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).

He Should Inspect His Deeds

אמר רבא ואיתימא רב חסדא:
אם רואה אדם שיסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו. שנא’ (איכה ג): נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה, וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד ה’.
פשפש ולא מצא, יתלה בבטול תורה. שנאמר (תהילים צד): אשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר תְּיַסְּרֶנּוּ יָּ-הּ, וּמִתּוֹרָתְךָ תְלַמְּדֶנּוּ.
ואם תלה ולא מצא, בידוע שיסורין של אהבה הם. שנאמר (משלי ג): כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה’ יוֹכִיחַ[, וּכְאָב אֶת בֵּן יִרְצֶה].

Rava said, and some posit [it was] Rav Chisda:

If a person sees that suffering is coming to him, he should inspect his deeds. As it says (Eikhah 3:40), “We will search out our ways and assess [them], and we will return to Hashem.”

If he inspected and didn’t find [a flaw in his deeds], he shall attribute [the suffering] to wasting Torah [ie by wasting time from immersion in it]. As it says (Tehillim 94:12), “Enriched is the man who G-d troubles, and from Your Torah You will teach him.”

And if he [tried] to attribute it [thus] and didn’t find [any time wasted that could have been spent on Torah], it is known that they are tribulations of love. As it says (Mishlei 3:12), “For those who Hashem loves, He rebukes[, like a father to his desired son].”

- Berakhos 5a

I have been encountering a number of emails and blog posts expressing dissatisfaction with how we as a community are responding to the murder of Leibby Keltzy, finding these responses to be crass, trite or self-serving. (E.g. see this blog entry, and the second half of this one.) Charities reducing the victim to a picture they can use to promote their worthy but unrelated cause; or private individuals, politicians or (again) charities producing things that draw more attention to themselves than to the tragedy of Leibby’s death.

Thinking about it, I think we can cast this issue in terms of the above-quoted gemara. Assuming what is true of the individual’s tragedy is true of the community’s, or even of the small personal tragedy we each experienced second-hand as people moved by the news.

Before I get to the point, a quibble on my translation above. For the sake of readability, I translated “yefashpeish” as “inspect”. “Inspect” comes from the word “spect” to look over (c.f. “spectacle”, “spectator”, “aSPAQlaria“, …), whereas “pishpush” means to enter and permiate.

To get to the connotations of “yefashpeish“, let me bring in another (famous) gemara and Rashi’s comments on it:

ת”ר: שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה. הללו אומרים: נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא. והללו אומרים” נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא. נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו:

Our Rabbis repeated:

For two and a half years, Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were divided. These were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created more than if he were created.” And these were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person that he is created more than if he were not created.” They counted votes and concluded, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created, more than if he were created.” Now that he was created, yefashpeish bemaasav. And others says it: yemashmeish bema’asav.

יפשפש מעשיו – שעשה כבר ויבדוק עבירות שבידו ויתודה וישוב:
ימשמש במעשיו – כגון אם בא מצוה לידו יחשב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ולא יניח לעשותה בשביל ההפסד שהרי שכרה עתיד לבוא ואם באת לידו עבירה יחשב שכרו שמשתכר בה עכשיו כנגד הפסדה העתיד ליפרע ממנו:

Yefashpeish bema’asav: that which he already did, check the sins that are in his control, confess, and do teshuvah.
Yemashmeish bema’asav: such as if a mitzvah reached his control, he should consider the loss the mitzvah would incur against its reward, and not rest from doing it because of that loss for the reward in the future to come. And if an aveirah comes under his control, he should think of the reward he gains from it now against the future loss, to separate from it.

- Eiruvin 13b, Rashi ad loc

Yemashmeish bema’asav is about convincing oneself, going forward, to do the right thing. The idiom yefashpeish bema’asav requires going through one’s past, and finding what things in one’s life requires teshuvah  — and following up on those things in particular.

Returning to the expression’s usage in our original gemara

I think we leap past this first expression, trivializing Rava’s or R’ Chisda’s words into something like: first check for overt aveiros, than for bitul Torah, and then once you rule out sins and time we could have spent on Torah but wasted, then we can assume Hashem is in His Love motivating us to come close.

When something bad happens, we are told specifically to engage in pishpush — to spend time thinking about our actions. Looking for flaws that we can rectify. In Or Yisrael, Rav Yisrael Salanter describes the process of fixing a middah as having three steps:

  • hargashah: feeling that something is wrong, incorporating both an awareness of what one is doing, and an awareness of what one ought to be doing,  and truly feeling the gap between them
  • kibush hayeitzer: conquring the inclination, ie doing the right thing despite still feeling the yeitzer hara pushing us in a different direction
  • tiqun hayeitzer: the previous two steps (working on both cognitive and behavioral planes) will naturally lead to repairing the inclination, and no longer feeling that tug toward doing the wrong thing

Rather than tragedy being a call for the cause de jeur (no matter how significant), I would suggest that yefashpeish bema’asav is a call to developing that initial hargashah of what is off-kilter. Tragedy breaks us from whatever ruts we may be in. Hashem is explicitly pushing us to explore new areas to see if they require our attention.

[Paragraph added after comment exchange with RBM, below.] This is not saying that such a push is the reason or even a reason for the tragedy. (See the chakham section in The Four Sons Confront Tragedy for more on the difference between searching for reasons and taking lessons.) Rather, that one is obligated to take our natural response to the tragic and learn from it, hislameid from it, and change ourselves accordingly. If the news makes me think about the preciousness of my own children, then I should be leveraging that to motivate improving how I relate to them. Being diagnosed with cancer (b”H and ba”h I’ve been in remission for 8 years) evinced a very different reaction; Hashem pushed me toward a different spiritual climb.

