Thoughts On Turning Seventy

This week’s parsha, Kedoshim (in Israel, it’s Acharei Mot in the diaspora) lists and reviews many mitzvot presented earlier. One of them, Lo Ta’ashok Et Reyecha (Vayikra 19:13) on the surface merely seems to instruct us not to take advantage of our fellow, not to charge him usurious interest. Fair enough, when a friend, neighbor or coreligionist is having a hard time coping financially and needs to borrow some money to get through a crisis, how terrible it is to gouge as much interest from him, presumably since he can’t get a loan or other financial help on better terms. Certainly, it’s not very nice to exploit someone’s misfortune, and the closer that person is to us, the worse the offense is.

But the Mei HaShiloach offers an insight into a much deeper meaning. He explicitly states that if we see that someone is in need and it’s within our power to help and refuse, that is also a sin. In other words, we should each feel absolutely liable to help a fellow, and to never see someone else’s misfortune as a financial opportunity for ourselves. 

But, as my parents, as well as various of my teachers, would have asked, “Do you need the Torah to tell you to be a decent person?”

To that, the Mei HaShiloach would answer that if can give someone a bracha, a blessing, and you don’t, even that is a sin. Although in theory it’s true everywhere that Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh L’zeh, the entire Jewish people are intertwined, one with the other (TB Shavuot 39a), living in Israel this is a palpable feeling we experience every day. Thus, even if we don’t actually know the person requiring a bracha, we’re still connected to them and, thus, obligated.

This also demonstrates the power of brachot, of blessings. They have the potential to provide so much benefit that withholding the bracha constitutes an actual injury.

Of course, this is closely related to the concept of Dan Kol Adam b’Kaf Zechut (Avot 1:6), to assume another’s innocence unless proven otherwise. Thus we assume that each of us is worthy of our bracha as well as all other efforts to give them a hand.

What a privilege (zechut) it is to be part of Am Yisrael, especially when one is also blessed to live in Eretz Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom

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Pesach Night Insights

Based on Devarim 22:6-7, we’re instructed that if we happen upon a nest with fledglings or eggs in it, we should send the mother away before taking the birds or eggs. We’re promised, as a reward, a long life. Superficially, it seems we’re talking about showing an extra measure of kindness, not merely avoiding cruelty, by taking the feelings of the mother to heart.

We do, of course, emphasize avoiding cruelty, which, along certain lines, is the basis of kashrut (there are those who convincingly argue that eventually, for a diet to be kosher it will need to be vegan!). There are other mitzvot aimed at kindness, such as supporting widows and orphans, welcoming converts, visiting the sick, accompanying the dead to their graves, regular tithing and other forms of tzedaka (charity), and that is very important, but also should be self-apparent to those of us striving to live a moral life.

Zohar, in general, and the Tikkunim, even more so, rarely repeat general lessons and sentiments we would have learned elsewhere. It was written in order to draw Divine Energy, HaShefa HaKodesh, into the material world we inhabit, for the purpose of providing Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, with the spiritual tools we would need to survive what has been almost 2000 years of exile.

When discussing this verse, Rabbi Shimon first, surprisingly, tells us not to take the word tzippur literally to mean bird, but rather to mean Neshama, not merely a soul, but one of the deepest levels of soul. More specifically, he refers to the Neshamot Tzaddikim, the souls of our holiest people (throughout history, as well as the deepest parts of our own neshamot), and he describes them as those who were constantly and actively engaged in Torah, learning (intellectual attachment to this highest levels of spirit) and  Tefilla, prayer, especially at regular hours).

The point he wants to make is that those who are always engaged in the holy aspects of life, especially at regular times, can count on God, the bird, to constantly hover over them, infusing them with the holy flow of energy. The rest of us, however, who only engage in such practices on an ad hoc, catch as catch can, basis, will occasionally experience the added intensity of being accompanied/protected/instructed by God Himself. But, only once in a while.

He emphasizes that these experiences are transitory and we need to function even when it feels more that we’re on our own. He really points at the danger of becoming a “spiritual addict”, someone who has talked himself into believing he needs a spiritual high at every waking moment in order to not merely be inspired, but merely to live a regular life.

