Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nitzavim - "Those Who Repent..."

Parshas Nitzavim is a direct continuation from the end of Parshas Ki Savo, which we read last week. The main theme of Ki Savo was the Tochacha, the Admonition, in which Moses describes, in very harsh and frightening terms, the terrible punishment that awaits the Jewish people, as a people and as individuals, when they fail to obey the commandments of the Torah. Parshas Ki Savo ended with Moses again assembling the Jewish people for another speech, the bulk of which is in Parshas Nitzavim.

In this speech, which is a follow-up to the Tochacha, Moses begins with a very brief review of their history so far (i.e. the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the desert) and then, in Parshas Nitzavim, he goes on to the discuss the eternal covenant between the Jewish people and God, and the critical concepts of galus (exile) and the ultimate geula (redemption). As understood by the commentaries, part of Moses' intent in this speech was to reassure the Jewish people that despite the apparent harshness of the Tochacha, the Jewish people would always survive and that, as long as the road may be, the inevitable end of history would be the return of the Jewish people to God and their ultimate redemption from exile.

The idea that this speech was intended partly as a reassurance to the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha is made explicitly in a midrash (cited by Rashi, 29:12). The parsha opens with Moses' declaration (Deuteronomy 29:9), "You are all standing today before Hashem your God." The midrash states:
למה נסמכה פרשת "אתם נצבים" לקללות? לפי ששמעו ישראל מאה קללות חסר שתים, חוץ מארבעה ותשע שבת"כ, הוריקו פניהם ואמרו, "מי יוכל לעמוד באלו?" התחיל משה לפייסם, "אתם נצבים היום" - הרבה הכעסתם למקום ולא עשה אתכם כלייה, והרי אתם קיימים לפניה!
Why was the parsha [that begins with] "אתם נצבים" - "You are all standing [today before Hashem your God]" placed next to the curses (of Parshas Ki Savo)?
Because, when the Jewish people heard the ninety-eight curses (of the Tochacha), asides from the forty-nine curses in Leviticus (in an earlier Tochacha passage in Parshas Bechukosai), their faces turned pale and they said, "Who can survive these [curses]?" Moses began to reassure them, "You are standing here today!" - You have angered God many times and He has not destroyed you, and behold you are still standing before Him!
Although this midrash clearly indicates that part of Moses' intent in this parsha was to reassure the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha, it itself requires explanation. At first glance, Moses seems to be saying that we don't really need to take the Tochacha that seriously, for, after all, God hasn't destroyed us yet, has He? However, it should be self-evident that this was not Moses' intent. If God tells us, repeatedly and emphatically, that our sins can lead to terrible punishment, then it would be utter folly to dismiss this as mere rhetoric. Indeed, as Jewish history has made clear all too many times, the curses of the Tochacha are very real.

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian
In addressing this question, the great mussar teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (d.1970) explains that it is critical to understand that the purpose of punishment is never simply as "punishment" - i.e. simply to take vengeance against the sinner for his actions. Rather, the purpose of all punishment is for the benefit of the sinner, to break through the hardness of his heart and to motivate him to repent. He cites an analogy given by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, d.1797) to planting a field. Before a field can be planted, the field must first be plowed over, so that the hard surface of the field is broken and the field is able to accept the seeds. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon explained, before a sinner can repent, the hardness of his heart needs to be "broken" so that the seeds of repentance can take root and grow. This is the meaning of the verse in Psalms (51:19), "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

Thus, Rabbi Lopian explains, punishment is only necessary when our hearts are hardened to our sins. If our hearts are already softened, if we already acknowledge our sins and genuinely regret them, then there is no need for actual punishment. Thus, he explains, when Moses saw that the Jewish people took the message of the Tochacha to heart, to the point that their faces turned pale, he told them that that itself was sufficient to spare them from the destruction of the Tochacha. Moses' point was that, ultimately, the punishments of the Tochacha will only befall those who fail to take it seriously. Indeed, Moses makes this point explicitly a little later in the parsha when he says (29:17-19):
Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from Hashem our God... and when he hears the words of this curse, he blesses himself in his heart, saying: 'I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart"... God will not be willing to forgive him, and then God's anger and jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and God shall erase his name from under heaven.
Ultimately, the curses of the Tochacha will only befall those who have no fear of the Tochacha. However, those who take the message of the Tochacha to heart, who recognize that they have sinned and that they need to repent, have already, through that very recognition, achieved the intended purpose of the Tochacha and have no need for the actual punishments.

This principle is actually alluded to in the text of the Tochacha itself (in last week's parsha), where we read (28:47) that the suffering of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people "because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a good heart." Many commentaries struggle with the meaning of this verse, which seems to imply that the reason for their punishment was that, even though they served God, they failed to do so with sufficient happiness. This raises a number of difficulties in that, not only does it seem to contradict other verses, but it also seems to be a disproportionate response. (For further discussion of this topic, see: Ki Savo - The Tochacha and Serving God with Joy.)

