Something you can do to help the situation

בעון נבלות פה צרות רבות וגזירות קשות מתחדשות ובחורי שונאי ישראל מתים יתומים ואלמנות צועקין ואינן נענין שנא’ (ישעיהו ט) על כן על בחוריו לא ישמח ה’

For the sin of vulgar speech many evils and harsh decrees are made anew, and the choicest of … (euphamism ellided) Israel die, and orphans and widows cry and are not answered. As it says, “Therefore over His firstborn Hashem will not rejoice…” (Yeshaiah 9:16).

- Shabbos 33a

Nivul peh, crude speech, calling others derogatory names. Often done without thought or even realizing, but can cause irreperable harm to our unity as a people, and therefore to our protection from the A-lmighty.

(Hat tip to Yehoshua Kahn’s daugher Ayelet.)

The Simplicity of the Shofar

(Hat tip to my daughter Shifra, who made this point the centerpiece of her speech at her bas mitzvah celebration.)Halachically, a shofar must be a simple instrument. If it has a crack or anything that might shape the note, it is invalid. A cow’s horn, which is layered and therefore not a shofar but a shefarferet, is not usable for the mitzvah. It has no keys, no valves, no strings to tune.And yet from an aggadic perspective, the sound of the shofar is quite complex:

  1. We associate the shofar with crying. We blow 100 sounds because Sisera’s mother cried 100 times when learning her son (off to war against the Jews) was killed and would not return. There is a dispute whether the broken sound required by the Torah is more like yelulei yalal (uneven wailing) or genunei ganach (sobbing), so we blow both the teru’ah and the shevarim, as well as the two together as a pair.
  2. The shofar is also a royal sound. “With trumpets and the sound of a shofar, call out before the King. The mishnah describes Hashem as saying, “Call before Me with the blast of the Shofar – to show that you accept of Me as your King.” In the same way they blow trumpets to announce that the king or queen is entering the room, we blow Shofar on Rosh haShanah to announce a new year of Hashem’s rule.
  3. The shofar is used by the army, to alert the troops that it’s time to break camp and go off to war. Similarly, in the desert, they also blew shofar to tell everyone it was time to move each time the Benei Yisrael broke camp. Rav Hirsch explains the shofar of Rosh haShanah similarly. It is a warning to get ready, to stop what we were doing all last year and do something new and better this one.
  4. Then there are the historical reminicences associated with the shofar:
    • The horn of the ram that Avraham found when told not to sacrifice Yitzchaq at the aqeidah.
    • The sound of the shofar heard during the revelation at Mount Sinai.
  5. These might be additional meanings, or they might derive from the previous ones.

We are required that shofar be something that looks simple at first, and yet what it says to us is complicated. A shofar expresses many different emotions at once. If you just look at it without spending real time, you miss the whole thing!

This in itself is an important lesson of the shofar, one critical to prioritizing our lives and to teshuvah: If we rush through life, everything looks trivial. It is only when we take the time to look deeper do we see the real beauty within.

(In addtion Shifra linked this notion to learning a similar lesson while volunteering every Shabbos to help a mother with two autistic sons. Autistic people seem like they are in their own worlds, not feeling much, not relating to the rest of us. Only if you take the time to see through the shell to the child trapped inside can you get to know them and the beauty of their souls.)

Coronating G-d, part II — Pragmatics

I was recently discussing the ideas in my essay “Coronating G-d“. In it I utilized the Vilna Gaon’s distinction between a melekh (king) and a mosheil. A melekh rules with the support of his people, a mosheil rules by strength. I suggested that the reason why accepting Hashem as Melekh is such a central part of Rosh haShanah is that a Melekh has more room for mercy. By accepting Him as king ourselves, we enter the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah without the need for Hashem to impose His Will despite us.The person I was talking to asked what should have been an obvious question. “Okay, so how do we go about doing that?” And I surprised myself by realizing I didn’t know. How can I have ever said Shema, a tefillah described as qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim (accepting the yoke of [the One in] heaven), and not know what it is I’m supposed to be doing?

So, I put some thought to the subject.

Looking at Shema, we start by joining the community of Jewish (Shema Yisrael), and then proclaiming that despite our disparate perceptions of Him, Hashem is one and unique. This is an awareness of G-d’s uniqueness and power. True of a melekh or a mosheil, although here we’re actively acknowledging it. We accept the fact of Hashem’s rule.

And then, before the list of pragmatic mitzvos for keeping this message an active part of our day, we are told to “Love Hashem with all your heart (kol levavekha), all your soul, and all your resources.” Willingly bowing to that rule. This is the step of which we’re speaking, the shift from realizing Hashem is Mosheil to accepting Him as our Melekh.

Chazal comment (and quoted by Rashi) perhaps on the word “kol”, perhaps on the use of the two-veis word for heart “levavekha” rather than “libekha”, that this is with both of our inclinations — our good inclination and our evil one.