Hopefully, later tonight all of us together, the collective Jewish Nation, Am Yisrael, will experience a great sense of freedom as we, walk out of Egypt as part of of Seder evening. We hope to be freed from the prison of Mitzraim, a narrow and restricted consciousness. We look to experience our greatest high as The Holy One draws each of us close to Him.

But given that we are, for the most part, normal people and not great saints, tzaddikim, we need to prepare for those feelings to pass, to return to normal. Hopefully uplifted and changed, at least a little, forever, but we won’t remain in that “peak state” for long.

I will go farther and say that if we do remain at that level for too long, we should worry and grow suspicious. A constant theme in Torah is that we both rise and then fall. And it is this “wave pattern” that’s both normal and healthy, but also which leads to final revelations and truths. A temporary truth or inspiration, no matter how attractive it feels, will prevent us from further growth if we refuse to let it go when proper. A ladder which carries us to the second floor becomes an anchor which locks us there.

May be all be blessed to experience, personally, God’s direct intervention in our lives, bringing us higher and closer, but let us also have the wisdom and the strength, Gevurah, to go back to our lives. Yes, bringing our new wisdom with us, but not thinking we’d reached the ultimate goal.

Chag Sameach

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Every Time, Every Place Is Exactly The Right One

“And who knows, perhaps it was just for such a time as this that you became Queen”

Umi Yodeah, Im L’Eyt HaZot HiGa’at LaMalchut

Megillat Esther  4:12

As Purim rapidly approaches this year and there is more apparent chaos in the world right now than we have ever experienced, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by it all. Two years of Covid, a voluntary (and thus insane) shut down of most western energy resources and the ensuing worldwide economic crises, runaway global inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine on top of all the other less publicized wars currently raging, uncontrolled terror throughout the globe (including unending terror against Israel as well as hate and violence against Jews everywhere)…. I’m sure I’m not the only one who longs to pinch myself and wake up from a the nightmare, but then shocked and depressed to learn that it’s all real and not a bad dream at all. Cries to The Creator seem to be answered with eternal silence.

“What am I doing here? How can I escape?” are far from unique questions. “Why is this happening to us?” is, if anything, an even more universal cry. Are all our desparate questions going to remain unanswered? Will fear be our constant condition?

“What can I do?” 

*      *     *      *      *     *      *     *      *       *

Now, we might finally have something to work with.

No, I can’t hand you a blueprint. Neither can any religious leader….. nor a political leader. Not a scientist, a celebrity an “influencer” nor a “prophet”.

But there are answers. But you have to search within your heart for your own.

The thing is, there are no universal answers. Not even any general ones that aren’t so vague as to be useless.

Because each of us has a unique answer, a unique mission, a unique job to do in this world. We all have a part to play, but my part is not yours, your role not mine. No rabbi or priest or monk or shaman or teacher or visionary can tell you, because, just like you, just like me, they have to discover what they’re being called to do. There is no “one-size-fits-all”, no Giant Bargain Family Size. Just small individual servings.

And finding your answer, and even performing your task, completing your job, doesn’t release you. Once you finish one job you’re immediately presented with the next! As is everyone else. And then another one and another one and…….

But this isn’t slavery, this is opportunity. Opportunity to participate in your ultimate purpose, our shared destiny, our shared privilege. Man, immediately upon creation was honored by The Creator with the invitation to partner with Him in completing Creation by bringing perfection. We’re presented with an imperfect world in order for each of us to find our unique way to bring our detail to its closest perfection. Tikkun Olam, not a secular political agenda or cliché, are our individual corrections and refinements, each imperfection and path to repair visible only to our unique selves.

God participates and helps us each step of the way, most significantly by placing us moment-to-moment, exactly where we need to be to see what we need to do. As the Chenobler taught in Meor Eynayim, every place you find yourself in, it is because in the specific place and at that specific time you find yourself there, there are Netzutzei Kodesh, Holy Sparks, assigned only to your specific Neshama, soul, that you must find and raise to their highest, proper place. Only you have the unique powers to perform this, and, for the world to reach it’s highest potential, every job needs to be done. You, me, each of us, everyone is 100% essential to the world.

