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The Sheltering Presence

dvar for Sukkot 5782

“Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the L-RD.” – Leviticus 23:34, JPS 1917 Tanach

We are commanded to dwell in sukkoth (booths) for a seven-day period, as a commemoration of our dwelling in sukkoth –temporary structures –while wandering in the desert for forty years. During this time spent travelling from one place to another, the Children of Israel were protected by the Clouds of Glory that sheltered them from the heat of the day; the Pillar of Fire at night provided illumination for B’nei Yisrael, as well as warmth.

The sukkoth [booths] that we build at this time of year are meant to remind us of the temporary structures in the wilderness wherein our ancestors dwelt. According to some commentators, these structures built between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, wherein we either dwell in, or, at least, have meals within, symbolize the Clouds of Glory that served as a shelter from the elements. Thus, it is the schach – the thatched roof – in particular, that reminds us, that in actuality, it was G-d’s presence, manifested as the Clouds of Glory that protected us, above and beyond what these structures could provide.

When we dwell in sukkot for seven days, we are demonstrating our trust in H’Shem. These fragile dwellings serve not only to remind us of our past journeys in the desert; rather, also, as a personal reminder to seek G-d as our refuge. When we are troubled by the nisyanos (challenges) of Olam HaZeh (This World), we may find relief in H’Shem’s offer of protection for those who seek Him.

“For He concealeth me in His pavilion [sukkah] in the day of evil; He hideth me in the covert of His tent; He lifteth me upon a rock.” – Psalm 27:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Let the Loudness Cease

motzei Shabbos: parashas Haazinu 5782

As the evening wanes, and the new day waxes (“and the evening and the morning were the first day” of the week), I am at a standstill with the circumstances, not knowing how to proceed. For anyone who relies on the customary protocol of Yiddishkeit, such as the routine at the end of Shabbos that comprises a peaceful and meaningful transition from sacred time to mundane time, it is of the upmost importance to carry out these traditions. Yet, to do so without the proper kavannah (intention) would be disrespectful to the Sabbath Queen (the Shechinah – G-d’s immanent presence). And, so, I am taking to writing out my thoughts and feelings, in hope that this will serve as a catharsis, because I do not want to let my negative emotions affect my solemn testimony to the parting of the Sabbath.

Truth be told, this may sound trivial on my part, however, I am thoroughly saturated with annoyance over the volume of the music being played in a neighbor’s apartment. As I would not enter the Sabbath, feeling annoyed, frustrated, or otherwise sullied by negativity, so shall I not depart from this sacred twenty-five hour-period that I look forward to every week. Perhaps, I’ll wait another two hours and twenty minutes until 10:00 p.m., designated as “quiet time,” at the apartment complex where I live, in hopes that he will at least turn his music down some.

Meanwhile, rather than delivering an insightful essay on the weekly reading from the Torah, with some concluding remarks as the new week approaches, I am serving up a rant. My apologies. Moses was not permitted to enter the promised land, because of a prior transgression: he was only granted a view of the land from atop of a mountain. Whatever I have done to deserve this constant interruption to my Shabbos, it is such that although sometimes I am able to enter the sacred time, beginning on Friday evening, that privilege does not always seem to last. So, who am I to complain, if everything is truly somehow from H’Shem, because He is sovereign? (I am but dust and ashes).

Our Transcendent Nature

“Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.”

– Deuteronomy 32:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

Every day a Bas Kol (literally, “Daughter of a Voice”) goes out from Sinai, saying, “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, for contempt of the Torah” (Pirkei Avos 6:2). However, the voice goes unheard by mankind. Yet, the Besht points out that the voice is heard intuitively. Therefore, on some level, when the inner ear of a person resonates with that voice, a person is inspired to do teshuvah (return to G-d through repentance. Consider, if you will, that often when someone is compelled by his or heart to return to the ways of G-d, the motivation may be unseen if not unexplainable, even by the person moved to do so. Therefore, there appears to be some verifiable experience that supports this midrash; in other words, the intuitive nature of a call to teshuvah.

According to Nesivos Shalom, the opening pasukim (verses) of parashas Haazinu may be viewed in light of this midrash. One way to reckon, “Give ear, O you heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth,” is to compare the heavens to our “heavenly selves,” and the earth to our “earthly selves.” Thus our higher selves seek the inspiration of heavenly pursuits, and the influence of those pursuits upon our godly soul. While our lower nature is more inclined to be drawn to more mundane activities, and materialistic endeavors. This is the difference between ruchniyos (spirituality) and gashmiyos (corporeality). Both are necessary to some extent; yet, both must be regulated by the words flowing forth from Heaven.

We are called to permit ourselves to be permeated by the words of Torah, in both our lower and higher natures. Moreover, ultimately our lower nature should be drawn towards more noble endeavors through our focus on the higher pursuits of our godly soul. Thus, even as our lower nature, sometimes described in chassidus as the “animal soul,” needs to be tamed and regulated by Torah, and our godly soul should be modified in its higher aspirations according to G-d’s words, the emphasis should always be placed to some degree on our higher selves. The reason being is because as human beings, we are meant to transcend our lesser selves, by living in accord with the greater spiritual propensity provided for by our godly soul.

