Skip to content

Sukkot — Noble Illusions

As many of you know, we recently went through a significant renovation in our house.  As we are still working with the contractor on the final punch list, it often feels like he is basing himself in the laws of Sukkah.

Indeed, there are all sorts of legal fictions at play when it comes to Sukkah

  • לבוד – If there is a gap of less than 3 tephachim  (approximately 10 inches) it’s as if there is no gap.  This works for both the walls of the sukkah and the schach
  • גוד אסיק – “A rising barrier”.  If a barrier is at least ten tefachim above the ground we consider that it continues to rise until it meets the schach
  • דופן עקומה – “A bent wall”  If four cubits or less of an invalid type of covering or sekhakh was placed on the roof of the sukkah contiguous to the wall, we don regard it as invalid thereby disqualifying the entire סכך but imaging as if the wall were bent over and inclined for that distance.

These rules might help when building a sukkah, but not so good when it comes to a real house.

The Torah instructs us בסוכות תשבו שמעת ימים about which the Gemara explains תשבו כעין תדורו.  Rabbi Yakov  Amiel reads this as “dwell AS IF you truly resided in the Sukkah.

Rabbi Lamm expounds: (https://archives.yu.edu/gsdl/collect/lammserm/index/assoc/HASH0130/023d2e10.dir/doc.pdf):

We do not really change our address from home to Sukkah; nevertheless, in our minds, in our practice, in our will, in our intentions, we dwell in the Sukkah as if we really lived there. All of Sukkot is a tribute to the power of a noble illusion.

Rabbi Lamm beautifully develops the idea of noble illusions.  Though we have a negative association with the term illusion,

In many of the most significant branches of human endeavor we make use of illusion, and could not get along without it.

  • in law we use legal fictions — as, for example, when we confer a corporation not as a collection of many people, but as an individual, collective personality.
  • In science we abstract “ideal systems” from reality — and that is creating an illusion.
  • The mathematician deals with such concepts as infinity and imaginary number.

The future is bleak, the past a confused jumble, and the present depressingly dull, without the necesssary illusions.

Rabbi Lamm continues to explain that there are many noble illusions at the core of Jewish life and thought.

חזקת כשרות chezkat kashrut (a presumption of “kosher status”) – If someone walks into shul, we assume that they are Jewish in good standing.  We welcome them into shul, offer men an Aliyah to the Torah, etc.  When it comes to halachic issues, we rely on the chezkat kashrut to validate contracts and testimony in front of Beit Din.   A narrow view of the facts will tell you that most people are unworthy and irresponsible. But without the illusion of man’s kashrut there can be no trust, no loyalty, no faith. And therefore, there can be no transactions, no marriage, arid no happiness.

A favorite example of mine comes from Sefer Breishit as Yakov prepares for his encounter with Esav after spending so many years away from him and the rest of the family, he sends the message:

בראשית פרק לב 

כֹּה אָמַר עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב עִם לָבָן גַּרְתִּי וָאֵחַר עַד עָתָּה: 

    (ו) וַיְהִי לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה וָאֶשְׁלְחָה לְהַגִּיד לַאדֹנִי לִמְצֹא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ: 

“Thus says your servant Jacob: ‘I have stayed with Lavan and remained until now.  I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.” 

Rashi comments: 

 דבר אחר גרתי בגימטריא תרי”ג, כלומר עם לבן הרשע גרתי ותרי”ג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים 

The word garti (“I have stayed”) is the same letters as Taryag (613).  That is to say, even though I lived with the wicked Lavan, I kept all 613 mitzvot and did not learn from his wicked ways.

How can Yakov declare that he kept all 613 mitzvot. 

  1. Torah was not yet given, so any claim of 613 mitzvot is anachronistic. 
  2. He was in clear violation of several of the Torah’s mitzvot – most notably he had married two sisters
  3. The Midrash comments that Yakov was afraid to meet Esav because he feared that he had sinned and thus would not be protected.

My preferred approach is that of Rabeinu Ephraim al ha-Torah

אע”פ שגרתי עם אצל לבן בעמל וביגיע לא נתרשלתי מלעסוק בתורה שכוללת תרי”ג מצות

Even though I lived with Lavan with much difficulty, I did not desist from occupying myself with the Torah that includes 613 commandments. 

Yakov’s statement to Esav is not that he kept each one of the 613 mitzvot in a technical or a literal sense.  Rather, it is that he remained committed to the principles and values of Torah, even while living in a hostile environment. 

We are all familiar with Jews who drive on Shabbos, do not keep kosher and clearly do not follow halacha.  Yet they insists “The only shul I’ll belong to is the Orthodox shul.”  They recognize that there is truth to the Orthodox approach even if they don’t follow it in their own lives.  Yaakov was making a similar claim — it is possible to be committed to Torah in a general sense but to fall short in some of the details. 

The Sukkah’s recognition and embrace of these noble illusions may help to explain the holiday’s significance not only as the culmination of the 3 רגלים /pilgrimage holiday, but as the culmination of the Tishrei Teshuva season.  This past Shabbos afternoon we began learning R. Eliezer Melamed’s Pninei Halacha on Sukkot.  He explains that part of the extra joy associated with the holiday is that we have emerged successfully from the gut-wrenching process of Teshuva. 

Now, it’s true that every year when I ask my boss how his Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur were he says, “I’ll tell you next year” since we can’t really know if our Teshuva was successful, I think that the idea of Noble Illusions offers an important lesson.  So long as we were sincere in our efforts and our commitments, we can learn from the Sukkah that we don’t have to be perfect.

I was reminded of this recently when I revisited the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.  The book is about the author reconnecting with a favorite professor of his from Brandeis.  At around the same time, the professor, Morrie Schwartz has just been diagnosed with ALS.  The book records a series of conversations and life lessons between Morrie and Mitch Albom.  In one chapter about “Forgiveness,” the following conversation takes place:

“It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch,” he finally whispered.  “We also need to forgive ourselves.”
“Ourselves?”
“Yes.  For all the things we didn’t do.  All the things we should have done.  You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened.  That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am.

“I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books.  I used to beat myself up over it.  Now I see that never did any good.  Make peace.  You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you.”

“I leaned over and dabbed at the tears with a tissue.  Morrie flicked his eyes open and closed.  His breathing was audible, like a light snore.
“Forgive yourself.  Forgive others.  Don’t wait, Mitch…” (166-167).

Perhaps the message for us on Sukkot.  As we sit in our perfectly kosher sukkah, despite its many imperfections and with this we are able to embrace our own imperfections.  Chag Sameach.

Yom Kippur – Embracing Mortality

Toby and I recently met with a lawyer to prepare a will.  This is something we’ve known we should do for a long time and something we spoke about, but never took the steps to actually do it.

Having to think about so many worst-case scenarios was uncomfortable.  It was also a totally appropriate exercise to go through during the month of Elul.

One of the factors that finally got me to find a lawyer was a remarkable book I read over the summer: The Council of Dads.  The author is Bruce Feiler, who you might remember, I quoted over Pesach and his article and research about the importance of family stories.  Feiler is the author of seven New York Times bestsellers.  His most famous book is probably Walking the Bible in which he describes his 10,000 mile-journey retracing the Five Books of Moses through the desert.

The Council of Dads is a very different book.  It chronicles the author’s cancer journey.  At the age of 43 doctors discovered an osteogenic sarcoma – bone cancer – in his left femur.  At the time, he and his wife, Linda, were parents of three-year-old twin girls, Eden and Tybee.  Facing the very real prospect of death, Feiler decided to convene what he came to call the Council of Dads – a group of his closest friends who would fill in as Dads to his two girls in the event that he did not survive.

He invited them to join this council with the following letter:

I believe my daughters will have plenty of resources in their lives.  They’ll have loving families.  They’ll have welcoming homes.  They’ll have each other.  But they may not have me.  They may not have their dad.

Will you help be their dad?  

Will you listen in on them?  Will you answer their questions?  Will you take them to lunch every now and then?  Will you go to a soccer game if you’re in town?  Will you watch their ballet moves for the umpteenth time?  When they get older, will you indulge them in a new pair of shoes?  Or buy them a new cell phone, or some other gadget I can’t even imagine right now?  Will you give them advice?  Will you be as tough as I would be?  Will you help them out in a crisis?  And as time passes, will you invite them to a family gathering on occasion?  Will you introduce them to somebody who might help one of their dreams come true?  Will you tell them what I would be thinking?   Will you tell them how proud I would be?

Will you be my voice?…

Focusing on our own mortality is one of the key messages of Yom Kippur.  We dress in white to emulate the angels, but also because many have the tradition of being buried in their kittel.  As Rabbi Alan Lew writes in his masterful book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared:

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for our death, the day we wear a shroud and abstain from life-affirming activities.  The day we intone the funeral liturgy.  “Who will live and who will die.”  The rabbis wanted to bring us to the point of existential crisis.  They wanted to bring us to the point of asking the crucial question, What is my life all about?  And they knew… that few of us ask this question until it’s too late; few of us ask this question until the last moments of our life. So they have us stage a dramatic re-creation of our death on this day.

This point was made very powerfully by another cancer story shared by Maya Bernstein in Tablet Magazine in an article called “Memento Mori” (https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/holidays/articles/memento-mori-yom-kippur-mortality).  Memento morti is a Latin phrase which means “Remember your death” and is a practice found among many Catholics and which has gained a more widespread popularity during the Covid pandemic.  The New York Times had an article on this practice back in May. (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/14/us/memento-mori-nun.html?searchResultPosition=1)

The concept is to intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future. It can seem radical in an era in which death — until very recently — has become easy to ignore.

Maya Bernstein concludes her article by noting:

It is traditional for people to wear white on Yom Kippur not only as a symbol that we are pure and cleansed of sin but also because we are buried in white shrouds—tachrichim. We abstain from the physical pleasures of the body—sex, fragrant soaps and lotions and bathing, eating, drinking, elegant footwear, and makeup—not simply because focus on the physical distracts us from the spiritual, but because we are literally enacting our own deaths. Memento mori, for 25 intensive hours. A cancer diagnosis, for 25 hours.

None of us will be spared death. This we know; it should not surprise you. But what is surprising is that an active, embodied, existential awareness of this has the opportunity to be life-saving.

That going through a life-threatening experience or illness would bring about a newfound appreciation of life is not surprising and is certainly an appropriate message for Yom Kippur.  But I want to return to Bruce Feiler and his Council of Dads to help glean some more unexpected lessons that I believe are relevant for us, and which can help us to achieve some of the awareness and appreciation of life without having to face a diagnosis of cancer or something similar.

In asking some of his closest friends to join the Council of Dads, Bruce Feiler acknowledges that even without the council these men would have been a crucial part of his journey and life during cancer.  But the framework of the Council elevated their relationship to a new level.

