Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Philosophical Method: Dialectic vs Demonstration, or, Matlock vs Sherlock

Dan asked a great question on the previous post:
…can you to define what you mean by "philosophical method"? Also, what is the difference between the "philosophical method" and the "scientific method"?
Of course, Dan is correct.  There is no way to answer my question from the previous post without first addressing his questions.  In this post I will attempt to answer his first question.

I think “philosophical method” might be defined differently depending on when and where it is asked.  I will try, to the best of my ability, to explain what it might have meant to R. Yehuda Halevi. The simplest answer is that it is a method whereby one attempts to reach the truth.  That said, I think it is important to distinguish between two types of philosophical method: dialectic and demonstration.

Let’s start with dialectical method.  Let us say that a philosopher wishes to understand what love is.  He or she might start with some examples and arrive at a definition.  This definition will be tested with more examples until a satisfactory definition that seems to account for all the cases he or she can come up with is reached.  This work of definition (called induction) is actually carried on before the “dialectic” begins.  Once a proposition emerges the dialectical work—a process of question and answer whereby propositions are tested (think Matlock--ignore these parentheses if Matlock means nothing to you)—can begin.  A proposition is asserted and difficulties are raised and resolutions are offered until it is either affirmed or rejected.   
For example, let us say that based on all the examples I can think of, love should be defined as the desire to possess something.  At this point the dialectic may begin.  My opponent (real or imagined) might counter that one who is truly in love with another person would be willing to die for that individual which would clearly not result in the possession of that object.  I might find a way to counter that argument with a refinement of my original definition or I might be forced to completely abandon my definition entirely.  I might even realize that my opponent and I are talking about two different kinds of love.
This method is clearly limited.  After all, who knows what new, more clever argument might be thought of, or what new case might come to light that might throw into question what was previously thought settled. 

There is, however, another philosophical method which offers more certainty: demonstration.  It starts with propositions that are considered unassailable and moves forward by building arguments, step-by-step, from these original premises toward some conclusion (think Sherlock--I would be very surprised if that name means nothing to you). 
For example, everyone would agree that man is mortal.  Everyone would also agree that Socrates was a man.  Therefore, we can say with certainty that Socrates is mortal.
Or: All that is perfect does not change; G-d is perfect; G-d does not change.
The problem with demonstration (which works deductively) is that the conclusion can only be as strong as the premises.  Language has a funny way of playing tricks on the mind.  The vaguer one’s terms the more likely one’s conclusions might not be as certain as one thought.
For example, everyone would agree that that which is good is beloved.  Socrates was good.  Therefore, we can say with certainty that Socrates was beloved.
At first, this line of reasoning sounds solid.  However, one need not read very far into Plato’s Apology to realize that not everyone loved Socrates.  Now, is the fault in how I am defining beloved?  Is it in my definition of good?  Or, is it in my assertion that that which is good is beloved.  What we can say with certainty is that this conclusion is flawed in some way because it contradicts the facts.


I would like to suggest that Rabbi Yehuda Halevi had more problems with demonstration than he did with dialectic.  (My apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Kuzari: Philosophism

This past summer I began leading a class on the Kuzari at Sephardic Bikur Holim, Seattle.  It was such a joy studying this beautiful work with such an amazing group of people.  On the Shabbat of Parashat Noach the class went on hiatus and will resume, God willing, March 15th.  We read and discussed the first 67 sub-sections of the first (of 5) sections of the Kuzari.

Here’s a link to the text: in Hebrew and in English.

Over the next few months I will try and post as regularly as possible.  I will keep the posts short and to the point.  My goal is to create a forum for discussion.  In the first few posts I will simply review what we have already learned.  I will try and end each post with a question (or questions) that I hope will get the discussion started.

And so, let us start at the beginning.

The Kuzari begins with a dream.  The King of the Khazars (the Kuzari) had a dream in which an angel informed him that his intention was good but his deeds were not desirous to God.  The Kuzari feels driven to fulfill the demand placed on him by his dream.  First he seeks the council of a philosopher.  However, he is not terribly pleased with what he hears.  

The world, as construed by the philosophers, cannot countenance a God with desires.  To have desire is to be lacking and God, the most perfect being of all, can have no lack.  To make matters worse there is no way that God could care about the Kuzari and his particular predicament.  God, being perfect, is not subject to change.  The Kuzari is one particular individual who is constantly undergoing changes and transformations.  If God were to know the Kuzari His knowledge would change and, hence, He himself would be changing. 

