Rosh HaShannah 5783

Rosh HaShannah is a time of renewal. Through teshuvah (repentance) we prepare ourselves to face H’Shem: Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) on the Day of Judgment for the New Year. Through proper reflection, and rooting out our sins well in advance of that day, we hope to begin the new year with the resolve to start anew.

Rosh HaShannah is considered to be a day of judgment for the new year. We would like to be judged favorably, so we make an accounting of the soul (heshbnon hanefesh), in order that our conscience will permit ourselves to stand before the King. According to the Zohar, “’You stand this day all of you before the L-RD your G-d’” (Deuteronomy 30:9) refers to Rosh HaShannah, when we stand before H’Shem in judgment for the New Year.

When we examine our conscience, we may be brought to a place of moral compunction as a result of guilt and remorse. During the Ten Days of Repentance, otherwise known as the Days of Awe, we continue to search our souls for the flaws that need to be brought into the light . During that time, any judgments against us for the year may be diminished through our efforts at “teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tsedokah (charity),” that “avert the severity of the decree,” for the decrees are not sealed until Yom Kippur.

Lag b’Omer 5782

Lag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer – the 49 day period between Passover and Shavuot. The day has several clear historical references, most significantly, being the day that the plague that took 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased. With his five remaining students, he began again to promote Torah instruction to his students, including Shimon bar Yochai. The message being that because the reason given for the plague is the baseless dissension amongst the students, the importance of respect towards others who have differing opinions and viewpoints, inclusive of various interpretations should be respected, despite the differences. A timely message for today’s world.

It is proclaimed by the most devoted advocates of the Zohar that the author of the premier mystical literature of Judaism is indeed R’Shimon bar Yochai. Yet, not everyone agrees with this claim; in particular, from a scholarly perspective, the work has been shown to have been written by Moses de Leon of Spain. When the Aramaic writing is deciphered according to its grammar and other idiosyncracies, these have much in common with the grammatical structures and manner of conveying ideas at the time and place that Moses de Leon lived. Additionally, there is testimony from that time, that indicates he wrote the work, yet because of his own relative obscurity, assigned the authorship to Shimon bar Yochai to bring an air of authenticity to the writing.

The historical Shimon bar Yochai, according to a reference in the Talmud lived in a cave for many years, in order to escape persecution by the Romans. When he left the cave, he was given almost supernatural powers in the Talmudic account, as if he acquired these during his meditations in the cave. A story that was later developed into a greater myth by the author of the Zohar, assigning the mystical treatise itself to his authorship. Yet, any astute reader can note that the “companions” of the character, Shimon bar Yochai in the accounts given over in the Zohar are historical personages whom did not even live during the same time span as each other. Yet, they all gather around Shimon bar Yochai as if they are alive and well, irrespective of when they actually lived.

While it is true that the Zohar does contain many ideas, teachings, and Torah gems not generally found in more traditional works, these mysteries of Torah are revealed by the actual author based upon his knowledge of prior mystical treatises. So, perhaps, it may be considered as a moot issue, who the author of the Zohar is, if indeed it’s words help to further understand the secrets of Torah.

On the other hand, it is a concern of my mine, that Shimon bar Yochai is described as a holy lamp, subsequently elevated as the chief expositor of the mysteries of Torah, when some of what is conveyed in the Zohar are foreign to Torah, Tanach, and Talmud, such as gilgulim, transmigration, and the error of reincarnation. The specific teachings in regard to reincarnation do not bring light into the world; rather, they cast a shadow of darkness upon the truths of Torah. Moreover, the concept of reincarnation detracts from the clear understanding having to do with the Tehillas HaMeisim (resurrection of the dead). Whereas, the soul is restored to the body and we are judged according to how we lived this one life that we are all given.

Furthermore, glorifying Shimon bar Yochai seems to detract from the expectation of the prophet, Eliyahu HaNavi revealing the secrets of Torah, upon his return. Incidentally, since the prophet ascended into Heaven on a chariot, his return would not be counted as reincarnation. Additionally, the role of the Messiah in part is to bring to light the essential Torah truths for the generation that will see his crowning as King in Jerusalem, at the beginning of the the sabbatical millennium, when G-d’s Kingdom is ushered into existence.

Ad mosai – how long until the fallen sukkah of David is restored?

“In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old.”

