Fair is Fair

“G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for G-d has heard the cry of the boy from where he is.”

– Genesis 21:17, JPS 1985 Tanach

The midrash comments on the phrase, “from where he is,” by paraphrasing it as such: “in that condition in which he now is” (Genesis Rabbah 53:14, sefaria.org). As further explained, “He shall be judged according to his present deeds, and not according to those actions which he may do in the future” (Ramban; sefaria.org). Nachmanides further notes that the plain meaning is that G-d would provide water for the boy, in the very place that he was without further ado. And, so G-d opened the eyes of Hagar, whereafter “she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink” (Genesis 21:19).

Thus, if a generalization can be made, two inferences may be drawn out, one each from these two different interpretations. In the plain sense of the verse, G-d will meet us where we are at, when we call out to Him. In our very present needs, we seek relief from G-d when all else seems to fail. Our nisyanos (challenges) in life are sometimes of this kind. And, H’Shem willing, our help will appear in a manner that may even be unexpected, inasmuch that we had not considered such and such prior to our eyes being opened to the potential source of benefit for our relief.

In the more theological sense of the verse, we are seen by G-d for who we are at the time of need, regardless of who we will become in the future. For, “the L-RD is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 149:9, JPS 1917 Tanach). Consider how Lot was blessed through the merit of Abraham, despite Lot’s immoral behavior that expressed itself, later, after he was spared from the fire and brimstone that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah. It is important to note, that our condition in the future will be judged: if the righteous fall into a life of sin, “none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered.” And, if the wicked turn away from a sinful lifestyle, “none of his sins that he committed shall be remembered against him” (Ezekiel 33:12-16, JPS).

Shemini Atzeret 5782

Shemini Atzeret is essentially the eighth day of Sukkot.  The literal translation is eighth day assembly.  Regarding the word, assembly, according to commentary, this has to do with the connotation of the pilgrims from outside of Jerusalem, remaining behind after the Sukkot celebrations, for one more day, to rededicate oneself to to G-d’s service, imbibing the teachings from scripture, (G-d’s Word), and staying in the Temple area before going back to the daily grind (paraphrase of Sforno’s commentary).

Moreover, let  it be understood, that during the seven days of Sukkot, there are 70 bulls offered for the seventy nations of the world, connecting the first seven days of Sukkot with the gentiles. Yet, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day, is a day of assembly, in specific, solely for the Jewish people, as if H’Shem would like the pilgrims to remain in Israel for an intimate time of connection with G-d.

Regarding the pasuk, “On the eighth day there shall be an assembly for you” (Numbers 29:35), the Sfas Emes conveys an insight, that “it is for you because the gates of teshuva are open to all.  But Israel takes greater joy in accepting G-d’s service anew than they did in having their sins forgiven” (p.372, The Language of Truth).  Therefore, it can be said, that while the focus of Rosh Hashannah was on repentance, and the Day of Yom Kippur on forgiveness, Shemini Atzeret, a holiday connected to Simchas Torah, has a focus on renewal – the natural complement of a complete teshuvah.

This makes perfect sense, following the “shedding of sins,” as symbolized by beating the aravah (willow leaves), at the end of shachris (morning service) on Hoshannah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. After this final release of the previous year’s sins, a feeling of renewal is definitely appropriate, if everything was “done right,” in regard to teshuvah (repentance). Like, “the cleansing of the soul,” in preparation for a new year of service to G-d, via the spiritual growth, and perfection of character that result from selfless dedication to the higher values of Torah.

Ultimately, renewal may be said to involve purification through a rededication in one’s life to the service of H’Shem.  This dedication may be exemplified, as is found in Bereishis, “And G-d took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to av’dah it and to sham’rah it” (Genesis 2:15).  The root of avdah, AVD (ayinveisdalet) connotes avad (to serve), while shamrah, SMR (shinmemresh) connotes shamar (to guard).

Traditionally, these refer to serving G-d through the positive commandments, and guarding ourselves against the negative commandments. In summary, our avodah (service towards G-d), and observance of the commandments. So, when we start the Torah cycle anew, we read in Bereishis about the beginning of creation, and are reminded of the main purpose of life, our avodah, overall service towards G-d, and our shomer, otherwise understood as the guarding of our souls from all that would taint the holy neshamah.

erev Shabbos reflection: Misplaced L’Chayim

As Shabbos approaches, I am fretting. It’s still within the grace period, before lighting the candles; so, it’s not like I’m committing a terrible aveirah (sin) by writing these words for a potential blogpost. It is such in life that hindsight is golden, and upon discerning the nature of a festive meal outside, underneath a sukkah, for lunch on the Second Day of Sukkot (Wednesday), I am concerned that I went above and beyond what I should have permitted for myself, in disregard of many Covid safety protocols that I had established for myself.

And, now, a simple stye in the eye is causing me to wonder whether this is the result of contracting the dreaded coronavirus. It would serve me right, if that were the case; because even my Yiddishkeit standards faltered at the table, for example, when I took part in a l’chayim, for no particular reason. That is not the way of a sincere chassidishe l’chayim. Guilt, regret, and mild worry, are some of the negative feelings that I now harbor as sunset approaches. L’chayim, indeed.