… veyishtachavu lefanekha kol haberu’im,
veyei’asu kulam agudah achas la’asos Retzonekh beleivav shaleim,
kemo sheyadanu, H’ E-lokeinu, shehashalton/shehashilton lefanekha…

… and all those who were created will bow before you, and they will all be made into a single union to do Your Will with a whole heart. For as we know, Hashem our G-d, that the rule/scepter is before You…

- Amidah for Yamim Nora’im

Bowing before Hashem because we acknowledge His rule is obvious. However, note again that this global union of worship is “with the whole heart”, a two-veis heart. Both inclinations. This to is because we know that He rules. But how does that cause us to engage our baser inclinations?

On Shabbos we say, “Yismekhu beMalkhusekha shomerei Shabbos veqor’ei oneg… — They shall rejoice in Your Kingship, those who keep Shabbos and call it pleasure..” It’s not enough to keep Shabbos. To be happily a subject of Hashem as King, we must find it an oneg, a pleasure.

It would seem that qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim involves accepting the idea that following His plan is what is best for you life. Not just fulfilling the mitzvos, but seeking to do so beleivav shaleim and with qeri’as oneg.

How does one do it? I must start with the first mitzvah that I don’t do and think I can. And with the first mitzvah I do begrudgingly and search the sources and the experiences it brings me to find its beauty. Then the second…

That is working toward the day when our teshuvah is rewarded, and “vehayah Hashem leMelekh al kol ha’aretz — Hashem will be Melekh over the whole world.” Bimheirah beyameinu, amein!

Anu ma’amirekha ve’Atah ma’amireinu

Anu ma’amirekha ve’Atah ma’amireinu. Artscroll renders this line from the machzor as referring to we as Hashem’s designated, and Him as our designator.I would like to suggest a different translation. The mishnah says that Hashem created the world with “eser ma’maros — ten utterances”. Ma’amar means utterances, and in particular, Chazal associate it with the ten statements through which Hashem created the world. Existence is words. The Ba’al Shem Tov stresses that the idea is speech, not writing. Texts are written, and then continue to exist afterward. Spoken words exist as long as they are being spoken. For light to exist now, it means that Hashem is still saying the words “yehi or” even today. The words themselves are the phenomenon we call light.

I therefore believe the relationship described is “We are your statement, and You are the One Who speaks us.”

Mi Keil Kamokha

In Tomer Devorah, Rav Moshe Cordevero explains the 13 attributes of Divine Mercy, in particular showing them as exemplars for us to follow — “just as I Am Merciful, so too you be merciful.” Rather than following the original revelation of these attributes in seifer Shemos, he uses the version in seifer Mikhah (7:18-20) which we say during tashlikh, and begins “Mi Keil Kamokha — Who could be Divine like You…”Picture a father determined to teach his son how to pitch a baseball. This boy starts picking up the basic skill when he develops anger toward his father, or perhaps simply gets so caught up in pitching that he altogether forgets his father is there. And so, each time the father returns the ball, the son throws the ball powerfully, right at his father. The father overlooks the offence once, twice… but how many times would he continue returning the ball just for it to be used as a weapon against him?Hashem sustains existence. We are here in this moment, with the energy to act and the wisdom to plan my actions because of His Mercy. When someone sins, he is using the very existence and power Hashem granted him to violate Hashem’s Will. And yet, He gives us another opportunity again, and again, and again.This, the Tomer Devorah tells us, is the meaning of “Mi Keil Kamokha…” To have the patience to carry someone even while they offend you, to wait for someone to realize their foolishness.Perhaps this is the motivation for the prohibition “ko siqom – do not take revenge”. Punishment for the sole sake of revenge can be pointless; it is only when punishment is instructional that it become constructive. Anger and impatience are usually not the path to the resolution of the problem, but rather convince us to stop traveling the road before we get there.

Ge’ulah and Accepting Hashem as King

(Significantly expanded May 6th.)

When someone hears bad news, such as a death, the gemara (Pesachim 50a) tells them to say the berakhah of “Dayan haEmes“. This phrase is often translated “the True Judge” as though it were a noun-adjective pair. But that would have a hei hayedi’ah (a leading “ha-” prefix meaning “the”) on both words. If “emes” were an adjective, it would be “haDayan haEmes“, figuring that “amiti” is a newer construction for “true” as an adjective than the berakhah. (Or perhaps the commonly said “Dayan Emes“, but that might have the heretical implication ch”v that Hashem is “a”, not the only, true Judge.)

Here, the form is that of a semichut (literally: attached form), used to mean “the A of B”. Such as Benei Yisrael, the Children of Israel. This form takes the hei hayedi’ah on only on the second word. A head of Pharoah’s executioners would be “sar tabachim”, but in Bereishis 39:1 the head is called “sar hatabachim” — prefix only on the second word. This is possibly because the noun doesn’t require more specification than being told it’s of something else. In English we say “the Children of Israel”, but in Hebrew it would appear that since the children are being specified as being Israel’s, we don’t need a “the”.

In any case, “Dayan haemes“, being a semichut, would mean “the Judge of Truth”. Semantically, one is accepting the tragedy as an expression of His Justice (which is true), the other is an acknowledgment that Hashem is the One Who judges which truths to reveal, and which to keep hidden from us. I therefore prefer “Dayan ha’Emes“, which acknowledges the reality that I am not capable of coming to terms with the death, even if I intellectually know in theory that He has good reasons. Aside from it simply being more correct since it’s the original form as found in the gemara.