One unexpected gift of the Council of Dads was that it forced me to formalize what otherwise would have gone unsaid.  It obliged me to sit down with my closest friends, tell them what they meant to me, then ask them to play an important role for my daughters.  As my treatment ticked on and the surgery grew closer, the men in my Council would have been there already…But by inviting these men into the innermost space of our lives, we were cementing a new kind of bond. (94)

This is one of the great truths of the religious life we choose to live.  True meaning and commitment is found in the concretized actions of following Torah and mitzvot.  There are times when halacha might feel overly burdensome or technical.  But that is its beauty.

There is a debate recorded in the Talmudic sources:  What is the most important pasuk in the Torah?  One rabbi maintains it is שמע ישראל ה’ אלקינו ה’ אחד (Shema Yisrael; Devarim 6:4)– the declaration of belief in God.

A second opinion holds ואהבת לרעך כמוך (Love your neighbor as yourself, Vayikra 19:18).

The third opinion is rather surprising: את הכבש האחד תעשה בבוקר ואת הכבש שהשני תעשה בין הערבים (Devarim 28:4) – the commandment to bring the daily sacrifice in morning and evening.  The significance of this opinion is that it is in the regular and ongoing worship of God that true religion and spirituality is to be found.  Our beliefs must be concretized in actions if they are to have to have any meaning.

The same is true in our personal and family relationships.  My rebbe and teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss would often tell a powerful story that illustrates this point.  Rabbi Weiss was very involved in political activism and passionately advocated for many causes effecting the Jewish people.  His protests and campaigns were so frequent, that it was not uncommon for us to have to reschedule classes in Yeshiva based on Rav Avi’s “arrest schedule.”  The story he tells is that while he was in the throes of his activism running to protests all over New York City, his father was scheduled to come in for a visit.  Rav Avi was quite excited to see his Abba, but had a jam-packed schedule.  Right before his father was scheduled to take off, Rav Avi called him and said, “Abba, I love you so much and I’m so excited to see you.  But I am busy all day.  I’m going to arrange for a car service to pick you up from the airport.”  To which his father responded, “Avi, stop loving me so much and just pick me up.”

And one more surprising lesson.  Bruce Feiler’s treatment was successful and he was declared cancer free.  In the afterword of the book he says that the most common question he is asked is whether he will ever disband the council of Dads?

His answer:  Never.  If anything, I can’t believe I was a parent for three years without one, and I will certainly never parent without one again. (239)

And even more surprising:

And when this book was published days after that gathering, and our story began making its way into the world, I heard the most moving stories from other parents.  So many others wanted something similar in their lives.  Parents who were ill, worked in dangerous jobs, traveled frequently or were facing their own mortality suddenly started their own Councils with memberships ranging from three to thirteen.  Single parents wanted a Council of Moms or Dads to help them through difficult times.  Parents of teenagers wanted councils because their children were starting to withdraw and need trusted adults who were not their relatives.  The United States military started a special program for servicemen and -women to form Councils.  Adoptive parents, deeply religious parents, those parents whose kids have interests they can’t mentor them on, all found inspiration in this idea.  Even grown-ups who had lost their parents started Councils of Moms or Dads to connect retroactively to their own pasts… (p. 240)

And this is perhaps the most enduring lesson.  We are certainly familiar with the idea that “It takes a village” and the importance of the community in Jewish life.

To quote just one favorite example, upon the completion of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the Torah says:

Shemot 32:32

וַתֵּ֕כֶל כׇּל־עֲבֹדַ֕ת מִשְׁכַּ֖ן אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל כְּ֠כֹ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה ה’ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה כֵּ֥ן עָשֽׂוּ׃ {פ}

(32) Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites did so; just as ה’ had commanded Moses, so they did.

The Or haChaim haKadosh (Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 19th Century Morocco) asks how could the Torah say that B’nei Yisrael did what God had commanded – the mishkan was built by Betzaelel, Oholiav and the artisans.  He answers:

עוד נראה כי כאן עשה הכתוב מחברת הכללות בקיום התורה והראה כי בני ישראל יזכו זה לזה והתורה נתנה להתקיים בכללות ישראל כל אחד יעשה היכולת שבידו ויזכו זה לזה. ואולי כי לזה רמז באומרו (ויקרא י”ט י”ח) ואהבת לרעך כמוך, פירוש לצד שהוא כמותך כי בשלומו ייטיב לך ובאמצעותו אתה משלים שלימותך ואם כן אינו אחר אלא אתה עצמך וכאחד מחלקיך.

In the same way that the Mishkan could be completed only by the unique contributions of each individual – some people gave money, some people contributed their talent and their time – so too the Torah as a whole can be fulfilled only by the cumulative efforts of the entire nation.  For example, it is impossible for one individual to fulfill all 613 mitzvot.  Some apply only to kohanim, some only to women, and some only to Yisraelim.  The Torah, therefore was not given to each individual Jew, but “was given to be collectively observed by Israel as a whole.  Each individual would contribute his best to their mutual benefit.”  The Ohr ha-Chayim explains that this idea is best illustrated in the mitzvah of ve-ahavta le-rei’acha kamocha (love your neighbor like yourself).  We must see our neighbor as ourselves because our neighbor’s welfare contributes directly to our own welfare

When it comes to the Jewish people, things go even one step further.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the community has its own unique identity.  When a communal sacrifice was offered it does not mean a sacrifice brought by several people, or several thousand people or even millions of people.    He explains in Al haTeshuvah (102-103)

a “communal sacrifice” has one sole owner, exactly as does an individual offering. Who is its owner”?  It is the entire community of Israel, which according to the law is not the sum total or arithmetic aggregate of such and as many individuals but a single composite personality in its own right.  Knesset Israel…constitutes an indivisible and separate legal body in the same way as any individual is a single, legal personality. 

And this idea of Knesset Yisrael explains the stark difference in ודוי confession of sins that we do over the course of Yom Kippur. 

The difference between individual and communal confession is tremendous.  When the individual confesses he does so from a state of insecurity, depression and despair in the wake of sin.  For what assurance has he that he will be acquitted of his sins?  And who can promise him that his transgression will be forgotten and will not haunt him till the end of his days?  In contrast Knesset Israel – and each and every Jewish community is considered a microcosm of the whole of Knesset Israel – confesses out of a sense of confidence and even rejoicing, for it does so in the presence of a loyal ally, before its most beloved one.  (On Repentance 119).

This is why we sing the ודוי in an uplifting tune.  We are strengthened by the community of which we are a part.

As we begin Yom Kippur and the close encounter with our own mortality that the day evokes, we are strengthened by the family and friends, and those in this room, in this shul, who are our village. 

Let us commit to being an active part of our “village” both by contributing what we can contribute and by opening ourselves up to being supported and enriched by those who surround us. Let us commit to making those relationships stronger and to reconnecting and reigniting those that we have put on the back burner for whatever reason. 

Let us ask: Do we have our own council of Dads, or Moms, siblings, children…

Whom would we invite to be on our council?  Would we be willing to serve on the council of one of our friends if asked to do so? 

Are we sufficiently clear and committed about the values and commitments that are most important to us so that there would be no doubt of what message we would want to leave as our enduring legacy?  Are we able to explain why we do what we do? 

Wishing everyone a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.

Zealotry on Rosh Hashanah

When I was going into 11th grade I spent the summer in Israel on an NCSY trip.  On the flight home, I was seated next to a girl from one of the other buses – we really had nothing to do with them during the summer.  At some point during the flight, she asked me to move my arm off of the arm rest between us.  I moved my arm over giving her her allotted space on the arm rest, but did not remove my arm completely.  She asked me again to move my arm and I told her that I did not have to move my arm – that half of the arm rest was rightfully mine.  She then explained to me that over the course of the summer she had become Shomer Negiah and it was forbidden for her to have any physical contact with a boy.  I countered that she was being ridiculous and there was no understanding of shomer negiah that said it was problematic if her elbow accidentally touched mine.  If she cared so much about shomer negiah, she could move her arm.  Being the mischievous kid that I was, I certainly didn’t move my arm over for her, and I might have even put my elbow on her side of the line.  The situation quickly escalated and flight attendants were called to intervene.  I honestly don’t remember how the situation ended – if I finally relented or if she switched seats with someone else.  Suffice to say, it was not my finest hour.

I was reminded of this story this past summer.  During President Biden’s trip to Israel, the Israeli pop stars Yuval Dayan and Ran Danker sang at one of the many ceremonies in his honor.  Yuval Dayan is a ba’alat teshuvah and much like my seat companion she has made a public stance about being shomer negiah.  After the performance, Biden walked over to congratulate the two singers. He enthusiastically shook the hand of Ran Danker and then extended his hand to Yuval Dayan.  Rather than reciprocate she bowed to Biden in appreciation but refused to shake his hand.  It was later revealed that she had informed the organizers of the event in advance that she did not feel comfortable shaking hands with members of the opposite sex and had received assurance that no hand shaking would take place.  Furthermore, at the beginning of his trip, Biden was also on a no hand shaking policy due to concerns over Covid.  But at some point, that went out the window.

The Israeli media was consumed by this incident. 

Many lauded her for having done a tremendous קדוש ה’ by sticking to her religious convictions.  Blame was cast on President Herzog and his office for not conveying the singer’s sentiments to Biden.  Others added that in the Me Too! Era, no woman should ever be made to feel she must agree to physical contact that makes her uncomfortable.

But others responded more like 16-year old me on the flight back from Israel and said that she should have been more flexible, as Halacha certainly would allow a handshake in such a situation.  It might even require that she shake hands so as not to cause a חלול ה’.  Some have called her a hypocrite – how can she be so machmir (stringent) about shomer negiah while violating the halachot of kol isha (restrictions on a woman singing in public).  Certainly there was no need for be such a קנאי (zealot).

President Biden’s trip to Israel coincided with the week of Parshat Balak in the Diaspora or Parshat Pinchas in Israel.  The two parshiot are linked by the story of Pinchas which begins at the very end of Parshat Balak and continues into the first Aliyah of Parshat Pinchas.

Upon seeing the debauchery of B’nei Yisrael sinning with the Midianite women, Pinchas rises and kills the two most egregious sinners, in front of the entire nation.

Immediately the plague that had befallen the sinners was stopped.

Pinchas is praised and rewarded by Hashem:

Numbers 25:10-13

במדבר כ״ה:י׳-י״ג

(י) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (יא) פִּֽינְחָ֨ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃ יב) לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (יג) וְהָ֤יְתָה לּוֹ֙ וּלְזַרְע֣וֹ אַחֲרָ֔יו בְּרִ֖ית כְּהֻנַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר קִנֵּא֙ לֵֽאלֹקָ֔יו וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

(10) ה’ spoke to Moses, saying, (11) “Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. (12) Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. (13) It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’

Pinchas is described as a קנאי. 

