative.

As to the proofs of Aristotle and his followers for the Eternity of the Universe, they are, according to my opinion, not conclusive; they are open to strong objections, as will be explained.” (MN2:16)

In fact, the way Aristotle presents his ideas on the subject of Eternity show that he had doubts about how conclusive his own thinking was.

“In this chapter I intend to show that Aristotle was well aware that he had not proved the Eternity of the Universe. He was not mistaken in this respect. He knew that he could not prove his theory, and that his arguments and proofs were only apparent and plausible… He says in his book Physics (8, chap. 1.) as follows: "All the Physicists before us believed that motion is eternal, except Plato, who holds that motion is transient; according to his opinion the heavens are likewise transient." Now, if Aristotle had conclusive proofs for his theory he would not have considered it necessary to support it by citing the opinions of preceding Physicists, nor would he have found it necessary to point out the folly and absurdity of his opponents. For a truth, once established by proof, does neither gain force nor certainty by the consent of all scholars, nor lose by the general dissent.” (MN 2:15)(This whole chapter is worth reading. You can find it here )

As I want to keep posts to an acceptable length, I will discuss Rambam’s approach to these matters that cannot be proven scientifically in an upcoming post. We will also see on what basis subjects belong to this category.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does a Non-philosophical Person Gain Rights to the World To Come (Olam Haba)? Nomenclature(Part 5 in a series)

Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 8:4 lists the different terms the prophets used when referring to Olam Haba.

ד] וכמה שמות קראו לה דרך משל: הר ה', ומקום קדשו, ודרך הקודש, וחצרות ה', ואוהל ה', ונועם ה', והיכל ה', ובית ה', ושער ה'

If we look at the verses where these terms for Olam Haba are used, we find that the term refer to different types and levels of apprehension and knowledge. The first two in the above Halacha are found in Tehilim 24:3.

ג מִי-יַעֲלֶה בְהַר-יְהוָה; וּמִי-יָקוּם, בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ.

3 Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? And who shall stand in His holy place?

ד נְקִי כַפַּיִם, וּבַר-לֵבָב
אֲשֶׁר לֹא-נָשָׂא לַשָּׁוְא נַפְשִׁי; וְלֹא נִשְׁבַּע לְמִרְמָה.

4 He that has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not taken My name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully.
Ethical behavior allows entry into “God’s mountain and holy place”.

The next term, way of holiness, is found in Yeshayahu 35:8, in the context of not being impure but at the same time even fools have a place in it; they will not stray on that path.

ח וְהָיָה-שָׁם מַסְלוּל וָדֶרֶךְ, וְדֶרֶךְ הַקֹּדֶשׁ יִקָּרֵא לָהּ--לֹא-יַעַבְרֶנּוּ טָמֵא, וְהוּא-לָמוֹ; הֹלֵךְ דֶּרֶךְ וֶאֱוִילִים, לֹא יִתְעוּ.

8 And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those; the wayfaring men, yea fools, shall not stray therein.

The next term is found in Tehilim 92:14. All these terms seem to be referring to a level of Olam Haba that is attained through ethical and moral behavior.

The next grouping of three is found in Tehilim 27:4.

ד אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה-- אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.

4 One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.

Here theological excellence seems to be the theme. It would take many posts to analyze thoroughly each term and its uses in Tanach and seeing how consistent they are when the same term is used in more than one place. But I think this will suffice to establish that the terms relate to different kinds and levels of apprehension.

Reading the famous parable Rambam uses in MN 3:51 to describe the different levels of apprehension and knowledge that are needed in the search for God, I was struck how similar the parable is to this Halacha. Here is the parable with my interpolations from the above Halacha in parentheses. Note that I am just suggesting the comparisons and have not done so with a rigorous analysis.