The Kuzari is not satisfied with the philosopher for one simple reason—his idealistic world view contradicts his actual experience.  As much as the philosopher might not be able to construe God as having desires or knowledge of particulars and fit such a God into his logical system, the Kuzari knows what he experienced: he had the dream.

Though the path of the philosopher is rejected there is a tremendous amount to be gained from Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s presentation.  The philosopher helps us understand the intellectual milieu of the Kuzari.  Just as we, as modern Jews, might struggle against scientism (the view that everything can be known through the scientific method and only that which can be known through the scientific method exists) Yehuda HaLevi had to struggle against (let me coin a term): philosophism (the belief that everything can be known through the philosophical method and only that which can be understood through the philosophical method exists).

Question for discussion: in what ways might philosophy be valuable?  In what ways might philosophy be dangerous?


Friday, August 23, 2013

A Story Telling People: First Fruits and Prayer

In 1909 Sigmund Freud made his first and only visit to the United States.  He was to receive an honorary degree from Clark University and give five lectures on the topic of psychoanalysis.  This was the first official recognition of the young science and Freud later wrote that as he stepped up to the podium to deliver his lectures “it seemed like the realization of some incredible day-dream.”[1]
In the first of these five lectures Freud traced the origins of psychoanalysis to the work of his colleague, Dr. Josef Breuer.  In those days the patient who gave physicians a run for their money was the hysteric.  It was a perplexing disorder with a multitude of possible physical manifestations and no discernible physical cause.  Freud described how these patients would make their physicians feel: 
…all his knowledge—his training in anatomy, in physiology and in pathology—leaves him in the lurch when he is confronted by the details of hysterical phenomena.  He cannot understand hysteria, and in the face of it he is himself a layman.  This is not a pleasant situation for anyone who as a rule sets so much store by his knowledge.  So it comes about that hysterical patients forfeit his sympathy.  He regards them as people who are transgressing the laws of his science—like heretics in the eyes of the orthodox.  He attributes every kind of wickedness to them, accuses them of exaggeration, of deliberate deceit, of malingering.  And he punishes them by withdrawing his interest from them.
The hysterical patient had no voice.  She (most of the time it was a she) was on the fringes of society—she was unwanted, unheard. So what happened?
Freud continues:
Dr. Breuer’s attitude towards his patient deserved no such reproach.  He gave her both sympathy and interest, even though, to begin with, he did not know how to help her….Soon, moreover, his benevolent scrutiny showed him the means of bringing her a first installment of help.
So what was the great cure?  It was something so simple it is almost shocking.  Dr. Breuer listened—he let the patient speak.  The patient coined the name of the new treatment: “the talking cure.” 
It is remarkable that all of Freud’s contributions to psychology began with an act of empathy that gave an unwanted, disenfranchised woman her voice.  I shall return to this connection between empathy and the granting of speech.
Now, let us turn our attention to the first mitzvah of this week’s parasha: the mitzvah of Bikkurim—the bringing of the first fruit. 
Two commandments were involved in the bringing of the first fruit:  the bringing and a declaration.
One had to bring from the first fruits of the land of Israel in a basket to a Kohein stationed in the Temple.  
And then one had to make a special declaration while holding the basket and say:
'I declare this day before God your Lord that I have come into the land, that God swore unto our ancestors to give us.'
At this point the Kohein would take hold of the basket from beneath as the pilgrim held on to the edge of the basket and the pilgrim would read the following six verses—which, conveniently enough also serve as the central text of the haggadah:
