Teshuvah – A Return to G-d

weekly Torah reading: parasha Nasso 5782

 “Speak unto the children of Israel: When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to commit a trespass against the L-RD, and that soul be guilty; then shall they confess their sin which they have done.” – Numbers 5:6-7a, JPS 1917 Tanach

According to Rambam (Maimonides), this verse is the basis of vidui (confession), within the context of teshuvah (repentance). “And shall make reparation in full” (Numbers 5:7, OJB). This latter part of the pasuk (verse) denotes reparations made to others, if the aveirah (transgression) is against another person. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for reparation is from the same shoresh (root), shuv (to return) as teshuvah (repentance). Essentially, repentance is a return to H’Shem (the L-RD). “Let us return unto the L-RD” (Hosea 5:15b, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Maimonides offers a basic example of how to approach vidui (confession):  “I beseech Thee, O Great Name! I have sinned; I have been obstinate; I have committed profanity against Thee, particularly in doing thus and such. Now, behold! I have repented and am ashamed of my actions; forever will I not relapse into this thing again.” He further states that whoever takes it upon him or herself to further elaborate, is considered praiseworthy. Nachman of Breslov notes that one measure of having done a complete teshuvah (return to H’Shem, is if in the same situation wherein had previously sinned, this time, avoids sin in the given situation.

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).

Ukrainian Blues

The surrounding countryside of Kiev, and other cities, such as Lviv, and even my own ancestral hometown, Bolekhiv, are quiet in the night, while the Russians prepare their next attempts to maneuver their positions, to be in alignment with their next forward march into the fray. By now, they know that they will continue to meet with resistance from the Ukrainian defenders. These are not nationalists, like the propaganda espoused by the Putin regime would have it known; rather, these are loyal citizens of a country that has been trying to gain its complete freedom for decades. True, it was Ukrainian nationalists in the midst of WW2, who were no friends of the Jewish population in Bolechov, Poland in 1939, when the Soviets retreated. However, the current generation of Ukrainians are not responsible for the sins of their ancestors.

After WW2, my ancestral hometown fell in under the new lines of demarcation, designating the city as Bolekhiv in the newly established boundaries of Soviet Ukraine. And, now, 58 years later, and, incidentally, fifty-eight miles south of Lviv, I wonder how far the smoldering torches of war have receded, or perhaps impeded upon the place where the graves of my ancestors rest. Of course, most of them, were actually buried in either one of two mass graves. The first, 7 km outside of Bolechov (now, Bolekhiv) in Tarnipol. The other, hastily made grave in the actual cemetery. This cemetery is the best preserved Jewish cemetery in Europe. I have always wanted to visit, since I “found” my ancestors through genealogical research. And, now, How am I to do so? Ultimately, if am able to do so in the future, will I be entering Ukraine, or Soviet-controlled Ukraine?

My ancestors souls,

transcend earthly boundaries,

knowing only peace.

Wake Up Call

I woke up this morning, as the remnant of a dream lingered in my soul. All was foretold long ago; and, yet we seem to get so little of a glimpse on occasion into this hope for redemption. My academic background is in psychology; needless to say, I began to analyze my dream: Rockets turned into butterflies, and missiles turned into doves; the sky became bright blue, as light descended from above. As if in an overnight occurrence, the Third Temple appeared in Jerusalem; and, the king entered through the Eastern Gate.

Yet, before he could reach the throne, the processions stopped. The King exclaimed, “I can go no further.” Everyone looked astonished and turned one to another in wonder. Then, I woke up with the following words spoken quietly in my mind: the redemption will not occur until you correct your spelling mistake. So, I laughed and smirked, and went back to sleep, thinking, oh, what a silly dream. Later, I wrote in my journal that this dream was a wish-fulfillment tinged with anxiety because of my lack of self-esteem. Then, I turned the page in my journal, and continued to write…

What if the dream was a divine portent? I know that mysticism bears some light upon this dream, if I think about the nature of words and their power to move mountains. I recall hearing about a misspelling in a mezuzah scroll that brought ill fortune upon the people who lived at that residence, where the mezuzah was placed on the doorway. When the mistake was found, and the correction made, all turned out well for the family and their descendants. Now, I know there is a principle, isn’t there? “As above so below.” So, our efforts, thoughts and speech in this world have an influence upon the spiritual realm. Hmm.

Then, I realized, that I had recently written a poem about the Geulah. As usual, I placed the appropriate tags on the post for ease of accessibility and viewership; however, I wonder if I misspelled the word, redemption. So, I decided to check, half-heartedly remaining skeptical. Lo and behold, I had misspelled the word, redemption, spelling the word without the second “e” – redmption. I added the letter “e,” and quietly made my usual cup of green tea in the morning. I had a glimmer of hope in my heart, wondering if I had actually in some small way contributed to the hastening of the Geulah. After all, isn’t there a saying about how one mitzvah can change the entire world? Hmm.

I sat back down at my desk in front of the computer screen. I sat silently in deep thought. I decided to check the likes for that poem. There were the usual likes from people who read my posts; there were also some likes from some bloggers unknown to me. I checked the comments; many of the comments were from the usual crowd; there were a few from others not previously known. I continued with my day, not letting my dreams hold sway over reality. An hour later, I checked the post again; the likes were climbing higher than usual; the comments kept pouring in one after the other. Hmm. I must have struck a chord in the heartstrings of like-minded folk. I decided to place the poem on some other platforms. Then, I continued to work on some other writing tasks until dusk; studied Torah and called it a day.

The next day there was a bright light in my room, and it was not even daylight yet. I thought that I was still dreaming. Perhaps, I was still sleeping, I thought to myself; so, I decided to make a cup of tea. There was music emanating from my computer; yet, the pc was still closed for I always close up my laptop overnight. Normally, the music app only works when the laptop is open. I did not even recognize the song. Then, I began listening to the lyrics, “Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” I realized that these are the words of Az Yashir, giving praise to H’Shem, for having led us out of Egypt and split the Sea of Reeds.

Where was the music coming from? The online morning service that I attend had not even begun, so this couldn’t have been from the liturgy. The choir singing the song sounded as if composed of thousands of voices. Then, I remembered the commentary on this verse: the sages point out that the verb tense is in the future; in other words, not “Then Moses sang;” rather, “Then Moses [and the people] will sing.” When? According to chazal, after the Tehillas haMeisim (Resurrection of the Dead) at the beginning of the Messianic Age.

I couldn’t believe what I was thinking. Could this really be? Or was I still dreaming? I went into the restroom to splash some water upon my face. Then, when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked as if I was twenty years old again. Wait. Didn’t my friend once tell me that when Moshiach appears, those who are alive at the time will be transformed? And, that they will have a resurrection body like that of a twenty-year old? Could this really be happening?

I decided to check the news. All of the Israeli papers, including Arutz Sheva, the Jerusalem Post, and Ha’aretz had live coverage at the Western Wall. Is the Redemption at hand? Is the Geulah being broadcast around the world? Will all eyes behold him? As is written, “And His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4, JPSN). “I would behold G-d while still in my flesh, I myself, not another, would behold Him; would see with my own eyes” (Job 19:26-27, JPSN). Amein and amein.

poem: Plight

There is no time to dawdle,

as the wind picks up speed.

Securing a place in line for ourselves,

once we get to the border is tantamount

to reserving a place for ourselves

in the ledgers of the Book of Life.

Little one, when you place

one foot in front of the other,

know, that each step along the way

will bring you closer to safety.

For, the past will not follow you

through the checkpoint into your future.

Your brothers and sisters,

aunts and uncles, all of your cousins,

and friends are also on this journey,

upon the long and winding road

to freedom from fear, harm, and hunger.

All that is required of you,

amidst the explosions and turmoil,

the deafening sounds inside of the cities,

and the rising tides of world war

is a steadfast faith in your plight,

knowing that G-d is watching

over you, until the end.

Actual Faith

dvar for parashas Beshalach 5782

“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the L-RD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” – Exodus 14:21-22, JPS 1917 Tanach

 “If they came into the sea, why does the Torah write: “they came unto dry land?” If they came unto dry land why does the Torah call it “sea?” (Shemot Rabbah 21.10). The verse teaches that the sea was not split for them until they had set foot in it while it was still sea up to the level of the nostrils (to demonstrate their faith). Immediately after they had done this the sea was converted to dry land. – R’ Bachya on Exodus 14:22, sefaria.org

The nature of faith, is not only an abstract quality of belief, per se, in something that is unseen. True emunah is to actually believe in what one cannot see, beyond speculation, as if it exists in actuality, and has an influence in a person’s life. Therefore, while many people confess a belief in G-d, only in tandem to the day to day challenges, does that belief become more of an actuality.

Belief in G-d is more than an intellectual exercise in speculation, in order to compel us to have a reference point (usually, somewhere in Heaven) to direct our prayers towards in times of need. The nature of faith denotes an interface between a person’s belief system and practice, not as something removed from a person’s life, compartmentalized in a region of the mind, wherein a disconnect exists within the framework of that person’s practical existence.

At the Sea of Reeds, the Almighty’s Presence within the pillar of fire, and the pillar of cloud, were manifestations of His actual existence. Additionally, the splitting of the sea served as a sign of His power, not only to the Children of Israel, also to the rest of the world at that time. Yet, the “proofs” of the existence of G-d, the manifestation of His Presence, and the signs of His interaction in this world are not as easily found in our own lives, surroundings, or greater environmental milieu. Instead, emunah (faith), specifically, requires a profound degree of awareness.

“The L-RD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father’s G-d, and I will exalt Him.” – Exodus 15:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The midrash states that even a lowly handmaid saw more at the Sea of Reeds than the prophet Ezekiel saw in his visions (see Ezekiel ch. 1). In other words, the handmaid was able to perceive more in regard to H’Shem, because of her actual experience, where G-d’s intervention was clear. The Midrash emphasizes the importance of seeing G-d’s direct interaction in our lives; this type of interaction is referred to as hashgacha peratis – G’d’s guidance over the life of every individual on earth, even on a personal level. Once we begin to open our eyes to this truth, then our belief will take root in our soul.

