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Migdal Bavel – A Story For Our Time

As we read Parshat Noach this week, I believe that there is an idea from the Parsha that has to be heard.  This week we had the final Presidential debate before the election.  It is quite a sad reflection of where we are that the candidates’ microphones had to be put on mute after the craziness of the first debate.  I was also bombarded by comments of friends lamenting the fact that this week’s debate was boring and a let-down without the candidates shouting at each other and over each other.    I’m sure that many of you joined on Wednesday evening to hear Bari Weiss speak at the Beth Tfiloh Penn memorial lecture and the grim picture she painted of the state of the media, political climate and ant-Semitism in America.

With all this in mind, the message that we have to hear this year comes from the later part of our parsha and the story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Bavel in Breshit 11:1-9.  The basics of the story are familiar to us.  The Torah tells us that all of society gathered in one place and decided to build a tower that reached the sky in order to make for themselves a name (Genesis 11:4):

וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Hashem is not happy with these plans and interferes by “confusing their language” so they no longer spoke the same language and did not understand each other and causing them to spread out throughout the land.  The city is renamed בבל because

(ט) עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל כִּי־שָׁ֛ם בָּלַ֥ל ה’ שְׂפַ֣ת כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וּמִשָּׁם֙ הֱפִיצָ֣ם ה’ עַל־פְּנֵ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

We normally understand the introduction of new language and the people being spread throughout the land as a punishment for their efforts to build the tower reaching heaven.

The Netziv, however, offers a wonderful reading of this story in which the introduction of new language and spreading throughout the land is not a punishment but bracha.  For the Netziv, the fault of the דור הפלגה (literally “the generation of dispersion”) lies in the Torah’s introduction of the story (11:1). 

וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

The content of the words did not bother Hashem.  Rather, the problem was the desire to perpetuate a situation in which everyone thinks and says the same thing.   As Yeshayahu Leibowitz elaborates: “It appears to me that the root of the error, or sin, of the generation of the separation was not the building of a city and tower, but the aim to use these artificial means to ensure a situation of “one language and one speech” – of centralization, which in modern parlance, would be known as totalitarianism.” 

As the Netziv writes on verse 4 פן נפוץ על פני כל הארץ lest we be scattered over all the face of the earth:

ומובן שזה היה שייך לדברים אחדים שהיה ביניהם ובאשר אין דעות ב״א שוים חששו שלא יצאו ב״א מדעה זו ויהיו במחשבה אחרת ע״כ היו משגיחים שלא יצא איש מישוב שלהם. ומי שסר מדברים אחדים שביניהם היה משפטו לשריפה כאשר עשו לא״א.

And since the opinions of people are not identical, they feared that people might abandon this philosophy and adopt another. Therefore they sought to ensure that no one would leave their society. And one who veered from this uniformity among them was judged with burning, just as they did to our forefather Abraham.

While the idea of all people speaking one language seems idyllic, the Torah’s message is that nothing could be farther from the truth.  As Leibowitz explains:

“One who truly understands will know that there is nothing which is more threatening than this artificial conformism: a city and tower as the symbol of the concentration of all of mankind about a single topic – where there will be no differences of opinion and where there will be no struggle over different viewpoints and values.  One cannot imagine greater tyranny than that, one cannot imagine a greater mental and moral sterility than that – that there should be no deviations from what is accepted and agreed upon, and this being maintained by the artificial means of a city and a tower.”

So in God’s mercy and compassion He put an end to the Tower of Bavel and ensured that the goal of שפה אחת ודברים אחדים – the same language and the same words – would not be realized.  God “made a humanity where a totalitarianism of complete unity cannot be.” 

Hashem want s a multiplicity of language and a multiplicity of ideas.  מגדל בבל was a failed endeavor because it sought to do away with diversity.  As we prepare for another election which highlights the rift that exists in our country and our society in which so many of us retreat to our own echo chambers, in which the candidates have to be muted because they have proven themselves incapable of having an open and honest exchange of ideas, this is a lesson that we must take to heart.

Breishit – Learning Torah

In an amazing drasha delivered on Shabbat Breshit 1971 (5732)  Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm quoted from the book Children’s Letters to God edited by Eric Marshall and Stuart Hample.

Dear God: Maybe you can write some more stories because we’ve already read everything You have written more than once. Thanks in advance.

To combat against such a childish attitude relating to the beginning anew of Sefer Breishit and the same  familiar stories Rabbi Lamm cites the Pasuk toward the end of our Parsha as the Torah’s introduction to the long list of genealogies (Breishit 5:1):

זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹקים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃

This is the record of Adam’s line.—When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;

Most mefarshim (commentators) understand the ספר תולדות האדם (literally, “the book of Adam’s line”) to refer to the listing of generations.  As Rashi writes:

זה ספר תולדות אדם. זוֹ הִיא סְפִירַת תּוֹלְדוֹת אָדָם, וּמִדְרְשֵׁי אַגָּדָה יֵשׁ רַבִּים:

זה ספר תולדות אדם THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE GENERATIONS OF ADAM — This is the record (or, enumeration) of the generations of Adam. There are however, many Midrashic observations on this verse

The word sefer is connected to the verb לספר to count or enumerate.

But the Ramban has a more literal understanding of the word ספר:

ולפי דעתי, ירמוז לכל התורה, כי כל התורה כולה ספר תולדות אדם

In my opinion it alludes to the entire Torah, because the entire Torah is a book of the story of mankind.

Rabbi Lamm proceeds to demonstrate how man is comparable to Torah.  We can study mankind in the same way we study Torah.  And we learn and deepen our understanding of Torah by deepening our understanding of man.  “Books may teach us much about people; but people can tell us more about books.”  This is done in several ways:

  1. Respect

Just as we must have respect for our fellow human – in order to know someone we must consider them worthy of our study, friendship and concern; we must have respect for the Torah. 

Respect for Torah — and for our fellow man – requires humility, modesty and awe.

At the same time, respect for both Torah and for humans requires a critical eye.  In human relations, we will not be respected by those we can’t stand up to and ask questions of.  “Torah, too, is not satisfied with unsophisticated naivete.”

“Torah does not want fools.  It does not even want innocent and pious fools.  It demands persistence, criticism, determination and intelligence.  It wants the brightness that God gave us to applied to it and ist problems, to searching it out, to finding it out.”

  • Depth

We must have an appreciation for the depth of our fellow human and of the Torah.  As Rabbi Lamm observes, to say that you can “read someone like a book” diminishes that person’s humanity. We must approach Torah with an understanding and appreciation of its depth.  We don’t simply read the Torah. We learn Torah.

  • Existential encounter

When you truly know another human being, you know more than the sum of their various parts.  Thetotal picture is greater than the sum of the individual parts.  Our encounter with other people must be a genuine I-thou relationship.  We must allow ourselves to be influenced by our encounter with others just as we must allow ourselves to be influenced by our encounter with Torah.

