The Stolen Lulav

I’ve often been intrigued by the third chapter of Tractate Sukkah in the Talmud. This chapter begins לולב הגזול, the stolen lulav. The first Mishnah teaches, “A stolen lulav…is invalid (to fulfill the Mitzvah of waving the four species.)[1] Why the emphasis on a stolen lulav? The Mishnah continues to say that a lulav is invalid if it is dried out, comes from an אשרה, a tree used for idolatry, or an עיר הנדחת, a condemned city. In other words, a lulav that is the product of something idolatrous or immoral cannot be used to fulfill the Mitzvah of ארבעה מינים, the four species which we shake on Sukkot.

In daily minyan we are fortunate to have extra sets of Tefillan. In the past I have been part of minyanim that did not have extra sets and I forgot mine. In order to use someone else’s Tefillan, they had to gift it to me, and afterwards I had to gift it back, so that it would not appear to be stolen or misappropriate. The Gemara says that a stolen lulav is problematic on the first day of Sukkot because the Torah teaches that on the first day of Sukkot each person should acquire a lulav for him/herself, which this person has not done.[2] Why then would it be problematic to steal a lulav the rest of Sukkot? Because it is a מצוה הבאה בעברה, a commandment that emanates from sin, and one who does so has not truly fulfilled the commandment.[3]

The Gemara gives an example of a מצוה הבאה בעברה of offering a sacrifice on an altar which was not yours.[4] In the words of Kohelet, this is a מעוות לא יכול לתקון,[5] something for which there is no תקון, no fixing it by doing the right thing later. In accordance with this text, stolen property or money used for a Mitzvah does not fulfill its intended purpose-instead it needs to be returned to the rightful owner with a penalty imposed.

Is this something we follow today? One of the key questions that people ask in rabbinical school interviews is what would you do if a congregant who acquired wealth through illegitimate means makes a significant donation to your synagogue. On the one hand, it’s a Mitzvah to donate to Jewish institutions. On the other, is it still a Mitzvah if the money had been stolen from others? In other words, can tainted money be used for good?

We hear too many stories of people who evade taxes by not reporting accurately or having offshore bank accounts. We have too many questions about candidates for office who acquire contributions through illicit means. What happens when some of these people are among our most philanthropic? Is this the case of a stolen lulav, one who acquires something through illicit means but uses it in the performance of a mitzvah? I would argue yes and that such money cannot be used for good, for it was acquired through unjust means.

I think that the lulav is of key note here because it is a simple object, a date palm, one which could be easily acquired. Someone who would go out and steal one of such a plentiful object is one who has no shame, especially when s/he could easily fulfill the Mitzvah by borrowing from another the entire holiday except the first day of Sukkot. Sukkot is a holiday about turning away from our material possessions. We leave our homes and dwell 7 days in a simple booth. As we do so, we recognize our gratitude for the bounty we have in life. The example of the stolen lulav teaches us that one needs to acquire an object through legitimate means and that it’s our responsibility, if we suspect otherwise, to thoroughly investigate. That does not mean going on witch hunts after people; rather it means striving to have all our business dealings done with integrity and legitimacy. This is why the first question one will be asked when s/he goes to heaven, in accordance with our tradition, is “were you honest in your business dealings?”[6]

Let us also learn from the example of the stolen lulav not to be embarrassed when we don’t have or forgot to acquire a ritual item. That is why the Jericho Jewish Center provides lulavim and etrogim for people to borrow during the Hallel and Hoshanot, as long as they get returned. Our job is to enhance the experience of people striving to perform Mitzvot and to enable them to preform them through legitimate means. Let us continue to do so as a welcoming congregation on this Zman Simhateinu, our festive holiday of Sukkot.

[1] Mishnah Sukkah 3:1

[2] Leviticus 23:40

[3] Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 30a

[4] Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 30a

[5] Ecclesiastes 1:15

[6] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a


“To everything turn turn turn, There is a season turn turn turn, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” This hit song by The Byrds references almost verbatim the book we began reading today, Ecclesiastes. I’ve often questioned why do we read Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. Chapter 3, referenced in The Byrds’ song, gives us some insight: the fact that there is a purpose to every time period. Here we are at Sukkot, the Festival of Ingathering, historically concluding the harvest in preparation for the cold winter. In the life cycle, this season represents approaching the end of one’s life. Though the author of the book calls himself Kohelet, the root for which is קהל, or congregation, the ascribed author is King Solomon. According to tradition, King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs in his youth, when he was in love; he wrote the Book of Proverbs when he was middle aged and he wrote Ecclesiastes in his older years.[1]

At first glance this book seems to cast a dim picture on Solomon’s old age, that he was a curmudgeonly individual who had given up on life. After all, Ecclesiastes begins, “vanity of vanities, said Kohelet; futility of futilities-all is futility. What gains a man from all his labor at which he labors under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.”[2] What joy do we find in such a sardonic message? Why read this text year after year?