It’s ultimately a matter of attitude, how we choose to look at it. “Oh woe, why me?” or “Thank You for choosing me, for seeing my strengths and unique vision and abilities, for your confidence, faith and encouragement that, yes, I can do this.”

Asher Kidshanu B’Mitzvotav V’Tzivanu, Who planted and recognizes the holiness within me to perform this unique, vital, important job. 

No one of us is useless, with no purpose. We all have the potential to succeed, to earn respect, admiration, self-respect and love. From ourselves, from our fellows, from The Creator. We’re each of us invited, each of us needed. Each of us, just like Queen Esther, is true royalty.

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Playing With The Band

I’ve played guitars for more than sixty years, and as almost every musician experiences, between practice time and just for the love of playing, the vast majority of that time I’ve played by myself. But, again as almost every musician knows, it’s much more fun to play with others. We live to play with the band.

Alone, we can give our personal creativity free reign, but we quickly run into the limits of talking with and to ourselves. With no one else providing their input, their unique musical ideas, it’s not long and we merely repeat ourselves endlessly. Not only does that become boring, but without another responding, we really can’t even begin to evaluate the value of what we’re doing.

Curiously, but not surprisingly, this is also the model of Torah study, discussing/arguing/bouncing ideas with a chavruta, a study partner. This word is also based on Chaver, friend and, when used as a verb, means to join. It cannot be productively, let alone satisfyingly, alone.

Synergy, which in Greek simply means working together has come to mean the phenomenon when the total is greater than the mere sum of the parts. Modern recording techniques make it easy to isolate individual parts in a performance and it quickly becomes apparent that a bluegrass band is much more than a guitarist and a banjo player and a mandolinist and a bassist. Listen to a quartet like, for example, the Julliard String Quartet perform complex music like Bartok’s third quartet, You rarely hear a bare instrument or a single line, but, rather, a full mosaic of sound. Watch their eye-contact and their other communication. Everyone performs not just the music score written for them, but joins the others to make something much greater.

Similarly, just recently out of slavery, Am Yisraei, The Jewish People, joined together to create a “communal art project”, encompassing many intricate arts as well as design and organization challenges to build the Mishkan, a portable Dwelling for The Creator, as He accompanied us on our journey through the desert, HaMidbar (a Divine Conversation). The design and execution were such that it became a model hundreds of years later for both of the now-destroyed Temples in Jerusalem, as well as a template for the Eternal, yet-to-built, Third House (Bayit Shlishi), a House of Prayer for All Nations, an eternal meeting place for all humanity to meet with The Divine at the Center of the World, Jerusalem (The Inheritance of Peace).

Mei HaShiloach, written almost 150 years ago, describes the process as the humblest vessels of the Mishkan, the Yetidot, the stakes to hold up the boards of the courtyard, as covered with copper. You might think that this indicates that they were the least valued of the holy vessels since all the objects were either made of or plated with gold, silver or copper. with copper the least rare, least expensive of the three. But, rather, he points out that in the kabbalistic sense, copper points to complete mastery which transcends mere knowledge (of the three intellectual faculties, knowledge/facts/conclusions, Da’at, is far below Inspiration (Chachma) and analysis/process (Binah). Nachoshet, copper, implies complete mastery of knowledge, in this case Ratzon, Will. In other words, even the humblest of artisans joining in the work on this project was able to realize that every detail of every action he/she was taking was independent of their individual eccentricities, but truly Ratzon Hashem, reflecting the Divine Will. Working together at this level of awareness and sensitivity and art, they were assured that every object created was precisely made to fit into the whole, completely unlimited by any defect.

Those who contributed to the materials and who participated in the work, and that might well have been universal participation, were described as Chochmei Lev, of a wise heart. In other words, inspired with a perfect balance of intellect and emotion. By integrating our complete humanity in creating a Dwelling Place for The Creator, we also fulfill its destiny as a House Of Prayer For All Nations.

