Category Archives: Rosh Hashana

Recidivist Repentance

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)

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

Musing: Atticus and the Yomim Nora’im

The American 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in the news this summer, the result of the publication of an earlier version of it, a sequel in reality, that its author, Harper Lee, had written, and which was apparently only recently discovered.

Millions have found the 1960 book inspiring, and it is indeed a rare work.  It wonderfully captures Southern American life in the 1940s, and deals thoughtfully with themes like racism and friendship.  What’s more, it is suffused with subtle humor.

And it has provided American culture with a hero, in the form of “Atticus,” as the father of the narrator, a little girl at the time the novel takes place, is called.  Atticus, a lawyer, is a paragon of honor, rectitude and compassion, and, although a mere fictional character, has been an inspiration to many a living lawyer and judge.  The Alabama State Bar even erected a monument to him.

Were I a literature teacher and had assigned the book to students, a question I would ask them would be to identify Atticus’ most heroic act.  Some might point to his acceptance of the legal case at the heart of the book, defending a black man against a white accuser.  Others to his standing up to a crowd intent on a lynching of the suspect.  Some might even respond with his facing down of a mad dog, which he kills with a single rifle shot.

My own answer to my question, though, would be something very different.  At one point in the book, it is recounted how a character, Bob Ewell, a wretch intent on seeing the defendant found guilty and executed, approaches Atticus on the street and spits in his face.

Atticus, who has every reason and ability to lay the scoundrel low, instead, in the words of the woman recounting the incident, “didn’t bat an eye, just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and stood there and let Mr. Ewell call him names wild horses could not bring her to repeat.”

In Hebrew, the closest word to “hero” is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.”  And its definition is provided us in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos:  “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”

Heroism and strength in Judaism are evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.  Something to think about as the Days of Judgment grow closer.

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

Time After Time

Ever since the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells penned “The Time Machine” in 1895, the notion of a protagonist traveling through time by means of magic or fantastic technology has captured the imaginations of countless writers and readers.

Wells’ famous work involved travel into the future.  But many subsequent flights of fancy concerned going back in time to an earlier period and, often, tinkering with past events to change the future.

It might not immediately occur to most of us that our mesorah not only anticipated the idea of time travel but in fact teaches that it is entirely possible, an option available to us all.  And, unlike so many popular fiction time travel fantasies where havoc is wreaked by intruding on an earlier time, Jewish travel to the past is sublime.  And, in fact, required of us.

Is that not the upshot of how Chazal portray teshuvah, repentance?  It is, after all, nothing less than traveling back through time and changing the past.  The word itself, in fact, might best be translated as “returning.” We assume it refers to our own returning to where we should be.  But it might well hold a deeper thought, that teshuva involves a return to, and recalibration of, the past.

How else to understand the Talmudic teaching that sins committed intentionally are retroactively rendered by even the most elemental teshuva (that born of fear) into unintentional sins? Or the even more astonishing fact that when teshuva is embraced out of pure love for Hashem, it actually changes sins into good deeds?

What a remarkable thought.  Chillul Shabbos transformed into honoring of Shabbos?  Eating treif into eating matzah on Pesach?  Telling loshon hora into saying a dvar Torah?  No, not remarkable.  Stupefying.

Time is the bane of human existence.  The Kli Yakar notes that the word the Torah uses for the sun and moon—“me’oros,” or “luminaries,” (Bereishis, 1:16), which lacks the expected vov, can be read “me’eiros,” or “afflictions.”

“For all that comes under the influence of time,” he explains, “is afflicted with pain.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, notes, similarly, that the term “memsheles,” (ibid) which describes those luminaries’ roles, implies “subjugation.”  For, the Rosh Yeshiva explains, we are enslaved by time, unable to control it or escape its relentless progression.  Our positions in space are subject to our manipulation.  Not so our positions in time.

Except when it comes to teshuvah.  By truly confronting our misguided actions and feeling pain for them and resolving to not repeat them, we can reach back into the past and actually change it.  We are freed from the subjugation of time.

Which might well lie at the root of the larger theme of freedom that is so prominent on Rosh Hashana.  Tishrei, the month of repentence, is rooted in “shara,” the Aramaic word for “freeing”; the shofar is associated with Yovel, when slaves are released; we read from the Torah about Yitzchak Avinu’s release from his “binding”; and Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Yosef’s release from his Egyptian prison, and of the breaking of what can be thought of as Sarah and Chana’s childlessness-chains.

There happens to be an exquisite symbol of our Aseres Yemei Teshuva ability to transcend time in the Rosh Hashana night sky.  Actually, the symbol is the absence of one.

The sun may mark the passage of days for others, but for Klal Yisroel, it is the moon to which we look to identify the months of our years.  It is not only, by its perpetual renewal, a symbol of the Jewish People.  It keeps time for us.  It is, one might say, our clock.

And on Rosh Hashana, the first of the Asers Yimei Teshuvah, it goes missing.  Of all the holidays in the Jewish year, only Rosh Hashana, which by definition occurs at the beginning of a Jewish month, sports a moonless sky.

That observation isn’t a meaningless one.  “Sound the shofar at the new month, at the appointed time for the day of rejoicing,” declares the passuk in Tehillim (81:4) in reference, Chazal teach us, to Rosh Hashana.  And the word for “at the appointed time”—“bakeseh”—can be read to mean “at the covering” – a reference to the moon’s absence in the Rosh Hashana sky.

So it might not be an overreach to imagine that sky, with its missing “Jewish clock,” to be a subtle reminder that time can be overcome in an entirely real way, through the Divine gift of teshuvah, and our heartfelt determination.

© 2014 Hamodia

Guilt Is Good

The piece below appears at The Times of Israel.

As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the assertion that, in Elul, the Jewish month soon upon us, “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 Days of Judgment.  And, in fact, in observant Jewish communities, yeshivot and seminaries, the weeks before Rosh Hashana are infused with nervousness, born of believing Jews’ sharpened awareness that they, their fellow Jews and the entire world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Some view guilt as an annoying smudge on their souls, something to wipe clean with a bit of all-purpose self-esteem.  Like Jewish worrying and Jewish frugality, though, Jewish guilt gets a bad rap.

All those “negative” traits attributed to Jews, in fact, are misreadings of sublime Jewish ideals.  Worrying is the opposite of mindless dancing through life, a refusal to be oblivious to how much must go right for us to even wake up in the morning and find our breath.  Worry entails a recognition, in the words of the Modim prayer, of “the miracles that are with us daily.”  We Jews are instructed to acknowledge the Creator’s kindnesses when we awaken, in each of our prayers, even when we exit the bathroom (when the blessing of “Asher Yatzar” is recited), to remind ourselves to not take even the most mundane functions of our bodies for granted.  We worry because we recognize how terribly fragile life is.

And valuing every dollar isn’t (or at least needn’t be) stinginess; it can bespeak sensitivity to the truth that every material thing has worth, and can be harnessed for good.  Our forefather Jacob, the Torah relates, made a dangerous trip back over a river he had crossed, in order to retrieve “tiny jars” that had been left behind.  Teaching us, says the Talmud, that “the righteous value their property even more than their persons.”

A dollar, in other words, can buy a soft drink or almost half a New York subway fare.  But it can also buy a drink for a thirsty friend, or almost half the fare to visit someone in the hospital.  It has potential eternal worth, as good deeds are everlasting, and shouldn’t be wasted.

And guilt?  That’s an easy one.  It’s the engine of growth.

To be sure, being consumed by guilt leaves a person paralyzed.  But a modicum, or even a bit more, of facing our faults is a most salubrious thing.  It’s essential to the process of true self-improvement. That is the meaning of teshuva, often rendered “repentance,” a somewhat off-putting word.  “When they said ‘repent’,” broods the bard, “I wonder what they meant.”

“Self-improvement,” though, might better resonate with the modern mind.  And it well describes teshuva, literally, a “return” – to a better, purer, self.  And, ultimately, to the Creator.  “The soul that you placed in me,” continues the traditional waking-up formula, “is pure…”  It is easily stained, however, and we do well to try to restore it to its natural luster.

And doing so, Maimonides informs us, first entails regret for actions, or inactions, we realize were wrong.  There’s no way to take that initial step without confronting our misdeeds, and feeling… guilty for them.

Whether our lapses are in the realm of “between God and man” or “between man and man,” Elul is an especially propitious time to take stock of them.  The feelings we cultivate over its weeks will crescendo over the course of the “High Holy Days,” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Those “Ten Days of Repentance” are difficult ones for those who take Judaism seriously.  Difficult but valuable.

The Hebrew letters of “Elul” (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed) have famously been portrayed as an acrostic for the words of the verse phrase “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs, 6:3).  That’s a pithy tradition.  The guilt we feel this time of year is not an end but a means; it’s intended to lead not to despair but to a stronger, more real, relationship with our Creator and His other creations.

At the end of the daily morning services, the shofar will be blown each day of Elul (except for the day before Rosh Hashana, to make a distinction between the custom and the Torah-commandment to hear the shofar on the holiday itself).  I don’t know whether the sound will cause the fish in the rivers to tremble, but it should bring a frisson, born of fear and guilt, to all sensitive Jews.

Compartment Syndrome

It’s easy for many of us Orthodox Jews to look down our noses on our fellow members of the tribe who express their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” and yahrtzeits, to consider them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism can’t, after all, be “compartmentalized.”  It’s an all-encompassing way of life.

There are, though, even Orthodox Jews, living what seem to be observant Orthodox lives, doing, at least superficially, all the things expected of a religious Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing the de rigeuer  head-covering of his or her community – who also seem to religiously compartmentalize, who seem to leave G-d behind in shul (if they even think of Him), who seem to not realize that the Creator is as manifest on a Tuesday in July as He is on Yom Kippur.

Which explains how it is that an Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices or abuse a child or a spouse.  Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how one can cut others off in traffic, act rudely, or blog maliciously.  Or, for that matter, how he can address his Maker in prayer with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, the soliloquy would elicit no end of mirth.

It’s not necessarily the case that such Jews don’t acknowledge Hashem.  It’s just that they don’t give Him much thought – even, ironically, while going through the myriad motions of daily Jewish lives. In the most extreme cases, the trappings of observance are essentially all that there is, without any consciousness of why religious rituals are important.  What’s left then is mere mimicry, paraphernalia in place of principle.

What’s wrenching to ponder is that even those of us who think of our Jewish consciousnesses as healthy and vibrant are also prone to compartmentalize our Judaism. Do all of us, after all, maintain the G-d-consciousness we (hopefully) attain in shul at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always think of what it is we’re saying when we make a bracha (or even take care to pronounce every word distinctly)?  Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety?  Or do our observances sometimes fade into rote?

Most of us must sadly concede that when it comes to compartmentalizing our lives there really isn’t any “us” and “them.”  All of us live on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.  Obviously, those who do think of Hashem and His will when engaged in business or navigating a traffic jam are more religiously progressed than those who don’t. But still.

Rosh Hashana presents all of us a special opportunity to hone our Creator-awareness.  The Jewish new year, the start of the Ten Days of Repentance, is suffused with the concept of Kingship (malchiyus).  The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and malchiyus is prominent in the days’ prayers.  We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with repentance?

The answer is clear.  A king rules over his entire kingdom; there is little escaping 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) and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas.  If Hashem  rules over all, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashana is our yearly opportunity to ponder and internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Jewish Guide to Time Travel

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the brilliantly insightful 16th century author of the Torah commentary Kli Yakar, comments on the fact that the word the Torah uses for the sun and moon—“me’oros,” or “luminaries,” (Beraishis, 1:16) is spelled in such a way that it can be read “me’eiros,” or “afflictions.”

“For all that comes under the influence of time,” he writes, “is afflicted with pain.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the renowned Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, saw similar meaning in the term “memsheles,” (ibid) which describes the luminaries’ role.  Its most literal meaning, he said, is “subjugation.”  We are, in other words, enslaved by time.

What is subjugating and frightening about time is not only that it brings about entropy and dissolution, that each day’s passing leaves us (as a poet once put it) “shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” but that it is entirely beyond our control.  We can change our positions in space—moving here or there at will—but time seems frustratingly one-directional; its effects are entirely, utterly unchangeable.

Jewish tradition, however, informs us otherwise. We can travel, the Talmud teaches us, in time too.

“Sound the shofar at the new month, at the appointed time for the day of rejoicing,” declares the posuk in Tehillim (81) in reference to Rosh Hashana.  The word for “at the appointed time”—“bakeseh”—is most simply read to mean “at the covering”—a reference, the Talmud tells us, to the fact that the moon, in pointed contrast to the situation on other Jewish holidays, is not visible at the onset of the Jewish new year. Rosh Hashana, of course, coincides with the “new moon,” when the lunar luminary is invisible to us.

Intriguingly, a mystical tradition attributed to the Zohar conceives of the moon’s apparent absence on Rosh Hashana as representative of the lack of “two witnesses” to the Jewish people’s sins. The sun, witness #1, is there—but the moon?  Missing.

The moon has a direct role in Jewish life.  It keeps time for us. The sun may mark the passage of days for all humanity, but it is to the moon that Jews are commanded to look to identify the Jewish months.

The moon is our clock.  Perhaps it goes missing on Rosh Hashana because the holiday reminds us that we can transcend time.

Our time machine is teshuva, repentance.  And that is no mere metaphor.  We are actually empowered by teshuva to reach back into the past and alter it.

How else to understand our tradition’s teaching that sins committed intentionally are rendered by even the most elemental teshuva (born of fear) into unintentional sins? Or the even more astonishing fact that when teshuva is embraced out of pure love for Hashem, it actually changes sins into good deeds?

Consider that shocking idea for a moment.  An act of eating of non-kosher meat years ago can be “accessed and edited” into the equivalent of consuming matzah on Pesach.  We can travel back in time and change the past.

And so if one is a successful penitent on Rosh Hashana, there can indeed be no complement of “witnesses” to his past sins; the sins are no longer there to be witnessed.

The Rosh Hashana night sky, with its missing “Jewish clock,” reminds us that time can be overcome in a meaningful way, through sheer force of will.

This tossing off of time’s shackles may be what lies at the root, too, of the theme of freedom that is so prominent on Rosh Hashana.  The name of the month it introduces, Tishrei, is rooted in “shara,” the Aramaic word for “freeing”; the day’s central mitzvah, the sounding of the shofar, is associated with Yovel, or the Jubilee Year, when slaves are released; one of the holiday’s Torah readings is about Yitzchak Avinu’s release from his “binding”; and Rosh Hashana is the anniversary of Yosef’s release from his Egyptian prison.

All of us, too, if we honestly and critically confront our lives and resolve to change for the better, can break free from the seemingly unshakeable bonds of time.

Gmar chasima tova!

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE