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

Ecclesiastes

“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.

How Have You Changed?

I’m a fan of classic rock, and one of my favorite bands is Foreigner. They wrote a song called Feels Like the First Time, and one of the lyrics is “It feels like the first time like it never will again.” When we reflect on our first time experiences: the novelty, the excitement of the unknown, even the fear, what comes to mind? Do you remember your first time coming to High Holiday services as a child, or at the Jericho Jewish Center? I imagine your experience then was quite different than it is today.

I reflect on the first time I led High Holiday services, when I was in Year One of rabbinical school. It was Kol Nidre evening and I was at Florida State University. Underneath my Kittel my legs were shaking, and I was pacing back and forth. I was so nervous I had to step aside before the service began to compose myself so that I could step into a room with over 300 college students.

I wish I had had the words of Rabbi Adam Frank in my head at that moment. Two years later, I was in my year of study in Israel, and a friend and I were reading the double portion Tazria/Metzora at Congregation Moreshet Israel. For those who do not know, Parshat Tazria/Metzora is the most difficult portion to learn, as it does not follow traditional Hebrew grammatical patterns-rather, one has to memorize the words and their sequence. I was thinking how could I master this portion in front of a congregation of Israelis, who would know every time I made a mistake. Rabbi Frank could tell I was nervous, and he said to me, “Don’t worry about them (pointing to the congregants); worry about Him (pointing to G-d). It was at that moment that I knew what was truly important-a focus on a higher matter than what others around me might think.

There’s a story about a Yeshiva bochur who was going to lead High Holiday services for the first time. He was nervous, scouring the prayerbook to make sure he had every piyyut (liturgical poem) down perfectly. He then set up a meeting with his rabbi to go over the service. The rabbi listened to his concerns, knowing that this boy had gone to services for the majority of his life and knew the prayers. He told him, “The prayerbook hasn’t changed since last year; how have you changed?”[1]

Every year we gather together here at the Jericho Jewish Center, saying the same prayers, atoning for our sins and then returning to our regular routines . As we engage in this process of repentance, let us ponder the question: How have you changed in the past year? What are you doing differently than when we gathered together last September? How are you becoming a better person, taking more time for your family, putting more effort into your work, eliminating bad habits and strengthening good ones? Our service may not have changed much but you have certainly changed. You’re one year older and wiser with more life experience, the wisdom to guide you on your path.

I strongly believe that none of us are here by accident-each of us has a specific path to walk down, a mission to follow, a destiny to embrace. During these holidays we take our personal heshbon hanefesh, our accounting of what we are doing, how we are progressing on our journey through life. It’s too easy to go through the prayers by rote, saying hello to our neighbors and then walking out the door until next year. It’s far more difficult, though crucial, to sit back and ponder who we are and in which direction we are heading.

I sometimes wish I was back in those days at Florida State University, at Congregation Moreshet Israel, or even back at the Jericho Jewish Center two years ago for my first High Holiday. Having an experience for the first time forces one to step off autopilot and be fully present in the moment. The challenge is when one becomes accustomed to a way of practice and does it by rote. How can we ensure that these High Holidays will be a unique experience, one that will be meaningful and life-changing for us? How will we ensure that we are on the road to positive change in the year 5777?

On Rosh Hashanah we traditionally eat some special items, one of which is apples dipped in honey. These are called Simanim, or “signs” for a good new year. Each one has a saying after it, a wish (יהי רצון) “may it be your will” for the coming year. One of the items traditionally eaten is the fish head (I know, not the most appetizing). The words said for eating the fish head is שיהיה לראש ולא יהיה לזנב, that we should be like the head and not like the tail. In other words, we need to be a leader, not a follower. It’s too easy to follow the same patterns year in and year out-it’s a lot harder to lead by changing ourselves for the better, working on techniques to “liberate us from enslaving habits which disturb us and give us no rest.”[2]

The High Holidays are called HaYamim HaNoraim, the Days of Awe, as they are meant to inspire us, to give us a sense of renewal, of reinvigorated energy to begin the year. Think about when the last time you had an experience that brought awe into your life. For me it began with the birth of my daughter, Ariela. Each and every day I get to see first-hand her sense of wonder as she discovers new things about herself and the world in which we live. I see how she looks at the world with eyes wide open, at first energized by things as simple as a spinning mobile or a rattle and now engrossed by the strings on my tallit or the straps of my Tefillan in morning minyan or by a cell phone or the television remote. Abraham Joshua Heschel said “wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge,”[3] that we develop through self-growth and positive thinking rather than through despair and sadness.

