Category Archives: Holidays

Liberation Theology

In the summer of 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should depict Moshe Rabbeinu at the Yam Suf, his staff lifted high and the Mitzriyim drowning in the sea.  Jefferson urged a different design: Klal Yisrael marching through the Midbar, led by amud ha’eish and amud he’anan, the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke.

American slaves in the 19th century famously adopted the imagery and language of Yetzias Mitzrayim to express the hopes they harbored to one day be free.  In one famous spiritual, they sang of “When Israel was in Egypt land… oppressed so hard they could not stand,” punctuating each phrase with the refrain “Let My people go.”

Similar references to our ancestors’ liberation from Mitzrayim informed the American labor and civil rights movements as well.  In his celebrated “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King pined to “watch G-d’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt… on toward the promised land.”  And he sought to assure American blacks that “the Israelites” suffered much before gaining their freedom, and so neither should his listeners give up hope.

It says much that so many have modeled their aspirations on the Divine extraction of goy mikerev goy, “a nation from the midst of a nation” (Devarim 4:34).  To the Western world, the account of our ancestors’ release from slavery is the mother of all liberation movements.  And, at least in a way, one supposes, it is.

But the reading of freedom as mere release from repression is sorely incomplete.  Because after Shalach es ami, “Let my people go,” comes a most important additional word: viyaavduni – “so that they may serve Me” (Shmos 9:1).  Klal Yisrael wasn’t merely taken from slavery to “freedom,” in the word’s simplest sense.  We were taken from meaningless, onerous oppression to… a different servitude, the most meaningful kind imaginable: serving Hashem.

The Hebrew word for freedom, of course, is cheirus, evoking the word charus, “inscribed,” the word the Torah uses to describe the etching of the words on the Luchos, the “Tablets of the Law.”  Chazal see a profound truth in the two words’ similarity, and teach us: “The only free person is the one immersed in Torah.”

What in the world, others might ask us, does immersion in an intellectually taxing corpus of abstruse texts, subtle ideas and legal/ritual minutiae have to do with freedom?

They would claim to feel most free lying on beach chairs in their back yards on a day off from work, sunshine on their faces and cold beverages within reach, with nothing, absolutely nothing, to do.  And, to be sure, there are in fact times when we all need to relax, to recharge.  But that’s not the meaning of freedom, at least not in the Torah’s view.

In the words of Iyov, adam l’amal yulad, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  What we simplemindedly think of as “freedom” is not true cherus.  We’re here to labor, to study, to control ourselves, to apply ourselves, to accomplish things. Our “freedom” is release from the meaningless servitude some pledge to a master like money, chemicals, or this or that transient pleasure; and entry into meaningful servitude to something transcendent.

Truth be told, the freedom touted by “the velt” doesn’t even yield the fulfillment it promises. Or even happiness.  Winning the lottery and moving to Monaco to indulge one’s whims may be a common daydream, but, as countless accounts have borne witness, release from economic straits and the embrace of hedonism have yielded more suicides than serenity.

True freedom, ironically, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to our Divine mandate liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and brings true fulfillment, true joy.

Yesh chachmah bagoyim, Chazal tell us.  Listen to the words of the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

What a perceptive mashal, and how inadvertently apt.

Because when our forebears were released from Egyptian bondage, as they prepared to embark on their path to viyaavduni, they paused to sing a song, Shiras Hayam.

© 2016 Hamodia

The Evidence in the Barrel

Back in a previous lifetime, when I was a mesivta rebbe, I once heard a menahel exhort our talmidim to not get carried away on Purim.  As an illustration, he described how a certain Gadol on Purim simply went into his backyard and swung back and forth on a children’s swing.  The implication was that the Gadol hadn’t imbibed much.  I wasn’t so sure, myself. Ad d’lo yoda can express itself in different ways.

One thing is certain.  Kedoshim u’tehorim on Purim, unleashed from the constraints of full daas,  are more often seen singing and dancing spiritedly, even wildly, sharing divrei Torah and divrei sod that one might not ever hear from them the rest of the year.

Needless to say, and unfortunately, some who are less kadosh or tahor can overindulge on Purim and come to act very differently.  They may imbibe stronger things than wine (the preferred mitzvah) in excess, even to the degree of actually endangering themselves.  That is nothing short of a horrific Purim mask, an aveirah in the guise of a mitzvah.

But when the mitzvah is done right, though, even if the results are something more… well, dynamic than a placid visit to a backyard swing, something important about Klal Yisrael can be revealed.  After all, Rabi Iloi (Eruvin 65b) tells us that one way a person’s essence can be discerned is “in his cup,” in his behavior when inebriated.

Something so important, in fact, that I once witnessed a Purim celebration causing an Italian cook at a yeshivah where I once taught to investigate geirus.  By her admission, she told me that, over the years, she “had seen many people very drunk, but never so many people so drunk – without any fighting.”  All she saw was celebration, friendship, good humor and happiness, and that, she said, had impressed her beyond words.  (She was nevertheless dissuaded from her geirus plan.)

Chazal teach us (Shabbos, 88a) that something was lacking at Mattan Torah, and the lack only remedied centuries later in the Persian Empire.

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chassa tells us there that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis [a barrel]” to force them to accept the Torah.  One approach to that statement is that it refers to the experience of being directly addressed by the Borei Olam.  Receiving direct communication from Hashem was so overwhelming, so traumatic, so crushing – after all, it caused our ancestors’ souls to leave them, and brought them to beg Moshe to be the only one to directly receive the final eight dibros – that it simply left no other choice but to accept His mission.

Experiencing the Divine fully does not leave one with truly free will to say “no.”

Rabbah comments that the “coercion” remained a remonstration against Klal Yisrael, that it colored our acceptance of the Torah as less than willful – until the “days of Achashverosh.”

For it was then that the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where there was no “mountain” held over their heads, where it was not only not overwhelming but not even obvious.  Our ancestors chose to see Divine Providence in seemingly mundane, if alarming, political happenings, took the events to heart as a message from Above, and responded with tefillah, taanis and teshuvah.  Thus, kiymu mah shekiblu kvar, they “completed” Mattan Torah, supplied what had been missing. The nation truly perceived Hashem, not only in thunder and lightning but in words inscribed on parchment and in a signet ring removed from a royal hand.

Moving back to what is revealed when Yidden have a proper simchas Purim, I’ve often wondered about Rav Avdimi’s strange choice of imagery. “Holding the mountain over their heads like a barrel.”  Wouldn’t a mountain looming above be galvanizing enough?  What’s with the barrel?

A gigis, however, throughout the Gemara, is a container for an intoxicating beverage.  Chazal’s description of the implement of coercion at Har Sinai, in other words, is a beer-barrel.

Rabi Meir in Pirkei Avos (4:20) admonishes us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” It wouldn’t seem outlandish to perceive some pertinence of that admonition to the gigis to which Har Sinai is compared. Or, in turn, to Purim, when wine allows the essence of Klal Yisrael, our truest nature, to be revealed.

Don’t dwell, Rabi Meir may be saying, on our compromised acceptance of Hashem at Har Sinai in a state of coercion, but rather at our wholehearted, free-willed embrace of Him in our states of mindless purity.

Enjoy!

Each year, sitting in the sukkah on the first night of Sukkos, with my wife and whoever among our children and grandchildren we are fortunate to have with us for Yom Tov, I feel a particularly intense elation.  Part of it, no doubt, is the result of having managed to erect the sukkah on time.  But most of it is born, simply but powerfully, of having so many family members around the table.  For many years, though, ironically, my joy also bothered me.

After all, I reasoned, simchas Yom Tov, the happiness we are commanded to feel on a holiday – particularly on Sukkos, “the time of our happiness,” is meant to be, well, simchas Yom Tov, not delight in one’s family.

But then, one year, I reached a more refined understanding of simchas Yom Tov.  And I’ve never thought about it quite the same since.