My father was a wondering Aramean. He went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, and there became a great, powerful and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and afflicted us, and put upon us difficult labor. We cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, saw our affliction, our burden, and our distress. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand, an outstretched arm, awesome acts, signs and wonders. He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I have brought the first fruits of the earth that you have given me God,'
After completing this recitation the basket was placed before the altar, the pilgrim prostrated himself and made his exit. 
The ceremony of Bikkurim is a culmination of a vast movement of history.  Many years of wandering and affliction led up to this momentous celebration in which the rejoicing pilgrim could stand upon the mountain of the Lord and bask in the light of His great blessings.
There is a fascinating and difficult to understand Midrash Tanchuma which states that when Moshe foresaw that the Holy One blessed is He would ultimately destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and that the mitzvah of Bikkurim would cease to be performed he arose and decreed that one must pray three times a day.  The Midrash explains: For prayer is more dear to the Holy One blessed is He than a hundred good deeds.  We see that when it was decreed upon Moshe that he would not enter the land he began to pray and he said, “Please, let me pass over and see the land…”  The Holy One blessed is He said to him, “It is enough, do not continue to speak of this matter…”  For this reason it is said (only a few verses after the Torah presents the mitzvah of Bikkurim):
This day, the Lord your G-d, commands you to do the statutes and laws, and you shall keep them with all your heart and all your soul.
“…with all your heart and all your soul” being an allusion to prayer.
This is a puzzling midrash. First and foremost: What is the connection between the mitzvah of Bikkurim and prayer?  Why, of all the commandments that would not be able to be performed without the Temple was Moshe so concerned about the cessation of Bikkurim? 
In 1972, more than 60 years after Freud gave his lectures at Clark University, Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zeikher tzadik l’vrakha, delivered a lecture on Philosophy and the Origin of Prayer.  At the beginning of the lecture he made a provocative statement (that made the story about Freud come rushing back into my mind): that a slave is silent—he has no dignity, no voice.  Only the free man has a voice—to be free is to have a voice.  This is the idea which has made its imprint upon our liturgy as semikhat geulah leTefilla, that prayer must follow the blessing in which we reflect upon our redemption from Egypt.  Before we can rise with dignity before He who knows us most intimately we must first recount (and I would hazard: experience) redemption. 
The Rav goes on to define geulah, redemption, as (and I quote):
the shift from the historical periphery to the center—a silent people is transformed by the miraculous power of geulah into a talking, self-expressive people.  The slave has no story to tell.  His existence is non-history making.
            A free people are a story telling people.  Anyone who cares to listen can hear their story.
Thanks to the Rav I can risk an interpretation of this Midrash.  Bikkurim is a story telling event!  The bringing of the first fruits was the moment when we were finally able to rejoice in our freedom, enjoy the Land the Lord gave us and tell the story of our freedom! 
Moshe Rabbeinu, according to the midrash, did not want us to lose our voice.  Though we would lose our land, lose our Temple and lose our opportunity to proclaim our story upon bringing our first fruits to Jerusalem we would never lose our dignity completely—we would always retain our voice.  We would always be a story telling people.
In other words, the redemption from Egypt—even as we await the final redemption (it should come speedily in our days)—would always provide us with what we need to open our mouths in prayer before God.
But, we should not think that our redemption was only meant to give our people, Bnei Yisrael, a voice.  All of God’s ways are models for our own lives. 
Let us remember what begat Freud’s breakthroughs: an act of empathy which gave a woman on the periphery of society a voice and enabled her to live a life free from the tyranny of hysteria. 

