Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah - שמיני עצרת ושמחת תורה

A number of the Jewish festivals are referred to by more than one name. For example, Sukkot is also known by the moniker Chag Ha'Asif, Shmini Atzeret is also referred to as Simchat Torah and Pesach is sometimes called Chag Hamatzot. Similarly, Rosh Hashana is called Yom T'ruah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaDin, while Shavuot is known variously as Chag HaBikkurim, Chag HaKatzir and Zman Matan Torateinu.

Each of these names have a different meaning and represent a different aspect of each festival. In a speech I heard last year, Rav Yonah Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, suggested that some of these names are linked. While he didn't go through all the names of all the chagim, he took a few examples.

The two names Pesach and Chag Hamatzot, Rav Metzger suggested, are a pair. Pesach refers to Hashem's passing over the houses of the Jews; it is Bnei Yisrael's way of being grateful for Hashem's kindness in overlooking them while killing Egyptians worthy of death. On the other hand, Chag Hamatzot is Hashem's name for the festival and it refers to how God found our actions favourable. (We displayed a desire to leave Egypt swiftly when the time came, to the point whereby we let bread bake on our backs.)

In the same way, two of Sukkot's names can be seen as a pair; Chag Ha'Asif, Festival of the Collecting (of the harvest,) is the one of the names that the Jewish people uses for it - we thank God that we He has given us sustenance. But Hashem has refers to it from a different perspective; His name for the festival is Sukkot, for He recognises the Jewish people's devotion to sitting outside in the Sukkah, often through what can sometimes prove to be rather unpleasant conditions.

And so too we have the names of Chag Shmini Ha'atzeret and Simchat Torah. Shmini means eight, and Atzeret means stopping. Rav Metzger explained that this name can be understood as belonging to Hashem. After seeing the Jews observing Sukkot for seven days, he says to us "today is the eight day - you may stop dwelling in your Sukkot now and dwell inside with me." So that's Hashem's perspective, as it were.

But there's a second name, too: Simchat Torah. This moniker represents a rather different aspect; it represents the side of Bnei Yisrael and shows the Jewish nation's love for Hashem. When we celebrate Simchat Torah, we are thanking Hashem for the greatest gift given - that of the Torah. While we refer to our festivals by their various names without thought, interchangeably even, it is interesting to note how these names dovetail and reciprocate each other's sentiments, despite the differences between them.

From Jerusalem, wishing you all a Chag Sameach!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Shabbat Sukkot - שבת סוכות

Although Shabbat Sukkot doesn't seem to have much that separates it from the rest of Sukkot, there is one thing at least upon which we may comment - Megillat Kohelet, one of the five special scrolls we read over the course of the year.

Megillat Kohelet is always read during the festival of Sukkot, but it doesn't quite seem to fit - it's tone is decidedly downbeat and certainly appears to clash with the sentiment echoed in a a song commonly sung, "ושמחת בחגך - V'samachta b'chagecha - and you shall rejoice in your festivals" (Sourced from פרשת ראה: טז:יד).

Two Psukim later in פסוק טז, we read, "שלוש פעמים בשנה... בחג המצות ובחג השבועות ובחג הסוכות - Three times a year... On Chag Hamatzot, Vhag Hashavuot, and Chag HaSukkot..." We are clearly supposed to be happy on our Chagim, we must rejoice on Sukkot. So if we are meant to be happy, how can we read Kohelet, which talks about the "futility" of life?

If we examine the text of the Mussaf Shmonah Esrei we say every day of Chag, we say "ומפני חטאנו גלינו מארצנו, ונתרחקנו מעל אדמתנו - But because of our sins we have been exiled from our land and sent far from our soil." This is certainly no happy statement, and if we pray the we are meant to, these words must surely evoke a certain emotion within us, an emotion rather dissonant with the theme of rejoicing. Again, it seems to clash. How do we resolve such a discrepancy?

Rav Kook answers the question as follows. There are two types of negative feelings in life, one is sadness and one is pain. Pain is a neccessary part of life, as it allows us to realise that something is wrong and to build on it. Sadness on the other hand, is restricting and inhibits us. When we are sad, we can become depressed and caught up in the act of "being sad." Humans tend to wallow in sadness. Sometimes people feel really bad about something, and then compound their feelings by playing a depressing song. That is an example of sadness; it's destructive and a waste of one's time and energy.