Tragedy isn’t there to provide linear acceleration but to leave us with angular momentum.

The gemara is telling us that our response to news like Leibby Klatzky’s murder cannot be boilerplate. It must begin with real soul searching. Rava says that the first response to tragedy is to check what’s wrong with our routines. If we routinize our behavior, so that there is a standard reflex — “we need more care in not saying lashon hara“, “it’s all due to the negative influence of cell phones and internet”, (and anyone in the Orthodox community can continue this list of standard responses) — we are defying Rava’s words!

 


 

N.B.: I should point out the relevence to my recent blog entry on R’ Wolbe’s negative conception of “frumkeit“. We could say that the responses I saw complaints about typify “frumkeit” bearing all the markings of coming from instinct. They have become reduced to a fixed set of near-reflexive reactions, and all too often bring more attention to the responder than to the cause or the action being recommended.

Just One Small Cry

I had the severely painful experience this past Sunday of attending the levayah for a six year old boy r”l. Reuven Dovida”h went for a walk with his father R’ Yehuda Herbst and R’ Dovid Reichenberga”h shortly after Hurricane Irene. He touched a fence that was electrified by a downed power line, burning himself and his father. R’ Dovid Reichenberg died trying to save the boy. Reuven Dovid himself lived nearly two more weeks, passing away shortly before Shabbos.  Because of those two weeks of mental preparation for the event, R’ Yehuda Herbst was capable of giving an intelligible hesped for his little boy. One thought that was both beautiful and not too heartbreaking for me to share bears repeating.

For two weeks, little Reuven Dovid was kept alive by machines. But the doctors soon gave up hope. Their efforts were palliative, rather than trying to rescue the boy. Rabbi Herbst, as a man of trust in the Almighty wasn’t ready to give up hope, and tried pressing them to try harder, despite their assurances that there was nothing left to be done. At one point the doctor told him, “If the boy would give just one small cry, some sign that there is activity in the brain, we would do everything in our power to try to save him. But without any activity in the brain, there is nothing to do.”

It struck R’ Herbst how much this is a metaphor for Elul.

Hashem would do anything (short of tampering with our free will and individuality) to save us. But He is waiting: Is the soul still alive; does the person still have spiritual function? All Hashem needs is just one small cry, one small step taken by the person himself, and the Almighty will rush in and help with the rest.

Hoshin Plan

At one point in my career I was working at a bank that took on a large initiative to formalize its processes. Everything done within the bank had to follow procedures, with the requisite paperwork completed, and every procedure had to conform to a standard called “Six Sigma“.

Part of Six Sigma is an idea called Hoshin Kanri, or in something a little closer to English, a Hoshin Plan. “Hoshin” is a Japanese word that means “shining metal”, “compass”, or “to show the direction”.

In a Hoshin Plan, upper management comes up with measurable goals for the firm. Each division head takes those goals that his division could help reach, and translates its items into smaller goals for his division. His group heads to the same to his goals, team heads… etc…

This way, the individual programmer can be shown how his program, which people much above him in the hierarchy may never hear of, fits the team’s goal, the group’s goal, and so on all the way up to the firm’s goals which must reflect its Mission Statement.

Also, Hoshin Planning is an iterative process, at the end of the year, one can review the firm’s goals against its accomplishments, and make more informed decisions about the goals to set for the next year.

Picture if one Elul we did this for our Avodas Hashem… Picture being able to tie why you’re going to the store to what it is you plan on accomplishing in your life’s avodah. I think it would be very powerful in making all of life, even recreation or side interests, holy.

A second advantage would be added a year later. Elul calls upon us to do a special cheshbon hanefesh (spiritual accounting) to see what areas require teshuvah. But against a Spiritual Hoshin Plan, one has a tool for taking that introspection and inspection of the past, and apply it towards how one lives in the future. Perhaps one mis-estimated their abilities in some area, or overestimated a challenge in their lives. They thought their avodas Hashem would require attention on the point, but now they can set goals that better reflect who they are and the life Hashem actually gives them.

Enough hand-waving theory. I think an example would be illustrative.

I personally would pick the following quote from Rav Shimon Shkop as my Mission Statement:

[O]ur greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways.

Subdividing this into three target ideals:

1. Torah – internalizing His Will
2. Avodah – connection to G-d
3. Gemillus Chassadim – being a conduit of Hashem’s Good into the lives of those I touch.

Subdividing again:

1. Internalizing His Will

1.1. Daily learning
1.2. Daily Mussar work
1.3. Regular in depth learning

Notice at this point I can start filling in actual tangible projects that I can meet by year’s end. What daily learning will I start the year with? Should I raise the bar by year end or aim my year’s growth elsewhere? And if so, what should the year-end goal be?

Hopefully, by month end when this “Spiritual Hoshin Plan” is done, I can pause in the middle of the workday and be able to say for myself that I’m putting up with this irate trader on the phone so that I can pay for tuition (goal 3.2.4.2.5 or some-such), I can develop my personal creativity (as per 1.2… as being in the image of the Creator is something I view as a Mussar goal), etc.. And thereby give sanctity to an otherwise mundane (and stressfull) activity.

