Pivotal Points

parashas Lech Lecha 5782

“Ten generations from Noah to Abraham, in order to make known what long-suffering is His; for all those generations kept on provoking Him, until Abraham, came and received the reward of all of them.” – Pirkei Avos 5:2, sefaria.org

“Based upon the merit of Abraham, G-d did not destroy again the whole world. Abraham taught them that repentance was possible, and therefore G-d did not destroy the world.”

– English explanation of the Mishnah; sefaria.org

Inasmuch that Noah and his family was spared when “Noah found favor in the eyes of H’Shem,” so, too, according to the mishnah, the world was spared through the merit of Abraham. In light of this comparison, two points become evident. First, the necessity of G-d’s of Attribute of Mercy, as a means of relating to mankind, despite His strict attribute of justice. Second, that in each case, a righteous person was chosen to offer repentance to others, and ultimately to become the means through which a type of redemption would occur for all of mankind.

In the case of Noah, it is evident that G-d favored him for a specific reason. Immediately following “Noah found grace in the eyes of the L-RD,” the Torah  states that Noah was “a man righteous and wholehearted; Noah walked with G-d” (Genesis 6:8-9). As for Abraham, there is no such immediate recognition of his character, when he is called out from the land of Ur, to the land that he would be shown. He is told by H’Shem, that he would become a great nation, that his name would be great, and that the nations would be blessed through him. Before Abraham, Sarah, and his nephew Lot set out for Canaan, there were “persons that they had acquired in Haran.”

These souls are said to be converts to Abraham’s newfound monotheistic faith. It is this faith as demonstrated by his obedience to the L-RD’s calling, that Abraham is considered righteous: For, “he believed in the L-RD; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, JPS). “O ye seed of Abraham His servant, ye children of Jacob, His chosen ones. He is the L-RD our G-d; His judgments are in all the earth” (Psalm 105:6-7, JPS 1917 Tanach).

motzei Shabbos: Noach 5782

 “And the L-RD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

– Genesis 6:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

“Ten generations from Adam to Noah, in order to make known what long-suffering is His; for all those generations kept on provoking Him, until He brought upon them the waters of the flood.”

– Pirkei Avos 5:2, sefaria.org

“In G-d’s long-suffering we can learn a lesson of patience and forgiveness. Even though in the end G-d did decide to destroy the world, He did not do so immediately, but gave the world a chance to repent“ (English Explanation of Mishnah; sefaria.org). Therefore, we can see that G-d is not only just; he is also merciful. It is only fair to give others a second chance in life, as G-d did with the generation of the Flood. On a personal level, although we do not know what the person being forgiven will do in the future, it is up to us to attempt to amend the situation. And, moreover, to caution others against aveiros (sins), and expound upon the importance of teshuvah (repentance), is humane. We can not foresee whether others will do teshuvah or not; yet, we must give others the opportunity to mend their ways.

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.

reflections: Starting Anew

Ever since the day after Yom Kippur (the day of Atonement), I have become acutely aware of the opportunity to start anew. Seemingly, within the framework of my awareness, I notice moreso than ever now, my immediate faults. They linger, as if a stark reminder of my human frailties, not measuring up even to my own standard, nor in regard to my interactions with others. So each aveirah (some left undefined, except for the experience of my conscience being twinged) serves to keep me in all humility, as an individual who is ever seeking righteousness, yet, often falling short of the mark. These reckonings should be dealt with at the end of the day, more fully, when I might have time to review my day. Yet, if I fail to do so, I run the risk of the taints on my soul beginning to accrue already for the year. They simply must be dealt with while I am conscious of them.

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.

motzei Rosh HaShannah reflection – 5782

“And the new year begins,” I thought to myself, after finishing the cup of wine drank in conjunction with the brief havdallah service recited at the end of a holiday during the week. Thus concludes the commemoration of Rosh HaShannah, and the beginning of the new year, replete with its ten day focus on teshuvah (repentance) during the ten Days of Awe, culminating with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Therefore, the theme of judgment continues, throughout these days, as the decrees are not sealed until the neilah service that concludes Yom Kippur. In fact, for the traditionally-minded Jew, the day after Rosh HaShannah is a minor fat day (the fast of Gedaliah) that helps us to counteract any indulgence that occurred during the two days of Rosh HaShannah. This allows us to recalibrate after the celebrations of the New Year, lest we forget the gravity of these days.

For myself, this is the beginning of the three week period that incorporates the shifting of one holiday to another, inclusive of Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchas Torah. This is the only time of the year that I can sincerely validate taking time off, for the sake of a “vacation,” that is more like a three week religious retreat. Moreover, considering that the new Torah reading cycle does not begin until Simchas Torah, the end of the year is still upon us; and, the complete beginning of the new year is still not yet begun. We sort of ease into the renewal of the year on different levels, over the next three weeks. This is one reason why, I am compelled to devote myself to these themes of “new beginnings,” during this extended New Year commemoration.