Inspired by Rabbi Lamm’s tremendous drasha (which is available at, I want to conclude with one of my favorite passages from literature which also highlights our relationship to Torah also inspired by Parshat Breishit.

The passage is from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  Lee, the Chinese butler/cook/housekeeper was deeply troubled by the story of Cain and Abel.  For 10 years he sat with the story.

“the more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me.”  He bought every translation of the Bible available to him but still was not satisfied.  So he went to the headquarters of his family association where respected elderly scholars sat and philosophized/meditated. 

“’I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story and told him what I understood from it.  The next night four of them met and called me in.  we discussed the story all night long.’”

The elders and Lee committed themselves to understanding the story properly.  So they hired a rabbi to teach them Hebrew. Much like Rabbi Akiva in the Midrashic tradition,  “They took to the study as though they were children.  Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences…
“…It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in.”

And after two years of study they finally felt ready to approach the 16 verses from Breishit.  They eventually came to the peshat suggested by Rashi.

The scene concludes with Lee explaining why the Chinese elders took on their intensive course of study and why they cared to come to a proper understanding of the story:

“’These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it.  They are critics of truth.  They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race.”

I share this story because for me it is the perfect articulation of how WE should approach Torah.  To be curious and passionate so that we are able to ponder troubling passages for years at a time if need be.  To have the patience, diligence and perseverance to sit with its stories and troubling passages in order to get to that breakthrough moment.  To continue to feel the sense of awe and discovery so beautifully displayed by the Chinese scholars in Steinbeck’s masterpiece.

And so as we sit on Shabbat Breishit and begin the Torah reading cycle again, let us commit to developing a deeper understanding of the Torah by deepening our commitment to studying Torah.  As I hope you are aware, our shul has begun a new weekly Parsha shiur meeting over Zoom at 8pm on Tuesday nights.  Please join us as we embark on this study path together.  Avail yourselves of other learning opportunities and share your discoveries with us.

Can We Celebrate Simchat Torah This Year?

How can we celebrate Simchat Torah this year?  Simchat Torah is the celebration of completing the Torah, having read one parsha on every Shabbat of the year.  But this year there is no completion of the Torah.  Our shuls were closed for months during the Pandemic.  We missed the entire Sefer Vayikra.  How can celebrate the completion of the Torah?  Some of you may recall that back in January the daf Yomi completed its seven and-a-half year cycle of learning one page of Talmud everyday.  There were massive celebrations held throughout the world – most prominently in MetLife Stadium (home of the Giants and the Jets) where more than 100,000 gathered.  (Today we’d probably call it a super-spreader event).  The question was asked whether it is appropriate for someone who did not participate in the daf yomi learning had the right to attend the celebration.

Simchat Torah this year feels like we are the same imposters crashing the party.  Although many will counter back that due to the pandemic our celebration this year will be much more tame and unlike any previous Simchat Torah, so maybe it’s okay.

Let me offer a few thoughts on this, some new and some that we might have shared together in years past.

First, this year more than ever, Simchat Torah highlights the idea of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה – the Jewish people are interconnected and interdependent on each other.  It’s true that our community did not complete the communal, public Torah reading.  But perhaps we are celebrating the NATIONAL completion of the Torah.  In a “normal year” if someone was sick for one or two Shabboses over the course of the year or was on a family vacation with no minyan, no one would claim that they could not fully participate and celebrate Simchat Torah.  Rather, since the Community completed the Torah, they join in the communal celebration.  Well this year our community and many communities and shuls across the world join in the NATIONAL celebration of completing the Torah.  There are select communities, individuals that did complete every Parasha and so we celebrate their achievement and commitment.  In my shuva drasha this year we spoke about the difference between תפילה בצבור – prayer WITH a community in which 10 or more individuals gather together to offer their own personal prayer – and תפילת הצבור the prayer OF THE COMMUNITY which is accomplished in the chazarat ha-Shatz where the chazan offers a unique prayer on behalf of the corporate entity created by a group of individuals gathered together.  This Simchat Torah we celebrate the completion of the Torah by כנסת ישראל, the corporate entity.

And while we celebrate this communal/national accomplishment,  it’s important to address an issue that I’m sure has already entered some of your thoughts.  Yes, maybe there are select folks that did manage to hear every parsha read.  But did they violate rules of quarantine to do so?  Were they complicit in spreading the disease?  Indeed there has been much criticism of the Chareidi world over the past months and increasingly so in the past weeks, and much of the criticism is deserved.  But I have the strong feeling that we are quick to criticize and have lost our ability to empathize with our fellow Jews who have experienced devastating loss and whose strongest desire is to be able to attend shul and daven with a minyan.  Do we have a similar passion and commitment to the Torah and halacha?  Every week during Torah reading we offer a prayer for Jewish communities in distress and say אחינו כל בית ישראל – our brothers THE ENTIRE Jewish people.

There’san often-quoted idea about Shemini Atzeret is that after the intense holiday period, Hashem asks us to עצור (stop) and spend one more day together because as the Midrash, quoted by Rashi says, קשה עלי פרידתכם – your departure is difficult for me.  An alternative explanation of קשה עלי פרידתכם is that God is saying to B’nei Yisrael YOUR Separation is difficult.  There is such an emphasis on Jewish unity during the holidays of Tishrei, and as Yom Tov comes to a close there’s a recognition that the display and outpouring of unity will not continue.  But it could also be that any time there is disunity among the Jewish people then Hashem says קשה עלי פרידתכם.  Simchat Torah comes at the end of this season right before the separation to remind us that the Torah unites us, or the Torah should unite us.

Many ask why Simchat Torah and Shavuot are two separate holidays – wouldn’t it make more sense to begin our study of Torah on the very day that we received it?  Many answers are offered.  The common denominator among all of them is that on Shavuot we celebrate the very idea and gift of the Torah.  But on Simchat Torah we are able to celebrate the content of the Torah and our relationship to it.  I heard an explanation in the name of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z”l, who passed away this past year.  He says when you receive a gift there is much excitement over getting the gift and gratitude that someone thought of you to give you the gift.  But even if it’s something you’ve had your eyes on, you can’t really appreciate the gift itself on the day that you receive it.  This takes time to get to use it, and learn how it works.  Only after you’ve had some time with the gift is it possible to truly be grateful for the gift.  The same is true when it comes to the Torah.  On Shavuot we are thankful that Hashem gave us the Torah and that we were deemed worthy of receiving such a wonderful gift.  But we can only express our gratitude after we’ve had some time to discover what the Torah has to say and to experience how our lives are different as a result of having the Torah.  So we wait until Simchat Torah to express our gratitude and appreciation for the content of the Torah. 

