Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shmini Atzeres -- kashe alay pereidaschem

Over Sukkos we offer a total of seventy cows as korbanos musaf, corresponding to the seventy nations of the world. On Shmini Atzeres, however, we focus exclusively on our unique connection with Hashem. Rashi (Bamidbar 29:35) cites a Midrash which explains that Hashem so to speak tells us, “Kashe alay preidaschem,” your departure is painful – therefore let us share on final intimate meal together. The Shem m’Shemuel is troubled by this idea; he wonders whether the lingering goodbye suggested by Rashi’s interpretation does not make separation more difficult instead of easier. I am not so sure I sympathize emotionally with the question of the Shem m’Shmuel, but I do think that perhaps there is more to this idea of “kashe alay preidaschem” than meets the eye.

As we discussed during Sukkos, the four species of lulav, esrog, hadas, and aravah represent four different personality types. The fragrant and tasty esrog represents those who posses both good deeds and Torah scholarship; the lulav, with tasty fruit but no smell, represents those with scholarship but lacking in good deeds; the hadas, with its fragrance but no taste, represents those who posses good deeds but no scholarly ability; finally, the aravah represents those who have neither good deeds nor scholarly ability.

These four personality types do not only exist as four different types of Jews, but rather they co-exist inside each and every one of us. Sometimes we climb to great spiritual heights and become beautiful esrogim; sometimes we find ourselves unable to learn, unable to do mitzvos properly, and we become downtrodden aravos; other times we are somewhere in the middle. So who are we really? The answer is all of the above. The binding together of the four species on sukkos teaches that we must integrate all these different moods, all these different highs and lows, into one path of avodas Hashem.

The Midrash interprets the description of Eisav as “kulo k’aderes sei’ar,” as meaning that Eisav was like grain in a threshing house (known as an idra, a play on the word aderes), blown too and fro' by the sa’ar, the wind (a play on the word sei’ar). Eisav could not integrate his personality. He had great potential, and perhaps had moments where he rose to true spiritual heights -- but he also fell to true spiritual depths. He rode a psychological roller coaster up and down, never in touch with any core values that would serve as an anchor and help define himself.

When Haman spoke of our being, “Am m’fozar u’meforad,” he was not merely referring to the fact that we were scattered all over the globe. He was referring to the fact that in exile we had lost our core identity – our personality was scattered; that sense of wholeness and integration had been lost.

We have risen to such heights over the Yom Tov season, but now stand just days before our return to the mundane. Is the real you or me the person who stood at ne’ila davening, or the person who needs to rush out of shule next Monday to catch a train? The answer is both – we cannot live a split-personality existence. We need to somehow integrate that ne’ila and that Monday rush together in such a way that the sum is greater than either part.

Kashe alay pereidaschem” – Hashem doesn’t want us to become “mefuzar u’meforad,” to be pulled apart by the spirituality of Yom Tov in contrast to the daily grind, but rather to achieve a more elevated sense of sheleimus. Shmini Atzeres is not a lingering goodbye, but rather is a meal that lasts all year, as the inspiration of these days of the Yamim Noraim and Sukkos becomes part of who we are and helps shape our identity throughout the year to come.

Nisuch Ha'mayim -- elevating the "lower waters"

A covenant exists from the time of the six days of creation promising that the “lower waters” would be brought to the mizbeiach [altar] through their salt and through the nisuch hamayim on Sukkos. (Rashi Vayikra 2:13)

The Torah tells us that during the six days of creation G-d separated between the upper and lower waters to make space for land. But the lower waters were dissatisfied. Why should they be separated from Heaven? Why should they suffer the fate of being the “lower waters”?

G-d responded to the water by promising that the salt taken from the sea would be offered with each korban, and during the Sukkos holiday there would be a nisuch ha’mayim -- water would be poured on the mizbeiach.

But what small consolation is this? Is one week of nisuch hamayim enough to make up for lifetimes of being “lower”? Is a small percentage of salt enough?

The answer must be, explains the Sefas Emes, that the week of nisuch hamayim, the offering of salt, is itself not compensation for being lower, but rather is a siman, an indication, that the lower waters are indeed not lower at all. To make a place for our world the “lower waters” had to appear to move further from Heaven, G-dliness had to be concealed to make way for man, but the illusion of concealment did not change reality. The fact that the lower waters still have a place on the mizbeiach proves that G-dliness remains inherent and immanent even in the lower waters as well. Our task is to reveal it.