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 81b) rules that if one sees a situation similar to that witnessed by Pinchas, that the halacha is zealots can kill the sinners.

  1. Sanhedrin 81b סנהדרין פ״א ב:י״ז

הבועל ארמית קנאין פוגעין בו

and one who engages in intercourse with an Aramean woman, zealots strike him and kill him.

The Gemara on the spot, however asserts (Sanhedrin 82a):

א”ר חסדא הבא לימלך אין מורין לו איתמר נמי אמר רבה בר בר חנה א”ר יוחנן הבא לימלך אין מורין לו

Rav Ḥisda says: Concerning one who comes to consult with the court when he sees a Jewish man engaging in intercourse with a gentile woman, the court does not instruct him that it is permitted to kill the transgressor. It was also stated that Rabba bar bar Ḥana says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Concerning one who comes to consult with the court, the court does not instruct him

Pinchas is celebrated, but not to be emulated.

Rabbi Sacks explains the Rabbis’ ambivalence toward Pinchas is because the zealot operates outside the normal parameters of the law.

“The zealot who takes the law into his own hands is embarking on a course of action fraught with moral danger. Only the most holy may do so, only once in a lifetime, and only in the most dire circumstance when the nation is at risk, when there is nothing else to be done, and no one else to do it. Even then, were the zealot to ask permission from a court, he would be denied it.” (https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/pinchas/the-zealot/)

Despite the Rabbis struggle to come to terms with Pinchas and his complicated legacy, our Jewish tradition is laden with individuals who may be described as קנאים – Zealots.  And many of them have a prominent place during the ימים נוראים/High Holidays

The most obvious example is אליהו (Elijah) who is described as a קנאי and who in the Midrashic tradition is identified as Pinchas.    At the culmination of Yom Kippur  for that matter – we reenact the scene of אליהו/Elijah  in his showdown with the prophet of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel  when we declare ה’ הוא האלקים – Hashem is the true God.

A strong argument can be made that the hero of the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah, Avraham Avinu was a קנאי (zealot).  Certainly the act of the עקדה, binding of Isaac, could only be carried out by someone with the zeal and passion of a zealot.

Other incidents in Avraham’s life would point to this characteristic as well.

  • The “origin story” of his father’s idol shop when Avraham smashed the idols
  • He negotiates with Hashem on behalf of the people of Sdom
  • And as we’ve spoken about many times, Avraham is identified in the Torah as  Avraham ha-Ivri אברהם העברי  Abraham the Hebrew (Breishit 14:13).  The Midrash Lekach Tov (14:12:2) comments:

ויגד לאברם העברי. וכי לא ידענו שאברהם עברי היה. מה ת”ל עברי. ר’ יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד.

Abraham the Hebrew – Did we not already that Abraham was a Hebrew?  What is the significance of the phrase Ivri?  R. Yehuda says the entire world stood on one side and he stood on the other side.

The same may be said of the heroine of this morning’s Haftarah, Chana.  The Gemara Rosh Hashanah 11a tells us

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה נִפְקְדָה שָׂרָה רָחֵל וְחַנָּה.

It was taught in the baraita: On Rosh HaShana, Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were revisited by God

Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, one of the co-Roshei Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion has a powerful analysis of Chana’s story (https://etzion.org.il/en/holidays/rosh-hashana/chanas-distress-and-remembrance-haftara-first-day-rosh-ha-shana).  Her husband’s other wife, Penina is blessed with children and mocks Chana for not having children of her own.  Chana lives in a home that is full with the noise of children, which serves as a constant reminder of her plight.  Her husband, Elkana, has a great love for his wife but is not able to empathize with her pain.  Trying to comfort his wife, Elkana declares “Am I not better than ten children?!” (I Samuel 1:8).

When Chana goes to the Mishkan to daven to Hashem and ask for a child, she is accused of being a drunk by Eli, the High Priest.  R. Lichtenstein comments: “Loneliness reveals itself to Chana in all its intensity; nobody understands her – not those who are closest to her and not those who are closest to God.”

Rav Moshe Lichtenstein concludes his essay by explaining that the key to understanding Chana’s success and Hashem remembering her on this day is her declaration that the child will be dedicated to Hashem.  “ The most precious and important thing that she had waited for all those years will finally come, but she will not enjoy bringing him up, but rather she will give him as a gift to the Mishkan...   Is there self-sacrifice greater than this?..”

He concludes that this is the reason we read the story of Chana on Rosh Hashana:
“In short, the secret of being favorably remembered on Rosh Hashana lies in waving one’s ego, one’s aspirations and one’s dreams (legitimate as they may be), and sacrificing them for the sake of God.”

This sounds very much like the characteristics of a zealot.

What does the idea of Zealotry have anything to do with us on Rosh Hashanah?  Rav Yehuda Amital z”l, asks the question “Is the Zeal of Pinchas to be Emulated?” (https://etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-bamidbar/parashat-pinchas/pinchas-zeal-pinchas-be-emulated),  He answers:

In our generation the problem is that people are generally apathetic; nothing shakes their equilibrium…. We must feel zeal in certain areas. This does not mean that our zeal need necessarily be demonstrated outwardly – sometimes outward demonstrations only bring harm; one must know, from a halakhic point of view, when rebuke is necessary, when it is permissible, and when it is forbidden. However, all of that is only on the outside. Inside ourselves, we dare not remain apathetic. We must be zealous for God.

We are all familiar with the idea that on Rosh Hashanah three books of judgment are opened:

אָמַר רַבִּי כְּרוּסְפָּדַאי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: שְׁלֹשָׁה סְפָרִים נִפְתָּחִין בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה, אֶחָד שֶׁל רְשָׁעִים גְּמוּרִין, וְאֶחָד שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִין, וְאֶחָד שֶׁל בֵּינוֹנִיִּים. צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִין — נִכְתָּבִין וְנֶחְתָּמִין לְאַלְתַּר לְחַיִּים, רְשָׁעִים גְּמוּרִין — נִכְתָּבִין וְנֶחְתָּמִין לְאַלְתַּר לְמִיתָה, בֵּינוֹנִיִּים — תְּלוּיִין וְעוֹמְדִין מֵרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, זָכוּ — נִכְתָּבִין לְחַיִּים, לֹא זָכוּ — נִכְתָּבִין לְמִיתָה

Rabbi Kruspedai said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Three books are opened on Rosh HaShana before the Holy One, Blessed be He: One of wholly wicked people, and one of wholly righteous people, and one of middling people whose good and bad deeds are equally balanced. Wholly righteous people are immediately written and sealed for life; wholly wicked people are immediately written and sealed for death; and middling people are left with their judgment suspended from Rosh HaShana until Yom Kippur, their fate remaining undecided. If they merit, through the good deeds and mitzvot that they perform during this period, they are written for life; if they do not so merit, they are written for death.

We typically think of this as being a simple tallying of all our deeds.  As Rambam writes (Hil. Teshuva 3:4):

צָרִיךְ כָּל אָדָם שֶׁיִּרְאֶה עַצְמוֹ כָּל הַשָּׁנָה כֻּלָּהּ כְּאִלּוּ חֶצְיוֹ זַכַּאי וְחֶצְיוֹ חַיָּב. וְכֵן כָּל הָעוֹלָם חֶצְיוֹ זַכַּאי וְחֶצְיוֹ חַיָּב. חָטָא חֵטְא אֶחָד הֲרֵי הִכְרִיעַ אֶת עַצְמוֹ וְאֶת כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ לְכַף חוֹבָה וְגָרַם לוֹ הַשְׁחָתָה. עָשָׂה מִצְוָה אַחַת הֲרֵי הִכְרִיעַ אֶת עַצְמוֹ וְאֶת כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ לְכַף זְכוּת וְגָרַם לוֹ וְלָהֶם תְּשׁוּעָה וְהַצָּלָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי י כה) “וְצַדִּיק יְסוֹד עוֹלָם” זֶה שֶׁצָּדַק הִכְרִיעַ אֶת כָּל הָעוֹלָם לִזְכוּת וְהִצִּילוֹ. וּמִפְּנֵי עִנְיָן זֶה נָהֲגוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַרְבּוֹת בִּצְדָקָה וּבְמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים וְלַעֲסֹק בְּמִצְוֹת מֵרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים יֶתֶר מִכָּל הַשָּׁנָה.

It is, therefore, necessary for every man to behold himself throughout the whole year in a light of being evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and look upon the entire world as if evenly balanced between innocence and guilt; thus, if he commit one sin, he will overbalance himself and the whole world to the side of guilt, and be a cause of its destruction; but if he perform one duty, behold, he will overbalance himself and the whole world to the side of virtue, and bring about his own and their salvation and escape, even as it is said: “But the righteous is an everlasting foundation” (Prov. 10. 25), it is he, by whose righteousness he overbalanced the whole world to virtue and saved it. And, because of this matter, it became the custom of the whole house of Israel to excel in alms-giving, in good conduct and in the performance of duties during the intervening days of Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom ha-Kippurim above what they do during the whole year.

Rav Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak RH no. 18, suggests that the tzadik, rasha and beinoni are not determined by weighing one’s merits vs. their sins. Rather, they are character traits/dispositions.  The beinoni is someone who has no solid commitment to doing good or doing bad. To have no commitments is a fundamental character flaw and for that, one must do teshuva.

לפי מה שנתבאר לנו כי רובו זכיות היא מדה בנפש, ורובו עבירות הוא מדה בנפש: כמן כן, בודאי גם הבינוניות היא מדה בנפש.  כלומר, האדם הזה מתיחס הוא אל הרע ואל הטוב מבלי שתהיה לו בנפשו הזדהות עם אחד מהם.  מדתו של הבינוני היא מדה של חוסר-הזדהות.

If this is the case, then we have a problem with the Rambam in Hilchot Deot 1:4

הַדֶּרֶךְ הַיְשָׁרָה הִיא מִדָּה בֵּינוֹנִית שֶׁבְּכָל דֵּעָה וְדֵעָה מִכָּל הַדֵּעוֹת שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ לָאָדָם. וְהִיא הַדֵּעָה שֶׁהִיא רְחוֹקָה מִשְּׁתֵּי הַקְּצָווֹת רִחוּק שָׁוֶה וְאֵינָהּ קְרוֹבָה לֹא לָזוֹ וְלֹא לָזוֹ. לְפִיכָךְ צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים שֶׁיְּהֵא אָדָם שָׁם דֵּעוֹתָיו תָּמִיד וּמְשַׁעֵר אוֹתָם וּמְכַוִּן אוֹתָם בַּדֶּרֶךְ הָאֶמְצָעִית כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּהֵא שָׁלֵם בְּגוּפוֹ.

The straight path: This [involves discovering] the midpoint temperament of each and every trait that man possesses [within his personality.] This refers to the trait which is equidistant from either of the extremes, without being close to either of them.  Therefore, the early Sages instructed a man to evaluate his traits, to calculate them and to direct them along the middle path, so that he will be sound {of body}.

