Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sukkos - The Sukkah and the Function of the Jewish People

In the Torah’s description of the festival of Sukkos, the Torah describes the obligation for Jews to dwell in sukkos – “booths” – for the entire seven days of the festival (Leviticus 23:42-43):
You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days; every native in Israel shall dwell in sukkos. In order that your generations will know that I had the children of Israel dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Hashem your God.
For the seven days of Sukkos, a Jew is required to make the sukkah his main dwelling place. He must eat all his meals there, and, ideally, he is required to sleep there as well.

The Menoras HaMaor (Rabbi Yitzchak Aboav, Late 14th Century) explains that the underlying message of the obligation to dwell in the sukkah is to teach us place our trust purely in God. He writes (146:3-5):
...באה מצות סכה זאת ללמדנו שלא ישים אדם בטחונו בגבה ביתו וחזוקו ותקונו הטוב – ואף כי יהיה מלא מכל טוב – ואל יבטח בסיוע שום אדם – אע"פ שיהא אדון הארץ ומושל בה – אבל ישים בטחונו במי שאמר והיה העולם...
ולהעיר לאדם על זה, באה מצות סכה בזמן הזה – אחר אסיפת גרן ויקב בארץ ישראל... – לפי שבזמן הזה הוא זמן בעיטה לכל, שהאוצרות מלאים כל טוב והאדם כבר נאסף לעיר..., לפיכך צוה לצאת מביתו החזק וישב בסכה, כדי שיתעורר וישים מבטחו בשם ית' ויתן אל לבו כי כל הטוב שהגיע אליו מן היוצא בשדה, הכל בא לו ברצון ה'.... ויזכור שכל שמירת גופו וכל אשר לו מאת ה' ית' ולא יבטח באשר לו.
וגם באה מצוה זו להעיר ולהזכיר כי בסכות הושיב ה' ית' את בני ישראל במדבר ושמרם מן החרף ומן הקרח והצנה והגשמים והחום בלי בית ותקרה, ובזה יראו כי בכל דור ודור שומרם בוראם בלי בית וחומה דלתים ובריח.
The mitzvah of sukkah comes to teach us that a person should not place his trust in the height and strength of his home, or its good condition – even if it is filled with all good things – and he should not place his trust in any human being – even if he is the lord of the land and has dominion over it – but he should put his trust in He Who Spoke and the world came to be….
To bring forth this point, the mitzvah of sukkah comes at this specific time – after the grain and wine harvest in the land of Israel – for this is a time of rebelliousness for all, when the storehouses are full of all good things and one is gathered into the city…. Therefore, one is commanded to go out of his secure home and dwell in a sukkah, in order to awaken him to place his trust in God, and to take to heart that all the good that has come to him from going out to the field, it all came to him by the will of God…. And he should remember that his security, and the security of all that he has, comes from God, and he should not place his trust in his possessions.
This mitzvah also brings forth and reminds us that God had the children of Israel dwell in sukkos in the wilderness, and He protected them from the winter ice and cold, and from the rains, and from the heat, without a house or a ceiling, and through this they would see that in every generation their Creator would protect them, without a house, wall, doors, or key.
The basic message of the sukkah is our dependence on God; that He alone is the one true source of security and protection. R’ Avigdor Miller writes (A Kingdom of CohanimVayikra 23:43):
In the Wilderness our fathers had no walled cities inn which to find protection from the many potential predators. Our father’s possessed great wealth that they had taken from Egypt, and all the nations would have attempted to attack Israel to seize this wealth. But despite the fact that that our fathers possessed no fortifications or walls to protect them, and even no houses with sturdy walls, yet in their flimsy tabernacles of cloth and straw, they were more secure during these 40 years than at any subsequent time in their history. The only true security is Hashem: that is the lesson of Succos.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
Ultimately, the message of the sukkah – that God controls everything, and that our welfare is entirely in His hands – is the basic message that the Jewish people exist to convey to the entire world. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (The Nineteen Letters, Letter Seven):
While mankind was to be taught by experience, and from its fate it was to gain knowledge about God and itself, the attainment of this aim was to be assured and furthered by a special arrangement. …There would be introduced into the ranks of nations one people which would demonstrate by its history and way of life that the sole foundation of life is God alone; that life’s only purpose is the fulfillment of His Will; and that the formal expression of this Will, specifically addressed to this people, serves as the exclusive bond of its unity.
This objective required a nation that was poor in everything upon which the rest of mankind builds its greatness and the entire structure of its life. To all appearances being at the mercy of nations armed with self-reliant might, it was to be directly sustained by God Himself, so that, in manifestly overcoming all opposing forces, God would stand revealed as the sole Creator, Judge and Master of history and nature....
Thus, this people came to constitute the cornerstone on which humanity could be reconstructed. Recognition of God and of man's calling found a refuge in this nation and would be taught to all through it's fate and its way of life, which were to serve as a manifest example, a warning, a model, a education.
For the sake of this mission, however, Yisrael could not join in the doings of the rest of the nations, in order not to sink down with them to the worship of material possessions and pleasure. It has to remain separate until the day on which all mankind will have absorbed the lessons of its experiences and the example of this nation, and will united turn toward God. Joining with Yisrael at that time, mankind will then acknowledge God as the sole basis for its existence and "as God is One, the recognition of His Name will be one." Then, "the teaching of His Law will go forth from Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem."
The passage of the Jewish people through the desert encompassed by the “Clouds of Glory”, with no material protection but their trust in God, marked the beginning of the role of the Jewish people as the “Light unto the Nations”, which required their elevation and separation from the nations, but which would ultimately bring all mankind to the service of God in unity.