Hoshana Rabbah -- the power of the aravah

One it happened that the seventh day of Sukkos fell on Shabbos. Bundles of aravos were brought before Shabbos and left in the Azarah [of the Mikdash]. The Baysusim [who opposed the Chachamim] found those aravos, took them, and buried them under rocks. The next day the theft was discovered by amei ha’aretz, a group of ignorant Jews. They seized the aravos and brought them to the Kohanim, who stood them next to the Altar. (Sukkah 43b)

Unlike the esrog, lulav, and hadasim, that all have taste or fragrance, the aravah has no distinguishing features -- it is like the am ha’aretz who is bereft of good deeds or Torah knowledge. Our enemies think that the aravah can be tossed under a rock, ripped from the community and not missed. Yet, on this day of Hoshana Rabbah the rock is overturned and the aravah is taken and placed in a position of honor alongside the mizbeiach.

Why do we focus on the aravah on this final day of the days of judgment? Beseeching G-d to grant us favor in the merit of good deeds or Torah learning, symbolized by the lulav, hadasim, and aravos, risks begging the question of whether our deeds or Torah study truly measure up and are worthy of blessing. The aravah runs no such risk – the aravah knows that he/she is unworthy. But the aravah asks for G-d’s favor anyway. Even sans all other virtue, the very act of turning to G-d, of asking, is sometimes all that it takes.

Hoshana Rabbah reminds us that Hashem’s love for Klal Yisrael is not dependent on what we do, but who we are. When those dusty aravos are plucked out from the rock they were buried under, they may not smell pretty, they may not look pretty, but they still can be placed alongside the mizbeiach and be deserving of Hashem’s love – and ours.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sarah and Sukkos

Many associate Sukkos with Ya’akov Avinu, as the first mention of sukkos in the Torah is Ya’akov’s construction of sukkos for his flocks after escaping Eisav and doing battle with the mysterious angel. Yet, Sukkos could perhaps also be associated with another great personality in Sefer Braishis who preceded Ya’akov by many years. Our matriarch Sarah was also named Yiskah (Rashi Braishis 11:29), which shares the same root s-k-h as the word sukkah. The name Yiskah because refers to sight, highlighting Sarah’s prophetic ability to see what others could not, as well as Sarah’s beauty, which was apparent to all.

A sukkah is a tent-like structure; we also find that Sarah is connected multiple times with tents. The Torah highlights the fact that in his journeys Avraham pitched Sarah’s tent before his own (Rashi Braishis 12:8). When the Angels visit Avraham after his bris they ask where Sarah is; Avraham replies (Braishis 18:9 ) that she is within the tent. Yitzchak brings his new wife Rivka into the tent of his mother Sarah (Braishis 24:67), where once again, as it had in Sarah’s lifetime, a cloud enveloped the tent, much like the clouds of glory enveloped the Jewish people in their desert journey, a fact commemorated through our sukkos.

Perhaps even the secondary meaning of Yiskah, the beauty of Sarah that all could see, is reflected in our sukkos as well. Most of us have the minhag of decorating our sukkos with noi sukkah to beautify and adorn the mitzvah.

The number of korbanos musaf cows offered during sukkos add up to a total of seventy, corresponding to the seventy nations. Sukkos has a universal message – we are the conduit of bracha to the world at large, not merely to ourselves, for our own benefit. However, it would be wrong to thing that as bearers of a message with universal importance we must intermingle with the world, mimicking or adopting their ways to win acceptability. Quite the contrary. Sarah’s unique prophetic vision, which surpassed that even of Avraham, is directly related to her being surrounded by the protective walls of her tent. One who is exposed less to the world, not more, accrues greater Torah vision and insight. Far from making our message less appealing, the truth of our commitment, enhanced and enriched by our immersion in tents and sukkos, will be perceived as all the more beautiful, just as the beauty of Yiskah was apparent to all as well.

Monday, September 27, 2010

kavanah -- part of the ma'aseh or the kiyum mitzvah?

Last week we left off with R’ Soloveitchik’s suggestion that although eating in sukkah is a kiyum mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah, it is the ma’aseh mitzvah of achila which determines the level of kavanah required. Since the Rambam holds that one fulfills a mitzvah of achilah even without kavanah (hil. chameitz u’matzah ch 6), the same holds true of eating in sukkah on the first night.

Whether kavanah depends on the kiyum or the ma’aseh mitzvah seems to hinge on the question of how one generally understands the requirement of kavanah. A question raised by R’ Scheinberg in his Mishmeres Chaim illustrates the different potential approaches. R’ Scheinberg asks as follows: the Mishna Berurah holds that the lulav given to a minor to fulfill the mitzvah of chinuch for netilas lulav must be a kosher lulav and esrog because chinuch requires that the minor perform the mitzvah exactly as he would were he an adult. But how is this possible? A minor can never perform a mitzvah in the same way as an adult! An adult is a bar da’as, he has intelligence, which a minor is by definition lacking. What difference does it make if the minor takes a lulav without a kosher esrog or he takes a lulav without the proper kavanah, kavanah which can only come once he attains the da’as of an adult?

R’ Scheinberg answers by distinguishing kavanah from the act of taking a lulav. A katan who picks up a lulav without an esrog (or with a pasul esrog, which is the same as leaving it out), is missing a crucial element in his ma’aseh mitzvah, in his performance of the mitzvah act. However, a katan who does the mitzvah act properly but lacks kavanah is missing an element only of his kiyum mitzvah.

The hinge this question and answer turn on is how we view kavanah: is it an ingredient necessary to define a ma’aseh as a mitzvah action, or do actions stand on their own legs, and kavanah is an additional factor above and beyond ma’aseh needed to fulfill the goal of a kiyum mitzvah.

Interestingly, the Biur Halacha (O.C. 60) writes that if you are called to an aliya and grab a talis and put it on without kavanah, you are mevateil the mitzvah of tzitzis. I would have thought (see Mikrei Kodesh on the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah) that the lack of kavanah detracts from the kiyum mitzvah of tzitzis, but that’s not the same as being mevateil the mitzvah. Apparently the M.B. understood that kavanah is part and parcel of the ma’aseh mitzvah as well as the kiyum -- wearing tzitzis without kavanah is like wearing a four cornered garment without tzitzis.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

aravah: no scent, no taste, but so very significant

According to Midrash, the four minim used on Sukkos symbolize four different types of Jews. The delicious tasting and fragrant esrog represents those with Torah and good deeds; the hadas, with its fragrant scent but no taste, represents those who have good deeds but no Torah study; the lulav, with its tasty fruit but no scent, represents those who study Torah but do not engage in good deeds; finally, the aravah, with no taste or scent, represents those who lack both good deeds and Torah study.

If there was a multiple choice question asking which of the four species doesn’t belong, aravah would be the obvious answer. It’s hard to see, as the Sefas Emes (5640) notes, why the aravah, being that it lacks any distinction, counts as a min at all.

The means of our observance of Sukkos reflects the dialectic nature of our avodas Hashem, as we discussed last year based on the Ishbitza (here). On the one hand, we have the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah, which can be observed passively, with no effort, even by just falling asleep within its walls. On the other hand, the mitzvah of lulav is accomplished through na’anuim, actively waving its branches around. Sukkah represents the ananei hakavod, Hashem’s clouds glory which surrounded the Jewish people, protecting them in a way which they could never accomplish through their own efforts. Lulav is likened in the Midrash to a sword, waved by armies in celebration of their victory. Lulav represents where we are, what we have accomplished. Sukkah represents where are going, the levels we have not yet achieved, Hashem’s helping hand.

Even within the particulars of these mitzvos the same dialectic can be found. The dispute whether sukkah represents the ananei hakavod or actual huts is not a machlokes about metziyus – both must actually have existed – but rather a dispute about where to place the focal point of our celebration. Is sukkos about our willingness to follow Hashem’s command and enter the desert to live in humble huts, or is about the shield of protection that Hashem afforded our ancestors?

Esrog, lulav, and hadasim, representative of those with good deeds and/or Torah, are about what we have achieved. The Sefas Emes writes that these minim represent Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. The aravah represents David HaMelech, who said of himself, “Ani tefilah,” I am prayer. The aravah’s shape resembles the lips, the conduit for our words of tefilah. Prayer is not about what we have done or can do, but about what we need Hashem to help us achieve.