“Thy lovingkindness, O L-RD, is in the heavens; Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the skies. Thy righteousness is like the mighty mountains; Thy judgments are like the great deep; man and beast Thou preservest, O L-RD.”

– Psalms 36:6-7, JPS 1917 Tanach

Give Ear to the Word

 “Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.”

– Deuteronomy 32:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

As Moshe prepares to pass on his leadership to Joshua, he focuses on the conclusion of his speech to B’nei Yisrael. H’Shem explains to Moshe that at some point after being established in Eretz Canaan, on the other side of the Jordan River – the land that will be called Eretz Yisrael – the people will “go astray after the foreign gods of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them” (Deuteronomy 31:16, JPS). Therefore, H’Shem instructs Moshe to teach them a song – to be remembered – that will serve as a witness against them in future generations.

Moshe calls upon the heavens and the earth to serve as witnesses, since they will outlast the generations, always serving to remind Israel of this song. On another level, according to Rashi, the heavens and earth would actually play an active role in chastising Israel – the nourishing rains of the heavens would diminish, and the produce of the earth would be withheld. On a more subtle note, not only the words of this song reverberate throughout the heaven and earth; even H’Shem’s words, intent and guidance span the continents and the skies, reaching out to all who will listen intently for His voice.

Measure for Measure

parashas Haazinu 5782

“Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.” – Deuteronomy 32:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

Moses taught the Children of Israel a song that would serve to remind them, at some point in the future, of their failures, hopes, and redemption. Both Heaven and earth were called upon as witnesses to the words of Moses. Rashi adds that both heaven and earth would also serve to carry out the chastisement of Israel when they turned away from H’Shem: Heaven would withhold its rain, and the earth would withhold its produce.

Incidentally, almost as a sidenote, there is a reciprocal relationship between heaven and earth: “as above, so below.” Whatever we do on earth, causes a response in heaven. For example, when we pray, G-d will respond in a manner concomitant with our faith, and the nature of our prayer. Additionally, when we show kindness to others, we will find that in some unexpected way, we are rewarded for our kindnesses in due time, according to G-d’s wisdom.

This principle can also be found in the haftorah: “With the merciful Thou dost show Thyself merciful, with the upright man Thou dost show Thyself upright, with the pure Thou dost show Thyself pure; and with the crooked Thou dost show Thyself subtle” (2 Samuel 22:26-27, JPS 1917 Tanach). The principle is otherwise known as middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure.”

Reflections: Yom Kippur 5782

Staying Aloof During the Neilah Service

Trying to make the best of the moments, in retrospect, that was my intent while perusing the prayers in English, and remaining focused on the words, while the Hebrew was being sung, mostly by the Rabbi and chazan (cantor). So, on the one hand, the tunes are potent with emotion; on the other hand, even if I know the song, I prefer to read the English, since I can only pronounce the Hebrew, without knowing the meaning.

Only the jokes were distracting to me; even as I recognize their told for the bulk of the congregation, who need to be kept entertained. Yet, for anyone like myself, who is there in all sincerity, the jokes are irrelevant. Moreover, on Yom Kippur, especially during the part of the service, before the final al chet (penitent prayers), jokes seem entirely contradictory to the type of mind-set required at that point.

However, I somehow managed to stay aloof, in my own space, and continue to foster some sense of kavannah (intention) that reflected the appropriate mood. This was rewarding – thank G-d, because in the past I would only get frustrated. Yet, there are always tradeoffs in life; so, I decided to make the best of the situation, despite the style of service not meeting my selfish demands.

L’shannah tovah. Next year in Jerusalem.

Yom Kippur 5782

Sins of the Heels

“Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me.”

– Psalm 51:4-5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Dovid HaMelech (King David) was constantly aware of the sins of his past. This awareness imbued him with humility, in the face of G-d’s righteousness. “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my supplanters [heels] compasseth me about” (Psalm 49:6, JPS 1917 Tanach). Literally, “the sins of my heels,” referring to the breaking of lesser mitzvoth, that people, figuratively speaking, tend to trample upon, mistakenly thinking that they are insignificant. Yet, even King David, was concerned, that he might be prevented from entering Olam Haba, because of the sins of the heels in his own life.

“Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope” (Isaiah 5:18, JPS 1917 Tanach). As is mentioned in Chok L’Yisrael, based on the Zohar Bereishis 198a, the phrase, “the cords of vanity,” is also likened to the sins of the heels. Additionally, the phrase, “cords of vanity,” seems reminiscent to me, of the prayer, Ana Bekoach, where a request is made to H’Shem, that He “untie the bundled sins.” These sins are traditionally understood to be the collective sins of Israel.

On this Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, may we, as well as all of Israel (K’lal Yisrael) be forgiven. Effectively, in due time, may this lead to our complete renewal as individuals. Furthermore, as a nation, may Israel’s redemption also be enacted through teshuvah. “And a redeemer will come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, Saith the L-RD. And as for Me, this is My covenant with them, saith the L-RD; My spirit that is upon thee, and My words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the L-RD, from henceforth and for ever” (Isaiah 59:20-21, JPS 1917 Tanach).

gmar chatimah tovah

“a good final sealing” (in the Book of Life)

The Hidden Order of Things

motzei Shabbos: parashas Vayelech 5782

“And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our G-d is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.’” – Deuteronomy 31:17, JPS 1985 Tanach

“They will be intelligent enough to conclude that all the troubles which suddenly overtook them must be due to G-d having deliberately left their midst” (Or HaChayim on Deuteronomy 31:17, sefaria.org). The key word here in this commentary is “deliberately,” as if it is implied that the people realized that their own sins compelled G-d to abandon them. This is an important connection for them to make, whereas without recognizing their own complicity, would only have led to blame G-d for His abandonment of them, as if they had no part in the matter.

Consider the attitude of some, in blaming G-d for harsh events in life, holding Him accountable for our suffering, without acknowledging the sins that created the distance between us and Him in the first place. The point being, that it is the wrong attitude to have, a spoiled mindset to think that we deserve better, despite our abandoning Him through our own misdeeds. And, yet, He is compassionate and merciful, inasmuch that hiding His face from us, He desires us to cry out with a heartfelt repentant stance, taking it upon ourselves, to return to Him, in all of our ways, in order to elicit His forgiveness.

So, we do not understand G-d to be capricious: rather everything is ultimately designed for our benefit, even the chastisement that is placed upon us, when we go astray of G-d’s commandments. For nothing happens by chance in an ordered world, that is a world whose order is often above our own understanding.  Any randomness that appears to occur is only based upon a perspective that does not fully comprehend His sovereignty over all events in the world, as well as those that occur to us on an individual level. To understand that everything happens according to G-d’s will, or is permitted by Him, is to recognize His absolute sovereignty in all realms of life.

shiur: Shabbat Shuvah 5782

“Concealed acts concern H’Shem our G-d.”

– Deuteronomy 29:28, JPS 1985 Tanach

After Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge, H’Shem called to Adam, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9, JPS, 1917 Tanach). He responded, “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10, JPS 1917 Tanach). Adam’s shame compelled him to hide himself. Yet, G-d is all-knowing, as well as omnipresent (everywhere present). He surely knew where Adam was. Then, why did he ask, “Where are you?” The answer often given, is that G-d was challenging Adam’s own awareness, in effect, asking, Where are you in your relationship with me?

We learn in the Book of Isaiah that sin separates us from G-d (Isaiah 59:2). Adam lost the oneness that he had with G-d; as a result of his transgression, he was expelled from Gan Eden, along with Chava, who also partook from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Up until that point, everything that they experienced in Gan Eden was in one accord with H’Shem, a nondual perspective. Yet, after eating from the tree that was forbidden to eat from, they became aware of good and evil. For this reason, even today, there is not only good and evil in the world; also, there is an admixture of good and bad in everything we do.

Like Adam and Chava, we can not hide from H’Shem. He knows our “concealed acts.” Sin separates us from Him; the path to return is through actually admitting our transgressions, unlike Adam who circumvented G-d’s questions. At this time of year, during the Ten Days of Awe, and especially on Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Return), we are all asked, “Where are you?” G-d is prompting us to reveal our sins to Him. Yet, sometimes, our sins may be hidden from ourselves; in this case, we may ask Him to reveal our sins to ourselves.

Shabbat Shuvah 5782

the Significance of Teshuvah

“And H’Shem, He it is that doth go before thee; He will be with thee, He will not fail thee, neither forsake thee; fear not, neither be dismayed.”

– Deuteronomy 31:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

Moshe encouraged Joshua and the people, for they were about to cross into the Promised Land.  He told them that H’Shem would go before them; so they should not fear, for He would be with them.  To have emunah (faith), in this respect, is to trust that H’Shem would strengthen them, so that a dependence on Him could be fostered, rather than relying on their own strength.  In this way, their enemies would be defeated – through H’Shem.

The same is true today, that H’Shem would like us to return to the simplicity of faith, by looking towards Him in all things. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5, JPS 1985 Tanach). For He will lead us forward through the nisyanos (challenges) of our lives.

When we are in a quandry, not able to see the light, there is a narrow path through which we may return to Him; thereby, stepping out of the mire that we may be in because of our own negligence and transgressions.  So, teshuvah is the element that allows us to seek Him again when we have made the wrong choices in our lives, having turned away from the Torah given at Sinai. 

“Turn Thou us unto Thee, O L-RD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.”

– Lamentations 5:21, JPS