This transition is described in Kabbalistic terms by R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (d.1747) in Derech Hashem (IV:8:2):
הנה ענני הכבוד שהקיף הקב"ה את ישראל, מלבד תועלתם בגשמיות שהיה לסכך עליהם ולהגן בעדם, עוד היתה תולדה גדולה נולדת מהם בדרכי הרוחניות, והוא כמו שעל ידי העננים ההם היו נמצאים ישראל מבדלים לבדם ונשואים מן הארץ, כן היה נמשך להם מציאות הארה המשכנת אותם לבד, נבדלים מכל העמים, ומנשאים ומנטלים מן העולם הזה עצמו, ועליונים ממש על כל גויי הארץ. ודבר זה נעשה בשעתו לישראל, להגיעם אל המעלה העליונה הראויה להם.... ומתחדש דבר זה בישראל בחג הסכות על ידי הסוכה.
The Clouds of Glory with which God encompassed Israel [in the wilderness], asides from their physical benefit, which was to shelter and protect them, also had a major spiritual effect. Just as the clouds caused Israel to be set apart and lifted above the earth [physically], similarly there was drawn a reality of illumination that dwelled only with them, separating them from all the nations and lifting them and removing them from this [physical] world itself, [so that] they were literally elevated above all the nations of the earth. This was done to Israel at that time, in order to bring them to the high level that was proper for them. … This [elevation and separation] is renewed [each year] for Israel on the festival of Sukkos through the sukkah.
Thus, the sukkah thus represents the role of the Jewish people in this world, as a distinct nation devoted purely to God, elevated and separated from the nations of the world, to serve as a model of what humanity’s relationship with God can and should be. The Jewish people, who’s very existence as a nation is a miracle, a people who’s fortunes throughout history have been clearly tied to their obedience to God’s will, testify through their existence and their fortunes to God’s dominion over history.

The prophet Zechariah (14:16, in the haftara of the first day of Sukkos) tells us that, ultimately, when mankind will come to recognize the truth of God’s dominion, then all the nations will come to celebrate Sukkos:
והיה כל הנותר מכל הגוים הבאים על ירושלים ועלו מדי שנה בשנה להשתחות למלך ה' צבאות ולחוג את חג הסוכות.
And it shall come to pass, that all who are left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem, shall go up from year to year to bow before the King, Hashem, Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkos.
In his commentary on the Haftaros, R’ Mendel Hirsch (d.1900) comments on this verse:
So we see Judaism as the religion of the future. Its truths acknowledged by all, its laws understood and kept, the general ones of humanness and morality by mankind in general, the special ones for Jews dedicating them to be the priests of mankind, by the Jews. The reign of everlasting peace will have started. All enmity, all hate of one to the other will have disappeared for by the universal recognition of God as their One King henceforth all men form one great family. And all class war will have come to an end by the knowledge and realization of the teachings of the Tabernacles Festival.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ha'azinu - God's Perfect Justice

Parshas Ha’azinu is the last Torah reading before Simchas Torah, when we complete the yearly cycle and begin again from Genesis. This short parsha is almost entirely taken up by the poetic song of Moses, in which he prophetically describes the history of the Jewish people as God’s chosen nation. He describes how God chose the Jewish people as His own and brought them to their land, where they dwelt in prosperity until their sins caused them to be exiled. He describes the terrible travails of the exile and the gloating of their enemies. And he describes how, ultimately, God will relent towards His people and punish those who persecuted them.

Moses introduces the song with a very famous verse (Deuteronomy 32:4):
הצור תמים פעלו כי כל דרכיו משפט, א-ל אמונה ואין עול צדיק וישר הוא:
“The Rock, His deeds are perfect, for all His ways are justice; a God of faith and without injustice, He is just and upright.”

R' Yisrael Meir Kagan
The Chofetz Chaim
The Chofetz Chaim, R’ Yisrael Meir Kagan (d.1933) asks (חפץ חיים עה"ת) how we can say that God’s deeds are perfectly just when we frequently see in the world around us what appears to be obvious injustice, such as truly righteous people who are impoverished or suffer in other ways.