Thoughts about Teshuvah

Aspaqlaria: Aseres Yemei Teshuvah” (49 pages) is a collection of essays adapted from those that appeared here on the subjects of teshuvah, shofar, vidui, and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. It is in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format, ready for printing. (more…)

Mother’s Day and Teshuvah Week

We don’t feel a need to observe Mother’s Day,
because the mitzvah of kibud av va’eim means that
every day is Mother’s Day.

- Rabbi Shpitzer, my 5th grade rebbe

This sentiment is far from uniquely Rabbi Shpitzer’s — but he was my first rebbe from the chareidi world, and so the first person to give me this explanation.

Twenty five years later, I finally had a comeback: Yeah, but teshuvah is also a mitzvah every day. Does that make Yom Kippur and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah redundant?

And yet teshuvah is qualitatively different on these 10 days than on the rest of the year.

… כְּשֵׁם שֶׁשּׁוֹקְלִין עֲווֹנוֹת אָדָם וְזָכִיּוֹתָיו בְּשָׁעַת מִיתָתוֹ, כָּךְ בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה שׁוֹקְלִין עֲווֹנוֹת כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִבָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם עִם זָכִיּוֹתָיו בְּיוֹם טוֹב שֶׁלְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה:  מִי שֶׁנִּמְצָא צַדִּיק, נֶחְתָּם לְחַיִּים; וּמִי שֶׁנִּמְצָא רָשָׁע, נֶחְתָּם לְמִיתָה.  וְהַבֵּינוֹנִי, תּוֹלִין לוֹ עַד יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים:  אִם עָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה, נֶחְתָּם לְחַיִּים; וְאִם לָאו, נֶחְתָּם לְמִיתָה.

… Just as they weigh the sins of a person and his merits and the time of his death, so to every year they weigh this since over every one who comes into the world with their merits on the holiday of Rosh haShanah. Whomever if found to be a tzadiq is sealed for life; whomever is found to be a rashah is sealed for death. And the one in the middle, the beinoni, they hang his [fate] until Yom Kippur. He he does teshuvah, he is sealed for life, and if not, he is sealed for death.

As we say in Mussaf on the Yamim Nora’im, “On Rosh haShanah they are written, and on Yom Kippur they are sealed.” The righteous and evil are judged and sentenced on Rosh haShanah. Everyone else is given a judgment, but they have something like an appeals process through Yom Kippur before their fate is sealed.

So our first problem is what makes teshuvah and the consequent judgment of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah unique?

Second problem: Why is a rasha, an evil person, deprived of the option of doing teshuvah the rest of the 10 days and improving their fate? Is Hashem rendering the sincere repentence of someone who was (formerly, after all) evil ineffective?

(We might ask the same of the tzadiq, the righteous person who then decides to spend the week sinning, but since we know there is Compassion mixed into the Divine Justice, the question is less compelling.)

On the other hand, when something goes wrong during the year, a person might also do teshuvah and change their fate.

What’s the difference between the teshuvah and the “chasimah“, the sealing of one’s fate, of the 10 days of teshuvah, and of the rest of the year? And if one’s fate is sealed by Yom Kippur, how can doing teshuvah during the year help any? Alternatively, if it does help, what to we mean when we say “and on Yom Kippur they are sealed”?

דתניא הכל נידונים בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם ביוה”כ דברי ר”מ ר’ יהודה אומר הכל נידונין בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם כל אחד ואחד בזמנו בפסח על התבואה בעצרת על פירות האילן בחג נידונין על המים ואדם נידון בר”ה וגזר דין שלו נחתם ביוה”כ ר’ יוסי אומר אדם נידון בכל יום שנאמר (איוב ז) ותפקדנו לבקרים רבי נתן אומר אדם נידון בכל שעה שנא’ (איוב ז) לרגעים תבחננו

… for it says in a beraisa: All are judged on Rosh haShanah, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur — this is the words of Rav Meir.

Rabbi Yehudah says: all are judged on Rosh haShanah and their fate is sealed in its time — on Pesach for grain, on Shavuos for fruit of the tree, on Sukkos we are judged for water. A person is judged on Rosh haShanah, and his sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Yosi says: a person is judged every day. As it says, “and He remembers him for the mornings.” (Iyov 7)

Rabbi Nasan says: a person is judged all the time, as it says, “for the moments he is tested.” (ibid)

- Berakhos 16a

(A page later the gemara gives in the name of Rav Kruspadai quoting Rav Yochanan the opinion repeated by the Rambam, above.)

The thought I want to use to explain all of the above requires accepting the notion that a person’s free will is limited. That not only is a person limited by the laws of physics, but there are also choices that would never cross their minds. This is like the questions on the obligation to believe in Hashem, or the prohibition against coveting. Do we really have such fine tune control over our beliefs that we can force ourselves to find something plausible? Or over our desires that we can not only refrain from acting, but actually not even have the desire? Much of Mussar is built on the belief that yes, such change is possible, but not overnight. A prohibition against coveting is something someone would have to work on now in order to progressively fulfill it more and more often as the years progress.

One such model is given in Michtav meiEliyahu by Rav EE Dessler (REED), and I will write using that model. But in truth, one needn’t accept his entire notion, just the element that there are decisions beyond our control.

