Hoshannah Rabbah 5783

B”H

shiur for Hoshannah Rabbah 5783

 “I stood between the L-RD and you at that time, to declare unto you the word of the L-RD.” – Deuteronomy 5:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Of the esrog and lulav, it is written, “And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the L-RD your G-d seven days” (Leviticus 23:40, JPS). Yet, when we make the beracha (blessing) before shaking the esrog and lulav, we only refer to the lulav. That is to say, out of the four species that are taken in one’s hands and shaken in all directions, we only say a blessing over the lulav.

The lulav represents our connection to heaven and earth. When we shake the lulav in the four directions, this represents north, south, east and west. When we shake the lulav and esrog above and below, these refer to heaven and earth. Why does the lulav represent our connection to heaven and earth? The lulav, symbolic of the spine, and the middah (character trait) of uprightness, or righteousness, may be understood as representative of Moshe, who was an intermediary between H’Shem and B’nei Yisrael. “I stood between the L-RD and you at that time, to declare unto you the word of the L-RD; for ye were afraid because of the fire, and went not up into the mount” (Deuteronomy 5:6, JPS). Thus, so too, the tzaddik olam, the Holy One of Israel.

The Inward Focus

“Look to yourselves,” we would like to say to others, when we see others casting blame upon people, institutions, and society at large. Yet, for the sake of our own benefit, we should not avoid “looking toward ourselves.” The Ten Days of Awe, for all intents and purposes, are a time of increased reflection upon our faults, errors, and sins, with the aim of bringing these into the light, and asking forgiveness. Additionally, on Yom Kippur, our atonement is sought through even more intense prayer, and H’Shem willing, bestowed upon us, so that we can begin the new year with the renewal of our souls, having been cleansed through a sincere teshuvah. Thus, our inward focus on improving ourselves, is rewarded by H’Shem, in acknowledgment of our efforts to change from within; and, having been relieved of our guilty conscience, we can experience the joy of Sukkot.

“Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the L-RD.”

– Lamentations 3:40, JPSN

Shavuot Reflection 5782

To some extent, the nature of Judaism very well may appear to be a smorgasbord of various beliefs, practices, and minchagim (customs). Nowhere is this more clear to me, than at the shul (place of worship) that I frequent on Shabbos and yom tov, as well as other, holidays. Where I  live, a lot of out of town Jewish visitors show up, especially for yom tov.

Inasmuch that I became an observant Jew in 2005, I took upon myself as a ba’al teshuvah, specific modes of yiddishkeit, based upon what I learned from others. Moreover, about twelve years later, I learned that my grandfather was a Chassidic rabbi. Thus, through my lineage, I am a Bolechover chasid, my ancestors on the paternal side of my family, being from Bolechov, Poland.

So, I prefer not to conform, nor model my sense of Yiddishkeit, roughly translated as “things Jewish,” after the type of Chassidism being promoted where I attend services.

To make matters more complicated for me, when observant Jews from out of town visit, any sense of “localness” dissipates into the mountain air, as the priorities of the visitors seem to supersede the local congregation. Case in point, when I facilitated the yizkor service on the second day of Shavuos, one of the visitors, who was holding the Torah, as required during the Yizkor (memorial) service, took it upon himself to start without me.

Mind you, I was standing on the bimah, in the middle of the sanctuary, and hadn’t yet even opened the Yizkor book. Instead of beginning the service anew, with an opening paragraph in English, I picked up where he left off, by abruptly reciting the same prayer in English that he had recited in Hebrew. This dueling for control of the service continued, whereas I was in a position that required assertion on the one hand, without offending the visitor on the other hand.

Was there a misunderstanding, whereas he felt responsibility for leading the service, because he was holding the Torah? To some extent, I showed deference to him, even though I was designated to lead the yizkor service, and had been doing so since the fall holidays. Yet, it seems at times that some visitors would like to run things according to their own ways, irrespective of showing respect to the place where they are visiting. Not that  I mean to make a generalization; however, this does seem par for the course, based on various other observations I’ve made over the years.

I absolutely have no sense of belongingness where I attend shul, because if it ever had been about the local congregation, it no longer is. True, the local congregation dwindled significantly after the pandemic began to proliferate; so, there are a number of extenuating circumstances, that compel those in charge to focus on out of towners. Nor, do I have anything against out of town visitors, because I am always fascinated by the Chasidim from Borough Park and elsewhere that visit.

However, I feel as if I stand alone amidst K’lal Yisrael, in a variegated melting pot, that never truly coalesces. No sense of community, like I would ideally envision for a congregation. Not that any congregation would be ideal, anyway, especially, because I am somewhat unique in the values that I would emphasize as crucial to a communal sense of worship, and spiritual growth. Only H’Shem knows, what the future holds for me, or this congregation.

Shavuot Renewal 5782

“And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.”

– Ezekiel 36:25, JPS 1917 Tanach

The B’nei Yisrael (Children of Israel) had sunk to the 49th level of impurity in Egypt. Had we descended to the 50th level of impurity, according to chazal, we would have been indistinguishable from the Egyptians. From this perspective, we were not brought out of Egypt, based upon our own merit. This is akin to what is mentioned later in Torah, “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thy heart” (Deuteronomy 9:5).

Thus, we were taken out of Egypt by way of what is called itaruta dil’eyla, an “awakening from above,” wherein H’Shem brings about an effect from Shomayim. From out of the influence of an idolatrous society, B’nei Yisrael was freed from slavery, in order to serve H’Shem.

The 49 day counting of the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuos is a gradual ascent to the 49th level purity. A time to effect a gradual transition to a positive set of character traits, through an itaruta dil’tata, an awakening from below, i.e., from our own efforts. As B’nei Yisrael spent forty nine days on a journey from Egypt towards Mount Sinai, where the Torah was given, so opportunity given the opportunity to prepare ourselves to receive the Torah anew on Shavuot.

Pesach 5782 – 7th Day

“And Moses said unto the people: Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the L-RD, which He will work for you to-day; for whereas ye have seen the Egyptians to-day, ye shall see them again no more for ever.” – Exodus 14:13, JPS 1917 Tanach

As the Egyptian army approached, Torah records that B’nei Yisrael, encamped near the Sea of Reeds, cried out to H’Shem in great fear (14:10). Commentary notes that the people were divided in their response: 1). Some cried out to H’Shem in prayer, akin to the later writing of the psalmist, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will make mention of the name of the L-RD our G-d” (Psalm 20:8, JPS). 2). Another group of the people, having great trepidation about their circumstances, took the exact opposite approach, expressing their regret for having left Egypt, and complaining to Moshe (see Exodus 14:10-12).

When Moshe responded to the consternation of B’nei Yisrael, in light of their present circumstances, despite the seemingly near danger that was imminent, he said to them, “Fear ye not, stand still and see” (see above). Or HaChayim comments, that the words “stand still” convey the essence of prayer, a reliance on H’Shem, turning to Him in the midst of nisyanos (trials). He notes that the same Hebrew phrase is used in the Tanach, in regard to the prayer of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, who prayed in all sincerity to H’Shem. The picture derived from this understanding is one of a people’s reliance on H’Shem, in hope of seeing His salvation at a time of great need, when Pharaoh’s army was bearing down on them.

That night, an angel of H’Shem protected the people from the Egyptians, a cloud darkened the Egyptian camp, while a pillar of light shined upon the B’nei Yisrael. Moshe stretched his hand over the sea; and, H’Shem caused the sea to part by way of a strong east wind. The Children of Israel passed through the sea; however, when the Egyptians pursued them, Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the sea. Our own expectations of H’Shem for deliverance in our lives, regardless of our circumstances, when made through the prayer of sincerity, may bring results greater than our expectations. Especially, when there is no other recourse to be made, it is then that we may see the grandeur of His salvation. This is the type pf prayer that will be required, directly preceding the Final Redemption.

Purim: Taanis Esther 5782

“‘Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.  For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?’”  – Esther 4:13-14, JPS 1917 Tanach

“There is no man who has not his hour, and no thing that has not its place.” – Pirkei Avos 4:3

Esther petitioned King Ahasuerus to spare her people.  She, her maidens, and the Jewish people fasted for three days, before she approached the King.  She was risking her life, in doing so, because, no one could approach the king without permission.  Yet, she was emboldened to approach him, after fasting, with all of her people in support of her. 

Queen Esther was given her moment: “who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?”  H’Shem arranges the remedy, before the sickness (Talmud). Esther was made queen, before Haman hatched his plan to eliminate the Jewish people. Thank G-d. And, may we also see hidden remedies revealed as miracles, soon in regard to the modern-day Purim narrative in Ukraine. Ahmein.

Ultimately, we have H’Shem to seek as a refuge, both then and now; we should not take His shield of protection for granted; our refuge and fortress in Whom we trust (Psalm 91:2).  We should seek Him in all of our trials and tribulations, keeping in mind that He is the Source of our well-being. Especially, at this time to remember our brothers and sisters in peril, is an obligation and responsibility of K’lal Yisrael.

motzei Rosh HaShannah reflection – 5782

“And the new year begins,” I thought to myself, after finishing the cup of wine drank in conjunction with the brief havdallah service recited at the end of a holiday during the week. Thus concludes the commemoration of Rosh HaShannah, and the beginning of the new year, replete with its ten day focus on teshuvah (repentance) during the ten Days of Awe, culminating with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Therefore, the theme of judgment continues, throughout these days, as the decrees are not sealed until the neilah service that concludes Yom Kippur. In fact, for the traditionally-minded Jew, the day after Rosh HaShannah is a minor fat day (the fast of Gedaliah) that helps us to counteract any indulgence that occurred during the two days of Rosh HaShannah. This allows us to recalibrate after the celebrations of the New Year, lest we forget the gravity of these days.

For myself, this is the beginning of the three week period that incorporates the shifting of one holiday to another, inclusive of Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchas Torah. This is the only time of the year that I can sincerely validate taking time off, for the sake of a “vacation,” that is more like a three week religious retreat. Moreover, considering that the new Torah reading cycle does not begin until Simchas Torah, the end of the year is still upon us; and, the complete beginning of the new year is still not yet begun. We sort of ease into the renewal of the year on different levels, over the next three weeks. This is one reason why, I am compelled to devote myself to these themes of “new beginnings,” during this extended New Year commemoration.

Heritage: Part Five

Shavuos commemorates Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. A spectacular event, the Revelation at Sinai, when the L-RD gave B’nei Yisrael the Commandments. This was the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. Being made a people unto the L-RD our bond to Him was signified with the commandments, presented as a ketubah (marriage contract) to the Bride (K’lal Yisrael). Our sovereignty as a nation begins here; the declaration being made first, with Matan Torah, then, we were brought into the Land: a people first, then, we were given a country.

Today, the Torah should still speak to our everyday lives; otherwise, Mattan Torah, becomes a glorious event, disconnected from our current times. When we learn Torah, we should feel compelled to incorporate these ideas into our lives; inasmuch that the Torah still has relevancy after so many generations. The Ten Commandments are a good place to start; perhaps, simply by naming them; then, reflecting on each one in relation to our lives.

Although we may believe in G-d, the additional question to pose to ourselves is whether or not we have accepted His Sovereignty. In this sense, as mentioned in commentary (Baal Halachos Gedolos), the first commandment is a call to believe in the existence of G-d; subsequently, accepting His authority as the source of the commandments. When we accept G-d’s Sovereignty, then the commandments become authoritative; otherwise, the commandments could be misconstrued as relative.