The Chofetz Chaim answers with a parable:
There was once a very wealthy man who had a son who suffered from a terrible illness. They went to many doctors but all of them had given up on the child. Finally, they found a very skilled doctor who was able to heal the child. The doctor told the father that he must be very careful not to allow his child to eat any rich food, for such foods were extremely dangerous for the child.
Some time later, it happened that the child stole a piece of meat from his mother’s plate and ate it. Soon he was once again on the verge of death. His father rushed him back to the special doctor. He begged the doctor to save his son, and he promised that they would take extra steps to ensure that this could never happen again.
With great effort, after a long time and much difficulty, the doctor was able to bring the child back to health. The father made a great feast to celebrate his child’s recovery. When the young boy smelled the food from the feast, he came into the dining room to join the feast. His father quickly grabbed him, and despite his son’s loud cries of dismay, removed him from the room. The guests were shocked at the “cruelty” of the father, not to allow his son to participate in a feast made in his honor. Only the father understood the necessity of what he had done.
Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim explains, sometimes God places difficulties on a righteous person that seem unfair. In reality, however, they are for the benefit of the righteous person. Even though we are not able to understand God’s reasons in these matters, we must have emunah – faith – that “The Rock, His deeds are perfect” and “all His ways are justice.”[1]

[1] In a footnote, the Chofetz Chaim expands on this theme in relation to the concept of gilgulei neshamot (literally, the “cycling of souls”, referring to the Jewish concept of reincarnation). We know that atonement for a sin between man and his fellow can only be achieved after the victim grants forgiveness to the sinner. Thus, if a person hurt another person in any way and died without getting forgiveness, he may be required to return to this world in order to appease his victim.

When the deceased person is informed that he will be required to return to this world, he will cry and bemoan his great sin and he will complain before the Heavenly court that God had placed him in an extremely difficult state, for he had been granted wealth and other blessings in his life, which had caused him to become arrogant and had led to his sinful behavior. He will beg before the court that, if he must return, he should at least be allowed to return as a poor, sickly, and insignificant person, so that he would be less likely to repeat his sin.

The accusing angels will argue to the contrary, that to properly atone for his sin, he must return to similar circumstances. The arguments will be placed before the court, and, after great efforts and prayer, the soul may indeed be granted its request and be sent down as a person doomed to suffer poverty and other afflictions.

Yet, when a person comes to this world, he has no knowledge or memory of the events that preceded his birth. He may well complain of his difficult lot in life, yet in reality these “difficulties” are actually the result of his own hard-fought victories.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Forgiveness for Inter-Personal Sins

Jewish law requires us to ask forgiveness from anyone whom we may have harmed, whether the harm was physical, financial, emotional, or social. We are also required to be gracious in granting forgiveness. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 8:7) states, "From where do we know that it is cruel to not forgive? For it says, "Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech..." (Genesis 20:17).

Maimonides writes (Hil. Teshuvah 2:9-10):
Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between Man and God such as eating forbidden foods or engaging in forbidden sexual relations. Sins between one man and his fellow, such as striking, cursing, or stealing are never forgiven until one pays up his debt and appeases his fellow. Even if he returns the money he owes he must still ask for forgiveness. Even if he only spoke badly about him, he must appease and beseech until he is forgiven. If his fellow refuses to forgive him then he must bring a group of three of his fellows and go to him and ask him [for forgiveness]. If he still does not forgive him he must go to him a second and third time (with a different group of three people). If he still refuses to forgive him he may cease and the other is the sinner. If [however, the injured party] is his teacher (rebbe) he must go to him even a thousand times until he is forgiven.
It is forbidden to be cruel and difficult to appease, rather, a person must be quick to forgive and difficult to anger and when the sinner asks for forgiveness he should forgive him willingly and wholeheartedly....
In Shulchan Aruch (R' Yosef Karo, d.1575) in the laws of Yom Kippur (Orech Chaim 606:1) we find essentially the same thing. The Rema (R' Moshe Isserles, d.1572) adds that one may withhold forgiveness if it is for the benefit of the person asking. The Mishna Berurah (R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, d.1933) explains that it may be appropriate to withhold forgiveness to teach the supplicant not to take it lightly. The Rema also permits withholding forgiveness when someone spread false rumors about you, however the Mishna Berurah says that in such a case one should still forgive.

In the prayer titled Tefilah Zaka which many people recite before Kol Nidrei on the eve of Yom Kippur it says:
I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has sinned against me, whether physically or monetarily, or spoke lashon hara (negative speech) about me or even false reports. And (I also forgive them) for any damages, whether on my body or my property, and for all sins between a man and his fellow except for money which I can claim in a court of law and except for someone who sins against me saying, "I will sin against him and he will forgive me". Except for these I grant complete forgiveness and no person should be punished on my account. And just as I forgive everyone so should You grant me favor in the eyes of all men that they should completely forgive me.
The complete prayer is printed in many machzorim (holiday prayer books).

VaYeilech - The Immortality of the Jewish People

Towards the end of Parshas VaYeilech God testifies that, no matter far the Jewish people may drift from the proper obedience of God’s will, the Jewish people will never forget the Torah (Deuteronomy 31:21):

כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו
“For [the Torah] will not be forgotten from [the Jewish nation’s] descendants”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that “these words show us the secret of [the Jewish people’s] national immortality and of its ultimately fulfilling its mission. However deep its fall may be, and however far away its sin may take it, one thing remains throughout all the changes of its existence, one thing accompanies it through the darkest paths of its sufferings, and that is: - the Torah.”

God assures us that no matter how far we may stray, no matter how deep the exile may become, the Torah will always be with us. As Rabbeinu Gershom (d.1028) wrote (in Selicha 42, recited Erev Rosh HaShana and in the selichos of Neila on Yom Kippur):

The Holy City and its regions     העיר הקדש והמחוזות
Are turned to shame and to spoils     היו לחרפה ולבזות
And all its desirable things are buried and hidden     וכל מחמדיה טבועות וגנוזות
And nothing is left except this Torah.     ואין שיור רק התורה הזאת

Throughout history, every time that it appeared as if the Torah would be erased from human memory, whether by Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Inquisitors, Cossacks, Nazis, or Communists – the Torah always rose once again to flourish and grow in its pure and unadulterated form. This is a vivid testimony to God’s control over the history of the world.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Using the Opportunity of Rosh Hashana

אמר רבי כרוספדאי אמר רבי יוחנן: שלשה ספרים נפתחין בראש השנה, אחד של רשעים גמורין, ואחד של צדיקים גמורין, ואחד של בינוניים. צדיקים גמורין ־ נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר לחיים, רשעים גמורין ־ נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר למיתה, בינוניים ־ תלויין ועומדין מראש השנה ועד יום הכפורים. זכו ־ נכתבין לחיים, לא זכו ־ נכתבין למיתה. (מסכת ראש השנה טז:)
Rabbi Kruspedai said, Rabbi Yochanan said, “Three books are open on Rosh Hashana, one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one of beinonim (intermediates). The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life, the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death, and the beinonim are suspended and waiting from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are written for life; if they do not merit, they are written for death. (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16b)
The Talmud tells us that the final judgment for the intermediates - the beinonim - is not made until Yom Kippur. If, at that point, they have “merited” - through repentance for their sins - then they will be written for life. Otherwise, they will be written for death. However, this seems to indicate that if a beinoni does nothing at all, he will be written for death. Why should this be so? If he has done nothing at all, then he is still a beinoni!

The Abudarham (14th century commentary on the Siddur written by R' Dovid Abudarham) answers that the failure of the beinoni to use this opportunity to repent for his sins is itself a sin and puts the beinoni into the category of the guilty.

This brings out an extraordinarily important point. The period of the Aseres Yemei Teshuva (Ten Days of Repentance), which begins with Rosh Hashana and ends with Yom Kippur, is an extraordinary opportunity for us to rectify our sins through repentance and regain a proper relationship with God. However, like all opportunities, with this opportunity also comes a responsibility to make use of it. To allow this period to pass by without taking advantage of it is a crime in its own right.

However, this is itself a challenge. Most of us know that we are far from being what we should be, yet year after year goes by and many of our most basic problems remain the same. How are we really supposed to engage in meaningful change?

Self-defeating thoughts of this sort can often prevent us from even trying to make proper use of the opportunities of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, so that we end up just going through the motions, and each year we walk away feeling less worthy than the year before. That is precisely the opposite of how we are supposed to experience Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur! We find in the book of Nechemia (8:9) that, at the very beginning of the Second Temple period, when the Jews celebrated Rosh Hashana, they began to cry after hearing the Torah reading, for they felt that they were not properly fulfilling the commandments of God. (רש"י שם) Nechemia, Ezra, and the Levites then arose before the people and declared, "Do not mourn and do not cry!" Rather, the Jewish people were told (8:10), "Go, eat rich foods, and drink sweet drinks, and send portions to anyone who doesn't have; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be sad, for the joy of God is your strength."

Rosh Hashana is supposed to be a joyous holiday! Yes, we are certainly aware of the significance of this day, in which every creature is brought before God for judgement, nevertheless, we are expected to be happy and confident in our judgement. This would imply that properly utilizing this time, and earning a positive judgement before God, is perfectly feasible for anyone who truly wishes to do so, and that if we use this time correctly, we have no need to be afraid. Clearly, then, the fact that we tend not to feel that way indicates that there is something fundamentally askew in how we view ourselves and in how we view our obligation to repent at this time.

Perhaps the most basic error is in our own self-perception as sinful. The Sages tell us that no matter how sinful you might believe yourself to be, every person is supposed to consider himself a beinoni - a person of intermediate status:
ת"ר: לעולם יראה אדם עצמו כאילו חציו חייב וחציו זכאי, עשה מצוה אחת ־ אשריו שהכריע עצמו לכף זכות, עבר עבירה אחת ־ אוי לו שהכריע את עצמו לכף חובה.... ר' אלעזר בר' שמעון אומר: לפי שהעולם נידון אחר רובו והיחיד נידון אחר רובו, עשה מצוה אחת ־ אשריו שהכריע את עצמו ואת כל העולם לכף זכות, עבר עבירה אחת ־ אוי לו שהכריע את עצמו ואת כל העולם לכף חובה (מסכת קידושין מ.-:)
The Rabbis taught, “A person should always view himself as half guilty and half meritorious, thus, if he does one mitzvah - fortunate is he, for he has turned himself to the side of merit; if he does one sin - woe is he, for he has turned himself to the side of guilt.”
R’ Elazar ben R’ Shimon said, “Being that the world is judged after its majority, and the individual is judged after his majority, if he does one mitzvah - fortunate is he, for he turns himself and the entire world to the side of merit; if he does one sin - woe is he for he turns himself and the entire world to the side of guilt.” (Talmud, Kiddushin 40a-b)
How can we have a rule that a person should always consider himself a beinoni? What if a person knows for a fact that that he has done more sins than mitzvos?

Rav Yisrael Salanter (d.1883) answers ('אור ישראל ח) that one can never truly know whether or not he is a beinoni because only God knows how to judge the value of our actions. Maimonides writes (הל' תשובה א:א-ב) :
כל אחד ואחד מבני האדם יש לו זכיות ועונות, מי שזכיותיו יתירות על עונותיו צדיק, ומי שעונותיו יתירות על זכיותיו רשע, מחצה למחצה בינוני, וכן המדינה אם היו זכיות כל יושביה מרובות על עונותיהן הרי זו צדקת, ואם היו עונותיהם מרובין הרי זו רשעה, וכן כל העולם כולו.... ושקול זה אינו לפי מנין הזכיות והעונות אלא לפי גודלם, יש זכות שהיא כנגד כמה עונות..., ויש עון שהוא כנגד כמה זכיות..., ואין שוקלין אלא בדעתו של א-ל דעות והוא היודע היאך עורכין הזכיות כנגד העונות
Every individual has merits and sins. One whose merits exceed his sins is a tzadik (a righteous person) and one whose sins exceed his merits is a rasha (a wicked person). One who is half and half is a beinoni. The same is true for a country, if the merits of all its inhabitants exceed their sins, it is righteous, but if it is their sins that exceed, then it is wicked. And so it is for the entire world.
This assessment is not made [simply] according to the number of merits and sins, but, rather, according to their significance. A [single] merit may be equivalent to many sins… and a [single] sin may be equivalent to many merits. This assessment can only be made in the mind of the God of Knowledge, and He is the One Who Knows how to value the merits against the sins.
From this we learn that no matter what you may think of your own spiritual stature, even if you think that you are a hopelessly wicked sinner, it is perfectly possible that God considers you a beinoni. (Incidentally, if it is impossible for us to know our own spiritual status, then it is certainly impossible to assess another person’s!)

Rav Yisrael Salanter continues by pointing out that one of the main criteria for determining the significance of a merit or sin is the difficulty or sacrifice involved. As the Talmud (Avos 5:26) says, לפום צערא אגרא – “According to the pain is the reward.” The more difficult it is to do a mitzvah, the more valuable the mitzvah becomes. On the other hand, the easier it is for us to refrain from committing a sin, the more significant that sin becomes. If we fail when faced with a very difficult challenge, this is far less severe than when we sin offhandedly, without even thinking about it.

This concept, concludes Rav Yisrael Salanter, is an extraordinarily powerful one for us at the time of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Because the “weightiest” sins are precisely those sins that are not difficult for us to refrain from, a minimal effort of training ourselves to be more aware of these “little” sins can have a tremendous impact on our spiritual status when we are judged. By utilizing this simple principle we can shift ourselves dramatically in a positive direction.

It follows from this principle that our first priority in repentance should not be the big challenges that tend to loom large in our minds as overwhelming obstacles. Our first priority in repentance should be the "little" sins, the minor temptations and weaknesses that we can most easily bring under control and that we tend to simply overlook. In the eyes of Heaven, it is these "little" sins that tend to stand out the most as accusations against us. As bad as it might be, the fact that we succumb to a major temptation is, if not excusable, at least, understandable. But what excuse do we have for committing sins that are not real temptations in the first place?

Each year, if we find one or two of these "minor" temptations to work on and to improve, we will find that, as time goes by, temptations that were once overwhelming are now far less challenging, and we can honestly ask God that He grant us longer lives so that we can continue to grow stronger in Torah and mitzvos.

May we all merit to have a kesiva v'chasima tova!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nitzavim - The Eternal Covenant and Free Will

In Parshas Nitzavim Moses continues his farewell speech to the Jewish people. The parsha is devoted primarily to the topics of galus (exile) and geulah (redemption). It begins with a declaration of the eternal nature of the ברית – the covenant – between God and the Jewish people, which the Torah describes as a permanent covenant for all generations to come. “Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath; but with whoever is here with us today before Hashem our God, and also with whomever is not here with us this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14) As the sedrah will describe, this obligates us to be eternally loyal to God and it assures us that God will never abandon us.

Therefore, if the Jewish people violate the covenant by turning towards foreign gods, then God will punish us harshly (as described in last week’s sedrah) and exile us from our land.

Moses concludes this prediction of exile with the famous verse (Deuteronomy 29:28):

הנסתרות לה' אלקינו והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת:
“The secrets are for Hashem our God, and the revealed are for us and our children forever, to fulfill all the words of this Torah.”

This verse is the subject of many commentaries. Rashi (d.1105) explains it to refer to the punishment that comes upon the nation for the sins of individuals. The nation is not punished for the secret sins committed by individuals. Such sins are between the sinner and God. Sins committed in public, however, require a communal response. If the community fails to respond to sins done publicly, then the community bears a degree of guilt as well. כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה – All Jews are responsible for each other.