Rav Kook argues that we are instructed to be full of happines during our Chagim. We must not allow ourseleves to experience sadness, or any type of negative feeling upon which we cannot build. Pain on the other hand, pain that we wrecked our Bet Hamikdash and consequently been cast into a 2,000 year long exile, is useful. That kind of pain allows us to temper our joy to a degree, and lets us realise that we are still homeless. So too, by reading Kohelet, we understand how all in life is transient. Even the greatest joy passes. Just like the Sukkah booths in which we live during the course of the festival, everything is temporary.

Wallowing in melancholy is not a Jewish quality, it will get us nowhere. Being in touch with that twinge of pain however, is essential for us to build ourselves up.

Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach!

Partially based on a D'var Torah I heard from a dorm-mate of mine (Etan) during my Yeshivat Hakotel days, and added to with thoughts of my own and others found from other sources.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sukkot - סוכות

In my last D'var Torah, I spoke about Yom Kippur and its connection with Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, it is by no coincidence that the festivals of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (which takes place over one day in Israel but is split over two days in the Diaspora,) fall right next to one another. Upon consideration, it seems a tad strange to be commanded to live in a Sukkah for seven days, and then without a break, without even a day in which to dismantle the Sukkah, we jump right into another festival.

The word Atzeret comes from the Hebrew root עצר, which means stopping. On this day, Jews around the world celebrate finishing the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. But there's a concept in Judaism that seems to directly contradict this term. The concept is that we never stop going; that there's always more work to be done in this world. I'd like to point out that although this idea seems simple, it's very much the opposite of the prevalent custom today. Most people nowadays live a lifestyle that demands hard work so that ultimately, one may take time off. The Jewish concept though, is that up until one's dying day, one remains obligated to perform Mitzot - there's no such thing as time off. There's no such concept as retirement in Judaism - one is obliged to do their best till their dying day.

With this in mind, how can there be a Jewish festival that celebrates the completion of the Torah? The standard answer is cute; that we don't just stop - we start again and read from Parshat B'reishit on the same day. We refuse to wait the normal week to progress to the next Parsha, and instead signal our intent to keep going. This answer certainly proves that though this Torah reading has ended, we don't really stop, but I would like to propose an alternative answer.

A point repeatedly made by various Rabbis over the years is that the number seven in Judaism signifies that which lies in the natural. There are seven notes in the musical scale, seven continents and there are seven days in the week - something that remains remarkably indisputed, despite the fact that there are various calendar systems in use around the world, all agree that there is such a thing as a week and that it has seven days. We also say that there Hashem made seven heavens (hence the expression,) Tefillin are wrapped around the arm seven times and the Menorah in the Bet Hamikdash had seven branches. Additionally, it is said that the world was created with the number seven. The first verse in the Torah deals with the creation of the universe, and contains seven words and twenty-eight letters; a number which happens to divisible by seven!

As such, it is no surprise to say that the seven days of sukkot correspond to the natural world. For seven days we sit outside, exposed to the elements. Therefore, the second Gerer Rebbe writes in his seminal work, the Sfat Emet, that during this time we need the extra defence of the Sukkah. But beyond seven, the number of the physical, of the natural, is the number eight - which is said to represent the spiritual. He explains that the festival of Sukkot is one that "gives life to the whole world." This is alluded to by the fact that we observe Sukkot for an entire week. Similarly, in the times when the Bet Hamikdash stood, 70 bulls were sacrificed - for each of the 70 distinct nations* in the world. Through these sacrifices, the whole world was given nourishment.

On the day after Sukkot we go one level above the physical world and enter into the spiritual domain, so to speak. We call this day Shmini Atzeret, which means the eighth day. After observing Sukkot and giving physical life to the world, we don't waste any time and focus on imbuing the world with the spiritual energy it needs. The question posed at the beginning of this D'var Torah, why Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret are placed next to one another, may now be answered. On Shmini Atzeret, we leave the Sukkot outside because we don't need the protection it affords. That protection is only needed by someone living a physical, natural lifestyle. We learn that Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret have to be placed next to one another to show that when one lives life fully and spiritually, one moves beyond the need for such external protection.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a pleasant Sukkah experience :)

*There is a Torah concept that there are 70 nations in the world. Although there are over 190 countries in existence today, many of these share roots and originate from one people. As such, it's not so absurd to refer the world in terms of "70 nations".