Along similar lines,

Similarly, the Sefat Emet compares our relationship to Torah, as expressed through the brachot we recite before and after reading from it. Just as we recite brachot before and after eating food.  He explains that the blessing we say prior to eating is over the food itself – the physical food we are about to enjoy.  The bracha achronah (blessing after eating) is over the strength the food gives us and the energy which sustains us.  The Sefat Emet explains that the same holds true for Torah.  The brachah we say before reading the Torah is over the Torah itself.  Just as we say a brachah rishonah over the food we are about to eat, we say a brachah over the Torah from which we are about to read.  He suggests that this brachah is akin to the holiday of Shavuot on which we celebrate the Torah itself.  The second brachah, said after reading from the Torah parallels the brachah achronah we say on food.  This blessing is not over the physical thing we have just enjoyed, but is over the sustaining power.  Just as the food we eat sustains us and gives us physical energy to function in the world, so does the Torah we study sustain us and give us spiritual energy to function in the world.  This econd brachah corresponds to Simchat Torah.

A third idea – A favorite Simchat Torah story of mine is told in the name of the חדושי הרי”ם , Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter (1811-1866), the first Rebbe of the Ger dynasty.  The REbbe was watching two students dancing on Simchas Torah and predicted one student to tire before the other. He explained that one was dancing for the Torah he had learned up to this point.  The second was dancing for the Torah he would learn in the future. There is a limit to the past but there is no limit to what there is in the future.  

So even if our learning from the past year or relationship to Torah this past year was not where we’d like it to be, on Simchat Torah we can dance and sing for the Torah that we will learn, observe and celebrate this coming year.

And let me conclude with a related story.  When I was a student at Brandeis there was a local rabbi who had been a student of Shomo Carlebach’s, Rabbi Nosson Schafer and who ran Shabatonim and taught classes in the area.  He shared an amazing story.  Some of you may have had the experience to spend Simchat Torah at the Carlebach shul on the West Side of Manhattan.  The hakafot go all night long and it is THE PLACE to be, or at least it was back in the day.  Rabbi Schaeffer related that one year as they were beginning the Hakafot, after the Torah scrolls were distributed, R. Carlebach started handing out Sefarim off the bookshelves.  He was about to hand the next sefer from the shelf to R. Schaeffer when he stopped and pulled a different book – one of the volumes of the Netivot Shalom – and said that this is the right sefer from R. Schaeffer.  Well, after Yom Tov R. Schaeffer was curious enough to wonder why his rebbe thought he should dance with this particular sefer so he started learning it.  Changed his life.  Every d’var Torah and shiur the man gave came from the Netivot Shalom. 

The point is that on simchat Torah we celebrate our relationships and commitment to the entirety of Torah.  In fact many shuls this year are suggesting that people bring sefarim to dance with as passing the Torah scrolls is not a viable option.  We CAN celebrate Simchat Torah because our commitment to Torah is strong.

At this point, many rabbis will make an appeal for people to commit pledges of  tzedakah before Yizkor.  While our shul always welcomes donations, it is not our style to make a direct appeal.  But I do want to ask everyone to make a commitment to learn more Torah this year.  Beginning this Tuesday evening at 8:00pm, I will begin teaching a shiur on Parshat ha-Shavua.  I hope that you will join. If that is not your thing or the timing doesn’t work, find something else to learn.  Open a new sefer or revisit one that you’ve learned in the past.  And on this Simchat Torah Let us truly rejoice in the Torah that we have completed and celebrate the Torah that we will learn in the coming year.

On Waving the Lulav

It feels that the past several months we have been experiencing Sukkot.  The gemara tells us that essence of the mitzvah is צא מדירת קבע ושב בדירת עראי עד For the entire seven days, emerge from the permanent residence in which you reside year round and reside in a temporary residence (Sukkah 2a).  Well that’s exactly what we’ve been doing – davening in the back yard while only able to look into our precious shul building.

It’s interesting that one of the most common complaints/issues people have with davening is that it can easily become a routine/rote task and loses all spirituality.  One of the most common and most effective suggestions is to find the opportunity to daven in nature.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes about this in the context of hitbodedut, but I don’t think we need textual basis to appreciate the effectiveness of taking a break from the norm and routine to reconnect with nature.  But what to do when the temporary becomes permanent?  Is it possible to find inspiration from davening in nature or do we year to return to the synagogue building where we don’t have to contend with the heat or the cold or the rain, or the sound of cars honking, sirens wailing and children screaming?

With this in mind, I want to share an idea that I had the opportunity to learn from one of my dear teachers, Rabbi Katz earlier this week.

In describing the mitzvah of the ד’ מינים (Lulav and Etrog) the Torah instructs:

לְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י ה’ אלקיכם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃

On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

The mitzvah is ולקחם – you shall take.  We are so careful about this that we are concerned we may inadvertently fulfill the mitzvah before we are able to say the bracha which is why we are very careful to hold the etrog upside down before reciting the bracha and only turning the pitom facing up once the bracha has been recited. 

There is another important detail in the pasuk – the ד’ מינים must be taken לפני ה’ אלקיכם – before Hashem.  The pshat is that this is mitzvah that was to be performed in the Beit ha-Mikdash.  This is certainly alluded to in the Mishnah from Sukkah 41a which records:

משנה. בראשונה היה לולב ניטל במקדש שבעה, ובמדינה יום אחד. משחרב בית המקדש התקין רבן יוחנן בן זכאי שיהא לולב ניטל במדינה שבעה, זכר למקדש.

MISHNAH. Formerly the lulab was taken for seven days in the temple, and in the provinces for one day only. When the temple was destroyed, r. Johanan r. Zakkai instituted that the lulab should be taken in the provinces for seven days in memory of the temple,

With this in mind, there is a detail about the way in which we perform the mitzvah that doesn’t seem to fit.  The Mishnah at the beginning of perek lulav ha-gazul tells us the various things that render a lulav unfit for use:

מתני׳ לולב הגזול והיבש פסול של אשירה ושל עיר הנדחת פסול נקטם ראשו נפרצו עליו פסול נפרדו עליו כשר רבי יהודה אומר יאגדנו מלמעלה ציני הר הברזל כשירות לולב שיש בו שלשה טפחים כדי לנענע בו כשר:

MISHNA: A lulav that was stolen or that is completely dry is unfit for use in fulfilling the mitzva of the four species. The lulav of a tree worshipped as idolatry [asheira] and a lulav from a city whose residents were incited to idolatry, which must be burned along with all the city’s property, are unfit. If the top of the lulav was severed or if the palm leaves were severed from the spine of the lulav, it is unfit. If its leaves, although still attached, were spread and are no longer completely joined to the spine, it is fit. Rabbi Yehuda says: In that case, one should bind the lulav from the top, to join the leaves that spread to the spine. A lulav from the palms of the Iron Mountain are fit for use, although it differs from one taken from a standard palm tree, in that its leaves are shorter and do not cover the entire spine. A lulav that has three handbreadths in length, sufficient to enable one to wave with it, is fit for use in fulfilling the mitzva.

The first 5 make a lot of sense

  1. Stolen
  2. Dried up
  3. Comes from a tree that had been worshipped for idolatry
  4. Comes from a condemned city
  5. Its top was broken off

But where does the requirement that it has to be long enough to wave come from?  We’ve already established that the mitzvah is simply to lift it up?

The centrality of  נענוע (waving) to the mitzvah is seen in other elements of the mitzvah as well:

Later in our perek the Mishnah rules:

קטן היודע לנענע חייב בלולב:

A minor who knows how to wave the lulav is obligated in the mitzva of lulav due to the requirement to train him in the performance of mitzvot.

Here, the essential component of the mitzvah is to wave it.

Why is this so?

Tosafot (Sukkah 37b “ד”ה בהודו לה תחלה וסוף explain that the idea for נענוע comes from a verse in Divrei ha-Yamim:

דברי הימים א טז:לג

אָ֥ז יְרַנְּנ֖וּ עֲצֵ֣י הַיָּ֑עַר מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ כִּי־בָ֖א לִשְׁפּ֥וֹט אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Then shall all the trees of the forest shout for joy at the presence of the LORD, for He is coming to rule the earth.

Rabbi Katz explained that this pasuk summarizes perfectly the Rabbinic response to the destruction of the Beit ha-Mikdash.  The trees of the forest are מלפני ה’ – in the presence of the Lord.  We thought that when the Torah tells us to rejoice on Sukkot לפני ה’ אלקיכם that this meant in the Beit ha-Mikdash.  But the pasuk in Divrei ha-Yamim (and its parallel in Tehilim) show that the true meaning of לפני ה’ is to be in nature.  And so the נענועים are the essential component of the mitzvah of lulav because they show that God can be found and encountered in nature and not only in the Beit ha-Mikdash.  

The Yerushalmi explains that a dry lulav is not kosher because לא המתים יהללו קה – the dead cannot praise God.  How does a lulav or any other tree sing God’s praise – by blowing in the wind! 

And so we take our ד’ מינים and wave them to show that we affirm that God can be found in nature and that just as the trees can sing God’s praise WHERE THEY ARE, so can we, even if we are without a Beit ha-Mikdash, even if we are not able to daven in our shul.

Chag Sameach!

Ha’azinu: The Song of Torah

Parshat Ha’azinu contains the song that Moshe introduced in last week’s parsha, Vayelech.  The song itself serves as a witness against the Jewish people if they deviate from the words of Torah:  Therefore write down this poem[shirah]  and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel (Devarim 31:19).  In fact, much of Parshat Vayelech reads like an introduction to the great song/poem [shira].  On a simple, p’shat level this shirah” refers to the Song or Poem of Ha’azinu that immediately follows it in the Torah.  However, Chazal read the pasuk to refer to the entire Torah.  The term shirah makes sense in the context of Ha’azinu.  From the language and structure of the way it is written in the Torah, it is clearly meant to read as a song, distinctive from the rest of the Torah.  But how is shirah an appropriate term for the entire Torah? 

One explanation is offered by Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netiv, in his introduction to his Ha’amek Davar commentary on the Chumash.  The Netziv explains that even though the Torah is not written in the language or style of shisra, the Torah has two characteristic which are essential to Shirah:   First, poetry is allusive.  It leaves more unsaid than that which it says explicitly.  Second, like poetry, the Torah uses precise language and sentence structure to hint at deeper meanings.  To gain a true understanding of Torah we must probe deeply, beyond the surface level of its meaning. 

A second explanation for why the Torah is referred to as shirah comes from Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein, the author of the Aruch ha-Shulchan.  In the introduction to Choshen Mishpat, he writes that the imagery of song is fitting for how we learn Torah.  The Torah she-be’al Peh (Oral Torah) is full of arguments and differing opinions (machloket).  Our tradition celebrates this fact and tells us eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim Chayim – these and those are the words of the living God.  Just as a musical piece written for many instruments and with many harmonies is more beautiful than a monotonous piece, so too our Torah learning.  Our Torah study becomes like a symphony – interweaving complex harmonies and many voices. 

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of British Empire offers a third explanation.  He explains, that in addition to learning Torah for ourselves to fulfill our personal obligations, we have a responsibility to write the Torah for the next generation – to pass it down and continue the chain of transmission.  For this, the element of song is crucial.  We fail if we treat the Torah as another book of laws or history.  We will only succeed in passing Torah to the next generation if we treat it as a song or poetry.  Torah must speak to our emotions.  In preparing Torah for the next generation, we must consider not only the content of the Torah but the affect as well.  Our responsibility is to make the Torah new in every generation; to create excitement and passion for the Torah.  We must relate to Torah with our emotions as well as our intellect. 

A final explanation of why Torah is compared to shirah comes from Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog z”l the former Chief Rabbi of Israel.  Rav Herzog explains that music is unique in that it can be appreciated and enjoyed by experts and by amateurs.  One does not need to be a pianist or student of music theory to appreciate a great symphony.  The same is true of Torah.  It can be enjoyed and appreciated by a full range of people – amateurs who have never set foot in a beit midrashand talmidei chachamim who spend all day immersed in the nuance of halachah. 

As we read parshat Ha’azinu with the memories of Yom Kippur fresh in our mind and in anticipation of Sukkot, may we all merit to experience Torah as the shirah that it is. 

Acceping the Silence of the Shofar

In a “normal year” my speech at this point would introduce Tekiyat Shofar.  I’d also introduce my speech with a reference to a favorite movie, interesting podcast or book that I read in the past in the past year (and with quarantine trust me there have been plenty of movies, podcasts and books).  In case anyone needed another reminder that this is not a normal year along comes the Halacha and tells us that we don’t blow Shofar today because the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. 

The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 29b seeks to understand why we do away with the central mitzvah of the day, especially since the Mishnah records that in the Beit haMikdash they would sound the Shofar on Shabbat and that for a brief period following the destruction of the Beit haMikdash they would sound the Shofar on Shabbat in cities where a Beit Din sat.  The first suggestion come from לוי בר לחמא אמר רבי חמא בר חנינא.  The Torah offers two contradictory descriptions of Rosh Hahshanah.   In Bamidbar 29:1 we read:

 וּבַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ י֥וֹם תְּרוּעָ֖ה יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.

But in Sefer Vayikra (23:24), the description is not of יום תרועה – a day of sounding the shofar.  Rather it is described as זכרון תרועה – a remembrance of the sounding the shofar.

 In Vayikra 23:24 we read

דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ יִהְיֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן זִכְר֥וֹן תְּרוּעָ֖ה מִקְרָא־קֹֽדֶשׁ׃

Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.

Is Rosh Hashanah meant to be a day of sounding the Shofar or a day of remembering the sounding of the shofar?  The Gemara suggests that the two psukim refer to two different scenarios which are both true.  In a “normal year” Rosh Hashanah is indeed a day of sounding the Shofar.  But when it coincides with Shabbat it is a day of remembering the shofar since we don’t blow the Shofar on Shabbat.  (Remember that originally Rosh Hashanah is only one day so there would be no making it up the next day.)