After describing the exile, Moses continues with the prophecy of the ultimate return of the Jewish people to God. Eventually the Jewish people will do teshuva - repent - and will return to complete observance of the laws of the Torah. God will then bring the redemption; He will gather the exiled Jews from throughout the world and return us to the Land of our Ancestors. All those who oppressed and harmed the Jewish people will be punished and the Jewish people will live a life of abundance, in obedience to His Will.

The sedrah concludes with the powerful declaration that obedience to the Torah is not an impossible goal (Deuteronomy 30:12-14):

לא בשמים הוא... ולא מעבר לים הוא... כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו:
“It is not in heaven… Neither is it beyond the sea… Rather, the word is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart, that you may do it.”

God has placed a choice before us (30:15), "ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב ואת המות ואת הרע" "See, I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil,:" and He demands from us (30:19), "ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך" "and you shall choose life, that you may live, you and your children!"

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein
Rav Moshe Feinstein (d.1986) notes that when Moses describes the choice that is placed before us, the verse says, "ראה נתתי לפניך היום" – “See, I have placed before you today.” Rav Feinstein explains that the the word היום – “today” –  teaches us that this decision is one we make each and every day of our lives; will we go on the path of life and good or the path of death and evil? Each day stands on its own as a new decision.

This means that no matter how badly we may have drifted astray in the past, every day is a new opportunity to begin again. Every day we can make – in fact, we do make – a new decision that is independent of the past.

Similarly, no matter how righteous we may have been in the past, we must never grow overconfident; each day is a new decision in its own right. The possibility of choosing the wrong path is always there, even after many years of righteousness.

This lesson is one of particular significance in the days before Rosh HaShana, when we are about to go before the Heavenly Court for judgement. Even with only a few days left, we can still choose to change our lives for the better.

The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy - The 13 Middos Shel Rachamim

One of the main features of the prayers of the High Holy Days is the recitation of the י"ג מדות של רחמים – the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. These play a particularly prominent role in the daily Selichos recited at this time and in the Yom Kippur prayers. The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy were first revealed to Moses by God in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, when God forgave the Jewish people. (Exodus 34:6-7) The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17b) tells us that God established a covenant that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy never go unanswered and that God instructed Moses, “Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them perform this ‘order’ and their sins will be forgiven.”

There are, unsurprisingly, a vast number of commentaries on the exact meaning of these Thirteen Attributes and there is even some dispute about exactly how the words in these two verses should be divided into thirteen. For the ordinary person who wishes to recite the Thirteen Attributes with proper kavanah (intent), however, there is a need for a basic, straightforward, interpretation of the attributes that one can actually have in mind during prayer.

Moreover, as should be obvious, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are not a magical incantation of forgiveness. The Reishis Chochma (R’ Eliyahu di Vidas d.1592) writes (שער הענוה פרק א') that the Gaonim point out that the Talmud does not say that the Jewish people should “recite this order” for their sins to be forgiven, but that they should “perform this order.” This means that we must emulate these middos (attributes) in our own lives, and through this we will gain forgiveness. It is therefore important that when we recite these attributes, we have a clear idea of what they mean, not only as descriptions of God’s mercy, but also as practical guides for our own behavior.

The following is an highly condensed explanation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that I compiled several years ago for my students (based on a wide variety of sources). After each attribute I am including, in parentheses, some additional commentary and notes on how we can apply this middah in practical terms. 
  1. ה' – “Hashem” – God is merciful before we sin. (Even though He knows that we will sin, He is still merciful. So too, we should be kind and considerate to others, even if we don’t think they will appreciate it or reciprocate.)

  2. ה' – “Hashem” – He is merciful after we sin when we repent. (If someone hurt us and sincerely wishes to make amends, we should forgive them wholeheartedly.)

  3. א-ל – “God” – His power saves us from our sins after we repent. (If someone sincerely wishes to make amends for hurting us, then we should share the burden of reparation with them.)

  4. רחום – “Merciful” – His mercy is active even before we repent. (If someone hurt us, we should not respond with anger and rejection, but with love and kindness, showing that way to forgiveness is still open.)

  5. וחנון – “And Gracious” – He is kind to us even when we have not earned it.

  6. ארך אפים – “Slow to Anger” – He waits patiently for us to repent. (Instead of punishing us immediately for our sins, as would be justified, God gives us time to repent on our own and avoid punishment. So too, if someone wrongs us, we should give the person time to make amends.)

  7. ורב חסד – “And Abundant in Kindness” – He is biased to judge us favorably. (Whenever there is room for “doubt”, God’s kindness inclines Him to judge us favorably. Similarly, whenever there is room for doubt, we should judge others favorably.)

  8. ואמת: – “And Truth” – He keeps His promises of good even if we are not deserving. (If we promised to do a good thing for another person, we should keep our word even if the person no longer deserves it.)

  9. נצר חסד לאלפים – “He Keeps Kindness for Thousands [of generations]” – He rewards the righteous for two thousand generations. (If we owe a debt of gratitude to someone, we should continue to express that gratitude even to that person’s descendants.)