One could argue that the emphasis is in the final verse, which will be chanted on Friday at morning minyan: סוף דבר הכל נשמע: את האלהים ירא ואת מצותיו ישמור כי זה כל האדם-The end of the matter all having been heard: fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is all of man.”[3] Kohelet goes from mentioning the futility of the world to stating a primary mission of fearing G-d and observing the Mitzvot. What an incredible transformation!

We read Kohelet on Sukkot because of the deep meaning in that last statement. We just finished the High Holiday season and one could easily ask if this was all a ruse, if there was any deeper purpose to this or if we were just going through the motions, the same as last year. The argument Kohelet is making is there is a deeper meaning to life-it just took him awhile to find it. The goal is to not get caught up in the vanities and vicissitudes of life but rather to find a sense of godliness in one’s daily living.

If there was anyone who could accomplish this it was King Solomon. As a young man, Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines.[4] G-d was displeased with Solomon because his involvement with so many women-far more than the 18 wives allowed in Deuteronomy-turned him away from G-d.[5] This is the reason given for the splitting of the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam only holding on to two-and-a-half tribes.[6] Some have said that Solomon realized the error of his ways and repented through his writing of Ecclesiastes, stating that “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of the life of your futility, which G-d has given you under the sun.”[7] In other words, futility refers to the earthly world-that which is not futile to following G-d’s Mitzvot.

How do we apply the lessons of Kohelet to our lives? We are beginning one of the most joyous festivals, where we invite others to “sukkah hop,” enjoying festival meals in our Sukkot. Part of every holiday in our tradition is supposed to be לכם, “for you”: for us to rest, relax and enjoy. However, part is also supposed to be לו, “for Him”: for G-d through prayer and study. Let us not make the mistake of pursuing the physical at the expense of missing the spiritual. By making time in our holiday for both, we will make Sukkot a holiday of true joy and invite G-d’s presence, the Shechinah, to fully dwell within our midst. Let us take the lessons of Kohelet to heart, focusing our holiday on what is truly most important: each other, our families, and our relationship with the Almighty.

[1] Seder Olam Rabbah 15

[2] Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

[3] Ecclesiastes 12:13

[4] 1 Kings 11:3

[5] 1 Kings 11:9

[6] 1 Kings 11:11

[7] Ecclesiastes 9:9

Jeshurun Grew Fat and Kicked

Rabbi Dr. Gershon Cohen, the fifth chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote an article entitled “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” He took issue with claims that Jews survived by not changing their names, their language or their dress. We know firsthand that Jews took the names of the people where they lived, whether Alexander after Alexander the Great or the grandson of Judah Maccabee being named John Hyrcanus. We also know that Jews spoke and wrote in Aramaic as well as each of the local languages of the communities in which they lived, reserving Hebrew for the synagogue and for holy books. Gerson Cohen asserted that rather than our success being a result of our separateness, “a frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but that in a profound sense, this assimilation and acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source or renewed vitality.”[1]

Ours is not the first time that Jews have lived in a rich Diaspora community. There was the Golden Age of Spain that produced great Jewish poets, philosophers and legalists, from ibn Gabirol and Judah HaLevi to Maimonides and Nahmanides. While each of these greats was influenced by their surrounding non-Jewish world,[2] none of them lost the importance of their personal Jewish identities. They remained observant Jews committed to the Jewish practices of their days, while being influenced by the thought and scholarship of the non-Jewish world. In contrast, too often today many seek what they consider to be the riches of the secular world while losing sight of their Jewish identities.

Parshat Haazinu admonishes Israel for engaging in worldly comforts without being committed to Jewish practices. The Third Aliyah begins ירכיבהו על במותי ארץ, “He set him atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth; He fed him honey from the stone, and oil from the flinty rock; curd of the herd and milk of the flocks with the best of lambs, and rams of Bashan, and goats, with the finest of the wheat, and red of the grapes was your drink. But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked-you grew fat, gross and coarse-He forgot the G-d who made him and spurned the Rock of his support. They incensed Him with alien things, vexed Him with abominations. They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they had never known, new ones, who came but recently, who did not stir your ancestors’ fears. You neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the G-d who brought you forth.”[3] Because of the comforts of the Israelites, they forgot G-d, just like the butler in the Joseph story forgot about Joseph after he was released from prison. It is ironic that the term Yeshurun, or “the straightforward one,” is used here, as Israel is being anything but. They are forsaking THE ROCK, G-d, the source of stability in their lives, for the fickle comforts of the moment.

Rabbi Shimon in the Midrash asserts that this is not just a few Israelites turning wayward, but rather “the noblest and best amongst you.”[4] In other words, Israel had started off Yashar, on the straightforward, correct path, but upon settling down, they forsook G-d and everything they had learned along the way to redemption in the Promised Land. Even the leaders of the time made this mistake, getting caught up in what the other nations around them were doing rather than keeping their mission to serve G-d at the center of their hearts.