Rosh Hashanah’s significance is that it is the birthday of the world. In the Musaf service, we will say three times היום הרת עולם-this is the day on which the world was created. For this passage there is a creative interpretation by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs by “The Velveteen Rabbi.” She writes that היום הרת עולם means “today is pregnant with eternity.”[4] In other words, anything’s possible on any given day. We are not bound by the same old but rather we must open ourselves up to new possibilities. Rosh Hashanah provides a lightning rod for doing so, for reflecting on how we want the coming year to go and what type of person we want to be this year. I think about what type of rabbi, husband, father, son, teacher and leader I want to be in 5777, how I want to get rid of bad habits and refine myself for the better. Thank G-d Rosh Hashanah comes around every year and enables us to be introspective and reflective…as long as it is followed by acting in a constructive and proactive manner.

Think of the moments that have inspired you to change. It could be a wakeup call of some kind, a matter needing urgent attention, or it could be a characteristic you noticed in someone else that you wanted to emulate. We hope for more of the latter as opposed to the former, as too often we wait too long to make the constructive, beneficial changes that would greatly aide us. Now is the time to do so-for Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה) can also be thought of as Rosh HaShinui (ראש השינוי), the time for making changes.
When we return to daven together next year I imagine that the prayerbook will still be the same. You might be sitting in the same seats next to the same people. However, you will have changed over the course of the next year. Perhaps you will take those Krav Maga lessons or learn how to sail. Maybe you will find a way to be better connected with friends and family who live far away or to be more patient, kind and gentle for those who are in your midst. Perchance you will gain the skills necessary for a job promotion. Perhaps you’ll go to Africa to help at an orphanage. Maybe you’ll even win at Pokemon Go! Whatever this new year brings, think about what you can do to grow as a person so that when we meet again you will be able to say, “I certainly have changed for the better, and it was well worth the effort.”

We cannot go back to “the first time,” as enticing as that might be at times. At times we will get downtrodden with our situation but instead of staying stuck in the moment, we do our best to move ahead, finding enjoyment in every opportunity, striving to make 5777 a year filled with growth, vitality and inspiration. How can we change ourselves in the coming year so that we will look at our jobs, our partners, our families with a renewed sense of wonder, or to quote Heschel again, “radical amazement?”[5] The prayers we say might not have changed but we certainly have and we will continue to do so as we progress on our life’s journey. Let us continually ask ourselves how to bring positive change into our routines, so that we will always look at our lives with wonder and with joy.

I invite you to join us right now in the reflective process of how you will change as the Cantor Black will begin to chant the Hineni prayer on Page 124. Before he begins, however, I want to share a reading by Rabbi Rami Shapiro entitled A Different Kind of a Hineni in hopes that this gives us some additional insight into this important prayer:

Hineni. Here I am.

A little bit nervous, a bit self-conscious.

After all, who am I talking to?

And what have I done?

Am I a sinner in search of grace

Or a saint seeking salvation?

Am I so evil

Or so good

As to warrant this season of introspection?

And yet here it is, and here I am:

This time of change and correction,

This heart of confusion and contrition.

Oh, if I could change!

If I could be so sure of myself

That I no longer had to imagine the slights of others;

To be so loving of myself

That I no longer had to ration my loving of others;

To be so bold with myself

That I no longer had to fear the bravery of other.

Oh, if I could change

There is so much I would change.

Maybe I will, but it scares me so.

Maybe I won’t and that should scare me more.

But it doesn’t.

So let me pray just this:

Let no one be put to shame because of me.

Wouldn’t that make this a wonderful year?

Hineni-Here I am![6]

 

 

[1] Learned from Rabbi Jonathan Hecht

[2] Text of English reading for Hashkivenu is Siddur Hadash , p. 61

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone.

[4] Blog posting in The Velveteen Rabbi, “Being Change” on September 17, 2012.

[5] Longer version of quotation, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

[6] From The World of the High Holy Days Volume II, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Pages 103-104.

Choose Life

Parshat Nitzavim is special because it reaffirms the covenant that we made with G-d. All of Israel was gathered together: ראשיהם שבטיכם זקניהם ושוטריכם: “Your tribal heads, elders and guards,”[1] to receive G-d’s words. The covenant was accepted with some special witnesses, as G-d says “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life ((ובחרת בחיים-that both you and your offspring may live.[2]

Was there really any choice besides life? What does it mean to choose life? In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides asserts that “choice is given to every person, whether he wishes to lead himself into a good path and be righteous or whether he wishes to lead himself into a bad path and be wicked; this is the meaning of ‘Now that man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad.’[3] Humankind is unique in the world in that a human can know the good and the bad from his/her own mind and thought and do whatever s/he pleases, without anyone coercing him/her.” He continues, “This (free choice) is a fundamental principle of the Torah and its mitzvoth, as it says ‘See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.’ This means that choice is given to you, and whatever a person desires to do of human doings s/he may do-whether good or bad. It is on account of this that it says ‘May they always be of such mind, to revere Me and follow all My commandments, that it may go well with them and with their children forever.’[4] Thus, the Creator, does not coerce people or pre-destine them to do good or bad, rather everything is given over for them to choose.[5]