Likewise, Bayit Shlishi, the third House (we don’t create a fancy designation for it, rather, just Bayit, a house), soon to be built on Har HaBayit, The House Mount, is not intended to be our, or any peoples’ private turf, but a place where each of us, in our divine uniqueness comes to consummate our individual relationships with The Creater. While it might appear controversial before the fact, it will soon unite all people of goodwill in a way where each of us feels a sense of personal ownership and belonging, as well as connection and love for all. May we see it soon, in our lifetimes.

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All You Got

כל הנשמה תהלל י-ה הללוי-ה

The Entire Neshama Will Praise Y-ah, Halleluy-ah

King David ended his monumental work, Tehillim, Psalms, which, among other things, contains or hints at the entire Oral (meaning no written, not fixed to any printed page, and, therefore, Infinite, like The Creator Himself) Torah with those words above.

Each of us has at least one thing inside us, a special talent, a point of view, a sense of humor, a passion, a love, an interest, a hobby, an expertise….. that makes us uniquely who we are. Many of us have several, but everyone has at least one. Maybe we can sing, perhaps have a phenomenal memory, an intense love. Perhaps we can dance, maybe play the guitar. Write computer code, find new insights in a page of Talmud that’s been pored over by generations of brilliant scholars. Some of us can run faster or jump higher or hit or catch a ball. Can defend an offender so passionately as to acquit them, can lead Tefilla, can sing a song, are a magnet to children or, perhaps, to stray cats and dogs. Some people can just sit and smile and make those around them feel good.

Parshat T’rumah instructs each individual Jew to transfer to God some mysterious matter called That Which Is Elevated. At the literal level, our ancestors were, historically, commanded to bring precious material for the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple, literally the Dwelling of the Infinite God within the physically restricted desert within the similarly restricted material world. But, of course, we know that this is also the blueprint for the future Mikdash, Holy Space, the Temples in Jerusalem. Likewise, we have been taught repeatedly that The Torah is, like The Holy One Himself, Infinite, and while describing a single mundane building project in time, It also instructs each of us, throughout history, how best to live our individual lives.

If you’ve been following my essays over the last couple years, you’ll notice that I have become very influenced by the teachings and ideas of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, rabbi in a small Polish town in the mid-nineteenth century (1839-54). A shtetl where over 90% of its approximately 5000 Jews were slaughtered in the Shoah, Holocaust. At the Ishbitzer‘s time there were, more likely, just under 3000. Nonetheless, his words seem especially relevant and true today, especially for those of us privileged as well as brave, to live in Israel, working to complete our charge as Jews and Humans, to partner with God in His Creation, creating the ultimate balance of din and chesed, awe and love, while adding the finishing touches which, in any work, brings the beauty.

In his major work, Mei HaShiloach (Vol.2), he teaches us that the real mitzvah is to aid God in all of His directing that world, everything in it’s exact time. We’re no longer restricting our thinking to a single building project, as it were, and not even to it’s constant upkeep, but to everything He does in our world. A one-time event, obviously, is inadequate, and rather, the description in the Torah is meant to serve as a blueprint for our lives, to raise up and donate whatever is needed at the moment.

While there are descriptions of how the “architecture” of the Mishkan resembles, or can be mapped out, on a human body, as well as the Sefirot, that really tells us that it is a model of the Universe (as are each one of us, too). Gold, silver, wood, colored dyes, etc. is merely a beginning to help us understand. Additionally, we must first be the owners of our T’rumah. And it must truly reside in our hearts (Yidvenu Libo). And just as he hints through a midrash he brings, some gifts will be gold and not silver, fields and not vineyards, in other words while each of our individual contributions will not encompass the entirety of the project, perfecting this material world, having been “lifted up” to The Creator, they will be unified within Him, so each of our individual gifts, our individual passions, what each of us brings into this world and into Life, will complement and complete everyone else. Even if we, individually, can’t possibly imagine how our song or our line of computer code or our four meters of wall, or our love and nurturing a single child in a single family, or whatever it is that moves us to add that to the world, we should rely on our Emunah and Bitachon, belief and trust, that it will all fit together.