REED (Michtav meiEliyahu, vol. I pp 114) defines free will in a way that it only includes consciously made decisions. On any axis, there is only a small range of situations in which the side saying “yes” and the side saying “no” are similar enough in strength that the issue becomes a conscious, free willed, decision. This front where the yeitzer hatov and yeitzer hara battle is called the nequdas habechirah (NhB), the Decision Point. Items beyond the NhB are simply decided preconsciously — before the person is aware of his options, he already knows what he’s going to do. For most people, robbing a back is simply not on the menu of choices. Sadly for many people, being honest on their tax forms when it may cost them significant money is also not on the menu. Etc…

For each person on each issue, the nequdas habechira is mobile. With each good decision, the NhB moves over to make the next similar decision that much easier. The yeitzer hatov becomes more powerful with exercise.

Another background issue: The gemara reads the verse, “Ki bayom hazeh yakhapeir aleikhem… – for on this day, it shall be an atonement for you…” slightly differently than this naive translation, taking the “ba-” of “bayom” as “via”, “through the aegis of”, rather than “in”. Meaning, “By utilizing this day, He shall atone for you…” And so Rabbe concludes (Shavuos 13a) , “Itzumo shel yom mechaperes — the essence of the day [of Yom Kippur] atones.”

What does that mean? The wicked person isn’t getting atonement from the essence of Yom Kippur (even with a Beis haMiqdash and a se’ir hamishtaleiach) — his fate was already sealed on Rosh haShanah. And the guy who grabs a cheeseburger for his lunch that day? Yom Kippur works for him too?

(The whole notion that the day itself can atone despite the spiritual state of the person in question also rubs my prejudice against metaphysical mechanics the wrong way. It gives power to a spiritual force other than Divine Justice and Mercy, and thus obscures Hashem’s presence in the world for no purpose I can fathom.)

The sages therefore interpret R’ Yehudah’s thought by explaing that the essence of the day atones someone who internalizes that essence by repenting. Not as a force in-and-of-itself.

דִּרְשׁוּ ה’ בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ, קְרָאֻהוּ בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב.

“Seek G-d when He can be found,
call out to him, when He is near.

- Yeshaiah 55:6

The power of the 10 Days of Teshuvah inheres in their being an appointment. Having an appointment for reapproachment to G-d and to the ideal for which I was made makes change easier; it adds mobility to the Nequdas haBechirah. One can choose to make that appointment, to run with that motivation and the environment of the season, by embracing “the essence of the day”.

According to this, the difference between the everyday judgment of R’ Yossi and R’ Nassan and annual judgment is that when “Hashem can be found” through these two moving days on our calendar and the time between them, we can use the opportunity to move the battlefront or not. The difference is quantitative; it’s not a different kind of judgment, but a different kind of opporunity. And once we set out from this potentially moving period on a given course, changing that course is harder.

Why does the Rambam say the beinoni, the person in between righteous and evil, has to do teshuvah? Couldn’t he instead do a number of mitzvos, and thereby tilt the score toward merit that way? If he does so as a means of reapproachment, perhaps he could — but then that is teshuvah, not its alternative. A number of differen acharonim offer variants of the following answer: To miss the opportunity of teshuvahis itself a sin. Squandering all the excitement and motivation of wanting to start a new year fresh is a sin that slips the NhB further from G-d.

There is only one experience that makes the Decision Point more mobile than these 10 days. When one army flees the battlefront, the other side can make very rapid progress. This is the situation when the soul leaves the body, leaving bodily urges, the nefesh, and this world’s distractions from our true goals behind. Thus, the Rambam’s comparison between Rosh haShanah and the day of death. Whether one is positioned to use that moment constructively makes  it one’s most telling Day of Judgment

This addresses our first problem — what makes the teshuvah and judgment of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah unique. It’s the unique opportunity that comes from feeling Hashem’s presence when the year is new and full of possibility. But what about our second problem, why the rasha is not given a chance to do teshuvah?

The notion of limited free will, that a person can only change themselves incrementally, means that there are people for whom the necessary teshuvah for what they have done is simply beyond their NhQ. Before they even reach the point of choosing to do teshuvah, they already preconsciously decided not to. The option couldn’t be taken seriously. And while the NhQ does move, there is a limit to how far the person can get in just 10 days.

Such a person is a rasha in the sense of someone who not only does evil, but internalized the evil, they themselves have that evil.

I therefore want to flip our question on its head: It’s not that a rasha‘s teshuvah would be ineffective; it’s that a rasha is someone for whom sufficient teshuvah is impossible, at least within the time frame.

And the converse of our Decision-Point based definition of rasha is that a tzadiq is someone in the enviable opposite position. Of course he regrets what he did and wouldn’t do it again! He internalized that tzidqus; not only does he do tzedeq (justice), he is a tzadiq.

Which would leave the remaining ground for the beinoni — someone whose teshuvah is within the range of his possible choices during the 10 yemei teshuvah, but not the only choice. They could merit either life or ch”v death within the decisions that could reach their free will during those 10 days.

Two Kinds of Law, Teshuvah, and Par’oh’s Heart

We open the Shemoneh Esrei by referring to Hashem as “Hashem Elokeinu vEilokei avoseinu — Hashem, our G-d, and the G-d of our ancestors….” Three distinct ways of perceiving G-d are being given here:

The tetragrammaton refers to the G-d Who “Will be – Is – Was” (taking the letters as a contraction), who is “the cause of existence” (taking the name as a word, the causative form of /הוה/ — to exist), and it’s the name of G-d used in Tanakh when the story is emphasizing Middas haRachamim — Divine Empathy. It is viewing Hashem as causing rather than being of existence, so transcendent from it that He is above time, and thus not bound to deal with us through general rules, but with case-wise addressing of our needs. We’re describing a G-d Who is so transcendent, he has the wherewithall to be immanent and available to all. G-d can care about the actions of a puny human on one not particularly interesting planet in one galaxy among billions and billions because He has the capacity to care about everything.