Consider as well, that here is a difference between accepting the commandments for ourselves, because we recognize the inherent wisdom in them, akin to the moral perspective that we uphold, versus accepting the commandments as the divine words of G-d; and, as an expression of His expectations of us, regardless of our own perspective. The Jewish people are bound to the commandments, regardless of whatever our perspective may be; therefore, the primacy of the first commandment is that the authority of all of the other commandments are hinged upon the first.

“I am the L-rd your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

– Exodus 20:2

Heritage: Part Four

When the Revelation occurred at Mt. Sinai, B’nei Yisrael were cautioned against drawing too close to the mountain. When the L-RD was present at Sinai, amidst the thunder and lightning, the status of the mountain was akin to a level of kedushah (holiness), whereby the people were compelled to keep a distance. Afterwards, when the long shofar (trumpet) blasts were sounded, the verbal barricade was lifted. Apparently, there was no inherent holiness present within the structure of Mount Sinai in and of itself. Only when the L-RD’s presence rested on the mountain, in the visible form of the spectacular firework display that surrounded His presence, were the people forbidden to draw near.

Religion itself, may seem barren to us at times, like the landscape of Sinai, when its truths are put upon a pedestal, repeated as dogma without explanation, and upheld without inquiry. Their initial appeal may encompass our attention for a while; yet, their significance may become diminished, unless explored, enhanced, and reviewed. The Talmud mentions that when a soul appears, at the time of Judgment, it is asked, whether it examined the truths of wisdom by asking questions, subsequently, gaining a practical understanding, capable of being applied to one’s life (Shabbos 31a).

Yet, the spiritual, religious, and scriptural truths that we claim to uphold, especially when professing a traditional religious belief system, may become disconnected from our lives, like a balloon that becomes untethered from the string in one’s hand, floating aloft in the sky, unless we can articulate the relevance of those truths in our own lives, and the lives of others. This is essential, in regard to walking on the derech (path) of our ancestors, albeit, in a postmodern world.

As per the thinking of Abraham Heschel, there is an imperative need to make religion relevant in our lives again, even in this very present moment. Otherwise, there may continue to be a disconnect, wherein the truths of belief and practice are not integrated into the actuality of our lives. If we lose sight of the existential significance of our religious tenets, then religion may lose its immediacy. The burden is placed upon mankind to re-establish a connection to G-d. To make truth relevant again, as Heschel advocates, by asking meaningful questions about life, then, searching our religious perspective for the answers.

“But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

– Deuteronomy 30:14, JPS 1917 Tanach

Heritage: Part Three

Why were the Commandments given in a desert? Because of its scarceness, wherein there was nothing to interfere with the receiving of G-d’s commandments. Had the commandments been given within civilization, there would have been too many competing factors, vying for the attention of B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel). This brings to mind, how it is all too true today, that there are many distractions, ideologies, and belief systems, that vie for our attention. With the proliferation of the Internet, the Age of Information has the potential to overwhelm the sensibilities of man’s soul, and spirit. We live in a different kind of wilderness than the desert, wherein B’nei Yisrael received the Torah; we live in a wilderness wherein the light of truth can hardly shine through the fabric of ideas woven into our existence, by way of pixels, optic wires, and Internet cables.

Every year, we stand on the precipice of Shavuos, the culmination of an intense focus on ourselves in light of the self renewal, that we hope to obtain over a period of forty-nine days between Passover and Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). Yet, even after our personal experience at Sinai, we may continue to receive Torah anew, each and every day of our lives, inasmuch that we have the opportunity to increase our understanding of G-d every day. He reveals Himself, within the everyday events of our lives; additionally, He guides us through our intuition, and the various circumstances that we encounter throughout our lives, even on a daily basis, if we are able to tune in to our inner vision. There is a heightened sense of awareness that may be gained, when we take the time and make the effort for every day to count; moreover, that every moment has the potential to reveal what was previously unseen. “I answered thee in the secret place of thunder” (Psalm 81:8, JPS 1917 Tanach).