We just completed another High Holiday season, and many have started to “return to normalcy.”[5] The masses have departed the Sanctuary, and the few are here learning about Parshat Hazzinu. We must keep in mind the important lesson of never getting to be too comfortable in society, always holding on to the Torah and our traditions as the guideposts through which we live our lives. Chancellor Cohen was correct that there are blessings of assimilation, of integrating into the larger society. Without it, we wouldn’t have college degrees, worldly professions or contribute to the greater community, let alone watch the Yankees or Mets. At the same time, there’s a danger in assimilating so much that we lose sight of our people, our traditions and of G-d. Like most things in Conservative Judaism, we need to find the balance between living authentic, observant Jewish lives while not isolating ourselves from others. We need the balance between celebrating the blessings that America has brought us without being so comfortable as Americans that we lose the value of our Judaism. In 5777, let us strive to not grow complacent and oversaturated but rather continue to grow and develop in our Jewish observances and Jewish learning. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Gerson Cohen, “The Blessings of Assimilation in Jewish History,” in Jewish History and Jewish Destiny (New York: JTS Press, 1997), 151.

[2] Eg. Judah HaLevi was influenced by the Arabic poet Ghazali; Maimonides’ philosophy in Guide to the Perplexed was influenced by Aristotle.

[3] Deuteronomy 32:13-18

[4] Genesis Rabbah 77:1

[5] Warren G. Harding’s campaign slogan in 1920

Becoming Like Angels

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. Please know you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center.

We want to hear from you as to how we are doing, and so we are taking part of Synergy’s Thriving Synagogue Initiative. This is an online survey taking 10-15 minutes of your time, created and analyzed by professionals from Brandeis University. It opens the day after Yom Kippur and will remain open through November 11. Please fill it out via the e-mail link you will receive. If you do not have access to e-mail, please call me to set up an appointment to fill out the survey. We want to have 100% participation.

People want to be part of something greater than themselves; to quote Star Trek, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Why else would there be missions to the moon, or a Guinness Book of World Records? We desire to feel that we are boundless, that nothing can stop us. Yet through so much of the year we feel constrained by our human limitations or by the routines of life. We feel bounded as opposed to boundless and this can be frustrating.

Yom Kippur is the singular day of importance, the day on which we supersede our bodily needs and strive to reach G-d. The purpose of our fasting along with the other prohibitions is to transcend our bodies and rise to the level of the angels. Often in the late afternoon of Yom Kippur I feel a lightness, a calmness that I have ascended in some way. Somehow I get beyond the physical discomforts and am able to reach a level of increased consciousness, and I feel closer to G-d.

The Hasidic masters have written about the singular importance of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Shalom Noah Borozovsky, the Slonimer rebbe, in his book Netivot Shalom, writes that the rest of the year there is a מחיצה של ברזל,[1] an iron barrier, between us and G-d. On Yom Kippur, we transcend that barrier, rising to G-d’s level. Rabbi Borozovsky writes that on Yom Kippur האדם מישראל מתבטל כולו להשי”ת הכל מהותו בכל חלקיו, on Yom Kippur a person nullifies his entire (bodily existence) for G-d, all of his essence in all of its parts.[2] The goal for many Hasidim is בטול היש, nullification of one’s physicality in an attempt to reach the spiritual. We each have a body and a soul; the body is physical and temporary, the soul is spiritual and eternal.

Many of us are in a daze when we reach the end of Yom Kippur. Sure there are the initial hunger pangs and the tiredness but there is also a heightened level of spiritual consciousness that can be reached. When we reach that level of deeper awareness, we are connecting with something greater than ourselves which is boundless. By neglecting our earthly needs we lose track of the here-and-now, heading towards a moment that is greater than what we can put into words.

Yom Kippur is the day on which we get closest to reaching those who are no longer physically present but are still very much spiritually in our midst. We feel their presence in such a heightened way. Through disengaging in the world around us we are able to engage with them, focusing on connecting with their souls. We also recognize the void that is created by missing them, the things they did that can never be replaced.

Mishnah Sotah teaches us, “When Rabbi Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, the assiduous students of Torah ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expositors ceased. When Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa died, men of deed ceased. When Rabbi Yosi Ketanta died, the pious men ceased…when Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased.”[3] At first glance this is an upsetting text, as if all people of such greatness are here no longer, what can we possibly hope to achieve? However, I see it in the following vein: we need to recognize the void left by those no longer physically present and live our lives in accordance with their example. Through learning from them and aspiring to be people of character, of vision and of strength like they were, we will keep their memories alive. It’s when we disregard their life examples that things begin to cease.

Yizkor from the word “Zachor” means to remember. This word is used in the 10 commandments from Exodus for us to remember Shabbat. Deuteronomy uses a different word, “Shamor,” or observe. According to our tradition G-d spoke both words at once. In so doing, G-d commanded us to both remember and observe the importance of our day of rest. Similarly, we need to remember those who came before us and observe in some way their life’s teachings. Yom Kippur, the day on which we rise above our earthly selves, is the perfect day to connect with those who are no longer physically present; remembering their touch, their words and actions of kindness, all that they sought to achieve in life. It’s the day after Yom Kippur that we seek to observe our lives in the way that they taught us: with integrity, honesty, kindness, confidence, perseverance through life’s challenges and determination to succeed. Through reconnecting with our loved ones today, we set the stage for a tomorrow in which we live life to the fullest, giving our all to make our parents, our grandparents, our spouses, our siblings proud of our accomplishments. Like angels we transcend our physical limitations today, and tomorrow, when we are more “earth-bound,” we continue to strive to do our best in every aspect of life.

