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.

motzei Shabbos: Elul Preparation

“Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in the nether-world, behold, Thou art there.”

– Psalm 139:7-8, JPS 1917 Tanach

During the month of Elul, we are called to look past the surface level of ourselves; this is no easy task for anyone caught up in images, that is to say, the presentation of oneself as an image that does not correspond to who one really is. Yet, we should be careful not to continue fooling ourselves, if we have not already recognized the false images of ourselves that we might unconsciously present to others. Instead of upgrading our image, we need to look closely at its flaws.

This is the only way to gain an honest assessment of oneself. For, we are compelled by the quality of this month to judge ourselves, in order to diminish being judged disfavourably on Rosh HaShannah. We have a full month’s preparation to examine our own conscience, for the sake of improving ourselves, by first “cleaning house.” We must empty ourselves of all the clutter that has accumulated over time, creating obstacles between us and our ideal potential.

Where can we start? In every moment, we have a starting point. That is to say, that we may start in the present moment. If recollected enough, insight can be gained into our true nature, both the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses, the virtues and the flaws. As is written, H’Shem will be with us when we are focused on the positive; and, He will also be present in our endeavor to explore our negative character traits.

motzei Shabbos: Chayei Olam

“Ye are the children of the L-RD your G-d: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” – Deuteronomy 14:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael is cautioned against desecrating their bodies through mutilation, as a sign of mourning; although a practice of the heathen nations, cutting oneself out of grief, an expression of pain for the loss of a loved one, is forbidden. Moreover, the prohibition against marring the flesh in regard to mourning, implies that there is no need for the Children of G-d to despair, in regard to the passing away of a life, because H’Shem extends His promise of eternal life (Sforno). “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life [eternal life]” (Deuteronomy 30:19, JPS; Sforno).

Why else is B’nei Yisrael forbidden from certain customs that would mar the body? (The sign of circumcision is an exception because it is not considered a marring of the body; rather, it is the removal of that which is superfluous). “G-d said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'” (Genesis 1:26, JPS). Man is created in G-d’s image (tzelem); that image should not be desecrated in a physical manner; neither should that image be tainted in the sphere of morality.

“Then the L-RD G-d formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, JPS). Our lives are not finite – there is an eternal nature of the soul. The Hebrew word for man, “adam,” is almost identical to the word for earth, “adamah.” The body of man, composed of the same elements of the earth, returns to the earth. Yet, the soul of man returns to G-d.

 “The dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit returneth unto G-d who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, JPS). At  the time of the Tehillas HaMeisim (the Resurrection of the Dead), the soul is restored to the body. “And many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2, JPS).

motzei Shabbos: Eikev 5781

“And thou shalt remember all the way which H’Shem thy G-d hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no.”

– Deuteronomy 8:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The children of Israel were subjected to many nisyanos (challenges) within the space of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. What was the purpose of experiencing these trials? “That He might afflict thee, to prove thee” (Deuteronomy 8:2, JPS). From this perspective, let us consider what is expressly stated, “that, as a man chasteneth his son, so H’Shem thy G-d chasteneth thee” (Deuteronomy 8:5, JPS). This is clarified clearly by Sforno, who comments, “He gives you a superior moral/ethical challenge to help you achieve perfection as seen from His perspective” (Sforno, on Deuteronomy 8:5; sefaria.org). Bear in mind, that this axiom is as true for us today as it was for B’nei Yisrael in the wilderness.

A G-dly Sorrow

parashas Matos-Massei 5781

drash for parashas Mattos-Masei 5781

“These are the stages of the children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the land of Egypt.”

– Numbers 33:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

The forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel, “their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of H’Shem,” were seen from the perspective of G-d, each one as a significant journey of progress, according to His plan. Each time they set out on a journey to the next encampment, there was no need for regret, if they accomplished, learned, and advanced in character development, according to G-d’s will.