However, some commentaries understand the intent of the verse quite differently, as saying that the punishment of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people when they are in a state of "joy and good heart" even while not serving God and obeying His commandments. Thus, the Beis Yitzchak explains:
Even if a person is wicked and fails to serve God at all, but he is troubled and pained by this, such a person is not fully wicked, for there is hope for him that he will repent and return to God. However, one who is so wicked that he feels no concern at all about his wickedness, but is perfectly happy with his sinful behavior, there is no hope that such a person will come to repent [on his own initiative].
The punishments of the Tochacha are intended as a wake-up call for those who are so immersed in sin that they no longer even feel bad about it. On the contrary, they are perfectly happy with their behavior and see no reason to change. It is for such people that the punishments of the Tochacha are necessary to soften their hardened hearts and awaken them to teshuva (repentance).

This principle is used by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (d.1883) to explain an enigmatic Talmudic passage (Nidda 70b) which discusses an apparent contradiction between two Biblical verses. In chapter 18 of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes the great power of repentance and concludes (18:32), "For I do not desire the death of he that [should] die [for his sins], says the Lord, Hashem; [rather] repent and live!" This verse clearly states that God does not desire the death of the sinner. 

Yet, in the book of I Samuel (2:25) we find, in the case of the sinful sons of Eli, that the verse states, "that God desired to kill them." So we find that, at least in some cases, God does desire the death of the sinner!

The Talmud resolves the apparent conflict with the brief statement, "Here [in Ezekiel] it speaks of those who repent and here [in Samuel] it speaks of those who do not repent." The problem, of course, is that the verse in Ezekiel is explicitly speaking of a person who has not repented!

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (אור ישראל ל', וראה גם ספר חכמה ומוסר ב:רמד) explains that in this context, "those who repent" does not refer to those who engage in full fledged repentance for their sins, but merely to those who are troubled and pained by their sins, for such a person is already on the path of repentance. In regard to such a sinner, even if he has not yet repented, God says that He does not desire his death. However, with regard to a sinner who is entirely untroubled by his sins, and of whom there can be no expectation of repentance, of such a sinner we are taught that God desires his death.

This principle is particularly important at this time of year, as we approach the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashana and we turn to God and ask Him to grant us a new year of life and happiness. As we stand before God in judgment for our sins, we recognize that, when all is said and done, we are very far from being able to genuinely repent from all of our sinful behaviors. How then can we stand before God and ask Him to forgive us, if we know that we will continue to do many of the same sins next year as well?

Of course, part of the answer is that we have to find some area - even if very small - in which we really do improve ourselves. But what about everything else? Is God simply going to ignore it all?

From what we have just learned, however, we can see that if we truly feel bad about our sins, even if we are not yet capable of changing for the better, then God will, to some degree, temporarily overlook those sins and give us time to grow and eventually reach the point where we will be able to truly repent.

It follows from this that one of our main tasks at this time of year, from the beginning of the month of Elul until the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, is to work on an honest assessment of our weaknesses, to acknowledge that we need to improve, and to genuinely desire to do so. If we accomplish this, even if it only manifests itself in what, superficially, seems to be only a minor improvement, then we can truly turn to God with confidence that He will grant us a good and sweet new year.

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bar Mitzvah – The Celebration of Obligation

An adult Jew is obligated to obey the mitzvos—the commandments—and is held responsible for his or her actions. A child is not. At what point does a child become an adult? According to Jewish law, the age of majority—when a minor ceases to be a minor—is twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy. At this point the child becomes a bar or bas mitzvah—“one who is commanded”—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah.

The law that a Jew becomes an adult at the ages of twelve or thirteen is not to be found in the actual text of the Torah. Nevertheless, it is a Torah law with equal stature to all the laws of the Torah. The technical term for such a law is a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai—a law from Moses at Sinai—a product of the authoritative Oral Torah which God gave to Moses at Sinai together with the Written Torah. It is this Oral Torah—which is largely recorded in the Talmud and related works—that distinguishes Judaism from the various man-made religions that are loosely based upon Scripture. It is significant that the very essence of one’s status as a Jew—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah—is dependent upon a law derived from the Oral Torah. When we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah, we are also confirming our faith in the Oral Torah.

Technically, no celebration is necessary for a child to become a bar mitzvah. There is no actual ritual of bar or bas mitzvah; one does not become “bar mitzvahed”. In this respect, the bar or bas mitzvah is significantly different from the various other life-cycle celebrations of Judaism, such as the bris milah (circumcision), pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born son), and marriage. Despite this, the practice of celebrating the arrival of a Jewish child into adulthood—becoming a bar mitzvah—is a very ancient custom.

The commentaries tell us that the joy of the bar mitzvah celebration is based on the important Talmudic principle, “Greater is he who does what he is commanded to do, than he who does what he is not commanded to do.” The Talmud tells us that there is greater virtue in performing a mitzvah that one is obligated to perform, than one which one is exempt from. Thus, although a Jewish child may be fulfilling many mitzvos, it is only as an adult, when he or she becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos of the Torah, that the true virtue of the mitzvos can take effect. It is this change in status that we celebrate.

This somewhat counter-intuitive principle, that the obligatory performance of a mitzvah is of greater virtue than a voluntary act, points us to an important concept in Judaism. The essential virtue of the mitzvos is precisely that they are commandments—laws that we are obligated to obey. Although most of the mitzvos are subject to human understanding, in that we can provide some explanation for why God has commanded us to perform these given acts, such an understanding is secondary to the essence of the mitzvah. Our primary goal in obeying the mitzvos is simply to obey the will of God.

One of the classic difficulties in religious philosophy is understanding how it is possible for a human being—a finite, limited, physical being—to achieve a true connection and unity with a God Who is infinite and incomprehensible. In Judaism, this connection is called devekus and is described as the essential goal of all the mitzvos. The mitzvos are a gift to us from God that enable us to achieve this otherwise impossible union. When God commands us to perform a given act, even one as corporeal as eating a festive meal on the Sabbath, He has invested that act with His Will. Thus, when we perform that physical act, we achieve a connection with the Will of God.

We say in the Shema, “Hashem Echad”—“God is one.” This basic principle of Judaism, the absolute unity of God, tells us that God has no parts; He and His Will are one. When we achieve a connection with the Will of God, we are connecting to God Himself. This is only possible because God has connected the given act with His Will. This is the essence of the mitzvah concept. An act that is not commanded by God, as positive as it may be, is ultimately a finite act that cannot, in of itself, achieve devekus—true union with God. Thus, many commentaries connect the word mitzvah with the Aramaic term “tzavsa” – “binding” – because the mitzvah binds us to God.

When a Jewish child enters adulthood and becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos, it becomes possible for him or her to truly connect to God. It is this which is the source of our joy when we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah. It is therefore important that the tenor of our celebration reflect this.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ki Seitzei - The Prohibition of Cross-Dressing

In Parshas Ki Seitzei we read of the prohibition of cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5):
The vessels of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not don a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to Hashem your God.
In practical terms, this means that we may not wear garments associated with the opposite gender. Moreover, as understood by the Sages, the prohibition also forbids men from specific behaviors - such as shaving body hair or dyeing their hair - that are commonly associated with women, and the same rule applies to women.

Most sources explain that the reason for this prohibition is that it can lead to immoral behavior and also that such cross-dressing was associated with idolatry. However, many commentaries see a more fundamental issue here, as R' Avraham Ibn Ezra (d.1164) concludes his commentary on this verse:
... ה' יתעב מי שישנה מעשה ה'.
God abominates he who changes God's deeds.
Similarly, the Rekanti (kabbalistic commentary on the Torah by R' Menachem Rekanti, d.1305) writes:
פשטו ידוע, אמנם על דרך הקבלה יש לך לדעת כי הרמז הוא שלא ישנה סדרי בראשית וכו'
The simple meaning [of the prohibition] is well know, however, kabbalistically, you should know that the symbolism [of the prohibition] is that one should not change the structure of Creation....
The Toldos Yakov Yosef (R' Yakov Yosef of Polnoye, d.1794) explains that the basic idea underlying this prohibition is that every person must accept the role, i.e. the unique task that God has given him, and not attempt to challenge or change that role.

Every human being has unique spiritual capabilities which no other person can duplicate. Thus, every human being has a unique role to play in bring the world to its ultimate state of perfection. As the Sages teach us (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a):
כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם.
Every person is obligated to say, "The world was created for my sake!"
Every individual plays an essential role in the world, and we are obligated to recognize this. As each of us has a unique role in this world, there is no way to compare the circumstances of different individuals. Just as responsible parents need to work with each child as an individual, in order to enable that particular child to fully develop his own unique potential, as we are taught in Proverbs (22:6), "חנך לנער על פי דרכו" - "Educate the child according to his way," so too God directs the circumstances of our lives in order to provide us with the ideal circumstances in which to develop our own unique spiritual potential. Thus, each of us experiences different challenges in life, different spiritual affinities, different temptations to sin, and so on, for each of us has a different task to achieve.

As God's children, our role is to trust Him and to accept the role that He has given us and by doing so we relate to Him as children to a father. This is particularly important at this time of year, as we prepare for the day of judgment on Rosh Hashana. Our relationship with God has two basic levels, that of Father and child and that of King and servant. While both are always present, in many places in our prayers we express the hope that, when we come before God in judgement, the Father-son relationship should be dominant.

As many sources make clear, the primary factor that determines how God relates to us is how we view our relationship with Him. If we see God as a powerful king who imposes decrees on us which we have no choice but to obey, then we relate to Him as a servant to a King. But if we relate to God as a wise and loving father whose rules and demands are always purely for our benefit, then we relate to Him as a child to a Father.