Moreover, each of us has moments, sometimes very extended ones, when we can account for this interest or this emotion. “Why am I the way I am?”, we often cry out. Or “Why. has this happened to me?”

The answer, from this perspective is we are each given exactly what we need, throughout our lifetimes, to bring up, to develop and to then contribute. It is all needed, each of us is needed and have an equally integral part to play.

Remember, we describe the describe Mashiach as one who will, among other things, build the Third Temple, Bayit Shlishi. This isn’t intended to be a myth or a children’s story, but a heads-up of what we will actually be called up to do at that time. So, we will each of us need to learn how to bring the entirety of our individual Neshamot, as T’rumah, into service.

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Integrating Good

Leaving Egypt, our first exile, is the paradigm of Redemption and Transformation, setting the themes for the other four exiles and redemptions.

The women of Yisrael are told to “borrow” precious items of gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors. A lot is made of our leaving Egypt despoiled. In fact, it is this very silver and gold that make their way into the vessels, furniture and tools of the Mishkan. How can that be?

The Mei HaShiloach expands on a Gemara in Brachot to teach that even when we emulate the perverse acts of the Egyptians, when we do them, somehow, they become virtuous. He doesn’t mean that theft or rape or exploitation is, somehow, ever ok when we do it, that we have a mystical Get Out Of Jail Free Card, that our …….. smells, somehow, sweet. Chas v’Shalom!

The idea is that we transform the gold and silver, the material treasure of Ancient Egypt, once in service to the Avoda Zara, idol worship of elevating a flesh-and-blood leader, Pharaoh, into a false divinity, by using them in service to the one true Infinite God. These precious materials are no longer merely objects of display and dominance and envy, but rather shared by the entire people (and from there to all humanity and then to all creation) as they’re put to a higher purpose.

Likewise, the Ishbitzer teaches (based on a prophecy from Isaiah (14:30) that we take the most precious qualities of each society we found ourselves enslaved to and we refine them, often beyond all recognition, and repurpose them, remove them from the realm of ego and self aggrandizement into the realm of universal improvement and benefit, in other words into the service of The Almighty, partnering with Him to complete and perfect Creation (the authentic Jewish meaning of the often misused and misappropriated phrase tikkun olam).

Think of all the cultures where we were enslaved. Or discriminated against,  made second-class citizens. Subjected to humiliation, unfair special taxes, limits to our occupations, not to mention wholesale slaughter. Think of the grandeur of ancient Babylon, ancient Persia, Greece and Rome. The pinnacle of European culture and enlightenment, pre-war Germany. Of the great Arab cultures of the middle east. And see the steep decline in today’s America, accompanied with rising anti-semitism and exclusion, that’s starting just now.

See the refinement in culture and in science and technology sweeping Israel. Not just the Start Up Nation, but the lone example of real Democracy in the Middle East, most of Asia and most of Africa. A nation filled with symphony orchestras and modern dance companies, a thriving jazz scene (consider how many Israelis went to study music at the Berklee College of Music over the last thirty years!), art museums, publishing houses and universities. Not to mention the greatest flowering in history of Torah studies of all kinds and from all points of view, that is not only thriving, but growing faster than the eye can see.

This is the promise of each Geula, Redemption, cascading and combining into the final, ultimate Redemption which is taking place right here, right now.

We haven’t come close to completing the process and there are plenty of mistakes and false steps along the way, but with each passing moment we truly go “From Strength To Strength”. We are truly marching out of Mitzraim b’Yad Rama, with a high hand.

Participate and celebrate. Together.

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Who I Am

Among the many profound pleasures I enjoy living in Israel is that I no longer define myself as who I’m not.

To survive two millennia in foreign, often hostile (occasionally softly hostile but more frequently brutally hard) environments, we needed a system to preserve our unique identities without petrifying ourselves out of existence. Driven from place to place, we needed a way to practice and preserve our way of life wherever we might find ourselves. Chazal, our visionary sages, who, int the first centuries of the first millennium, devised what became known as  Halacha (Jewish Practice) with Divine assistance but no longer enjoying Divine Guidance (The Age Of Prophecy ended with Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and our subsequent Galut, or exile), but based on the revelations of Moshe Rabbenu (also known as Torah or Bible) and the other Nevi’im, Prophets (Nach) and with the insight that we were not interested in mere lifestyle, but with a holy mission to bring God’s Will into living reality, this system succeeded as long as it needed to. It wasn’t perfect, but largely achieved its goal. Am Yisrael, The Jewish People, in the 21st century, thrives.

Today, and for the last seventy years, that need for defensive halacha is, with thanks to The Creator, much much less. While not fully in the realm of Geula, Redemption, the current reality for those of us fortunate, blessed, lucky and courageous enough to live in the first sovereign Jewish state in these two millennia is day-and-night different from any Jewish existence in that long duration. This applies to both those born here and those who made the decision to re-home themselves here.

Of course, not everyone, probably not even a majority of Israel’s citizens are “religious”, at least not as defined by orthodoxy. But denominational divisions, so natural in Galut, so necessary so we can each define ourselves as not this or that, even though they still persist, are dissolving. Not only are these distinctions not needed, they’re counterproductive.

While we await, hopefully actively even if slowly, engaged in building Bayit Shlishi, that long-dreamt-of Third Beit HaMikdash, Holy Temple, whatever its ultimate form and expression will turn out to be, there is no reason to think that what had been accepted and deified as orthodox practice and halacha are identical, or even necessarily close to what Torah Judaism in Israel will be in the future. We need no longer mindlessly cling to every detail, every humrah (strictness) especially without even exploring and understanding how they developed historically in our long and varied history, in the many diverse locations and situations of The Exile we found ourselves in. When the conditions they were a necessary response to no longer exist, there is no need to deify our temporary reactions; even if they lasted a long time, they were still temporary.

So much halacha, as it’s come to us in the twenty-first century, is based on avoiding not just physical threats, but the more subtle annihilation of assimilation. How many laws of kashrut have nothing to do with the actual ingredients we eat, or our treatment of animals, but rather as obstacles to socializing over meals with the dominant non-Jewish culture we were surrounded by? So much of the religious practice we inherited was based on Al Telech, Don’t walk in the ways of our non-Jewish neighbors. So much of modern orthodox practice (as opposed to Modern Orthodox) revolves around obsessive non-conformity with the surrounding majority and obsessive conformity within our own group. Just look at the clothes worn in a frum community, so often out-of-phase with the local climates, based on two hundred and three hundred year-old and even older, often non-Jewish, fashions. The outlandish, but identical hats (within each sub-group, but the need to distinguish group from group repeats itself as a Gur Hasid will never appear in public in the clothing of a yeshivish Litvak (except maybe on Purim) any more than he would in revealing swim trunks. Never would a frum woman, in the hottest summer day, give up her wrist-to-ankle polyesters, full head-coverings. Kashrut supervision to guarantee that a non-Jew doesn’t participate in food preparation, pasteurizing wine (which ruins it, at least a little) to prevent a non-Jew’s handling an open wine bottle making it no longer fit (kosher) to drink.

It goes on and on.

This time of year, in most orthodox communities around the world, unfortunately even here in Eretz Yisrael, Israel, Jews will obsessively seek out Chinese food and meticulously avoid our one highest-value activity, learning Torah, all to avoid giving honor to Jesus. Christmas Eve becomes the one night of a year it’s permitted to go to a movie theater (at least pre-covid), of course, though, limiting the fare to a Disney-esque fairy tale. In a backhanded-insult to secular intellectual pursuits like chess (a game favored by many scholars of the past, including the late Lubavitcher Rebbe!) is allowed, if not encouraged, as a substitute for our supreme (all other nights (except for Tisha B’Av, when we refrain from the pleasure out of mourning the devastating destruction of ) intellectual/spiritual pursuit of Torah study.

Even here in Israel, in the year 2021, so many practicing Jews engage in the non-observance of the Christian holiday, even though our surrounding dominant culture is our own, the search for a Chinese restaurant that will deliver (it was, after all, Leyl Shabbat! It baffles my mind. Sure it can be light-hearted and even fun, but it’s for the past, not the future.

For here is the one place on earth, and the one time in millennia we finally can, and should be exactly who we are.

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Where’s God In All This?

As Elul, the month when we say HaMelech b’Sadeh, the King is in the Field, winds down and we look forward to the great renewal of Rosh Hashana, I am still searchng to find God. And now, ten days later, waiting for the entry of Yom Kippur, even more so……He ramains so elusive. Facing another year of the unknown in terms of Covid and global health, weather disasters everywhere, chaos and violence seeming to run rampant even in those places we thought were safe and calm…… Such a long, often self-contradictory list of mandatory instructions to do our part to solve each crisis, too long to successfully complete even half.

On top of all that, there is all the spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Some of us have been waking early for the entire months to say Selichot, other just started a couple weeks ago. There are also those of us for whom the multitude of words, once a bridge, has now become an obstacle. Is God in the silence or is He in the words, so many of which are intricately structured into a poetry we rarely understand, can barely remember?

Netzavim, read just before Rosh Hashana, is usually the fifty-first parsha read in the yearly cycle (which begins on Shimini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, a few weeks beyond). Thus it normally follows the fiftieth parsha. Fifty, represented by the letter Nun, is the one after forty-nine which represent the forty-nine Shaarei Bina, Gates of Understanding. By the time we read this very enigmatic parsha, we have presumably achieved our years understanding and Torah wisdom. Vayelech, just before Yom Kippur, presents us an enigmatic poem where we must face our multi-dimensional relationship with God and our prayers and hopes for the new year.

The Ishbitzer discusses the verse that tells us that He is not hidden away in the Heavens where someone need sor far distance, across the sea. Rather, He is right here, in our hearts and minds, in our ears and eyes. He also tells us we can have the relationship of a son to a father, who despite our faults gives us conditional love, if we examine the relationship of a prospective father-in-law who wants the best for his daughter, a son-in-saw who can provide everything that is needed (please don’t get bogged down in the difference in historical social organization–transcend that to see the beautiful point drawn from what was then everyday-life).

Without crippling ourselves with the “soft prejudice of low expectations”, we can also free ourselves from the opposite emotional devestations of being terrified of failure. We do our best and known that even though it will never be perfect, God will never Turn His Face away from us in rejection.

These holy days we experience every year have so much potential, both to reinforce and strengthen us, but also to fail. As we’ve been told the last few weeks in various Torah readings, choose life.

It’s so easy to get distracted by all the ritual, all the requirements, for all the halacha which is supposed to bring us close to The Creator, to present the path for us to walk, to hide Him instead. All the prayers and pleading can end up only emphasizing how far away we are.

Especially these years, in Eretz Yisrael, where our Jewish Neshamot can freely display and express themselves, where we don’t need any schtick to overcome our secular rulers who, millennium after millennium, century after century, generation after generation have made us so fearful to just be who we naturally are, but can sit quietly, or walk thoughtfully, gently breathe in the Divine Presence so that every exhalation reveals Him to us and we see that, following the hint of Rabban Gamliel, who required (TB Brachot) that each Jew be tocho k’baro, his inner self just like his outer self, and baro k’tocho, his outer self transparent to in inner self, that we can finally properly meet God, Creator and sustainer of the Universe, in the same manner as did Moshe Rabbeinu, Panim el Panim, face-to-face.

Keyn yehi Ratzon. May it be His will.

G’mar Chatima Tova

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First Thoughts On Rosh Hashana 5782

I’m not sure that Tshuva has much to do with forgiving. Or, at least, our forgiving, and I’d argue that we shouldn’t pro-actively forgive anyone who’s truly harmed us before they ask. Not to be disrespectful, but that sounds a lot more like “Turn the other Cheek” Christianity, which is so understandable since most of us grew up under a mixed fabric of Judeo-Christian Ethics, which for all it’s fancy title, really had little to do with traditional Jewish values and teachings.