E-lokim is G-d as Legislator — Middas haDin (Justice). The leaders of the Benei Cheis are called elohim, and in Shemos 21:6 a slave-owner whose slave refuses freedom is told to bring him before the court — “haelohim”. But then how does E-loheinu differ from E-lokei avoseinu?

I don’t know if this is what the Men of the Great Assembly meant when they laid the groundwork for Shemoneh Esrei, but it’s what I’m thinking of when I say the words (on days when I’m actually thinking).

Hashem is the legislator of two kinds of law: natural law and moral law. Everyone is subject to natural law. Free will does not include choosing whether or no I will fly today. However, moral law is subject to choice. Hashem said, “Do not commit profiteering”, but someone could easily choose to overcharge an unwitting customer.

Since all are subject to natural law, I associate that with E-lokeinu, our G-d. But what makes our forefathers “The Avos” is their election to follow more law. Thus I think of E-lokei avoseinu as referring to Hashem as its author.

Similarly, the The E-lokim of Bereishis pereq 1 refers to Hashem as author of natural law. This description of creation runs from light and culminates with man, making man part of the natural order. The E-lokim of the Hashem E-lokim in pereq 2 is in dialog with man, addresses His loneliness, etc… It refers to the Author of moral law.

Eliezer Eisenberg (“Barzilai“) recently blogged something (“Pharaoh’s Impenetrable Heart“) that made me think about this distinction.

Teshuvah is generally understood as a function of Middas haRachamim, rather than Midas haDin.

But Hashem judged Yishma’el “ba’asher hu sham — as he was there”, as we hear in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh haShanah (Bereishis 21:17) Divine Justice is not in terms of what the person did in the past, but who he is in the present. And teshuvah does change that.

(See the booklet, Aspaqlaria – Aseres Yemei Teshuvah”, pp 41-44, for a discussion of how the state of one’s soul can be seen as directly causing one’s fate, and pp 47-49 for a discussion of how that discussion is consistent with seeing Hashem as responding to our actions. Along the way, I cite two causal approaches: (1) a person’s sins scar his soul [R’ Yonah, Ramchal, R’ Chaim Volozhiner] or (3) dirty it [Ikkarim, Ran]. This broken soul or soul that has a blockage from receiving Hashem’s Good therefore suffers. Both approaches presume that it’s one’s spiritual state, not one actions, that are judged.)

Human court and the heavenly tribunal have different jobs. And for that matter, they judge different things. “Ba’asher hu sham” is said of the Creator, not man. People do not assess the health of a person’s soul (nor are we able to), they judge his actions.

If a murderer who since did complete teshuvah is judged by a court of rabbis here on earth, the teshuvah makes no difference do them. They’re judging actions. But if that person is truly as far from being capable of murder as the rest of us at the time of his death, and he dies without ever facing beis din, his judgment in Hashem’s “court” does reflect that teshuvah. Because Hashem judges who he is, not actions.

What places teshuvah beyond justice is not that the court looks at the healed soul differently than has he never done teshuvah. It’s that we can change to begin with. That we can alter the trajectory of our lives. Quitting smoking didn’t “just” take a lot of will-power, it literally took a gift from the Almighty. And that gift is the Divine Mercy associated with teshuvah.

And so, teshuvah is a middas haRachamim insertion into a middas haDin process. The outcome is din, the possibility of reaching that outcome required Rachamim. “Rachamim shebaDin.” I believe what is being obscured by Divine Mercy is not the E-lokei avoseinu, Author of moral law, but E-lokeinu, Author of natural law. Teshuvah is not merciful by providing a din-violating positive judgment, but by providing a din-violating alternative to remaining on the path one was once taking. It doesn’t provide the unfair, it provides the otherwise impossible.

Similarly, the book in the metaphor “vekhol maasekha basefer nikhtavim — and all your actions are written in the book” (High Holiday Machzor) is probably a reference to one’s own soul. Actions change “ba’asher hu sham“, which in turn changes how he is assessed.

I personally prefer the approach of the Ramban and the Seforno to answering the question of Hashem hardening or strengthening Par’oh’s heart. The obvious question is whether Hashem robbed Par’oh of free will. And if so, could Par’oh be judged for not doing teshuvah after the option was taken from him?

However, another approach is given by the Rambam, that a person can be so evil that his punishment is that very inability to do teshuvah. Quoting Teshuvah 6:3:

אפשר שיחטא אדם חטא גדול או חטאים רבים עד שיתן הדין לפני דיין האמת שיהא הפרעון מזה החוטא על חטאים אלו שעשה ברצונו ומדעתו שמונעין ממנו התשובה ואין מניחין לו רשות לשוב מרשעו כדי שימות ויאבד בחטאו שיעשה.

It is possible for a person to sin a great sin or many sins until the judgment is placed before the True Judge that the payment should be upon the sinner for those sins which he did by his own will and knowledge. That they withhold from him teshuvah, and do not give him permission to return from his evil, so that he should die and be lost with the sin that he will do.

Rav Yisrael Salanter (Kokhevei Or 79) quotes this Rambam, as part of defining three levels: Hashem helps most people do teshuvah. For particularly bad sinners, Hashem arranges life such that he doesn’t have opportunity. And finally the Rambam’s level that even the ability itself is taken from the sinner.

