ZVI FAIER z"l, was born in Hrubeshchov, Poland. His family escaped from the Nazis by fleeing to Russia and later emigrated to Canada. He received a yeshiva education and obtained a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago before moving to Israel with his wife, Chaya. In 1979, together with Haim Sokolik, a physicist and poet who had immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, he published a book entitled Burnt Offering: A Return to the Physical and Intellectual Jerusalem. He translated various works including the Malbim Torah commentary, and published numerous essays on science and Jewish philosophy. He left this world for the heavenly academy on the 10th of Tevet 5770.
We are privileged to reproduce on this site his poem "The People Awake" in Yiddish and in English, as well as his essay "To be Holy," prefaced by a memoir written for the sheloshim, the thirty-day commemoration. Chaim Scheff has contributed a mathematical memorial poem in the spirit of Zvi's search for unified reality. Others who would like to share their memories of Zvi are invited to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org for posting here.
Rabbi Dr. Zvi Faier: Talmud scholar, physicist, poet, mensch. What a treasure he was to the world. What a privilege it was to know him.
I first met Zvi Faier in the winter of 1979-80, while studying at Neve Yerushalayim. My roommate at Neve was doing some typing for him, and she started hearing similar comments from both of us, so she suggested that I invite myself to the Faier home – they were living then in Sanhedriya Murchevet – for Shabbat. It was the first of many times when Zvi and Chaya opened their home to me.
This was just a few months after my becoming Jewish. I was still a raw convert, a good deal more confused that I hope I am now. Zvi was very patient with me, not for a short time but for years. He was genuinely patient with people. He might disagree with you completely, but if he thought you were in good faith he would still accept you. Eventually I introduced him to a couple of my friends who were very leftist in their thinking, and he was on the best of terms with them, without concealing his views for a moment. You always felt that he appreciated each person for what he or she was, that human variety fascinated and delighted him. Watching him with his children, I could see his appreciation of each child’s individuality. And he once told me that from studying the Talmud he had gained a feeling for each of the Talmud sages’ individual way of thinking.
A year or so after our first meeting, he introduced me to his friend Haim Sokolik, with whom he had co-authored a book which they signed Zvi-Haim. Haim was a physicist from the Soviet Union. Like Zvi, he was also a poet, a writer of little crystalline fables. He suffered, lo aleynu, from advanced multiple sclerosis, and was near the end of his life when I met him; his speech was difficult to understand, but such was the power of his mind that after ten minutes or so you would forget all the terrible physical realities and just concentrate on what he was saying. The odysseys of Zvi and Haim had been very different: Zvi came from the Torah world, while Haim, like many Jews from the Soviet Union, had grown up knowing little about Judaism. Zvi was able to give him an appreciation of the Torah way of life. Haim once said to me, “To live as an Orthodox Jew is like living inside a great poem.”
Zvi-Haim’s book was called Burnt Offering: A Return to the Physical and Intellectual Jerusalem. On the first page there is the sentence, “Modern culture, despite achieving great treasures, has lost the conception of truth that is independent of environment and psychology.” Because these two individuals, coming from very different backgrounds and leading very different lives, felt that they met on the ground of truth, their writings are intermingled, the two authors identified only by their different styles and the different experiences they relate. Among the poems included in it is Zvi’s poem in Yiddish about the Six Day War, “Dos Volk Vekt Zikh Oyf.” I had to learn more Yiddish – and more Yiddishkeit – before realizing that it is a great poem.
One of Zvi’s favorite phrases was “Unified Reality.” He spoke and wrote a lot about bridging the two worlds of science and Torah. One of his heroes was Einstein; he used to quote a saying from Einstein about “retracing G-d’s finger in the universe” (probably I am misquoting). This went along with a belief in the possibility of humans seeing the truth together. “Burnt Offering” begins:
This book began with two Jews talking to each other. Two Jews who met at the Wall in Jerusalem – one coming from Moscow and one from the West. Immediately, a special kind of music flowed between them, and out of the dialogue emerged harmony – a monologue.