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur - יום כפור

The topic of sound and its place in Judaism is one that I have covered from time to time in my Divrei Torah. Once again, I would like to refer to it in order for us to make more sense of Yom Kippur.

In Judaism, a basic concept in emunah (faith), is that one retains the capacity to listen. For this reason, the most basic sentence that encapsulates the essence of what it is to be Jewish begins with the word שמע, meaning "listen!" By way of contrast, the reigning school of thought in Western society today is one that clashes with this perspective - we are not expected to believe in anything unless it is 100% provable. Judaism requires the patience to listen and piece things together for ourselves, but the modern man all too often finds it hard to listen at all. We are busy, immersed in a hundred different things. We are restless and want things given to us on a plate. Consequently it shouldn't really be much of a surprise that we are often unable to tune into the "קול דממה הדקה" - that silent, still voice inside of each of us.

In a well-noted passage found at the end of Mishnah Masechet Yuma, we read that "אמר רבי עקיבה, אשריכם ישראל, לפני מי אתם מיטהרין ומי מטהר אתכם--אביכם שבשמיים - Rabbi Akiva says: Happy are you, Israel: For before whom are you purified, and who makes you purified? Your father in heaven... "

Upon close examination, we may note that two types of purification, separated by a subtle difference, are hinted at here. First we come across a more passive form of purification, as the verse asks, "before whom are you purified?" Then we come to a more active form: "And who makes you purified?" The distinction is a deep one and could be elaborated upon at length in its own right, but for the purposes of this D'var Torah, it is enough to know that two types of spiritual purification exist; one active and one passive.

On Rosh Hashanah, over 100 hundred blasts of the Shofar are sounded in most synagogues. Thus, the process of teshuvah starts in earnest. But for all its obvious grandeur and clear power, the shofar reduces our role to an almost passive one. On Yom Kippur, though, we hear no shofar blasts at all - at least, not until right at the very end. I think that there is a very deep lesson here. On Yom Kippur, we need no artificial stimulation from tools like the shofar. On Yom Kippur, we raise ourselves to a higher level, the level of angels, and so instead of relying on the voice of the shofar, we are able to listen to our own inner voices.

As such, I believe that it is no coincidence, that we are "treated" to one last shofar blast, right at the end of Yom Kippur. After all our activity in reaching the level whereby we are able to hear our own inner voices, we may then realise that the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah and then the almost total absence of these blasts on Yom Kippur were not antithetical to one another at all. On the contrary, on Yom Kippur, we finally reach the level where we hear our own voices, our own inner shofar blasts, and we hear how they were connected all along. And once we have reached that level, right at the end of the process of spiritual purification, when we hear that final shofar blast, we hear not only an artificial stimulus, but also our own voices at the same time.

Wishing you, and all of Am Yisrael, a good Yom Kippur. May you have a meaningful fast and all your prayers be answered in the only the best way possible.

Collected and adapted from essays by Rav Moshe Dov Kasper, Rav Yaakov Ariel and augmented with some thoughts of my own.

Yom Kippur - A quick insight on Avinu Malkeinu

I saw this posted last year on the Elder of Ziyon blog. Interesting stuff.

For those who read Hebrew, here's something I wasn't aware of - a comparison between the text of Avinu Malkeinu and the weekday Shmoneh Esrei, from here:

הקבלה לשמונה עשרה

אבינו מלכנו מקביל לשמונה עשרה ברכות העמידה ביום חול:

"אבינו מלכנו חננו ועננו" כנגד "חונן הדעת".
"אבינו מלכנו החזירנו בתשובה" כנגד "הרוצה בתשובה".
"אבינו מלכנו סלח ומחל" כנגד "סלח לנו".
"אבינו מלכנו כתבנו בספר גאולה" כנגד "גואל ישראל".
"אבינו מלכנו שלח רפואה" כנגד "רפאנו".
"אבינו מלכנו חודש עלינו שנה טובה" כנגד "ברך עלינו".
"אבינו מלכנו הרם קרן ישראל" כנגד "תקע בשופר".
"אבינו מלכנו בטל מעלינו" כנגד "השיבה שופטנו וכו' והסר ממנו יגון ואנחה".
"אבינו מלכנו כלה כל צר" כנגד "ולמלשינים וכו' שובר אויבים".
"אבינו מלכנו מחוק ברחמיך הרבים" כנגד "על הצדיקים וכו' יהמו נא רחמיך".
"אבינו מלכנו הרם קרן משיחך" כנגד "את צמח דוד וכו' וקרנו תרים".
"אבינו מלכנו הצמח לנו ישועה" כנגד "מצמיח קרן ישועה".
"אבינו מלכנו שמע קולנו" כנגד "שמע קולנו וכו' "שומע תפילה"

מנהגי מהר"י טירנא, ראש השנה; לבוש סי' תקפ"ד א

G'mar chatima tovah 5771 - גמר חתימה טובה

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Rosh Hashanah and Parshat Ha'azinu

This year, as you probably know by now, Rosh Hashanah occurs the two days prior to Shabbat. Due to this phenomenon, I will not be able to post my weekly Parsha thought on Thursday or Friday, and am making a dual entry. In many ways, however, this is actually a positive thing; due to the workings of the Jewish calendar system, Parshat Ha'azinu is always in the weeks around Rosh Hashanah. As such, there are many links between the two - one of which I hope to explore in this D'var Torah.

In a much discussed passage in the Talmud, the Gemara in Eiruvin (13b) declares that, "נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא." Translated (somewhat liberally): "It would have been better for man to have not been created." The reason? The number of 'positive' commandments - those that require action in order to be performed - are outnumbered by 'negative' commandments (which require inactivity and abstinence from specific actions). Therefore, if man had not been created, he would have been able to "fulfil" over half of the Torah's laws just by doing nothing; he would still be able to "perfom" all the negative-based commandments.

However, positive commandments have something over negative commandments. Negative commandments merely require inactivity and withdrawal; for example, one who sleeps for the entire duration of Shabbat is considered as having observed Shabbat to some degree, even though s/he didn't consciously do anything in order to commemorate the day. By way of contrast, positive commandments require phyiscal (and often deliberate) actions - it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which they can be performed without explicitly knowing that they are being done.

What does all this mean for us? The result of all this is the rabbinic dictum: עשה דוחה לא תעשה - Positive commandments are given preference over negative ones. If we don't take care to do them, they will never get done. Over and over again in Judaism, we hear of the two opposing forces that are love of God and fear of God. We are taught that we supposed to both love and fear God, but it is very hard to do both in equal measure. Hopefully here we can shed some light on their relationship and learn something useful for this Rosh Hashanah.

The Ramban attempts to demistify the rule mentioned above by explaining that positive commandments stem from the trait of love for God, while negative commandments are a result of fear of G-d. The difference between love and fear is best understood by considering the relationship children experience with their parents. While a child is young, they only know how to fear their parents. Infants and little children never obey their parents out of love; they obey because they know that they must, or else! But as children grow up, they relationship with their parents change completely. They learn to love their parents, as well. BUt in order to get to that stage, children need to pass through the first stage; they must fear their parents.

So too, we must realise that while love is a very beautiful thing, it needs to have a firm base in reality. It is only when we consider the might and the astonishing, infinite power of God, that we can truly love Him. Without a proper appreciation for God, our love for Him is severely limited. It is clear that the optimal state of affairs for us is to act out of love for God.