Rav Hutner gives a related thought, that I was holding on to to use closer to Rosh haShanah. But I found that Kollel Iyun haDaf (no name given, I’m guessing it’s from the Rosh Kollel, R’ Mordechai Kornfeld) did a better job than what I had started doing last Elul. So, rather than hold onto it. I will just share the relevant part of the kollel’s Insights into the Daf email for Rosh haShanah 32b.

THE ACCEPTANCE OF HASHEM’S KINGSHIP ON ROSH HASHANAH

QUESTION: The Gemara discusses a dispute whether the verse, “Shema Yisrael Hashem E-lokeinu Hashem Echad,” is considered a verse of Malchiyos such that it counts as one of the ten verses which must be recited in the Musaf Shemoneh Esreh of Rosh Hashanah.

RAV YITZCHAK HUTNERzt”l (in PACHAD YITZCHAK, Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amar 11) asks that the Gemara earlier (32a) says that “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” is the source for reciting verses of Malchiyos. Why, then, is there any argument whether the verse of Shema Yisrael counts as an expression of Malchiyos? The words “Hashem E-lokeinu” in the verse of Shema Yisrael should be the ideal expression of Malchiyos, because the verse of “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” is the undisputed source for Malchiyos!

Conversely, when one recites Keri’as Shema he must recite the verse in its entirety, including the words “Hashem Echad,” in order to properly fulfill the Mitzvah to accept Hashem’s Kingship upon oneself. If he omits the words “Hashem Echad,” he has not properly expressed his acceptance of Hashem’s Kingship; the words “Hashem E-lokeinu” are not sufficient. Why, then, is “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” a valid source for reciting Malchiyos if those words do not fully express Hashem’s Kingship?

Another difference exists between the acceptance of Malchus Shamayim of Keri’as Shema and the acceptance of Malchus Shamayim in the blessing of Malchiyos on Rosh Hashanah. In Keri’as Shema, one accepts upon himself the Kingship of Hashem with an emphasis on the love of Hashem, “v’Ahavta Es Hashem.” On Rosh Hashanah, in contrast, one accepts upon himself the Kingship of Hashem with an emphasis on the fear of Hashem (as Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the “Yamim Nora’im,” the Days of Awe). What is the basis for this difference?

ANSWER: RAV HUTNERzt”l cites the words of Rashi on the verse of Shema Yisrael. Rashi explains that the verse means, “Listen, O Israel: Hashem, Who is our G-d now in this world, will be One G-d [accepted by all people] in the World to Come.” This principle is expressed in the Gemara in Pesachim (50a) which says that in this world Hashem is not recognized by all as One. The Gemara adds that in this world man does not recognize the singular goodness behind all that happens. Consequently, in this world a person recites one blessing for bad tidings (“Dayan ha’Emes“) and a different blessing for good tidings (“ha’Tov veha’Metiv“). Times of suffering appear to be times of strict judgment and punishment, while times of prosperity appear to be times of mercy and goodness. Olam ha’Ba will be different; there, one will recite one blessing, “ha’Tov veha’Metiv,” on all that happens, because “on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One” (Zecharyah 14:9). (See Insights to Pesachim 50a.)

Rav Hutner explains that man’s mission on Rosh Hashanah is to accept Hashem as King in this world according to the limits of his perception in this world. A person in this world cannot fathom the concept of Hashem’s Kingship the way it will be revealed in the World to Come when “Hashem will be One and His Name will be One.” In this world, we do not see Hashem as Echad, but rather as both “Dayan ha’Emes” and “ha’Tov veha’Metiv.” Therefore, when we accept upon ourselves Hashem’s sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah, we must do so with the expression of “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” — without the additional “Hashem Echad” — “Hashem is One.” This verse expresses the way we perceive Hashem as King in this world. The acceptance of Hashem as King the way He will be perceived in the future is not part of our present experience, and thus such an acceptance cannot comprise a full-hearted acceptance of Malchus Shamayim.

In contrast, in our acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty in Keri’as Shema, we proclaim our belief in the way Hashem will be recognized in the future when His true Oneness will be revealed to and perceived by all. Accordingly, one does not fulfill his obligation properly if he recites Shema Yisrael without the words “Hashem Echad,” for he omits the essential component of the future acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty, that Hashem will be recognized as One. On Rosh Hashanah, however, these words are not an ideal expression of the this-worldly Kingship of Hashem which we proclaim in Malchiyos. (Even though the verse “Shema Yisrael” also contains the words “Hashem E-lokeinu,” that phrase is not the main point of the verse and thus “Shema Yisrael” does not count as a verse of Malchiyos. Alternatively, the phrase “Hashem E-lokeinu” in the verse is not an expression of our acceptance of Hashem as King, but it is a statement of fact: “Hashem, Who right now is our G-d….” In order to be considered a verse of Malchiyos, the verse must contain an acceptance of Hashem as King and not merely be a statement of the fact that Hashem is our G-d. See PACHAD YITZCHAK, ibid. #22.)