The belief in the possibility of such harmony was something that he brought to every encounter, and it flowed ultimately from his belief in the Sinai encounter. On my last visit he gave me the following poem, written some years before:
Waters of Sinai
wash over us
Cleansing thought of deception
Purging the imagination
of spirits that loom or lodge
Enslaving the heart of man.
Perhaps he could so thoroughly enjoy the variety of human thought because he had an unshakeable faith in the Divine unity.
I remember him chuckling because he had heard someone say in Hebrew, “He listened to me be-rosh katan (with a little head).” Zvi’s mind was the opposite of the rosh katan, yet with all his exalted ideas he always remained homely, down-to-earth. I heard many jokes from him over the years (wish I could recall them), And every now and then, at the Shabbos table, there would be a snatch of Yiddish song: “Amol iz geven a mayse...”
Zvi referred several times to the meaning of his last name – Faier. Like fire, he gave off both warmth and light, and could also be fierce at times. Early in the 1990's, when the family was living in Efrat, he participated in a cross-country march aimed at emphasizing Israel’s rightful possession of the land. I can still here the proud, defiant tone of voice in which he related this. His faith was inseparable from his commitment to the land, and his commitment to the land was inseparable from his vision for humanity. He wrote an article once about how only by acknowledging Israel’s right to the land could a foundation be laid for world peace.
His faith was also revealed in the way he met his illness. During the last years of his life he had difficulty breathing. He told me that at one point he had said to G-d, “If You want me to go on, you have to help me,” and shortly after that, he learned about a therapy that was helping him. His last few years were a constant battle, fighting for every breath, every ounce of renewed strength. A year ago he was unconscious, no one expected him to live; but by a miracle – no one thinks it was anything but that – he was given another year. The last time he was able to talk with me on the phone, he said, “whatever G-d wants will be right.”
The time before that, I think, we had talked about the last blessing of the Amidah – “Sim shalom.” The poem quoted above must also have been inspired by that blessing.
Early on the morning of the 10th of Tevet, I got up to eat before the fast and opened my email, to find on the screen the message saying that Zvi had left this world. Half an hour or so later there was a fire alarm in our building. A “coincidence...”
One question that arose almost immediately was: can I write a poem for Zvi? Should I? I felt that I owed him a poem, and at the same time felt a fear of offering something trivial. Since our first meeting I had shown Zvi my poems, and he had always been very kind and encouraging about them. And yet, I sensed that he himself had reservations about poetry. Otherwise he might have devoted more time to developing himself as a poet. One on of my last visits he made a point of showing me a book that had photographs of his teacher, Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman zts”l, and some of the other great rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and he spoke of Rabbi Israel Salanter who described himself as a student of a certain rabbi on the basis that “Ich hob in amol gesehen” – I saw him once. Art, I think he meant to say, can get to be a screen that blocks out the perception of reality. From time to time, ever since we first met, he would say something to me about “being simple with your G-d.”
But two days later I called his home and spoke to Chaya. In the background I heard voices talking in an excited, almost joyful manner. They sounded not like mourners but like people who were sharing their experiences with a delightful friend. And this did start a poem.
I called Chaya on the phone
Later I heard that over a thousand people came to the shiva. It made me think of Rashi’s comment on the third verse of Shir HaShirim, comparing a good name to fragrant oil poured forth, because the pleasant aroma is diffused far and wide.
In the last months of his life, Zvi was able to finish a book on which he had been working for many years, pouring into it the riches of his Torah learning, his wide reading and experience. With G-d’s help this book will see print, and a wide circle of readers will be able to enjoy these riches. But even aside from that, two lines by the poet Tennyson come to mind: “Our echoes roll from soul to soul/ And grow for ever and for ever.” Surely Zvi Faier’s echoes will grow in that way. And I pray that Chaya, Tsipi, Avram, Rachel, Binyamin, Nechama, Moshe and Sarah may find comfort in the sense that “the righteous in death are alive.”