When one cannot call upon the merit of good deeds, when one lacks the ability to study Torah and cannot call on the merit of scholarship, there still remains, “tefilah l’ani ki ya’atof,” the simple prayer which the poor man can wrap himself in to appear before G-d. Says the Sefas Emes, the name aravah is the same as the world arov, pleasant, because there is nothing more pleasant to G-d than listening to the prayers of those who have nothing else to offer. For this reason on the climax of the days of judgment, Hoshana Rabbah, we focus our attention not on the lulav, the esrog, or the hadasim, but rather on the aravah.

This is why the aravah belongs. No matter how many milestones we hit, the aravah reminds us that there is always more to strive for, more that we need Hashem to help us to achieve. No matter how strong our sukkos mamash, we should never forget the ananei hakavod without which our little huts would be blown away to nothing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

the nature of the mitzvah to eat in sukkah on the first night of the chag

Yesterday we raised the question of whether the mitzvah of sukkah on the first night derived from the hekesh of 15-15 to Pesach is a new chiyuv achila or whether it is simply a giluy milsa that yeshivas sukkah is obligatory and not optional.

Very briefly, as we discussed it in the past (here), this issue may underlie the machlokes Rishonim whether one must eat in the sukkah even if it rains on the first night. If the mitzvah on the first night is one of yeshivas sukkah, than the regular rules of yeshivas sukkah apply and mitzta’er patur min hasukkah. However, if the hekesh of 15-15 tells us that there is a chiyuv achila (which happens to have to take place in the sukkah), then the rules of achila apply, not the rules of yeshivas sukkah, and there is no ptur of mitzta’er.

Another interesting potential nafka minah to this question is the issue of kavanah. The Rambam (as understood by the Ran) distinguishes between two different categories of mitzvos. When it comes to eating matzah, the Rambam holds that one fulfills the mitzvah even without explicit kavanah, as the act of eating is a physical experience that occurs willy-nilly of one’s mental state. However, when it comes to the mitzvah of shofar, the Rambam holds that kavanah is required, as the purpose of the mitzvah is not the physical act of blowing, but rather the mental state of arousal to tshuvah that tekiyas shofar elicits.

Does the mitzvah of sukkah on the first night necessitate kavanah? If the hekesh of 15-15 is a chiyuv achila, then it should be no different than the mitzvah of matzah. However, if it is a mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah, not achila, perhaps different parameters apply. (As an aside, the Bach writes that the Tur/Shulchan Aruch tells us the reason for the mitzvos of sukkah, tefilin, and tzitzis because kavanah is inherently part of these mitzvos, not an optional additional kiyum. The pasuk of “l’ma’an yed’u doroseichem…,” suggests that knowledge of why we sit in sukkah is required, above and beyond what may be the case based only on the sugya of mitzvos tzerichos kavanah.)

In the sefer Reshimos Shiurim, Rav Soloveitchik is quoted as suggesting that this nafka minah may not work. Even if the kiyum mitzvah accomplished on the first night is one of yeshivas sukkah, practically speaking that mitzvah must be accomplished through a physical act of eating. Instead of basing the level of kavanah required on the kiyum mitzvah, perhaps we should base it on the ma’aseh mitzvah, and equate sukkah with matzah.

Monday, September 20, 2010

a stolen meal on the first night of sukkos -- mitzvah haba'ah b'aveira?

My son mentioned the following chakira posed by R’ Baruch Ber: if one steals bread for one’s meal on the first night of sukkos, is the kiyum mitzvah of eating that meal in the sukkah invalidated because of mitzvah ha’ba’ah b’aveira?

As we shall hopefully see, it seems that this chakira gets to the heart of how we define the mitzvah of eating in sukkah on the first night.

In contrast to R’ Eliezer’s view that one is obligated to eat meals in the sukkah every day of the chag, the Chachamim (Sukkah 27) hold that it is only on the first night that one must eat in the sukkah. Why is the first night different? The gemara explains that the Torah connects Pesach and Sukkos by using the same term of “15th of the month” to describe both; just as there is an obligation to eat a k’zayis of matzah on the first night of Pesach, so too, there is an obligation to eat in the sukkah on the first night of Sukkos.

The Rishonim are puzzled by the gemara’s need for a special din to teach us this obligation to eat in sukkah on the first night. The gemara elsewhere (Brachos 49) writes that if one omits ya’aleh v’yavo from bentching on Yom Tov, one must repeat birchas hamazon because eating a bread-based meal is obligatory on Yom Tov. If one must eat bread, then obviously one must eat in the sukkah!