This also explains the emphasis in Keri’as Shema on the love of Hashem (“v’Ahavta“). Keri’as Shema refers to the time in the future when we will perceive Hashem as “ha’Tov veha’Metiv” and we will be drawn to Hashem through our love for Him. In this world, in contrast, when we accept Hashem as our King as we perceive Him now — as the judge of mankind, “Dayan ha’Emes,” and as “ha’Tov veha’Metiv” — we accept His Kingship through an expression of awe and fear.

Rav Hutner sees the split in our perception of Hashem between “Dayan haEmes” and “Tov uMetiv” as being a consequence of what we have been identifying with the casting down of Truth for the creation of man. And thus resolved in the World to Come.

We see something similar in the opening chapters of the Chumash. In chapter 1, describing the creation of the world, man appears only as the pinnacle of that process. And G-d is called simply “E-lokim”. When the Torah switches in chapter 2 to tell the story of the creation of man as a decision-maker, with a mental life of his own, He is described as “Hashem E-lokim“. A split but integrated perception of G-d. (I wrote on this topic in the Mesukim miDevash for Parashas Bereishis.) After the first sin, the names start being used alone, with some exceptions, which call for treatment. Notably, in the Merkavah, beyond the olam – elem, Yechezqeil haNavi speaks to “Hashem E-lokim” (albeit spelled A-dny Y-HV-H).

As Rav Hutner writes, history progresses until ge’ulah. “On that day, Hashem will be one, and His name will be one.”

Returning to our opening gemara, R’ Achar bar Chanina says that on that day there will only be one berakhah. We would understand the Truth, and there would be no unpleasant news. On all events we will bless haTov vehaMeitiv — that Hashem is “Good and the Bestower of good”. Similarly, Rav Nachman writes that we will no longer need to use the name Ad-nai where the quote has the tetragrammaton. The four letter name, representing Divine Mercy, will not be occluded by the tragedies of history, and can be said with proper comprehension.

9/11 and How to Effect Permanent Change

(Significantly expanded in response to writing on the subject for Yashar, the magazine of The Mussar Institute. -micha)
I

The most powerful High Holidays experience of my life was eight years ago. A week before I went to an office from which one could still see the World Trace Center. By that Rosh haShanah I hadn’t yet returned to work after the nightmare of the attack a few blocks away. The charley horse from walking down 42 flights of stairs and up several miles of Manhattan had faded, and my ash-covered clothes long since went into the trash. I had a hacking cough, my lungs trying to get rid of the burnt airplane fuel, building, and human suffering that was forced into them. My life’s stride was broken, and I hadn’t yet found it again.

Remember how we said the poem “Unsaneh Toqef” that year? “Let us give consideration to the holiness of the day, for it is awe-inspiring and fearful…” That year, who could say “Who will live and who will die? … Who in chaos? Who in fire? … Who by suffocation and who by falling or hurtling?” The chaos came alive in my mind. The floor shaking beneath me from the wave of noise. The ball of fire, the bits of metal falling to the street like confetti. The cloud of smoke that rushed at us as we were trapped on the southern tip of the island. And the bits of falling debris that hid within it. The sight of those “windows” that fell from the buildings, that I realized a moment later in horror weren’t windows.

The notion that our lives literally were in the “Hands” of the Almighty was very real and etched in the core of our beings. That Rosh haShanah, I didn’t need to hear the shofar to be woken up to repent. The thunder of falling buildings, the cries of Wall Street workers suddenly frightened, had already pierced my shell. And it wasn’t just me or those of us who were there. The entire country –  the world — we were all awoken from our comfortable and sometimes petty routines.

And in the following months, you stopped on the road to help a stranger stranded on the side, regardless of their ethnicity. We all proudly flew our flags in a show of unity. Even the dynamics and unity with our community of American Jews was markedly stronger. But now? The flag got dirty and faded into a grey, sky blue and pink, and was taken down, not replaced. And if the fellow on the shoulder of the road is identifiably Jewish, and I have time, or if it’s not a stretch of highway frequented by many other Jews who might have pity on him… then I would stop to give him a hand.

There is a pasuq in Devarim which reads “The ‘Eyes’ of G-d are on [the Land of Israel] from reishis hashanah ad acharis shanah — the beginning of the year until the end of a year.” The Satmar Rav points out the asymmetry; first the use of “hashanah”, “the year”, but it closes with just “shanah”, “a year”.

The Yismach Moshe notes that unfortunately that is the way with most of us. Every year, when it begins, we are all excited and determined. “This is going to be THE year!” The year I finally have the patience my children deserve, the year I get to synagogue regularly, the year… But the year goes by, and by the end, it’s just “a year”, another span on the calendar.

In VaYoel Moshe, the Satmar Rav adds that this can be read in the words nusach Sfard quotes at the conclusion of Qedushah, “hein ga’alti eschem acharis kereishis — here I [G-d] will redeem you in the end [of our history] as in the beginning [i.e. in Egypt]“. Hashem will redeem a people for whom “the end is like the beginning”. When we can end the year with the same determination to be better as we had when we began it, we will have merited the redemption.

So we return to my in synagogue, crying in my seat.  I swore to myself — “Who will live and who will die?” Me. I will live because I will die. This is the year, finally, the one where I turn over that new leaf, when the old me departs and the person I want to be will be born.