Maimonides takes a philosophical perspective that our mission in life is to make proper choices. The Torah T’mimah, a compilation of teachings from the Talmud and Midrash about biblical verses, references the Yerushalmi,[6] where Rabbi Yishmael teaches that choosing life refers to teaching a trade. One of the requirements is for a parent to ensure that his/her children will be self-sufficient through their learning a trade, and if the parents do not do so, the child must teach himself. The reason for this is our verse, ‘that you,’ and by implication the offspring which emanate from you, shall live.[7]  Making the right choices begins through proper instruction from one’s parents, and it is a parent’s obligation to set his/her child on the proper path.

There were numerous translations of the Torah into Aramaic, called the Targumim, or “translations”. Each week we are commanded to study שני מקרא ואחד תרגום, the weekly portion twice in Hebrew and once in translation. The most common translation read is Onkelos, from a convert who has the most literal translation from Hebrew to Aramaic. One of my favorites to read, however, is Targum Yonatan, as there are added elements to the text. Yonatan translates our passage as “choose the way of life-that is Torah-so that you will live the life of the world to come, both you and your children.”[8] Yonatan adds the elements of making life, or חיים, synonymous with Torah, as well as the fact that the life being referenced to is that of the world to come.

Of the three interpretations, Rambam is the most rational-G-d, in His beneficence, gives us the opportunity to choose our destiny, that it is up to us to live lives of meaning, Torah and G-dliness. The Torah T’mimah goes one step further, asserting that we must educate the next generation on the proper path so they will follow in our footsteps. Targum Yonatan in some ways is the most difficult of the three, as it is focused on following Torah not to beat fruit in this world but for a reward in a world to come, which is difficult to grasp. However, I think he is saying that through living a life of Torah, we will ensure that our offspring will also do so and they will pay it forward to their children. In so doing, the household will continue to choose the proper path.

It’s not always so easy to see things this way in our culture that promotes individualization and secularism. In his article “The Heretical Imperative,” Peter Berger writes that a hareisis originally meant “the taking of a choice,”[9] meaning that in some sense we are all Jews by choice today. We can choose to live a Jewish life, observe Halacha, study the wisdom from our tradition, or we can choose not to. In his book Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that we need to invest more of our resources in Jewish education. That education must be not only for our children and grandchildren but also for ourselves. How many of us take the time to study Talmud or Midrash, which are readily accessible in English translations? How many of us strive to increase our personal Jewish observance, whether coming more often to support our minyan, refraining from doing work on Shabbat, or increasing our level of kashrut? If we don’t set the example, if we don’t teach the trade, our children and grandchildren will not get the message. This is something I am increasingly aware of as my daughter grows and develops her capabilities for understanding and processing knowledge.

As we approach another Rosh Hashanah, the onset of 5777, let us make the choice to strengthen our Jewish lives. As we gather together for meals with family and friends, may we ensure that there is Jewish content: the saying of brachot before and after eating, the singing of zmirot, or special holiday songs, and the teaching of Torah at the meal. Through choosing to engage in Torah, we will increase the richness of our holiday and set an example for the coming generations to emulate. Let us choose wisely and may it lead to us having a blessed and enriched 5777.

[1] Deuteronomy 29:9

[2] Deuteronomy 30:19

[3] Genesis 3:22

[4] Deuteronomy 5:26

[5] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of T’shuvah, 5:1, 5:3

[6] Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Kiddushin 1:7

[7] Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, Torah Temimah, Deuteronomy 30:19

[8] Tagrum Yonatan, Deuteronomy 30:19

[9] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative, (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 11.

Dr. Arthur Kurzweil

 

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This week concluded three life-changing lectures for me as we had Dr. Arthur Kurzweil as our Scholar-in-Residence. I had studied Kabbalah at JTS and taught the basics of Kabbalah at the Jericho Jewish Center but Dr. Kurzweil explained the Sefirot, or emanations of G-d, as well as the central teachings of Kabbalah in a way that finally made sense to me. Dr. Kurzweil has been the driver and close confidant of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the greatest minds of our generation, a master Kabbalist and scholar of Talmud who recently completed translating the entire Talmud into English, after previously translating it into Modern Hebrew. Dr. Kurzweil often quoted Rabbi Steinsaltz in his remarks.