I would take RYS Salanter as saying that Hashem does not assist with this miracle in allowing teshuvah to happen for the evil, and keeps this miracle altogether from the truly evil. But why not? “Lo chafotz bemos hameis, ki im beshuvo midarko vechayah — [Hashem] does not desire the death of the dead, but that he return [does teshuvhah] from his way and live.” Hashem Himself prefers teshuvah!

I think (the Rambam and RYS don’t say or imply the following, it’s just my conjecture to resolve his statement with that quote from Bereishis about how Hashem judges) that we are referring to the sinner who so internalized his evil that such a change would be a change in the person’s essence, not some incidental attribute. Par’oh couldn’t do teshuvah because at that point, a post-teshuvah person wouldn’t be Par’oh anymore. The only way his soul could be redeemed is through the process of punishment in the afterlife.

From Qeren to Shofar

(Updated after Rosh haShanah 5774 with idea from the Tanchuma.)

The Ramban, in his Derashah leRosh haShanah, writes that a shofar is a keli, a formal utensil in the halachic sense. For this reason, while most rishonim hold that a hole in a shofar invalidates the shofar only if the hole is such that it changes the produced sound, the Ramban holds that any hole disqualifies it. He emphasizes that we take a raw natural qeren, a horn, and produce a new thing from it with a new name — shofar, from leshapeir (to improve).

(Tangent: Students of R JB Soloveitchik might note that he, RJBS, often referred to the shofar as a raw animal cry, emphasizing how un-technological a shofar is. These two approaches appear to be in conflict. But this entry is from the Ramban’s perspective.)

Literally a qeren is a horn (or something shaped like a horn, like a beam of light from Moshe’s head, or the cornerpieces of the mizbeiach). And once this horn is refined, meshaperes, we have the mitzvah of shofar which we are to blow before G-d.

This notion that Hashem left it for us to complete what He began is the topic of a story in the Medrash Tanchuma (Tzaria, Buber #7, Warsaw: second half of #5) that I discussed elsewhere:

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: Which acts are more pleasant, those of the Holy One, or those of flesh and blood?
[R’ Aqiva] said to him: Those of flesh and blood are [more] pleasant.
Turnus Rufus the wicked said to him: Behold heaven and earth — can you make anything like them?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: Do not talk to me about something which is beyond creatures [to do], which they do not have mastery of them, but of things that exist among people.
He said to him: Why do you circumcise?
He said to him: I even knew you were going to say to me something llike this, therefore I preempted and said to you “the acts of fless and blood are more pleasant than those of the Holy One.
[Then R’ Aqiva said to the staff:] Bring me sheaves and cakes.
He said to him: These [sheaves] are the Holy One’s work, and these [cakes] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
[Again R’ Aqiva asked of the staff:] Bring me flax stalks and [linen] garments from Beis She’an.
He said to him: These [stalks] are the Holy One’s work, and these [fine garments] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
Turnus Rufus said to him: Since [G-d] wants circumcision, why doesn’t [the baby] emerge circumcised from the mother’s womb?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: And why his umbilical cord emerge with him, if his mother were not to cut his umbilical cord? Why doesn’t he emerge [already] circumcised? Because the Holy One only gave Israel the mitzvos in order to be refined by them. That is why David said, “the speech of G-d refines” (Tehillim 18:31)

This, then is one message of shofar: A person is not saved by simply trusting in G-d and leaving the job to Him. On the other hand, a person can only succeed in anything by entering in a partnership with the Creator. And so we do not awaken ourselves to repentance with the qeren He made. Nor do we use chatzotzros, metal trumpets that are so reshaped they are keilim, utensils, in which it’s so easy to see our own efforts, it is hard to notice Hashem’s initial contribution. The word “shofar” acknowledges that this is something from the Creator, but “refined” by man.

A second thought can be learned from the transition from qeren to shofar when we note that idiomatically, qeren refers to might or pride. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei, “The sprout of David may You quickly cause to bloom, veqarno — and his pride — You shall uplift with Your redemption…” Or in Tehillim (75:5), “אָמַרְתִּי לַהוֹלְלִים אַל תָּהֹלּוּ, וְלָרְשָׁעִים אַל תָּרִימוּ קָרֶן — I said to the arrogant, do not brag; and to the evil, do not ‘lift a horn’ [i.e. boast].”

So we take this symbol of pride, and we bore a small hole at the end. What used to hold air or liquid now amplifies the cry of another. By sharing the pain of another, self-interest gets harnessed to aid this community of suffering. This too is a sublimation and refinement. Thus the qeren of pride becomes a shofar of empathy.

Hashem gives us a set of middos, talents and desires. We can choose whether to use them to build a world of self-pride or one of yedidus, affection and connection to others.

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.

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.

Is the sound of the shofar the 100 wails of Sisera’s mother, or the triumphant fanfare of the King?

אמר ר’ יוחנן כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקב”ה אתה מוצא ענוותנותו דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש בכתובים כתוב בתורה (דברים י) כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים וכתיב בתריה עושה משפט יתום ואלמנה שנוי בנביאים (ישעיהו נז) כה אמר רם ונשא שוכן עד וקדוש וגו’ וכתיב בתריה ואת דכא ושפל רוח משולש בכתובים דכתיב (תהילים סח) סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו וכתיב בתריה אבי יתומים ודיין אלמנות

R’ Yochanan said: Every place where you find the Might of HQBH, you find His anvanus (humility). This is written in the Torah, seconded in the Nevi’im, and stated a third time in Kesuvim. Written in the Torah: “For Hashem your G-d, He is the G-d over all powers and the L-rd over all lords”, and it says after it “who performs justice for the orphan and the widow.” Seconded in the Nevi’im, “As said the High and Exalted Who dwells eternally and Holy…” and it says after it, “and the broken and low of spirit.” And stated a third time in the Kesuvim, as it says, “Extol He Who rides on the skies, through Kah His name” and it says after it, “the Father of orphans and judge for widows.”

G-d’s greatness isn’t just that He is Infinite, but that He is SO infinite so as to not just set the stars on their paths and keeps the laws of physics running, but He has time, attention and resources to care for the needy.

The person who can share another’s cry is the very one who declares G-d’s majesty.

That is taking the qeren and making something new of it, something shofar — refined.

A Mishpat for the G-d of Yaaqov

תִּקְעוּ בַחֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹפָר, בַּכֵּסֶה לְיוֹם חַגֵּנוּ. כִּי חֹק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא, מִשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקֹב.

Blow the shofar at the new moon, at the fullness for our holiday. For it is a choq [a trans-rational statute] for Yisrael, a mishpat [just law] of the G-d of Yaaqov.

– Tehillim 81:4-5

The Malbim (ad loc) writes (tr. Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner):

We do not analyze the reason for this mitzvah of blowing shofar; for Israel it is a choq, without any reason other than a decree from G-d. But it is a mishpat for the G-d of Jacob; Gd knows its reason, and for Him it is mishpat, not choq.

When seeing the Malbim, two questions leaped to mind:

1- The poetic doubling of Tehillim often involves the use of synonyms. But why is the name of the Jewish People who cannot understand the law of shofar “Yisrael”, but the ones who are associated with the G-d who could understand it called “Yaaqov”?

2- Why is this point made specifically with regard to shofar? Since no mitzvah is arbitrary, every choq is meta-rational, not irrational; they all must have meaning and purpose, even if incomprehensible to the human mind. Isn’t this statement that for Hashem it is a mishpat more about the nature of choq than about shofar in particular?

It seems Tehillim is being intentionally ambiguous when it says “hu — it is a choq…” What of the prior verse is the “it” — the blowing of the shofer, or “our holiday“? Since this is poetry, the answer would well be both. There is some indication that this verse refers to both Shofar and the holiday from its two appearances in the Mussaf for Rosh haShanah. Yes, the full quote, verses 4 & 5 are among the 10 citations from Tanakh used to buttress Shofaros. But pasuq 5 appears alone in the text of Zikhronos as well. “This day is the beginning of Your Deeds, a memorial of the first day. For it is a choq for Israel, a mishpat for the G-d of Yaaqov.” Our prayers actually utilize both possible references of the pronoun.

I would suggest that King David chose to discuss the theology of choq with respect to the shofar of Rosh haShanah is because the general point that our incomprehensible choq is Hashem’s rational mishpat is an important one for Rosh haShanah.

We are judged and the curriculum Hashem presents us with during the following year, the triumphs and the lessons we are to accumulate from the year’s challenges, are decided. We know that, and yet it’s hard to see when looking at the particular events of the year. Even without taking into account course changes we make during the year which may lead to an early re-assessment on Hashem’s part.

Remembering that nothing Hashem does is irrational is an important part of accepting Him as King on Rosh haShanah. My fate for the year might not make sense to me, but I have to understand that that’s only to me, with the limitations that come with my humanity. But there is a meta-rationality, a very logical reason for every facet of the King’s judgment, even if on a level I cannot hope to understand.

According to the Chazon Ish, this is true bitachon, trust in G-d. He rejects the prescriptive notion of bitachon of many mussarists, that define it as trusting in Him as a way to get desirable results. Rather, bitachon is descriptive, the belief that everything, every tragedy and difficulty in life (as well as the happy things) are part of a bigger plan. It all has a point and value.

Yaakov is born predestined to supplant his brother. When he learns that his berakhah was given to another (Bereishis 27:6) Esav complains to Yitzchaq, “הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב, וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם — Did you not correctly call his name ‘Yaaqov’, and he supplanted me (vaya’aqveini) now twice!” This is the name Yaaqov, the fate that someday right will win out over might.

He gets the name Yisrael, however, after spending the night fighting the angel. According to one opinion, the same Esav’s angel. In this battle, he gets complemented, he is told that the mission was advanced, but in terms of visibility — all we see is that the angel wins. Yisrael leaves limping, the angel returns to heaven unharmed. Yisrael doesn’t passively get brought to his fate, he has a destiny he has to work toward. And therefore life will necessary lack things that we must get for ourselves, contain challenges we must overcome, and force us to be shaped by tragedy.

“Blow the shofar at the new moon, at the fullness for our holiday. For it” — the message of this holiday — “is a choq [a trans-rational statute] for Yisrael, a mishpat of the G-d of Yaaqov!”

And with what? With a Shofar – II

אמר רבי יהודה משום רבי עקיבא … אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: … ואמרו לפני בראש השנה מלכיות זכרונות ושופרות. מלכיות: כדי שתמליכוני עליכם. זכרונות: כדי שיעלה זכרוניכם לפני לטובה. ובמה? בשופר.