To Be Holy
In some Torah contexts, to be holy essentially means to be aware. In Judaic thought, man, aware, is under obligation to act in ways that emulate corresponding activity (so to speak) by God. An illuminating discourse that relates this obligation to the central concept of kedusha, holiness and the imperative to "be holy," appears in the introduction to the work Shaarei Yosher, by Rabbi Shimon Shkop (1860-1940), one of the major talmudists and Torah personalities of his age. What follows is a translation of this discourse from the Hebrew. Clarifying inserts are offset in square brackets.
Blessed be the Creator and exalted be the Maker, Who created us in His image and in the likeness of His mold. Who has planted within us everlasting life; that we should have an intense desire to benefit others: the individual and the many, in the present and in the future–in the likeness of the Creator. For in everything that He created and formed, His will solely was to benefit the creatures; and so it is His will that we should walk in His ways, as it says: "You shall walk in His ways." We should be the elect of His creatures, our aim always to sanctify both our physical and spiritual powers in order to benefit the many according to our stature.
This matter is wholly contained in the commandment of God: "Be you holy." Now in the Midrash it says about this verse: <>Perhaps like Me, so it says: "For I am holy." My holiness is higher than your holiness.<> Concerning this commandment to be holy, another fundamental teaching appears in Torat Kohanim: <>"Be you holy"–be you set apart (prushim).<> The Ramban (Nachmanides), in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length the matter of abstension (prishut) stated about this commandment: It is to abstain from excessive benefits and pleasures, though these matters are not proscribed for us. In a telling expression, he says that it is possible for a man to be a wretch by permission of the Torah.
But then the words of the Midrash appear incomprehensible: How is this matter of abstention related to emulating God?
For one, the verse specifically informs us that this is not the will of God, since (according to the Midrash) He says: <>Perhaps like Me, so it says: "For I am holy." My holiness is higher than your holiness.<> Still more difficult to understand is the conclusion that <>My holiness is higher than your holiness.<> For thereby we are given to understand that there actually is a likeness between the holiness that God demands of us, and His holiness; except that His holiness is more inclusive and encompassing. But if we say that the principal meaning of holiness–which God demands of us via the commandment: "Be you holy"–is to abstain from excesses, this holiness does not at all relate to God!
In my humble opinion, therefore, it seems that in this commandment is included the entire foundation and root of our ultimate purpose in life: All our labor and toil must always be consecrated for the good of the public. We are not to perform any deed or movement, partake of any benefit and pleasure that does not include some aspect beneficial to those other than ourselves.
It is understood that in all consecrations there is dedication to a noble purpose. So when a man aligns his steps and aspires to continually consecrate his life to the public, everything he does, also for himself–to heal his body and soul–he then also associates with the commandment to be holy. For thereby he benefits the many as well, since by benefiting himself he benefits the many who need him. But if he derives a benefit from what is in the category of permitted yet superfluous things, which are not required for healing his body and soul, then this benefit is in opposition to the holy. For thereby he benefits himself momentarily in his imagination, while to another there is no benefit whatsoever. It follows that in the commandment to abstain, the matter of abstention is intrinsic to the foundation of the commandment to be holy; and is observed in practice in the ways of a man’s behavior. But in conception, and in the aspiration of the spirit, this commandment [to be holy] is also extended over all the functions and deeds of the person, including between him and God. In this relationship, the aspect of man as holy resembles the holiness of the Creator in partial comparison. Just as in God’s activity over the whole of Creation, and so too every instant that He sustains the world, all His deeds are consecrated for the welfare of what is other than Himself–so it is God’s will that our deeds be always consecrated for the welfare of the public and not for our personal benefit./ 2 / However, a man might resolve to subdue his nature, to reach an extreme state, until his being is devoid of any thought and ambition to benefit himself; so all his aspirations are solely to benefit others; and in this fashion aspire to reach the holiness of the Creator, whose will throughout Creation, and whose guidance of the world, is solely to benefit the creatures and not at all to benefit Himself. Now at first sight it might have seemed admissible to say that if a man were to reach this level, he would attain the ultimate perfection. Therefore the Sages have instructed us, via this Midrash, that it is not so! We are not to endeavor to liken ourselves to the holiness