Geula, redemption, is not only a historical event it is also a mitzvah incumbent upon each and every one of us: we must act with empathy toward our fellow man—to give those on the periphery a voice and a chance to tell their story.  Let us learn to act as redeemers.  After all: everyone has a story to tell.  
Notes
[1] See Editor's Note, p. xxviii, in Freud, Sigmund (1909) Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (1961).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First a Mensch: The Kuzari on True Religiosity

The following is the text of the derasha I gave this past Shabbat Chazon.
On February, 4th 1961 my father, fifteen years old, landed in Florida as a refugee from Castro’s Cuba.  His only sister, her husband and son had made it out a few months before.  His mother was still in Cuba and it would be another six months until he would be reunited with them all in Brooklyn.  The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) made the arrangements for his escape and placed him with a foster family somewhere in the Everglades.  He spoke no English.  
He had some friends who had also made it out of Cuba and one day he boarded a bus to meet some of them in Miami which was about 25 miles away.  About six miles into the trip an elderly woman, who was black, got on the bus.  As she walked down the aisle my father noticed, promptly stood up and motioned for the woman to take his seat.  Perhaps the bus-driver thought my father was a lone freedom rider—whatever the case may be, he stopped the bus and kicked my father off yelling some expletives that my father was not able to understand.
My father explained to me that in Cuba he was not taught to distinguish between black and white but he was taught how to be courteous and respectful. 
Americans had forgotten something that even a fifteen year old boy knew: how to treat another human being…human dignity.  This theme of human dignity is a (perhaps the) central motif which must occupy our thoughts before Tisha B’Av.
As my father walked back the six miles through the Everglades aside from feeling tired and hot he probably felt confused: how could he be punished for doing something nice?  His consternation was probably similar to the utter dismay experienced by the Neviim: how can the heirs of Avraham and Sarah forget the most basic tenets of civil society?
At this time of year the haftorot do not, as is the usual custom, emphasize a theme in the weekly Torah portion.  For the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av (this being the third) we read haftorot of puranut, punishment, each emphasizing how our evil deeds led to the destruction of Israel and our Temple. This week we read the first chapter of Isaiah.  Its first words give us the name of this Shabbat: Shabbat Chazon—the Vision.     It is an unsettling vision; it is an indictment; it leaves no room for equivocation.  God’s chastisement was to no avail and Israel had to suffer the consequences.  In outward appearance the Jews of that time were very religious. Israel gave plenty of sacrifices and offered many prayers—but they were called worthless—they were accused of having blood on their hands; they had become like Sodom and Gemorah.  Israel was lacking the basics: how to treat their fellow human being.
God implores Israel:
Our Rishonim categorized the mitzvoth of the Torah into two groups: mitzvoth sikhliot, mitzvoth that one could (or should) know from one’s own mind and mitzvoth shimiot, literally, mitzvoth that are heard—mitzvot that are known through Revelation. 
Rav Yehuda HaLevi, in his Kuzari, uses this distinction to help us understand the nature of true religiousity.
Rav Yehuda HaLevi was born in Spain at the end of the 11th century.  We know very little about his life but he has left us with a veritable treasure trove of Hebrew poetry—the most famous expressing his deeply felt yearning to return to Zion.  In fact, perhaps one of the most famous of all the kinot was his composition: the moving ציון הלא תשאלי
However, he is probably even better known for his masterpiece: the Kuzari—a dialogue between a Chakham representing Judaism and the king of the Khazars who ultimately converts to Judaism.
At one point the dialogue turns to what I would characterize, in modern terms, as the nature of religiosity. 
The King of the Khazars, impressed with the great spiritual accomplishments of the Jewish people asks the Chakham:
I should expect to see more hermits and ascetics among you than among other people. (II, 45)
The Chakham responds:
I regret that you have forgotten those fundamental principles to which you already agreed. Did we not agree that man cannot approach God except by means of deeds commanded by him? Do you think that this can be gained by meekness, humility, etc., alone? (II, 46)
“Certainly, and rightly so.” the king responds,
I think I read in your books as follows: 'What does the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God' (Deut. x. 12) and 'O man, what is good, and what does HaShem require of thee: only to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d. (Mic. vi. 8), and many similar passages?
The King is under the impression that one needs to take extraordinary measures in order to reach the highest levels of enlightenment. He imagines that this path must necessitate separation from society and involve some kind of self-abnegation and affliction.  It’s as if he read the last phrase of the verse “walk humbly” and missed the first two: “do justice and love mercy!”  The Chakham’s interpretion of these verses cannot be more different from the Kings.  He responds:
These are the rational laws, being the basis and preamble of the divine law, preceding it in character and time, and being indispensable in the administration of every human society. Even a gang of robbers must have a kind of justice among them if their confederacy is to last.
Shockingly, what the King interprets as a call to asceticism the Chakham interprets as the rational laws that even a gang of robbers must keep (at least to some degree)! The Chakham is teaching the King an important lesson. The way to enlightenment, religiosity, does not demand one to close oneself up in a cave and reject society.  It is, in fact, the very foundation of society.  The Chakham continues:
When Israel's disloyalty had come to such a pass that they disregarded rational and social principles (which are as absolutely necessary for a society as are the natural functions of eating, drinking, exercise, rest, sleeping, and waking for the individual), but held fast to the sacrificial worship and other divine laws, He let them know that He would, in fact, be satisfied with even less. Telling them: “If only you would observe those laws which even the smallest and lowliest community accepts: maintaining justice, helping one’s fellow, and acknowledging God for His kindness.”
For the divine law cannot become complete until the social and rational laws are perfected. The rational law demands justice and recognition of God's bounty. What has he, who fails in this respect, to do with offerings, Sabbath, circumcision, etc., which reason neither demands, nor rejects?
These are mitzvoth through which Israel gained its uniqueness as an addition to [the more basic] rational laws.

In short, as we say in Yiddish, if you’re not a mensch your frumkeit is worthless.  If you’re a mensch then and only then the commandments that we know through revelation can lead one to the highest heights.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Baseball Cards and Trust in Man