What about those who have unfinished business with loved ones? That is also what Yom Kippur is about: a day of second chances. The second set of Ten Commandments was given on Yom Kippur as an atonement for the golden calf and for Moses’ smashing the first set. In doing so, G-d gave the message that our ancestors were forgiven for their misdeeds. Similarly, we have a chance to start over, to begin this year with a clean slate and clear conscience, bereft of any feelings of guilt. We all make mistakes and like our ancestors we get the opportunity after genuine supplication to begin anew. That is what the Day of Atonement, or At-One-Ment, is all about: being at one with G-d and with ourselves as we strive to move forward with an attempt at serenity and wholeness.

What do we do when we are feeling bereft, that our world is empty without our loved one? For this I return to Netivot Shalom who discusses this topic as well. He states that “at a time when one feels that their world is dark and does not find something to cling to, his/her responsibility is to cling to G-d.”[4] A key principle of Hasidim, literally the “pious ones,” is דבקות, or clinging to G-d. During a funeral, I always mention why so many of the prayers at the cemetery have to do with praising G-d, why we say the Kaddish, which exalts the name of G-d, or צדוק הדין which refers to G-d asתמים  הצור, our rock in whom there is no flaw. Why at a time of grief and bereavement would we seek to praise G-d? The answer is not for G-d’s sake but for ours-that when we are vulnerable and broken inside, we need something greater than ourselves to cling to, to give us hope, to make us remember that our life has meaning and purpose. For some that is fulfilled through family, for others through friendships, but our tradition teaches that G-d, a being greater than ourselves, is the source of comfort. That is why one of G-d’s names is שלום, or peace, and why we pray that in addition to bringing peace to the world, G-d brings us peace of mind and a sense of שלמות, of wholeness.

This Yom Kippur we remember the lives of two individuals who gave so much to the Jewish people: Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres. Wiesel spoke at the Jericho Jewish Center 21 years ago at our 40th anniversary celebration, which remains one of the largest fund-raisers in the history of our synagogue. One of his remarks which continue to resonate with me is “hope is like peace. It is not a gift from G-d. It is a gift only we can give one another.” [5] He said in his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 1986 “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history.”[6] As we remember Wiesel on this Yom Kippur, I wish for us to keep this at the forefront of our minds-that no matter what difficulties we undergo we remain united as a congregational family and that we always have people to whom we can turn to help us stay on course.

We also remember another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shimon Peres. Peres is the only individual in the State of Israel’s history to have served as both President and Prime Minister. Shimon strove with every fiber of his being to bring peace to Israel, and though some felt he was too naïve, or too much of a dreamer, he never gave up hope for peace. Upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Peres stated, “The wars we fought were forced upon us. Thanks to the Israel Defense Forces, we won them all, but we did not win the greatest victory that we aspired to; release from the need to win victories.”[7] While he could not lead Israel to peace, Peres said, “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem but a fact-not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”[8]

As we prepare for another Yizkor, I pray that each of us takes a moment to deeply connect with those who are no longer physically present in our lives, to remember their touch, their smile, their words of inspiration, to remember the memories shared over the years. I also hope that we will rise up, transcending our current state of being and become like angels, striving to reach the souls of our loved ones. Through Yizkor on this holiest day of the year, we rekindle their spirit and reunite with them-keeping their presence with us. This is not meant to be easy to achieve-there may be tears, frustration or sadness upon recalling one taken before his/her time or when we hoped for so many more special moments together. However, on Yom Kippur we have an opportunity to get as close as possible to the ones who came before us, who taught us values and ethics, who modeled for us how to live our lives. Through closing our eyes, taking a deep breath, letting our thoughts go, we no longer focus on our worldly concerns, instead deeply connecting with our loved ones. In so doing, we can ascend like angels to the supernal realms.

I conclude with a special reading by Rabbi Josh Moskowitz about Rabbi Soloveitchik entitled “To Say Yizkor is to Say…” Though a lesser loss, I think about this after we put our dog down this past Wednesday.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suffered from pain and depression upon the death of his wife. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the pain this way:

Over the course of many years, a man becomes accustomed to returning home from his outside affairs. He climbs the few steps before the front door of his house in the same way he has done for years. He rings the bell out of habit and expects to hear, as always, the soft steps from the other side of the door…He waits, but the steps never come. He puts his hand into his pocket, pulls out the key and opens the door…It seems to be the same door and the same furniture. Everything is clean and polished as usual…Nevertheless, something has changed. Everything appears to be in exactly the same state and in the same place as before he left his house. Nothing has been moved, only no one is there waiting for him. All around there is peace and quiet-which can sometimes be worse than heart-rending cries. Mourning engulfs his whole being.