Tosfos resolves the question by denying its premise. According to Tos there is no obligation to eat bread on Yom Tov. The requirement to repeat bentching applies only on the first night of Pesach and Sukkos where there is an obligation to eat because of the mitzvah of matzah or sukkah.

However, most Rishonim accept that there is an obligation to eat a bread-based meal on Yom Tov and offer other solutions. The Ran suggests two other answers:
1) Normally only an amount of bread equal to more than a k’beitza is required to be eaten in the sukkah. The special derivation from Pesach teaches that just as the shiur of matzah is a k’zayis, on the first night of Sukkos even a k’zayis must be eaten in the sukkah.
2) One can fulfill the obligation of eating a Yom Tov meal by consuming exactly a k’beitza of bread. However, on the first night of Sukkos we are required to consume slightly more than a k’beitza to obligate ourselves in the mitzvah of sukkah.

The question of whether one must eat a k'zayis or more than a k'beitza perhaps hinges on how one understands this special chiyuv on the first night. Is the chiyuv one of eating, just like the chiyuv of eating matzah, or is the chiyuv one of sitting in sukkah, and the meal is just a means of establishing residence, so to speak?

If the chiyuv is one of eating, then it can be fulfilled by consuming a k’zayis, the usual shiur used to define an act as eating. But if the chiyuv is one of dwelling in the sukkah, one must eat a shiur that normally calls for sitting in sukkah, namely more than a k’beitza.

It is interesting that the Rambam requires eating a k’zayis in the sukkah on the first night, but makes no mention of a prohibition of eating less than a k’beitza outside the sukkah even on the first night. The Tur, however, does. The Rambam apparently learned that this chiyuv of eating a k’zayis has nothing to do with the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah, but is simply a separate chiyuv achila that takes place in the context of sukkah. The Tur, however, seems to have understood that the Torah redefines the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah on the first night so that it is inclusive of meals even less than a k’zayis in size.

Returning to the chakira of R’ Baruch Ber, if the special chiyuv of the first night is one of eating a k’zayis, then it stands to reason that the food itself is a cheftza shel mitzvah and becomes disqualified because of mitzvah ha’ba’ah b’aveira. However, if the chiyuv is one of yeshivas sukkah, and the food is just a means to that end, then one could argue that it is the sukkah, not the food, which is the cheftza shel mitzvah, and therefore a stolen meal is not disqualified because of mitzvah haba’ah b’aveira.

There are other nafka minos to this issue...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

l'ta'her chosav ba'din

The Yerushalmi (Makos 2:6) relates that Wisdom was asked what what the punishment of a sinner should be, and Wisdom replied that a sinner should be pursued by evil. Prophecy was asked what the punishment of a sinner should be, and Prophecy replied that the soul which sinned must die. Finally, G-d himself was asked the fate of a sinner, and G-d replied that the sinner need only repent to be absolved.

Is the idea of tshuvah a chiddush, a new insight, that is left to G-d alone to reveal? Are not our books of prophecy, Torah and Navi, filled with pesukim that implore us to do tshuvah, that tell us the power of tshuvah, that promise forgiveness for tshuvah? Do not our books of wisdom, countless gemaras, speak of the greatness of tshuvah?

I think the answer is that of course the power of tshuvah is no secret and is already revealed in all our seforim. But that power of tshuvah appears to be some sort of extra-judicial act of benevolance, a lifnim m'shuras ha'din that overrides true justice and causes the sinner to be spared. If you ask Prophecy, Wisdom, "common sense", what a sinner really deserves, undoubtedly the answer is, barring G-d's fantastic mercy, the sinner deserves to suffer for his wrongdoings.

However, G-d sees things from a different perspective, a perspective that we cannot understand no matter how prophetic or wise our insight may be. In our Yom Kippur tefilah we describe G-d as coming, "l'ta'her chosav ba'din," to purify in his judgment those who trust in him. The Sefas Emes explains: it is "ba'din," according to the letter of the law, that G-d purifies and forgives. It is not merely through G-d's extraordinary mercy that the sinner is forgiven, but to the contrary, it is G-d's attribute of justice that commands that the sinner who repents be granted a repreive.

It is this perspective on Divine justice that the Yerushalmi wished to share with us. The day after Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, and seforim tell us that the simcha one feels on this day is evidence of the mechila granted on Yom Kippur. Only a deserved and just kapparah I think can give rise to a true sense of joy and happiness.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I would say the most important tefilah of Yom Kippur is not said on the day itself, but rather is said immediately beforehand. I am talking about tefilah zakah, and in particular about the lines where we grant mechila to others. The halacha of piyus, of asking for forgiveness, is probably one of the most difficult halachos in shulchan aruch. No, I don’t think posting “Please be mochel me” on your facebook wall, or sending a bulk chain e-mail that says, “Please be mochel and pass to three others,” quite does the trick. Superficial and shallow acts like these stand worlds apart from true and meaningful empathy with others. I seriously dread facing a din v’cheshbon in this area, which is probably why I have it on my mind today.

We read in the newspapers about the financial crises being caused by the unwinding of all kinds of complex financial trades involving credit default swaps and derivatives and all kinds of other exotic instruments, and we marvel at the time and difficulty involved in first understanding and then restructuring the balance sheets effected by these tangled transactions. A human being in exponentially many times more complex than a balance sheet. Kal v’chomer to unwind a bein adam l’chaveiro issue may take months and years of reflection and effort and is not to be taken lightly.

So what is one to do with such a daunting task in these hours before Yom Tov? How can one translate such a gargantuan obligation into something meaningful? I certainly am not qualified to give advice in this area and don't pretend to have answers, but a few thoughts that occurred to me:

1) Accept the fact that a “Do you be mochel me?” e-mail doesn’t cut it. Human relations are not so shallow and simple and pretending they are is silly. Piyus should be about getting to the heart of what divides us, not about putting a thin coat of plaster over differences to be “yotzei.” Pretending it does good only circumvents ever achieving real forgiveness.

2) Don’t pour good money after bad. If a relationship has soured, odds are it can’t be repaired in a few moments on Erev Yom Kippur. A person can, however, at least commit to not doing more to make things worse. At times, this itself is a major step forward.

3) Look beyond where things are now. One may not be able to make amends on Erev Yom Kippur for various reasons. There are faults that a person really does not feel ready to overlook and faults that others may not want to forgive. Yet, keeping in mind the hope of eventual reconciliation under even theoretical terms that right now seem out of reach is itself I think a meaningful step. You never know what may happen.

4) Aspire to do better. We all step on others toes more often than we would like. One may not be able to fix all the errors of the past, but one can certainly commit to try to do better in the future.

I know I have much to improve on myself in these areas. Hopefully our tefilah zakah mechilos will be real and accomplish at least a little something to draw us all closer together on this Yom Kippur.

Erev Yom Kippur

The Rishonim view the obligation to eat a seudah on Erev Yom Kippur as a means of preparing properly for the fast or as a pre-emptive celebration of the simchas Yom Tov of Yom Kippur, when we cannot eat, by having a meal beforehand. Both of these explanations see the celebration of Erev Yom Kippur as an extension of Yom Kippur itself, but not a day with intrinsic significance.

The Sefas Emes (5662), however, offers another perspective. During the failed attempt to receive the first luchos, Bnei Yisrael eagerly anticipated Moshe’s return for 39 days. With each day’s increased anticipation came an increase in the effort of the yetzer hara to somehow undermine events. It was at the last minute, on the last day, the yetzer hara unleashed its final most powerful push, its "full court press", and caused the confusion that led to the tragedy of the eigel. This is often how the yetzer hara operates – it allows events to unfold, it lulls us into complacency, and then just as we reach the finish line, all sorts of obstacles and challenges appear and cause us to question and even to abandon all the effort and good work put in until that point.

We are now at the finish line before Yom Kippur, the commemoration of the giving of the second luchos. The yetzer hara tried again at that time and tries again every year to undermine all that we have accomplished from Rosh Chodesh Elul until this moment, because he knows that all it takes is a slip on this final day, another eigel on that final day, and all the effort put in until that point will prove for naught.

Erev Yom Kippur is a day of celebration in its own right because on this day the second time around there was no eigel – we beat the yetzer then; we can do it again now.

Gmar chasima tovah to all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

zochreinu l'chaim -- bakashos in the beginning of tefilah?