Rosh HaShannah 5782

erev Rosh HaShannah 5782

Rosh HaShannah is a time of renewal. Through teshuvah (repentance) we prepare ourselves to face H’Shem: Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) on the Day of Judgment for the New Year. Through proper reflection, and rooting out our sins well in advance of that day, we hope to begin the new year with the resolve to start anew.

Inidentally, in regard to the renewal of the moon, on that day, when the first sliver of the new moon becomes visible, it is written that it is a time of atonement (Rosh Chodesh musaf service). The waning of the moon, until it is completely diminished by the end of the month, serves to remind us of our own deficiencies, faults, and weaknesses. At the end of the year, when the moon wanes towards the end of Elul; at this time, what merit can we claim in our lives over the past year. Knowing our spiritual paucity, we pray to H’Shem for His mercy.

Rosh HaShannah is considered to be a day of judgment for the new year. We would like to be judged favorably, so we make an accounting of the soul (heshbnon hanefesh), in order that our conscience will permit ourselves to stand before the King. According to the Zohar, “’You stand this day all of you before the L-RD your G-d’” (Deuteronomy 30:9) refers to Rosh HaShannah, when we stand before H’Shem in judgment for the New Year.

When we examine our conscience, we may be brought to a place of moral compunction as a result of guilt and remorse. During the Ten Days of Repentance, otherwise known as the Days of Awe, we continue to search our souls for the flaws that need to be brought into the light . During that time, any judgments against us for the year may be diminished through our efforts at “teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tsedokah (charity),” the mitvoth (good deeds) that “avert the severity of the decree,” for the decrees are not sealed until Yom Kippur.

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.

drash: parashas Re’eh 5781

parashas Re’eh 5781

“For thou art a holy people unto the L-RD thy G-d, and the L-RD hath chosen thee to be His own treasure out of all the peoples that are upon the face of the earth.”

– Deuteronomy 14:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The children of Israel are an am segulah – a treasured people – unto the L-RD. As a people, we are still His treasure, that He values “out of all the peoples that are upon the face of the earth.” In the words of the Targum, “a people more beloved than all the peoples who are upon the face of the earth” (Targum Jonathan; sefaria.org). Within the overall context of the passage, wherein this verse is found, this is the reason given for the children of Israel not to disfigure yourselves as is the custom of the nations to do when mourning. Additionally, as follows in the passage, also, not to eat anything considered to be an abomination.

This is the basis of holiness, whereas the Hebrew word translated as “holy” is kadosh, having the basic meaning of “to be separate,” as in separated unto the L-RD, or separate from the nations. According to Rashi, one reason for this spiritual status is because of the merit of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moreover, it is the children of Israel that H’Shem appeared to at Mt. Sinai; and, He gave us the Torah, when He made an eternal covenant with us. The eternal nature of this covenant is expressed as follows:

“Thus saith the L-RD, Who giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, who stirreth up the sea, that waves thereof roar, the L-RD of hosts is His name: If these ordinances depart from before Me, saith the L-RD, then the seed of Israel shall cease from being a nation before Me for ever. Thus saith the L-RD: If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the L-RD.” – Jeremiah 31:35-37, JPS

In other words, our relationship with H’Shem is as sure as the heights of heaven and the foundation of the earth; by signifying our bond to H’Shem by way of this comparison, it is made clear to us that we are truly a treasured people unto the L-RD, despite all of our transgressions against Him. Even so, we are called to turn our hearts to Him, through sincere teshuvah (repentance), a heartfelt confession of our sins, with a commitment not to repeat them; rather, that our lives may be changed for the good.

Turn Again

“What is meant by, ‘Surely he scorneth the scorners, but he giveth grace unto the lowly’ [Proverbs 3:34]? If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening; if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped.”  – Talmud Shabbos 104a

The Sages teach, based on the above Talmudic passage, and the configuration of the Hebrew letter, “hei,” that H’Shem will “give grace unto the lowly” to do teshuvah (repentance) through the narrow way.  This is represented by the small space towards the top of the letter hei – ה – the narrow gate that leads towards teshuvah (repentance). On the other hand, “surely he scorneth scorners” can be understood to mean that G-d will also give occasion to those whose way is stubbornly opposed to following G-d’s word. The scorners are bent on following their own way that leads to “defilement;” for them, the way is broad, symbolized by the broad space at the bottom of the letter hei: ה.

“Know whence you came and to where you are going and before Whom you are destined to give a final accounting.” – Pirkei Avos 3:1

“The whole wide world is a very narrow bridge.”

– R’ Nachman of Breslov