At four times during the year, it is custom and obligation to stand with one’s community and to remember how it was before everything changed; to remember what we loved so much about them; and to acknowledge our sense of loss.

To say before one’s people: I am less than whole…because people I still care for, still love deeply are not here among we, the living, but are at rest (God willing) among the dead. But just like those I love, these too were somehow a part of me…and that part of me is now gone.

To say before one’s people: I hurt, at least now when the memories come back into focus, and the feelings rise up from who knows where.

And also to say before one’s people: Despite the hurt life does go on, that in some unpredictable but sure way, time does heal, most wounds do close up…The feeling of being engulfed by mourning still comes…but over time loses some power, some frequency.

That life continues on and can still be quite good-not because we have forgotten loved ones, but, in fact precisely because we choose to remember. Remember the qualities we loved and were touched by; remember ideas and sayings and small bits of humor; and remember their love and concern for us…

And in some unplanned but real way, all of this has become a part of us, so that we are more whole than we ever would have guessed…Because they are a part of us…They sustain us. And they stay with us in life-as we stay with them in death. Let us remember them.”[9]

We continue with Yizkor on Page 321.

[1] Netivot Shalom, Yom Kippur, Fourth Article, כי גדול יום ה

[2] Ibid

[3] Mishnah Sotah 9:14

[4] Netivot Shalom, Service of G-d, Second Article, Page 241

[5] Attributed to Elie Wiesel

[6] Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986.

[7] Shimon Peres, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1994.

[8] Attributed to Shimon Peres.

[9] From The World of the High Holy Days Volume 1, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Pages 349-350.

The Vows We Make Today

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. We are often so busy in our daily lives that we don’t take the time to think about what’s most important: our interpersonal relationships.

What do you think of when you hear Kol Nidre? Some reflect on the musicality of the service. Others enjoy being together with community and family. Others are inspired by the beauty of these words giving us a clean slate for the coming year.

This evening we read some pivotal words: “All vows, oaths, agreements and promises between us and G-d which will be made during the coming year but not kept will be retroactively annulled-as if they never occurred.” Why start off our holiest day of the year with these words? One possibility is that the yearning to be forgiven from vows we were unable to keep is a paradigm for our desire to be forgiven from all sins. Another is that we are trying to start the New Year by recognizing our human nature; that we are imperfect and get the opportunity once a year to acknowledge our limitations. What I want to focus on tonight is the idea that vows to G-d are actually more serious than we often view them in contemporary society, that when you swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, you need to be serious about what you are saying. We learn that when one invokes the name of G-d, it is no laughing matter. In biblical times, one could not undo vows, and in rabbinic times they could only be undone through the convening of a beit din, or rabbinic court. That’s why we gather before sunset-to symbolically serve as a Jewish court, as we cannot do “business matters” on a Jewish holiday. Because of the serious legal formalities involved, the Talmud records statements such as “Do not make a habit of making vows”[1] and the prophet Kohelet, who we will read in a few days, states “Better not to vow than to vow and not fulfill.”[2]

In biblical times, vows were of paramount importance. Deuteronomy 23:22 asserts, “When you make any vow to your G-d, you must pay it without delay…If you refrain from making a vow, that is no sin for you; but you must be careful to perform any promise you have made with your lips.” In the Bible, Joshua has a mandate from G-d to conquer all the nations who live in the land of Canaan and kill their inhabitants, a חרם, or complete, conquest.  After Joshua had started to do this, the surrounding nation of Gibeon began to worry that they would be next. We learn that “when the inhabitants of Gibeon learned how Joshua had treated Jericho and Ai (destroying all) they for their part resorted to cunning.  They set out in disguise…they went to Joshua and said to him ‘We come from a distant land; we propose that you make a pact with us.’…Joshua made a ברית, a covenant with them to spare their lives.”[3] When Joshua found out that the Gibeonites had tricked him into believing that they were foreigners, he said “Why did you deceive us and tell us you lived very far from us, when in fact you live among us?  Therefore, be accursed!”[4] While Joshua cursed the Gibeonites forcing them to work as servants for the Israelites, he did not go back on his pact and kill them. After all, he had invoked the name of G-d to protect the Gibeonites and to now violate that would be to take G-d’s name in vain, which he would not do.

Another biblical example, which is horrifying to many of us, is in the Book of Judges with the story of Yiftach. Yiftach made a נדר to G-d vowing that “if you deliver the Ammonites into my hands then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be God’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”[5] Allegedly he thought that an animal would be the first thing to greet him. However, three verses later we discover that “when Yiftach arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance.”[6] When Yiftach’s daughter heard of her father’s vow, she was devastated and asks for two months of lamentation before she was sacrificed. We are told that “after two months’ time she returned to her father, and he did to her as he vowed.”[7] Yiftach’s vow to God superseded his ability to protect his daughter. If only he had had a Kol Nidrei prayer as we do today, it would have nullified his נדר to G-d. While we can argue over the ethics of Yiftach’s decision, we see from his example how important vows were in biblical times.

