Category Archives: Holidays

The Clock is Missing

Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar occuring at the new moon, beginning on a night when the moon isn’t visible at all. That fact is hinted at in the posuk “Tik’u bachodesh shofar bakeseh liyom chageinu” (“Sound the shofar on the New Moon, at the appointed time for the day of our festival”) — Tehillim 81:4. The word bakeseh, “at the appointed time,” can be read to mean “covered.”

The moon is, famously, a symbol of Klal Yisrael.  It receives its light from the sun, as we receive our enlightenment from Hashem; it wanes but waxes again, as we do throughout history; and it is the basis of our calendar.

Various ideas lie in the oddity of Rosh Hashanah being moonless.  One that occurred to me has to do with that latter connection, that the moon is our marker of time, our clock, so to speak.  When we repent of a sin, Chazal teach, the sin can be erased from our past — even, if our teshuvah is complete and sincere, turned into a merit!

And so, we are particularly able on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the ten days of teshuvah, to undermine time, to go back into the past and change it. 

What better symbol of that power than to remove our “clock” from the sky?

Ksiva vachasima tovah!

Recent Ami Articles

For the past month and a bit, my weekly columns have been appearing in Ami Magazine. My agreement with the periodical allows me to share links to the pieces on its website, but not to share them in their entirety in other ways.

So I’ll be posting links to the pieces, and their first sentences, in the future here, in addition to articles that may have been published elsewhere.

Recent offerings are at https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/07/29/cut-the-curls-youre-out-of-the-band/ and https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/05/dont-kick-the-donkey-2/

My Purim’s Highlight

My Purim’s highlight was an interaction I had with two little boys, no older than 8 or 9.  The shul I attend is often visited by a number of “collectors” asking for small donations, usually for the poor or needy institutions. Usually they are adults, with documentation backing the legitimacy of their quest for donations.

Sometimes, children approach people on behalf of their yeshivos or other charitable causes. On Purim, such undersized collectors abound.  I must have been approached by little people 20 or 25 times.  When my stash of dollar bills was down to one, wouldn’t you know, two youngsters approached me at the same time.

I smiled and showed them my last bill, identifying it as such.  One boy, whose hand held more revenue that the other boy’s, unhesitatingly pointed to the other and said “Please give him.”

Which I did.

But the boy who directed me to the other one gave me something priceless, the story I just shared.

A Lesson About Love

I used to pass the fellow each morning years ago as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work. He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passersby, one of several poster-board signs he had made. One read “I love you!” Another: “You are wonderful!”

He seemed fairly normal, well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he offered his written expressions of ardor to each of us rushing to our respective workplaces. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but something about it bothered me.

Then, one day, I put my finger on it. It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but a sincere such emotion simply isn’t possible. If one gushes good will at everyone, he offers it, in fact, to no one at all.

By definition, care must exist within boundaries, and our love for those close to us – our families, our close friends, our fellow Jews – is of a different nature than our empathy for others outside our personal lives.

What is more, and somewhat counterintuitive, is that only those who make the effort to love their immediate families, friends and other Jews have any chance of truly caring, on any level at all, about all of mankind.

The thought, it happens, is most appropriate for this time of Jewish year, as Sukkos gives way, without so much as a second’s pause, to Shemini Atzeres (in the Gemara’s words, “a Yom Tov unto itself.”)

While most Yamim Tovim tend to focus on Klal Yisrael and its particular historical narrative, Sukkos, interestingly, also includes something of a “universalist” element. In the times of the Beis Hamikdash, the seven days of Sukkos saw a total of seventy parim-korbanos offered on the mizbei’ach, the bulls corresponding, says the Gemara, to “the seventy nations of the world.”

Those nations – the various families of people on earth – are not written off by our mesorah. We Jews are here, the Navi exhorts, to be an example to them. A mere four days before Sukkos’s arrival, on Yom Kippur, Yidden the world over heard Sefer Yonah, the story of the Navi who was sent to warn a distant people to do teshuvah, and who, in the end, saved them from destruction.