The first hint that there was something here to discover lay in Chazal’s description of how we are to fulfill simchas Yom Tov.  The Rambam (Hilchos Shvisas Yom Tov, 6:18), basing his words on the Gemara (Pesachim 109a), instructs a man to buy his wife new clothing and jewelry, to give his young children nosherai and to himself enjoy meat and wine.  (Before splurging on that special Cabernet, though, bear in mind the Kaf Hachaim’s admonition that precedence here should be given to one’s wife’s pleasure.)  So it’s clear that simchas Yom Tov is defined as taking joy in plainly physical pleasures.  What gives?

The Sefer Hachinuch on the mitzvah of celebrating Sukkos echoes the oddity. “The days of the holiday,” he writes in Mitzvah 324, “are days of great happiness to Jews, since it is a time of gathering into the house the grain and fruit, and people are naturally happy.”

But then he subtly addresses the issue of how physical pleasures can constitute simchas Yom Tov: “And so Hashem has commanded His people to celebrate at that time, to allow them the merit of turning the essence of the happiness to Him.”

A striking Midrash (cited by Rashi) on a chapter of Tehillim we recite twice daily this time of year, elucidates the passuk “For my father and mother have abandoned me, and Hashem has gathered me in” (27:10).   Dovid Hamelech, says the Midrash, was stating that his parents’ focus was on their personal relationship; it was about themselves, not him.  In that sense, explains the Midrash, they “abandoned” him.

But stop and think a moment.  Dovid’s father was Yishai – one of the three personages who Chazal tell us (Shabbos 55b) “died by the counsel of the nachash,” the serpent in Gan Eden.  In other words, he was personally without sin.  And yet he is being described as, in some way, selfish?

What occurs is that there is an inescapable aspect of self-awareness (the result, likely, of the nachash’s “success” in Gan Eden) and self-concern that is part and parcel of being human.  To lack it is to be an angel.  Or, perhaps better, a mere angel.  Angels, after all, Chazal tell us, are static; humans, dynamic.

Even the most sublime of human beings have selves.  Even the ideal talmid chacham, represented by the Aron in the Mishkan, who is “gold” within and “gold” without, still has a core of wood – a symbol, it may well be, of the Eitz Hadaas, which bequeathed self-awareness in the first place.

And if a sense of self is an inherent part of being a human being, experiencing physical or emotional pleasure at times is normal and inevitable.  What the Chinuch may be telling us is that simchas Yom Tov means acknowledging that reality, embracing the pleasure of the harvest – and the joy born of the new clothing and the wine and the meat – but “grafting” it onto the spiritual, conscripting it toward the service of Hashem.  By doing that, we elevate the self.  We turn the things that make our “selves” happy toward the holy.

What happier moment could be imagined than when Yaakov Avinu was reunited with Yosef after 22 years of not knowing what had become of his beloved son.  The Midrash, brought by Rashi, has Yaakov reciting Shema at that moment.  Was he not overjoyed at the reunion?  Of course he was.  But he saw fit to graft his joy onto kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim.

So we should enjoy our meat and our wine, our wives and daughters their new clothes and jewelry, our young’uns their nosh.  And we should all consciously try to channel our enjoyment toward its Source.

© 2015 Hamodia

Eliyahu’s Double Plea

The Rambam’s logic, as always, is unassailable.  Miracles, he informs us (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 8:1), simply cannot be bases of belief.  What appears to us as miraculous, he explains, could always be trickery or magic.  Or, we might add, as per the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, a “sufficiently advanced technology,” that will always be “indistinguishable from magic.”

To be sure, a miracle can be temporarily impressive, as the Rambam goes on to clarify; and, more important, if sourced in the Divine, can be (like Krias Yam Suf, the be’er and the mann) vivid demonstrations of Hashem’s love and concern for His people.  But what lies at the root of Jewish belief, he states, is no miracle, but rather the revelation at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisrael experienced direct communication with the Creator.

The assertion that what appears miraculous cannot in itself prove anything about its source, though, seems frontally challenged by the narrative of the confrontation between the nevi’ei habaal and Eliyahu Hanavi at Har Hacarmel, recounted in Melachim I 18:1-39 (the haftarah of parashas Ki Sisa).

There, we read of how Eliyahu, in order to convince the Jews of the time to stop vacillating between Hashem and a false god, challenged the idolatrous priests to offer, as he would himself, a sacrifice.  A heavenly fire that would descend on one of the sacrifices would serve as Divine testimony.  Despite efforts of the idolaters to artificially create a “heavenly fire,” as a Midrash describes, and despite Eliyahu’s soaking of his own sacrifice with water, a fire descends from heaven and consumes the Navi’s offering.  The people are overwhelmed, and cry out “Hashem, He is G-d!  Hashem, He is G-d!”

How, though, to square that account with the Rambam’s words about the limitation of miracles? The answer may lie in a Gemara in Berachos (6a).  Eliyahu’s tefillah before the miracle includes the plea Aneini Aneini!– “Answer me!  Answer me!”  The double entreaty, explains the Gemara, refers to two separate requests, to “cause a fire to come down from heaven” and to “let not the people say that it was the result of magic!”

Far from a challenge to the Rambam’s contention, then, the Gemara’s elucidation greatly supports it.  It required a special request of Hashem that the people not dismiss the miracle as meaningless – which they, logically, had every right to do.  In other words, that the people regarded the miracle as meaningful was, in a sense, itself something of a miracle.

And, in fact, the conviction to which the people gave voice when the fire descended did not prove lasting.  Soon thereafter, Eliyahu despairs at the nation’s slipping back into its wrong ways.  Their inspiration at Har HaCarmel was powerful but, in the end, ephemeral.  It was based, after all, on a mere miracle.

The declaration “Hashem, He is G-d!”, of course, is what we call out seven times at Ne’ilah, at the very close of Yom Kippur.  How odd that a declaration that turned out to be short-lived should conclude our holiest day.

Could it be a subtle warning? A reminder that “spiritual highs” cannot in themselves ensure their own perseverance, that even a state of deep emotion requires “follow-up” determination if it is to be maintained?

The first opportunity to follow up, so to speak, after Ne’ilah is the Maariv that ensues after the thunderous “Hashem Hu HaElokim!”s. A kehillah that davens that first post-Yom Kippur tefillah meticulously and with kavanah is one that has had a successful day.

You may know the story told of the Baal Shem Tov’s horses.  The two animals were hitched up to the Besht’s wagon for a trip, but were unaware of the kefitzas haderech, or miraculous “shortening of the way,” that would take place on their journey.  When only a few minutes had elapsed as they passed a point that should have taken them a full day to reach, one horse said to the other, “Hmmm. I’m not even hungry.  We must not be horses but men!”

Then, when a second landmark unexpectedly went by, the other horse commented, “No, we’re even more than men.  We must be angels!”  And so the horses proudly trotted on, until they reached their destination ten hours – but many days’ journey – away.  By this point, they were famished and, led to a feeding trough, enthusiastically dug in to sate their hunger.

And so, the story ends, it was then that the horses knew, without any doubt, that they were horses.

On Yom Kippur, we withdraw from human activities and stand like angels.  When the day ends, though, tired and hungry, we know we are mere humans.

But, if we manage to carry our Ne’ilah recognition into Maariv and beyond, better ones.

© 2015 Hamodia

The King and Us

One of the findings of a recent Pew Research Center report about Orthodox Jews was that for the vast majority of them – are you sitting down? – “religion is very important in their lives.”

Well, yes.

The study contrasts that with the situation in the non-Orthodox community, where only 20% of its members make a similar claim about themselves.

It’s all too easy for many of us to look down our noses at fellow Jews who express their Jewishness only on occasion, to consider them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism can’t, after all, be “compartmentalized.”  It is an all-encompassing way of life and needs to inform all the choices we make.

And yet, as always, there’s more to be gained by not looking at others but rather inward.  Our Orthodox world, after all, “knows from” compartmentalization too.

There are, unfortunately, Jews who, while they wouldn’t ever dream of eating food lacking a good hechsher or of davening without a proper head-covering, seem in some ways to be less conscious of Hashem at other times.

How else to explain an otherwise observant Jew who acts in his business dealings, or home life, or behind the wheel, or the way he speaks to others, in ways not in consonance with what he knows is proper?