  10. נשא עון – “He Lifts Up Sin” – When we repent, God “lifts up” our sins [of temptation]…

  11. ופשע – “And Rebellion” – And our sins of rebellion…

  12. וחטאה – “And Error” – And our unintentional sins, and transforms them into merits. (When a person sincerely wishes to make amends for hurting us, we should use this as an opportunity to develop an even closer friendship with the person.)

  13. ונקה – “And He cleans” – Even when we need to be punished (i.e. cleansed) for our sins, He does so gradually, rather than overwhelmingly at once. (Even with repentance, the spiritual damage caused by the more severe sins may still require suffering to fully rectified. Even so, if the total punishment would be beyond our capacity to handle at once, then God spreads it out over time. So too, even in those cases where we must demand that someone make reparations for the harm that they have caused us, we should still be merciful and not demand that they do so in a way that is too difficult for them to handle.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ki Savo - The Tochacha and Serving God with Joy

The bulk of Parshas Ki Savo discusses the prophecy of reward and punishment for the Jewish people. The Torah tells us that if we listen to the voice of God and obey his commandments, then we will be greatly blessed. It is here that we find the famous verses (Deuteronomy 28:3,6):
ברוך אתה בעיר וברוך אתה בשדה:
ברוך אתה בבאך וברוך אתה בצאתך:
“Blessed shall you be in the city, blessed shall you be in the field.
Blessed shall you be in coming, blessed shall you be in going.”

The prediction of blessing for obedience to the commandments of God is followed by the Tochacha – the Admonition. In the Tochacha, the Torah describes, at length and in very harsh and frightening terms, the terrible punishments that await the Jewish people, as a people and as individuals, when they fail to obey the commandments of the Torah. The Tochacha speaks of warfare and slavery, disease and madness, famine and poverty, and every other form of human suffering. The concept of reward and punishment is made very graphically clear.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (Deuteronomy 28:1) that the Tochacha is intended to stress the responsibility of every individual for the spiritual welfare of the nation. For when the nation suffers for its general failings, every individual – even the most righteous – suffers with it.

Although the subject matter of the Tochacha is very difficult for us, it also provides us with an essential key to understanding the events of Jewish history. The Jewish people have experienced great suffering over the millennia, despite consistently being morally superior to the surrounding peoples. This is the result of our special relationship with Hashem. Like any caring parent, God does not want His children to simply be superior to the surrounding environment, but that they should be truly good and righteous. Once we have absorbed the lessons of the Tochacha, the tragedies of Jewish history, while still tragic, are no longer mysteries.

When the Tochacha is read in the congregation on Shabbat, the custom is to read it in a low voice. Rav Avigdor Miller explained (The Path of Life p. 293) that this is to teach us an important lesson. Even when it is necessary to give strong rebuke to another, it should be done in as gentle a manner as is possible. “The most effective way of communicating and having people listen to you is to speak in a soft voice. ‘The gentle words of the wise are heard.’ (Ecclesiastes 9:17)”

In the midst of the Tochacha we find the statement that the Jewish people are being afflicted with these terrible punishments because they did not serve God with joy (Deuteronomy 28:47):

תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' אלקיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרב כל:
“For you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a good heart, when all was abundant.”

At first glance, the implication of this verse is that although the people were performing the mitzvos properly, their lack of joy in their service to God resulted in severe punishment. This is very surprising. While we can readily readily recognize the virtue of joy in the performance of the mitzvos, the lack of joy—by itself—would not seem to warrant such harsh punishment.

R' Matisyahu Salomon
Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, the mashgiach of the Lakewood yeshiva, explains (מתנת חיים-מועדים עמ' קל"ה) that this is not the intent of the Torah. Certainly, the grave punishments of the Tochacha are reserved only for the complete failure to perform the mitzvot entirely. The intent of the verse here is simply to explain how it is possible that the Jewish people could ever fall to such a low level of Torah observance. The Torah teaches us that this can only happen if, even when the Jewish people were observing the mitzvot, their observance was joyless. Only then could they come eventually to abandon the mitzvot entirely.

This teaches us a very important lesson. If one does not find joy in Torah and mitzvot, this is a clear indication that his Torah and mitzvot are flawed in some significant way. Perhaps he doesn’t properly appreciate the significance of mitzvot. Or perhaps he is performing the mitzvot incorrectly. A dry and mechanical observance of the mitzvot will quickly lose its appeal. We are required to find a way to serve God with joy.

Whenever we encounter an obligation that touches upon our inner feelings, people will often ask how can God command us to feel a certain way? We often hear people say, "I can't help how I feel!", as if our feelings are not subject to our control, and, in fact, there is a significant degree of truth to this. Exerting direct control over our feelings can be very difficult, and in many cases it is not possible, and attempting to do so can actually be harmful. But if this is true, then how can God demand from us that we control our emotions? For example, in our case, how can God require us to serve Him "with joy and a good heart"?

The answer is that while our emotions may seem to arise as if of their own accord from our experiences, how we perceive our experiences has a profound impact on our feelings and emotions. The exact same experience can inspire very different feelings, even in the same person, depending on how the person interprets or perceives the experience.