Yet, even if they failed, they were given the opportunity to return to Him through teshuvah (repentance). Therefore, there was still no cause to regret, as long as they would be focused on a “godly sorrow,” that would bring them to a place of acknowledgment in regard to their aveiros (sins). This is akin to teshuvah tataah, fostering a contrite spirit, that will elicit H’Shem’s compassion from Above.

On the contrary, a sorrow in the form of yearning for the past, e.g., the comforts of Egypt (Numbers 11:5-6), or provisions other than the manna and water that H’Shem provided in the desert, led to complaining and rebellion. These complaints, and rebelliousness were tantamount to turning away from their divinely inspired goal to enter the Promised Land.

Even so, the goal remained, to enter Eretz Canaan as a people separated from the nations, in order to serve H’Shem, who only had their best interests in mind. And, H’Shem still has our best interests in mind today. He has not forgotten us, nor our individual needs, as we go from one place to another, journeying along throughout the stages of lives; moreover, He has set forth our path towards the Promised Land of Olam Haba (the World to Come).

Shabbos reflection: Drawing Near

As the 17th of Tammuz draws near, the connection seems so relevant to make. In a way, because of the Rafael Fire, burning fifteen miles away, imagining what occurred almost two thousand years ago in Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz seems more tangible. That is the day in 70 C.E. when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. Fires raged throughout the city; and the Temple was destroyed three weeks later on the 15th of Av.

Rafael Fire, Arizona

Drawing near to G-d seems like the most beneficial endeavor, at this time; and, perhaps, how my concerns about the fire may be channeled into the commemoration of the 17th of Tammuz on the first day of the week. Surely this would have been the only recourse of the pious two thousand years ago; drawing near to G-d at the time of an event that preceded one of the worst tragedies in Jewish history. Hopefully, any tragedies as a result of the Rafael Fire will be averted. H’Shem willing.

shabbos reflections: Tradition

As Shabbos approaches, I have already said, “amein” after my mother lit candles, on Zoom according to halachic time on the East Coast. After welcoming Shabbat, I recited kiddush, we partook of motzei and ate our meals quietly, as if two thousand miles were condensed into two feet across the table. Now, back in my own time zone, so to speak, I am making the most of three hours until Shabbos begins. This would not have been possible, without the many circumstances that led to this new tradition. The Coronavirus is not without its blessings; although, I would not intend to diminish the overall tragic consequences for many people that have occurred in its wake.

Yet, for myself, I carry on, introvert that I am. For, my self-imposed shelter in place policy 24-7 provided much time for reflection. And, a prolific abundance of writings that I have mostly posted on my blogs. Overall, there is no way to measure these times, except within the framework of the big picture. As incident rates of Covid-19 decrease, we will not necessarily be entering the “new normal,” unless our minds are complacent. Rather we are already entering what is more akin to a brave new world, promoted by the technocracy, i.e., the means to manage the infrastructure, ideology, and economic system of the future. This will not lead to an utopia, rather, a dystopia; therefore, I will continue to cling to G-d, Torah, and acts of kindness, instead of the “new normal.”

shiur Nasso 5781

“Speak unto the children of Israel: When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to commit a trespass against the L-RD, and that soul be guilty; then they shall confess their sin which they have done.”

– Numbers 5:5-7, JPS 1917 Tanach

According to Rambam (Maimonides), this verse is the basis of the importance of confession (vidui), within the context of teshuvah (repentance). “And shall make reparation in full” (Numbers 5:7); this latter part of the pasuk (verse) denotes reparations made to others, if the aveirah (transgression) is against another person. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for reparation is from the same shoresh (root), “shuv,” as teshuvah, meaning to return. Repentance is a return to H’Shem (the L-RD). “Let us return unto the L-RD” (Hosea 5:15, JPS 1917 Tanach).

The Mishkan along with the Levitical system of offerings were meant to restore the relationship of the people with H’Shem. A restored relationship with H’Shem begins with vidui (confession), whereby we confess our sins to Him; additionally, we return to Him by not making the same transgression again. We must also increase our mitzvoth, spending more time engaged with godly pursuits, and less time in that which could be considered frivolous.

