A timely Yiddish-themed piece I wrote for Tablet can be read here.
G’mar chasima tova!
A timely Yiddish-themed piece I wrote for Tablet can be read here.
G’mar chasima tova!
A mother and father are notified that their darling little boy broke a neighbor’s window. They feel, and of course are, responsible to right the wrong. They are, after all, where the buck stops in their family.
But they may be responsible in a deeper sense too. If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Feldstein’s picture window but rather carefully aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remark he heard at home – the responsibility exists on a much deeper level than mere buck-stopping. The parents, in a sense, are complicit in Yankeleh’s act of vandalism.
The concept of “arvus” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simpler, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, which they are, and therefore to take responsibility for one another.
But Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too.
When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the aveirah of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.
Several weeks ago, we read in the parashas hashavua of the eglah arufah, a ritual that is commanded if a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found outside a city. The procedure, which involves the elders of the city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor. And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.
Here, too the arvus factor may be the solution. Even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.
In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, areivim as its members are zeh lazeh.
The idea, in fact, is borne out by the passuk itself, which prescribes what the elders of the closest city are to say at the eglah arufah ceremony: “Atone for Your people Yisrael” (Devarim, 21:8).
So, if a Jew commits a financial crime, it may never have been able to happen had all of us been sufficiently careful to not “steal” in other ways.
Every cheder yingel knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke is the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is the opposite.
And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And then there is “thievery” of more subtle sorts, like wasting the time or disturbing the sleep of another. Or misleading someone – which Chazal characterize as “geneivas daas,” or “stealing mind.”
That deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater aveiros subsequently came to grow.
On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.” Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective “we” who have sinned. One approach is that if any Jew anywhere is guilty of a sin on the list we recount, the arvus of Klal Yisrael obligates us to confess on his behalf. But, on a deeper plane, that arvus implies something else too: That even with regard to aveiros of which we are personally innocent, we may still be implicated.
May our viduyim and teshuvah be accepted Above.
Gmar chasimah tovah!
© 2018 Hamodia
As a young teenager davening daily in the shul that my father, a”h, served as Rav, a congregation whose clientele ranged from totally non-observant Jews to fully observant ones, I considered myself something of an expert in Jewish sociology.
I wasn’t anything of the sort, of course, and my assumptions that none of the non-observant shul members would ever one day begin to keep Shabbos or undertake kashrus or study Torah were happily proven wrong. I underestimated the power of my father’s warmth and his standing on principle, and the respect that those things engendered in his congregants. And the ability of people to change.
But before I saw the power of an unabashed but warm presentation of Jewish right and wrong, I looked down at the shul members who expressed their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” – “three day Jews,” some called them – and yahrtzeits, and I considered them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism, after all, can’t be “compartmentalized” and “practiced” only in shul. It’s an all-encompassing, non-stop way of life.
Around the same time I stopped looking down my young nose, I started looking into my young heart, and realized that I, too, compartmentalized Yiddishkeit, living it fully at times and places but… less fully at other ones.
The truth is that it’s a problem many of us, young or old or in-between, regularly need to confront. We may live observant Orthodox lives, doing all the things expected of a frum Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing whatever de rigeuer head-covering our communities expect of us, avoid things that must be avoided – but may still, at least to some degree, in other environments or areas of our lives… compartmentalize. It’s a challenge to keep foremost in our consciousnesses that the Creator is as manifest on a July Tuesday in a traffic jam as He is in shul on Yom Hadin.
Compartmentalization explains how it is that an otherwise committed Orthodox Jew can, in his workplace, engage in questionable business practices, or mistreat a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how he can cut others off on the road, speak rudely to another person, or blog irresponsibly.
It’s not, chas v’shalom, that such people don’t acknowledge Hashem’s presence or their responsibilities. It’s just that, while going through the daily grind, they don’t always include Him in their activities.