And then we leap ahead to a year later, as Rosh haShanah again approached. I looked over my spiritual accounting for the year and I saw something very depressing. My list of things to commit to working on didn’t differ all that much from one made in 2001 after all. In general, the list of things I wish to do teshuvah [repent] for one year closely resembles the changes I promised myself the year before.

What happened? Why couldn’t we hold onto that feeling? (Ironically, I ask myself that question annually as well!)

II

My son and I went on a trip to Northern Israel  at the end of the Lebanon II war. We brought food and supplies to Tzefat’s poor and to our soldiers at and heading to the front, and we also stopped by Chaifa and the Rambam Hospital. There we met Yechiel ben Zoharah. Yechiel left his bunker, unaware that they were actually situated north of Hezbollah trenches. He was shot from behind, with shrapnel destroying much of his liver, part of his right lung (which the intial bullet went through as well), and his right shoulder. He was waiting for the other wounds to heal sufficiently for him to be up to reconstructive surgery on the shoulder. And yes, he is a righty.

What made him stick out in my mind was something he did when it wasn’t war-time. There are people capable of a moment of bravery, being in the line of fire to save another. It is a different skill (not greater or lesser, just different) to be able to live “heroically” for long stretches of time.

Yechiel lived alone, working the land and building at a spot near the Kineret for a year. I unfortunately forgot the name of the town in the Golan, at nearly 50 families, that he build around his efforts. (And of course, he had to brag about his daughter, who since turned 1.)

What we try to do most Rashei haShanah is closer to the moment of heroism. We think of teshuvah in terms of being at a new place by the end of Yom Kippur.

Rav AY Kook describes two ways of doing teshuvah (Orot haTeshuvah ch 2). The first is sudden, “coming from some kind of spiritual thunder that centers the soul. In one moment he recognizes the evil and disgustingness of sin, and turns into a new person…. This sort of teshuvah comes from some influence of inner gift, by some great spiritual influence, that it’s worthy to seek its roots in the deepest of mysteries…. The higher teshuvah comes from the thunder of universal good, the Divine Good which underlies all the worlds….”

The second sort of teshuvah is gradual. “He feels that he must progress and improve his ways and his lifestyle, his desires, his thought patterns. In his travels on this path he conquers, bit by bit, the ways of righteousness, repairs his middos, improves his actions, teaches himself how to become more and more proper until he reaches the pinnacle of brightness and repair.”

The first luchos, “G-d’s manufacture they were, and the writing was G-d’s writing” (Shemos 32:16). They were a “thunder from heaven”, spirituality as a gift from the A-lmighty. As something unearned, there was no guarantee that they could be kept.

The Benei Yisrael sought to maintain this lofty experience; they had a need for further inspiration that could not await Moshe’s return. They built the calf, and it all unraveled. That which was quickly gained was just as quickly lost.

For the second luchos, Moshe is told to “quarry for yourself two stone tablets like the first” (ibid 34:1). Man must take the first step. This is the gradual, incremental path. It’s not a thunderous gift from Hashem, it is a call to which Hashem responds. He “will write on the luchos the ideas that were on the first luchos” (v. 2). But man must invest the effort.

Perhaps we can say that the first sort of teshuvah is embodied by the pasuqHashiveinu Hashem eilekha venashuvah – Hashem, bring us close to You, and we will return.” (Eikhah 5:21) Hashem taking the first step. The second, harder but more likely to be permanent teshuvah is “Shuvah eilai ve’ashuvah aleikhem – return to Me, and I will return to you.” (Malakhi 3:7) We take the initiative, and Hashem promises to respond.

The kind of rapid change we typically aspire for over Aseres Yemei Teshuvah is similar to that Rav Kook compares to the first luchos. It is rapid, because it is gifted from G-d. But it is much harder to keep permanent.

Buried under the all the rubble of 9/11 was a gift, an environment that called upon us to grow as people. But like the first tablets, it didn’t come from within. As the world slowly returned to something more like (although never again the same) it was before, so did we lose much (but not all) of that personal growth.

III

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students: There are two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung, and another on the 10th, which one is higher?

The book where I saw this thought doesn’t record his students’ answers. I assume some recognized it as a trick question, and answered that it was the one on the fourth, some answered the 10th figuring the rebbe was leading them somewhere, and others were silent. But the rebbe’s answer was succinct, “It depends who is climbing the ladder, and who is going down.”

Once I told the story, the idea is familiar. The idea of spirituality is not where you are, as that is largely a function of forces beyond your control (your upbringing, your genetics, etc…) Rather, it’s the direction you’re heading in, and how rapidly you’re getting there. To apply a notion from Kierkegaard, it’s not about being a good Jew, it’s about the process of becoming one. The journey, not the destination, is what matters.

Holiness is measured by our engagement in becoming, so why do we think of teshuvah, repentance, in terms of who to be by Yom Kippur? My dream of having “the year” was my deciding to be someone new. Teshuvah as motion, getting from point A to the desired point B. Fighting motion is always inertia, and this dream was really my expecting to shift that on the proverbial dime. Expecting sudden relocation to get to that point B is as unreliable as setting oneself a destination without planning the journey.