This is the text of the derasha I delivered on Shabbat:
I probably started collecting baseball cards somewhere around the time I was in the third grade.
Kids would bring in their baseball cards and excitedly talk about their rarity, value and the all-important stats.  Listening to these conversations around the lunch table I came to the conclusion that these cardboard homages to the baseball gods would be my ticket to social grace.
I told my father I wanted baseball cards. Ever resourceful, he called up his friend who had a son who sold baseball cards. Perfect. He bought me an entire set—Topps brand, every card, rookies and all. I studied them. I sorted them neatly into plastic holders and organized them in binders. I organized them alphabetically; I organized them by team; I probably even organized them by the color of their jerseys. I think you get the point: I really enjoyed organizing them. 
I looked at the backs of the cards over and over again trying to make sense of all the numbers—to internalize the wisdom that could gain me entry into that all important lunchroom conversation…to no avail. I enjoyed baseball cards the way a librarian might enjoy the challenge of cataloging books written in some foreign language he doesn’t speak.
The problem—as you might have guessed by now—was I had actually never watched a game.
Needless to say, I never was able to participate in the great conversation of the third grade.
This story of my youthful hobby illustrates two very important psychological concepts that can unlock one of the central messages of this week’s Torah reading: ambition and idealization. 
At first glance we might say that my ambition was to collect baseball cards, but that would be incorrect.  My ambition was to be one of the gang.  The difficulty emerged due to what’s called idealization.  I idealized the kids who could talk about baseball cards.  They were the cool kids.  My ambition became shaped by my idealization.
Youth is characterized by idealization—both for the good and for the bad.  Maturity is characterized by a shift from idealization to realistic ideals.  In this case, when I was older I was able to replace my idealization of the cool kids with an ideal of what it means to be a good friend.
Now, let us turn to the Parasha.
Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:2-5) sets forth the commandment of shemittah:
When you enter the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord... it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.
The punishment for failure to observe the commandments of shemittah appears later, in Parashat Behukotai (Lev. 26:32-35):
I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.
It is puzzling that our exile and the desolation of the land are so bound up with the mitzvah of Shemitta.  Why such an extreme punishment?  Why is violating Shemitta such a horrible sin?  Of course, we must uncover: What is the purpose of Shemitta?
The Rambam gives two reasons.  And I quote:
As to the mitzvot concerning Shemitta and Yovel some of them teach us sympathy with our fellow-men, and promote the well-being of mankind; for in reference to these laws it is stated in the Torah, "That the poor of your people may eat" (Exod. xxiii. 11); and besides, the land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time.
His first reason is easy to understand.  However, his suggestion that leaving one’s land fallow for a year actually has material benefits—that this rest period can reinvigorate the land and actually increase one’s future yield is surprising.  Rambam’s suggestion, unsurprisingly, raised some eyebrows amongst some later commentaries: If Shemitta actually benefits the owner of the field, then why is the punishment so severe for violating this mitzvah?  Isn’t he, in a sense, punishing himself?
This is where our concepts of ambition and idealization can help us out. 
We all have an ambition to be productive—that’s good.  The problems creep in when we start measuring the success of our ambitions through idealization: by comparing ourselves to other people and turning our work into a competition.
We want to provide for our families.  We want our children to go to good schools.  We want to live in comfort. But, when we start to compare ourselves to others we start to lose focus and our ambitions become unmanageable.  We start putting in extra hours at the office to get that bonus.  We decide that our clothes are not nice enough, our house is not fancy enough, our gardens are not lush enough. 
Life can easily become a never-ending rat-race which has no real meaning. 
Shemitta is the Torah’s way of telling us, “hold on, take stock, take a moment to reflect.”  Life is not a competition—unlock the gates of your fields so “that the poor of your people may eat!” 
It might, as the Rambam writes, actually be better to stop working so hard.  It might be better for our fields to lay fallow for a year, but our over-inflated ambition cannot stand for idle hands.  We must stay busy, for if we do not stay busy what are we?  We often become blind to the fact that it might actually benefit us in the end if we just take some time off. 
The haftorah makes this message resoundingly clear:
אָר֤וּר הַגֶּ֨בֶר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְטַ֣ח בָּֽאָדָ֔ם וְשָׂ֥ם בָּשָׂ֖ר זְרֹע֑וֹ וּמִן־ה' יָס֥וּר לִבּֽוֹ
Cursed is the one who trusts in man, and finds his strength in flesh, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
Rashi explains, the one who trusts in man is the one who says “I will sow during the seventh year and I will eat” placing his trust in his plowing and his harvest.
Shemitta is the great stabilizer of the Jewish people.  It puts in check our tendency to idealize (and ultimately idolize) man’s power.  This is the core value of the Jewish people—to put our trust in no man—to idolize no being and to only accept the majesty of the matzui rishon—the borei Olam—the true source of all Being.
As the haftorah continues:
בָּר֣וּךְ הַגֶּ֔בֶר אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְטַ֖ח בַּֽה' וְהָיָ֥ה ה' מִבְטַחֽוֹ׃
וְהָיָ֞ה כְּעֵ֣ץ ׀ שָׁת֣וּל עַל־מַ֗יִם וְעַל־יוּבַל֙ יְשַׁלַּ֣ח שָֽׁרָשָׁ֔יו וְלֹ֤א ירא (יִרְאֶה֙) כִּי־יָ֣בֹא חֹ֔ם וְהָיָ֥ה עָלֵ֖הוּ רַֽעֲנָ֑ן וּבִשְׁנַ֤ת בַּצֹּ֨רֶת֙ לֹ֣א יִדְאָ֔ג וְלֹ֥א יָמִ֖ישׁ מֵֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת פֶּֽרִי׃
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord; the Lord shall be his trust.
For he shall be like a tree planted by the water, and by a rivulet spreads its roots, and will not see when heat comes, and its leaves shall be green, and in the year of drought will not be anxious, neither shall it cease from bearing fruit.
To sum it up: Every once in a while take some time off from work—a Sabbatical—pour yourself a nice cup of coffee (or tea) and reflect.  With the right mixture of humor and wisdom you’ll be a lot happier.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Hope and Spirit: The Connection Between Ezekiel's Vision of the Dry Bones and the Aftermath of the Golden Calf