Rabbi Yehudah said an idea from Rabbi Aqiva …: The Holy One, blessed be He said, “… say before Me on Rosh haShanah, Malkhios, Zikhoronosand Shoferos.
Malkhios: so that you shall make Me King over you;
Zikhoronos: so that your memories shall come before Me;
“And with what? With a shofar.”

- Rosh haShanah 16a

Hashem as King is an important concept. But it can’t remain a concept. Similarly, it is important to realize that He Remembers us when we were young, when we entered into a covenant with Him, before we buried our potential under a pile of missed opportunities and other mistake

But the ideas cannot remain ideas, concepts held only in the head. People make decisions all the time knowing we made the wrong choice, but unable to resist temptation. As we quote every day in Aleinu, “וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ — and you will know today, and you will respond to your heart.” (Devarim 4:39) There are things we know already and yet still have to work to get fully in our hearts.

When the Jewish People at Mount Sinai proclaimed “נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע — we will do and we will listen”, a voice from heaven demanded to know who revealed to us the angels’ great secret. (Shabbos 88a) What brings an idea the one ammah from head to heart is to do, and then to listen to what the experience tells us.

Rabbi Aqiva teaches us the same thing: We contemplate Malkhios, we discuss Zikhronos. But through what do we make Hasme our King, and bring ourselves before HQBH? Through the non-verbal experience of the shofar.


Related posts:

  • And with what? With a Shofar“: Rav Dovid Lifshitz’s shmuess on the same gemara.
  • Emunah Peshutah vs. Machashavah“: How do we maintain a personal, first-hand relationship with G-d while still having a well-developed theology (which will inevitably emphasis the distance between uns)? Also on the gap between intellect and emotion.

The Baal Teshuvah and the Tzadiq

I commented on Gratitude:

What does “todah” mean? As it stands, it means “thanks”. The same root conjugated as “vidui” means to “confess”. Last, when the mishnah wants to stress that something is outside of a dispute, “hakol modim” — “all agree”. What do thanks, confession and agreement have in common?

When I thank someone, I acknowledge his actions had an impact on me. When I confess, I am admitting that my actions had an impact on him. And when we are modim, we realize that an idea isn’t mine or yours, but ours. The point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness.

Yehudah was named for hoda’ah with more of a connotation of gratitude:

תַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתֹּאמֶר “הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת ה׳”; עַל כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ “יְהוּדָה”; וַתַּעֲמֹד מִלֶּדֶת.

And [Leah] became pregnant again, and said “This time I will thank [odeh] Hashem”; therefore she called his name “Yehudah”; and she finished birthing children.

-Bereishis 29:35

And yet, Yehudah may be most noted for his readiness to do teshuvah and confess his mistakes — the vidui sense of the root for which he was named. Tamar held out his signet ring, cords and staff, and identified Yehudah to himself as the one who had gotten her pregnant, while still keeping his guilt a secret from others. Yehudah, however, confesses his guilt — and her innocence — in public.

וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר “צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי! כִּי עַל כֵּן לֹא נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי, וְלֹא יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּה.”

And Yehudah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than me! Because I didn’t give her to Sheilah my son, and I did not allow anyone else to know here.”

-Bereishis 38:26

The gemara [Makkos 11b] merits this example as teaching Reuvein the art of confession. A merit that Moshe hints at in his blessing in veZos haBerakhah (33:6-7), ” יְחִי רְאוּבֵן וְאַל יָמֹת, וִיהִי מְתָיו מִסְפָּר. וְזֹאת לִיהוּדָה…. — Let Re’uvein live and not perish, that his number not become few. And this is for Yehudah…” Phrasing the opening of Yehudah’s blessing so that it can also be heard as referring back — “and this” Re’uvein’s blessing “is for Yehudah…”

Yehudah’s path in Torah observance, for which his tribe is named, the Kingdom of Judea (Malkhus Yehudah) was named, and for which we today are called “Jews” is as much about the centrality of gratitude as the importance of confession

The story of Yehudah and Tamar (ch. 38) is adjacent to that of Yosef’s servitude in Potiphar’s home, and his resisting Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to seduce him (ch. 39). This placement invites us to compare and/or contrast the two stories. Yehudah succumbs to temptation, but confesses and repents, becomes an exemplar of a ba’al teshuvah. Yosef is tested and stands up to the challenge, and the Zohar states (1:194b) it is for this that Chazal call him “Yosef haTzadiq“.

Both rise to royalty. Yosef, in the house of Par’oh, and in his eventual descendent, the mashiach beis Yoseif who is destined to lead the war against Gog uMagog, and fall in battle. But it is Yehudah from whom the Jewish People’s true royal house descends, and from whom the mashiach who brings world peace will be born. Perhaps it is an example of Rav Avahu’s famous words (Berakhos 34b):

דאמר רבי אבהו: מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין – צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין, שנאמר: (ישעיהו נז:יט) “שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב” — “לָרָחוֹק” ברישא, והדר “לַקָּרוֹב”.

… As Rabi Avahu said, “In the place where baalei teshuvah stand — the fully righteous cannot stand. As it says “Peace, peace, to those who are afar, and those who are near.” (Yeshaiah 57:19). “To those who are afar” — initially, and after, “to those who are near.”

Yehudah’s progeny are not only given a position Yosef’s family is not as suited to fill, but it is the matter of war vs peace that distinguishes the two mashiachs — as per the pasuq Rav Avahu quotes — “Peace, peace, to those who start out afar, and come near!”