Even many of us who think of our Jewish mindfulness as healthy are also prone at times to compartmentalize our avodas Hashem. It’s painful to ponder, but do we all maintain the Hashem-awareness we (hopefully) attain in shul on a Shabbos at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always, wherever we may be, think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly)? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety? Do our observances sometimes fade into mindless rote?
When it comes to compartmentalization, I suspect, there really isn’t any “us” and “them.” All of us occupy a point on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.
Rosh Hashanah and the rest of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are suffused with the concept of Malchiyus, or Kingship. The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and we say Hamelech Hakadosh in our tefillos. We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with teshuvah?
Consider: a king rules over his entire kingdom; little if anything escapes even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.
And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) is diametrical to compartmentalization, to the notion that the Monarch rules only here, not there; only then, not now. There are, ideally, no places and no times when Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be absent from our minds.
Rosh Hashanah is a yearly opportunity to internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.
And, no less than some of those once-“three day Jews” did, to change our lives.
Ksivah vachasimah tovah.
© 2018 Hamodia
Have you ever noticed the FedEx arrow? The next time you see one of the company’s trucks, look closely at the “Ex” part of it. In particular, at the white space between the two letters. Believe it or not, the logo’s designer didn’t plan it to look that way, and only noticed it after creating the iconic emblem.
L’havdil, the letter beis hidden inside of the letter pei in ksav Beis Yosef and ksav Arizal, is no happenstance, but rather an indication of a mystical reality.
As both very different examples indicate, though, sometimes it is easy to miss something that is, in fact, right before our eyes.
Like the one event recounted in Dayeinu that is not followed by the word dayeinu – “it would have been enough for us.”
Whenever I make the assertion that there is indeed such an event in the Seder pizmon, I am greeted with blank stares or furrowed brows. But it’s there, in full view, just easily missed.
And it’s there, I believe, by design, that of the Baal Haggadah who composed Dayeinu.
Go grab a Haggadah and see if you can find it. I’ll wait.
Okay, that’s long enough. Find it? No? But it’s right there!
All right, I’ll tell you, but not before remarking first that, while much of our Seder-night message to our children is forthright and clear, some of it is subtle and stealthy.
And some of it quite puzzling, like Dayeinu. As commentaries and Jewish children alike ask, would it really have been “enough for us” had Hashem not, say, split the Yam Suf, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some have suggested that what the pizmon means is that another nes could have taken place to save Klal Yisrael, but that certainly would weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: “Had [Hashem] not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us? “Had He not given us the Torah.” Enough? What are we saying?
The simple approach is that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” literally when we say it, but rather only intend to declare how undeserving of all Hashem’s kindnesses we are.
But I think there might be a different way to see Dayeinu, one that doesn’t require depriving the refrain of its actual meaning. And it has to do with that event in the pizmon not followed by the word “dayeinu.”
Oh, I’m sorry. We haven’t identified it yet. Okay, it’s time.
It’s the very first phrase in the poem, “Ilu hotzianu miMitzrayim” – Had He taken us out of Mitzrayim…”
That phrase – and it alone among all the stanzas – is not introduced with a “had He not” and qualified with a “dayeinu.” We never sing “Had He not taken us out of Mitzrayim, it would have been enough for us.” Because it wouldn’t have been. Yetzias Mitzrayim is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable” in a way that nothing else is.
It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when what was until then an extended family became a nation, Klal Yisroel. Had Jewish history ended, chalilah, with starvation in the desert, or even in battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people. Klal Yisroel, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Yisrael,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, Hashem created the universe), would still have existed, if only briefly.
And our nationhood, after all, is precisely what we celebrate on Pesach.
And so, the subtle message of Dayeinu may be just that: the sheer indispensability of Yetzias Mitzrayim – its contrast with the rest of Jewish history, its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the nissim that came to follow.
If so, then for thousands of years, that sublime thought might have subliminally accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably suffusing Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing it. And the fact that the Seder persists among Jews who are far from observance and even devoid of other markers of Jewish identity or affiliation, may be born of their unconscious recognition of the ultimate importance of Jewish peoplehood.