of the Creator in this aspect. For the holiness of the Creator is higher than our holiness–in that His holiness is only for the sake of His creatures and not for Himself; in that no advantage was added, and none will be added, to the Creator by His deeds that He did and does; for His will is wholly only to benefit the creatures. Whereas what He wants of us is not in this fashion. For as Rabbi Akiba has taught us: Your life takes precedence. The Sages have furthermore indicated that we are to interpret the verse, "Love your fellowman as yourself," in the negative sense: What is hateful to you, do not do to your comrade. But in the positive sense, it is proper for a man to put his personal welfare first./ 3 / A further consideration is that at the foundation of the creation of man, the Creator implanted in him the passion of self-love in very large measure. Thus the Sages of esoteric wisdom have stated about the purpose of all labor: The Infinite One wanted to bestow perfect good, so that its recipients should not even feel shame. In this matter, it is astounding how far the power of self-love reaches: that a man wants one measure of his own more than nine measures given to him even from the hand of God, if that be an unearned gift. From this it is understood that the trait of self-love is welcome in the sight of God; only the righteous walk by it, however, while the wicked stumble over it. Now besides all the other evils and sins filling the world on account of this trait of self-love, when this trait is joined to a man who is tested by the possession of wealth, it can become an obstruction that leads to the abyss. As it is written: "Lest I be full and deny." Because of the depth of a man’s desire for his own measure of possessions, if God favors him with wealth and he truly believes that everything belongs to God, then he is poor, truly, since whatever he has is not his. But if he were to deny God, then everything is his; and he would think of himself as actually wealthy. So in order to satisfy his desire to possess his wealth as his own, he trains himself to deny God; and then he satisfies his craving completely. This matter can likewise be discerned in the acquisition of the greatest possible wealth, namely, the acquisition of wisdom by those with the sensibility for it. If a man will not endeavor to acquire the wisdom of awe and the purity of faith in accordance with his stature and level of attainment in Torah, then there is the possibility of coming to grief because of a bolstered measure of self-love. For comparison, this trait of self-love has a pernicious affect on all those taken up with the external wisdoms. Instead of becoming imbued with greater awe, which should rightly happen as a result of their broadened knowledge of the works of God–as it says, "The heavens declare the glory of God."–behold, they fall; they go under! For if they believed that all their wisdom and acquisition is not their own, then they will have lost all their wealth. Therefore only by heresy (denial of God) could they become wealthy. Since their superior assets in wisdom are then wholly theirs, they can assert their pride in what they own! Along this way can be explained what it says: "Let Moses rejoice in the gift of his portion, for You have called him a faithful servant." One is not to rejoice in one’s portion of wisdom except if one is a servant of God: One thinks that everything is not one’s own, but belongs to one’s Master and Lord. Then is the joy complete at the acquisition of this wisdom. If not for that, perhaps there is no joy in the acquisition of wisdom, since thereby one could–Heaven Forbid!–come to heresy./ 4 / Now at first sight it appears that the emotions of self-love and the emotions of loving other than oneself, are like two wives distressing one another. But we must try to probe this matter in depth and locate the precious factor that unifies them, since both emotions are demanded of us by God. This factor would clarify and verify for the person the quality of his "I," as thereby would be assessed every man’s stature according to his level. The coarse and base individual, the totality of his "I" is limited to his material substance and his body; above him is one who feels that his "I" is composed of a body and a soul; above that is one who incorporates in his "I" the members of his household and his family. The man who adheres to the ways of the Torah, his "I" includes the entire people of Israel. For truly every person in Israel is just an organ of the nation of Israel. Further in this is that the virtues of the perfected man make him worthy to implant in his root being the feeling that all the worlds in their entirety are his "I"; while he himself is just like a small organ within the whole Creation. Then the very emotion of self-love helps him love all the people of Israel, as well as all of Creation. It is apparent to me that this matter is indicated in the statement of Hillel, who used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am for myself, what am I? It is right for every man to make the effort at all times to care for himself. Together with that, he should endeavor to understand that "if am for myself, what am I?" If he has restricted his "I" to a narrow orbit, according to what the eye can see, then what is this "I"? It is