Following the year that we’ve been through and the way that 5781 is starting off, I think it is safe to assume that we can all identify with the idea of זכרון תרועה, memory of the Shofar.  When everything has been turned upside down, we seek comfort in the זכרון, the memory of how things were prior to the Coronavirus pandemic.  We endure the pain of spending another Yom Tov apart from friends and family and the discomfort of wearing masks and exposing ourselves to the elements with the deep yearning that this is all a temporary setback and that please God things will soon return to normal. 

But ultimately this explanation for why Shofar is not sounded on Shabbat is qyestioned on technical grounds.  Firstly, if the Torah truly prohibits sounding the shofar on Shabbat then how was it permitted in the Beit haMikdash and other communities where a Beit Din sat?  Secondly, the Gemara asserts that sounding the shofar is not a melacha – a forbidden act of labor – but is a חכמה – a skill.  Rather, the sage Rava asserts that Biblically it is permitted to blow the Shofar on Shabbat, but the Rabbis decreed against it.

אלא אמר רבא מדאורייתא מישרא שרי ורבנן הוא דגזור ביה

The reason for this decree comes from Rabba

דאמר רבה הכל חייבין בתקיעת שופר ואין הכל בקיאין בתקיעת שופר גזירה שמא יטלנו בידו וילך אצל הבקי ללמוד ויעבירנו ד’ אמות ברה”ר

as Rabba said: All are obligated to sound the shofar on Rosh HaShana, but not all are experts in sounding the shofar. Therefore, the Sages instituted a decree that the shofar should not be sounded on Shabbat, lest one take the shofar in his hand and go to an expert to learn how to sound it or to have him sound it for him, and due to his preoccupation he might carry it four cubits in the public domain, which is a desecration of Shabbat.

At first glance this explanation is hard to understand.  Why should the entire community give up the central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah because there might be one or two forgetful individuals.  If there really is a concern, then let the community erect an eruv or insist that only the Rabbi or respected leader will sound the shofar?!

One powerful answer that resonates even more in the COVID era is that we have to be sensitive and concerned with every individual.  As Rabbi Linzer wrote in a d’var Torah exploring this question in 5767, long before anyone had heard of Coronavirus or COVID:

“We must be sensitive even to the slightest possibility of offense, no matter how remote it seems. It is specifically when we are striving for greatness and following our loftiest visions [– as embodied by the Shofar] that we must be exquisitely sensitive to those around us, to the presence of others in this world.”

Just as we wear masks, socially distance ourselves and radically alter the ways our schools, shuls, stores, function in order to protect the most vulnerable, so too when it comes to our religious and spiritual lives.  We have a responsibility for the welfare of everyone, even, or especially those who might not know all of the rules or who might be forgetful. 

A second explanation is that the silencing of the Shofar on Shabbat evokes another principle in Halacha: שתיקה כהודאה דמיא – silence is considered like acquiescence. 

We tend to think of Teshuvah as a process of fixing our sins of commission – the mistakes that we made in our lives by acting inappropriately.  But we must also do teshuvah for our sins of omission – of the opportunities we missed through our inaction.  And so we take the radical step of not sounding Shofar on Rosh Hashanah to force us to come to terms with our own silence in the hope that we will be silent no more.

A related explanation for the silencing of the Shofar is alluded to in the unetaneh tokef : ובשופר גדול ייתקע/וקול דממה דקה ישמע — and the great shofar shall be sounded, and the sound of a thin, still silence shall be heard.  This of course alludes to Hashem’s revelation to Eliyahu in Melachim Aleph (I Kings 19:11-12):

(יא) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר צֵ֣א וְעָמַדְתָּ֣ בָהָר֮ לִפְנֵ֣י ה’ וְהִנֵּ֧ה ה’ עֹבֵ֗ר וְר֣וּחַ גְּדוֹלָ֡ה וְחָזָ֞ק מְפָרֵק֩ הָרִ֨ים וּמְשַׁבֵּ֤ר סְלָעִים֙ לִפְנֵ֣י ה’ לֹ֥א בָר֖וּחַ ה’ וְאַחַ֤ר הָר֨וּחַ רַ֔עַשׁ לֹ֥א בָרַ֖עַשׁ ה’׃ (יב) וְאַחַ֤ר הָרַ֙עַשׁ֙ אֵ֔שׁ לֹ֥א בָאֵ֖שׁ ה’ וְאַחַ֣ר הָאֵ֔שׁ ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה׃

“Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. (12) After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.

We often fall in the trap of thinking that everything important and significant must be accompanied with pomp and circumstance.  Hashem’s message to Eliyahu is that God is found not in the sound and light show but in the קול דממה דקה, the still, silent voice.   Often the small voice that really matters gets drowned out amidst the chaos and busy-ness of life.  We fail to notice the silent calls for our attention or we put the nagging voice of our conscience on the backburner because it’s easier to pretend it’s not there.  But on a Rosh Hashanah where the Shofar is not sounded, where we might find ourselves seeking the sound of the Shofar, we become more tuned in to the smaller, quieter authentic voices.

One final thought brings us back to the original suggestion made in the Gemara that we don’t sound the Shofar today because of the pasuk that describes Rosh Hashanahn as זכרון תרועה.  On the one hand, throughout the pandemic the greatest desire that we all feel is to return to normal.  The silencing of the Shofar is our ultimate commitment to the normal.  We do not compromise on Shabbat even to blow the Shofar of Rosh Hashanah.  Our commitment to Shabbat, to davening, to learning Torah to giving tzedakah, must remain constant and uninterrupted.  At the same time we must be aware of the dangers of holding one model of normal in our minds.  There is a very real danger of becoming trapped by that model.  When we can’t have what we’re used to or what we think normal should be, then why bother at all?  

If we can’t have Pesach Seder with our grandchildren then why bother?

If we can’t go to shul on Shabbos and sing the songs we love to sing, then why bother?

If we can’t say kaddish on the yarzheit of a love one, then why bother?

The list goes on and on… 

And this might explain why ultimately the explanation of זכרון תרועה is rejected.  If our entire experience is shaped only by the memory of what was or the hopes of what will be, then we miss out on the experience before us.  Yes, Rosh Hashanah without shofar is different and might feel weird.  But we are still able to celebrate and observe the day.  Yes, we are entering the New Year under very difficult circumstances.  But that is our reality.  And so we face it head on.  We accept the silence of the shofar.  We wear our masks, keep our distance and cut back on our shul experience this year.  We do so with a deep hope that this will end soon and that all who are sick and suffering will be granted a רפואה שלמה (a full and complete recovery).  And we do so with a commitment to ourselves that we won’t allow ourselves to be trapped by what’s not here.  But that we continue to adapt to ensure that this coming year, 5781 will be one where we will not be silent about matters that demand our attention and one that will allow us to hear the soft, authentic voices that might have otherwise been drowned out in the noise and the hustle and bustle of normal.