I remember once, as a child (I was probably about 9 years old), I was walking with some friends in our neighborhood and we encountered an older boy. He was probably only about 13 years old, but to us he seemed like a really big boy, almost an adult. He came over to us and starting asking us impolite questions, and making faces at us, and generally being rude. So we were rude back, and he started to run after us, and we ran away, and we called him names, etc. While this was going on we ran into an adult we knew, and we told him, "That boy is being mean to us!" He looked at the boy and, to our surprise, he became visibly upset, at us! He explained to us that this boy had not been making fun of us, he was mentally disabled and he was just being friendly. I still remember how this one piece of information hit me like a wave of ice water. Suddenly, in the place of my sense of justified anger, I felt guilt and shame. I looked at the boy, and now I could see it too, that he was just being nice and how confused and hurt he was by our behavior. Even today, more than thirty years later, I feel guilty when I think about this incident.

Ultimately, all of our emotions are rooted in how we perceive the world around us, and if our perception of the world is erroneous, then our feelings will reflect that error. It precisely in this manner that we are required to control our emotions, not by simply repressing our feelings, but by bringing our mental picture of the world into congruence with the ultimate truth revealed in the Torah.

In no area is this more important than with regard to happiness, and it is for this reason that failure to serve God with happiness is indicative of a much deeper spiritual problem. God has given us the great gifts of Torah and mitzvos, yet so often we act as if these are not gifts at all but burdens! This is rooted in a fundamentally distorted perception of our relationship with God that can be illustrated with the following analogy:

Imagine the owner of a small store, living in an urban neighborhood. Everyday he struggles to keep his business functioning, so that he can bring home enough money to pay the bills. Then one day, the door opens and in walks one of the local mobsters, followed by two huge thugs. "Nice store you have here, bud," he says with a grin, "wouldn't want to see anything happen to it." The two thugs chuckle, as a chill runs down the store-owner's back. "Tell you what," the mobster continues, "we have a service for guys like you. All you gotta do is pay a monthly fee, and we guarantee that nothing happens to your place of business. It's like insurance. You interested?" The storeowner knows exactly what is happening, and he realizes that he has no choice but to agree. "How much?" "A special deal for you, just $10 a month," the mobster replies, "that's practically for free!" And so, every month, the store-owner hands over his $10 dollars. And even though it's just $10, every time he pays that money he is filled with anger and resentment. But he has no choice; the mobster is stronger than him and if he doesn't do what the mobster says, then the mobster will destroy everything he has.

Now imagine, in a parallel universe, the same store-owner, and one day the door opens and in walks a fellow in a suit. "Hi," he says with a smile, "I don't know if you remember me, but I grew up in this neighborhood. You once helped me when I was a little kid and one of the bigger kids was bullying me. I have done very well for myself over the years, and I really want to show my gratitude to you, and to the community as a whole that got me off to such a great start. I think your store could do very well with a proper capital investment, so I would like to become a silent partner in your business." The surprised store owner asks, "How much money are you talking about?" and the fellow responds with a number well into the seven digits. "Don't worry," the fellow says, "your obligation to me will be minimal. I'm not really looking to make money off this, so all you have to do is send me a monthly payment of $10 a month." The fellow then writes out a check, hands it to the store-owner, and walks out the door. And so, every month, the store-owner pays his ten dollars to his benefactor, and the every time he wonders how such a minuscule payment can possibly be sufficient. Surely he ought to be doing more, but the "investor" won't hear of it.

There are two ways that we can view our obligation to obey God's commandment. I can look at all that I have: my life, my wife, my children, my home, my job, my cars, my bank accounts, my intelligence, my health, etc. and I can say, "These are mine! But God says that if I don't do what He says, He will destroy it all!" So I obey, because God is stronger than me, and I am afraid. Yet, every time I obey God's command,  I resent it.

Or I can recognize the truth, that everything that I have in life was given to me by God. I had no prior claim on anything before He gave it to me; I didn't even exist! God owed me nothing, yet He gave all of this to me, even though I had done absolutely nothing to earn it. And now God tells me that there are some things that He expects from me. There are a some rules and regulations that apply to all of these gifts that he has given me. When one looks at the world with this perspective, it is impossible not to see the mitzvos as the ultimate bargain. How can you not serve God with joy, when you realize that all God wants in exchange for all that He has given us is that we follow a few rules?

The sad reality is that it is all too easy to forget the true nature of the world, and to see God as if He is interfering in our lives. Much of the daily prayer service is intended precisely to help us keep the true perspective clear in our minds. As we see from the Tochacha, this task is of central importance. A Judaism without joy is a Judaism that is doomed to failure, if not in one generation, then the next.

Rav Moshe Feinstein would frequently say, "People destroyed their children by always repeating es iz shver tzu zien a Yid (it is hard to be a Jew). No – it is not hard to be a Jew. It is beautiful and joyous to be a Jew." (Reb Moshe p.73) If we truly appreciate the privilege of Torah and mitzvos, then we will always be filled with joy and happiness that we are Jews.