The Talmud describes the process of התרת נדרים, nullification of vows before a בית דין, or court of three rabbis.[8] During the Geonic period,[9] a ceremony (Kol Nidrei) was created through which one could nullify vows, which we symbolically remember today with the Kol Nidre prayer.  Because of the serious nature of vows in Judaism, the ceremony was not readily accepted. Karaites[10] used Kol Nidrei to discredit rabbinic Jews who they said were so willing to take vows and then annul them. Rabbi Yehudai Gaon, a Babylonian sage, was so bothered by the idea of annulling vows that he forbade the study of Tractate Nedarim. Rabbi Amram Gaon, creator of one of the first Siddurim, or prayerbooks, referred to Kol Nidrei as a minhag shtut, or foolish custom.  Medieval anti-Semites, following the example of the Karaites, used the wording of Kol Nidrei to say that a Jew was not trustworthy because he could just as soon break his vow. Rabbi Yehiel of Paris was forced to defend Kol Nidrei in 1240.[11] In the 19th Century, many western European communities[12] got rid of the Kol Nidrei, arguing that it was no longer relevant. However, today there has been a resurgence of uttering the Kol Nidrei prayer before Yom Kippur services.

Is Kol Nidrei still relevant today?  Do we hold vows as highly as our ancestors did? Of course we hold seriously swearing on the Bible when in court. If found lying, one is guilty of perjury, a prosecutable crime, as well as transgressing the third and ninth commandments. However, I am not sure that other vows are taken as seriously by our society as a whole. How many times have we sworn to do something, even making a statement like “as G-d as my witness” and yet we have not followed through? The concept “I give you my word” does not cut it in our society-and if it did, lawyers would be out of jobs.

Have you ever sworn to do something with no intention of following through? Perhaps a person was on your back and you wanted to get rid of him or her. Maybe you genuinely wanted to help but became overextended. Perchance you were afraid of the consequences of something you did wrong, so you said, “I swear I didn’t do it.”

If we want the Kol Nidrei prayer to be relevant to our lives today, we should act in the following manner. First we need to take our words more seriously, only making vows or promises when we can follow through. Also we must remind ourselves what it means to swear to do something and how serious it is, not only in a court of law but in every aspect of life. Swearing falsely is an act of taking G-d’s name in vain and in the courtroom also an act of bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.

If you swear to do something you cannot fulfill or have no intention of doing, what meaning is there behind your words? Of course a promise made to a family member does not equate to an oath taken in court, yet we also must be careful to ensure that our words have integrity, as G-d is witnessing what we do. As Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi stated in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Reflect on three things, and you will not come into the clutches of sin. Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears and a book in which all your deeds are recorded.”[13] If you do legitimately think you can fulfill a vow and in the end are not able to, that is what Kol Nidrei is for. It is not for annulling careless vows or promises but for those which one intended to fulfill but was unable to do.

May each of us think carefully the next time we make a vow, promise or commitment to only do so when we fully intend to carry it out or when we are able to do so.  If we do this, if we can consider our vows as sincere and genuine, our Kol Nidrei prayer will have more meaning, and our words will have integrity.

[1] Nedarim 20a

[2] Ecclesiastes 5:4

[3] Joshua 9:4, 9:15

[4] Joshua 9:22-23

[5] Judges 11:31

[6] Judges 11:34

[7] Judges 11:39

[8] 9th chapter of Tractate Nedarim

[9] 589-1038 CE

[10] who follow the biblical law but not rabbinic law

[11] The disputation of Paris, taking place at the court of Louis IX where Rabbi Yehiel had to debate the convert to Christianity Nicolas Donin. Following the debate a decree was passed to burn the Talmud.

[12] Especially but not exclusively Reform ones

[13] Mishneh Avot 2:1

Hazak V’Ematz

One phrase is repeated three times over the course of our parsha. The first time it is mentioned to the entire Israelite nation, the second and third to Joshua. That phrase is חזק ואמץ, be strong and emboldened! The first time it is mentioned, our ancestors are told not to fear the other nations because G-d marches alongside them. They are never alone-G-d is always by their side to help in all their endeavors. After the Israelites’ fears are assuaged, Moses tells Joshua the same words, חזק ואמץ, to not fear that he’ll be able to do his job as the leader of the people. He tells it to him twice, in verses 7 and 23. However, the context is completely different. In verse 7, Joshua is told that the Land of Israel was sworn by G-d to their ancestors and that he will be the one to lead them into it. In verse 23, Joshua is told in addition to this that G-d will be with him. Why did G-d need to repeat that? Isn’t it obvious that G-d will be there?