The Rambam is advocating for the path of the beinoni which according to Rav Hutner is defined by lack of identity.

Rabbi Norman Lamm explains that we are mistaken to think that Rambam advocates a mathematical or arithmetic approach to life where we find the exact middle point between two extremes and plop ourselves down.  Nor should we think that the moderation described by Maimonides means that we must be “bloodlessly ‘parve’ never getting angry, excited revolted, indignant, no matter what the provocation.”   

Rabbi Lamm coins a new phrase to describe the Rambam’s approach:  RADICAL MODERATIONISM.  As R. Lamm writes: 

“He favors the ability to go from one end to the other of the spectrum as necessity requires it, so that in sum and on the average we stay in the center, but not that we remain unalterably and unerringly glued to one mid-point.” 

We need the gift of passion.  Our problem is a pedagogical one:  how do we educate our people to be reflective and yet passionate, civil and yet committed enlightened and yet spirited?  …
That is where we sin today.  The chronic failing of any form of moderation is the lack of passion – a weakness that infects every area of our activity
we often tremble and quake when we should be proclaiming proudly where we stand and why.   

When Pinchas rises to the occasion and shows his zeal for Hashem, he is rewarded with a brit shalom – covenant of peace.

The Gemara Kidushin 66b tells us that when the word שלום is written in the Torah scroll it is written קטיעה – cut in half or severed.

Many commentators note that this is teaching an important lesson about the nature of peace and of Pinchas’ actions.  When the  vov is omitted from the word שלום (shalom), it spells the word שלם (shalem)– whole, or complete.  When it comes to שלום and the desire for peace, it is very easy to compromise or to relax our standards for the sake of peace. 

The Mishnah Uktzim 3:12 tells us

אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן חֲלַפְתָּא, לֹא מָצָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא כְּלִי מַחֲזִיק בְּרָכָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֶלָּא הַשָּׁלוֹם

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said: the Holy One, Blessed be He, found no vessel that could contain blessing for Israel save that of peace.

Rabbi Yissochar Frand elaborates:

Shalom is the receptacle; it is the vessel that holds everything; but a person sometimes has to look and ask himself, “what am I left holding?” If I compromise everything in the name of Shalom, then what is this vessel of Shalom left holding? It is holding nothing.

While we certainly hope that the new year will be filled with health happiness and  שלום (shalom), I want to end with the bracha that it is a year where our  שלום (shalom) is  שלם (shalem).  Where we are able to tap into the passion and zealotry that is so often missing from our modern existence.

Let me conclude with a concrete example of how we can do this.  The Gemara Menachot 44a tells a remarkable story of a man who was very meticulous when it came to the mitzvah of tzitzit.  While he might have been very frum when it came to tzitzit, he had his vices as well.  One of his vices was prostitutes.  He heard of one prostitute who was rumored to be the best in the world.  He sent a large sum of money to secure an “appointment” with her.  The Gemara tells of the great lengths he went to in order to meet her.  He had to cross the sea.  When he got to her place of business she had set up seven beds each connected by a ladder.   She was waiting for him on the very top bed.  He began to climb up and when he reached the top bed and was about to act on his desires, the tzitzit came and slapped him on the face.  He was overcome with regret and sat down on the ground in tears.  He explained to the woman that there was no fault with her – she was just as beautiful as described.  But the tzitzit appeared to him as “four witnesses who would testify against him.”  The story concludes by telling us that the woman was touched by his story and she converted to Judaism. Eventually the couple was married and they were able to be together in a permitted fashion.

The point of the story is that this man was very meticulous about one mitzvah.  He had found the one mitzvah with which he connected and about whose performance he would never compromise.  He was a קנאי about this mitzvah.  The lesson for us is that we too must find that one mitzvah, the one area in our religious lives about which we will never compromise.  We have to find the passion and conviction to act as a zealot.  Halacha talks about the three cardinal sins for which a person is commanded to give up their life rather than transgress – יהרג ואל יעבור.  This Rosh Hashanah let us all find a mitzvah or a principle which for us will be יהרג ואל יעבור.  Let us channel our own inner voice of Avraham, Pinchas, Chana and Yuval Dayan.

Shanah Tovah!

Terumah – The Significance of the Accacia Wood

Parshat Terumah opens with the command to B’nei Yisrael to dedicate materials for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  The items required for the Mishkan include many things that are not readily available in a desert. 

Shemot 25:3-7

וְזֹאת֙ הַתְּרוּמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּקְח֖וּ מֵאִתָּ֑ם זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת׃ וּתְכֵ֧לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֛ן וְתוֹלַ֥עַת שָׁנִ֖י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ וְעִזִּֽים׃ וְעֹרֹ֨ת אֵילִ֧ם מְאׇדָּמִ֛ים וְעֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים וַעֲצֵ֥י שִׁטִּֽים׃ שֶׁ֖מֶן לַמָּאֹ֑ר בְּשָׂמִים֙ לְשֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וְלִקְטֹ֖רֶת הַסַּמִּֽים׃ אַבְנֵי־שֹׁ֕הַם וְאַבְנֵ֖י מִלֻּאִ֑ים לָאֵפֹ֖ד וְלַחֹֽשֶׁן׃

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins,aOthers “rams’ skins dyed red.” dolphinbOr “dugong”; meaning of Hebrew taḥash uncertain. skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;

Many explanations are offered for how B’nei Yisrael acquired the dolphin skins, yarns, oils and metals for this task.  There is a beautiful idea developed in the Midrashic literature explaining one of these items:  The acacia wood (atzei shitim) used to form the planks of the Mishkan. 

Twice in our parsha Rashi cites a Midrash which asks how B’nei Yisrael acquired acacia wood in the desert.

Rashi on Shemot 25:5

ועצי שטים. וּמֵאַיִן הָיוּ לָהֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר? פֵּרֵשׁ רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא: יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ צָפָה בְּרוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ שֶׁעֲתִידִין יִשְׂרָאֵל לִבְנוֹת מִשְׁכָּן בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהֵבִיא אֲרָזִים לְמִצְרַיִם וּנְטָעָם, וְצִוָּה לְבָנָיו לִטְּלָם עִמָּהֶם כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם: ועצי שטים

 AND SHITTIM WOOD — But from where did they get this in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explained it thus: Our father Jacob foresaw by the gift of the Holy Spirit that Israel would once build a Tabernacle in the wilderness: he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them there, and bade his children take these with them when they would leave Egypt (Midrash Tanchuma, Terumah 9; cf. Bereishit Rabbah 94 and Rashi on Exodus 26:15).

The Midrash answers that when Yaakov came down to Egypt to reunite with Yosef, he saw through prophecy that his descendants would one day build a Mishkan in the desert.  Yaakov brought trees with him and planted them in Egypt so the wood required for its construction would be ready for his descendants when they needed it.  According to this tradition, B’nei Yisrael had trees in the desert thanks to the foresight of Yaakov avinu

The discussion does not end here, however.   The Torah tells us in Breishit 46:1 that on his way down to Egypt Yaakov stopped in Be’er Sheva to offer sacrifices to Hashem. 

וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכׇל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹקי אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) explains that in addition to offering sacrifices, Yaakov had another reason for stopping in Be’er Sheva.  Earlier in Sefer Breishit, Avraham had planted an eshel in Be’er Sheva (Breishit 21:33). 

וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֶ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם ה’ קֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃ [

Abraham] planted a tamarisk at Beer-sheba, and invoked there the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

 The meaning of the word eshel is unclear, and many possibilities are offered by the mefarshim.  Rashi records two possibilies:  either it means an orchard of fruit trees with which to feed his guests, or it means an inn to host travelers. 

אשל. רַב וּשְׁמוּאֵל, חַד אֲמַר פַּרְדֵּס לְהָבִיא מִמֶּנוּ פֵּרוֹת לָאוֹרְחִים בַּסְּעוּדָה, וְחַד אֲמַר פֻּנְדָּק לְאַכְסַנְיָא וּבוֹ כָּל מִינֵי פֵּרוֹת. וּמָצִינוּ לְשׁוֹן נְטִיעָה בְּאֹהָלִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וְיִטַּע אָהֳלֵי אַפַּדְנוֹ (דניאל י”א): אשל [AND ABRAHAM PLANTED AN] אשל —

Rab and Samuel differ as to what this was. One said it was an orchard from which to supply fruit for the guests at their meal. The other said it was an inn for lodging in which were all kinds of fruit (Sotah 10a). And we can speak of planting an inn for we find the expression planting used of tents,

 The Rashbam maintains that Avraham’s eshel was an orchard of trees where Avraham would go to pray.  

ויטע אשל – פרדס היה להתפלל שם. ויטע אשל,

 an orchard. The presence of such an orchard should encourage people to pray to G’d there.

In the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, R. Nehemiah is cited as saying that the word eshel is related to the Hebrew word for ask (sha’al).  According to this understanding Avraham would say to his guests, “Ask for whatever you would like and I will give it to you.”  Finally, the Radak comments that the word eshel is an acronym for the words ochel, shtia, leviah – food drink and escort.  Avraham taught the residents of Be’er Sheva that to properly welcome guests into their city they must provide these three things. 

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) offers the following:

וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָׁבַע (בראשית מו, א), לְהֵיכָן הָלַךְ, אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן שֶׁהָלַךְ לָקֹץ אֲרָזִים שֶׁנָּטַע אַבְרָהָם זְקֵנוֹ בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע,

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Be’er Sheba – Whither had he gone?  Said R. Nahman: He went to cut down the trees which his grandfather Abraham had planted in Be’er Sheba.

Whatever, the exact meaning of the word Eshel is, it is clear that the Midrash wants to connect the trees prepared by Yaakov for the construction of the Mishkan with the eshel planted by Avraham.  Not only does this create a powerful historical connection between the generation of the desert and their ancestor Avraham.  It emphasizes that the same values stressed by Avraham – hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) by providing them with food, shelter and company – are integral to the Mishkan as well.  In the eyes of our sages, a Mishkan in which Hashem dwells among the Jewish people is possible only if it is built with a commitment to the values and lessons instilled by Avraham avinu.  Though we no longer have a physical Mishkan, this is an important lesson for us to take to heart as participate in, and build our own community.  We must combine our service bein adam la-Makom (between us and Hashem) with a passion and commitment to service bein adam le-chavero (between our fellow human).   

After Colleyville — Finding Our Yitro Moment

This week we Parshat Yitro.  At the beginning of the parsha we encounter the character of Yitro.  The parsha opens (Shemot 18:1)

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אלקים לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא ה’ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Zevachim 116a which asks:

מה שמועה שמע ובא ונתגייר

What tiding did he hear that he came and converted?