The following is the derasha I delivered on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach.  I made a few minor changes to make it work better in print.

The following is a version of one of my favorite jokes (Berger, Peter. 1997. Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimensions of Human Experience, p. xv.)




Quite often our explanations for things are no better than the Rebbe’s “meaning of life.” 
Fortunately,
 דִּבְרֵ֤י חֲכָמִים֙ כַּדָּ֣רְבֹנ֔וֹת...
The words of the wise are like goads…
…they goad us on and send us along paths that we can trust will be productive and worthwhile.
I would like to bring you along the path that I followed in trying to understand the deeper message of the Torah and haftorah readings for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach.
The Torah reading relates the aftermath of the Golden Calf.  In brief, Moshe beseeches God to restore His relationship with Bnei Yisrael, he is instructed to carve new tablets, he is taught the 13 attributes of God’s mercy and the covenant of Sinai is restored.  In the statement of the terms of this renewed covenant we are instructed to celebrate the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.  Shabbat (as well as the mitzvah to redeem the first-issue of your flock and pidyon habein—the redemption of the first-born-son) gets thrown into the presentation of the three pilgrimage festivals and, at first glance, this is why this reading was chosen for Shabbat Chol-haMoed.  However, this answer is not satisfying.  It feels a lot like the Rebbe’s “the world is like a cup of tea.”
Fortunately, the Chakhamim goad us on…they provide us with a haftorah—an additional reading taken from the words of the Prophets.  As is often the case, this haftorah highlights the deeper themes of the Torah reading.  My method is to let the two readings enter into a kind of dialogue, let them play off each other until I am led to some deeper insight.  I believe, once that takes place, we will also be able to see the relevance of these readings to Pesach.
The haftorah, Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, begins with a disturbing image:
1 The hand of the Lord came upon me. He took me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "O mortal, can these bones live again?" I replied, "O Lord God, only You know." 
In the context of Ezekiel’s life it is not hard to see the symbolism of these dry bones.  The situation Ezekiel was confronted with was bleak, in no uncertain terms.  It had been more than thirty years since the Torah renaissance of Yoshiyahu—when that king, famous for his righteous reforms, had radically recommitted his kingdom to the service of God alone.  As we read in the haftorah of the second day of Pesach he purged every nook and cranny of the land from every trace of idolatry, he had renewed the covenant with Hashem and in the grandest of gestures he enjoined the people in an unparalleled celebration of Pesach.
And here was Ezekiel only a little more than thirty years later—a generation—in Exile, living on the banks of the Kebar River trying to inspire and give hope to a people, a thousand miles from their homeland, who had experienced the complete destruction of their national heritage, who had seen, many with their own eyes, the destruction of their Temple and their capitol, Yerushalayim. 
They had no more spirit in them, their life blood had been sapped dry—they were nothing more than a heap of dry bones.  God asks, “Can these bones live again?” and Ezekiel, in perhaps the most sarcastic line in the entire bible replies, “O Lord God, אַתָּ֥ה יָדָֽעְתָּ, You know.”
But Ezekiel’s disbelief, his lack of hope, is rebuffed:
4 And He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause spirit to enter you and you shall live again. 6 I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the Lord!"
Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy over the dry bones—to cause them to hear the word of the Lord!  What shall he prophesy?  What would he say? Ezekiel continues: 
7 I prophesied as I had been commanded. And while I was prophesying, suddenly there was a sound of rattling, and the bones came together, bone to matching bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had grown, and skin had formed over them; but there was no spirit in them. 
What had Ezekiel done wrong?  Now he had complete bodies, but, like Frankenstein’s monster, they still had no life.  His words had fallen short of the mark—they, somehow, lacked spirit, that vital force that moves us and inspires us.  We read on: 
9 Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, O mortal! Say to the spirit: Thus said the Lord God: Come, O spirit, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain, that they may live again." 10 I prophesied as He commanded me. The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude.
In his first attempt to revive the bones, Ezekiel says וְנִבֵּ֖אתִי—I prophesied.  This is what the grammarians call a transitive verb—his action was directed outwards, toward the bones. In his second, successful attempt Ezekiel says, וְהִנַּבֵּ֖אתִי--in English this would also be translated as: I prophesied.  But, in Hebrew this is a reflexive verb—in which the actor, the prophet, acts upon himself.  In his first attempt Ezekiel remained at a distance, removed from his charges.  Only when Ezekiel, the prophet, the visionary leader, became fully enmeshed in the plight of those he was calling could his prophecy give life—only at that point could “they come to life, stand up on their feet, as a vast multitude.”
With this thought I was led back to the Torah reading. 
The transformed Ezekiel reminds me of Moshe, the ultimate man of vision. Moshe was completely bound-up with the plight of the people.  After the sin of the golden calf, for which he clearly had no guilt, he beseeched God:  
Now, if You forgive their sin—But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written."  
Moshe could not lose hope.  There was always the possibility for redemption and renewal.  He knew with the right vision even the decree of Heaven could be reversed and the people could be returned to their former glory—he does not recoil from challenging God’s decree. 
12 Moshe said to the Lord, "See, You say to me, 'Lead this people forward,' but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, 'I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.' 13 Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people." 14 And He said, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." 15 And he said to Him, "Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. 16 For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?"
Though he could not see it on his own, he knew if he had truly found favor in God’s eyes—if he could behold God’s glory, see the complete tapestry of God’s design—he could set a new course for the people even at the moment of greatest disappointment and calamity.  And ultimately, God, so to speak, acquiesces to Moshe’s argument:
17 And the Lord said to Moshe, "I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name." 18 He said, " הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ, Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" 19 And He answered, " אֲנִ֨י אַֽעֲבִ֤יר כָּל־טוּבִי֙ עַל־פָּנֶ֔יךָ, I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name of the Lord, and I will favor the one I wish to favor and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion. 
At this point I turned to Rashi for guidance and I was pleased to find that he provides an explanation of God’s answer to Moshe which led me to a deeper appreciation of the connection between the Torah and haftorah reading:
הגיעה שעה, The time has come, שתראה בכבודי מה שארשה אותך לראות, that you shall see of My glory what I will permit you to see, לפי שאני רוצה וצריך ללמדך סדר תפלה, because I want and I need to teach you the order of prayer. שכשנצרכת לבקש רחמים על ישראל, Because, in the past, when you had to beg mercy for Israel, הזכרת לי זכות אבות, you would ask Me to remember the merit of the Avot, the Patriarchs.  כסבור אתה, You thought, שאם תמה זכות אבות, that if the merit of the Patriarchs became depleted, אין עוד תקוה, there is no longer any hope.  אני אעביר כל מדת טובי לפניך על הצור, ואתה צפון במערה Therefore, I will let the full measure of my goodness pass before you.
After the catastrophe of the Golden Calf, the merit of the Patriarchs had, so to speak, been depleted.  Bnei Yisrael had gone too far—the breach was too great—in the depths of their corruption they could no longer call upon the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  The merit of the Patriarchs hinges on the conduct of the children—what connection could this people steeped in foolishness, debauchery and idolatry claim to those giants of spirit!  But, Rashi tells us, Hashem tells Moshe: יש תקוה—there is hope!  With a renewed vision of God’s mercy, Moshe could find the frame of mind in which his prayers for the people could be answered.
With this Rashi I was ready to see the final connection between the Torah and haftorah readings: hope
We read in the concluding verses of the haftarah:
11 And He said to me, "O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, יָֽבְשׁ֧וּ עַצְמוֹתֵ֛ינוּ 'Our bones are dried up, וְאָֽבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ our hope is gone; נִגְזַ֥רְנוּ לָֽנוּ we are cut off.' 12 Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel. 13 You shall know, O My people, that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves. 14 I will put My spirit into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil. Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken and have acted"—declares the Lord.
The plaintive and hopeful lament of Jeremiah: “אוּלַ֖י יֵ֥שׁ תִּקְוָֽה”—“perhaps there is hope!” had been supplanted with the resigned and utterly hopeless: “אָֽבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ”—“our hope is lost!” 
Ezekiel had to inspire the people—they needed to know that the wellsprings of life can always be renewed.  
There is hope.  The dry bones can be given new life—they can be inspired.  Just one thing is needed to give them hope: spirit.