Our amidah/shmoneh esrei follows a precise structure: it opens with praise of Hashem, in the middle are requests and supplications, and it closes with thanksgiving. We normally do not voice requests in the opening brachos -- one must first acknowledge Hashem's dominion and majesty; only then is one in a position to ask Hashem for personal needs. Yet, the tefilos between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur prove an exception to the rule. The Rishonim are already troubled by the fact that zachreinu, mi kamocha, kasveinu l'chaim, and b'sefer chaim, the special insertions made in tefilah to ask Hashem to inscribe us for a good year in the book of life, all appear in the first and last brachos of tefilah, not in the middle where personal petitions normally are made. Why do we depart from the normal pattern?

R' Avraham Bloch (Shiurei Da'as, "Ori v"Yishi") explains that the special insertions made this time of year are not like other personal requests. The recognition of Hashem as king of the universe, as master of all that occurs in the universe, ideally also entails the recognition that we exist solely to help proclaim those truths. We ask zachreinu l'chaim not because we selfishly want a few more years in the world, but rather because in this holy time of year we hopefully are contributing or hope to contribute to Hashem's presence being felt in the world. We say to Hashem that not only is his presence felt in the world because he is rofeh cholim, he is matir asurim, he is someich noflim, but also because he will be zochreinu l'chaim and through our existence will his presence be felt to a greater degree in this world.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sarah's laughter and tshuvah

We are all familiar with the story in Parshas vaYeira of Sarah’s laughter in response to the promise given to her by an angel visiting her home that she will have a son. When confronted by G-d, Sarah denied wrongdoing. “Lo tzachakti ki ya’re’ah.” “I did not laugh” – [said Sarah] – because she was afraid.

We all try to cover over our shortcomings and mistakes; we deny wrongdoing even when we are at fault. Yet, surely each one of us recognizes that while we may be able to delude others, we may be able to delude ourselves, but surely we cannot delude G-d. How could our matriarch Sarah have possibly told G-d that she did not laugh when, just moments before, she did in fact laugh? Surely she realized that G-d knew the truth!

The Sefas Emes suggests a remarkable answer that we should carry with us through these 10 days of teshuvah and Yom Kippur. Sarah knew that she had laughed and Sarah knew that she was mistaken in doing so. But Sarah was immediately overcome with fear and did tshuvah to rectify her sin. When Hashem appeared and asked Sarah whether she had laughed, she responded truthfully that she had not – tshuvah had obliterated he sin, her laughter, and there was nothing left of it.

The story concludes with Hashem telling Sarah that indeed she had laughed. I am going to here depart from the Sefas Emes and follow my wife’s reading of the conclusion, which I think is a bit simpler. Sarah had indeed done tshuvah, but her tshuvah was motivated by fear. Hashem may grant a pardon for such tshuvah, but it’s power to completely obliterate and undo the past is limited to the higher tshuvah that stems from love.

We don’t realize the tremendous power of tshuvah to not only bring about kaparah, but to literally undo the past. Hashem is not like a parent, a teacher, a friend, who forgives, but who (or so you may think) forever after looks at you differently because of some fault or error. Hashem grants a completely clean slate, with no reminder of past iniquities.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

the tshuvah of Acheir

The gemara (Chagiga 15) relates the tragic story of Acheir, the teacher of Rabbi Meir, who went "off the derech." Rabbi Meir asked his teacher why he did not repent, to which Acheir replied that there was no hope for him, as he had heard the Heavenly voice of a bas kol declare that Hashem's words, "Shuvu banim shovavim," Hashem's encouragement to repent, applies to all except Acheir. It was prophetically decreed that he could not do tshuvah! Nonetheless, the gemara continues that Rabbi Meir on other occasions tried to get his teacher to return, all to no avail. Tos. cites the conclusion of the story from the Yerushalmi -- R' Meir visited his teacher on his deathbed and once again asked him to repent. Acheir cried, and at that moment his soul departed. Rabbi Meir interpreted that cry as an act of tshuvah by his teacher in his final moments.

Whether or not one accepts the conclusion that Acheir indeed did do tshuvah, the story begs the question of what Rabbi Meir thought he would accomplish by his repeated entreaties to Acheir to repent. If the bas kol declared repentance impossible, why did Rabbi Meir still hold out hope for his teacher?

To relinquish one's past attitudes, direction, deeds, is exceedingly difficult. How is tshuvah ever possible? The answer is that we have the greatest possible help in our efforts. Hashem doesn't just command us to do tshuvah -- he takes the first step himself towards restoring a relationship with us and guiding us back to the right path. Without that assistance tshuvah is still possible, but it requires so much greater an effort.