The Gemara gives three suggestions, of which Rashi mentions two of them.  The opinion Rashi doesn’t not quote is that of R. Elazar haModa’I who maintains that Yitro heard of the giving of the Torah.  This position raises all sorts of questions because the Torah tells us of Yitro’s coming prior to its telling of the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  The other two positions are

  • R. Yehoshua – he heard about the war with Amalek (which immediately precedes the story of Yitro)
  • R. Eliezer – he heard of the splitting of the Sea

I heard a beautiful idea from Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz about these two opinions brought in Rashi.  Rabbi Leibowitz quotes from the Sefer Be’er Yosef, written by R. Yosef Salant (1885-1981).  R. Salant questions the basis for R. Yehoshua’s opinion that Yitro was inspired to join the Jewish people because of the war against Amalek.  This is the war in which Amalek almost defeated the B’nei Yisrael.  Yehoshua and his army were successful in battle only when Moshe’s hands were raised up toward the heavens.  Moshe enlisted Aharon and Chur to help him.  As we read last week (Shemot 17:11-12)

וְהָיָ֗ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרִ֥ים מֹשֶׁ֛ה יָד֖וֹ וְגָבַ֣ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר יָנִ֛יחַ יָד֖וֹ וְגָבַ֥ר עֲמָלֵֽק׃ וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ וְאַהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו מִזֶּ֤ה אֶחָד֙ וּמִזֶּ֣ה אֶחָ֔ד וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.

Rabbi Salant asks – it is clear that the splitting of the sea was a much greater miracle than the victory over Amalek.  Why then would R. Yehoshua think that the victory over Amalek would draw Yitro to Hashem and the Jewish people?  Rabbi Salant answers that Yitro’s joining with B’nei Yisrael was not just in order to fulfill Yitro’s person quest for religious truth and spirituality.  It also sent an important message to B’nei Yisrael.

After the splitting of the sea, it would have been very easy and make perfect sense for anyone to want to align themselves with B’nei Yisrael.  They were seemingly invincible.  However, even though they defeated Amalek, their weakness and vulnerability had been exposed.  It brings to mind the 2007 NFL season (apologies to the Raven fans if it is still painful to be talking about NFL playoffs) in which the Patriots lost their bid for a perfect season in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.  A crucial piece to the Giants’ victory is the fact that they had played the Patriots in the final game of the regular season.  The Patriots won that game by 3 points after having fallen behind by 12 points in the third quarter.  Although the Patriots were heavily favored to win the Super Bowl rematch against the Giants, they were no longer seen as invincible by the Giants.  And so the Giants beat them thanks in large part to David Tyree’s Helmet Catch.

Rabbi Salant explains that the war against Amalek could have been like the regular season game between the Patriots and Giants for B’nei Yisrael.   They must have felt deflated, knowing that that their enemies might be able to defeat them.  And this, he explains, is why R. Yehoshua holds that Yitro came after that battle.  Yitro’s arrival inspired B’nei Yisrael and reminded them that they were part of something truly remarkable.  Yitro’s arrival gave them an extra shot of confidence when they needed it most.

We are coming off a week where our vulnerabilities have been exposed.  It was a complete shock to conclude Shabbos last week and learn of the attack against Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX.  We have all been inspired by the heroic actions of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and relieved at the outcome.  But even from far away in Baltimore, we are scarred by what happened in Texas and are reminded of the vulnerabilities that we face in the light of anti-Semitism.  I’m sure you’ve all been reading the same articles I have highlighting the unfortunate reality of the need for training against terrorist attacks on our shuls and Jewish institutions.   We cannot feel totally safe in the very places that are supposed to be the most safe.  And so we enter into this Shabbos in need of our own Yitro.  We need that added boost of confidence to assure us that despite the vulnerabilities that have been exposed there is something deeply meaningful and inspirational in our Judaism.  We are not blind to the threats against us, but we remain committed and steadfast in our observance and our determination to come together as a community in times of celebration, times of mourning and moments of uncertainty.

I don’t need to say that this message is even more complicated for us as the current surge of COVID prevents us from gathering together in person.  So as we enter into Shabbat, let us all find our Yitro moment – something that will allow us to see beyond the fear and weaknesses that have been exposed to fully embrace and celebrate our commitment to yidishkeit and our pride to be a part of the Jewish people.

Lechem Mishneh

Parshat Beshalach establishes what unfortunately becomes a familiar pattern.  After experiencing the miracle of kriyat yam suf (the splitting of the Sea) we immediately read that they went for three days without water.  After arriving in Marah, they find water but it is too bitter to drink.  And for the first time we read of B’nei Yisrael’s complaints (Shemot 15:24):

וַיִּלֹּ֧נוּ הָעָ֛ם עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹ֖ר מַה־נִּשְׁתֶּֽה׃

And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”

Hashem provides Moshe with a piece of wood which he throws into the water and the water becomes sweet.  A few verses later, the people complain again (16:1-3):

וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵֽאֵילִ֔ם וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ כׇּל־עֲדַ֤ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־סִ֔ין אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֵּין־אֵילִ֖ם וּבֵ֣ין סִינָ֑י בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֨ה עָשָׂ֥ר יוֹם֙ לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֔י לְצֵאתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (וילינו) [וַיִּלּ֜וֹנוּ] כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃ וַיֹּאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְהֹוָה֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאׇכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע כִּֽי־הוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֙נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כׇּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּרָעָֽב׃ 

Setting out from Elim, the whole Israelite community came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.   The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

Hashem responds by providing B’nei Yisrael quail and the מן (Mannah).  The Man comes with the special instructions that on Friday they were to collect a double portion for Shabbat since collecting Man on Shabbat is forbidden.  As we read (16:22-23) 

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֗י לָֽקְט֥וּ לֶ֙חֶם֙ מִשְׁנֶ֔ה שְׁנֵ֥י הָעֹ֖מֶר לָאֶחָ֑ד וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ כׇּל־נְשִׂיאֵ֣י הָֽעֵדָ֔ה וַיַּגִּ֖ידוּ לְמֹשֶֽׁה׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם ה֚וּא אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּ֣ר ה שַׁבָּת֧וֹן שַׁבַּת־קֹ֛דֶשׁ לַֽה מָחָ֑ר אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאפ֞וּ אֵפ֗וּ וְאֵ֤ת אֲשֶֽׁר־תְּבַשְּׁלוּ֙ בַּשֵּׁ֔לוּ וְאֵת֙ כׇּל־הָ֣עֹדֵ֔ף הַנִּ֧יחוּ לָכֶ֛ם לְמִשְׁמֶ֖רֶת עַד־הַבֹּֽקֶר׃

On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food, two omers for each; and when all the chieftains of the community came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the LORD. Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.”

The double portion of Man that was collected on Friday in the desert serves as the basis for Lechem Mishneh (two loaves of bread) at each of the Shabbat meals.  I want to take this opportunity to review a few of the halachot associated with this requirement.

Nature of the requirement

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 274:1) writes:

בוצע על שתי ככרות [שלימות] שאוחז שתיהן בידו ובוצע התחתונה:

Every person is obligated to break bread on two [whole] loaves. One holds them both in his hands and breaks the bottom one.

A number of posekim including the Aruch haShulchan (OH 274) Taz (OH 678) and Chatam Sofer (OH 46) hold that the requirement for lechem mishneh is de-oraita (Biblical) in nature based on the seeming redundancy in the pasuk

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֗י לָֽקְט֥וּ לֶ֙חֶם֙ מִשְׁנֶ֔ה שְׁנֵ֥י הָעֹ֖מֶר לָאֶחָ֑ד

On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food, two omers for each

Others feel, including the Magen Avraham (254) feel that it is only a Rabbinic requirement.

Do you have to eat both loaves?

The key source addressing this issue is the Gemara Shabbat 117b:

אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּא: בְּשַׁבָּת חַיָּיב אָדָם לִבְצוֹעַ עַל שְׁתֵּי כִכָּרוֹת, דִּכְתִיב: ״לֶחֶם מִשְׁנֶה״.

אָמַר רַב אָשֵׁי: חֲזֵינָא לֵיהּ לְרַב כָּהֲנָא דְּנָקֵט תַּרְתֵּי וּבָצַע חֲדָא. אָמַר: ״לָקְטוּ״ כְּתִיב. רַבִּי זֵירָא הֲוָה בָּצַע אַכּוּלַּהּ שֵׁירוּתֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רָבִינָא לְרַב אָשֵׁי: וְהָא מִיחְזֵי כְּרַעַבְתָנוּתָא? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: כֵּיוָן דְּכׇל יוֹמָא לָא עָבֵיד, וְהָאִידָּנָא הוּא דְּקָעָבֵיד — לָא מִיחְזֵי כְּרַעַבְתָנוּתָא.

Rabbi Abba said: On Shabbat a person is obligated to break bread in his meal over two loaves of bread, as it is written: “And it happened on the sixth day, they collected double the bread, two omer for each one” (Exodus 16:22).

Rav Ashi said: I saw that Rav Kahana took two loaves in his hand and broke one, not both at once. He said in explanation that it is written: “They collected double the bread,” meaning that one collects and holds two loaves together, but need not break both. Rabbi Zeira would break off a piece that would suffice for his entire meal. Ravina said to Rav Ashi: Doesn’t that appear like gluttony? Rav Ashi said to him: Since on every other day he does not do this and now he is doing so, it does not appear like gluttony.

One camp of commentators understands that the requirement is simply to have two loaves at the meal, but there is only a requirement to eat one of them.  Proof of this is that verse cited above states that B’nei Yisrael gathered a double portion.  Further proof for this position is that in the desert they would have only eaten one loaf (or portion of Man) at each meal.  Taking this to the logical conclusion there are those who hold that there is no requirement for lechem mishneh at Seudah Shlishit since there is no Shabbat meal remaining for which to save any food.

Others hold that both loaves of bread must be consumed at the meal.  They understand the Gemara to have reported that Rabbi Zeira would cut every loaf in front of him.

An interesting application of this debate is whether frozen Challah may be used as the second loaf of lechem Mishneh.  Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilchatah rule that frozen challah can be used since they feel the requirement is for there to be two loaves present at the meal, but only one of them has to be eaten.  R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach feels that the bread used for lechem mishneh should be at the very least be ready to eat in case someone wants it.

Cover the Challah

We are familiar with the custom of covering the Challah prior to saying the bracha over it.  The most popular explanation for this is that it is to avoid “embarrassing” the challah.  Since we normally say the bracha over bread at the beginning of the meal, we are sensitive to the fact that we begin the Shabbat meal by saying kiddush over wine.  A related explanation is that covering the halahca allows us to depart from the normal order of brachot, but not that we are really concerned about the “feelings” of the bread.