Shanah Tovah.

World on Fire

In trying to decide what to speak about this morning, I felt paralyzed.  There is so much to address, so much that is wrong in the world.  We enter the New Year in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic which has turned the world upside down for the past 6 months.  Right before Rosh Hashanah our brothers and sisters in Israel entered into another lockdown and there is an upsurge in many regions of the US.  Our country once again finds ourselves overcome with racial protests and preparing for an election in a political environment that threatens to tear the country apart.  In the past weeks we have had to contend with the devastating forest fires on the West Coast.  Our world is literally on fire.

And I found myself coming back to the hero of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah – Avraham Avinu.  This morning we read the עקדה and yesterday we read of the birth of Yitzchak and the expulsion of Yishmael.  But my thoughts on Avraham took me back to his origin story.  The Torah does not explain why Hashem chose Avraham to carry out God’s mission in the world.  Rather, seemingly out of the blue Hashem appears to him at the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha (Breishit 12:1)

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

There are many midrashim that attempt to explain Hashem’s choice of Avraham.  We are familiar with the story of Avraham being left in charge of his father’s idol shop or of his observance of the moon and sun which ultimately led him to recognizing God.

The Midrash that I keep coming back to this year is the one that says, like us, Avraham found himself in a world that was on fire (Breishit Rabbah 39:1)

, אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם, וְרָאָה בִּירָה אַחַת דּוֹלֶקֶת, אָמַר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהַבִּירָה הַזּוֹ בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג, הֵצִיץ עָלָיו בַּעַל הַבִּירָה, אָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הַבִּירָה. כָּךְ לְפִי שֶׁהָיָה אָבִינוּ אַבְרָהָם אוֹמֵר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג, הֵצִיץ עָלָיו הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְאָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הָעוֹלָם.

Rabbi Yitzchak said: this may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a castle aglow. He said, “Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?” The owner of the building looked at him and said to him, ‘I am the master of the castle.'” What happened with Abraham our father was similar. He said, “Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?,” the Holy Blessed One looked at him and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the Universe.'”

The Midrash is often understood as a variation of the Watchmaker argument.  The fact that there is a castle means someone must have built it.  By extension, the existence of our world indicates that God must have created it.  But this understanding of the Midrash does not really address many of the details.

Firstly, Avraham’s conclusion when seeing the castle on fire is not “the building must have a builder.”  He concludes “The building must have a מנהיג – a leader or someone in charge.”

Second how does the conclusion הציץ עליו הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר לו אני הוא בעל העולם – God peeked out and revealed Himself to Avraham make sense?

And most glaringly, the premise of Avraham’s logic seems flawed.  If I were wandering from place to place and camp upon a palace on fire, my immediate conclusion would not be “certainly this building has an owner.”  I’d conclude the exact opposite – there must not be an owner or else they’d be working frantically trying to put out the fire and save their home!

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book A Letter in the Scroll explains that the point of the Midrash is not to demonstrate that Avraham came to believe in God.  Rather, the point of the Midrash is to show us that Avraham asked the question: “Is it possible that the castle lacks a person to look after it?”  “Faith,” writes Rabbi Sacks is born not in the answer but in the question, not in harmony but in dissonance.  “  He proceeds to explain that there are two ways of seeing the world.  One approach denies the existence of God in which case “the evolution of the universe is inexorable and blind; there is no justice and no judge.”  In this view, “There is no palace.  There are only flames.”

The second approach insists that there is a God, and therefore the world is wholly good.  All injustice is an illusion and the righteous suffer in order to teach them to find faith through their suffering.  In this view “There is a palace.  Therefore there are no flames.”

The radical innovation of Avraham was to recognize that both approaches are true.  There is both a palace and there are flames.  Rabbi Sacks concludes his analysis: “If this is so and I have interpreted the midrash correctly, then Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.”

This understanding explains the conclusion of the Midrash הציץ עליו הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר לו אני הוא בעל העולם.  As my chavruta Avidan Freedman explains it:  At hearing Avraham’s question and struggles over how to reconcile the fact that there are both a Palace – a Godly world AND flames – a lack of justice and ethics Hashem exclaims: “Finally!  There’s someone I can work with.  God appears to Avraham and says “If that’s your question -we can create a relationship.  We can create a covenant and partnership to bring blessing to the world.”

I want to conclude with a powerful story I heard from my friend Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner who serves as the the senior rabbi and director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.  Due to the Coronavirus the hospital made the decision that they would not have any live services for the High Holidays.  Rabbi Weiner and his chaplaincy team therefore began work recording a service for any patient who would want to watch it.  Recording began over the summer.  After the first day of recording Rabbi Weiner got an urgent call that there was a family who had to see him at once.  He immediately went to the room – it was the room of a woman whom he had been following closely and already had a relationship with the patient and her daughter.  The daughter is an observant Jew and was having a hard time seeing her mother suffer through a prolonged and difficult illness.  Finally the daughter cracked.  She felt that her prayers to God were not being answered and she was angry that her mother continued to suffer.  The daughter decided that out of anger she was going to rebel against God and decided that she would eat non-kosher for the first time in her life.  So she left her mother’s bedside and walked into the first restaurant or cafeteria she could find and ordered the most treif sandwich she could think of – ham and cheese, or something like that.  Despite her anger, she could not bring her treif sandwich into her mother’s hospital room so she found a bench in the lobby and with hands shaking was about to take a bite from the sandwich when she heard the shofar sound.  She assumed she must be imagining it – why on earth would anyone be blowing shofar in the middle of August in Los Angeles?  So she again got ready to take a bit and heard the shofar again.  She put down the sandwich and looked around.  Turns out the hospital chapel was nearby and she peered in to see Rabbi Weiner and the other chaplains dressed in the kitel and talis, blowing the shofar.  The woman immediately understood that the shofar she heard was God’s answer to her anger.  Hashem did hear her prayers and had not ignored her.  The woman got rid of the sandwich and rushed back to her mother’s bedside.

I believe that this story is another instance of . הציץ עליו הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר לו אני הוא בעל העולם This woman’s world was on fire – she could not make sense of her mother’s illness and suffering.  And just when all hope seemed lost, she got a sign that all is not lost.  As we prepare to blow the shofar and our world is on fire, let the shofar be an answer to us as well.  So long as we continue to ask the difficult questions and work to make the world the place that it ought to be, then we remain partners with God in this holy work.

The Prayer of the Shofar

The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 26b records a debate whether the Shofar used for Rosh Hashanah should be bent or straight. 

  ראש השנה כו: 

משנהשופר של ראש השנה של יעל, פשוט…רבי יהודה אומר: בראש השנה תוקעין בשל זכרים  

גמרא. אמר רבי לוי: מצוה של ראש השנה ושל יום הכפורים בכפופין  

Mishnah:  the shofar of Rosh Hashanah should be the horn of  a wild goat which is straight…R. Yehudah says on Rosh Hashanah we blow with the horns of males. 