vanity, reckoned as nothing. But if he would be emotionally convinced of the truth that the totality of Creation is mega-man, and he too is like a small organ within that mega-body–then his own stature is likewise high and lofty. For in a great mechanism even the smallest nail, provided it serves even a small function in the mechanism, is of very great importance. For the whole is built out of details, and there is nothing in the whole except what is in the detail./ 5 / It is proper so to regard the gifts of heaven, from the dew of heaven to the fat of the earth. These are granted to the Community of Israel as a whole, with the distribution to individuals intended only by way of trusteeship. They should disburse to the needy, to each his due share, as well as to take for themselves their due share. In the same way can be understood the propitious function of charity that enriches those who practice it. Thus the Sages have expounded the verse: "Set aside a tenth (aser te-aser)."–Set aside a tenth (aser), so that you become rich (te-asher). Compare it to one who is appointed to supervise treasures of the government. His initial appointment is as bursar of a small treasure. If he performs his duty by properly watching over the treasure, he will then be appointed bursar of a larger treasure, even if he does not excel in other virtues. If on the contrary a deficiency is discovered in the performance of his duty, it will not help him that he is found to possess many other virtues. He will be demoted to a lower position. It is the same for the treasures of heaven granted to man. If one sets aside as required, properly performing his duties as bursar by taking for himself in keeping with the Torah way of life, and disbursing to others as specified by Torah instruction–he will become wealthy and be appointed to supervise a greater treasure; and so on, higher and higher; to fulfill the will of the On High to benefit the community [of man] by watching over the treasure. Thereby the man of loyal spirit performs the will of his Maker./ 6 / It is likewise possible to discern the same in the following tragic episode related in the Talmud about that saintly man, Nahum Ish-Gam-Zu. When on one occasion he felt that he had not fulfilled his obligation regarding the commandment of charity, he decreed that his eyes be blinded and his hands and feet be cut off–and his decree indeed came true. This conforms to the standard of conduct among the great princes: If one feels that he has not personally fulfilled the obligations of his office, he submits a request to be dismissed from his position. That is how this saintly man conducted himself. Since he knew from within his own person that all his powers were not his own; and that he was only like a bursar in this regard; once this mishap happened to him, that he was neglectful in his role as bursar, he decreed upon all his organs to resign from their work./ 7 / It is the same for the abundance of the dew of heaven manifest as acquisitions of wisdom. Every man whom the On High has favored with some extra wisdom, it is proper that he implant in his being this deep root: This possession was not given to him for himself; rather, he is like a bursar in relation to it; and he is to disburse it to those who are worthy of it. If he will perform this task properly, to teach those worthy of being taught, then he will be elevated to a greater position. He will become wealthier, and become the bursar of a greater treasure. Perhaps in this way can be explained what the Sages have said, that from my students I learned more than from all the others. Besides the natural aspect involved [that one learns most by teaching others], there is the propitious function of dispensing spiritual charity and setting aside a tenth. This is advantageous for personal elevation and growth, just like setting aside a tenth of one’s earnings is propitious for the acquisition of material wealth./ 8 / Now for myself, God in His compassion for me has set my portion among those who toil at [instructing] the public. In all these places where I have spread the Torah, I have merited to draw after me the hearts of those attentive to my teaching. All this, however, was not according to [went beyond the merit of] my deeds and not according to my abilities. But was due solely to the propitious consequence of [my having fulfilled] "set aside a tenth (aser te-aser)"–as that was explained. For from the very outset, and until today, my times have been set aside for myself [my own Torah study] and to those attentive to my teaching.Elaborations and Extensions The story of Noah and the ark highlights the possibilities open to individuals. "Noah walked with God," and through him there ensued the beginning of a new order for mankind. Subsequently, the same theme is elaborated in connection with the missing ten just or righteous men who could have saved the city of Sodom. "A righteous man (a zaddik) is the foundation of a (the) world," and the zaddik of that age was Abraham the Hebrew (ivri). According to the Midrash, he stood on one side (ever) in what he taught about "the Judge of all the earth," and his contemporaries stood on the other side in worshipping idols. Abraham, "the father of a multitude of nations," is also emblematic of hospitality or kindness towards every human being.