Another explanation brings us back to the original source for lechem mishneh – the Man.  The Torah records (Shemot 16:14):

וַתַּ֖עַל שִׁכְבַ֣ת הַטָּ֑ל וְהִנֵּ֞ה עַל־פְּנֵ֤י הַמִּדְבָּר֙ דַּ֣ק מְחֻסְפָּ֔ס דַּ֥ק כַּכְּפֹ֖ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

In other words, the Man was enveloped by dew above and below.  We place the Challah on a special plate or cutting board and cover it from above to remind us of the way in which the Man was covered in the desert. 

Other Explanations

There are many other explanations offered for why we have the requirement of lechem mishneh.  Some point to the idea that on Shabbat we have a נשמה יתרה (extra soul).  They explain that because we have an extra soul, we have a need for more than usual.

Others say that the lechem mishneh represents the extra blessings we receive from Hashem on Shabbat. 

The Israeli journalist and Torah personality Sivan Rahav Meir points to a pasuk at the end of the Torah’s description of the Man in our parsha (16:29)

רְא֗וּ כִּֽי־ה֮ נָתַ֣ן לָכֶ֣ם הַשַּׁבָּת֒ עַל־כֵּ֠ן ה֣וּא נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶ֛ם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֖י לֶ֣חֶם יוֹמָ֑יִם שְׁב֣וּ ׀ אִ֣ישׁ תַּחְתָּ֗יו אַל־יֵ֥צֵא אִ֛ישׁ מִמְּקֹמ֖וֹ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִֽי׃

See that the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.

She riffs on the explanation of the Sforno and says that we should “take a good look….In the wilderness, the Jewish people merited to experience the blessing inherent in Shabbat first-hand…However, there is the immediate danger that they will ignore the blessing, so Moses instructs them to take a special look and internalize the nature of this gift.”

This message is especially relevant for us this week as we are again not able to gather together in Shul.  Despite the frustration, I hope that we will all take the opportunity to reflect on the blessing of Shabbat in our lives. 

Bo — With our Children and With Our Elders

Parshat Bo contains the final three makkot (plagues) and the Exodus from Egypt.   I’d like to focus on a rather curious exchange between Moshe and Pharaoh found at the beginning of the parsha.  The parsha opens with Hashem’s instruction to Moshe and Aharon to go to Pharaoh and inform that the next plague will be that of ארבה (locusts).  After delivering the message, Moshe and Aharon leave Pharaoh and we learn of the conversation that took place between Pharaoh and his advisors (Shemot 10:7):

וַיֹּאמְרוּ֩ עַבְדֵ֨י פַרְעֹ֜ה אֵלָ֗יו עַד־מָתַי֙ יִהְיֶ֨ה זֶ֥ה לָ֙נוּ֙ לְמוֹקֵ֔שׁ שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְיַֽעַבְד֖וּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלקֵיהֶ֑ם הֲטֶ֣רֶם תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֥י אָבְדָ֖ה מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the LORD their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?”

In response, Moshe and Aharon are ushered back to the palace and Pharaoh agrees to let them go worship Hashem.  But he then asks (Shemot 10:8) מִ֥י וָמִ֖י הַהֹלְכִֽים — Who are the ones to go?”

Moshe answers (Shemot 10:9):

בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־יה’ לָֽנוּ׃

“We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the LORD’s festival.”

At which point Pharaoh has (another) change of heart and responds (verse 11):

לֹ֣א כֵ֗ן לְכֽוּ־נָ֤א הַגְּבָרִים֙ וְעִבְד֣וּ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּ֥י אֹתָ֖הּ אַתֶּ֣ם מְבַקְשִׁ֑ים וַיְגָ֣רֶשׁ אֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת פְּנֵ֥י פַרְעֹֽה׃

No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD, since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence.

It seems rather odd that Pharaoh, after seemingly conceding to Hashem, now reasserts himself by stipulating the conditions under which B’nei Yisrael can go.  The Midrash Rabbah (13:5) suggests that Pharaoh still doesn’t get.  He thinks that all that Moshe is really, sincerely asking to go and worship Hashem for three days after which the nation will return and resume being slaves to Pharaoh and Egypt.  He is concerned that if the entire nation goes, they might not come back.  Pharaoh therefore insists that the women children remain behind as collateral to ensure that B’nei Yisrael will come back (See Chizkuni on Shemot 10:11).

A second explanation for Pharaoh’s refusal to let the women and children go is brought by Rashi

ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם. כְּתַרְגּוּמוֹ. וּמִ”אַ שָׁמַעְתִּי, כּוֹכָב אֶחָד יֵשׁ שֶׁשְּׁמוֹ רָעָה, אָמַר לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה, רוֹאֶה אֲנִי בָּאִצְטַגְנִינוּת שֶׁלִּי אוֹתוֹ כוֹכָב עוֹלֶה לִקְרַאתְכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא סִימַן דָּם וַהֲרִיגָה; וּכְשֶׁחָטְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּעֵגֶל וּבִקֵּשׁ הַקָּבָּ”ה לְהָרְגָם, אָמַר מֹשֶׁה בִּתְפִלָּתוֹ, לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר “בְּרָעָה” הוֹצִיאָם (שמות ל”ב), זוֹ הִיא שֶׁאָמַר לָהֶם, רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם; מִיָּד וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ עַל הָרָעָה וְהָפַךְ אֶת הַדָּם לְדַם מִילָה, שֶׁמָּל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹתָם, וְזֶהוּ שֶׁנֶּ’ “הַיּוֹם גַּלּוֹתִי אֶת חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם מֵעֲלֵיכֶם” (יהושע ה’), שֶׁהָיוּ אוֹמְרִים לָכֶם, דָּם אָנוּ רוֹאִין עֲלֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר:

 I have heard a Midrashic explanation: There is a certain star the name of which is רעה “Evil”. Pharaoh said to them, “By my astrological art I see that star rising towards you in the wilderness whither you wish to proceed. It is an emblem of blood and slaughter”. Consequently, when Israel sinned by worshipping the calf and the Holy One, blessed be He, intended to slay them, Moses said in his prayer, (Exodus 32:12) “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak and say, He brought them forth together with רעה (i. e. under the influence of the star רעה); this is, indeed, what he (Pharaoh) has already said, “See, the ‘רעה’ is before you”. At once, “the Lord bethought Himself concerning ‘רעה’”, and He changed the blood of which this star was an emblem to the blood of the circumcision because indeed Joshua had them circumcised. This is the meaning of what is said, (Joshua 5:9). “This day have I rolled from off you the reproach of the Egyptians”, for they said to you. “We see blood impending over you in the wilderness. (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 1:392; cf. also Rashi on Joshua 5:9.

In other words, Pharaoh was able to see that the generation that left Egypt would die in the desert (in Rashi’s telling, they would be deserving of death because of the sin of the Golden Calf).   Pharaoh thus says to Moshe, “there is no point in your leaving Egypt only to die in the desert.”  As the Ba’al ha-Turim explains, in this understanding, Moshe’s response to Pharaoh is very technical:

והשיבו משה, בנערינו ובזקנינו נלך כי לא נגזרה גזירה לא על פחות מבן ך’ ולא על יתר מבן ס’:

Moshe responded, “With our young and with our old we will go!” because the decree that they would die in the desert did not apply to those below the age of twenty nor above the age of sixty.

A final explanation of the debate between Pharaoh and Moshe is not about the technicalities of who will leave at this moment, but is about conflicting views on religion and community.  In this understanding, Pharaoh’s assertion

לֹא כֵן לְכוּ נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק כִּי אֹתָהּ אַתֶּם מְבַקְשִׁים

No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD, since that is what you want.”

Reflects Pharaoh’s understanding of religion and the world in which he lives.  The Rashbam comments:

לעבוד את ה’ אתם מבקשים פני. וא”כ טף ונשים למה?

You are asking me to worship Hashem.  If that is the case, what need is there for women and children [to participate]. 

Rashi similarly comments:

וְאֵין דֶּרֶךְ הַטַּף לִזְבֹּחַ

It is not the custom for little children to offer sacrifice.

In Pharaoh’s mind, only the “members of society” have access to God and religious worship.  The other members of the community will only hold them back, slow them down and create more problems.  There is no point in them even beginning the journey.

Moshe emphatically rejects this approach.  The entire community must be involved.  As Rav Hirsch beautifully writes:

בנערנו ובזקננו נלך – we have not intermediary, no priests, no representative before our God.  If we are to go, we must all go; the tiniest baby in the cradle, the last sheep of our possessions.  Each and all are integral parts of our community…When God calls us, He wants to see us with every member of our family and with all our possessions, about Him. 

Moshe explains to Pharaoh “we are in this for the long haul and we are all in it together.”

I find this exchange between Pharaoh and Moshe to be extremely relevant as we once again find ourselves preparing for Shabbos in which our shul will be closed.  COVID does not allow us to safely daven indoors; the weather does not allow for safe or comfortable davening outside.  It is specifically on a week that we cannot gather in person that we must take Moshe’s message to heart.  Every member of the community is vital.  Because we care deeply about everyone, we are willing to make short term sacrifices to ensure the long-term health and safety of our loved Netivot family.

I want to encourage everyone to please make an extra effort to reach out to members of the shul and wish them a Good Shabbos.  Check in on them.  I desperately hope that we will be able to safely and comfortably return to shul real soon.  In the meantime, I wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom.

Va’era – O The Humanity

(Written in 2016)

Good Shabbos.  As many of you know, my family and I spent winter break with my father and sister at Disney World.  It was an amazing trip and we had so much fun.  While there, waiting on one of the many lines that we stood on to meet a character or go on a ride it occurred to me how a Disney vacation truly is an escape from reality.  Forget about the wars being fought in the world, problems of poverty or inequality.  All that mattered was which Disney princess were we going to meet next, and how long is the ride for the nearest roller coaster.  This was literally all I thought about for an entire week. 

Real life, of course, is much more complicated.  This week’s parsha highlights one of those complicated, real life issues that is way too complex for the simplistic, happy Disney world experience. 

As the drama of the makot (ten plagues) unfold and we read of the first seven this week, there are three times when Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aaron and begs them to make the plague stop.  It is too much for Pharaoh to bear and he asks Moshe to Hashem pray on his behalf in order to stop his suffering. 

The first time this occurs is after מכת צפרדע, the plague of frogs. 

Exodus 8:4: 

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־ה’ וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לה’ 

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said: ‘Entreat the LORD, that He take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may sacrifice unto the LORD.’ 

Pharaoh makes a similar request during the plague of ערוב (wild beasts).  He is on the brink of agreeing to allow B’nei Yisrael to go to worship Hashem for three days and says to Moshe: 

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וּזְבַחְתֶּם לַה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר רַק הַרְחֵק לֹא תַרְחִיקוּ לָלֶכֶת הַעְתִּירוּ בַּעֲדִי. 