With this in mind, we can now return to our relationship with God. It is clear that acting and relating to God with love is very important. But no less important is understanding how important it is for us to treat God with proper respect; for us to realise that His might and power are more than we can ever hope to comprehend. The Torah says at the end of Parshat Ha'azinu:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם, לְכָל-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם: אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם, אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא, מִכֶּם--כִּי-הוּא, חַיֵּיכֶם; וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ. - He said to them: 'Set your hearts upon all the words that I testify against you this day; and with which you may command your children to guard; to do all the words of this law. For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing you shall prolong your days upon the land; you pass over the Jordan to there, to possess it.' (Deuteronomy 32: 46-47)

Note that the Torah describes our acceptance and observance of Torah law as the essence of our life. We have heard this kind of language before, notably last week, when it is claimed in Parshat Nitzavim, "וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ... - You choose life, that you may live; you and your seed. To love Hashem your God..." (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Here, the call to chose life is deliberately placed next to the command to love God. Clearly, love for God is very important... but how can we resolve this with the seemingly greater importance attributed to fear of God?

I think that the answer can be drawn from the puzzle posed at the beginning of the D'var Torah. The Talmud concludes that it would have been better for man to have not been created at all. But that was not all that was concluded. Chazal went on to say that seeing as God did see fit to bring mankind into existence, we now are best served by following the rules of the Torah. As such, although we most certainly do need to aspire to the heights of love for Hashem, we must first learn how to fear Him properly. Over Rosh Hashanah, a lot of our energy goes into expressing realisation of our own lowly status. We spend much of our time concentrating on building up our Yirat Shamayim, our fear of God. But we should remember that this is part of a two-step process. God does not want us to act purely out of fear. Then we would be automatons. Instead, over Rosh Hashanah, we are to draw a direct line between these two seemingly competing aspects of our relationship to God. Only by connecting them together can we then achieve the right attitude and relationship.

Adapted from an essay by Rav Elazar Hager.

Wishing you all a very happy Rosh Hashanah and a restful Shabbat.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Parshiot Nitzavim and Vayelech / פרשיות נצבים-וילך

"אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם--וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ: מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ."
"You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel; Your infants, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water."
(Deuteronomy, 29: 9-10)

This week we read two Parshiot - Nitzavim and Vayelech. Parshat Nitzavim details the end of Moshe's lengthy speech; a speech that spans a good few weeks' readings.

At first glance, the opening words of the first of this week's two parshiot, quoted above, seem straightforward and formulaic enough. The Ohr HaChayaim notes something interesting, however. Drawing on the word kulchem, (all of you) he asks why is it that we then have a list of who all these people are? Surely the phrasing before was enough?

The answer the Ohr HaChayim gives is simple, but has deep ramifications for us, especially at this time of year. It is imperative for us to understand that although we are being judged individually, we are also judged as a unit. As Jews, we have a collective responsibilty. If we look at the list, we see that infants, women and strangers are all listed here. Typically, we regard these groupings of people as ones that are obligated to a lesser extent, if at all, to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah. But here, these groups are mentioned in order to make a clear point about responsibility - no one is excluded.

I was listening to a recording to a shiur by Rebbetzin Heller earlier this week, and she mentioned something that many of us know in our heart of hearts; contemporary judicial systems are totally corrupt. When judging in accordance with Torah law, it is forbidden to judge the person; one must judge only the deed. This sounds obvious, but this concept is not shared in America, England, even here in Israel. Modern law systems refuse to judge the deed alone; they judge the person.

By way of comparison, Torah law dictates that we do not pay attention to personal circumstances; a crime is a crime. (Of course, we find ways to be lenient, but that's something else.) We are forbidden from dealing at the person; there's only dealing at the reality of the facts of the case. All else is extraneous.

Judaism forbids judges from looking at personal circumstance for a very good reason; if it is allowed, law becomes wholly subjective and relativistic. Compare this approach to common law systems and we see that they belie an assumption that we have no right to judge. By backing away from making harsh judgments when necessary, law is not properly upheld. The effect of this is to make law totally subjective.

Coming back to the quote at the beginning of the parsha, I would like to connect the two ideas. There may be instances in life when we are not obliged to act in a certain way, or are required to fulfill certain mitzvot, as is the case with the infants, women and strangers. Nevertheless, despite the supposedly extenuating circumstances, we are never absolved of our responsibilty toward others. The point is an exceptionally powerfui one; even when personally relieved of duties, we are fully responsible for enabling others to do theirs. If other people fail in their goals, we have to ask ourselves why we didn't do more to help them.

Based on a shiur given by Rav Ari Heller of Yeshivat Hakotel.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.