When we experience such dissonance, it’s not, chalilah, that we don’t acknowledge Hashem.  It’s just that we tend to compartmentalize; we feel HaKodosh Baruch Hu’s presence in our religious lives, but less so in our mundane ones.

Some of us struggle to maintain a keen awareness of Hashem not only out of shul but even in it. We don’t always pause and think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly and distinctly).  We allow our observances, even our davening, to sometimes fade into rote.  I’m writing here to myself, but some readers may be able to relate.

Many of us – certainly I – must sadly concede that when it comes to compartmentalizing in our lives, there really isn’t really any clear “us” and “them,” the Pew report notwithstanding.  There is a continuum here, with some of us some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-presence of the Divine, and some less so.

Obviously, Jews who are entirely nonchalant about religious observance are at one extreme of the scale.  And those who are not only observant but think of Hashem and His will even when engaged in business or navigating a traffic jam are at the other end. But many even in that latter category can still fall short of the ideal of Hashem-consciousness, can compartmentalize their lives.

This is a thought that leads directly to Rosh Hashanah.  The first day of a new Jewish year, the start of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, is suffused with the concept of Malchus, “Kingship.”  The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and the concept of malchiyus is prominent in the days’ Mussaf tefillah.  We might well wonder: What has kingship to do with repentance?  The answer is: much.

By definition, a king has a kingdom, over which he exerts his rules.  There is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and none of his subjects 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) and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas.  If Hashem is to be our Ruler, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is our yearly opportunity to ponder that thought and internalize it, to try to bring our lives more in line with it.  To better comprehend, in other words, that Hashem is as manifest when we are sitting behind a desk, cooking or sending kids off to school as he is when we are reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as present on a December morning as He is during the Yamim Nora’im.

On Rosh Hashanah, we will all be collectively focused on “de-compartmentalizing” our lives, on coronating Hashem over all Creation.  May the zechus of that effort bear fruit not only in our personal lives, but in history – may it lead, in other words, and soon, to the day when v’hayah Hashem l’melech al kol ha’aretz.

© 2015 Hamodia

Govrov Selichos, 1939

This time of year in 1939, in a Polish town called Ruzhan, a 14-year-old boy had his plans rudely interrupted.  The boy, who, fifteen years later, would become my father, had made preparations to travel to the Novhardoker yeshivah in Bialystok, but the German army invaded Poland before he had the chance, and the Second World War began.

My father, shlita, his family and all Ruzhan’s townsfolk fled ahead of the advancing Germans.  That erev Shabbos, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there.  Motzoei Shabbos was the first night of Selichos.

Several years ago, I helped my father publish his memoirs, about his flight from the Nazis, his yeshivah days, his sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rav in Baltimore for more than 50 years.  He is currently the mazkir of the Baltimore Beis Din and the rav of a Shabbos minyan.

In his book (“Fire, Ice, Air,” available from Amazon), he movingly describes how he insisted on taking leave of his parents to go to yeshivah, his banishment, along with Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l and a handful of other Novardhoker bachurim to Siberia; and his being shot while being smuggled, after the war, into Berlin’s American sector.

About that Motzoei Shabbos Selichos in Govrov, he writes:

My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew’s house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words “Raus Jude!  Raus Jude!” – “Jew, out!”…

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town’s other Jews – several hundred people – in the middle of the town’s market area…

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims.  One man had a beautiful, long beard.  When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target.  But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness.  He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute.  It didn’t take long to realize that the town’s homes had been set aflame.  Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape …  The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue.   Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying.   Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts.  Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do. 

The smell of smoke grew even stronger…  And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened?  Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building.  A German officer – apparently of high rank – dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium.   The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis.  After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will.  Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook…  And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

I have often contrasted in my mind my father’s teenage years and my own, during which my biggest worries were lack of air conditioning in my classroom and tests for which I had neglected to study.

And each year at Selichos, I try to visualize that Selichos night in Govrov.

© 2015 Hamodia

Be Alarmed

Back in 2007, at just about this exact time of year, a priest in the Netherlands city of Tilburg was fined the equivalent of several thousand dollars for ringing his church’s bells early each morning. Local residents, it seemed, were not amused.