Sometimes hearing by itself is not enough-we need to be reassured that what we heard is correct. After all, our greatest leader, Moses, needed to be reassured not once, not twice, not even three times but four that he was meant to lead our ancestors out of Egypt. How much more so does Joshua require reassurance that he will be successful as the next leader after our greatest prophet ever! Furthermore, in verse 7 Moses called to Joshua, telling him to be strong and emboldened. In verse 23 he commanded him to do so. He wants it solidified in Joshua’s head to have faith in his abilities to lead the Israelite people to the Promised Land and conquer it from their enemies.

It can be very easy to be afraid when going into a marriage. One transitions from being on his/her own to being a partner. Regardless of how well a couple knows each other, something changes the moment when they walk under the wedding canopy. There are always worries upon entering a marriage, as there are with any significant life transition. The key is, as in the words of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, to do one’s best לא לפחד כלל, not to have any fear, to recognize that you’re in the right place for you at this particular time.

The same lesson is applied to this Sabbath of Repentance, Shabbat Shuvah. We are supposed to be in fear of our fate at this time, whether we will be in the book of life or book of death. We are supposed to meticulously examine our actions to see what we can do better, how we can improve. At the same time, we should not have any fear, for G-d is with us, guiding us along our path. We just need the wisdom to know that things will work out in the end, that we need patience, understanding and calmness.

As we continue forward towards Yom Kippur, let each of us be strong and emboldened, doing our best to prepare for a wonderful coming year. Let us also wish our best to Ethan and Haleigh for the celebration of their aufruf and their upcoming marriage. May this year 5777 be one of blessing and joy for each of us.

What Does It Mean to Serve

In rabbinical school I participated in interfaith dialogue. We had a monthly group of Jews and Christians that would go to a different theological seminary each month to study together. At one of the sessions I was asked why I became a rabbi. I gave my answer about helping a community grow, teaching Torah and bringing godliness into every encounter. Then I was asked if this was a calling for me. I paused-I had never considered a career choice a calling. Vocation yes, but a calling no. At the same time, it made me think about why we do what we do.

There’s a great Hasidic story in the book Tiferet Ha-Yehudi which I learned from Rabbi Brad Artson of the American Jewish University. It’s about Rabbi Hayim Krasner going to the town of Kransy to see an acrobat balancing himself on a high tightrope walk across the river. The Rebbi was fascinated and stared with intensity as the man made his way across the river. The crowd gasped with great amazement. When the walker finished, the Rebbe’s Hasidim, or followers, asked him, “Why was this so interesting to you?” He replied, “You might think the acrobat crossed the river because of the financial reward offered to the person who would do it. Indeed he might have stared with that motivation. But once he was up on the tightrope, if he had thought about that reward for even an instant, he would have fallen. While on the tightrope, the only thing he could think about was the next step, and the step after that. And maintaining his balance on a very narrow perch.”

Often we do things with thinking of the end benefit. After all, Stephen Covey’s second step in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “begin with the end in mind.”[1] However, if we are solely focused on the desired outcome and not the process that it will take to reach that outcome, we will likely struggle in our endeavors. We can only go one step at a time, one day at a time, in pursuit of our goals.

Rabbinic teaching illustrates this beautifully with the principles of  תורה לשמה Torah Lishmah, learning for its own sake, and תורה שלא לשמה Torah Shelo Lishmah, learning which is for an ulterior motive. As Rabbi Meir states, “One who occupies him/herself with the Torah for its own sake acquires many things and s/he alone is sufficient for the existence of the entire world.”[2] Interestingly, the word in Hebrew is לעסוק, to occupy oneself with, meaning this is not a passive act of study but rather one of active engagement, of “living Torah.” However, we cannot do everything from a selfless feeling-after all, wanting to apply our teachings to something real and meaningful, rather than exclusively studying theoretics, is important. I appear to be in big trouble from this passage, as I apply much of what I learn to my sermons and classes, and part of my motivation for learning new things is to acquire new material to teach. However, another passage from the Talmud helps reconcile this: we should engage with Torah even for ulterior motives (שלא לשמה) because it will lead us to engage in Torah for its own sake (לשמה).[3] Even if we have an agenda, a desired outcome to achieve, and Torah is a means to this end, this does not negate the importance of what we’ve learned, and it will motivate us to continue to learn out of pure enjoyment.
The sages tell a similar teaching as to which is preferred-study or action. What do you think they concluded? Surprisingly they went with Rabbi Akiva, who said study because it leads to action.[4] Often we think that we need to do, do, do. However, if we act blindly without introspection it can be worse than not acting at all. We must be reflective, know why we are doing something and never losing sight of our ultimate goal.

Our learning must lead to action, to service of G-d and to others. At times service means actually doing the work oneself rather than relying on others. Those in the workplace know this. When there’s something you deeply care about, you show your dedication on that matter by doing it yourself rather than giving it to someone else. In this morning’s Torah portion, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, it reads וישכם אברהם בבוקר ויחבוש את חמורו, “Abraham woke up early and saddled his donkey.”[5] The rabbis ask why did Abraham saddle the donkey on his own? After all, he had numerous servants! Rashi, citing the Midrash, states הוא בעצמו ולא צוה לאחד מעבדיו, שהאהבה מקלקלת את השורה; “He himself did this without commanding his servants to do so, because love trumps propriety.”[6] Abraham’s love for G-d led him to act on his own rather than relying on a servant. One can question Abraham’s motives as to why his love for G-d superseded him challenging G-d to let his son live, but what we have here is our patriarch himself being the one to prepare for the journey to Mount Moriah.