In terms of Halacha, we’re supposed to ask forgiveness from everyone we harmed over the past year. Once asked, although we’re not commanded to, it’s advised that, given certain criteria, we do forgive. But I would argue that forgiving someone who hasn’t actually asked you, rather than being generous, steals the mitzvah of asking from them. It reminds of of how my great teacher, Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l would never let someone walk through the congregation with the tzedaka pushka even though that’s standard practice in almost every shul I’ve ever been in. He felt that at least part of why someone would give in that situation is because someone is standing there, asking, rather than walking up on your own because your heart calls you to give.

In another directions, we’re instructed to try to imitate The Creator, and The Creator will always forgive (but only if it actually benefits the one who’s asking—blanket “amnesty” can encourage people to “sin” because they know it will be wiped away….). And My ways are not your ways—we aren’t equipped to understand why God does anything.

The subtleties of Chazal, our sages, are so deep.

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Everyone celebrates when rhapsodic love becomes a joyous wedding, but what of a wedding based on lust? And when that lust isn’t mutual, but only one-sided (what if the lust, chas v’shalom, crosses the line to rape?) When that already-inadequate flame dies or, even worse, flips to contempt? 

We celebrate a birth created in love, but what of the baby conceived only in lust or in hate? What when an unloved child becomes a dangerous sociopath (not a guaranteed outcome, but all too common a story)? Even a monstrous criminal was once a tiny baby, but what if they must be put to death? Where is God in all this?

Eyn Od Milvado, there is nothing that isn’t God, that isn’t, in it’s deepest nature, God. And when we assume, as taught by the Ramchal (Derech Hashem 1:2) that the pre-visioned, end-purpose of Creation, from the formation of the universe all the way to our individual deeds and thoughts, is L’Hativ MiTuvo, Yitbarach Sh’mo, L’Zulato, to benefit from His Inifinte Good a being other than Himself, it becomes one of our most important challenges to find that goodness in everything that occurs. Even when that netzuzt, spark of goodness, seems so tiny, almost invisible/non-existent, so hidden, how do we decipher the message embedded in it, teaching us how to continue the search, to eventually find that nugget of pure good?

Before proceeding, it’s important to empahsize that Torah of this incredible depth and perception isn’t meant to be taken literally. By no stretch of the imagination am I or authentic Jewish Tradition advocating, approving or even accepting either rape or aggressive wars. I’ll explain as we go.

The Ishbitzer refers us to the opening of Parshat Ki Tetze, |When you go out to war”. As he strings together the early topics into a chain of events, based on just a very few pasukim, verses, the subject goes from joining a war, becoming so attracted to a female captive who catches his eye (to the point of convincing himself that she is his beshart, his truly destined mate, and that taking her for a wife is practically mandated, no longer optional), resisting the temptation by making her appear unattractive in his eyes, starting a family with complete faith it will become a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael, a holy family participating in Israel’s ultimate destiny and responsibility of revealing God’s Light and Holiness to the world, but finding that his love isn’t so strong afterall, that he favors children from a different wife, leading that unloved son to become a Ben Sorer U’Moreh, a parents’ worst nightmare of a sociopath whose end is to put to death by a court (remember that capitol punishment in Judaism was/is so rare (The State of Israel has executed only one person in all it’s existence, Adolf Eichman) that a Bet Din, court who administers the death penalty once in seven or seventy years was considered a blood-thirst court, and in reality it was probably never actually carried out.) the court was commanded to bury the body almost immediately and to not let it hang from a tree (as was a typical warning in medeival courts) overnight because of the inherent dignity of a human being, no matter how horrible its actions in life.

So, we see that when we take God’s essense, love, and degrade it and degrade it and degrade it further, leading to terrible consequences for all involved, the initial involvement of The Creator predicates at least a netzutz, a holy spark of good and purity that will endure.

We’re commanded, even in the darkest night, to find that spark of light and to incorporate it in ourselves and thus to restore it to the Pure Light Of The World.

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