A different metaphor: teshuvah as acceleration – changing the direction and speed we’re taking in our lives, changing the course of life’s journey to aim for that “point B”, rather than simply expecting to leap there. Not “getting there” by Yom Kippur, but turning to head toward the right direction, and taking more effort to pick up speed.

We must realize that “the work is long”, that the entire year will be one in which we will need to slowly, incrementally, work toward our goals.

The goal to set for the season is that by the end of Yom Kippur we have a plan for that year’s growth, and are more engaged in the process of change. It is a time for gathering the means to implement holiness in our lives, and for starting to use them. Through such efforts, we will hopefully look back on this year as “the year” even as it comes to an end.

Through such efforts, we can hopefully look back on this year as “the year” even as it ends.

(PS: With the Satmar Rav and Rav Kook quoted within paragraphs of each other, this is probably my most eclectic blog posting yet!)

Finding the Means to Return to Your Ideal You

Many thanks to Jon Baker for recording my talk before selichos at the Yavneh Minyan last motza’ei Shabbos.

The material:

  • An audio recording is here.
  • And here is the handout. The first two pages were the topic of the opening of the talk, about the Rambam’s two kinds of vidui. The second sheet contains quotes from Mesilas Yesharim discussing the value of keeping a cheshbon hanefesh (an account-ledger of the soul).

He also took some pictures, so for those who are wondering what I look like (and my parents, who are like most parents and enjoy pictures of their children; you’ll notice I point out four of my children, below):

Some scenes of the audience, but I am only naming the people I know:


Middle row (L to R): Zack, Rafi and Aishey Berger
Back row, right: Gavi Berger (behind Rafi you can see my mother’s shoulder)

You can partially see my father at the right end of the window.

The happy bearded fellow is Saul Guberman, a member of AishDas’s e-vaad and one of Areivim’s moderators

Memories of His Child Ephraim

(My first attempt at this post was seriously flawed, both typographically and in flow. This is a significant reworking. If you have ideas for further improvement, they’re eagerly invited.)

I

Why is it that we established the custom to read the Torah once annually from Shemini Atzeres to Shemini Atzeres, thereby turning the second day of Shemini Atzeres (the only day, in Israel) into Simchas Torah? What’s the connection between completing the Torah and Shemini Atzeres in particular?

Second, Rosh haShanah is called “Yom haZikaron“, or “Yom Zikhron Teru’ah” (the Day of Remembrance, or the Day of Remembrance of the Broken Shofar Cry). At of the three berakhos that make up the heart of the Rosh haShanah Mussaf, Zikhronos is the longest. But what do we mean when we praise Hashem for remembering? What does He remember? For that matter, what does “memory” mean when speaking of the One Who created time, rather than a person who lives within its flow?When a person remembers, his brain is reliving now something that happened in the past. For Hashem, though, there is no first-hand experience of time, no “now” and no “past”. What then does Zikhronos mean?

I assume you’re now wondering a third question — what do the previous two questions have to do with each other?

II

When we look at the Jewish Year, we find the holidays mentioned in the Tanakh are grouped around two seasons: fall and spring. In the fall, we have the Yamim Nora’im, Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres. In the spring: Purim, Pesach and Shavu’os. The gemara compares Purim and the holiday the Torah calls “Yom haKippurim“. It also compares Pesach and Shavuos, learning many laws from one to the other on the basis of a gezeira shava (comparison due to similar terminology) because both are placed on the 15th of the month. And Shavuos is called by our sages “Atzeres“, a parallel to Shemini Atzeres.

Purim commemorates the completion of the process that began on Shavuos. On Shavuos, we accepted the Torah because “He held over them the mountain like a barrel”, Hashem threatening to crush the Jewish people if they would decline. This situation lasted all through the prophetic period, where sin often had supernatural consequences. It’s only after G-d “Hides his ‘Face’” on Purim, acting while hiding through nature, that “qiymu vekiblu haYehudim“, the loyalty to the Torah took on a higher level. (And the centrality of willing acceptance by the Jewish People is also why Purim had to be rabbinic, from us, rather than decreed by Hashem.)

And so, given those pieces of the structure of the year, I would expect reflections of Shemini Atzeres to illuminate our understanding of the Yamim Nora’im, as there should be a connection between them similar to that between Shavu’os and Purim.

On each day of Sukkos there is a different number of bulls offered in the mussaf offering. On the first day, 13 bulls; the second day, 12, and so on until on the 7th day 7 were brought. All together, 70 bulls. The gemara (Sukkah 55b) teaches that these 70 bulls are one each for the 70 nations of the world. The medrash (Yalkut Shim’oni, Bamidbar 684) references Tehillim “Instead of My love — they hated Me.” (109:4) “R’ Yehudah said, ‘How foolish are the nations! They lost something, and they don’t even know what it is they lost! When the Beis haMiqdash stood, the mizbei’ach would bring them forgiveness.” — Through these 70 bulls — “Now – who will bring them forgiveness?”