And Pharaoh said: ‘I will let you go, that ye may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only ye shall not go very far away; entreat for me. (Shemot 8:24) 

Finally, at the end of the parsha during ברד (hail): 

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֗ה וַיִּקְרָא֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם חָטָ֣אתִי הַפָּ֑עַם ה’ הַצַּדִּ֔יק וַאֲנִ֥י וְעַמִּ֖י הָרְשָׁעִֽים׃ הַעְתִּ֙ירוּ֙ אֶל־יהק וְרַ֕ב מִֽהְיֹ֛ת קֹלֹ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּבָרָ֑ד וַאֲשַׁלְּחָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תֹסִפ֖וּן לַעֲמֹֽד׃ 

And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: ‘I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the LORD, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.’ (Exodus 9:27-28) 

The commentators tell us that Moshe’s prayers on behalf of Pharaoh were sincere, and difficult for Moshe to utter.   

On his prayer during tzfardeah, the Torah records: וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה’ עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה. – he cried unto the Lord concerning the frogs He had wrought on Pharaoh (Shemot 8:8).  The Da’at Mikra contemporary commentary explains that the verb צעק cry out/scream implies that Moshe cried out loudly as if he were crying   in distress and despair. 

ויצעק משמע שמלל בקול גדול כצועק מתוך צרה ומצוקה. 

Concerning the prayer offered during Arov, Rashi writes: 

ויעתר אל ה’ – נתאמץ בתפילה וכן אם בא לומ’ ויעתיר היה יכול לומ’ ומשמע וְיַרְבה תפילה, וכשהו’ אומ’ בלשון ויפעל משמ’ וַיִרְבֵה להתפלל. 

and entreated the Lord: he exerted himself in prayer. Similarly, if [Scripture] meant to say וַיַעְתִּיר, it could have said it, and that would mean that he increased [words] in prayer. Now, however, because it uses the וַיִפְעַל form, it means that he exerted himself to pray [devoutly]. 

Moshe exerted great effort in praying for Pharaoh. 

And finally, at the end of our parsha during barad, Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa in Israel writes in his book on the parsha Yoducha Ra’ayonai: 

משה נכון היה לשאת תפלה בעד האויב המשעבד את עמו.  על אף המציאות הסבוכה מצליח משה להפלל מעומק לבו ולעורר את רחמי הקל על סבלות העם המצרי. 

Moshe was correct to offer prayer on behalf of the enemy who was subjugating [Moshe’s] people.  Despite the complicated reality, Moshe succeeds to pray from the depths of his heart and to arouse God’s compassion over the suffering of the Egyptian nation. 

Why does Moshe go to such lengths to pray for Pharaoh and the Egyptian people?  Surely Moshe’s behavior goes beyond what we would expect. 

To answer this I’d like to return to an episode from Sefer Breishit.  On Rosh Hashanah we spoke about the plight of Yishmael and his mother Hagar (https://rabbikap.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/shema-koleinu-when-we-are-not-heard/).  Hagar is kicked out of Avraham and Sarah’s house twice. Once on her own and once with her son Yishmael.  On the second occasion, both mother and child are on the brink of death with no food or water to be found.  Hagar abandons Yishmael, too pained to see her son suffer.  This story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael immediately precedes the story of Avraham and Yitzchak ascending Har haMoriah for Akedat Yitzchak.   

In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contrasts these two episodes: 

“We identify with Hagar and Ishmael; we are awed by Abraham and Isaac.  The latter is a religious drama, the former a human one, and its very humanity gives it power.”  (115) 

Despite the fact that Yitzchak is the favored son and chosen successor of Avraham, we more easily identify with Yishmael.  The Torah deliberately does not vilify him, and wants us to empathize with him.  Rabbi Sacks continues: 

In situations of stress, sympathy for the other side can come to seem like a kind of betrayal.  It is this that the Ishmael story is challenging.  At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family – the birth of its first children – we feel for Sarah and Isaac.  She is the he first Jewish mother, and he the first Jewish child.  But we also feel for Hagar and Ishmael.  We enter their world, see through their eyes, empathize with their emotions.  That is how the narrative is written, to enlist our sympathy.  We weep with them, feeling their outcast state.  As does God.  (117-118) 

One of the Torah’s fundamental lessons is to empathize and identify with the other, even with our enemy. To bring this back to our parsha, when Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Jews go, Hashem insists that the Jews not leave empty-handed.  They should leave ברכוש גדול – with great wealth.  The simplest explanation is that the Jews are instructed to demand payment for the hundreds of years of servitude.  But not all agree that the רכוש גדול refers to material wealth, or only material wealth. 

Rav Yehuda Amital a”h quotes the Ari z”l who explains that God wanted the Jewish people to take with them the positive aspects of Egyptian culture and to integrate them, to “raise the sparks.” (http://etzion.org.il/en/plead-people-they-should-take-property).  Despite the oppression to which the Egyptians subjected us, there were still positive elements of Egyptian culture and society.  On our own, we would not have taken anything from Egypt.  It would have been a terrible nightmare that we wished to put far behind us.  To erase all memories.  Therefore, God pleaded with Moshe to make sure that the people would take the good aspects of Egypt with them. 

Along similar lines, in explaining Hashem’s command to take riches from the Egyptians,  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to a Halacha recorded in Sefer Devarim:  When a Jewish slave is set free, his master is obligated to provide him with wealth on his departure (Devarim 15:12-15).  Rabbi Sacks explains that this gift is not meant to be compensation for the years spent in slavery.  Rather, the gift is meant to provide closure of this chapter in the slave’s life and allow for the parting to be in good will.  The slave does not leave his master bearing bad feelings or with feelings of humiliation.  Rather, the gifts are symbolic of a new beginning.  This is the same idea behind Hashem’s insistence that B’nei Yisrael take money and riches from the Egyptians.  If we did not take a symbolic parting gift we would bear resentment and ill-will toward the Egyptians for the rest of our national history.  We would be a people stuck in the past.  We must let go of whatever animosity we have in order to realize our national destiny. (http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5769-bo-letting-go/

This idea of empathizing with the enemy is at the forefront of a contentious debate in Israel.  During the latest streak of terrorism and stabbing attacks, one question that has emerged and that is truly dividing Israeli society is how to treat with the terrorists and perpetrators of these attacks once the immediate threat has been stopped. 

The Israeli Medical Association, and the medical community has adopted guidelines that once the terrorist is no longer a threat, that all people on the scene – whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jew or non-Jew, terrorist or victim – should be treated in order of severity.  Those who are most critically wounded should be treated first.  ZAKA, the volunteer emergency service organization has refused to accept these guidelines.  Yehoshua Meshi-Zahav, the founder and chairman of ZAKA has stated that ZAKA volunteers will treat Jewish victims first. 

 “In spite of the ethical code that says one should treat the most severely injured first, one should know that even morality has its boundaries,” Meshi-Zahav added. “If we do not make this distinction, we lose our direction. Even in Jewish law it says, ‘He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.’” (http://www.timesofisrael.com/volunteer-medic-group-rejects-treating-terrorists-and-victims-equally/).  (For a different perspective on this question, see the article written by my friend Rabbi Seth Winberg http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Killing-a-terrorist-who-is-no-longer-a-threat-430114

I certainly understand this position and relate with Meshi-Zahav’s sentiments.  I do not know what the right answer is in this situation. 

What is clear, is that Judaism demands of us that we follow in the tradition of Moshe who prayed on behalf of Pharaoh.  That despite the harshness of our enslavement in Egypt, we must be able to see the positives of that oppressive society and leave open the possibility of reconciliation.  We must be able to see the humanity and to empathize with human suffering, even that of our enemies. 

Breishit – Science and Torah. In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler

Over Shemini Atzeret Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler passed away.  Rabbi Tendler was a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University and a professor of Jewish medical ethics and biology at YU.  He was a leading authority in issues of Jewish law and medical ethics.

Rabbi Tendler was married to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s daughter, Shifra, and he was very close with his father-in-law.  Rav Tendler provided Rav Moshe with the medical and scientific background needed to answer the complicated שאלות that Rav Moshe fielded on a regular basis.  To this effect, Rav Tendler was also heavily involved in translating and publishing many of Rav Moshe’s teshuvot related to medical ethics into English.

Also of note was Rav Tendlers passionate advocacy for organ donation based on his understanding that the halachic definition of death is based on brain death and not cessation of the heartbeat.  After publicly denouncing his detractors on the matter, he explained in a 2011interview:  “You say a thing, I believe you’re ignorant on this topic.   That’s not an insult. It’s a fact.”

It is quite fitting that we mourn Rabbi Tendler on Parshat Breishit.  We have all had to contend with questions of how to reconcile our scientific knowledge with the Torah and nowhere are these questions more explicit than in Parshat Breishit.

  • If according to Judaism the world is 5782 years old, how do we make sense of scientific evidence that it is is billions of years old?
  • Where do dinosaurs fit into the Torah’s account of creation?
  • How does a believing Jew make sense of Darwin?
  • How are we to understand the various miracles described in the Torah that seem to go against science.

Unlike R. Yehuda Amital who would declare every year:

“Big Bang… Small Bang. אני לא מבין כלום בפרשת בראשית – I don’t understand anything in Parshat Breishit!”

Rabbi Tendler approached the study of science with the utmost confidence that Torah could withstand any attacks, contradictions or questions lobbed its way.  He opened a seminal article – Molecular Genetics, Evolution and Torah Principles” (Torah Umadda Journal vol. 14; https://www.yutorah.org/_cdn/_shiurim/7.%20John%20D.%20Loike%20and%20R.%20Moshe%20D.%20Tendler%20-%20Molecular%20Genetics,%20Evolution,%20and%20Torah%20Principles.pdf) that he co-wrote with a friend’s father, Dr. John Loike, by quoting Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah 10:6

אֵינוֹ אוֹהֵב הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶלָּא בְּדַעַת שֶׁיְּדָעֵהוּ. וְעַל פִּי הַדֵּעָה תִּהְיֶה הָאַהֲבָה אִם מְעַט מְעַט וְאִם הַרְבֵּה הַרְבֵּה. לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם לְיַחֵד עַצְמוֹ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל בְּחָכְמוֹת וּתְבוּנוֹת הַמּוֹדִיעִים לוֹ אֶת קוֹנוֹ כְּפִי כֹּחַ שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּאָדָם לְהָבִין וּלְהַשִּׂיג

No one loves the Holy One, blessed is He! save by the measure of knowledge that he knows Him. According to that knowledge will that love be; if it be small, the love will be small; if it be abundant, the love will be abundant. It is, therefore, necessary for man to dedicate himself to understand and acquire intelligence in the sciences and reasonings which make known to him his Owner, in the measure of power that man possesses to understand and attain it,

As the two authors explain:

Rambam maintains that the twin obligations to love God and to stand in awe of Him are fulfilled through scientific inquiry and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Through scientific study one comes to appreciate God’s wisdom (resulting in love, ahavah) and, in addition, to understand the insignificance and lowliness of the human being in the cosmic order (resulting in awe, yir’ah).  It is with this view in mind—that scientific study can enhance religiosity— that we approach the issue of how molecular genetics should be viewed within the perspective of Torah.