R' Itzele Peterberger (Kochvei Ohr #6) writes that it was this encouraging voice of, "Shuvu banim," Hashem's extended helping hand, which the bas kol declared no longer accessible to Acheir. Yet, as Rabbi Meir realized, the door to return was still open. It would require commitment and effort and be a difficult road back, but it was a road that Rabbi Meir was willing to stand by his teacher in support should he choose to follow it.

We are not in Acheir's position. "Dirshu Hashem b'himatzo," this week Hashem inspires and encourages our teshuvah, extending his hand to help us. All it takes is a little effort on our part.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

don't ask!

I have been swamped with work and sadly have had no time to think, much less to write, and here Rosh Hashana is upon us already! I just want to highlight a beautiful Midrash (in Parshas Emor) that I heard pointed out by R’ Meir Goldvicht and just saw discussed in the Shem m’Shmuel:

בחדש השביעי ר' ברכיה היה קרי ליה ירחא דשבועתא שבו נשבע הקב"ה לאברהם אבינו ע"ה, הדא הוא דכתיב (בראשית כב): ויאמר בי נשבעתי נאם ה'. מה צורך היה לשבועה? ר' ביבי בר אבא, בשם ר' יוחנן אמר: עמד אברהם אבינו בתפלה ותחנונים לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר לפניו: רבש"ע! גלוי וידוע לפניך בשעה שאמרת לי (שם כב): קח נא את בנך את יחידך, היה בלבי מה להשיבך והיה בלבי מה לאמר אתמול אמרת לי: כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע ועכשיו אתה אומר לי: והעלהו שם לעולה?! אלא כשם שהיה לי מה להשיבך וכבשתי את יצרי ולא השבותיך, (תהלים לח): כחרש לא אשמע וכאלם לא יפתח פיו, כך כשיהיו בניו של יצחק באים לידי עבירות ומעשים רעים תהא מזכיר להם עקידת יצחק אביהם, ועמוד מכסא הדין לכסא רחמים ומתמלא עליהם רחמים, ותרחם עליהם ותהפוך להם מדת הדין למדת רחמים. אימתי? בחדש השביעי:

The Midrash explains that when commanded to perform the akeidah, Avraham had every right to turn around and question G-d. Hashem had promised Avraham that his family line would continue through the lineage of Yitzchak. Yet, here Avraham was, called upon to sacrifice this son in whom all his hope for the future was invested. This question had to power to force Hashem’s hand and release Avraham from his mental anguish and the trial of the akeidah. Yet, Avraham was silent – he did not ask, and instead simply obeyed the plain meaning of Hashem's instructions.

After the akeidah, Avraham asked for one more gift in addition to Hashem’s blessing. “Just as I could have challenged you and questioned your words, but was silent,” said Avraham, “So too, when my descendents come before you with all their sins and faults and evil deeds, don’t question them – remember the akeidah instead.”

Chodesh hashevi’i,” the seventh month, alludes to this oath, the “shevu’a,” taken by Hashem to not question us, to overlook our defects. When the once-a-year guy saunters into shul on Rosh HaShana or Yom Kippur with the satin colorful yalmukah perched on his head like a tepee, with his bar mitzvah talis wrapped his shoulders, Hashem doesn’t ask, “Yankel, where have you been? Where were you on Shabbos, where were you on Yom Tov? Where are your children, your grandchildren?” Hashem doesn’t ask questions -- instead, He silently remembers the akeidah and grants us another year.

I don’t think there is some magical formula that grants us dispensation from din because our great-great ancestor Avraham had an unquestioning commitment to G-d. What the Midrash perhaps means is that the unquestioning commitment of Avraham is inside each one of us as part of our spiritual genes. Davka the once-a-year guy who doesn’t understand what we believe, why we believe, how to believe, yet puts all those questions aside and shows up anyway proves the point. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, it’s just the thing Jews do this time of year no matter what you do the rest of the year, but maybe it’s also that little piece of Avraham left inside that pushes aside all the questions and objections and better things to do and brings a person to where he should be.

Kesiva v’chasima tova to all!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Rosh HaShana issue of Kallah Magazine

Latest issue of Kallah Magazine -- with an article by me for Rosh haShana. (If you can't see the embedded image below, please use the link: