Jewish Thought: An Obituary, G-d’s Miracles and Brachot

By

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, Rav and Dean at Yeshivat Yavneh

I Who was Rav Aharon Lichtenstein?

This week the Jewish people have lost one of their great tsaddikim: Rav Aharon Lichteinstein Zt”l. Rav Lichtenstein was born in France in 1933. His family escaped in 1941 to the United States. Upon arriving he studied at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin where he was greatly influenced by Rav Yitzchok Hutner.

At the age of 16 he entered Yeshiva College and became close to Rav Aharon Soloveitchik and afterward Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Rav. Upon graduating, Rav Lichteinstein received a PhD in English literature at Harvard. He married Tovah Soloveitchik, the Rav’s daughter, in 1960. In 1970 the Lichtensteins made Aliyah where he joined Rav Yehuda Amital as co-Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. All his children have gone on to become great leaders of Torah and education in Klal Yisroel. His stature in Torah learning has been recognized all over the world. In 2013 he won the prestigious Rav Kook Award for original Torah literature and in 2014 he won the coveted Israel Prize in Torah Literature. What marks Rav Aharon Lichteinstein’s person as gadol unique is his combination of Torah + Piety + Engagement of the humanities and secular wisdom. That notwithstanding, the central and ideal religious experience was always through the study of Torah. As Rav Lichtenstein put it, learning Torah, especially Gemara and Halacha, allows one to be, “exposed once again to his Master’s commanding presence.”

One brief story, in particular, displays his impeccable middos. Professor Howard Wettstein admits to leaving the world of frumkeit to become a Professor in Philosophy of Language. Rav Lichteinstein helped him return to the Torah derech. This is what Professor Wettstein relates:
Rabbi Aharon Lichteinstein, a Talmudic scholar, Harvard PhD in Literature…invited my family to his home at 7:00am on a Sunday, before he headed out to his yeshiva. When I tried to thank him for all he had done for me…his humility inserted itself; he lowered his head and changed the subject. The contrast with much of academia could not have been more stark.

II Rav Aharon on Yom Ha’atzmaut

The first piece is based on a verse in Bereishis:

The Ramban explains this verse in the following way:

Actualizing things is called “saying”… and maintaining them is called “seeing.”… The point is to teach that they exist by His desire, and if that desire would detach from them for but a moment, they would become nothingness.

The Ramban understands the Hebrew word “Vayaar” as meaning that G-d willed into being. It’s not that G-d “saw” but rather Hashem actively ensured that the light brings us blessing. G-d is constantly infusing all creation with the ability to be. Ramban, in general, champions this critical notion of G-d’s active involvement in all of existence. The Ramban’s position stands in contrast with the Rambam who minimized the role of G-d’s constant and active involvement in all parts of existence.

In the 17th Century Sir Isaac Newton’s findings easily led to the notion that the world is a well greased machine. This led many philosophers during this period to postulate that that apart from its initial creation, G-d does not intervene in the universe, and that He certainly does not have to constantly create it anew.

The Tanya stood firmly with the Ramban in declaring the full implication that “G-d renews his goodness constantly.” See Shaar Yichud V’HaEmunah:

“For if the letters were to depart for an instant, God forbid, and return to their source, all the heavens would become naught and absolute nothingness, and it would be as though they had never existed at all, exactly as before the utterance, “Let there be a firmament.” And so it is with all created things, in all the upper and lower worlds, and even this physical earth and the realm of the completely inanimate. If the letters of the Ten Utterances by which the earth was created during the Six Days of Creation were to depart from it for an instant, God forbid, it would revert to naught and absolute nothingness, exactly as before the Six Days of Creation. From the foregoing, the answer to the heretics [may be deduced], and there is exposed the root of the error of those who deny individual Divine Providence and the signs and miracles recorded in the Torah.”

G-d is constantly working miracles every second of our lives. Rav Chaim Volozhin at the beginning of his Nefesh HaChaim shares this view as well.