And then on Shemini Atzeres, one bull. An offering for the Jewish People. “This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who said to his servants:, ‘prepare for me a great banquet.’ On the final day he said to his beloved, ‘prepare for me a small meal so I may enjoy your [company].’” (Sukkah 55a)

The connection between Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah is that expressed in the berakhah said before studying Torah. When the gemara asks what that berakhah should be, Rav Hamnunah’s answer, “asher bakhar banu mikol ha’amim venasan lanu es Toraso… — Who has chosen us from all the nations and given us His Torah… who gives the Torah” is called the elite of the various suggestions.

Shemini Atzeres, the one day at the end of the fall holiday series dedicated to the special relationship between G-d and the Jewish People is therefore also the day of commemorating that He gave us the Torah.” To be “the Chosen People” is to be the “benei beris“, people of the covenant.

And, as I wrote, that implies that we should expect the notion of covenant to be central to the Yamim Nora’im as well.

III

The Zohar writes, “‘אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם’ (Bereishis 22:11) has a pesiq [a pausal trop mark “׀”] between the two names, whereas ‘מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה’ (Shemos 3:4) has no break.” When Hashem calls Avraham at the Aqeida He uses Avraham’s name twice and there is a mark there telling us there is a pause, in how we read it. When Moshe is called, also with a doubling of his name, as the Burning Bush, there is no pause. What is this distinction the Zohar is drawing our attention to?

Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ru’ach Chaim 1:1) answers this question using a description from the gemara. In Yevamos 49b, the prophecy of most prophets is compared to seeing through a cloudy lens or mirror (aspaqlaria shei’na mei’ra), but Moshe’s prophecy was through a clear lens or mirror (aspaqlaria hame’ira). Even the prophets have a layer of physicality which clouds up their view, which divides our souls into a higher level that is more aware of the Divine and a lower level that lives in a body. For most of us, our consciousness stays with our lower selves. A prophet can sometimes “see” from the perspective of the higher soul above that barrier. But it’s a cloudy vision. Moshe entirely lacked that barrier. He had only one self.

Rav Chaim explains that for all his greatness, Avraham too experienced that split. Therefore Hashem calls two Avraham’s – the one where his awareness resides, and the higher soul in heaven. Moshe’s call lacks that “pesiq”, that pausal line, representing a lack of barrier, a unity of the lower “Moshe” and the upper one.

At the moment a person is first born, he is pretty much all potential. Everything that baby will accomplish in life lies before him. He didn’t yet build that line, that gap between who he is and who Hashem created him capable of becoming.

IV

The contents of birkhas Zikhronos doesn’t describe a memory of the past, it describes remembering for the future. “You remember all the actions of the world… And upon the nations, it is sentenced: which to the sword, and which for peace….” The berakhah continues asking Hashem to remember us the way He remembered Noach, “and also Noach you remembered in love, and You appointed him in a statement of salvation and compassion…” And then citing the pasuq, “And G-d remembered Noach and all the living things and all the animals with him in the ark, and Hashem made a wind pass over the earth, and the water subsided.”

The other nine verse of Zikhronos are also about Hashem remembering his covenants with us. More so, His remembering that which He found in us making us worthy of the covenants. Among them:

“And G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchaq, and with Ya’aqov.”

“And I will remember My covenant of Yaaqov, and also My covenant of Yitzchaq, and also my covenant of Avraham I will remember, and I will remember the land.”

“He gave food to those who are in awe of Him, and He always will remember His covenant.”

“Go our and call in the ears of Jerusalem to say, ‘So says Hashem: I remembered for you the lovingkindnesses of your youth, the love of your wedding, your walking behind Me in the wilderness, in the unfarmed lands.”

“I remembered my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I established with you an eternal covenant.”

And finally, “My dear child Ephraim, isn’t he a delightful child? For often I speak about him, I will remember him still…”

Yahadus has a focus on the notion of beris, of a covenant where two parties join together for their common good. (Unlike a contract, where each is aided in their own good in exchange for helping the other.) Man is redeemed through the covenent, through joining together with other and with G-d to work for a good that is greater than Himself.

Teshuvah on our part is critical. But Hashem controls the situations we face. Whether we live in a world that poses challenges to our efforts or makes them easier.

Just as Shemini Atzeres, the day of celebrating our chosenness as a people, naturally became Simchas Torah, the day we celebrate the covenant, the mission for which we were chosen. Zikhronos is a call to remember the person who entered the beris, the person for whom hopes were so high. But since we are speaking of the Creator, when say the word “Zokheir” we really mean “acting in a manner that, if done by a person, would be interepreted as being driven by memory”. When we ask Hashem to “remember”, we’re asking Him to help us reignite the plans we made together.

Zikhronos is G-d remembering our potential, and from that, His plans for us. As it closes “… Zokheir haberis – Blessed are You .. the Rememberer of [or Who Remembers] the Covenant.”  It is our calling out to Hashem to invoke that beris. To remember the “delightful child” He created us as, and to make that potential manifest.

We can use this idea to enhance the notion of teshuvah – which literally translates to “return”. Not only is it a person’s return to Hashem, it’s a person’s reapproachment to the person Hashem created him to be, and the role for which He was created.

This  is the “dear child Ephraim” of the berakhah of Zikhronos.

Selichah, Mechilah, Kapparah, Yir’ah and Simchah

Caveat: Most of these entries are extrapolations from something I learned. In this case, the entry is a chidush on top of an earlier chidush.

In Mesilas Yesharim ch. 24, the Ramchal describes the various types of yir’ah (awe / fear). This is the topic of an earlier entry. To quote:

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively….

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven. This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it is a fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself])….

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition of “yir’ah“) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Note that as the Ramchal progresses, the translation for yir’ah as “fear” becomes steadily less compelling, and that of “awe”, or acting with “awareness of the magnitude of what one is engaging in”, seem more appropriate….

In Vidui, we ask for three things: selichah, mechilah and kaparah. (According to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch these are in descending order — selichah is full repair of the sin, whereas kaparah is the containment of its punishment. I would like to suggest an explanation of the terms consistent with the Avudraham’s position that they are an ascending sequence.)

According to the Avudraham, selichah is being pardoned from any due punishment. This may also be the meaning of “veHashem yislach lah – and Hashem will forgive her” of her vow (Bamidbar 30:6,9,13), where the vow being annulled has not been violated. It is the release from a debt or responsibility.

Mechilah is forgiveness. There are no ill feelings remaining from the act. As Rashi writes (teshuvah #245), ““If he hugged him and kissed him, there is no mechilah greater than this.” The same idea is echoed by the Chasam Sofer (Derashos, Shabbos Shuvah). We do not obtain forgiveness from Hashem for sins done against another without first trying to obtain mechilah from the person offended. However, the Chasam Sofer writes, “In the time when the Beis haMiqdash stood, we do not find that there was an obligation for every Jew to seek mechilah from his friend on erev Yom Kippur. For it is the nature of the qorbanos to bring the hearts of men closer, and to make peace among them on their own.”

Kaparah is from the same root as “kapores“, the cover of the Aron, the “kofer“, pitch, used to cover wood for waterproofing, and the cover of “kefor“, frost, atop the manna (Shemos 16:14). And thus the preposition usually used with it is “al” (on), as we shall see, as it is also in the descriptions of kaparah through qorban in Vayiqra, 4:20, 26, 31, etc…. For whatever it’s worth, the cognate in arabic is /gfr/ which refers to covering or hiding. (This translation is that of the Ibn Ezra and Ramban, but not necessarily that of Rashi. See their respective commentaries on Bereishis 32:22, where Yaaqov’s appeasement gift to Esav is intended so that “akhaperah panav“. Also Rashi on 1:10. With thanks to R’ Avi Fertig for this last citation which pushed me to find the other rishonim.)

I would therefore suggest that kaparah is the containment of the inclination that led to the sin. This also explains the verse “Ki bayom hazeh yechapeir aleichem litaher eschem mikol chatoseichim, lifnei Hashem titeharu — for on this day, it will provide kaparah upon you to make you tahor, before Hashem you will become tahor” links kapparah to taharah. Taharah, purity (as in the “zahav tahor“, pure gold, of the menorah), is freedom from adulterations, negative habits inculcated into the soul. (See my earlier entry on the subject of taharah.) Kaparah, then is a prior step, their containment. Beyond pardon from punishment and restoration of the relationship, but starting the healing of the very self.

These three stages parallel the three types of yir’ah described above.

Selichah, pardon from punishment, is a resolution of the sinner’s yir’as ha’onesh (fear of punishment).

Someone with yir’as hacheit, who values His relationship with the Creator, is concerned with the impact of his actions on that relationship. That concern is resolved through mechilah, a restoration of that relationship.

Kaparah, by containing the cause of the sin, isolating off the personal flaw, is a step toward closing that gap between my finite self and the romemus, the greatness of the Almighty. From that kaparah, one can become a person with a healthier relationship with Hashem and with others, and from there all his debts to them would naturally be pardoned.

Teshuvah can thus be described as a return to Yir’ah.

This thought might explain why the last mishnah in Ta’anis includes Yom Kippur when it says, “There were no more joyous days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the Fifteenth of Av.” Returning back to that essay on yir’ah, there I compared the Ramchal’s yir’as hacheit (fear of sin) to Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan’s definition of yir’ah in BeIqvos haYirah (tr. R YG Bechhofer):

… To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance… It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy… {It is clear from the original Hebrew that this is a reference to the rods that held the boards together to make the walls of the Tabernacle. -mb} [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

Awareness of magnitude brings more weight to the event. It’s the difference between the joy of dancing at a siyum and that of dancing at wedding, or dancing at a friend’s wedding and dancing at one’s daughter’s. Because the wedding is so momentous, the joy is that much more intense. To return to R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan’s metaphor, the depth of my love for my son adds to the joy of dancing with him. Without the yir’ah, the awareness of what a big thing it is to put one’s son atop one’s shoulders, the joy wouldn’t be there.

Yom Kippur is a day of returning to yir’as Shamayim. And thus, a day on which we realize the depth of the gifts we receive, the accomplishments we have, and even begin to see meaning on the tribulations in our life. A day of joy.


Gemar chasimah tovah to all my readers, as well as to all who get this email and delete it unread (although those of you in that second class obviously couldn’t be reading this).