Similarly, the korbanos in the Beis Hamikdash, the Gemara informs us, brought Divine brachos down upon all the world’s peoples. Had the ancient Romans known just how greatly they benefited from the merit of the avodah, Chazal teach, instead of destroying the structure, they would have placed protective guards around it.

And yet, curiously but pointedly, Sukkos’s recognition of the value of all humanity is made real by the Chag that directly follows it, Shemini Atzeres.

The word atzeres can mean “refraining” or “detaining,” and the Gemara (Sukkah, 55b) teaches that Shemini Atzeres (literally: “the eighth day [after the start of Sukkos], a detaining”) gives expression to Hashem’s special relationship with Klal Yisrael.

 As the well-known Midrashic mashal has it:

A king invited his servants to a large feast that lasted a number of days. On the final day of the festivities, the king told the one most beloved to him, “Prepare a small repast for me so that I can enjoy your exclusive company.”

That is Shemini Atzeres, when Hashem “detains” the people He chose to be an example to the rest of mankind – when, after the seventy korbanos of the preceding seven days, a single par, corresponding to Klal Yisrael, is brought on the mizbei’ach on that eighth day.

We Jews are often assailed by others for our belief that Hashem chose us from among the nations to proclaim His existence and to call on all humankind to recognize our collective immeasurable debt to Him.

Those who are irritated by that message like to characterize the special bond Jews feel for one another as hubris, even as contempt for others.

The very contrary, however, is the truth. The special relationship we Jews have with each other (yielding ahavas Yisrael); and with Hakadosh Baruch Hu (yielding ahavas Hashem) – the relationships we acknowledge in particular on Shemini Atzeres – are what provide us the ability to truly care – with our hearts, not our mere lips or poster boards – about the rest of the world.

Those deep relationships are what allow us to hope – as we declare in Aleinu thrice daily – that, even as we reject the idolatries that have infected the human race over history, “all the peoples of the world” will one day come to join together with us and “pay homage to the glory of Your name.”

© 2019 Hamodia

Who We Are

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder.  They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a shul on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who had received no Jewish chinuch from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, “You know, I used to be a Jew.”

“Really?” said Wilder, straining his neck to look up at his companion. “And I used to be a hunchback.”

The story is in my head because we’re about to recite Kol Nidrei.

Kol Nidrei’s solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended shul on the eve of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  It is a cold soul that doesn’t send a shudder through a body when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, evocative melody.  And yet the words of the tefillah – “modaah” would be more accurate – do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the last of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

They speak instead to the annulment of nedarim, vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Nedarim, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them.   And so, we rightly take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows.  So, that Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of neder-making isn’t entirely surprising.  But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of distant places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions.  The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most of us today face no such pressures.  To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage.  But few if any Jews today feel any compulsion to shed their Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one’s essence.  Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are.  We make pacts – unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant – with an assortment of mastinim: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us.  The Amora Rav Alexandri, the Gemara teaches (Berachos, 17a), would recite a short tefillah in which, addressing Hashem, he said: “Master of the universe, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us? The ‘leaven in the loaf’ [i.e. the yetzer hora] …”  What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less?  Could its declared disassociation from vows reflect a renunciation of the “vows”, the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves?  If so, it would be no wonder that the recitation moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur. 

When the Beis Hamikdosh stood, Yom Kippur saw the kiyum of the mitzvah of the Shnei Se’irim.  The Cohen Gadol would place a lot on the head of each of two goats; one read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed as a korban; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to “sins and iniquities” being “put upon the head” of the Azazel goat before its dispatch.  The deepest meanings of the chok, like those of all chukim in the end, are beyond human ken.  But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our aveiros are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be “sent away,” banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, ym”s, had, despite his secularist life, declared: “I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew.”

Mr. Kahn may never have attended shul for Kol Nidrei.  But perhaps a seed planted by a hunchbacked humorist, and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism, helped him connect to something of the declaration’s deepest meaning. 