Another more humbling example is that of Hillel, one of our great teachers from the 1st century BCE. The Talmud states that someone who fell upon hard times should be returned to his prior standard of living. In following this tradition, Hillel purchased for an individual who had become impoverished a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him. One day, he could not find a servant, so Hillel himself ran before him for three miles.[7] Hillel lowered his personal standing to that of a servant to preserve the dignity of this man. What this man was accustomed to mattered more to Hillel than his own stature as a rabbi. Perhaps Hillel remembered his difficult days, when he could not afford to enter the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, to study Torah, instead sitting on the roof of the academy and once even being covered by snow![8] Whether or not we agree with Hillel, we know that he valued helping others in the way in which they were accustomed, even if he had to directly serve as a servant.

At times, like in these examples, being of service means taking an active role by oneself rather than relying on others. At other times it means being present for key moments in the lives of others. One summer in rabbinical school I had an internship with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago. The internship involved two days of learning Jewish texts on social justice, two days working at a social justice organization and one day of self-examination and reflection. A week and a half before the internship began, I found out that I was going to be placed at the InnerCity Muslim Action Network on the southwest side of Chicago. Some had concerns for my security as well as for my working with a Muslim organization, but I was stubborn and insisted on doing so.

This internship more than anything taught me about what it means to serve a community. I was a Jew working with Muslims on criminal justice reform, helping mostly Christian African Americans in inner-city Chicago. At times I felt that I wasn’t doing enough, as I was there on a very part-time basis and was not given core projects. I’m by nature an outcome-oriented person, not always having the patience to be present, waiting for an opportunity. I spoke to my supervisor, who told me, “Ben, your being here by itself means a lot.” Since then I have always kept that in the back of my mind.

So many other experiences in my life have been about being present rather than doing something. I served as a chaplaincy student at Bellevue Hospital, visiting the detox, medical and surgical units as well as prison psych. Much of being a chaplain is about listening to people’s stories and bringing out their true emotions. The prisoners were from Riker’s Island and were at Bellevue for a psychiatric evaluation before being sent back to Riker’s. Of course they wanted me to convince the psychiatrists to allow them to stay. I also never received so many requests for a kosher meal plan, as the kosher food was superior to the regular prison food.

One of the prisoners I visited stood out to me.  Jason was my age, and he had chronic pain in his knee.  He was also experiencing kidney failure and was anticipating going on dialysis.  Jason had been arrested because of illegal possession of painkillers.  I met with him four times, each for half an hour, and every meeting he was depressed, hallucinatory and suicidal.  I listened to and affirmed Jason, and I read him two psalms that addressed pain and suffering.  After I read these psalms, Jason told me that this was the first time since his Bar Mitzvah that he found meaning in Judaism.  He also said, “You’re the only one here who believes in me.” For Jason, what was most important was that I believed in who he was and had faith that he would succeed despite his challenges of being in prison.

Since entering the rabbinate, I’ve also learned that a lot of what it means to serve is being a listening ear, whether comforting a family, listening to students’ reactions in the classroom or attending a board or committee meeting. The concept of service, or  עבודה, is also reflected in our tradition, for this is the word used for worshiping G-d. During Temple times, our ancestors worshiped through sacrificing animals, a reminder that “this could have been you-repent your ways.” Today we worship through prayer, known as עבודה שבלב, the worship of the heart. Our being truly present in a moment of prayer, striving to transcend our momentary crises and to connect with something greater than ourselves, is what it means to be a servant of G-d. At times this is not easy, as when the road ahead is fraught with great difficulty. I’ll always remember Rabbi Neil Gillman telling me that he needs to pray because sometimes “I need a G-d to cry out to in anger.”[9] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik talked about what it means to be the Lonely Man of Faith, to believe in a better future when the foundations and anchors that surround you appear to be crumbling down.[10]

When we continue with our davening, I’d like everyone to think about what it means to you to serve others, whether through your work, your family, or our community. How are you present for others at moments of vulnerability and how do you affirm their struggles without losing your own faith? At times we are called upon to do great things but at other times our job is to be present and engaged with our inner self, which we need to do before we can engage in the struggles of those around us-and that is one of the central purposes of coming together on the High Holidays. In 5777, let us strive to be more present and engaged where we are at as well as with our loved ones. In so doing, may we always remember who we are, why we are here and what we can do to be present with ourselves and with those who need us.

[1] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), Page 95.

[2] Pirkei Avot 6:1

[3] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105b

[4] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 40b

[5] Genesis 22:3

[6] Rashi on Genesis 22:3 citing Bereshit Rabbah 55:8

[7] Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67b

[8] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 35b

[9] Conversation with Rabbi Gillman.

[10] Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 42.