However, one very important question still needs to be answered: What is this spirit
What vision can fill us with hope when we have been destroyed and completely severed from the wellsprings of life?  With this spirit we are told that we shall be returned to our soil—the exile will be over.  But, what is it?
The spirit is, of course, the Torah—but not a Torah of dogmatic decrees: a Torah of true spirit—of true life—of wisdom and righteousness.  This, I believe, is the same spirit Isaiah spoke of so beautifully:
And a shoot shall spring forth from the stem of Yishai, and a twig shall sprout from his roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and heroism, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. And he shall be spirited by the fear of the Lord, and neither with the sight of his eyes shall he judge, nor with the hearing of his ears shall he chastise. And he shall judge the poor justly, and he shall chastise with equity the humble of the earth, and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the spirit of his lips he shall put the wicked to death. And righteousness shall be the belt around his loins, and faith the sash around his waist.
We cannot simply return to the Land of our Heritage. Rabbi Mendel Hirsch, the son of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, writing with great prescience in his commentary on this haftorah (written, mind you, only a year before the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897) provides the following deep insight:
If the Land of Israel were to be handed over today into the hands of the Jews through a miraculous combination of circumstances and they could return to the Land of their Fathers and establish a Jewish State:  they would not gain anything, nothing at all, as long as they do not remove the factors that caused our destruction in the past.  In truth it can be said that this destruction was necessary in order to save Judaism and the Jewish people.  A Jewish political body without a Jewish spirit will be and shall be nothing—a dead body.  A Jewish State, that does not harness itself to the realization of the Torah of Hashem—to the application of its eternal decrees of righteousness and love of the Other on a pure ethical foundation—will be dead on arrival, destined to elimination as it has been for thousands of years.
Finally, Rabbi Mendel Hirsch, provides the connection between the Torah and haftorah reading and Pesach:
With the imparting of this spirit God opened the graves in which their bones had been buried for so long.  God brought them up out of their graves to be His people.  As the hosts of the Lord they were led out, in the past, by His mighty hand, ידו החזקה, from the grave of Egypt.  As the battalions of the Lord, He will bring them up, with the very same יד החזקה, mighty hand, of the blessed God from the vast grave of the nations.
On Pesach we reflect on the redemption that once was and we are also confronted with the depressing reality of what is.  The redemption from Egypt is incomplete—we still await the ultimate redemption.  We feel a kind of helplessness and hopelessness when we look at the harsh facts.  It is hard to see how we can ever achieve the final fulfillment of our aspirations.  But yet there is hope.  On Pesach we are called to be inspired by the spirit—to be moved to act with wisdom and righteousness.
I will leave you with one last point.  The following passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, I believe, gets to the essence of what I am trying to convey:
Rabbi Yudan the son of Chanan in the name of Rabbi Berakhia related the following: The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Israel: “My children, if you see that the merit of the Patriarchs has depleted and the merit of the Matriarchs has collapsed, go, הידבקו בחסד, cleave to kindness.  What is this based on? The following verse from Isaiah:
י כִּ֤י הֶֽהָרִים֙ יָמ֔וּשׁוּ וְהַגְּבָע֖וֹת תְּמוּטֶ֑ינָה וְחַסְדִּ֞י מֵֽאִתֵּ֣ךְ לֹֽא־יָמ֗וּשׁ וּבְרִ֤ית שְׁלוֹמִי֙ לֹ֣א תָמ֔וּט אָמַ֥ר מְרַֽחֲמֵ֖ךְ יְהוָֽה׃
For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed; but My kindness shall not depart from you, neither shall My covenant of peace be removed, so says the LORD that has compassion on you.
“For the mountains may depart”—this is a reference to the merit of the Patriarchs.  “and the hills be removed”—this is a reference to the merit of the Matriarchs.  When their merit has been depleted, from that point on, “neither shall My covenant of peace be removed, so says the LORD that has compassion on you.  
In this beautiful passage Rabbi Berakhia teaches us that the ultimate source of hope lies in a vision of compassion.  Not a compassion bestowed upon us gratis from above, but a compassion that must flow from our own hearts to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and all those in need.  That is the spirit that can give life to our dry bones.  On the Shabbat of the intermediate days of this festival of Pesach we are reminded that with the right spirit there is always hope.
I hope that I have offered you more than just a nice cup of tea.