Unless we are conscious of leading a godly life, we may not even realize that a diminished connection to G-d may be a result of our own lack of mitzvot (good deeds). “Your iniquities have separated between you and your G-d (Isaiah 59:2, JPS 1917 Tanach). In order to experience G-d’s presence in our lives, then we need to approach Him in righteousness. If we have not been cognizant of what He expects from us, then we need to educate ourselves, according to His ways. Now is a good time to start.

Shavuot 5781

For well over a year, many of us have been “camped out” within our own personal deserts; yet, it would be good to consider that the desert is where the Torah was given to B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel). The desert is a place where the mind is unhindered from distractions, and solace may be found in the stillness of Sinai. In the desert, there is an opportunity for spiritual growth; and, room for a shift in perspective.

Moreover, if we have not been placing an emphasis on ruchniyos (spirituality), the opportunity still prevails. I strongly believe that without an emphasis on ruchniyos, human beings, myself included, may too easily get caught up in gashmios (materiality). Yet, we may always reach out towards H’Shem (the L-RD), so that we may be simultaneously drawn to Him.

When Moshe entered “the thick cloud” (Exodus 19:9) on Sinai, he was called even further, he “drew near unto the thick darkness where G-d was” (Exodus 20:18, JPS 1917 Tanach). This serves as an example for us, in our quest to grow closer to G-d. He is found within the darkness of our lives, concealed within the hardships, trials and tribulations.

We may ask ourselves, when will the clouds part, and the light begin to shine in our lives? Perhaps, there will be no parting of the clouds, until we learn how to transform the challenges in our lives, by using them as opportunities to seek G-d, so that His presence, may comfort us during our nisyanos (troubles). Then, we may enter back into life, renewed with godly strength and vigour, as a result of our own personal Sinai experience, no matter how many days we may actually be on the mountain, waiting to descend and step back into the world.

The Crown of Creation

Mankind is the crown of creation. All of creation was created first, then mankind was created on the sixth day. Paleontology records show the same natural progression of life on earth. Obviously, mankind could only flourish in an environment with suitable conditions towards life; so, those conditions were created before placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Whether this is viewed as a myth, parable, or symbolic explanation of creation, it is meant to show how man’s place in the world is significant. We were made to be stewards of the earth: (Genesis 2:15). Therefore, mankind is not only part of G-d’s overall creation; rather, the crowning achievement, and reason for creation itself. In order to bring about the full divine plan encapsulated throughout the Bible.

There is a teaching in Judaism that on the one hand the world was created for every individual on the face of the planet. While on the other hand, we are only part of the greater whole. These two perspectives exist in actual life in tandem with each other. As the story goes, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pesicha carried two notes in separate pockets. One read, “the world is created for you.” the other note read, “I am mere dust and ashes.” The teaching is profound, and conveys the dual nature of life. On the one hand, each person is a unique individual created by G-d. Everyone may view his or her life from a self-centered perspective, as if the world and all it contains is for his or her benefit. On the other hand, in order to remain humble, and not overstep one’s boundaries, or raise oneself up in pride, it is important to remember, “I am but dust and ashes.”

Additionally, I would like to mention that G-d has a plan for each and every person on the dace of the planet. It is written in Psalms that G-d numbered all of the stars, and gives names to all of them” (Psalms 147:4). How much more so does He take note of each person’s plight on earth, through what is called hashgacha (divine guidance)? Whether we realize G-d’s influence in our lives or not depends in part of how cognizant we are of the tapestry being woven over time, that creates the bigger picture of how various events in our individual lives connect to form a greater whole. Meaning can be derived from our own existence, personal responsibilities, and dignity in how we approach the challenges of life. Human beings are thinking, talking, autonomous beings to some extent; yet, also subject to G-d’s sovereignty. Life is meant to bring us to the awareness of our place in the Universe, as individuals, who are created in G-d’s image. Ultimately, we are obligated to live up to that image: imatatio Dei.