Pharaoh’s Myopia

parashas Beshalach 5782

Was Pharaoh deceived? Or did he deceive himself?

G-d led the Children of Israel in a roundabout way to the Sea of Reeds, so that they would not have to be confronted by the Philistines, when passing by their territory. Otherwise, they might have fled back to Egypt at the prospect of war. Having escaped the frying pan, they ostensibly entered into the fire. For H’Shem had a strategy in mind, in order to bring about the demise of Pharaoh, and his army who had pursued the Israelites into the wilderness.

In order to lay a trap for Pharaoh, H’Shem brought B’nei Yisrael to a gorge at the edge of the sea. As Pharaoh’s army closed in on them, the Children of Israel began to panic. Yet, Moshe said to them, “Do not fear, stand still, and see the salvation of the L-RD, which He will show to you today” (Exodus 14:13, Israeli Bible).

As for Pharaoh, he apparently thought that Israel was indeed trapped at the Sea of Reeds, as if one of his own gods, whose idol stood there as a towering giant near the gorge, was somehow powerful enough to bring Israel as prey into the hands of Pharaoh, so that he could retrieve what he and his people still considered to be “their slaves.” His perception, based on his trust in the deities that he worshipped, contributed to his deception. For there is only one Master of the Universe, Who has prominence over the affairs of mankind. Pharaoh’s shortsightedness prevented him from seeing the situation in any other way than what appealed to his sense of self, pride, and stubborness.

Additionally, Pharaoh had been shown the sovereignty of the Almighty’s hand, Who proved Himself to be more powerful than the Egyptian gods. Yet, he remained recalcitrant, unable to perceive reality through any other lens, other than his own narrative norm. He suffered greatly for this myopia, inasmuch that he himself was doomed to be drowned in the Sea of Reeds, along with his entire army. Why were the Egyptians as well, unable to see the truth that was set out before their very own eyes? Trying to explain away the plagues, and even the splitting of the sea, as “natural phenomena,” instead of the hand of G-d, they remained stuck in their myopic vision, unaware of the false nature of their gods, and the limited reality of their worldview.

“Go and see the works of G-d, awesome in His deeds toward mankind. He turned the sea into dry land, and they passed through the river on foot; we rejoiced in Him there.”

– Psalms 66:5-6, The Complete Jewish Tanach, chabad.org

Yom HaAtzmaut: Israeli Independence Day

May 14, 1948

“Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Is a land born in one day? Is a nation brought forth at once? For as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.”

– Isaiah 66:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

“And He will set up an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

– Isaiah 10:12, JPS 1917 Tanach

We thank You for the heroism, for the triumphs, and for the miraculous deliverance of our ancestors, in other days and in our time. In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time of a people revived in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land together with seven neighboring nations sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them the courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have wrought great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day, revealing Your glory and Your holiness to all the world.

– Al HaNisim for Yom HaAtzmaut, Siddur Sim Shalom, by Jules Harlow

Yom HaZikaron: Israeli Memorial Day

May G-d remember the valiant men and women who braved mortal danger in the days of struggle prior to the establishment of the State of Israel and the soldiers who fell in the wars of Israel.

May the people of Israel cherish them in their memory; let them mourn the splendor of youth, the altruism of valor, the dedication of will and the dignity of self-sacrifice which came to an end on the battlefield.

May the loyal and courageous heroes of freedom and victory be sealed forever within the hearts of all Israel, in this generation and forevermore.

  • – Israeli Ministry of Foreign affairs, mfa.gov.il

Pesach: Seventh Day 5781

“And the L-RD said unto Moses: ‘Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.'” – Exodus 14:15, JPS 1917 Tanach

The seventh day of Pesach, Nissan 21 corresponds to the day on the Hebrew calendar when the Sea parted: The Children of Israel hesitated. Moshe cried out to G-d. H’Shem told him to “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they go forward.” Having already prayed for deliverance, the time was at hand; there was no further need for prayer, despite the imminent threat of the Egyptian army, poised opposite the encampment of B’nei Yisrael at the Sea of Reeds.

An east wind from H’Shem caused the sea to part, and dried the floor of the sea for the safe passage of the Children Israel. Of this miracle, Melchita notes, as commentary to the Children of Israels words in the song of Moshe, “this is my G-d, and I will exalt Him” (Exodus 15:2), that even the lowliest handmaid saw in terms of HShem’s revelation through the forces of nature, what the prophets, later in Jewish history did not see.

Additionally, the level of kedushah (holiness) that they received after crossing through the Sea, and the sublime experience at Sinai, when H’Shem revealed Himself to them, brought them to a level, where as a cleansed vessel, the Shechinah could dwell within them. The sea served as a mikveh (receptacle); and, tevillah (immersion) in the waters of the sea signified the beginning of a new start, a renewal of mind, body, and spirit; in essence, a rebirth, through purification in a mikveh, and the indwelling of the Shechinah, as mentioned in Exodus Rabbah 23:12.