The first talk was 20 Kabbalistic Ideas I Made Sure to Teach My Grandchildren. One of the ideas that really clicked with me is “Sometimes It’s Appropriate to Be Inappropriate,” that nothing is black-and-white. He referenced a story I had heard from Rabbi Berel Wein that if someone comes to you asking if a chicken’s kosher and they cannot afford another one, you find a way to say that the chicken is kosher. He also mentioned the Lincoln Square Synagogue mehitza which is made out of glass but is serving a young, single Orthodox population who might not come to a synagogue that had a tall, opaque mehitza. He also referenced how a woman ran towards Rabbi Steinsaltz to embrace him and rather than embarrass her he opened his arms so that they touched hands. He contrasted this with the Hasid Shoteh, or pious fool, who sees a woman drowning and says “halachically I can’t touch her,” so he lets her drown.

The other principle that hit me was that you need to taste/experience things and every once in awhile you get a flash of understanding. Dr. Kurzweil said in the name of Rabbi Steinsaltz to not only teach your children what they can understand but also the most abstract theological notions. For the Kabbalist, the blessings are the moments of awareness and consciousness with which one can connect with G-d.

The second session was The Kabbalist and Suffering.Dr. Kurzweil began by asking how does it feel for the angel of death to separate the body and soul? The Talmud (which he said it one in the same with Kabbalah), says that it either feels like separating a hair from a glass of milk or a ball of spikes in the throat with someone pulling on the rope. Do you view death as a graduation or as something to resist? Rabbi Steinsaltz said that the meaning of “Niftar,” or to die, is that one’s soul is patur, or relieved, of its earthly duties. He defined the soul as any part of one’s body which is not physical and talked about gilgul haneshamot, the reincarnation of souls. The conclusion he gave about suffering is that while we don’t discuss suffering with someone when they are suffering, later we tell them that suffering is considered a “descent for the sake of ascension,”-that when we suffer it is to raise us up to overcome it, and our soul will be on a higher level because of it. He said obviously it can’t explain the major, cataclysmic sufferings, such as the Holocaust (in fact, he spoke of how Rabbi Steinsaltz, when asked to speak about the Holocaust, gave an hour and a half speech about why he was not, for people are still suffering from it). At the same time, he said it helps explain the smaller examples of suffering in his life.

The topic of Dr. Kurzweil’s third and final session was Who Am I? Where Did I Come From? Where am I Going? What for? Why?  He began the talk by quoting Rabbi Steinsaltz who told the New York Board of Rabbis, “Kabbalah is the official theology of the Jewish people.” He discussed how Rabbi Steinsaltz’s book The Thirteen Petaled Rose references different levels of consciousness: the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. These correspond to four of the five levels of the soul: nefesh, ruah, neshamah and hayah. as well as to the four worlds referenced at the Tu B’Shvat Seder: asiyah, beriah, yetzirah and atzilut. The question, Dr. Kurzweil posed, is which is the rider and which is the horse? Do our emotions direct our intellect or vice versa?

Dr. Kurzweil then went into greater detail about the Sefirot, the ten emanations of G-d, which he had begun to describe the previous week. Keter, or crown, is above everything else and represents those aspects of G-d to which we can’t connect. Then there is a triangle of Chochmah (intuition/flashes of awareness), Binah (analyzing/breaking things apart) and Daat (one’s inner experience), all of which deal with intellect. The next triangle is chesed (the quality of expansiveness/reaching outward), Gevurah (contraction, inwardness) and Tiferet (harmony between the two) which deal with emotions. Finally there is the triad of Netzach (the urge to get things done), Hod (bearing down and actually doing it) and Yesod (connection) which represents our physicality. Finally there is Malchut, the “kingdom,” and all of these triangles impact the greater kingdom.

Dr. Kurzweil described Halacha as the choreography of a dance, that all of the “do’s” and “don’ts” are not ends in and of themselves but rather the beginning of a process of connecting with G-d. Each of our acts is of cosmic proportion, including saying Modeh Ani when we wake up, differentiating between our soul (the rider) and our body (the horse). Then we clean our hands as a sign of purification (Taking the high road when we make choices). He described the Shemonah Esrei, or Amidah, as a ladder of consciousness and how one’s 5 fingers around the Kiddush cup correspond to the 5 levels of the soul.

I found Dr. Kurzweil’s talks extremely compelling as we engage in this process of Heshbon Hanefesh, of self-accounting, approaching Rosh Hashanah. Let us strive for something deeper these High Holidays in connecting with G-d and with our community. As Dr. Kurzweil said quoting Rabbi Steinsaltz, “one’s relationship with G-d is a personal affair.” However, he also quoted the Lubavitcher Rebbe after Dr. Steinsaltz came to him saying he had 3 projects to do, each of which would take more than a lifetime. The Rebbe said, “Add to them,” for he believed one could put so much pressure on him/herself that s/he could transform into a different person. May we work hard to strengthen ourselves and engage in self-transformation so that we can ascend to greater heights than we had ever imagined.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova