kosher bookworm

‘A Time to Seek’: Scholarship of Rabbi Baruch Dov Braun


This week I bring to your attention the scholarship of Rabbi Baruch Dov Braun, a young and very talented rabbi and teacher of Talmud and Tanach at Woodmere’s DRS High School for Boys. Among the people who helped in the publication of Rabbi Braun’s book, “A Time to Seek: Fascinating New Insights in the Torah” (Mosaica Press), is the Puderbeutel family of Flatbush whose son, Chaim, and his wife, Tzipi, are active members at the Red Shul in Cedarhurst.

This week’s Purim-related excerpt will be followed next week with one themed to the upcoming festival of Pesach.

Rabbi Naftali Jaeger, esteemed rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv in Cedarhurst, stated that “Rabbi Braun’s discourses are captivating and illuminating [and] enable the reader to ascend the ladder of personal growth to greater heights.” I couldn’t agree more in this assessment. Read on, learn, and enjoy.

The U.S. Constitution, Megillas Esther, and Eisav

By Rabbi Baruch Dov Braun

One of the most bewildering parts of the Torah is the passage that details Yitzchak Avinu’s wish to bless and, by doing so, pass on the Abrahamic legacy to Eisav instead of to Yaakov Avinu, the more obvious candidate. How does Yitzchak get it so wrong? What is it about Eisav that so enamors him? Perhaps, the question should be put differently: What is it about Yaakov that displeases Yitzchak? …

The conspicuous absence of G-d’s name in the [U.S.] Constitution was not lost on its framers. During the constitutional convention and ratification, heated debates erupted over the glaring omission. … There were even some who defended the omission from both a humanistic and religious perspective. To attach the name of G-d to the document, they argued, would be an abuse of G-d’s Name and a manipulation of the people. The administrative quality and efficacy of the Constitution should speak for itself without needing sanction from a higher power.

In this view, throughout history, throngs of people have been tricked by those who presumed to speak in G-d’s Name into adopting various systems of beliefs and politics. Invoking G-d’s Name in the Constitution would echo this insidious practice and preclude the masses from examining the document critically and on its own merits.

What this last opinion underscores is that using and speaking in G-d’s Name is not always just. Even G-d’s Name is not immune from exploitation and abuse. We are warned: “Do not take the name of Hashem your G-d in vain” …

Hashem, as we know, is invisible. It’s His distinguishing feature. Still, His invisibility, as philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists from Hume to Freud to Becker have noted, is a source of acute anxiety. It’s quite a challenge for human beings to find solace and security in an abstract being. We should not underestimate the psychological benefits of being able to hug, kiss, bow, and give gifts to a tangible G-d. Just think of how good we feel when we walk into a doctor’s office, of the comfort and security we derive by his mere presence and aura of expertise. For this reason, idolatry was so appealing to Jews throughout Biblical times: it gave Jews the opportunity to represent Hashem in a concrete and visible way.

The next best thing to representing Hashem visually is to do so audibly. By invoking Hashem’s Name, we manifest His presence. Almost as much as an idol can assuage a person’s anxieties and insecurities, so can the articulation of His Name. It’s no coincidence that the prohibition against idolatry and taking Hashem’s Name in vain, together, comprise their own independent section in the Torah. And attaching Hashem’s Name to our opinions and endeavors can be a way to draw not only comfort and security but, as we have seen, validation. By invoking Hashem’s Name, we can free ourselves from the need to justify our views and actions. If Hashem’s Name is associated with it, it must be right and good and true.

What emerges is that frequent usage of Hashem’s Name may indicate overdependency and moral weakness. Ironically, then, the omission of Hashem’s Name may be a sign not of secularism but religious maturity. This phenomenon and the confusion it can create is, perhaps, the basis for Yitzchak’s error.

Despite Yitzchak’s intentions, Yaakov, as we know, takes matters into his own hands to attain the berachos. During the ruse, however, Yaakov almost makes a fatal mistake. … Asked by Yitzchak how he so quickly found and prepared the game, Yaakov responds, “Because Hashem, your G-d, caused it to happen for me.” Not used to hearing Eisav utter the Name of Hashem, Yitzchak demands that Yaakov approach so he may feel his skin. 

The Ramban struggles to follow Yitzchak’s logic. Presumably, Yitzchak does not perceive Eisav as a nonbeliever; after all, Yitzchak is willing and eager to bestow his blessings upon him. Why, then, is Yitzchak’s suspicion aroused when Yaakov, dissembling as Eisav, pronounces Hashem’s Name? And, if indeed, it was not Eisav’s habit, at all, to mention the Name of Hashem in conversation, why would Yitzchak favor him over Yaakov? The Ramban answers:

“Perhaps Yitzchak thought to himself that because Eisav was a man of the field, and his mind was concentrated on hunting, he refrained from mentioning the Name of Heaven out of fear lest he mention it in an unclean place or without the proper intention. And in his father’s eyes this was considered an indication of Eisav’s fear of Heaven.”

Based on our discussion, however, the Ramban doesn’t need to go so far. Yitzchak intends to bless Eisav because he sees his reticence as a sign of righteousness. Eisav, Yitzchak erroneously thinks, has internalized and integrated his awareness of Hashem so thoroughly into his psyche that he needs neither visual nor audio aids in order to engage the world and repair it. Because of the way Eisav comports himself, he is mistaken for a religiously mature, independent, and courageous individual. Eisav, it seems, has the qualities needed to implement Hashem’s vision for the world. Yaakov, on the other hand — the “pious man who remained in the tents” — comes across as relatively underdeveloped. He reminds Yitzchak of Noach, another pious individual who lived in isolation, first in a cave, then in an ark. 

Yitzchak, of course, is incorrect. About both of them:

•Eisav omits Hashem’s Name from his lexicon because he neglects Hashem, because he is wicked. Indeed, not using Hashem’s Name can be misleading, especially if you take it for granted that your son is fundamentally good. 

•Yitzchak also errs in that he underestimates Yaakov. It isn’t until Yaakov’s ruse that Yitzchak (and the reader) sees Yaakov’s potential. It is then, when he dons not only Eisav’s clothes, but Eisav’s identity as a “hunter, a man of the field” that Yaakov demonstrates that he is capable of assuming the mantle of leadership and the responsibility to engage the world and transform it in the image of the Torah.

We live in complicated days:

•On the one hand, G-d’s Great Name is abused on a daily basis. Lies, atrocities, and terrorism are all perpetrated in His Name.

•On the other hand, secularism and atheism are on the rise.

Each of these camps feed off the ever-growing extremism of the other. We find ourselves in the midst of a vicious cycle. What are we to do? Do we consciously refrain from using Hashem’s Name in order to demonstrate that authentic religious living need not rely on (and misuse) G-d’s Name? Or, must we invoke and call out in Hashem’s Name whenever we can in order to show that our wholesome and meaningful lifestyles are an expression of godliness?

When Boaz, in Megillas Rus, perceives that the name of Hashem is becoming obsolete, he institutes the practice of greeting one another with it. Our sages observe that Boaz is well aware this practice is in direct violation of “Do not take the name of Hashem your G-d in vain.” Nevertheless, his policy is a necessary evil; Boaz feels compelled to do so “in order to preserve Hashem’s Torah.” Mordechai and Esther, in contrast, compose a book that omits Hashem’s Name. Writing in a pagan society, they are acutely aware that Hashem’s Name is vulnerable to abuse, by Jew and non-Jew alike.

In our time, when the Name of G-d is simultaneously being abused by believers and derided by nonbelievers what are we to do? How are we to end this vicious cycle that is tearing our world apart? Do we act like Boaz or like Mordechai?