In other words, it isn’t that humans are another species of animals that happens to be a little smarter than other animals.  Rather, we were endowed with צלם אלקים (image of God) which fundamentally distinguishes us from other creatures and which cannot be measured in scientific terms.

In a touching memory, Rabbi Jesse Shore, who studied with Rav Tendler at YU wrote  (https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/rockland/2021/09/30/obituary-rabbi-moshe-tendler-jewish-medical-ethicist-monsey/5927788001/):

When the New Atheism was enjoying its heyday, he once casually remarked that, ‘Richard Dawkins is an atheist only because he has not studied enough science.’ At first I thought he only said this for the shock value. But after several semesters observing him learn, teach, and publish, I realized that the remark was not at all intended to be provocative.”

In their article on molecular genetics, Rabbi Tendler and Dr. Loike provide three lessons from the fact that humans share so much genetic makeup with animals and other lower forms of life.

  • Humility – if we don’t behave with צלם אלקים then we are basically no better than the lowly creatures with whom we share 99% of our DNA.
  • The slightest differences in DNA are what distinguish humans from other creatures and what distinguishes each human from everyone else.  This is an important insight as we navigate our responsibilities to the community and to ourselves.
  • Finally, humans are the only beings capable of understanding and appreciating the randomness of life that results from genetic mutations and other events.  The tool we were gifted to compe with that randomness is faith.

While the question of science and Torah/faith requires much more time than we can allot during a short d’var Torah, I want to encourage everyone to continue to raise these difficult and important questions.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a crucially important book on this topic – The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.

His basic thesis is:

We need both religion and science…They are the two essential perspectives that allow us to se the universe it its three-dimensional depth.  The creative tension between the two is what keeps us sane, grounded in physical reality without losing spiritual sensibility.  It keeps us human and humane.”

Science is interested in taking things apart to see how they work, how they mesh and interact.  Religion puts things together to see what they mean – so that they tell a story and join people together so they form relationships. (2)

As we begin Sefer Breishit again and remember Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, I hope that we will continue to ask difficult and important questions while maintaining our צלם אלקים.  Please make every effort to join our Tuesday evening Parsha class and to share the questions and issues that you grapple with by sharing words of Torah with our shul.

Yom Kippur – Unconditional Love

It is amazing how when thinking about what to say, there always seems to be someone on the internet who says it better.  In this case, when thinking of what to say on Yom Kippur, I came across a podcast in which Yossik Klein HaLevi was in conversation with Rabbi Doniel Hartman.  We’ve discussed Yossi Klein HaLevi before.  He is an American born author and journalist living in Israel.   His two books Like Dreamers and Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor are required reading.  In the podcast he identifies the most pressing issue that the Jewish people, as a whole, should focus on as part of our collective teshuvah. (For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. No. 31 Can Nations Repent.  https://www.hartman.org.il/no-31-can-nations-repent-transcript/):

I think this has been an especially brutal year for internal Jewish discourse. The way we relate to each other the way we think about each other. But…rather than begin by pointing fingers outward about what’s wrong with the way other Jews speak about their fellow Jews, I’d like to start with myself: what I feel I need to do to teshuva for in the context of this increasingly acrimonious and even dysfunctional Jewish discourse – is the way I’ve thought about entire communities of Jews over the last year. And specifically about the Haredim.
So I really want to stop and look at myself and look at where this anger comes from. I think it comes from disappointment. I think maybe in its deeper and pure root, that comes from love, from a feeling of unrequited love. But it also comes from an inability to accept other Jews as they are

There is a remarkable story told in the Gemara Yoma 39b:

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אוֹתָהּ שָׁנָה שֶׁמֵּת בָּהּ שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק, אָמַר לָהֶם: בְּשָׁנָה זוֹ הוּא מֵת. אָמְרוּ לוֹ: מִנַּיִין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ? אָמַר לָהֶם: בְּכׇל יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים הָיָה מִזְדַּמֵּן לִי זָקֵן אֶחָד לָבוּשׁ לְבָנִים וְעָטוּף לְבָנִים, נִכְנַס עִמִּי וְיָצָא עִמִּי, וְהַיּוֹם נִזְדַּמֵּן לִי זָקֵן אֶחָד לָבוּשׁ שְׁחוֹרִים וְעָטוּף שְׁחוֹרִים, נִכְנַס עִמִּי וְלֹא יָצָא עִמִּי. אַחַר הָרֶגֶל חָלָה שִׁבְעָה יָמִים וָמֵת.

The Sages taught: During the year in which Shimon HaTzaddik died, he said to them, his associates: In this year, he will die, euphemistically referring to himself. They said to him: How do you know? He said to them: In previous years, on every Yom Kippur, upon entering the Holy of Holies, I was met, in a prophetic vision, by an old man who was dressed in white, and his head was wrapped up in white, and he would enter the Holy of Holies with me, and he would leave with me. But today, I was met by an old man who was dressed in black, and his head was wrapped up in black, and he entered the Holy of Holies with me, but he did not leave with me. Indeed, after the festival of Sukkot, he was ill for seven days and died.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has a beautiful interpretation of this story:

The man who accompanied him into the kodesh kodashim represents the Jewish people.  As long as Shimon’s vision was of the congregation dressed in white—optimistic, ambitious, and open to opportunity—he knew he still had a future as a leader of these people. However, once his representation of the Jewish people was dressed in all black—pessimistic, cynical, and negative—he knew his time as a leader was expiring. (As quoted by David Bashevkin in Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought).

When we think of the Jewish people, כנסת ישראל, we do so on two levels.  Rabbi Soloveitchik and others write of the metaphysical entity the Jewish people comprise:

The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality; I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity endowed with a life of its own.  (“The Community” Tradition 17:2, 1978)

Or as Rav Yehuda Amital writes:

The mission of our people is to a light unto the nations, not as exceptional individuals, but as an exceptional people.  (Yehuda Amital “The Jewish People Come Before the Land of Israel” quoted in By Faith Alone p. 360)

But we have to dig deeper.  One of my favorite Jewish books of all time, A Letter in the Scroll by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is based on the idea of the Ba’al Shem Tov that the Jewish people is a Sefer Torah and each and every Jew is one of the letters of the Torah.

“A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined together to others, they make a word. Words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter, every family a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story, in the annals of mankind.”

If we take this this beautiful metaphor to its logical conclusion, then we must contend with the halachic ruling that a Torah scroll that is missing one letter renders the Torah פסול (unfit).  Same for a letter that is cracked or otherwise defective.  So while we must be able to see the beauty in the collective Jewish people as a whole, we must also appreciate the beauty and infinite value of each individual Jew.  We run the risk of rendering the Torah scroll of the Jewish people פסול when we disparage others and focus only on the flaws of individuals or even large swaths of the community with whom we disagree.

The most apt model for thinking of our relationship to כלל ישראל is as a family.  No matter how strongly we may disagree with members of our family, our love for family must be unconditional.  I’ve become quite a fan of Dovid Lichtenstein and his podcast and books Headlines.  David’s Wikipedia page begins “David Lichtenstein is an American billionaire entrepreneur and real estate investor.”  He is יודע ספר (thoroughly knowledgeable in Jewish learning).  He is firmly entrenched in the Yeshivish world.  He tackles many difficult and controversial topics and does not shy away from asking hard questions.  He has a beautiful idea that relates to this topic.

The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yoreh De’ah 246:7)

(ז) אין מלמדין תורה לתלמיד שאינו הגון אלא מחזירין אותו למוטב ומנהיגין אותו בדרך ישרה ובודקין אותו ואח”כ מכניסין אותו לבית המדרש ומלמדין אותו:

We do not teach Torah to a student who is not fit [to learn].  Rather we first reform him to do and set him on the proper path, and then we bring him to the Beit Midrash to teach him.

If this is the case, then we have a serious problem at the Pesach Seder.  Because we know that we include the 4 sons at the Seder and in response to the  בן הרשע, (wicked son) the Haggadah instructs us

 ְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם”. לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל:

you will blunt his teeth and say to him, “‘For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8).” ‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved.

The question is how can the father teach Torah to his son who is a רשע.  R. Lichtenstein answers that even if the child is objectively a רשע, the father sees only good in his son.  A parent’s love does not allow the parent to see their child as a Rasha. 

I don’t think this means that shouldn’t expect a parent to see the flaws in their child or to be able to identify areas of improvement.  But even when we know our children have shortcomings or have made mistakes, our love for them overshadows everything else.

This is how we must see and relate to our fellow Jews. 

I’d like to conclude with a beautiful story.

It is told that one year, on the night of Yom Kippur Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirer Rosh Yeshiva, spoke to the Yeshiva and described his experiences during the day of Erev Yom Kippur.  He first went to pray at the Western Wall, and he senses that a voice was telling him that his prayers were ineffective.  He then went to Rachel’s Tomb, figuring that there his prayers would be accepted, but there too, he heard a voice telling him that his prayers were not helping.

He then went to the tomb of Avshalom, the son of King David, and he prayed citing David’s lament for Avshalom after he was killed in his failed attempt to overthrow and murder his father (II Shmuel 19:1):

בְּנִ֤י אַבְשָׁלוֹם֙ בְּנִ֣י בְנִ֣י אַבְשָׁל֔וֹם מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן מוּתִי֙ אֲנִ֣י תַחְתֶּ֔יךָ אַבְשָׁל֖וֹם בְּנִ֥י בְנִֽי׃

“My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!” 

Rashi, citing Chazal, writes that David cried the words “Avshalom” and “B’ni” eight times in order to elevate his son’s soul from the seven domains of the underworld and then lift it to the eternal world.

“No matter what evil a son commits against his father,” Rav Chaim shouted, “the father still has compassion for his son!  And so, Master of the world, You said בנים אתם לה’ אלקיכם (Devarim 14:1).  A father always has compassion for his children!”

He then heard a voice that exclaimed, “Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva!  Very good.  Have a good year!  (Dovid Lichtenstein.  Headlines 3: Halachic Debates of Current Events Is Our Teshuva Worth Anything?  P. 361)

We are all God’s children, and as such we must see each and every Jew as a treasured member of the family.  It is very dangerous to make predictions or guarantees for the next year.  But one thing I feel fairly confident about is that we will continue to have serious differences and disagreements with various factions of the Jewish community.  I can also pretty much guarantee that there will passionate debate on both sides of the issues.  I can only pray that the debate will be done in the loving manner of a family that has serious disagreements but deep love for each other.  May it be a good year for us and for אחינו כל בית ישראל.