© 2019 Hamodia

A column from 2010: Great Expectations

Thoughts of consequence can sometimes arise from the most mundane experiences, even a headache.Opening the medicine cabinet one day, I was struck by a sticker on a prescription container.

“Not for use by pregnant women,” it read.

“And why not?” part of my aching head wondered.

Because, another part answered, a fetus is so much more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than a more developed person.  Partly, of course, because of its very tininess, but more importantly because it is an explosively, developing thing.  While a single cell is growing to a many-billions-of-unbelievably-variegated-cells organism in a matter of mere months it is easily and greatly affected by even subtle stimuli.

Which thought led, slowly but inexorably, to others, about the creation of the world – the subject, soon, of the parshas hashovua – and about the beginning of a new Jewish year.

“The Butterfly Effect” is the whimsical name science writers give to the concept of  “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” – the idea that beginnings are unusually important.  A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow – or an error of a single digit at the beginning of a long calculation – can yield a difference of miles, or millions, in the end. For all we know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world yesterday might have set into motion a hurricane in the Atlantic today.

The most striking butterfly effects take place during formative stages, when much is transpiring with particular rapidity. Thus, the label on the medication; the gestation of a fetus, that single cell’s incredible journey toward personhood, is strikingly responsive to so much of what its mother does, eats and drinks. The developing child is exquisitely sensitive to even the most otherwise innocent chemicals because beginnings are formative, hence crucial, times.

Leaving the realm of the microcosm, our world itself also had a gestation period, six days’ worth. Interestingly, just as the initial developmental stage of a child takes place beyond our observation, so did that of the world itself. The event and processes of those days are entirely hidden from us, the Torah supplying only the most inscrutable generalities about what actually took place then. Thus, Chazal applied the posuk “the honor of Hashem is the concealment of the thing” (Mishlei, 25:2) to the days of creation. Honest scientists admit the same.  E.A. Milne, a celebrated British astronomer, wrote “In the divine act of creation, G-d is unobserved and unwitnessed.”

Despite our inability, however, to truly know anything about the happenings of the creation week, to think of those days as a gestational time is enlightening.  It may even help explain the apparent discrepancy between what we know from the Torah is the true age of the earth and what the geological and paleontological evidence seem to say

Consider: What would happen if the age of an adult human since hisconception were being inferred by a scientist from Alpha Centauri, using only knowledge he has of the human’s present rate of growth and development?  In other words, if our alien professor knew only that the individual standing before it developed from a single cell, and saw only the relatively plodding rate of growth currently evident in his subject, he would have no choice but to conclude that the 30-year-old human was, in truth, fantastically old. What the Alpha Centurion is missing, of course, is an awareness of the specialized nature of the gestational stage of life, the powerful, pregnant period before birth, with its rapid, astounding and unparalleled rate of development.

If we recognize that a similar gestational stage existed for the universe as a whole at its creation – and the Torah tells us to do precisely that – then it is only reasonable to expect that formative stage to evidence a similarly accelerated rate of development, with the results on the first Shabbos seeming in every detectable way to reflect millions of years of development, eons that occurred entirely within the six days of the world’s explosive, embryonic growth.

Rosh Hashana is called “the birthday of the world.”  But the Hebrew word there translated as “birth of” – haras – really refers to the process of conception/gestation.  And so, annually, at the start of the Jewish year, it seems in some way we relive the gestational days of creation.  But more: those days are formative ones, the development period for the year that is to follow.  Beginning with the “conception-day” of Rosh Hashana itself and continuing until Yom Kippur, the period of the early new Jewish year is to each year what the creation-week was to the world of our experience: a formative stage.

All of which may well lend some insight into a puzzling halacha.

We are instructed by the Shulchan Aruch to conduct ourselves in a particularly exemplary manner at the start of a new Jewish year. We are cautioned to avoid anger on Rosh Hashana itself.  And for each year’s first ten days, we are encouraged to avoid eating even technically kosher foods that present other, less serious, problems (like kosher bread baked by a non-Jewish manufacturer), and to generally conduct ourselves, especially interpersonally, in a more careful manner than during the rest of the year.

It is a strange halacha.  What is the point of pretending to a higher level of observance or refinement of personality when one may have no intention at all of maintaining those things beyond the week?

Might it be, though, that things not greatly significant under normal circumstances suddenly take on pointed importance during the year’s first week, because those days have their analogue in the concept of gestation?

Might those days, in other words, be particularly sensitive to minor influences because they are the days from which the coming year will develop?

Observance and good conduct are always in season, but our mesora teaches us that they have particular power during Rosh Hashana and the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah – that we should regard these days with the very same vigilance and care an expectant mother has for the rapidly developing, exquisitely sensitive being within her.

Let us seize the days and cherish them; they are conceptual butterfly-wings, the first unfoldings of a new Jewish year.

© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Love, Hate and the Holocaust

Considering that a survey last year revealed that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was, a large and impressive Holocaust exhibit would seem to merit only praise.

And praise the “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” exhibit currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan has garnered in abundance. It has received massive news coverage in both print and electronic media.

First shown in Madrid, where it drew some 600,000 visitors, the exhibit will be in New York into January before moving on.

Among many writers who experienced the exhibit and wrote movingly about its power was reporter and author Ralph Blumenthal.  In the New York Times, he vividly described the artifacts that are included in the exhibit, which includes many items the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland lent for a fee to the Spanish company Musealia, the for-profit organizer of the exhibition.

Mr. Blumenthal wrote that the museum, within sight of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, had to alter its floor plan to make room for large-scale displays like a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a Deutsche Reichsbahn railway cattle car parked on the sidewalk, placed there by a crane.

Inside, among the 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings from Auschwitz, are concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of the camp’s electrified perimeter, prisoners’ uniforms, three-tier bunks where ill and starving prisoners slept two or more to a billet, and, “particularly chilling,” an adjustable steel chaise for medical experiments on human beings.

There is a rake for ashes and there are heavy iron crematory latches, fabricated by the manufacturer Topf & Sons There is a fake showerhead used to persuade doomed victims of the Nazis, ym”s, that they were entering a bathhouse, not a death chamber about to be filled with the lethal gas Zyklon B.

And personal items, like a child’s shoe with a sock stuffed inside it.

“Who puts a sock in his shoe?” asks Mr. Blumenthal.  “Someone,” he explains poignantly, “who expects to retrieve it.”

Another essayist, this one less impressed by the exhibit – at least in one respect –is novelist and professor Dara Horn, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ms. Horn approached the exhibit carrying in her mind the recent memory of a swastika that had been drawn on a desk in her children’s New Jersey public middle school and the appearance of six more of the Nazi symbols in an adjacent town. “Not a big deal,” she writes. But the scrawlings provided a personal context for her rumination on her museum visit.

In her essay, titled “Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor: The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right – and fixes nothing,” she recalls her visit to Auschwitz as a teenager participating in the March of the Living, and reflects on Holocaust museums, which she characterizes as promoting the idea that “People would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”

And the current exhibit, she notes, ends with a similar banality. At the end of the tour, she reports, “onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another.”

To do justice to Ms. Horn’s reaction would require me to reproduce her essay in full.  But a snippet: “In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities… Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.”

Ouch.

“That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love,” she writes further, “is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-Semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.”

Those sentences alone would make the essay worth reading.  And the writer’s perceptivity is even more in evidence when she writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented –have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world – the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Har Sinai is called that, Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna explain, because it is the mountain from which sinah, hatred, descended to the nations of the world. (Shabbos 89a).  One understanding of that statement is precisely what Ms. Horn contends. Although her essay appeared the week before Shavuos, she didn’t intend it to have a Yom Tov theme.

But in fact it did.

© 2019 Hamodia