The Gemara explains that R. Yehudah wishes to say that the mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah is to used a bent shofar.   

The Gemara seeks to explain this debate: 

במאי קמיפלגי? מר סבר: בראש השנה – כמה דכייף איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי…. ומר סבר: בראש השנה כמה דפשיט איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי, ובתעניות כמה דכייף איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי.  

  On what points do they argue?  [R. Yehudah] holds that on RH  the more a person bows his mind, the better it is..But the Tanna Kamma maintains that on Rosh Hashnah the more a person straightens his mind the better it is. 

Rashi and Tosafot both seem to have a different manuscript which omits the word דעתיה – his mind.  They understand the Gemara to be debating the physical posture that one takes in prayer.   

כמה דכייף איניש – בתפלתו, פניו כבושין לארץ, טפי עדיף, משום והיו עיני ולבי שם (מלכים א’, ט), הלכך, בראש השנה דלתפלה, ולהזכיר עקידת יצחק בא – בעינן כפופין, ויובלות שהן לקרוא דרור – בעינן פשוטין, וגזירה שוה לית ליה. 

The more a person bows – in his prayer, with  his face directed to the ground, it is preferred.  Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah which is [celebrated] for our prayer and for remembering the binding of Isaac, we require a bent shofar.  Jubilee year – which is for the proclamation of freedom requires a straight shofar. 

What emerges from this is The blowing of the shofar is tefilah! 

What does this mean, and how does it help us in our tefilot? 

The Sochatchover Rebbe, R. Shmuel Borenstein, known as the Shem Mi-Shmuel explains:

Even though verbal prayer comes from the heart, it becomes “dressed” in the physicality of the mouth, and therefore enters the world of physicality and is therefore not as potent/meritorious as when it left the heart.  But the voice of the shofar is pure and has no physicality. 

The sound of the shofar comes straight from the heart and is not adulterated by the physicality/difficulty of translating our most spiritual and emotional yearning into physical words.   

When we use the shofar as the catalyst for prayer and when we attach our prayers to the sound of the shofar then our tefilot are able to ascend up high in their purest form.   

The shofar is the expression of the prayers that we are unable to articulate.  I’d venture to say that this year we all have prayers in our heart that we cannot fully and properly articulate in words.  As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to spread and affect so many people, we are confronted with a myriad of emotions – fear, anxiety, vulnerability, etc.  As our political leaders and health experts seek to balance the need to minimize spread of the disease while ensuring the economy does not completely collapse, there is no easy answer.  Mistakes have been made and will continue to be made.  The most common refrain from the leaders of our schools, shuls, and communal institutions over the past 6 months has been “We don’t know.”  Add to this messy equation the political unrest, wildfires, hurricanes and indeed there are so many unknowns.  As we enter Rosh Hashanah with so many mixed emotions and unknowns we take comfort in the Shofar’s ability to bring our unarticulated prayers before God.

Let me add one more related thought:  Our davening this year will look radically different from any other year.  So many of our members will remain at home and face the prospect of davening on Rosh Hashanah without a minyan, perhaps for the first time in their lives.  At shul we will be sitting outside – not in our familiar spots and forced to contend with unpredictable weather and noise.  In our efforts to minimize spread of virus and ensure everyone’s comfort, we are cutting out many familiar passages from the machzor.  Many of our favorite songs will not be sung in shul this year.  It is crucial to remember that all of these changes are absolutely acceptable and are the correct thing to do given our circumstances.  The Gemara (Berachot 17a and elsewhere) establishes the principle:

אֶחָד הַמַּרְבֶּה וְאֶחָד הַמַּמְעִיט וּבִלְבַד שֶׁיְּכַוֵּין לִבּוֹ לַשָּׁמַיִם״.

One who brings a slot and one who brings a little have equal merit, as long as he directs his heart towards Heaven

This principle is applied in many areas of Halacha, and certainly to Tefilah.  The goal of our prayer is not to say every single word, but to be sure that what we do say is done with kavanah and proper intention.  Elsewhere the Gemara asserts רחמנא לבא בעי – God desires that which is in our heart.  So long as our prayers are a sincere articulation of what is in our heart, it doesn’t matter if we skip a few paragraphs or don’t sing all of our favorite tunes.

Wishing everyone a Shanah Tovah!

The Choices We Make

This week we read the double Parsha of  Nitzavim-Vayelech.  Theses 2 parshiyot are always read around this time of year – coinciding with the Yamim Noraim and they raise many issues and questions connected to the season. 

One of these ideas is that of free choice.  We take for granted that one of the basic tenets of faith is that we have free choice – בחירה חפשית.  This seems to be confirmed by our parsha in which Moshe tells B’nei Yisrael that they have a very clear choice to make:

רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע׃ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוְּךָ֮ הַיּוֹם֒ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֙יךָ֙ לָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֔יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֛ר מִצְוֺתָ֥יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֑יו וְחָיִ֣יתָ וְרָבִ֔יתָ וּבֵֽרַכְךָ֙ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ …הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ 

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live (Devarim 30:15-19)

The choice before us is very clear – Life and goodness or Death and adversity.  But Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of the most interesting and outspoken thinkers of the previous generation notes: “The Torah demands of man to choose the good and to choose life, but does not promise that he has the power to choose.”  Leibowitz continues to explain that the Torah gives rise to another fascinating and crucial question – and one that resonates strongly during the Teshuvah season.  Does the Torah make realistic demands of us?  On the surface it would seem that the Torah can only ask of us that which we are capable of doing.  Yet others maintain that the Torah sets ideals that may not be achievable by any one person but which help us to strive for perfection and constant improvement.  As Leibowitz writes:

“There are those who hold that a demand related to faith or ethics has no meaning unless it is in keeping with man’s abilities.  Others, though, state that there is deep meaning even in those cases where man may be aware that he has been commanded to achieve a certain goal toward which he must strive even if he knows that he will never attain that goal.  He fulfills his obligation by attempting to reach that goal.” (Yeshayahu Leibowitz.  Accepting the Yoke of Heaven: Commentary on the Weekly Torah Portion.  p.189)

This tension over demanding what is achievable versus setting an unrealistic ideal is a common universal, human theme.  One example of where it is expressed in our tradition is earlier in Sefer Devarim in describing the Shemitah (Sabbatical) year.  We first read (Devarim 15:1-5):

קֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה שְׁמִטָּה: וְזֶה דְּבַר הַשְּׁמִטָּה שָׁמוֹט כָּל בַּעַל מַשֵּׁה יָדוֹ אֲשֶׁר יַשֶּׁה בְּרֵעֵהוּ לֹא יִגֹּשׂ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאֶת אָחִיו כִּי קָרָא שְׁמִטָּה לַיקֹוָק: אֶת הַנָּכְרִי תִּגֹּשׂ וַאֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֶת אָחִיךָ תַּשְׁמֵט יָדֶךָ: אֶפֶס כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן כִּי בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ יְקֹוָק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ: רַק אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם:… 

Every seventh year you shall practice a remission of debts.  This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord.  You may dun the foreigner; by you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen.  There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – If only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day… 

But five verses later we read:

שָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן יִהְיֶה דָבָר עִם לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר קָרְבָה שְׁנַת הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ וְקָרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל יְקֹוָק וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא: נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ:כִּי לֹא יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶךָ 

Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “the seventh year, the year of remission is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.  He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt.  Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your undertakings for there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. 