Here we can relate to the central insight expounded by Rabbi Shimon Shkop. Stated concisely, to be "holy" is to benefit others as the best way to benefit oneself. The "perfected man" is guided by "the feeling that all the worlds in their entirety are his ‘I’," so that he feels an imperative duty to care for the world as an extension of himself. Everything that defines the individual, including his body, his mind, spiritual possessions and material possessions, is granted "only by way of trusteeship… If one sets aside as required, properly performing his duties as bursar by taking for himself in keeping with the Torah way of life, and disbursing to others as specified by Torah instruction," he will be "appointed to supervise a greater treasure; and so on, higher and higher, to fulfill the will of the On High to benefit the community…" "If on the contrary a deficiency is discovered in the performance of his duty…he will be demoted…" This "contrary" principle is seen highlighted in the cited episode about Nahum Ish-Gam-Zu, whether taken literally or symbolically. "He knew from his own person"–[i.e. the "I" that was him]–"that all his powers were not his own, and that he was only like a bursar." The appellation Ish-Gam-Zu was bestowed upon him by his colleagues, the Sages of the Talmud. For about anything and everything that happened to him, since it was from God, he was in the habit of saying, "this too (gam zu) is for the good." Like his forefather Abraham, this saintly man (ish) was a prince among men and in the sight of God. In the most sublime sense, as well as in the most tangible terms, no less than total magnanimity is the norm: "to fulfill the will of the On High to benefit." When a man knows that all his powers are not his own, he is a disciple of Moses our Teacher in humility; thus it says, "Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth." Abraham said, "I am dust and ashes." If he also knows that he is "only like a bursar," and acts accordingly, he is a disciple of Abraham, who epitomizes magnanimity-chessed, and he is a disciple of Moses, who became the "faithful shepherd" of his people. Moses was at first a devoted shepherd of Jethro’s flock. The Sages relate that once a young sheep ran off from the flock. Moses ran after it, farther and farther, until the animal reached a stream and there quenched its thirst. "So that is why you ran off!" Moses exclaimed. "How tired you must be!" Lifting it upon his shoulders, he carried it all the way back to the flock. God said: "You showed compassion for the little sheep. You are worthy of shepherding My people." Thus Moses was appointed to supervise a greater treasure.
The man who adheres to the ways of the Torah, his ‘I’ includes the entire people of Israel. When the Israelites incurred the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses said to God: "If you will only forgive their sin! If not, erase me from the record which You have written."
To be holy is to benefit others as the best way to benefit oneself. We can relate to this insight on a global scale of nations and societies. Since Israel is projected to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," the high fulfillment of its own destiny is intrinsically linked to its role ("by way of trusteeship") in bringing about the high fulfillment of the destiny of all mankind. The redemption of the Jewish people is conceived within the context of world redemption. In the words of the prophet, speaking in the Name of God: "I God…give you for a covenant of the nations, for a light of the peoples. To open the blind eyes; to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and those who sit in darkness of the prison house." This clearly pertains to physical, intellectual and spiritual redemption.
"Once God turns back the captivity of Zion… Then it will be said among the nations: God has done great things with these. God has done great things with us."
The possibilities indicated in that vision entail a state of affairs where the nations of the world and the nation of Israel (poly-Abraham:Isaac:Jacob) partake of the same stream of physical and spiritual plenty that "comes out of Eden to water the garden."
–from a forthcoming book A Day Is A Thousand Years. Copyright © 2004 by Zvi Faier, Rechov Basel 5/10, Jerusalem 96144