In Pirkei Avos (2:1) we notice that there is an “eye that sees” and an “ear that hears”. G-d is constantly involved. The problem, though, is that sometimes the world masks the yad Hashem. The word for “nature” in Hebrew is טבע, which is the same root as טובע, which means to drown. Nature can possibly drown out G-d’s guiding power. But if we pay close attention we would see it all. The Zohar teaches us that, “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world,” therefore, the entire world must speak of Hashem’s majesty if we listen carefully.

The unfortunate tendency that we have to gravitate toward seeing the world as though it runs on auto-pilot is especially true when it comes to the State of Israel. The further and further we are from the miracles of 1948 and 1967 the more leaden we have become to the great miracle of having a home of our own. Unfortunately, it is in our difficult times that we are forced to reawaken our awareness of Hashem’s guiding providence in the destiny of Klal Yisrael.

May we merit to appreciate the gift of having Medinat Yisrael through the day to day blessings and not through the pain of suffering.

III Lomdus from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Mishnah in Brachos 35a: “upon vegetables one recites borei p’ri ha’adamah. Rebbi Yehudah says that we ought to say borei minei deshaim.”

Gemara (40a) cites Rebbi Zeira who says that the Halacha does not follow Rebbi Yehudah regarding this ruling. What is the reasoning behind Rebbi Yehudah’s position? The Gemara explains that since the Torah says “baruch Hashem yom yom” it indicates that just as one must give each day its own specific blessing to G-d, so too each species of food needs its own distinct blessing.

Rav Lichtenstein explained that Rebbi Yehudah’s opinion assumes two points: 1) Blessings need a certain specificity in order to create a relationship between the blessing and the object/time being blessed. 2) The text, “borei p’ri ha’adamah,” is not specific enough when it comes to vegetables. What then is the counter argument of the Sages? There are two possibilities: 1) They entirely disagree with the basic premise of needing a direct correlation between blessing and item. Or 2) They agree with the concept that there must be a subject relationship but the disagree about the level of specificity needed.

Sukkah (46a): “Our Rabbis taught, if one had before them many mitzvos, he or she should say ‘Baruch asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al HamiTvos (plural)’. Rebbi Yehudah says that one should say a separate blessing on each and every one.” The Gemara continues to provide a similar source for Rebbi Yehudah as it did in Brachos (see above).

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein asks a profound question. If the passage of the Talmud in Sukkah equates blessings regarding mitzvos with blessings regarding food consumption (ala Brachos) then it would seem to follow according to the Sages who deny the need for specificity one would not need to worry about being specific with mentioning Shabbos or Yom Tov in the particular days’ prayers. Yet, we do find according to all siddurim the need for “בשבת מעין שבת, ביום טוב מעין יום טוב” “on Shabbos we mention Shabbos, on Yom Tov we mention Yom Tov.”?

Approach: It seems that according to Rebbi Yehudah we always need specificity in order to connect the blessing to the time / object / or action. According to the Sages, though, the need to recognize the time (Shabbos or Yom Tov, for example) is not about specificity but rather its part of the kiyum b’mitzvos hayom – fulfilling the mitzvah of the day.
Support for this approach:

• In Shabbos (24a) the Talmud asks “do we mention Chanukah in the benching; on one hand it’s a rabbinic holiday so therefore no mention, and on the other hand since there is publicization of a miracle we should mention.” From this text we see that the inclusion of al hanissim is not predicated on making sure that our benching has specificity but rather it is about fulfilling the particular mitzvah of the day, which in this case is publicizing a miracle.

• If this is true for Chanukah then this true for other holidays as well. For example, Tisha B’av obligates us to recite Nachem as part of expressing our longing for the Beis HaMikdash (see Rosh Hashanah 30a).

• Shabbos and Yom Tov have texts changes as well. Those can be a function of the mitzvah of Kiddush, sanctification of the day or alternatively k’riyat mikrei kodesh. It is because of these mitzvos that we mention the day and NOT because of specificity.