We are told that if we follow the laws of Shemitah then there will be no poor among us.  And in the same breath we read that there will never cease to be needy ones in the land.  Rashi (Devarim 15:4) resolves this contradiction by explaining there will be no needy if we do God’s will, but if we fail to follow the mitzvot then there will be needy among us.  My preferred explanation is that in the first instance the Torah paints the ideal vision of a society in which there is no poverty.  The second passage addresses reality and affirms that there will always be poor among us.  We must be able to hold both of these statements simultaneously – to remain committed to realizing the idealistic vision but not to be blind to the reality around us.

This same approach serves us well when it comes to Teshuvah and our preparation for the Yamim Noraim.   We should set idealistic goals and aspirations for ourselves, our family and community.  At the same time we have to be realistic about what is attainable.  We cannot beat ourselves up or become depressed if we fail to meet the ideals, nor can we give up on those ideals. 

In his amazing book The Prime Ministers, Yehuda Avner writes of an interview that Golda Meir gave where she was asked whether the Israel she led as prime minister had any resemblance to the Israel she dreamed of as a socialist pioneer.  She responded as follows:

Golda lit a cigarette, and blowing smoke through her nostrils sighed, “No, this is not the Israel I dreamed of.  I naively thought that in a Jewish State there would not be all the evils that afflict other societies – theft, murder, prostitution.  It’s something that breaks my heart.  On the other hand” – her voice became resonant, even buoyant – “speaking as a Jewish socialist, Israel is more than I could ever have dreamed of, because the realization of Zionism is part of my socialism.  Forty or fifty years ago I had no hopes that we Jews would ever have a sovereign state to call our own.  Now that we have one, it doesn’t seem to me right to worry too much about its defects.  We have a soil on which to put our feet, and that’s already a lot. 

“And as for my socialism, to be honest there’s a big difference between socialist ideology and socialism in practice.  All socialist parties that have risen to power soon stoop to compromise.  The dream I had, the dream of a just world united in socialism, has long gone to the devil. You can have all the dreams you like, but when you’re dreaming you’re not awake.  And when you wake up you realize your dream has very little in common with reality.”

Ki Tetzeh – On Pleading Ignorance

Parshat Ki Tetzeh contains 72 Mitzvot according the Rambam’s count in Sefer ha-Mitzvot. While there is much to discuss in the parsha, I’d like to focus on a seemingly simple comment of Rashi.
Among the many mitzvot of the Parsha is that of hashavat aveidah – returning lost property. At the beginning of Chapter 22 we read (Devarrim 22:1-3):
לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־שׁ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ֙ נִדָּחִ֔ים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֵ֖ם לְאָחִֽיךָ׃ (ב) וְאִם־לֹ֨א קָר֥וֹב אָחִ֛יךָ אֵלֶ֖יךָ וְלֹ֣א יְדַעְתּ֑וֹ וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ֙ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ בֵּיתֶ֔ךָ וְהָיָ֣ה עִמְּךָ֗ עַ֣ד דְּרֹ֤שׁ אָחִ֙יךָ֙ אֹת֔וֹ וַהֲשֵׁבֹת֖וֹ לֽוֹ׃ (ג) וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֜ה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. (2) If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. (3) You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Rashi comments on the final phrase:

לא תוכל להתעלם. לִכְבֹּשׁ עֵינְךָ כְּאִלּוּ אֵינְךָ רוֹאֶה אוֹתוֹ:

THOU MAYEST NOT HIDE THYSELF — i.e. You must not cover your eyes, pretending not to see it.

On a simple and practical level, Rashi is concerned that the Torah’s demands may be overburdensome. The Torah’s demands for returning lost property can be demanding – we are required to provide food and shelter for lost animals, to actively search after the owner of lost property and to chase after lost property in the hope of being able to return it to its owner. As Rashi correctly notes, it would be understandable for a person to pretend not to see the lost item, and not taking on the responsibility (and headache) of dealing with the lost property.
Others explain that the phrase לא תוכל להתעלם – which is literally translated as “you CANNOT ignore it” does not speak only to our legal/halachic responsibility to care for lost property, but to an ethical and moral responsibility. As the Alshikh writes, “The Holy One Blessed be He wished to implant in the Jew an altruistic love of his fellow, by means of the mitzvot, and hep him overcome his naturally selfish instincts.” In other words, we are being told to internalize a love for our neighbor, manifest in our concern for the property of others that we cannot allow ourselves to ever pretend not to see it.

While the comments of Rashi and the Alshikh certainly ring true when it comes to the laws of lost property, it can be applied in a much broader context. As Sivan Rahav Meir expounds on Rashi’s comment: “Even if you convince that it is none of your business, deep down you know that you are purposely avoiding the situation.” She continues to note that the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah has been applied to much broader contexts: “We are not only told to make great efforts to return a lost item to the person to whom it belongs, but to return a person to himself, to help restore lost souls to the straight and narrow. A person can also be lost, and when we help bring him back to himself, to his self-identity and to sanity then we have fulfilled the commandment of returning lost property. “
Another context in which the message of לא תוכל להתעלם (you cannot ignore it) is current events and the society around us. As we conclude another week defined by racial protests, this time centered in Kenosha, WI, the message of לא תוכל להתעלם has to resonate. We cannot go about our lives pretending to be unaware of the deep pain, anger and frustration experienced by so many. The same is true when it comes to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, or the destruction wrought by Hurricane Laura. It can be overwhelming to confront so much pain and suffering, and would certainly be easier to remain focused on our relatively safe bubble. But the Torah’s message is לא תוכל להתעלם – you cannot pretend not to see it. Because once we see it and are aware of the pain of others, we must act to try and alleviate their pain and suffering.
This past Thursday night our shul hosted a panel discussion on LGBTQ in the Orthodox world. It was a powerful program and I am so grateful to Mindy Dickler for putting together the panel of speakers and for pushing us out of our comfort zone to discuss a difficult topic. Many important issues were raised but I think it is safe to say that the key takeaway message from the panel is that there members of the Orthodox community who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer. It is a reality that cannot be ignored. As our pasuk states: לא תוכל להתעלם you cannot ignore it.

This lesson is especially relevant as we are in the month of Elul and in the “Teshuva season.” Part of our teshuva process should be to recognize the areas where we have pretended to be ignorant or oblivious to issues that we should actively engage and do our part to address.