This kind of joy is not worth the trouble that it will bring, as is referred to in psalms, that only uz (then), that is when Israel is fully out of galus, should joy be overflowing (see Psalm 126). Therefore, a vain l’chayim, will only bring empty joy. For those wondering what I am talking about, drinking a l’chayim (a bisel of schnapps) should only be in respect to giving a brief dvar on Torah, for the aliyah of a departed soul, a healing (go figure on this one), or a simcha (good news). Not, simply drinking a l’chayim in order to drink a l’chayim. Shabbat shalom.

Omer: Day 49 Culmination

Malchut shebbe Malchut: Kingship within Kingship

Today’s middot (character traits) are malchut shebbe malchut (autonomy within sovereignty). This may be compared to the goal of self-actualization as found within a psychological framework. Finding a meaningful path to pursue in life will lead to personal fulfillment; in other words, the culmination of the soul’s mission in life. Under G-d’s directive, through His hasgacha peratis (divine guidance) that is placed upon us all, we are guided to what will steer us in the right direction.

In the Biblical sense, Solomon simplifies the essence, the underlying goal, to focus on, namely, “the sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere G-d, and observe His commandments; for this applies to all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, JPS 1985 Tanach). By staying on course, within the framework of G-d’s commandments, including all of the guidance that stems from them, one’s potential as an individual may be fully garnered, along the way towards the Kingdom.

The path is a unified one, inclusive of the soul in relationship to G-d. Moreover, to think in terms of self actualization, as well as directing ourselves to be in accordance with G-d’s expectations of us, is not incongruent. Although, in the strictest psychological sense, Maslow may have intended self actualization an expression of inner potential; within the light of a divine plan, it is ultimately through the negation of self to a higher cause, that the self may realize its fullest potential within G-d.

On Shavuot (the fiftieth day), the culmination of the forty-nine day journey through self renewal, by way of examining our character, reaches its goal. As the L-RD said to Moses, “when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve G-d upon this mountain” (Exodus 3:12, JPS 1917 Tanach). We receive the Torah anew, in the very present moment of our lives. H’Shem willing, the refinement of our soul over the past seven weeks has brought us closer to the fulfillment of peace and wholeness in our lives.

“The path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”

– Proverbs 4:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

Omer: Day 48 – Being Oneself

Yesod shebbe Malchut: Foundation within Kingship

In regard to yesod, a strong foundational belief system is necessary in order to maintain a sense of autonomy (malchut). Without reference points, in regard to one’s identity, it would be too easy to be swayed by this, that or the other opinion, trend, or viewpoint. A tenacious adherence to a set of values and beliefs, as well as an overall conception of oneself will be a fence around an individual’s autonomy.

There is a teaching from Zusha, who taught that when he gets to Shomayim (Heaven), he isn’t going to be asked why he wasn’t like Moses. He will be asked why he wasn’t like Zusha (himself). Everyone is an individual, who will best relate to truth in the manner that G-d will show to him or her. Therefore, the spiritual achievements, past education, or knowledge of others should only inspire us. For G-d designates unto each and every individual, according to his own capacity.

A foundational belief and practice is really integral to the overall spiritual health of every human being; otherwise, we could potentially drown, so to speak, in a sea of nihilism, where values ultimately do not matter, and life has no directive towards an ultimate purpose. G-d forbid. Therefore, to cling to the truth through deveykus (attachment) is paramount not only to connect to G-d, but to also remain steadfast on the derech (path) of life.

note: this was recorded and posted before Shabbat.

Heritage – 4

B”H

Photo by Abhilash Mishra from Pexels

When the Revelation occurred at Mt. Sinai, B’nei Yisrael were cautioned against drawing too close to the mountain. When H’Shem was present at Sinai, amidst the thunder and lightning, the status of the mountain was akin to a level of kedushah (holiness), whereby the people were compelled to keep a distance. Afterwards, when the long shofar (trumpet) blasts were sounded, the verbal barricade was lifted. Apparently, there was no inherent holiness present within the structure of Mount Sinai in and of itself. Only when H’Shem’s presence rested on the mountain, in the visible form of the spectacular firework display that surrounded His presence, were the people forbidden to draw near.

Religion itself, may seem barren to us at times, like the landscape of Sinai, when its truths are put upon a pedestal, repeated as dogma without explanation, and upheld without inquiry. Their initial appeal may encompass our attention for a while; yet, their significance may become diminished, unless explored, enhanced, and reviewed. The Talmud mentions that when a soul appears, at the time of Judgment, it is asked, whether it examined the truths of wisdom by asking questions, subsequently, gaining a practical understanding, capable of being applied to one’s life (Shabbos 31a).

According to Abraham Heschel, the ultimate questions that religion claims to answer must be recovered (Heschel, G-d in Search of Man, ch. 1). The answers provided to us, that we claim to uphold, when professing a traditional religious belief, may become disconnected from our lives, like a balloon that becomes untethered from the string in one’s hand, floating aloft in the sky, unless we can articulate the relevance of the truths that are gleaned from religion. This is essential, in regard to walking on the derech (path) of our ancestors, albeit, in a postmodern world.

The wisdom of Heschel’s insight points towards the need to make religion relevant in our lives, even in the present moment. Otherwise, there continues to be a disconnect, wherein the truths of belief and practice are not integrated into the actuality of our lives. If we lose sight of the existential significance of our religious tenets, then religion may lose its immediacy. The burden is placed upon mankind to re-establish a connection to G-d. To make truth relevant again, by asking meaningful questions about life, then, searching our religious perspective for the answers.

“But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

– Deuteronomy 30:14, JPS 1917 Tanach