In any event, it’s an idea worth pondering.
There’s more to say on the subject, maybe, with Hashem’s help, next year.
For now, though, dayeinu.
© 2018 Hamodia
An admission that we Jews do, as a D.C. city councilman asserted, control the weather — or, at least influence it — can be read here.
I began haphazardly collecting the advertisements a number of years ago. The first, which appeared at the end of Tammuz in a Jewish periodical, touted an eatery. It was apparently aimed at carnivores troubled by the restrictions of the imminent Nine Day period of mourning over the Bais Hamikdash’s destruction. Beneath a photo of a full plate of food was the legend: “Siyum Nightly for Meat Lovers!” Really.
More recently, I was struck by a full page come-on just around this time of year featuring a bottle of kosher for Pesach potato-based vodka over the legend: “Finally, shulchan oreich is a pleasure.”
Finally? I dunno. Somehow, my family’s sedarim have been immensely pleasurable, even vodka-free.
Between those offensive bookends I incredulously encountered many other Jewishly tone-deaf ads, in print or pixels. Like one advising how you can “steal the show” with some fancy table adornment or another; another one that proudly announced an all-you-can-eat “Fleishfest!” (though for a worthy cause); yet another letting the reader know that there’s a way to “Experience the real simchas yomtov,” by spending Pesach at a particular hotel. (Who would want a fake simchas Yom Tov, after all?)
And then there was the ad (for another away-from-home holiday locale) assuring us that “The only thing you should have to give up for Pesach is chametz.” Presumably, the message was that one shouldn’t have to spend his hard-earned free time – the holiday, after all, celebrates freedom, no? – cleaning, changing over the house and cooking for Yom Tov.)
And Sukkos really seems to bring out the best (so to speak) in Jewishly clueless marketing.
One late summer ad for a labor-free temporary tabernacle offered to end, once and for all, the dreaded “hassle of sukkah”; another dangled the lure of a getaway to a Florida Keys hotel featuring its own “air conditioned Sukkah!” (Good she’eilah there: If the AC is too strong, is one considered a mitzta’er?) And yet another invited readers to a glatt kosher vacation for the Yom Tov in the Bahamas, assuring them that “Sukkot Never Got This Good.” (After inviting Ushpizin, one supposes, he can, as the ad continued, “swim with dolphins!”)
That particular advertisement went on to modestly self-identify as “the most luxurious and extraordinary resort on Planet Earth.” Remind you of “So that your generations may know that I made the Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of Eretz Mitzrayim” (Vayikra 23:43)? Me neither.
We Jews in America today are beneficiaries of Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindness beyond measure. We live in a time and place where we are not persecuted, have freedom to practice our faith and to engage in professions and businesses without hindrance –seldom if ever the case in our previous sojournings in galus.
But with plenty come plenty of challenges. The Shabbos before last we read in shul of the egel hazahav, the Golden Calf. It was said in the yeshiva of Rabi Yanai that Moshe attributed that sin to Hashem’s having bestowed much gold and silver on the people (Berachos 32a). It’s hard to be poor, but wealth carries dangers of its own.
I don’t want, chalilah, to injure any Jew’s livelihood, and have nothing against meat (though the less of it one eats, it’s increasingly clear, the better) or vodka, kosher for Pesach or otherwise; I’ve been known to occasionally splash a bit in my grapefruit juice myself. And there may well be people who, nebbich, need to spend Yomim Tovim in hotels.
But none of us should covet any of those things – or seek to stir covetousness for them in our fellow Jews. And, no less than we care about where our children receive their educational instruction we should care about the “chinuch” they receive from the pages of the periodicals we welcome into our homes. And we shouldn’t be sheepish about letting advertisers know when we feel their blandishments have crossed lines.
Yes, yes, I know that advertising is part and parcel of contemporary business, and what keeps Jewish papers and magazines afloat. But there is a stark, qualitative difference between ads that offer information, opportunities and products, on the one hand, and those, on the other, that shamelessly exaggerate – or, worse, that promote values that are, politely put, less than consonant with Torah-informed values. Or, worse still, that promote violation of one of the Aseres Hadibros’ “Thou shalt not”s (see “steal the show,” above).
There is ample room for creativity – photographic, linguistic, humorous and otherwise– in producing memorable advertisements for most anything. A Jewishly responsible ad doesn’t have to be bland.
But it should be becoming.
© 2018 Hamodia
It sounds like a story about the fictional Chelm. The town philosopher sagely informs his fellow citizens that he has no face. He can’t perceive it directly, he points out, and besides, as anyone can plainly see, what people claim is his face clearly resides in his mirror.
The silly scene is inspired by celebrated scientists. Like Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, who has lamented human beings’ stubborn commitment to “dualism,” the idea that people possess both physical and spiritual components. He pities those who believe that there is an “I” somehow separate from one’s body and brain.
“The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls…,” he asserts confidently, “emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”
Also enlightening the backward masses is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who condescendingly advises people to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”
Or, as they might say at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the brain, perforce, must be the soul. And your stereo speakers are the music.
Sometimes, though, intuitions are right and scientific dogmas wrong. Scientists, the noted British psychologist H. J. Eysenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.” Some, in fact, are prone to a perilous folly: the confidence – despite the long and what-should-be chastening history of science, littered with the remains of once-coddled beliefs – that they have – eureka! – arrived at conclusive knowledge.
Were the contemporary “dualism” debate merely academic, we believing Jews might reasonably choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness and, perforce, of our responsibility for our choices – the unmistakable ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of substantial import.
The idea of the neshamah goes to the very heart of many a contemporary social issue. It influences society’s attitudes toward a host of moral concerns, from animal rights to the meaning of marriage to the treatment of the terminally ill.
In the absence of the concept of a human neshamah, there is simply nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from considering any “lifestyle” less proper than any other, nothing to prevent us from coldly ending the life of a patient in extremis. Put starkly, without affirmation of the neshamah, society is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.
And the game is zero-sum: Either humans are something qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, or they are not. And a society that chooses to believe the latter is a society where no person has any reason to aspire to anything beyond self-gratification. A world in denial of the neshamah might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong could be no more meaningful than right and left.
The notion is hardly novel, of course. Philosophical “Materialists,” believing only in the physical and bent on despiritualizing humanity’s essence were the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.
And the footsteps in which they walked were those of Yavan. The ancient Greeks hallowed reason and inquiry, and celebrated the physical world. Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference to within one percent; Euclid conceived and developed geometry; Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. And the early Greeks exalted the human being – but as a physical specimen, not more.
Accordingly, the most worthwhile goal of man for the Greeks was the enjoyment of life. The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.
Which may be why the culture that was Yavan was so enraged by Klal Yisrael’s focus on kedushah. Shabbos denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; milah implied that the body is imperfect; kiddush hachodesh saw holiness where the Greeks saw only mundane periodicity; modesty, moreover, was unnatural.
The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings. And Hellenist philosophers who spoke of a “soul” were referring only to the personality or intellect. The idea of a tzelem Elokim, of a neshamah that can make choices and merit eternity, indispensable to the Jew, was indigestible to the Greek.
Ner Hashem nishmas adam – “The soul of man is a Divine flame” (Mishlei 20:27). When we light our Chanukah lecht, we might keep in mind how, despite the declarations of some scientists and Chelmer holdouts, Klal Yisrael overcame Yavan not only on a physical battlefield but on a conceptual one no less.
© 2017 Hamodia
The drawing of lots in the times of the Beis Hamikdosh for the Yom Kippur ritual of the “shenei se’irim” – the “two goats,” undoubtedly commanded the rapt attention of all present.
Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the Kohen Gadol, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal. One lot read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – the name, according to many meforshim, of a steep cliff in a barren desert.
The first goat, as we all know, was solemnly brought as a korban, attention given to every detail of the offering, as with any other; and the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.
The law of the shenei se’irim is a chok, its deepest meanings beyond our understanding. But pondering it before Yom Kippur, and as we recall it in the day’s Mussaf, might still yield food for thought and, more important, for inspiration.
Human beings have two choices when it comes to how they view themselves. Some, in the past as in the present, understand that our minds and free will are clear evidence of Divine intent; others choose to see our existence as an accident. The former see human life as meaningful; the latter, as not.
If we’re the product of randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. Human beings remain but advanced animals, tzaddikim and resha’im alike. Yes, people can create societal expectations and norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial. Only with a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of monkeys or mosquitoes.
The Torah, of course, is based on – and in fact begins with an account of – a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life.
Every human being, if his consciousness is unclouded by base desires and cynicism, possesses a similar innate conviction.
Yet many resist that inherent understanding, and adopt the perspective that all that there is in the end is what we can perceive with our physical senses, that how we act makes no ultimate difference. They point to the existence of evil and the Creator’s invisibility as their “proofs.” Their excuses.
Could those diametric worldviews be reflected in the se’irei Yom Kippur?
The sa’ir that becomes a korban on the mizbei’ach might symbolize recognition of the idea that we are beholden to something greater than ourselves. And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, might allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.
Consider, further, the fact that the Torah, strangely, describes the Azazel-goat as carrying away the sins of the people (Vayikra 16: 22).
The meforshim all wonder at that concept. Some, including the Rambam, interpret it to mean that the people will be stirred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46).
How the Azazel-goat’s being “laden with the sins” of the people could serve as an inspiration might be understandable, though, if it indeed subtly alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness.
Because chet ultimately stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful our lives are. Reish Lakish in fact said as much when he observed (Sotah 3a) that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.” The madness, perhaps, of seeing himself as ultimately meaningless. That meaninglessness certainly provides ample reason to not care about one’s actions.
And so the sending forth of the Azazel-goat to its haphazard death could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that the roots of chet lie in that madness born of self-doubt. And those who witnessed its dispatching might well then have been spurred by that thought to consider the goat’s counterpart, the animal brought on the mizbe’ach in dedication to Hashem. And, so moved on the holiest day of the year, they might then have been spurred to re-embrace the grand meaningfulness that is a life of bechirah bachaim.
By recounting that scene, and picturing the se’irim on Yom Kippur, we, too, might access the same eternally timely thought. And resolve thereby to merit a gmar chasimah tovah.
© 2017 Hamodia
It’s easy to feel disheartened, even despondent, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, at the realization that some of the things we did teshuvah for last year are things we need to repent for again this year.
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, notes in his sefer L’Torah Ul’moadim that the ben sorer umoreh, the “wayward son,” is punished not for what he has done – stolen from his parents and acted gluttonously – but rather for what the Torah teaches us he will one day do: become a violent bandit.
Yet, Rav Zevin points out, we find Hashem refusing to allow the evil that will be wrought by descendants of Yishmael to affect His mercy on the boy himself, abandoned in the desert. Yishmael is judged only baasher hu sham, “where he is” at that time.
Explains Rav Zevin, the ben sorer umoreh is currently a sinner, and his present behaviors are the roots of what will become his future deeds.
Yishmael, by contrast, although he, too, exhibited negative behavior hinted at by Torah in the word “mitzachek,” did not act in so egregious a manner, and his bad behavior was not what led to the terrible crimes of his descendants. At the time of his crisis, he was effectively innocent, and so is judged in the moment.
As are we. Which may be why, Rav Zevin continues, we read the account of Yishmael on Rosh Hashanah.
Several years ago, I was struck by a one-liner in an obituary of a comedian. The fact that Rosh Hashanah was approaching may have predisposed me to notice it.
“I used to do drugs,” the hapless performer had deadpanned. “I still do, but I used to, too.”
It’s never a good idea to try to deconstruct a joke. But why, I wondered, was the line funny? Was it simply that the comedian had found an absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse? To me, the joke was more profound. What I think the fellow meant to convey was that he had once (likely more than once) quit his drugs, only to re-embrace them. When he was clean, he “used to do drugs”; now, fallen off the wagon, he does them once again.
Can we recidivist penitents relate?
We who find ourselves resolving to improve in some of the very same ways we had resolved to improve last year, do we not “used to” do things that we currently do, too?
Among the collected letters of Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, is one that was written to a talmid whose own, earlier, letter to the Rosh Yeshivah had apparently evidenced the student’s despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The Rosh Yeshivah’s response provides nourishing food for thought.
Citing the maxim that one can “lose battles but win wars,” Rav Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one’s yetzer tov but rather the dynamic struggle with the yetzer hara.
Shlomo Hamelech’s maxim that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Mishlei, 24:16), continues Rav Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what can, with sincere determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.
Facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of teshuvah, carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, explains Rav Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrongheaded. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, the war is not over. We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.
Still, it’s a balancing act. The knowledge that we are Divinely judged only in the moment and that failing isn’t forever cannot permit us to treat aveiros lightly. Even as we reject dejection, we must sincerely resolve to be better people than we have been.
The comedian who “used to do drugs” but still did may have given up on trying to change his ways; he left the world young, the result of an overdose.
As the Aseres Y’mei Teshuvah begin, may we all find the fortitude to refuse to give up, and rededicate ourselves, as often as we need, to embracing teshuvah.
And thereby, baasher anachnu sham, merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah.
© 2017 Hamodia
(in slightly edited form)
As you may have noticed, the first day of Shavuos falls on the fourth day of the week this year. Were any Tziddukim around today, they’d be unhappy. They held that Shavuos must always fall on a Sunday.
There are, however, no Tziddukim left. They, of course, were one of the camps of Jews during the Bayis Sheini period that rejected the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Torah Shebichsav – explaining, for example that “An eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, and that “totafos” refers to what we call tefillin (one of which is worn, moreover, not as the unelucidated passuk seems to state “between your eyes,” but rather above the hairline.)
The Perushim determinedly preserved the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and it is to them that we owe our own knowledge of the mesorah.
The Tziddukim’s insistence on a Sunday Shavuos, though, holds pertinence for the contemporary Jewish world.
Because the Tziddukim invoked support for their position from the Torah Shebichsav, accepting at face value the word “haShabbos” in the phrase “the day after the Shabbos” (when Sefiras Haomer was to commence). The mesorah teaches us that “Shabbos” in that passuk refers to the first day of Pesach.
But there was also an underlying human rationale to the Tziddukim’s stance. The Gemara explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety. It would be so pleasing, so proper, they reasoned, at the end of the Omer-counting, to have two days in a row – Shabbos and a Sunday Shavuos – of festivity and prayer.
“Propriety,” in fact, was something of a Tziddukian theme. The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Kadashim. The mesorah prescribes that the ketores, the incense offered there, be set alight only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand.
“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”
(Daf Yomi adherents recently learned [115b] about a Tzidduki attempt to indirectly, and improperly, favor a daughter in an inheritance law.)
The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of the central message of Shavuos itself, when we celebrate Mattan Torah. Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous and unifying declaration there: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!”
In other words, “We will accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding. Even if it is not our own will. Even if it discomfits us. Even if we feel we have a better idea.”
It’s impossible not to see the relevance of “Naaseh v’nishma” to our current “you do you” world, to contemporary society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” to developments like a self-described “Orthodox” movement that hijacks the terminology of halachah to subvert it, in an effort to bring it “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.
But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Yiddishkeit has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter can surely emerge from a kedushah-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.
Shavuos is generally treated lightly, if at all, by most American Jews. But its central theme speaks pointedly to them. Mattan Torah’s Naaseh v’nishma reminds us all about the true engine of the Jewish faith and Jewish unity – namely, the realization that Judaism, with apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.
© 2017 Hamodia