That very week, though, shuls around the world were sounding an early morning alarm of their own, as they will be doing soon enough this year.  No complaints were reported in Jewish communities then, or are expected to be registered this year, about Elul’s daily tekias shofar.

The Rambam famously described the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call – bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Uru yisheinim mishinaschem”— “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.”   The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy.

No doubt, the shofar sounds we hear throughout Elul carry that message no less, calling on us to refocus on what alone is meaningful in life: serving the Boreh Olam.

Elul.  As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the observation that, in Elul, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Yemei Hadin.  And, in fact, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with a certain seriousness, even nervousness, born of a sharpened cognizance of the fact that the world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us who are not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Sleeping through a physical alarm clock is always a temptation, and a danger. And even if the sound registers, we are all too easily drawn to hit the snooze button on the spiritual timepiece, busy as we are with all the “important” issues and diversions that take over our lives.

Sometimes, though, some of us wake up even before our alarm clocks go off.  It’s nice to get a sort of head start on full consciousness, so that we’re not terribly shocked when the beeping intrudes upon our sleep, insisting against all reason that the night is already over.

It may still be Av when you read these words, but there’s nothing wrong – and perhaps, in these particularly unsettled and challenging days, everything right – with getting a head start on Elul, with beginning to wake ourselves up even before Rosh Chodesh.  Just as Elul’s tekios are there to remind us of Tishrei, it’s ideal to discern the ethereal clock’s ticking during the month prior.

Hamodia’s Rabbi Hershel Steinberg recently related to me something the Pnei Menachem, zt”l, told him in the name of his father, the Imrei Emes, zt”l.  The Gemara in Brachos (61a) quotes Rabbi Yochanan as stating that it is better for a man to walk “behind a lion than behind a woman.”  The Imrei Emes perceived a deeper meaning beyond the straightforward one. “It is better to begin doing teshuvah during the month of Av, whose mazal is a lion (Leo),” he said, “than to wait until Elul, whose mazal is a woman (Virgo).”

At a family simchah last week in a shul hall, some of the celebrants held a minyan for Maariv.  While I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, I felt a tug on my pants leg. I lifted one of my closed eyelids slightly to see that it wasn’t a snake or scorpion but rather one of my (utterly adorable, needless to say) grandchildren, a little blue-eyed girl of three.  She wasn’t in any danger or distress; she just wanted my attention.  I tried to keep it, though, on my tefillah.   There would be ample time to reassure her of my love for her after davening.

Before she gave up her quest, though, and decided her cousins were more fun than I was being, she gave it one last try and I heard her little voice implore: “Zaidy!  Wake up, Zaidy!”

I had to pause a moment at so delightful an “einekel moment.”

Now, however, thinking about Elul, even with Rosh Chodesh still a few days off, I wonder if there might not have been a more serious, if unintended, message for me in her words.

© 2015 Hamodia

A Worthy, Timely Truth

It’s intriguing – to be truthful, depressing – that as we prepare to focus on our galus and its causes we in the Orthodox world are witnessing acrimony born of true chinom, nothingness.

The sort of sentiments and language that are regularly being employed by opponents of the Iran agreement against anyone who isn’t convinced that it is “evil” or “insane” or “dangerous” is deeply wrong.  (Maybe there is corresponding rashness from the deal’s supporters.  I just haven’t encountered any.)

What seems lost on some is the fact that the issue isn’t “Israel’s security” against (take your pick:) “America’s needs” or “Obama’s worldview” or “hopeless naiveté.”  It is “Israel’s security” against “Israel’s security.”

That is to say, whether Israel’s security, along with that of the rest of the free world, is better served by an imperfect agreement (as all agreements must be) or by no agreement.  Reasonable, sane, and not evil people can disagree with that.  But they cannot – or, at least, should not – heatedly denounce those who see things differently from themselves just because… they see things differently from themselves.  That is chinom.

The Gemara teaches that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their attitudes.”  The Kotzker is said to have commented on that truth with a question: “Can you imagine disdaining someone because his face doesn’t resemble yours?”

Think about that.  It contains a worthy, and timely, truth.