– Amos 9:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

erev Pesach 5782

While in bondage in Mitzraim, the B’nei Yisrael had sunk to the 49th level of impurity, having neglected to distance themselves from the surrounding environment of idolatry. The Midrash records that when about to cross through the Sea of Reeds, the angels questioned their merit, saying both these and those, i.e., the Children of Israel and the Egyptians, were both idol worshippers. Why should these be spared, and the others not? Yet, H’Shem honored the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in order to bring His newly acquired nation out of bondage, and into covenant relationship with Him through the Torah.

H’Shem brought us out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, where He gave us the Torah. He had said to Moses, “This shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve G-d upon this mountain” (Exodus 3:12, JPS 1917 Tanach). The revelation of Mount Sinai was the pinnacle of the redemption. “The tablets were the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16, JPS). The Hebrew word for engrave is charut. The Sages note that the word cherut, meaning “freedom” is from the same shoresh (root word). This implies that our true freedom is derived through Torah.

B’nei Yisrael, in a manner of speaking, was also enslaved to sin in Egypt, having assimilated to the immorality of Egypt at that time. Although freed from actual physical bondage, they were still slaves to sin; yet, through the Torah, we may seek freedom from bondage to the yetzer harah (the evil inclination). We may break through the limitations of our own personal Mitzraim (Egypt; from “nitzavim,” limitations), and, figuratively speaking, pass through the Yam Suf (Dividing of the Sea), into the freedom that entails a responsibility to follow our yetzer tov (good inclination).

Purim: The Hidden Face of G-d

hester panim – the hidden face (of G-d)

In the Book of Esther, the narrative that is read on Purim, the name of G-d is not found even once; rather, His divine guidance is hidden within the framework of coincidental events within the narrative. G-d’s providence is already at work, in order to provide for a yeshua (salvation) for the Jewish people, even before the initial threat arises as recorded in the narrative. First of all, Queen Vashti is deposed after she disobeyed her husband, king Ahasueros, who is king of 127 provinces from India to Ethiopa. This sets the stage for a beauty pageant, won by Esther, whose beauty resides within as well as without. The king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight” (Esther 2:17, JPS). Moreover, she remained obedient to her Uncle Mordechai; and, as he instructed her, she did not make “known her kindred nor her people” (2:20).

As recorded at the end of chapter two, Mordechai had overheard a plot against the kink by two of his servants; so, he informed Esther, who told the king in his name; thus, his good deed was recorded in the chronicles of the king (Esther 2:21-23). This preceded a threat that rose up from Haman, who in the next chapter is raised up to a position of power. Therefore, both the position of Esther as Queen, and Mordechai’s deed for which he will be honored later in the narrative, as the ensuing events unfold, are as seeds of redemption waiting to ripen in due time.

Haman, in his new position, demanded that all bow down to him. Mordechai, a Jew who is a Benjamite will not bow down to him. It is interesting to note that one of the twelve sons of Jacob, Benjamin is the only one who did not bow down to Esau when he approached Jacob and his family. This is because Benjamin was still in the womb of his mother. Therefore, Mordechai exhibits this trait, if you will, by not bowing down to Haman, who is a descendant of King Agag, who was a descendant of Amalek. In turn, Amalek was the son of Eliphaz, the son of Esau. So, Haman’s hatred of Mordechai, went beyond his refusal to bow to him: rather, this was an ancient hatred that manifested in Haman’s ire, and insistence as well as determination to destroy all of Mordechai’s people.

Yet, as mentioned in the Talmud, the remedy precedes the sickness: “The Holy One, blessed be He, does not smite Israel unless He has created for them a healing beforehand” (Megillah 13b, Soncino edition). When Mordechai learns of Haman’s decree to destroy the Jewish people, he sends word to Esther, requesting that she appeal to the king on behalf of her people. “Who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14). Her response is one of mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice). “So will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

Additionally, on a night that King Ahasueros is not able to sleep, he decides to peruse through the chronicles of the king: here he finds mention of Mordechai’s good deed, whereby a plot against the king was thwarted. In the morning, when Haman happens to be in the King’s court, Ahasueros asks him, “what shall be done for the man whom the king would like to honor.” Haman, in his self-conceit, thinks that king wants to honor him, so he replies:

“Let royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and on whose head a crown royal is set; and let the apparel and the horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes, that they may array the man therewith whom the king delighteth to honour, and cause him to ride on horseback through the street of the city.” The king responds, “‘Make haste, and take the apparel and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew” (Esther 6:8-10). So, there is a reversal of fortune, whereby Mordechai is now honored, while Haman is humiliated.

Esther holds two banquets for the king, herself, and Haman; at Esther’s second banquet for the King, of which Haman is also invited, she reveals the plot to the king: “We are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish” (Esther 7:4). He asks, “Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so?” (Esther 7:5). She responds, “An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman” (Ester 7:6). Additionally, the king’s servant points out that this Haman had made a gallows “for Mordecai, who spoke good for the king” (Esther 7:9). Thus, Haman’s fate is sealed (by way of the gallows he himself built); and the decree that had previously gone out, calling for the destruction of the Jewish people is countermanded by a second decree, permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Victory is secured, and thus remains the celebration instituted by Mordechai every year at this time on the Hebrew calendar.

Purim Shpiel 5782

Walking a Tightrope

To get from one place to another, walking a fine line along the way, is not only a task enacted by a tightrope walker. In fact, I imagine that I will not be the only one attempting a “balancing act” this Purim: balancing joy & sorrow, past & present, and religion & life. Perhaps, there is no need for me to explain, and you, dear reader, are already beginning to get an inkling of what I am about to say. Purim is quickly approaching; yet, my thoughts are preoccupied with a modern-day Purim story, wherein the archvillain is intent on destruction, despite the opposition.

Abraham Heschel advocated for a Judaism that is not wrapped up in its past glory, in spite of the prevailing circumstances of life. How can I celebrate Purim in a joyous manner, knowing that a real-life situation demands my attention, prayer, and support? To go along with Purim-as-usual would create a great disconnect between what is meant to be a living faith in touch with the challenges of life and the actual challenges that present themselves, despite the timing.

The war in Ukraine will not be put on hold for the celebration of Purim. This is the stark reality that many of the Jewish refugees who have managed to cross the border know. And the unfortunate ones, who for whatever reasons are still in Ukraine, sheltering in basements, or fighting to defend their country also know this all too well. The rejoicing in Shushan and the lands of Ahasuerus did not occur until after victory was procured for the Jewish people, who were previously threatened by the evil designs of Haman.

Today, rejoicing over this past victory will in all likelihood be diminished in light of the present reality. Whatever lessons we are able to glean from Purim, I would encourage that these be applied to our response to the events of today. Otherwise, as Heschel wrote, we risk ignoring “the crisis of today,” “because of the splendor of the past” (Heschel, G-d in Search of Man, ch.1).

The Light of Truth

When light is diminished in this world,

we seek the scroll of Esther unfurled,

to bring to light what remains hidden,

drawing close to G-d, even when not bidden.

When darkness seems to prevail,

we find hope in Mordechai’s tale,

of triumph, in the battle of us and them,

the tides were turned in our favor by H’Shem.

The light of truth shone bright,

when Haman’s plan was revealed in full site,

to King Ahasuerus at Esther’s feast,

when all the coincidences came into place.

Today, we celebrate yesterday’s victory,

steadfast in prayer in the morning early,

awaiting the light that appears at dawn,

when the L-RD will right all that is wrong.

Like colors in a mystical kaleidoscope,

blue and yellow blend with hope,

when all of the colors melt into one,

in expectation of the rising sun.

Purim Katan 5782

“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick; but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13:12, JPS 1917 Tanach

Expectations in life are often deferred until a later time than one may have hoped. This may be true for prayer, as well as whatever personal goals in life that one may have in mind. It is also true for the holiday of Purim, when there is a “leap year” in the Hebrew calendar. Because Passover is always to be celebrated in the Spring, an extra month is added to the Hebrew calendar seven times within a nineteen year period. Otherwise, Pesach (Passover) would end up being in the winter. Another explanation given is that because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, a month is added according to the specific calculations, so that it will correspond to the solar calendar. During a leap year, the extra month of Adar Sheini (Adar Two) is added, before the month of Nissan.

During a leap year, the question may be asked, “So when do we celebrate Purim – the first month of Adar or the second month of Adar?” The answer given is that we celebrate Purim during the second month of Adar, about a month before Pesach as usual. So, at the beginning of the first month of Adar, that is on Rosh Chodesh Adar 1, the expectation of Purim which is usually celebrated on the fourteenth of the month may be in our thoughts. Yet, during a leap year, the holiday is not celebrated until six weeks later.