A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the city, and partly outside the city [הר ה', מקום קדשו]. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the ruler’s habitation, and their faces in another direction. And some are desirous and zealous to reach the ruler’s habitation,[היכל ה'] seeking "to inquire in his temple," [ וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלו ] and to minister before him, but have not yet seen the wall of the habitation. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate [שער ה']. Others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the antechamber [אוהל ה']; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king [בית ה'] in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king--at a distance, or close by--hear his words, or speak to him [נועם ה' ]. I will now explain the simile which I have made. The people who are abroad are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition… Those who desire to arrive at the palace and to enter it, but have never seen it [דרך הקודש] are the mass of religious people, the multitudes that observe the divine commandments but are ignorant. Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, [חצרות ה'] are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law. They believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof. Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the antechamber [אוהל ה]; and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives.
My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace [חצרות ה'] in search of the gate[שער ה'] . Thus, our Sages figuratively use the phrase: "Ben-Zoma is still outside." When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court, and are with the king in the same palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, which include men of different grades of perfection.”

Clearly, a person committed to the search for God, though not yet in the innermost chambers, partakes in some form of Olam Haba. Once a person points himself in the right direction, he is on the path towards developing his inborn Sechel in potentia. A small step in that direction immediately creates a nefesh that can remain forever. The search for HKBH must be focused on His ways, the only real trace of Hashem that we humans can apprehend, and emulating those ways. Torah and Mitzvot are some of those ways of HKBH given to us through tradition as a marker on the way to a deeper and personal understanding.

True that Rambam bases his understanding of the soul on Aristotelian thought, he however invests it with the Torah thinking where the wish alone to purify oneself starts the process of Olam Haba. The key to understanding Rambam’s Olam Haba I believe is the same as his explanation of creation ab nihilo. There are things that the Torah and Neviim tell us that scientific investigation cannot ever prove. These traditions have to be evaluated in light of the scientific reality we know and only accept them if they do not violate or contradict that reality. Whether the world is eternal or created from nothingness will never be proven by science. Nevuah teaches that it was created at the will of God. It does not contradict scientific facts. It must therefore be accepted. Olam Haba cannot be proven scientifically. The body-mind connection conundrum cannot be solved by science. Abstract knowledge has no physical existence but affects greatly the physical world we live in. That knowledge however exists and can be made personal when discovered and understood. What happens to that personal knowledge after the person’s passing is a matter of speculation which will never be resolved by science. The Neviim tell us that it remains. We will never understand what that means while in this physical existence.

הטובה הגדולה שתהיה בה הנפש בעולם הבא, אין שם דרך בעולם הזה להשיגה ולידע אותה, שאין אנו יודעין בעולם הזה אלא טובת הגוף, ולה אנו מתאווין

It is impossible to apprehend and know the great good that the nefesh will experience in Olam Haba, while we are in this world. For in this world we know only material good and it is what we crave. (Hilchot Teshuvah 8:11)

These last Halachot in the chapter that discusses Olam Haba are I believe the key to how Rambam understands it. See them here .

Before I end this series I want to expand a little on this last point in future posts.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My Father In Law A"H and Deveikut.

Rambam explains that a person is born with a שכל בכוח – a mind in-potentia – and the lifetime goal is to develop oneself so that one has a שכל בפועל – an in-actu mind. It is that developed mind that makes a person into what he is, it is the essence of a man and that is what differentiates man from all other living creatures. The manifestation of that mind in-actu is the ability to comprehend the מושכלות – abstract thought and knowledge and the highest and most advanced level of that type of knowledge is the apprehension of God.

When a person acquires knowledge, that knowledge becomes one with him. The brain, the physical entity that gives man the ability to think, absorbs that knowledge and in that process, it becomes a part of the person. It is through knowledge that the knower and the subject that is known become one. In the same sense, when one apprehends God, at whatever level of sophistication that apprehension is achieved, that apprehension becomes part of the person. That state is metaphorically referred to as Deveikut – attachment or bonding with HKBH.

The problem with human beings is that their need to take care of their physical and material needs clouds their thinking and distracts them from their goal. This is metaphorically referred to as the dividing curtain – Massach Hamavdil. The goal of Torah and Mitzvot is to help a man overcome that weakness and train him to keep these material needs in their proper perspective, dealing with them only as needed. However, the human condition is such, that even the greatest of men, Moshe Rabbeinu, could only achieve the ultimate apprehension at the time of death. For as life ebbs, material needs slowly diminish. It is only at those times that a clear apprehension of the non-material can be accomplished. Rambam explains that that type of death is referred to as Al Pi Hashem, or as the Rabbis call it metaphorically Mitat Neshikah – death by a kiss.

I had the privilege to attend to my father in law ע"ה during the last ten days of his life. He came back to my brother in law’s house from the death trap that is Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, (more on that in a separate post), in terrible shape. Because of the mistreatment in the hospital, he had developed a fungal infection that had flayed his entire lower back. In addition to his body being riddled with cancer, he also had a pathological fracture in his arm. He had to be moved every few hours notwithstanding the excruciating pain every small movement elicited. Washing and cleaning up in the morning was pure torture. It was a testament to the fine gentleman he was that after suffering excruciating pain to the point of crying during the process he would not fail to thank the aide and everyone that helped move him or clean him. As he was crying out from pain, I held his hand and told him that we were cleaning him up so that he could daven. Hearing that, he would temporarily become stoic. One touching moment was when after one of these painful episodes he spontaneously made a Bracha with Shem and Malchut –

ברוך אתה ה"א מלך העולם שהכל ברא לכבודו

On another occasion, after another painful episode, he suddenly insisted on immediately making a mitzvah. As he had difficulty consuming the Ensure that was his nourishment, I suggested he have some and make a Bracha. He did so with alacrity and began eating.

But the most touching was when I davened with him after the cleanup. I would ask him whether he was ready to wash his hands and start davening. At that stage, he had difficulty talking and would nod his head in acquiescence. I held his hand and said Birkat Hatorah starting with Al Netilat Yadayim and Asher Yatzar, at which point he squeezed my hand and you could see his complete concentration. We then said Birchot Kryat Shema and the Shemona Esreh holding hands. He kept on nodding off because of the painkillers and arousing himself to continue davening. While Davening you could see his face light up, and I felt how he was connecting with HKBH. I have never before experienced such an intense davening. He was so thankful that I gave him this opportunity to serve HKBH that he started kissing my hand. There are no words to describe the emotions that I experienced. As he had lost his appetite, I told him after davening that to continue serve HKBH, one has to stay alive which requires eating. He immediately forced himself to take in nourishment.

The last day of his life, when his breathing was already quite labored and he had lost the ability to communicate verbally, I still had the great Zchut to daven with him. He kept up with the davening crunching his eyes and squeezing my hand at the appropriate parts of the Shema and Tefilah. He passed away surrounded by his family, children, grandchildren and great grand children, after partaking in Mincha and Ma’ariv Betzibur. I learned in these few days more about Deveikut and what it means to become attached to HKBH than in my whole life. I think about these ten days as my personal Asseret Yemei Teshuvah.

One does not arrive at this level of Deveikut without a lifetime of preparation. My father in law was a person that did not waste a minute. Though he was a businessperson all his life, he never missed a day that he would not be in the Beit Hamidrash way before dawn. He would give Shiurim in Gemara and Ohr Hachaim and would prepare for them intensely. I never attended a shiur but I heard from participants that he was very clear and his Shiurim were well attended. After retirement, the last 14 years of life were spent in the Beit Hamidrash from before dawn to night, learning with Chaverim and preparing and giving Shiurim.

He was a great medakdek in Mitzvot all his life. He was very attached to the Mitzvah of Tzedakah. He would not turn away a poor man and treated everyone with dignity. He considered himself as the secretary to his wife, my mother in law Tibadel Lechaym, who is the president and one of the founders of the Satmar Bikur Cholim. He was also involved in the founding of Tomchei Shabbat in Boro Park.

During his last days, he made sure to show how much he loved all his children and grandchildren. His face would light up when one of them would visit. Although he was an authoritarian figure when healthy, all that melted away at the end and all that was left was love and affection. We will all miss him very much.

יהי זכרו ברוך.