Therefore, two weeks after Rosh Chodesh Adar 1, when Purim would normally be celebrated, instead we recognize the day as Purim Katan (Small Purim). On this day (14 Adar 1), it is considered praiseworthy, although not obligatory, to increase one’s sense of joy with a festive meal, and, perhaps, a little bit of wine. At least, this small amount of joy that we bring into our lives, may offset the unfulfilled expectation of the greater joy felt on the actual holiday of Purim. Additionally, Purim Katan would be a good time to think about the miracles in our lives and begin preparing for Purim – thirty days ahead of time – by reading about the significance of Purim, along with its observances.

Incidentally, the day before the holiday of Purim is called Esther Taanim, the fast of Esther. Although we do not fast on the day before Purim Katan, traditionally, some exceptionally devout people will at least skip snacks between meals. Ultimately, we should reflect upon the essential truth that true and lasting joy is not dependent upon festive meals, nor the consumption of alcohol. Tru joy results from serving G-d, in whatever capacity we are able. The more devotion, the greater joy, in the sense of a feeling of contentedness that accompanies our overall fulfillment of purpose, for the sake of one’s soul.

“He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.” – Proverbs 15: 15, JPS 1917 Tanach

Tu b’Shevat 5782

Tu b’Shevat: a mini Guide

“It is a good custom for the faithful to eat many fruits on this day and to celebrate them with words of praise.” – from Pri Etz Hadar ch. 1, sefaria.org

Baruch atah H’Shem Elokeinu melech haOlam borei pri haEtz

(Blessed are you, L-rd our G-d, who creates the fruit of the tree).

Baruch atah H’Shem Elokeinu melech haOlam shehechiyanu, v’kiemanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh

(Blessed are you, L-rd our G-d, who has granted us life, sustained us, and brought us to this season).

The concept of enacting a tikkun (rectification) through the conscious eating of a variety of fruits on this day is exemplified within the teachings found in the Pri Etz Hadar – Tree of the Goodly Fruit – that serves as a type of manual for Tu b’Shevat. To eat with intention (kavannah), means to acknowledge the spiritual significance of the day, as well as the symbolism from different types of fruits. Especially important are the seven species from Israel mentioned in Torah:

“A land of wheat and barley, and [grape] vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey. – Deuteronomy 8:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

Also included as traditional favorites for Tu b’Shevat are the following:

carob chips, dried apples, dried pears, raisins, grapes, and wine, if having a Tu b’Shevat fruit seder.

Light Will Prevail

Chanukah – Day One

Light will transcend the darkness in our lives when we cast our gaze towards the flame of truth, the eish tamid (eternal light) that plays an essential role in Chanukah. The light of the Menorah in the temple, lit by the small cruze of oil found amidst the debris in the Temple, is the light of hope and renewal.

A little known midrash connects that small cruze of oil to the renewal of mankind, creation, and the earth itself, after the Mavul (Flood). When the dove brought back an olive branch in its mouth, according to the midrash, Noah pressed enough olive oil to place inside a small container. This cruze of oil was passed down to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When Jacob returned to Beth El, he anointed the foundation stone with this oil. Then, according to the midrash, he hid the small cruze of precious olive oil. This Place (HaMakom) was none other than Mt. Moriah, where the Temple was eventually established. Because of the miracle of light that lasted for eight days from this precious oil, we celebrate Chanukah today.

Even so, the midrash is not always meant to be taken literally; a symbolic viewpoint may be rendered from this particular midrash. In light of the talmudic saying that the cure precedes the ailment, G-d, having foreseen the defilement of the Temple by the Seulicid empire, provided the means for its sanctification, shortly after the Flood, when the earth was renewed. The olive leaf signifies light, renewal, and hope.

The oil, “potential light” was passed down, safeguarded across the generations for its eventual use in re-lighting the menorah in the Temple, signifying the triumph of light over darkness. “Just as the dove brought light to the world, so too, you will bring olive oil and light it before Me” (Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 5). This message of hope will be like a small flame illuminating the darkness, despite whatever circumstances may cast a shadow over our lives. Yehi ratzon. May it be His will that the light of hope and renewal throughout the ages will always prevail over darkness. Amein.